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“Seven more of us die,” I say hopelessly.

“No, back home. What happens when they reach the final eight tributes in the Games?” He lifts my chin so I have to look at him. Forces me to make eye contact. “What happens? At the final eight?”

I know he’s trying to help me, so I make myself think. “At the final eight?” I repeat. “They interview your family and friends back home.”

“That’s right,” says Peeta. “They interview your family and friends. And can they do that if they’ve killed them all?”

“No?” I ask, still unsure.

“No. That’s how we know Prim’s alive. She’ll be the first one they interview, won’t she?” he asks.

I want to believe him. Badly. It’s just … those voices …

“First Prim. Then your mother. Your cousin, Gale. Madge,” he continues. “It was a trick, Katniss. A horrible one. But we’re the only ones who can be hurt by it. We’re the ones in the Games. Not them.”

“You really believe that?” I say.

“I really do,” says Peeta. I waver, thinking of how Peeta can make anyone believe anything. I look over at Finnick for confirmation, see he’s fixated on Peeta, his words.

“Do you believe it, Finnick?” I ask.

“It could be true. I don’t know,” he says. “Could they do that, Beetee? Take someone’s regular voice and make it …”

“Oh, yes. It’s not even that difficult, Finnick. Our children learn a similar technique in school,” says Beetee.

“Of course Peeta’s right. The whole country adores Katniss’s little sister. If they really killed her like this, they’d probably have an uprising on their hands,” says Johanna flatly. “Don’t want that, do they?” She throws back her head and shouts, “Whole country in rebellion? Wouldn’t want anything like that!”

My mouth drops open in shock. No one, ever, says anything like this in the Games. Absolutely, they’ve cut away from Johanna, are editing her out. But I have heard her and can never think about her again in the same way. She’ll never win any awards for kindness, but she certainly is gutsy. Or crazy. She picks up some shells and heads toward the jungle. “I’m getting water,” she says.

I can’t help catching her hand as she passes me. “Don’t go in there. The birds—” I remember the birds must be gone, but I still don’t want anyone in there. Not even her.

“They can’t hurt me. I’m not like the rest of you. There’s no one left I love,” Johanna says, and frees her hand with an impatient shake. When she brings me back a shell of water, I take it with a silent nod of thanks, knowing how much she would despise the pity in my voice.

While Johanna collects water and my arrows, Beetee fiddles with his wire, and Finnick takes to the water. I need to clean up, too, but I stay in Peeta’s arms, still too shaken to move.

“Who did they use against Finnick?” he asks.

“Somebody named Annie,” I say.

“Must be Annie Cresta,” he says.

“Who?” I ask.

“Annie Cresta. She was the girl Mags volunteered for. She won about five years ago,” says Peeta.

That would have been the summer after my father died, when I first began feeding my family, when my whole being was occupied with battling starvation. “I don’t remember those Games much,” I say. “Was that the earthquake year?”

“Yeah. Annie’s the one who went mad when her district partner got beheaded. Ran off by herself and hid. But an earthquake broke a dam and most of the arena got flooded. She won because she was the best swimmer,” says Peeta.

“Did she get better after?” I ask. “I mean, her mind?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember ever seeing her at the Games again. But she didn’t look too stable during the reaping this year,” says Peeta.

So that’s who Finnick loves, I think. Not his string of fancy lovers in the Capitol. But a poor, mad girl back home.

A cannon blast brings us all together on the beach. A hovercraft appears in what we estimate to be the six-to-seven-o’clock zone. We watch as the claw dips down five different times to retrieve the pieces of one body, torn apart. It’s impossible to tell who it was. Whatever happens at six o’clock, I never want to know.

Peeta draws a new map on a leaf, adding a JJ for jabberjays in the four-to-five-o’clock section and simply writing beast in the one where we saw the tribute collected in pieces. We now have a good idea of what seven of the hours will bring. And if there’s any positive to the jabberjay attack, it’s that it let us know where we are on the clock face again.

