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I peer at the darkness beyond the square. “I can’t even see their forces.”

“That’s what the mike’s for,” he says. “You’ll be broadcast, both your voice through their emergency audio system, and your image wherever people have access to a screen.”

I know there are a couple of huge screens here on the square. I saw them on the Victory Tour. It might work, if I were good at this sort of thing. Which I’m not. They tried to feed me lines in those early experiments with the propos, too, and it was a flop.

“You could save a lot of lives, Katniss,” Haymitch says finally.

“All right. I’ll give it a try,” I tell him.

It’s strange standing outside at the top of the stairs, fully costumed, brightly lit, but with no visible audience to deliver my speech to. Like I’m doing a show for the moon.

“Let’s make this quick,” says Haymitch. “You’re too exposed.”

My television crew, positioned out in the square with special cameras, indicates that they’re ready. I tell Haymitch to go ahead, then click on my mike and listen carefully to him dictate the first line of the speech. A huge image of me lights up one of the screens over the square as I begin. “People of District Two, this is Katniss Everdeen speaking to you from the steps of your Justice Building, where–”

The pair of trains comes screeching into the train station side by side. As the doors slide open, people tumble out in a cloud of smoke they’ve brought from the Nut. They must have had at least an inkling of what would await them at the square, because you can see them trying to act evasively. Most of them flatten on the floor, and a spray of bullets inside the station takes out the lights. They’ve come armed, as Gale predicted, but they’ve come wounded as well. The moans can be heard in the otherwise silent night air.

Someone kills the lights on the stairs, leaving me in the protection of shadow. A flame blooms inside the station–one of the trains must actually be on fire–and a thick, black smoke billows against the windows. Left with no choice, the people begin to push out into the square, choking but defiantly waving their guns. My eyes dart around the rooftops that ring the square. Every one of them has been fortified with rebel-manned machine gun nests. Moonlight glints off oiled barrels.

A young man staggers out from the station, one hand pressed against a bloody cloth at his cheek, the other dragging a gun. When he trips and falls to his face, I see the scorch marks down the back of his shirt, the red flesh beneath. And suddenly, he’s just another burn victim from a mine accident.

My feet fly down the steps and I take off running for him. “Stop!” I yell at the rebels. “Hold your fire!” The words echo around the square and beyond as the mike amplifies my voice. “Stop!” I’m nearing the young man, reaching down to help him, when he drags himself up to his knees and trains his gun on my head.

I instinctively back up a few steps, raise my bow over my head to show my intention was harmless. Now that he has both hands on his gun, I notice the ragged hole in his cheek where something–falling stone maybe–punctured the flesh. He smells of burning things, hair and meat and fuel. His eyes are crazed with pain and fear.

“Freeze,” Haymitch’s voice whispers in my ear. I follow his order, realizing that this is what all of District 2, all of Panem maybe, must be seeing at the moment. The Mockingjay at the mercy of a man with nothing to lose.

His garbled speech is barely comprehensible. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t shoot you.”

The rest of the world recedes. There’s only me looking into the wretched eyes of the man from the Nut who asks for one reason. Surely I should be able to come up with thousands. But the words that make it to my lips are “I can’t.”

Logically, the next thing that should happen is the man pulling the trigger. But he’s perplexed, trying to make sense of my words. I experience my own confusion as I realize what I’ve said is entirely true, and the noble impulse that carried me across the square is replaced by despair. “I can’t. That’s the problem, isn’t it?” I lower my bow. “We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We’ve got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I’m done killing their slaves for them.” I drop my bow on the ground and give it a nudge with my boot. It slides across the stone and comes to rest at his knees.

“I’m not their slave,” the man mutters.

“I am,” I say. “That’s why I killed Cato…and he killed Thresh…and he killed Clove…and she tried to kill me. It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol. But I’m tired of being a piece in their Games.”

Peeta. On the rooftop the night before our first Hunger Games. He understood it all before we’d even set foot in the arena. I hope he’s watching now, that he remembers that night as it happened, and maybe forgives me when I die.

