Chapter 5

        A few minutes later, we’ve pulled into the train station, and when the doors open we’re immediately swarmed by Capitol citizens and reporters alike. A group of guards escorts us to the Remake Center, where our stylist team will begin preparing us for that night’s Tribute Parade.

        As I step off the train, I finally get my first unobstructed view of the Capitol in all its grandeur. My eyes dart in every direction, finding it hard to focus on just one thing. The shimmering buildings reaching for the sky, the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city, the mobs of strange-looking people bobbing up and down, trying to fight for a good look at us. It’s incredible. Crazy to think that a thousand miles away lies District 12, desolate, poor, and isolated from all of this. My heart clenches at the reality that I will probably never see it again. Bleak as it is, it’s home.

        In just a few minute’s walk we arrive at the Remake Center. Katniss and I split up, her led by Effie and me by Haymitch. The building is huge, with sleek gray walls and high columns. Between each set of columns is a door, and I can see tributes in front and behind me being escorted into their own rooms.

Haymitch and I pause in front of one of the doors. “Remember our deal,” he says. “Don’t resist.” I nod, and he opens the door in front of me. Already inside are three people, who I suspect to be my prep team, each one even more flamboyant than the last. The girl who introduces herself as Caddie has fire-engine red hair that goes down past her hips, tied in an intricate knot at the very end. She wears a black jumpsuit with red heeled boots that flare upon reaching her knees, and a shawl of black feathers around her shoulders. Neptus introduces himself next, clad in a deep blue suit, matching his hair, with a marble-patterned tie and platform shoes. Mersadie, the second woman on the team, shakes my hand enthusiastically with both of her own, and I notice her long pink nails, must be at least an inch long, and I fear them clawing into me when my prep team inevitably strips me down and cleans me up in preparation for my lead stylist, whose name I’m told is Portia.

“She’s a genius,” Neptus assures me, in his high-pitched yet airy Capitol accent. “She and Cinna have a very special outfit planned for you and the girl.”

I assume Cinna must be Katniss’ stylist; the district stylists usually work together to create matching outfits for the male and female tributes. Caddie pats what looks to me like an operating table in the middle of the room, motioning for me to lie down.

Haymitch nods empathetically at me and leaves the room. Now alone with a trio of overly-excited and extremely colorful trolls, I change into the thin silk robe they provide and nervously lay down on the table, as instructed.

“We got lucky this year,” squeals Mersadie, as she pinches my cheek and runs her pink claws around the outline of my face. “He’s a handsome one, well built, very well kept. Much unlike the District 12 tributes we’ve had in the past.” She looks at me sympathetically, as if I were a fluffy white puppy recently rescued from the rubble of a dump. “I can’t imagine what you’ve come from, dear. I could never live in the filth that you’ve had to. Must be dreadful.”

I know she’s trying to be caring, but I can’t help but feel insulted. I’ve been lucky, had access to clean water, sufficient food, and, because of the bakery, I’d never have to work in the mines. Once there, the coal dust that’s embedded so deeply into your skin is nearly impossible to scrub off. Me, the only dust that I’ve had to deal with at work is flour that gets stuck on my hands. They respect me more than the past tributes they’ve seen because of how I look, but the people who deserve the most respect are the work-worn men and women, aged beyond their years because of the sufferings they’ve been forced to endure. In response to Mersadie’s “compliment,” I just smile politely. Don’t resist.

“We still have quite a bit of work to do, just simple prep work: washing, cleaning, hair removal, nail trimming,” Neptus assures me. “When you’re ready, you’ll meet Portia and she will handle the finishing touches.”

They go straight to work, beginning by rinsing down and scrubbing my entire body. They use a rough-feeling gel and apply it all over, and I can feel it exfoliating, ridding me of any dirt or dead skin I had left. One final rinse, and they move on to my hands and feet, trimming and filing my nails into perfect squares, massaging my dry, cracked hands with soothing lotion. Caddie movies onto my face, Mersadie to my hair, and Neptus to touch up the rest of my body, even trimming my blonde and nearly invisible body hair to a uniform length. I lay there staring at the blank white ceiling for what seems like hours as my team bustles about, talking amongst themselves and making the occasional comment to me. “Brace yourself dear, this might sting a bit,” or “Oh I know it hurts dear, but this is the last one, I promise.”