Finnick weaves yet another water basket and a net for fishing. I take a quick swim and put more ointment on my skin. Then I sit at the edge of the water, cleaning the fish Finnick catches and watching the sun drop below the horizon. The bright moon is already on the rise, filling the arena with that strange twilight. We’re about to settle down to our meal of raw fish when the anthem begins. And then the faces …

Cashmere. Gloss. Wiress. Mags. The woman from District 5. The morphling who gave her life for Peeta. Blight. The man from 10.

Eight dead. Plus eight from the first night. Two-thirds of us gone in a day and a half. That must be some kind of record.

“They’re really burning through us,” says Johanna. “Who’s left? Besides us five and District Two?” asks Finnick.

“Chaff,” says Peeta, without needing to think about it. Perhaps he’s been keeping an eye out for him because of Haymitch.

A parachute comes down with a pile of bite-sized square-shaped rolls. “These are from your district, right, Beetee?” Peeta asks.

“Yes, from District Three,” he says. “How many are there?”

Finnick counts them, turning each one over in his hands before he sets it in a neat configuration. I don’t know what it is with Finnick and bread, but he seems obsessed with handling it. “Twenty-four,” he says.

“An even two dozen, then?” says Beetee.

“Twenty-four on the nose,” says Finnick. “How should we divide them?”

“Let’s each have three, and whoever is still alive at breakfast can take a vote on the rest,” says Johanna. I don’t know why this makes me laugh a little. I guess because it’s true. When I do, Johanna gives me a look that’s almost approving. No, not approving. But maybe slightly pleased.

We wait until the giant wave has flooded out of the ten-to-eleven-o’clock section, wait for the water to recede, and then go to that beach to make camp. Theoretically, we should have a full twelve hours of safety from the jungle. There’s an unpleasant chorus of clicking, probably from some evil type of insect, coming from the eleven-to-twelve-o’clock wedge. But whatever is making the sound stays within the confines of the jungle and we keep off that part of the beach in case they’re just waiting for a carelessly placed footfall to swarm out.

I don’t know how Johanna’s still on her feet. She’s only had about an hour of sleep since the Games started. Peeta and I volunteer for the first watch because we’re better rested, and because we want some time alone. The others go out immediately, although Finnick’s sleep is restless. Every now and then I hear him murmuring Annie’s name.

Peeta and I sit on the damp sand, facing away from each other, my right shoulder and hip pressed against his. I watch the water as he watches the jungle, which is better for me. I’m still haunted by the voices of the jabberjays, which unfortunately the insects can’t drown out. After a while I rest my head against his shoulder. Feel his hand caress my hair.

“Katniss,” he says softly, “it’s no use pretending we don’t know what the other one is trying to do.” No, I guess there isn’t, but it’s no fun discussing it, either. Well, not for us, anyway. The Capitol viewers will be glued to their sets so they don’t miss one wretched word.

“I don’t know what kind of deal you think you’ve made with Haymitch, but you should know he made me promises as well.” Of course, I know this, too. He told Peeta they could keep me alive so that he wouldn’t be suspicious. “So I think we can assume he was lying to one of us.”

This gets my attention. A double deal. A double promise. With only Haymitch knowing which one is real. I raise my head, meet Peeta’s eyes. “Why are you saying this now?”

“Because I don’t want you forgetting how different our circumstances are. If you die, and I live, there’s no life for me at all back in District Twelve. You’re my whole life,” he says. “I would never be happy again.” I start to object but he puts a finger to my lips. “It’s different for you. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard. But there are other people who’d make your life worth living.”

Peeta pulls the chain with the gold disk from around his neck. He holds it in the moonlight so I can clearly see the mockingjay. Then his thumb slides along a catch I didn’t notice before and the disk pops open. It’s not solid, as I had thought, but a locket. And within the locket are photos. On the right side, my mother and Prim, laughing. And on the left, Gale. Actually smiling.

There is nothing in the world that could break me faster at this moment than these three faces. After what I heard this afternoon … it is the perfect weapon.