“Keep talking. Tell them about watching the mountain go down,” Haymitch insists.

“When I saw that mountain fall tonight, I thought…they’ve done it again. Got me to kill you–the people in the districts. But why did I do it? District Twelve and District Two have no fight except the one the Capitol gave us.” The young man blinks at me uncomprehendingly. I sink on my knees before him, my voice low and urgent. “And why are you fighting with the rebels on the rooftops? With Lyme, who was your victor? With people who were your neighbors, maybe even your family?”

“I don’t know,” says the man. But he doesn’t take his gun off me.

I rise and turn slowly in a circle, addressing the machine guns. “And you up there? I come from a mining town. Since when do miners condemn other miners to that kind of death, and then stand by to kill whoever manages to crawl from the rubble?”

“Who is the enemy?” whispers Haymitch.

“These people”–I indicate the wounded bodies on the square–“are not your enemy!” I whip back around to the train station. “The rebels are not your enemy! We all have one enemy, and it’s the Capitol! This is our chance to put an end to their power, but we need every district person to do it!”

The cameras are tight on me as I reach out my hands to the man, to the wounded, to the reluctant rebels across Panem. “Please! Join us!”

My words hang in the air. I look to the screen, hoping to see them recording some wave of reconciliation going through the crowd.

Instead I watch myself get shot on television.

16

“Always.”

In the twilight of morphling, Peeta whispers the word and I go searching for him. It’s a gauzy, violet-tinted world, with no hard edges, and many places to hide. I push through cloud banks, follow faint tracks, catch the scent of cinnamon, of dill. Once I feel his hand on my cheek and try to trap it, but it dissolves like mist through my fingers.

When I finally begin to surface into the sterile hospital room in 13, I remember. I was under the influence of sleep syrup. My heel had been injured after I’d climbed out on a branch over the electric fence and dropped back into 12. Peeta had put me to bed and I had asked him to stay with me as I was drifting off. He had whispered something I couldn’t quite catch. But some part of my brain had trapped his single word of reply and let it swim up through my dreams to taunt me now. “Always.”

Morphling dulls the extremes of all emotions, so instead of a stab of sorrow, I merely feel emptiness. A hollow of dead brush where flowers used to bloom. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of the drug left in my veins for me to ignore the pain in the left side of my body. That’s where the bullet hit. My hands fumble over the thick bandages encasing my ribs and I wonder what I’m still doing here.

It wasn’t him, the man kneeling before me on the square, the burned one from the Nut. He didn’t pull the trigger. It was someone farther back in the crowd. There was less a sense of penetration than the feeling that I’d been struck with a sledgehammer. Everything after the moment of impact is confusion riddled with gunfire. I try to sit up, but the only thing I manage is a moan.

The white curtain that divides my bed from the next patient’s whips back, and Johanna Mason stares down at me. At first I feel threatened, because she attacked me in the arena. I have to remind myself that she did it to save my life. It was part of the rebel plot. But still, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t despise me. Maybe her treatment of me was all an act for the Capitol?

“I’m alive,” I say rustily.

“No kidding, brainless.” Johanna walks over and plunks down on my bed, sending spikes of pain shooting across my chest. When she grins at my discomfort, I know we’re not in for some warm reunion scene. “Still a little sore?” With an expert hand, she quickly detaches the morphling drip from my arm and plugs it into a socket taped into the crook of her own. “They started cutting back my supply a few days ago. Afraid I’m going to turn into one of those freaks from Six. I’ve had to borrow from you when the coast was clear. Didn’t think you’d mind.”

Mind? How can I mind when she was almost tortured to death by Snow after the Quarter Quell? I have no right to mind, and she knows it.

Johanna sighs as the morphling enters her bloodstream. “Maybe they were onto something in Six. Drug yourself out and paint flowers on your body. Not such a bad life. Seemed happier than the rest of us, anyway.”

In the weeks since I left 13, she’s gained some weight back. A soft down of hair has sprouted on her shaved head, helping to hide some of the scars. But if she’s siphoning off my morphling, she’s struggling.

