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whisper to Peeta.

“Don’t you believe it,” he says, pulling up my hood, but he’s shaking harder than I am.

The next hours are the worst in my life, which if you think about it, is saying something. The cold would be torture enough, but the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging, and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him. After a very short time, I don’t care who he is or what he’s done, all I want is for his suffering to end.

“Why don’t they just kill him?” I ask Peeta.

“You know why,” he says, and pulls me closer to him. And I do. No viewer could turn away from the show now. From the Gamemakers’ point of view, this is the final word in entertainment.

It goes on and on and on and eventually completely consumes my mind, blocking out memories and hopes of tomorrow, erasing everything but the present, which I begin to believe will never change. There will never be anything but cold and fear and the agonized sounds of the boy dying in the horn. Peeta begins to doze off now, and each time he does, I find myself yelling his name louder and louder because if he goes and dies on me now, I know I’ll go completely insane. He’s fighting it, probably more for me than for him, and it’s hard because unconsciousness would be its own form of escape. But the adrenaline pumping through my body would never allow me to follow him, so I can’t let him go. I just can’t. The only indication of the passage of time lies in the heavens, the subtle shift of the moon. So Peeta begins pointing it out to me, insisting I acknowledge its progress and sometimes, for just a moment I feel a flicker of hope before the agony of the night engulfs me again.

Finally, I hear him whisper that the sun is rising. I open my eyes and find the stars fading in the pale light of dawn. I can see, too, how bloodless Peeta’s face has become. How little time he has left. And I know I have to get him back to the Capitol. Still, no cannon has fired. I press my good ear against the horn and can just make out Cato’s voice.

“I think he’s closer now. Katniss, can you shoot him?” Peeta asks.

If he’s near the mouth, I may be able to take him out. It would be an act of mercy at this point.

“My last arrow’s in your tourniquet,” I say.

“Make it count,” says Peeta, unzipping his jacket, letting me loose.

So I free the arrow, tying the tourniquet back as tightly as my frozen fingers can manage. I rub my hands together, trying to regain circulation. When I crawl to the lip of the horn and hang over the edge, I feel Peeta’s hands grip me for support. It takes a few moments to find Cato in the dim light, in the blood. Then the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where his mouth is. And I think the word he’s trying to say is please.

Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull. Peeta pulls me back up, bow in hand, quiver empty.

“Did you get him?” he whispers.

The cannon fires in answer.

“Then we won, Katniss,” he says hollowly.

“Hurray for us,” I get out, but there’s no joy of victory in my voice.

A hole opens in the plain and as if on cue, the remaining mutts bound into it, disappearing as the earth closes above them.

We wait, for the hovercraft to take Cato’s remains, for the trumpets of victory that should follow, but nothing happens.

“Hey!” I shout into air. “What’s going on?” The only response is the chatter of waking birds.

“Maybe it’s the body. Maybe we have to move away from it,” says Peeta.

I try to remember. Do you have to distance yourself from the dead tribute on the final kill? My brain is too muddled to be sure, but what else could be the reason for the delay?

“Okay. Think you could make it to the lake?” I ask.

“Think I better try,” says Peeta. We inch down to the tail of the horn and fall to the ground. If the stiffness in my limbs is this bad, how can Peeta even move? I rise first, swinging and bending my arms and legs until I think I can help him up. Somehow, we make it back to the lake. I scoop up a handful of the cold water for Peeta and bring a second to my lips. A mockingjay gives the long, low whistle, and tears of relief fill my eyes as the hovercraft appears and takes Cato’s body away. Now they will take us. Now we can go home. But again there’s no response.

“What are they waiting for?” says Peeta weakly. Between the loss of the tourniquet and the effort it took to get to the lake, his wound has opened up again.

“I don’t know,” I say. Whatever the holdup is, I can’t watch him lose any more blood. I get up to find a stick but almost immediately come across the arrow that bounced off Cato’s body armor. It will do as well as the other arrow. As I stoop to pick it up, Claudius Templesmith’s voice booms into the arena.

“Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed,” he says. “Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor.”

