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Several sets of arms would embrace me. But in the end, the only person I truly want to comfort me is Haymitch, because he loves Peeta, too. I reach out for him and say something like his name and he’s there, holding me and patting my back. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay, sweetheart.” He sits me on a length of broken marble pillar and keeps an arm around me while I sob.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I say.

“I know,” he says.

“All I can think of is–what he’s going to do to Peeta–because I’m the Mockingjay!” I get out.

“I know.” Haymitch’s arm tightens around me.

“Did you see? How weird he acted? What are they–doing to him?” I’m gasping for air between sobs, but I manage one last phrase. “It’s my fault!” And then I cross some line into hysteria and there’s a needle in my arm and the world slips away.

It must be strong, whatever they shot into me, because it’s a full day before I come to. My sleep wasn’t peaceful, though. I have the sense of emerging from a world of dark, haunted places where I traveled alone. Haymitch sits in the chair by my bed, his skin waxen, his eyes bloodshot. I remember about Peeta and start to tremble again.

Haymitch reaches out and squeezes my shoulder. “It’s all right. We’re going to try to get Peeta out.”

“What?” That makes no sense.

“Plutarch’s sending in a rescue team. He has people on the inside. He thinks we can get Peeta back alive,” he says.

“Why didn’t we before?” I say.

“Because it’s costly. But everyone agrees this is the thing to do. It’s the same choice we made in the arena. To do whatever it takes to keep you going. We can’t lose the Mockingjay now. And you can’t perform unless you know Snow can’t take it out on Peeta.” Haymitch offers me a cup. “Here, drink something.”

I slowly sit up and take a sip of water. “What do you mean, costly?”

He shrugs. “Covers will be blown. People may die. But keep in mind that they’re dying every day. And it’s not just Peeta; we’re getting Annie out for Finnick, too.”

“Where is he?” I ask.

“Behind that screen, sleeping his sedative off. He lost it right after we knocked you out,” says Haymitch. I smile a little, feel a bit less weak. “Yeah, it was a really excellent shoot. You two cracked up and Boggs left to arrange the mission to get Peeta. We’re officially in reruns.”

“Well, if Boggs is leading it, that’s a plus,” I say.

“Oh, he’s on top of it. It was volunteer only, but he pretended not to notice me waving my hand in the air,” says Haymitch. “See? He’s already demonstrated good judgment.”

Something’s wrong. Haymitch’s trying a little too hard to cheer me up. It’s not really his style. “So who else volunteered?”

“I think there were seven altogether,” he says evasively.

I get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Who else, Haymitch?” I insist.

Haymitch finally drops the good-natured act. “You know who else, Katniss. You know who stepped up first.”

Of course I do.

Gale.

12

Today I might lose both of them.

I try to imagine a world where both Gale’s and Peeta’s voices have ceased. Hands stilled. Eyes unblinking. I’m standing over their bodies, having a last look, leaving the room where they lie. But when I open the door to step out into the world, there’s only a tremendous void. A pale gray nothingness that is all my future holds.

“Do you want me to have them sedate you until it’s over?” asks Haymitch. He’s not joking. This is a man who spent his adult life at the bottom of a bottle, trying to anesthetize himself against the Capitol’s crimes. The sixteen-year-old boy who won the second Quarter Quell must have had people he loved–family, friends, a sweetheart maybe–that he fought to get back to. Where are they now? How is it that until Peeta and I were thrust upon him, there was no one at all in his life? What did Snow do to them?

“No,” I say. “I want to go to the Capitol. I want to be part of the rescue mission.”

“They’re gone,” says Haymitch.

“How long ago did they leave? I could catch up. I could–” What? What could I do?

Haymitch shakes his head. “It’ll never happen. You’re too valuable and too vulnerable. There was talk of sending you to another district to divert the Capitol’s attention while the rescue takes place. But no one felt you could handle it.”

