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“Oh. You,” he says. I can tell by his voice that he’s still loaded.

“Haymitch,” I begin.

“Listen to that. The Mockingjay found her voice.” He laughs. “Well, Plutarch’s going to be happy.” He takes a swig from a bottle. “Why am I soaking wet?” I lamely drop the pitcher behind me into a pile of dirty clothes.

“I need your help,” I say.

Haymitch belches, filling the air with white liquor fumes. “What is it, sweetheart? More boy trouble?” I don’t know why, but this hurts me in a way Haymitch rarely can. It must show on my face, because even in his drunken state, he tries to take it back. “Okay, not funny.” I’m already at the door. “Not funny! Come back!” By the thud of his body hitting the floor, I assume he tried to follow me, but there’s no point.

I zigzag through the mansion and disappear into a wardrobe full of silken things. I yank them from hangers until I have a pile and then burrow into it. In the lining of my pocket, I find a stray morphling tablet and swallow it dry, heading off my rising hysteria. It’s not enough to right things, though. I hear Haymitch calling me in the distance, but he won’t find me in his condition. Especially not in this new spot. Swathed in silk, I feel like a caterpillar in a cocoon awaiting metamorphosis. I always supposed that to be a peaceful condition. At first it is. But as I journey into night, I feel more and more trapped, suffocated by the slippery bindings, unable to emerge until I have transformed into something of beauty. I squirm, trying to shed my ruined body and unlock the secret to growing flawless wings. Despite enormous effort, I remain a hideous creature, fired into my current form by the blast from the bombs.

The encounter with Snow opens the door to my old repertoire of nightmares. It’s like being stung by tracker jackers again. A wave of horrifying images with a brief respite I confuse with waking–only to find another wave knocking me back. When the guards finally locate me, I’m sitting on the floor of the wardrobe, tangled in silk, screaming my head off. I fight them at first, until they convince me they’re trying to help, peel away the choking garments, and escort me back to my room. On the way, we pass a window and I see a gray, snowy dawn spreading across the Capitol.

A very hungover Haymitch waits with a handful of pills and a tray of food that neither of us has the stomach for. He makes a feeble attempt to get me to talk again but, seeing it’s pointless, sends me to a bath someone has drawn. The tub’s deep, with three steps to the bottom. I ease down into the warm water and sit, up to my neck in suds, hoping the medicines kick in soon. My eyes focus on the rose that has spread its petals overnight, filling the steamy air with its strong perfume. I rise and reach for a towel to smother it, when there’s a tentative knock and the bathroom door opens, revealing three familiar faces. They try to smile at me, but even Venia can’t conceal her shock at my ravaged mutt body. “Surprise!” Octavia squeaks, and then bursts into tears. I’m puzzling over their reappearance when I realize that this must be it, the day of the execution. They’ve come to prep me for the cameras. Remake me to Beauty Base Zero. No wonder Octavia’s crying. It’s an impossible task.

They can barely touch my patchwork of skin for fear of hurting me, so I rinse and dry off myself. I tell them I hardly notice the pain anymore, but Flavius still winces as he drapes a robe around me. In the bedroom, I find another surprise. Sitting upright in a chair. Polished from her metallic gold wig to her patent leather high heels, gripping a clipboard. Remarkably unchanged except for the vacant look in her eyes.

“Effie,” I say.

“Hello, Katniss.” She stands and kisses me on the cheek as if nothing has occurred since our last meeting, the night before the Quarter Quell. “Well, it looks like we’ve got another big, big, big day ahead of us. So why don’t you start your prep and I’ll just pop over and check on the arrangements.”

“Okay,” I say to her back.

“They say Plutarch and Haymitch had a hard time keeping her alive,” comments Venia under her breath. “She was imprisoned after your escape, so that helps.”

It’s quite a stretch. Effie Trinket, rebel. But I don’t want Coin killing her, so I make a mental note to present her that way if asked. “I guess it’s good Plutarch kidnapped you three after all.”

“We’re the only prep team still alive. And all the stylists from the Quarter Quell are dead,” says Venia. She doesn’t say who specifically killed them. I’m beginning to wonder if it matters. She gingerly takes one of my scarred hands and holds it out for inspection. “Now, what do you think for the nails? Red or maybe a jet black?”