There’s a small burst of static and then nothing more. I stare at Peeta in disbelief as the truth sinks in. They never intended to let us both live. This has all been devised by the Gamemakers to guarantee the most dramatic showdown in history. And like a fool, I bought into it.

“If you think about it, it’s not that surprising,” he says softly. I watch as he painfully makes it to his feet. Then he’s moving toward me, as if in slow motion, his hand is pulling the knife from his belt—

Before I am even aware of my actions, my bow is loaded with the arrow pointed straight at his heart. Peeta raises his eyebrows and I see the knife has already left his hand on its way to the lake where it splashes in the water. I drop my weapons and take a step back, my face burning in what can only be shame.

“No,” he says. “Do it.” Peeta limps toward me and thrusts the weapons back in my hands.

“I can’t, I say. “I won’t.”

“Do it. Before they send those mutts back or something. I don’t want to die like Cato,” he says.

“Then you shoot me,” I say furiously, shoving the weapons back at him. “You shoot me and go home and live with it!” And as I say it, I know death right here, right now would be the easier of the two.

“You know I can’t,” Peeta says, discarding the weapons.

“Fine, I’ll go first anyway.” He leans down and rips the bandage off his leg, eliminating the final barrier between his blood and the earth.

“No, you can’t kill yourself,” I say. I’m on my knees, desperately plastering the bandage back onto his wound.

“Katniss,” he says. “It’s what I want.”

“You’re not leaving me here alone,” I say. Because if he dies, I’ll never go home, not really. I’ll spend the rest of my life in this arena trying to think my way out.

“Listen,” he says pulling me to my feet. “We both know they have to have a victor. It can only be one of us. Please, take it. For me.” And he goes on about how he loves me, what life would be without me but I’ve stopped listening because his previous words are trapped in my head, thrashing desperately around.

We both know they have to have a victor.

Yes, they have to have a victor. Without a victor, the whole thing would blow up in the Gamemakers’ faces. They’d have failed the Capitol. Might possibly even be executed, slowly and painfully while the cameras broadcast it to every screen in the country.

If Peeta and I were both to die, or they thought we were… My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it. Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. “No, I won’t let you.”

“Trust me,” I whisper. He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go. I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm. Then I fill my own. “On the count of three?”

Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. “The count of three,” he says.

We stand, our backs pressed together, our empty hands locked tight.

“Hold them out. I want everyone to see,” he says. I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a goodbye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two.”

Maybe they don’t care if we both die. “Three!” It’s too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare.

The frantic voice of Claudius Templesmith shouts above them. “Stop! Stop! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you—the tributes of District Twelve!”

I spew the berries from my mouth, wiping my tongue with the end of my shirt to make sure no juice remains. Peeta pulls me to the lake where we both flush our mouths with water and then collapse into each other’s arms.

“You didn’t swallow any?” I ask him.

He shakes his head. “You?”

“Guess I’d be dead by now if I did,” I say. I can see his lips moving in reply, but I can’t hear him over the roar of the crowd in the Capitol that they’re playing live over the speakers. The hovercraft materializes overhead and two ladders drop, only there’s no way I’m letting go of Peeta. I keep one arm around him as I help him up, and we each place a foot on the first rung of the ladder. The electric current freezes us in place, and this time I’m glad because I’m not really sure Peeta can hang on for the whole ride. And since my eyes were looking down, I can see that while our muscles are immobile, nothing is preventing the blood from draining out of Peeta’s leg. Sure enough, the minute the door closes behind us and the current stops, he slumps to the floor unconscious. My fingers are still gripping the back of his jacket so tightly that when they take him away it tears leaving me with a fistful of black fabric. Doctors in sterile white, masked and gloved, already prepped to operate, go into action. Peeta’s so pale and still on a silver table, tubes and wires springing out of him every which way, and for a moment I forget we’re out of the Games and I see the doctors as just one more threat, one more pack of mutts designed to kill him. Petrified, I lunge for him, but I’m caught and thrust back into another room, and a glass door seals between us. I pound on the glass, screaming my head off. Everyone ignores me except for some Capitol attendant who appears behind me and offers me a beverage. I slump down on the floor, my face against the door, staring uncomprehendingly at the crystal glass in my hand. Icy cold, filled with orange juice, a straw with a frilly white collar. How wrong it looks in my bloody, filthy hand with its dirt-caked nails and scars. My mouth waters at the smell, but I place it carefully on the floor, not trusting anything so clean and pretty. Through the glass, I see the doctors working feverishly on Peeta, their brows creased in concentration. I see the flow of liquids, pumping through the tubes, watch a wall of dials and lights that mean nothing to me. I’m not sure, but I think his heart stops twice.