“Please, Haymitch!” I’m begging now. “I have to do something. I can’t just sit here waiting to hear if they died. There must be something I can do!”

“All right. Let me talk to Plutarch. You stay put.” But I can’t. Haymitch’s footsteps are still echoing in the outer hall when I fumble my way through the slit in the dividing curtain to find Finnick sprawled out on his stomach, his hands twisted in his pillowcase. Although it’s cowardly–cruel even–to rouse him from the shadowy, muted drug land to stark reality, I go ahead and do it because I can’t stand to face this by myself.

As I explain our situation, his initial agitation mysteriously ebbs. “Don’t you see, Katniss, this will decide things. One way or the other. By the end of the day, they’ll either be dead or with us. It’s…it’s more than we could hope for!”

Well, that’s a sunny view of our situation. And yet there’s something calming about the idea that this torment could come to an end.

The curtain yanks back and there’s Haymitch. He has a job for us, if we can pull it together. They still need post-bombing footage of 13. “If we can get it in the next few hours, Beetee can air it leading up to the rescue, and maybe keep the Capitol’s attention elsewhere.”

“Yes, a distraction,” says Finnick. “A decoy of sorts.”

“What we really need is something so riveting that even President Snow won’t be able to tear himself away. Got anything like that?” asks Haymitch.

Having a job that might help the mission snaps me into focus. While I knock down breakfast and get prepped, I try to think of what I might say. President Snow must be wondering how that blood-splattered floor and his roses are affecting me. If he wants me broken, then I will have to be whole. But I don’t think I will convince him of anything by shouting a couple of defiant lines at the camera. Besides, that won’t buy the rescue team any time. Outbursts are short. It’s stories that take time.

I don’t know if it will work, but when the television crew’s all assembled aboveground, I ask Cressida if she could start out by asking me about Peeta. I take a seat on the fallen marble pillar where I had my breakdown, wait for the red light and Cressida’s question.

“How did you meet Peeta?” she asks.

And then I do the thing that Haymitch has wanted since my first interview. I open up. “When I met Peeta, I was eleven years old, and I was almost dead.” I talk about that awful day when I tried to sell the baby clothes in the rain, how Peeta’s mother chased me from the bakery door, and how he took a beating to bring me the loaves of bread that saved our lives. “We had never even spoken. The first time I ever talked to Peeta was on the train to the Games.”

“But he was already in love with you,” says Cressida.

“I guess so.” I allow myself a small smile.

“How are you doing with the separation?” she asks.

“Not well. I know at any moment Snow could kill him. Especially since he warned Thirteen about the bombing. It’s a terrible thing to live with,” I say. “But because of what they’re putting him through, I don’t have any reservations anymore. About doing whatever it takes to destroy the Capitol. I’m finally free.” I turn my gaze skyward and watch the flight of a hawk across the sky. “President Snow once admitted to me that the Capitol was fragile. At the time, I didn’t know what he meant. It was hard to see clearly because I was so afraid. Now I’m not. The Capitol’s fragile because it depends on the districts for everything. Food, energy, even the Peacekeepers that police us. If we declare our freedom, the Capitol collapses. President Snow, thanks to you, I’m officially declaring mine today.”

I’ve been sufficient, if not dazzling. Everyone loves the bread story. But it’s my message to President Snow that gets the wheels spinning in Plutarch’s brain. He hastily calls Finnick and Haymitch over and they have a brief but intense conversation that I can see Haymitch isn’t happy with. Plutarch seems to win–Finnick’s pale but nodding his head by the end of it.

As Finnick moves to take my seat before the camera, Haymitch tells him, “You don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do. If it will help her.” Finnick balls up his rope in his hand. “I’m ready.”

I don’t know what to expect. A love story about Annie? An account of the abuses in District 4? But Finnick Odair takes a completely different tack.

“President Snow used to…sell me…my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.”