Flavius performs some beauty miracle on my hair, managing to even out the front while getting some of the longer locks to hide the bald spots in the back. My face, since it was spared from the flames, presents no more than the usual challenges. Once I’m in Cinna’s Mockingjay suit, the only scars visible are on my neck, forearms, and hands. Octavia secures my Mockingjay pin over my heart and we step back to look in the mirror. I can’t believe how normal they’ve made me look on the outside when inwardly I’m such a wasteland.

There’s a tap at the door and Gale steps in. “Can I have a minute?” he asks. In the mirror, I watch my prep team. Unsure of where to go, they bump into one another a few times and then closet themselves in the bathroom. Gale comes up behind me and we examine each other’s reflection. I’m searching for something to hang on to, some sign of the girl and boy who met by chance in the woods five years ago and became inseparable. I’m wondering what would have happened to them if the Hunger Games had not reaped the girl. If she would have fallen in love with the boy, married him even. And sometime in the future, when the brothers and sisters had been raised up, escaped with him into the woods and left 12 behind forever. Would they have been happy, out in the wild, or would the dark, twisted sadness between them have grown up even without the Capitol’s help?

“I brought you this.” Gale holds up a sheath. When I take it, I notice it holds a single, ordinary arrow. “It’s supposed to be symbolic. You firing the last shot of the war.”

“What if I miss?” I say. “Does Coin retrieve it and bring it back to me? Or just shoot Snow through the head herself?”

“You won’t miss.” Gale adjusts the sheath on my shoulder.

We stand there, face-to-face, not meeting each other’s eyes. “You didn’t come see me in the hospital.” He doesn’t answer, so finally I just say it. “Was it your bomb?”

“I don’t know. Neither does Beetee,” he says. “Does it matter? You’ll always be thinking about it.”

He waits for me to deny it; I want to deny it, but it’s true. Even now I can see the flash that ignites her, feel the heat of the flames. And I will never be able to separate that moment from Gale. My silence is my answer.

“That was the one thing I had going for me. Taking care of your family,” he says. “Shoot straight, okay?” He touches my cheek and leaves. I want to call him back and tell him that I was wrong. That I’ll figure out a way to make peace with this. To remember the circumstances under which he created the bomb. Take into account my own inexcusable crimes. Dig up the truth about who dropped the parachutes. Prove it wasn’t the rebels. Forgive him. But since I can’t, I’ll just have to deal with the pain.

Effie comes in to usher me to some kind of meeting. I collect my bow and at the last minute remember the rose, glistening in its glass of water. When I open the door to the bathroom, I find my prep team sitting in a row on the edge of the tub, hunched and defeated. I remember I’m not the only one whose world has been stripped away. “Come on,” I tell them. “We’ve got an audience waiting.”

I’m expecting a production meeting in which Plutarch instructs me where to stand and gives me my cue for shooting Snow. Instead, I find myself sent into a room where six people sit around a table. Peeta, Johanna, Beetee, Haymitch, Annie, and Enobaria. They all wear the gray rebel uniforms from 13. No one looks particularly well. “What’s this?” I say.

“We’re not sure,” Haymitch answers. “It appears to be a gathering of the remaining victors.”

“We’re all that’s left?” I ask.

“The price of celebrity,” says Beetee. “We were targeted from both sides. The Capitol killed the victors they suspected of being rebels. The rebels killed those thought to be allied with the Capitol.”

Johanna scowls at Enobaria. “So what’s she doing here?”

“She is protected under what we call the Mockingjay Deal,” says Coin as she enters behind me. “Wherein Katniss Everdeen agreed to support the rebels in exchange for captured victors’ immunity. Katniss has upheld her side of the bargain, and so shall we.”

Enobaria smiles at Johanna. “Don’t look so smug,” says Johanna. “We’ll kill you anyway.”

“Sit down, please, Katniss,” says Coin, closing the door. I take a seat between Annie and Beetee, carefully placing Snow’s rose on the table. As usual, Coin gets right to the point. “I’ve asked you here to settle a debate. Today we will execute Snow. In the previous weeks, hundreds of his accomplices in the oppression of Panem have been tried and now await their own deaths. However, the suffering in the districts has been so extreme that these measures appear insufficient to the victims. In fact, many are calling for a complete annihilation of those who held Capitol citizenship. However, in the interest of maintaining a sustainable population, we cannot afford this.”