“They’ve got this head doctor who comes around every day. Supposed to be helping me recover. Like some guy who’s spent his life in this rabbit warren’s going to fix me up. Complete idiot. At least twenty times a session he reminds me that I’m totally safe.” I manage a smile. It’s a truly stupid thing to say, especially to a victor. As if such a state of being ever existed, anywhere, for anyone. “How about you, Mockingjay? You feel totally safe?”

“Oh, yeah. Right up until I got shot,” I say.

“Please. That bullet never even touched you. Cinna saw to that,” she says.

I think of the layers of protective armor in my Mockingjay outfit. But the pain came from somewhere. “Broken ribs?”

“Not even. Bruised pretty good. The impact ruptured your spleen. They couldn’t repair it.” She gives a dismissive wave of her hand. “Don’t worry, you don’t need one. And if you did, they’d find you one, wouldn’t they? It’s everybody’s job to keep you alive.”

“Is that why you hate me?” I ask.

“Partly,” she admits. “Jealousy is certainly involved. I also think you’re a little hard to swallow. With your tacky romantic drama and your defender-of-the-helpless act. Only it isn’t an act, which makes you more unbearable. Please feel free to take this personally.”

“You should have been the Mockingjay. No one would’ve had to feed you lines,” I say.

“True. But no one likes me,” she tells me.

“They trusted you, though. To get me out,” I remind her. “And they’re afraid of you.”

“Here, maybe. In the Capitol, you’re the one they’re scared of now.” Gale appears in the doorway, and Johanna neatly unhooks herself and reattaches me to the morphling drip. “Your cousin’s not afraid of me,” she says confidentially. She scoots off my bed and crosses to the door, nudging Gale’s leg with her hip as she passes him. “Are you, gorgeous?” We can hear her laughter as she disappears down the hall.

I raise my eyebrows at him as he takes my hand. “Terrified,” he mouths. I laugh, but it turns into a wince. “Easy.” He strokes my face as the pain ebbs. “You’ve got to stop running straight into trouble.”

“I know. But someone blew up a mountain,” I answer.

Instead of pulling back, he leans in closer, searching my face. “You think I’m heartless.”

“I know you’re not. But I won’t tell you it’s okay,” I say.

Now he draws back, almost impatiently. “Katniss, what difference is there, really, between crushing our enemy in a mine or blowing them out of the sky with one of Beetee’s arrows? The result is the same.”

“I don’t know. We were under attack in Eight, for one thing. The hospital was under attack,” I say.

“Yes, and those hoverplanes came from District Two,” he says. “So, by taking them out, we prevented further attacks.”

“But that kind of thinking…you could turn it into an argument for killing anyone at any time. You could justify sending kids into the Hunger Games to prevent the districts from getting out of line,” I say.

“I don’t buy that,” he tells me.

“I do,” I reply. “It must be those trips to the arena.”

“Fine. We know how to disagree,” he says. “We always have. Maybe it’s good. Between you and me, we’ve got District Two now.”

“Really?” For a moment a feeling of triumph flares up inside me. Then I think about the people on the square. “Was there fighting after I was shot?”

“Not much. The workers from the Nut turned on the Capitol soldiers. The rebels just sat by and watched,” he says. “Actually, the whole country just sat by and watched.”

“Well, that’s what they do best,” I say.

You’d think that losing a major organ would entitle you to lie around a few weeks, but for some reason, my doctors want me up and moving almost immediately. Even with the morphling, the internal pain’s severe the first few days, but then it slacks off considerably. The soreness from the bruised ribs, however, promises to hang on for a while. I begin to resent Johanna dipping into my morphling supply, but I still let her take whatever she likes.

Rumors of my death have been running rampant, so they send in the team to film me in my hospital bed. I show off my stitches and impressive bruising and congratulate the districts on their successful battle for unity. Then I warn the Capitol to expect us soon.