Caddie busies herself with plucking my eyebrows, making me realize my pain tolerance is much lower than I once thought. “Portia’s outfit for you is going to beautifully compliment your stunning eyes,” she says.

“Ah yes, you’re so right,” Mersadie agrees. “They’re the light blue color of the hottest part of the flame. You’re going to make quite the impression tonight, dear.”

When their work is finished, they allow me to stand up and take a look at myself in the mirror while they circle me for one final inspection. Neptus claps his hands together in delight. “Violà! I think we’re ready to send in Portia!” They scurry out of the room like excited little kids, leaving me alone to stare at the white walls and the lone mirror as I wait.

        Minutes later, there’s a gentle rap on the door. “Come in,” I say. The door opens gently, followed by a woman with short crimped blonde hair, dark skin, purple eyeshadow, and lash extensions. She wears tall black heels, tights, and a short, trumpet-shaped black dress. Although her appearance is equally as extravagant as the other Capitol citizens’ I’ve seen, her style seems more tasteful. However, that doesn’t make me any less nervous for what she has in store for me. The stylist’s job is to design an outfit representative of the tributes’ district’s industry. For District 12, that’s coal mining, and not surprisingly, we always get the shaft, no pun intended. Our district is generally overlooked from the start, because there’s only so many creative ways to represent coal miners. Instead of just dressing us in grey, coal-stained jumpsuits every year, which would cause the Capitol to gag in a moment, they usually dress the tributes in too-tight black suits, throw a head-lamp on their head with a stylish hat, and call it good. A few years ago, much to everyone’s dismay, the tributes wore nothing but a layer of black powder, as if they were naked miners covered in coal dust. Since District 12’s representation at the parade has been on a downward trajectory lately, I don’t have high hopes for this year. I don’t even want to think of what might be worse than riding naked on a horse-drawn chariot for all of Panem to see.

        Portia approaches me excitedly, taking my hands in hers and kissing both of cheeks. “It’s nice to meet you, Peeta,” she says kindly, a smile wide across her face. “My name is Portia, I’ll be your stylist.”

        “Hello, it’s nice to meet you as well.” I smile, giving her hands at gentle shake.

        “It looks like the prep team did a great job on you, though you hardly needed it. You’re a very handsome young man, and I consider my job to be highlighting your natural good looks. Minimal makeup, simple outfit, with a very special touch that I’ll tell you about in a moment. You’ll look stunning for your big reveal, mark my words.”

        I’m both nervous and excited to see what she means by “special touch,” but since I have no say in how I’ll look tonight, I try to put my worries aside.

        “Let’s chat over lunch, shall we? Are you hungry?”

        I nod. “Starving,” I say with a smile, and follow her into a room across the hall. Inside, there are two lush red couches with a short wood table in-between. The far wall is made up entirely of glass, revealing a beautiful view of the Capitol. Portia sits down at the couch facing away from the window and gestures for me to sit across from her. She presses a button near the edge of the table, and instantly the original tabletop splits as feast rises and takes its place. Lunch consists of a creamy chicken dish atop a bed of peas, onions, and grain that I don’t recognize- like rice, but rounder and chewier. On the side, a breadbasket of beautiful rolls sculpted to look to likes roses, and finally, a desert of butterscotch pudding served in a very expensive-looking glass bowl.

        As we serve ourselves, Portia briefs me for the night. “As you know,” she says, “every year we kick off the Hunger Games with the Tribute Parade. This is the first time the Capitol will really get a good look at you, so it’s important to make it count. Cinna is Katniss’ stylist, and he and I have been working hard on creating matching outfits for you two, meant to represent your district. If you recall previous years, you’ll remember that the outfits are usually themed around mining-“

        “So I’ll be in some sort of miner’s outfit?” I guess.

        “Close, but Cinna and I have discussed it in length, and we agree that the coal miner outfit is not only very overdone, but lacking in flair and creativity. This year, we’ve decided to do something a little different, mix things up to really grab their attention.”