Through the water in the glass, I see a distorted image of one of Peeta’s hands. The burn marks. We are both fire mutts now. My eyes travel up to where the flames licked across his forehead, singeing away his brows but just missing his eyes. Those same blue eyes that used to meet mine and then flit away at school. Just as they do now.

“So, an alternative has been placed on the table. Since my colleagues and I can come to no consensus, it has been agreed that we will let the victors decide. A majority of four will approve the plan. No one may abstain from the vote,” says Coin. “What has been proposed is that in lieu of eliminating the entire Capitol population, we have a final, symbolic Hunger Games, using the children directly related to those who held the most power.”

All seven of us turn to her. “What?” says Johanna.

“We hold another Hunger Games using Capitol children,” says Coin.

“Are you joking?” asks Peeta.

“No. I should also tell you that if we do hold the Games, it will be known it was done with your approval, although the individual breakdown of your votes will be kept secret for your own security,” Coin tells us.

“Was this Plutarch’s idea?” asks Haymitch.

“It was mine,” says Coin. “It seemed to balance the need for vengeance with the least loss of life. You may cast your votes.”

“No!” bursts out Peeta. “I vote no, of course! We can’t have another Hunger Games!”

“Why not?” Johanna retorts. “It seems very fair to me. Snow even has a granddaughter. I vote yes.”

“So do I,” says Enobaria, almost indifferently. “Let them have a taste of their own medicine.”

“This is why we rebelled! Remember?” Peeta looks at the rest of us. “Annie?”

“I vote no with Peeta,” she says. “So would Finnick if he were here.”

“But he isn’t, because Snow’s mutts killed him,” Johanna reminds her.

“No,” says Beetee. “It would set a bad precedent. We have to stop viewing one another as enemies. At this point, unity is essential for our survival. No.”

“We’re down to Katniss and Haymitch,” says Coin.

Was it like this then? Seventy-five years or so ago? Did a group of people sit around and cast their votes on initiating the Hunger Games? Was there dissent? Did someone make a case for mercy that was beaten down by the calls for the deaths of the districts’ children? The scent of Snow’s rose curls up into my nose, down into my throat, squeezing it tight with despair. All those people I loved, dead, and we are discussing the next Hunger Games in an attempt to avoid wasting life. Nothing has changed. Nothing will ever change now.

I weigh my options carefully, think everything through. Keeping my eyes on the rose, I say, “I vote yes…for Prim.”

“Haymitch, it’s up to you,” says Coin.

A furious Peeta hammers Haymitch with the atrocity he could become party to, but I can feel Haymitch watching me. This is the moment, then. When we find out exactly just how alike we are, and how much he truly understands me.

“I’m with the Mockingjay,” he says.

“Excellent. That carries the vote,” says Coin. “Now we really must take our places for the execution.”

As she passes me, I hold up the glass with the rose. “Can you see that Snow’s wearing this? Just over his heart?”

Coin smiles. “Of course. And I’ll make sure he knows about the Games.”

“Thank you,” I say.

People sweep into the room, surround me. The last touch of powder, the instructions from Plutarch as I’m guided to the front doors of the mansion. The City Circle runs over, spills people down the side streets. The others take their places outside. Guards. Officials. Rebel leaders. Victors. I hear the cheers that indicate Coin has appeared on the balcony. Then Effie taps my shoulder, and I step out into the cold winter sunlight. Walk to my position, accompanied by the deafening roar of the crowd. As directed, I turn so they see me in profile, and wait. When they march Snow out the door, the audience goes insane. They secure his hands behind a post, which is unnecessary. He’s not going anywhere. There’s nowhere to go. This is not the roomy stage before the Training Center but the narrow terrace in front of the president’s mansion. No wonder no one bothered to have me practice. He’s ten yards away.