As part of my rehabilitation, I take short walks aboveground each day. One afternoon, Plutarch joins me and gives me an update on our current situation. Now that District 2 has allied with us, the rebels are taking a breather from the war to regroup. Fortifying supply lines, seeing to the wounded, reorganizing their troops. The Capitol, like 13 during the Dark Days, finds itself completely cut off from outside help as it holds the threat of nuclear attack over its enemies. Unlike 13, the Capitol is not in a position to reinvent itself and become self-sufficient.

“Oh, the city might be able to scrape along for a while,” says Plutarch. “Certainly, there are emergency supplies stockpiled. But the significant difference between Thirteen and the Capitol are the expectations of the populace. Thirteen was used to hardship, whereas in the Capitol, all they’ve known is Panem et Circenses.”

“What’s that?” I recognize Panem, of course, but the rest is nonsense.

“It’s a saying from thousands of years ago, written in a language called Latin about a place called Rome,” he explains. “Panem et Circenses translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”

I think about the Capitol. The excess of food. And the ultimate entertainment. The Hunger Games. “So that’s what the districts are for. To provide the bread and circuses.”

“Yes. And as long as that kept rolling in, the Capitol could control its little empire. Right now, it can provide neither, at least at the standard the people are accustomed to,” says Plutarch. “We have the food and I’m about to orchestrate an entertainment propo that’s sure to be popular. After all, everybody loves a wedding.”

I freeze in my tracks, sick at the idea of what he’s suggesting. Somehow staging some perverse wedding between Peeta and me. I haven’t been able to face that one-way glass since I’ve been back and, at my own request, only get updates about Peeta’s condition from Haymitch. He speaks very little about it. Different techniques are being tried. There will never truly be a way to cure him. And now they want me to marry Peeta for a propo?

Plutarch rushes to reassure me. “Oh, no, Katniss. Not your wedding. Finnick and Annie’s. All you need to do is show up and pretend to be happy for them.”

“That’s one of the few things I won’t have to pretend, Plutarch,” I tell him.

The next few days bring a flurry of activity as the event is planned. The differences between the Capitol and 13 are thrown into sharp relief by the event. When Coin says “wedding,” she means two people signing a piece of paper and being assigned a new compartment. Plutarch means hundreds of people dressed in finery at a three-day celebration. It’s amusing to watch them haggle over the details. Plutarch has to fight for every guest, every musical note. After Coin vetoes a dinner, entertainment, and alcohol, Plutarch yells, “What’s the point of the propo if no one’s having any fun!”

It’s hard to put a Gamemaker on a budget. But even a quiet celebration causes a stir in 13, where they seem to have no holidays at all. When it’s announced that children are wanted to sing District 4’s wedding song, practically every kid shows up. There’s no shortage of volunteers to help make decorations. In the dining hall, people chat excitedly about the event.

Maybe it’s more than the festivities. Maybe it’s that we are all so starved for something good to happen that we want to be part of it. It would explain why–when Plutarch has a fit over what the bride will wear–I volunteer to take Annie back to my house in 12, where Cinna left a variety of evening clothes in a big storage closet downstairs. All of the wedding gowns he designed for me went back to the Capitol, but there are some dresses I wore on the Victory Tour. I’m a little leery about being with Annie since all I really know about her is that Finnick loves her and everybody thinks she’s mad. On the hovercraft ride, I decide she’s less mad than unstable. She laughs at odd places in the conversation or drops out of it distractedly. Those green eyes fixate on a point with such intensity that you find yourself trying to make out what she sees in the empty air. Sometimes, for no reason, she presses both her hands over her ears as if to block out a painful sound. All right, she’s strange, but if Finnick loves her, that’s good enough for me.

I got permission for my prep team to come along, so I’m relieved of having to make any fashion decisions. When I open the closet, we all fall silent because Cinna’s presence is so strong in the flow of the fabrics. Then Octavia drops to her knees, rubs the hem of a skirt against her cheek, and bursts into tears. “It’s been so long,” she gasps, “since I’ve seen anything pretty.”