        “And what would that be?” I say, curious now.

        “Well, this year, we’ll be focusing on the coal itself. Coal provides us with the fuel and the energy we need, and how do we extract that energy?”

        “By burning it?” I suggest.

“Exactly!” Portia exclaims, so suddenly and so excitedly that I jump in my seat.

“So, what exactly does that mean for me?” I ask, confused. “I’ll be dressed as coal and I’ll be… on fire?” I don’t know what she’s thinking or how she’ll manage to do that. I picture the naked tributes covered in coal dust, except this time they’re being consumed by fire and writhing in pain, blisters forming on their burning skin. From the sound of it, I’ll be dead before I even get to the Games.

“That’s the idea! Trust me, dear, you’ll look fabulous. And it’s not real fire, I assure you. Cinna and I came up with it, looks just like the real thing. You’ll be completely fine, I promise! Let’s go get you dressed, then you’ll see.” I’m skeptical of her enthusiasm, but I have no choice. I again remember Haymitch’s deal, don’t resist.

A few hours later as night is beginning to fall, Portia, the prep team, and I make our way to another room where Katniss and her team are waiting. She and I are dressed in identical textured coal-black unitards, complete with a cape of orange, yellow, and red streamers and a matching headpiece. She wears tall, shiny, knee-high boots while mine are a little shorter and thankfully, don’t have heels. Her hair is in the same braid she was wearing earlier, her face highlighted with simple makeup. I can’t help but notice how stunning she looks.

We all take an elevator down to the bottom floor of the Remake Center, where the horse-drawn chariots are already lined up, each labeled with a gold decal indicating the district’s number. Ours is at the very back; District 12 always goes last. Even the four horses pulling our chariot match us, each of them a smoky black color. The chariots ahead of us are loaded with their own tributes, who are also getting ready and the stylists adding their final touches. Portia and Cinna usher us into position, making sure our capes are perfectly draped over our shoulders and our posture is precise. They step away for a moment to talk one-on-one, leaving Katniss and I alone for a moment.

“What do you think?” She whispers. “About the fire?”

I can sense she’s just as nervous as I am. “I’ll rip off your cape if you’ll rip off mine,” I whisper back, teeth gritted.

“Deal,” she says, then pauses for a moment. “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?” I wonder aloud. “Isn’t he supposed to protect us from this sort of thing?”

“With all that alcohol in him, it’s probably not advisable to have him around an open flame,” she remarks. Neither of us can help it, and we both start laughing. It might just be the nerves getting to us, but I must admit, it’s nice, joking around with her, doing all we can to keep our minds off the reality of our situation.

        Suddenly the opening music starts playing and we turn our attention to the front of the line, where enormous doors slide open and the first couple chariots begin rolling out onto the cobblestone runway, lined with stands jam-packed with people. District 1 goes first, pulled by four beautiful white stallions, with each tribute wearing a loose silver knee-length garment, adorned with jewels and bling from head to toe. It’s a very good representative of District 1’s role of making luxury items, and since the Capitol clearly loves their jewelry, fine china, and lavish accessories, District 1 always looks good, and they’re always a crowd favorite. The echoing cheers of the crowd confirm that this year, things are no different.

        District 2 follows behind them, then District 3, and so on. Soon enough, District 11 starts rolling out ahead of us, and we’re next. Cinna approaches just in time, holding a lit torch. “Here we go, then” he says, lighting our capes and our headdresses. I flinch and brace myself for the heat and the burning, but I’m relieved when I open my eyes and realize the flames truly are harmless; it just feels like there are hundreds of tiny ants dancing on my skin. “It works,” Cinna exclaims, seeming just as relieved as we are. Did he not test this beforehand? “Remember, heads high. Smiles. They’re going to love you!”

        Cinna steps off the chariot and we begin rolling towards the door; I can hear the roar of the crowd growing louder and louder. Faintly I can hear Cinna’s voice yelling from behind us. “Hold hands,” he yells, barely audible, clasping his hands together over his head to demonstrate.