That explains it, then. Finnick’s parade of lovers in the Capitol. They were never real lovers. Just people like our old Head Peacekeeper, Cray, who bought desperate girls to devour and discard because he could. I want to interrupt the taping and beg Finnick’s forgiveness for every false thought I’ve ever had about him. But we have a job to do, and I sense Finnick’s role will be far more effective than mine.

“I wasn’t the only one, but I was the most popular,” he says. “And perhaps the most defenseless, because the people I loved were so defenseless. To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewelry, but I found a much more valuable form of payment.”

Secrets, I think. That’s what Finnick told me his lovers paid him in, only I thought the whole arrangement was by his choice.

“Secrets,” he says, echoing my thoughts. “And this is where you’re going to want to stay tuned, President Snow, because so very many of them were about you. But let’s begin with some of the others.”

Finnick begins to weave a tapestry so rich in detail that you can’t doubt its authenticity. Tales of strange sexual appetites, betrayals of the heart, bottomless greed, and bloody power plays. Drunken secrets whispered over damp pillow-cases in the dead of night. Finnick was someone bought and sold. A district slave. A handsome one, certainly, but in reality, harmless. Who would he tell? And who would believe him if he did? But some secrets are too delicious not to share. I don’t know the people Finnick names–all seem to be prominent Capitol citizens–but I know, from listening to the chatter of my prep team, the attention the most mild slip in judgment can draw. If a bad haircut can lead to hours of gossip, what will charges of incest, back-stabbing, blackmail, and arson produce? Even as the waves of shock and recrimination roll over the Capitol, the people there will be waiting, as I am now, to hear about the president.

“And now, on to our good President Coriolanus Snow,” says Finnick. “Such a young man when he rose to power. Such a clever one to keep it. How, you must ask yourself, did he do it? One word. That’s all you really need to know. Poison.” Finnick goes back to Snow’s political ascension, which I know nothing of, and works his way up to the present, pointing out case after case of the mysterious deaths of Snow’s adversaries or, even worse, his allies who had the potential to become threats. People dropping dead at a feast or slowly, inexplicably declining into shadows over a period of months. Blamed on bad shellfish, elusive viruses, or an overlooked weakness in the aorta. Snow drinking from the poisoned cup himself to deflect suspicion. But antidotes don’t always work. They say that’s why he wears the roses that reek of perfume. They say it’s to cover the scent of blood from the mouth sores that will never heal. They say, they say, they say…Snow has a list and no one knows who will be next.

Poison. The perfect weapon for a snake.

Since my opinion of the Capitol and its noble president are already so low, I can’t say Finnick’s allegations shock me. They seem to have far more effect on the displaced Capitol rebels like my crew and Fulvia–even Plutarch occasionally reacts in surprise, maybe wondering how a specific tidbit passed him by. When Finnick finishes, they just keep the cameras rolling until finally he has to be the one to say “Cut.”

The crew hurries inside to edit the material, and Plutarch leads Finnick off for a chat, probably to see if he has any more stories. I’m left with Haymitch in the rubble, wondering if Finnick’s fate would have one day been mine. Why not? Snow could have gotten a really good price for the girl on fire.

“Is that what happened to you?” I ask Haymitch.

“No. My mother and younger brother. My girl. They were all dead two weeks after I was crowned victor. Because of that stunt I pulled with the force field,” he answers. “Snow had no one to use against me.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t just kill you,” I say.

“Oh, no. I was the example. The person to hold up to the young Finnicks and Johannas and Cashmeres. Of what could happen to a victor who caused problems,” says Haymitch. “But he knew he had no leverage against me.”

“Until Peeta and I came along,” I say softly. I don’t even get a shrug in return.