“Your family needs you, Katniss,” Peeta says.

My family. My mother. My sister. And my pretend cousin Gale. But Peeta’s intention is clear. That Gale really is my family, or will be one day, if I live. That I’ll marry him. So Peeta’s giving me his life and Gale at the same time. To let me know I shouldn’t ever have doubts about it.

Everything. That’s what Peeta wants me to take from him.

I wait for him to mention the baby, to play to the cameras, but he doesn’t. And that’s how I know that none of this is part of the Games. That he is telling me the truth about what he feels.

“No one really needs me,” he says, and there’s no self-pity in his voice. It’s true his family doesn’t need him. They will mourn him, as will a handful of friends. But they will get on. Even Haymitch, with the help of a lot of white liquor, will get on. I realize only one person will be damaged beyond repair if Peeta dies. Me.

“I do,” I say. “I need you.” He looks upset, takes a deep breath as if to begin a long argument, and that’s no good, no good at all, because he’ll start going on about Prim and my mother and everything and I’ll just get confused. So before he can talk, I stop his lips with a kiss.

I feel that thing again. The thing I only felt once before. In the cave last year, when I was trying to get Haymitch to send us food. I kissed Peeta about a thousand times during those Games and after. But there was only one kiss that made me feel something stir deep inside. Only one that made me want more. But my head wound started bleeding and he made me lie down.

This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.

It’s the first crack of the lightning storm—the bolt hitting the tree at midnight—that brings us to our senses. It rouses Finnick as well. He sits up with a sharp cry. I see his fingers digging into the sand as he reassures himself that whatever nightmare he inhabited wasn’t real.

“I can’t sleep anymore,” he says. “One of you should rest.” Only then does he seem to notice our expressions, the way we’re wrapped around each other. “Or both of you. I can watch alone.”

Peeta won’t let him, though. “It’s too dangerous,” he says. “I’m not tired. You lie down, Katniss.” I don’t object because I do need to sleep if I’m to be of any use keeping him alive. I let him lead me over to where the others are. He puts the chain with the locket around my neck, then rests his hand over the spot where our baby would be. “You’re going to make a great mother, you know,” he says. He kisses me one last time and goes back to Finnick.

His reference to the baby signals that our time-out from the Games is over. That he knows the audience will be wondering why he hasn’t used the most persuasive argument in his arsenal. That sponsors must be manipulated.

But as I stretch out on the sand I wonder, could it be more? Like a reminder to me that I could still one day have kids with Gale? Well, if that was it, it was a mistake. Because for one thing, that’s never been part of my plan.

And for another, if only one of us can be a parent, anyone can see it should be Peeta.

As I drift off, I try to imagine that world, somewhere in the future, with no Games, no Capitol. A place like the meadow in the song I sang to Rue as she died. Where Peeta’s child could be safe.

When I wake, I have a brief, delicious feeling of happiness that is somehow connected with Peeta. Happiness, of course, is a complete absurdity at this point, since at the rate things are going, I’ll be dead in a day. And that’s the best-case scenario, if I’m able to eliminate the rest of the field, including myself, and get Peeta crowned as the winner of the Quarter Quell. Still, the sensation’s so unexpected and sweet I cling to it, if only for a few moments. Before the gritty sand, the hot sun, and my itching skin demand a return to reality.

Everyone’s already up and watching the descent of a parachute to the beach. I join them for another delivery of bread. It’s identical to the one we received the night before. Twenty-four rolls from District 3. That gives us thirty-three in all. We each take five, leaving eight in reserve. No one says it, but eight will divide up perfectly after the next death. Somehow, in the light of day, joking about who will be around to eat the rolls has lost its humor.

How long can we keep this alliance? I don’t think anyone expected the number of tributes to drop so quickly. What if I am wrong about the others protecting Peeta? If things were simply coincidental, or it’s all been a strategy to win our trust to make us easy prey, or I don’t understand what’s actually going on? Wait, there’s no ifs about that. I don’t understand what’s going on. And if I don’t, it’s time for Peeta and me to clear out of here.