It’s like being home again, when they bring in the hopelessly mangled person from the mine explosion, or the woman in her third day of labor, or the famished child struggling against pneumonia and my mother and Prim, they wear that same look on their faces. Now is the time to run away to the woods, to hide in the trees until the patient is long gone and in another part of the Seam the hammers make the coffin. But I’m held here both by the hovercraft walls and the same force that holds the loved ones of the dying. How often I’ve seen them, ringed around our kitchen table and I thought, Why don’t they leave? Why do they stay to watch?

And now I know. It’s because you have no choice. I startle when I catch someone staring at me from only a few inches away and then realize it’s my own face reflecting back in the glass. Wild eyes, hollow cheeks, my hair in a tangled mat. Rabid. Feral. Mad. No wonder everyone is keeping a safe distance from me.

The next thing I know we’ve landed back on the roof of the Training Center and they’re taking Peeta but leaving me behind the door. I start hurling myself against the glass, shrieking and I think I just catch a glimpse of pink hair—it must be Effie, it has to be Effie coming to my rescue—when the needle jabs me from behind.

When I wake, I’m afraid to move at first. The entire ceiling glows with a soft yellow light allowing me to see that I’m in a room containing just my bed. No doors, no windows are visible. The air smells of something sharp and antiseptic. My right arm has several tubes that extend into the wall behind me. I’m naked, but the bedclothes arc soothing against my skin. I tentatively lift my left hand above the cover. Not only has it been scrubbed clean, the nails are filed in perfect ovals, the scars from the burns are less prominent. I touch my cheek, my lips, the puckered scar above my eyebrow, and am just running my fingers through my silken hair when I freeze. Apprehensively I ruffle the hair by my left ear. No, it wasn’t an illusion. I can hear again.

I try and sit up, but some sort of wide restraining band around my waist keeps me from rising more than a few inches. The physical confinement makes me panic and I’m trying to pull myself up and wriggle my hips through the band when a portion of the wall slides open and in steps the redheaded Avox girl carrying a tray. The sight of her calms me and I stop trying to escape. I want to ask her a million questions, but I’m afraid any familiarity would cause her harm. Obviously I am being closely monitored. She sets the tray across my thighs and presses something that raises me to a sitting position. While she adjusts my pillows, I risk one question. I say it out loud, as clearly as my rusty voice will allow, so nothing will seem secretive. “Did Peeta make it?” She gives me a nod, and as she slips a spoon into my hand, I feel the pressure of friendship. I guess she did not wish me dead after all. And Peeta has made it. Of course, he did. With all their expensive equipment here. Still, I hadn’t been sure until now.

As the Avox leaves, the door closes noiselessly after her and I turn hungrily to the tray. A bowl of clear broth, a small serving of applesauce, and a glass of water. This is it? I think grouchily. Shouldn’t my homecoming dinner be a little more spectacular? But I find it’s an effort to finish the spare meal before me. My stomach seems to have shrunk to the size of a chestnut, and I have to wonder how long I’ve been out because I had no trouble eating a fairly sizable breakfast that last morning in the arena. There’s usually a lag of a few days between the end of the competition and the presentation of the victor so that they can put the starving, wounded, mess of a person back together again. Somewhere, Cinna and Portia will be creating our wardrobes for the public appearances. Haymitch and Effie will be arranging the banquet for our sponsors, reviewing the questions for our final interviews. Back home, District 12 is probably in chaos as they try and organize the homecoming celebrations for Peeta and me, given that the last one was close to thirty years ago.

Home! Prim and my mother! Gale! Even the thought of Prim’s scruffy old cat makes me smile. Soon I will be home!

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