With our job done, there’s nothing left for Finnick and me to do but wait. We try to fill the dragging minutes in Special Defense. Tie knots. Push our lunch around our bowls. Blow things up on the shooting range. Because of the danger of detection, no communication comes from the rescue team. At 15:00, the designated hour, we stand tense and silent in the back of a room full of screens and computers and watch Beetee and his team try to dominate the airwaves. His usual fidgety distraction is replaced with a determination I have never seen. Most of my interview doesn’t make the cut, just enough to show I am alive and still defiant. It is Finnick’s salacious and gory account of the Capitol that takes the day. Is Beetee’s skill improving? Or are his counterparts in the Capitol a little too fascinated to want to tune Finnick out? For the next sixty minutes, the Capitol feed alternates between the standard afternoon newscast, Finnick, and attempts to black it all out. But the rebel techno team manages to override even the latter and, in a real coup, keeps control for almost the entire attack on Snow.

“Let it go!” says Beetee, throwing up his hands, relinquishing the broadcast back to the Capitol. He mops his face with a cloth. “If they’re not out of there by now, they’re all dead.” He spins in his chair to see Finnick and me reacting to his words. “It was a good plan, though. Did Plutarch show it to you?”

Of course not. Beetee takes us to another room and shows us how the team, with the help of rebel insiders, will attempt–has attempted–to free the victors from an underground prison. It seems to have involved knockout gas distributed by the ventilation system, a power failure, the detonation of a bomb in a government building several miles from the prison, and now the disruption of the broadcast. Beetee’s glad we find the plan hard to follow, because then our enemies will, too.

“Like your electricity trap in the arena?” I ask.

“Exactly. And see how well that worked out?” says Beetee.

Well…not really, I think.

Finnick and I try to station ourselves in Command, where surely first word of the rescue will come, but we are barred because serious war business is being carried out. We refuse to leave Special Defense and end up waiting in the hummingbird room for news.

Making knots. Making knots. No word. Making knots. Tick-tock. This is a clock. Do not think of Gale. Do not think of Peeta. Making knots. We do not want dinner. Fingers raw and bleeding. Finnick finally gives up and assumes the hunched position he took in the arena when the jabberjays attacked. I perfect my miniature noose. The words of “The Hanging Tree” replay in my head. Gale and Peeta. Peeta and Gale.

“Did you love Annie right away, Finnick?” I ask.

“No.” A long time passes before he adds, “She crept up on me.”

I search my heart, but at the moment the only person I can feel creeping up on me is Snow.

It must be midnight, it must be tomorrow when Haymitch pushes open the door. “They’re back. We’re wanted in the hospital.” My mouth opens with a flood of questions that he cuts off with “That’s all I know.”

I want to run, but Finnick’s acting so strange, as if he’s lost the ability to move, so I take his hand and lead him like a small child. Through Special Defense, into the elevator that goes this way and that, and on to the hospital wing. The place is in an uproar, with doctors shouting orders and the wounded being wheeled through the halls in their beds.

We’re sideswiped by a gurney bearing an unconscious, emaciated young woman with a shaved head. Her flesh shows bruises and oozing scabs. Johanna Mason. Who actually knew rebel secrets. At least the one about me. And this is how she has paid for it.

Through a doorway, I catch a glimpse of Gale, stripped to the waist, perspiration streaming down his face as a doctor removes something from under his shoulder blade with a long pair of tweezers. Wounded, but alive. I call his name, start toward him until a nurse pushes me back and shuts me out.

“Finnick!” Something between a shriek and a cry of joy. A lovely if somewhat bedraggled young woman–dark tangled hair, sea green eyes–runs toward us in nothing but a sheet. “Finnick!” And suddenly, it’s as if there’s no one in the world but these two, crashing through space to reach each other. They collide, enfold, lose their balance, and slam against a wall, where they stay. Clinging into one being. Indivisible.

A pang of jealousy hits me. Not for either Finnick or Annie but for their certainty. No one seeing them could doubt their love.

Boggs, looking a little worse for wear but uninjured, finds Haymitch and me. “We got them all out. Except Enobaria. But since she’s from Two, we doubt she’s being held anyway. Peeta’s at the end of the hall. The effects of the gas are just wearing off. You should be there when he wakes.”