I sit next to Peeta on the sand to eat my rolls. For some reason, it’s difficult to look at him. Maybe it was all that kissing last night, although the two of us kissing isn’t anything new. It might not even have felt any different for him. Maybe it’s knowing the brief amount of time we have left. And how we’re working at such cross-purposes when it comes to who should survive these Games.

After we eat, I take his hand and tug him toward the water. “Come on. I’ll teach you how to swim.” I need to get him away from the others where we can discuss breaking away. It will be tricky, because once they realize we’re severing the alliance, we’ll be instant targets.

If I was really teaching him to swim, I’d make him take off the belt since it keeps him afloat, but what does it matter now? So I just show him the basic stroke and let him practice going back and forth in waist-high water. At first, I notice Johanna keeping a careful eye on us, but eventually she loses interest and goes to take a nap. Finnick’s weaving a new net out of vines and Beetee plays with his wire. I know the time has come.

While Peeta has been swimming, I’ve discovered something. My remaining scabs are starting to peel off. By gently rubbing a handful of sand up and down my arm, I clean off the rest of the scales, revealing fresh new skin underneath.

I stop Peeta’s practice, on the pretext of showing him how to rid himself of the itchy scabs, and as we scrub ourselves, I bring up our escape.

“Look, the pool is down to eight. I think it’s time we took off,” I say under my breath, although I doubt any of the tributes can hear me.

Peeta nods, and I can see him considering my proposition. Weighing if the odds will be in our favor. “Tell you what,” he says. “Let’s stick around until Brutus and Enobaria are dead. I think Beetee’s trying to put together some kind of trap for them now. Then, I promise, we’ll go.”

I’m not entirely convinced. But if we leave now, we’ll have two sets of adversaries after us. Maybe three, because who knows what Chaff’s up to? Plus the clock to contend with. And then there’s Beetee to think of. Johanna only brought him for me, and if we leave she’ll surely kill him. Then I remember. I can’t protect Beetee, too. There can only be one victor and it has to be Peeta. I must accept this. I must make decisions based on his survival only.

“All right,” I say. “We’ll stay until the Careers are dead. But that’s the end of it.” I turn and wave to Finnick. “Hey, Finnick, come on in! We figured out how to make you pretty again!”

The three of us scour all the scabs from our bodies, helping with the others’ backs, and come out the same pink as the sky. We apply another round of medicine because the skin seems too delicate for the sunlight, but it doesn’t look half as bad on smooth skin and will be good camouflage in the jungle.

Beetee calls us over, and it turns out that during all those hours of fiddling with wire, he has indeed come up with a plan. “I think we’ll all agree our next job is to kill Brutus and Enobaria,” he says mildly. “I doubt they’ll attack us openly again, now that they’re so outnumbered. We could track them down, I suppose, but it’s dangerous, exhausting work.”

“Do you think they’ve figured out about the clock?” I ask.

“If they haven’t, they’ll figure it out soon enough. Perhaps not as specifically as we have. But they must know that at least some of the zones are wired for attacks and that they’re reoccurring in a circular fashion. Also, the fact that our last fight was cut off by Gamemaker intervention will not have gone unnoticed by them. We know it was an attempt to disorient us, but they must be asking themselves why it was done, and this, too, may lead them to the realization that the arena’s a clock,” says Beetee. “So I think our best bet will be setting our own trap.”

“Wait, let me get Johanna up,” says Finnick. “She’ll be rabid if she thinks she missed something this important.”

“Or not,” I mutter, since she’s always pretty much rabid, but I don’t stop him, because I’d be angry myself if I was excluded from a plan at this point.

