25.

Real or not real? I am on fire. The balls of flame that erupted from the parachutes shot over the barricades, through the snowy air, and landed in the crowd. I was just turning away when one caught me, ran its tongue up the back of my body, and transformed me into something new. A creature as unquenchable as the sun.

A fire mutt knows only a single sensation: agony. No sight, no sound, no feeling except the unrelenting burning of flesh. Perhaps there are periods of unconsciousness, but what can it matter if I can’t find refuge in them? I am Cinna’s bird, ignited, flying frantically to escape something inescapable. The feathers of flame that grow from my body. Beating my wings only fans the blaze. I consume myself, but to no end.

Finally, my wings begin to falter, I lose height, and gravity pulls me into a foamy sea the color of Finnick’s eyes. I float on my back, which continues to burn beneath the water, but the agony quiets to pain. When I am adrift and unable to navigate, that’s when they come. The dead.

The ones I loved fly as birds in the open sky above me. Soaring, weaving, calling to me to join them. I want so badly to follow them, but the seawater saturates my wings, making it impossible to lift them. The ones I hated have taken to the water, horrible scaled things that tear my salty flesh with needle teeth. Biting again and again. Dragging me beneath the surface.

The small white bird tinged in pink dives down, buries her claws in my chest, and tries to keep me afloat. «No, Katniss! No! You can’t go!»

But the ones I hated are winning, and if she clings to me, she’ll be lost as well. «Prim, let go!» And finally she does.

Deep in the water, I’m deserted by all. There’s only the sound of my breathing, the enormous effort it takes to draw the water in, push it out of my lungs. I want to stop, I try to hold my breath, but the sea forces its way in and out against my will. «Let me die. Let me follow the others,» I beg whatever holds me here. There’s no response.

Trapped for days, years, centuries maybe. Dead, but not allowed to die. Alive, but as good as dead. So alone that anyone, anything no matter how loathsome would be welcome. But when I finally have a visitor, it’s sweet. Morphling. Coursing through my veins, easing the pain, lightening my body so that it rises back toward the air and rests again on the foam.

Foam. I really am floating on foam. I can feel it beneath the tips of my fingers, cradling parts of my naked body. There’s much pain but there’s also something like reality. The sandpaper of my throat. The smell of burn medicine from the first arena. The sound of my mother’s voice. These things frighten me, and I try to return to the deep to make sense of them. But there’s no going back. Gradually, I’m forced to accept who I am. A badly burned girl with no wings. With no fire. And no sister.

In the dazzling white Capitol hospital, the doctors work their magic on me. Draping my rawness in new sheets of skin. Coaxing the cells into thinking they are my own. Manipulating my body parts, bending and stretching the limbs to assure a good fit. I hear over and over again how lucky I am. My eyes were spared. Most of my face was spared. My lungs are responding to treatment. I will be as good as new.

When my tender skin has toughened enough to withstand the pressure of sheets, more visitors arrive. The morphling opens the door to the dead and alive alike. Haymitch, yellow and unsmiling. Cinna, stitching a new wedding dress. Delly, prattling on about the niceness of people. My father sings all four stanzas of «The Hanging Tree» and reminds me that my mother—who sleeps in a chair between shifts—isn’t to know about it.

One day I awake to expectations and know I will not be allowed to live in my dreamland. I must take food by mouth. Move my own muscles. Make my way to the bathroom. A brief appearance by President Coin clinches it.

«Don’t worry,» she says. «I’ve saved him for you.»

The doctors’ puzzlement grows over why I’m unable to speak. Many tests are done, and while there’s damage to my vocal cords, it doesn’t account for it. Finally, Dr. Aurelius, a head doctor, comes up with the theory that I’ve become a mental, rather than physical, Avox. That my silence has been brought on by emotional trauma. Although he’s presented with a hundred proposed remedies, he tells them to leave me alone. So I don’t ask about anyone or anything, but people bring me a steady stream of information. On the war: The Capitol fell the day the parachutes went off, President Coin leads Panem now, and troops have been sent out to put down the small remaining pockets of Capitol resistance. On President Snow: He’s being held prisoner, awaiting trial and most certain execution. On my assassination team: Cressida and Pollux have been sent out into the districts to cover the wreckage of the war. Gale, who took two bullets in an escape attempt, is mopping up Peacekeepers in 2. Peeta’s still in the burn unit. He made it to the City Circle after all. On my family: My mother buries her grief in her work.