        “What’s he saying?” Katniss asks, turning towards me. She looks incredible, the fire trailing behind her, contrasting beautifully with the dark sky. I can see my own reflection in her dark eyes, and I don’t look too bad myself. I’m truly amazed by the job they’ve done this year.

        “I think he said for us to hold hands,” I tell her. I take her hand in mind, looking back towards Cinna to see that he’s giving us a thumbs up. He looks very pleased with himself, as he should be. We really are going to be the stars of the show.

        When we emerge from the doors into full sight of the crowd, I hear loud gasps from all around as everyone turns their heads toward us. I wave, and I don’t even have to try to smile. The gasps turn to cheers, louder than any I’ve ever heard. They yell, whistle, even throw flowers. My eyes wander from the crowd to the large screen broadcasting the parade, and there we are: Katniss and I, hand in hand, absolutely glowing. I look over, and I see Katniss, also waving, smiling, blowing kisses that the crowd fights to catch. Her hand, soft and delicate, holding mine so tightly that I’m already dreading the moment that I’ll have to let it go. I can hear the crowd beginning to chant, a name, her name.

        “Katniss! Katniss!” They love us, they love her. First, she was the brave girl who, in desperation, volunteered for her young sister. Now, she is more than just that. She is the strong, the beautiful, the shining, Katniss Everdeen: the Girl on Fire.

We slow down, pulling into City Circle where the runway comes to an end. Katniss starts to loosen her death-grip on my hand, but I almost stumble and grip hers even tighter. “No, don’t let go of me,” I say, realizing how pathetic I must sound. “Please. I might fall out of this thing.”

“Okay,” she says, squeezing my hand again. I can feel my heart leap in my chest from her touch. I can’t think like this, I tell myself. Only one comes out.

The horses stop automatically, as they were trained, right in front of the president’s mansion. President Snow emerges onto his balcony. His snow-white hair and beard, as well as his all-white suit, are very fitting to his name. He clears his throat, the cameras cut to him, and he begins his annual welcoming speech.

“Welcome, welcome, citizens of Panem, to the 74th annual Hunger Games. And an especially warm welcome to this year’s tributes!” There is a roar from the crowd, and the screen briefly cuts to a close up of each district’s tributes. I could’ve imagined it, but it seemed as if the cheers for District 12 were the loudest of all. Snow continues, “We honor your courage and your sacrifice.” He pauses, allowing for more applause for the crowd. “Now,” he continues, “we mustn’t forget that these Games have a purpose. A reminder that peace has a price, and that the twelve districts, united as one, make Panem the nation that it is. It is a symbol of our strengths, our weaknesses, but ultimately, our unity.” He finishes, as he does every year, with “Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor.”

After his speech, the chariots make one final lap around City Circle before entering the Training Center, where we’ll spend the last few days before the Games begin. When we pass through the doors, our prep teams are eagerly waiting, swamping us the moment they see us. Tears of joy run down their cheeks, smearing their makeup. Cinna and Portia help us out of the chariot, removing our headdresses and capes and extinguishing the flames. I can see the other tributes looking as us, especially those from Districts 1 and 2, their faces full of contempt. Sure, we may have made a good impression on the Capitol, but what about the other tributes? They certainly don’t seem too happy that District 12, scum of the earth, stole their thunder.

Katniss and I finally break apart, each of us massaging our sore hands. “Thanks for keeping hold of me,” I say. “I was getting a little shaky there.” That’s only a half-truth, and while it is a little difficult to steady oneself on a moving chariot, the hand holding was more for me than it was for that.

“It didn’t show,” she says. “I’m sure no one noticed.”

“I’m sure they didn’t notice anything but you,” I retort, smirking. “You should wear flames more often. They suit you.” It’s true. It feels weird, somehow, being this close to Katniss, telling her how beautiful she looks. I hope it’s not coming off as weird, and I’m nervous by how she’ll respond.

To my surprise, she stands on her tiptoes, and she kisses my cheek. Right where Haymitch had socked me the day before. I can feel the blood rushing to my cheeks, embarrassed. Maybe she’ll buy it if I blame the blushing on the makeup.

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