I feel the bow purring in my hand. Reach back and grasp the arrow. Position it, aim at the rose, but watch his face. He coughs and a bloody dribble runs down his chin. His tongue flicks over his puffy lips. I search his eyes for the slightest sign of anything, fear, remorse, anger. But there’s only the same look of amusement that ended our last conversation. It’s as if he’s speaking the words again. “Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen. I thought we had agreed not to lie to each other.”

He’s right. We did.

The point of my arrow shifts upward. I release the string. And President Coin collapses over the side of the balcony and plunges to the ground. Dead.

27

In the stunned reaction that follows, I’m aware of one sound. Snow’s laughter. An awful gurgling cackle accompanied by an eruption of foamy blood when the coughing begins. I see him bend forward, spewing out his life, until the guards block him from my sight.

As the gray uniforms begin to converge on me, I think of what my brief future as the assassin of Panem’s new president holds. The interrogation, probable torture, certain public execution. Having, yet again, to say my final goodbyes to the handful of people who still maintain a hold on my heart. The prospect of facing my mother, who will now be entirely alone in the world, decides it.

“Good night,” I whisper to the bow in my hand and feel it go still. I raise my left arm and twist my neck down to rip off the pill on my sleeve. Instead my teeth sink into flesh. I yank my head back in confusion to find myself looking into Peeta’s eyes, only now they hold my gaze. Blood runs from the teeth marks on the hand he clamped over my nightlock. “Let me go!” I snarl at him, trying to wrest my arm from his grasp.

“I can’t,” he says. As they pull me away from him, I feel the pocket ripped from my sleeve, see the deep violet pill fall to the ground, watch Cinna’s last gift get crunched under a guard’s boot. I transform into a wild animal, kicking, clawing, biting, doing whatever I can to free myself from this web of hands as the crowd pushes in. The guards lift me up above the fray, where I continue to thrash as I’m conveyed over the crush of people. I start screaming for Gale. I can’t find him in the throng, but he will know what I want. A good clean shot to end it all. Only there’s no arrow, no bullet. Is it possible he can’t see me? No. Above us, on the giant screens placed around the City Circle, everyone can watch the whole thing being played out. He sees, he knows, but he doesn’t follow through. Just as I didn’t when he was captured. Sorry excuses for hunters and friends. Both of us.

I’m on my own.

In the mansion, they handcuff and blindfold me. I’m half dragged, half carried down long passages, up and down elevators, and deposited on a carpeted floor. The cuffs are removed and a door slams closed behind me. When I push the blindfold up, I find I’m in my old room at the Training Center. The one where I lived during those last precious days before my first Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell. The bed’s stripped to the mattress, the closet gapes open, showing the emptiness inside, but I’d know this room anywhere.

It’s a struggle to get to my feet and peel off my Mockingjay suit. I’m badly bruised and might have a broken finger or two, but it’s my skin that’s paid most dearly for my struggle with the guards. The new pink stuff has shredded like tissue paper and blood seeps through the laboratory-grown cells. No medics show up, though, and as I’m too far gone to care, I crawl up onto the mattress, expecting to bleed to death.

No such luck. By evening, the blood clots, leaving me stiff and sore and sticky but alive. I limp into the shower and program in the gentlest cycle I can remember, free of any soaps and hair products, and squat under the warm spray, elbows on my knees, head in my hands.

My name is Katniss Everdeen. Why am I not dead? I should be dead. It would be best for everyone if I were dead….

When I step out on the mat, the hot air bakes my damaged skin dry. There’s nothing clean to put on. Not even a towel to wrap around me. Back in the room, I find the Mockingjay suit has disappeared. In its place is a paper robe. A meal has been sent up from the mysterious kitchen with a container of my medications for dessert. I go ahead and eat the food, take the pills, rub the salve on my skin. I need to focus now on the manner of my suicide.

I curl back up on the bloodstained mattress, not cold but feeling so naked with just the paper to cover my tender flesh. Jumping to my death’s not an option–the window glass must be a foot thick. I can make an excellent noose, but there’s nothing to hang myself from. It’s possible I could hoard my pills and then knock myself off with a lethal dose, except that I’m sure I’m being watched round the clock. For all I know, I’m on live television at this very moment while commentators try to analyze what could possibly have motivated me to kill Coin. The surveillance makes almost any suicide attempt impossible. Taking my life is the Capitol’s privilege. Again.