Peeta.

Alive and well–maybe not well but alive and here. Away from Snow. Safe. Here. With me. In a minute I can touch him. See his smile. Hear his laugh.

Haymitch’s grinning at me. “Come on, then,” he says.

I’m light-headed with giddiness. What will I say? Oh, who cares what I say? Peeta will be ecstatic no matter what I do. He’ll probably be kissing me anyway. I wonder if it will feel like those last kisses on the beach in the arena, the ones I haven’t dared let myself consider until this moment.

Peeta’s awake already, sitting on the side of the bed, looking bewildered as a trio of doctors reassure him, flash lights in his eyes, check his pulse. I’m disappointed that mine was not the first face he saw when he woke, but he sees it now. His features register disbelief and something more intense that I can’t quite place. Desire? Desperation? Surely both, for he sweeps the doctors aside, leaps to his feet, and moves toward me. I run to meet him, my arms extended to embrace him. His hands are reaching for me, too, to caress my face, I think.

My lips are just forming his name when his fingers lock around my throat.

13

The cold collar chafes my neck and makes the shivering even harder to control. At least I am no longer in the claustrophobic tube, while the machines click and whir around me, listening to a disembodied voice telling me to hold still while I try to convince myself I can still breathe. Even now, when I’ve been assured there will be no permanent damage, I hunger for air.

The medical team’s main concerns–damage to my spinal cord, airway, veins, and arteries–have been allayed. Bruising, hoarseness, the sore larynx, this strange little cough–not to be worried about. It will all be fine. The Mockingjay will not lose her voice. Where, I want to ask, is the doctor who determines if I am losing my mind? Only I’m not supposed to talk right now. I can’t even thank Boggs when he comes to check on me. To look me over and tell me he’s seen a lot worse injuries among the soldiers when they teach choke holds in training.

It was Boggs who knocked out Peeta with one blow before any permanent damage could be done. I know Haymitch would have come to my defense if he hadn’t been utterly unprepared. To catch both Haymitch and myself off guard is a rare thing. But we have been so consumed with saving Peeta, so tortured by having him in the Capitol’s hands, that the elation at having him back blinded us. If I’d had a private reunion with Peeta, he would have killed me. Now that he’s deranged.

No, not deranged, I remind myself. Hijacked. That’s the word I heard pass between Plutarch and Haymitch as I was wheeled past them in the hallway. Hijacked. I don’t know what it means.

Prim, who appeared moments after the attack and has stayed as close to me as possible ever since, spreads another blanket over me. “I think they’ll take the collar off soon, Katniss. You won’t be so cold then.” My mother, who’s been assisting in a complicated surgery, has still not been informed of Peeta’s assault. Prim takes one of my hands, which is clutched in a fist, and massages it until it opens and blood begins to flow through my fingers again. She’s starting on the second fist when the doctors show up, remove the collar, and give me a shot of something for pain and swelling. I lie, as instructed, with my head still, not aggravating the injuries to my neck.

Plutarch, Haymitch, and Beetee have been waiting in the hall for the doctors to give them clearance to see me. I don’t know if they’ve told Gale, but since he’s not here, I assume they haven’t. Plutarch ushers the doctors out and tries to order Prim to go as well, but she says, “No. If you force me to leave, I’ll go directly to surgery and tell my mother everything that’s happened. And I warn you, she doesn’t think much of a Gamemaker calling the shots on Katniss’s life. Especially when you’ve taken such poor care of her.”

Plutarch looks offended, but Haymitch chuckles. “I’d let it go, Plutarch,” he says. Prim stays.

“So, Katniss, Peeta’s condition has come as a shock to all of us,” says Plutarch. “We couldn’t help but notice his deterioration in the last two interviews. Obviously, he’d been abused, and we put his psychological state down to that. Now we believe something more was going on. That the Capitol has been subjecting him to a rather uncommon technique known as hijacking. Beetee?”

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