Despite reservations on Coin’s side that it’s too extravagant, and on Plutarch’s side that it’s too drab, the wedding is a smash hit. The three hundred lucky guests culled from 13 and the many refugees wear their everyday clothes, the decorations are made from autumn foliage, the music is provided by a choir of children accompanied by the lone fiddler who made it out of 12 with his instrument. So it’s simple, frugal by the Capitol’s standards. It doesn’t matter because nothing can compete with the beauty of the couple. It isn’t about their borrowed finery–Annie wears a green silk dress I wore in 5, Finnick one of Peeta’s suits that they altered–although the clothes are striking. Who can look past the radiant faces of two people for whom this day was once a virtual impossibility? Dalton, the cattle guy from 10, conducts the ceremony, since it’s similar to the one used in his district. But there are unique touches of District 4. A net woven from long grass that covers the couple during their vows, the touching of each other’s lips with salt water, and the ancient wedding song, which likens marriage to a sea voyage.

No, I don’t have to pretend to be happy for them.

After the kiss that seals the union, the cheers, and a toast with apple cider, the fiddler strikes up a tune that turns every head from 12. We may have been the smallest, poorest district in Panem, but we know how to dance. Nothing has been officially scheduled at this point, but Plutarch, who’s calling the propo from the control room, must have his fingers crossed. Sure enough, Greasy Sae grabs Gale by the hand and pulls him into the center of the floor and faces off with him. People pour in to join them, forming two long lines. And the dancing begins.

I’m standing off to the side, clapping to the rhythm, when a bony hand pinches me above the elbow. Johanna scowls at me. “Are you going to miss the chance to let Snow see you dancing?” She’s right. What could spell victory louder than a happy Mockingjay twirling around to music? I find Prim in the crowd. Since winter evenings gave us a lot of time to practice, we’re actually pretty good partners. I brush off her concerns about my ribs, and we take our places in the line. It hurts, but the satisfaction of having Snow watch me dance with my little sister reduces other feelings to dust.

Dancing transforms us. We teach the steps to the District 13 guests. Insist on a special number for the bride and groom. Join hands and make a giant, spinning circle where people show off their footwork. Nothing silly, joyful, or fun has happened in so long. This could go on all night if not for the last event planned in Plutarch’s propo. One I hadn’t heard about, but then it was meant to be a surprise.

Four people wheel out a huge wedding cake from a side room. Most of the guests back up, making way for this rarity, this dazzling creation with blue-green, white-tipped icing waves swimming with fish and sailboats, seals and sea flowers. But I push my way through the crowd to confirm what I knew at first sight. As surely as the embroidery stitches in Annie’s gown were done by Cinna’s hand, the frosted flowers on the cake were done by Peeta’s.

This may seem like a small thing, but it speaks volumes. Haymitch has been keeping a great deal from me. The boy I last saw, screaming his head off, trying to tear free of his restraints, could never have made this. Never have had the focus, kept his hands steady, designed something so perfect for Finnick and Annie. As if anticipating my reaction, Haymitch is at my side.

“Let’s you and me have a talk,” he says.

Out in the hall, away from the cameras, I ask, “What’s happening to him?”

Haymitch shakes his head. “I don’t know. None of us knows. Sometimes he’s almost rational, and then, for no reason, he goes off again. Doing the cake was a kind of therapy. He’s been working on it for days. Watching him…he seemed almost like before.”

“So, he’s got the run of the place?” I ask. The idea makes me nervous on about five different levels.

“Oh, no. He frosted under heavy guard. He’s still under lock and key. But I’ve talked to him,” Haymitch says.

“Face-to-face?” I ask. “And he didn’t go nuts?”

“No. Pretty angry with me, but for all the right reasons. Not telling him about the rebel plot and whatnot.” Haymitch pauses a moment, as if deciding something. “He says he’d like to see you.”

I’m on a frosting sailboat, tossed around by blue-green waves, the deck shifting beneath my feet. My palms press into the wall to steady myself. This wasn’t part of the plan. I wrote Peeta off in 2. Then I was to go to the Capitol, kill Snow, and get taken out myself. The gunshot was only a temporary setback. Never was I supposed to hear the words He says he’d like to see you. But now that I have, there’s no way to refuse.

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