When she’s joined us, Beetee shoos us all back a bit so he can have room to work in the sand. He swiftly draws a circle and divides it into twelve wedges. It’s the arena, not rendered in-Peeta’s precise strokes but in the rough lines of a man whose mind is occupied by other, far more complex things. “If you were Brutus and Enobaria, knowing what you do now about the jungle, where would you feel safest?” Beetee asks. There’s nothing patronizing in his voice, and yet I can’t help thinking he reminds me of a schoolteacher about to ease children into a lesson. Perhaps it’s the age difference, or simply that Beetee is probably about a million times smarter than the rest of us.

“Where we are now. On the beach,” says Peeta. “It’s the safest place.”

“So why aren’t they on the beach?” says Beetee.

“Because we’re here,” says Johanna impatiently.

“Exactly. We’re here, claiming the beach. Now where would you go?” says Beetee.

I think about the deadly jungle, the occupied beach. “I’d hide just at the edge of the jungle. So I could escape if an attack came. And so I could spy on us.”

“Also to eat,” Finnick says. “The jungle’s full of strange creatures and plants. But by watching us, I’d know the seafood’s safe.”

Beetee smiles at us as if we’ve exceeded his expectations. “Yes, good. You do see. Now here’s what I propose: a twelve o’clock strike. What happens exactly at noon and at midnight?”

“The lightning bolt hits the tree,” I say.

“Yes. So what I’m suggesting is that after the bolt hits at noon, but before it hits at midnight, we run my wire from that tree all the way down into the saltwater, which is, of course, highly conductive. When the bolt strikes, the electricity will travel down the wire and into not only the water but also the surrounding beach, which will still be damp from the ten o’clock wave. Anyone in contact with those surfaces at that moment will be electrocuted,” says Beetee.

There’s a long pause while we all digest Beetee’s plan. It seems a bit fantastical to me, impossible even. But why? I’ve set thousands of snares. Isn’t this just a larger snare with a more scientific component? Could it work? How can we even question it, we tributes trained to gather fish and lumber and coal? What do we know about harnessing power from the sky?

Peeta takes a stab at it. “Will that wire really be able to conduct that much power, Beetee? It looks so fragile, like it would just burn up.”

“Oh, it will. But not until the current has passed through it. It will act something like a fuse, in fact. Except the electricity will travel along it,” says Beetee.

“How do you know?” asks Johanna, clearly not convinced.

“Because I invented it,” says Beetee, as if slightly surprised. “It’s not actually wire in the usual sense. Nor is the lightning natural lightning nor the tree a real tree. You know trees better than any of us, Johanna. It would be destroyed by now, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” she says glumly.

“Don’t worry about the wire — it will do just what I say,” Beetee assures us.

“And where will we be when this happens?” asks Finnick.

“Far enough up in the jungle to be safe,” Beetee replies.

“The Careers will be safe, too, then, unless they’re in the vicinity of the water,” I point out. “That’s right,” says Beetee.

“But all the seafood will be cooked,” says Peeta.

“Probably more than cooked,” says Beetee. “We will most likely be eliminating that as a food source for good. But you found other edible things in the jungle, right, Katniss?”

“Yes. Nuts and rats,” I say. “And we have sponsors.”

“Well, then. I don’t see that as a problem,” says Beetee. “But as we are allies and this will require all our efforts, the decision of whether or not to attempt it is up to you four.”

We are like schoolchildren. Completely unable to dispute his theory with anything but the most elementary concerns. Most of which don’t even have anything to do with his actual plan. I look at the others’ disconcerted faces. “Why not?” I say. “If it fails, there’s no harm done. If it works, there’s a decent chance we’ll kill them. And even if we don’t and just kill the seafood, Brutus and Enobaria lose it as a food source, too.”

“I say we try it,” says Peeta. “Katniss is right.”

Finnick looks at Johanna and raises his eyebrows. He will not go forward without her. “All right,” she says finally. “It’s better than hunting them down in the jungle, anyway. And I doubt they’ll figure out our plan, since we can barely understand it ourselves.”

Beetee wants to inspect the lightning tree before he has to rig it. Judging by the sun, it’s about nine in the morning. We have to leave our beach soon, anyway.

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