What I can do is give up. I resolve to lie on the bed without eating, drinking, or taking my medications. I could do it, too. Just die. If it weren’t for the morphling withdrawal. Not bit by bit like in the hospital in 13, but cold turkey. I must have been on a fairly large dose because when the craving for it hits, accompanied by tremors, and shooting pains, and unbearable cold, my resolve’s crushed like an eggshell. I’m on my knees, raking the carpet with my fingernails to find those precious pills I flung away in a stronger moment. I revise my suicide plan to slow death by morphling. I will become a yellow-skinned bag of bones, with enormous eyes. I’m a couple of days into the plan, making good progress, when something unexpected happens.

I begin to sing. At the window, in the shower, in my sleep. Hour after hour of ballads, love songs, mountain airs. All the songs my father taught me before he died, for certainly there has been very little music in my life since. What’s amazing is how clearly I remember them. The tunes, the lyrics. My voice, at first rough and breaking on the high notes, warms up into something splendid. A voice that would make the mockingjays fall silent and then tumble over themselves to join in. Days pass, weeks. I watch the snows fall on the ledge outside my window. And in all that time, mine is the only voice I hear.

What are they doing, anyway? What’s the holdup out there? How difficult can it be to arrange the execution of one murderous girl? I continue with my own annihilation. My body’s thinner than it’s ever been and my battle against hunger is so fierce that sometimes the animal part of me gives in to the temptation of buttered bread or roasted meat. But still, I’m winning. For a few days I feel quite unwell and think I may finally be traveling out of this life, when I realize my morphling tablets are shrinking. They are trying to slowly wean me off the stuff. But why? Surely a drugged Mockingjay will be easier to dispose of in front of a crowd. And then a terrible thought hits me: What if they’re not going to kill me? What if they have more plans for me? A new way to remake, train, and use me?

I won’t do it. If I can’t kill myself in this room, I will take the first opportunity outside of it to finish the job. They can fatten me up. They can give me a full body polish, dress me up, and make me beautiful again. They can design dream weapons that come to life in my hands, but they will never again brainwash me into the necessity of using them. I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself. I think that Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin it any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.

After two days of my lying on my mattress with no attempt to eat, drink, or even take a morphling tablet, the door to my room opens. Someone crosses around the bed into my field of vision. Haymitch. “Your trial’s over,” he says. “Come on. We’re going home.”

Home? What’s he talking about? My home’s gone. And even if it were possible to go to this imaginary place, I am too weak to move. Strangers appear. Rehydrate and feed me. Bathe and clothe me. One lifts me like a rag doll and carries me up to the roof, onto a hovercraft, and fastens me into a seat. Haymitch and Plutarch sit across from me. In a few moments, we’re airborne.

I’ve never seen Plutarch in such a good mood. He’s positively glowing. “You must have a million questions!” When I don’t respond, he answers them anyway.

After I shot Coin, there was pandemonium. When the ruckus died down, they discovered Snow’s body, still tethered to the post. Opinions differ on whether he choked to death while laughing or was crushed by the crowd. No one really cares. An emergency election was thrown together and Paylor was voted in as president. Plutarch was appointed secretary of communications, which means he sets the programming for the airwaves. The first big televised event was my trial, in which he was also a star witness. In my defense, of course. Although most of the credit for my exoneration must be given to Dr. Aurelius, who apparently earned his naps by presenting me as a hopeless, shell-shocked lunatic. One condition for my release is that I’ll continue under his care, although it will have to be by phone because he’d never live in a forsaken place like 12, and I’m confined there until further notice. The truth is, no one quite knows what to do with me now that the war’s over, although if another one should spring up, Plutarch’s sure they could find a role for me. Then Plutarch has a good laugh. It never seems to bother him when no one else appreciates his jokes.

“Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” I ask.

“Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”

“What?” I ask.

“The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.” And then he asks me if I’d like to perform on a new singing program he’s launching in a few weeks. Something upbeat would be good. He’ll send the crew to my house.

We land briefly in District 3 to drop off Plutarch. He’s meeting with Beetee to update the technology on the broadcast system. His parting words to me are “Don’t be a stranger.”

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