Having no work, grief buries me. All that keeps me going is Coin’s promise. That I can kill Snow. And when that’s done, nothing will be left.

Eventually, I’m released from the hospital and given a room in the president’s mansion to share with my mother. She’s almost never there, taking her meals and sleeping at work. It falls to Haymitch to check on me, make sure I’m eating and using my medicines. It’s not an easy job. I take to my old habits from District 13. Wandering unauthorized through the mansion. Into bedrooms and offices, ballrooms and baths. Seeking strange little hiding spaces. A closet of furs. A cabinet in the library. A long-forgotten bathtub in a room of discarded furniture. My places are dim and quiet and impossible to find. I curl up, make myself smaller, try to disappear entirely. Wrapped in silence, I slide my bracelet that reads mentally disoriented around and around my wrist.

My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. There is no District 12. I am the Mockingjay. I brought down the Capitol. President Snow hates me. He killed my sister. Now I will kill him. And then the Hunger Games will be over….

Periodically, I find myself back in my room, unsure whether I was driven by a need for morphling or if Haymitch ferreted me out. I eat the food, take the medicine, and am required to bathe. It’s not the water I mind, but the mirror that reflects my naked fire-mutt body. The skin grafts still retain a newborn-baby pinkness. The skin deemed damaged but salvageable looks red, hot, and melted in places. Patches of my former self gleam white and pale. I’m like a bizarre patchwork quilt of skin. Parts of my hair were singed off completely; the rest has been chopped off at odd lengths. Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire. I wouldn’t much care except the sight of my body brings back the memory of the pain. And why I was in pain. And what happened just before the pain started. And how I watched my little sister become a human torch.

Closing my eyes doesn’t help. Fire burns brighter in the darkness.

Dr. Aurelius shows up sometimes. I like him because he doesn’t say stupid things like how I’m totally safe, or that he knows I can’t see it but I’ll be happy again one day, or even that things will be better in Panem now. He just asks if I feel like talking, and when I don’t answer, he falls asleep in his chair. In fact, I think his visits are largely motivated by his need for a nap. The arrangement works for both of us.

The time draws near, although I could not give you exact hours and minutes. President Snow has been tried and found guilty, sentenced to execution. Haymitch tells me, I hear talk of it as I drift past the guards in the hallways. My Mockingjay suit arrives in my room. Also my bow, looking no worse for wear, but no sheath of arrows. Either because they were damaged or more likely because I shouldn’t have weapons. I vaguely wonder if I should be preparing for the event in some way, but nothing comes to mind.

Late one afternoon, after a long period in a cushioned window seat behind a painted screen, I emerge and turn left instead of right. I find myself in a strange part of the mansion, and immediately lose my bearings. Unlike the area where I’m quartered, there seems to be no one around to ask. I like it, though. Wish I’d found it sooner. It’s so quiet, with the thick carpets and heavy tapestries soaking up the sound. Softly lit. Muted colors. Peaceful. Until I smell the roses. I dive behind some curtains, shaking too hard to run, while I await the mutts. Finally, I realize there are no mutts coming. So, what do I smell? Real roses? Could it be that I am near the garden where the evil things grow?

As I creep down the hall, the odor becomes overpowering. Perhaps not as strong as the actual mutts, but purer, because it’s not competing with sewage and explosives. I turn a corner and find myself staring at two surprised guards. Not Peacekeepers, of course. There are no more Peacekeepers. But not the trim, gray-uniformed soldiers from 13 either. These two, a man and a woman, wear the tattered, thrown-together clothes of actual rebels. Still bandaged and gaunt, they are now keeping watch over the doorway to the roses. When I move to enter, their guns form an X in front of me.

«You can’t go in, miss,» says the man.

«Soldier,» the woman corrects him. «You can’t go in, Soldier Everdeen. President’s orders.»

I just stand there patiently waiting for them to lower their guns, for them to understand, without my telling them, that behind those doors is something I need. Just a rose. A single bloom. To place in Snow’s lapel before I shoot him. My presence seems to worry the guards. They’re discussing calling Haymitch, when a woman speaks up behind me. «Let her go in.»

I know the voice but can’t immediately place it. Not Seam, not 13, definitely not Capitol. I turn my head and find myself face-to-face with Paylor, the commander from 8. She looks even more beat up than she did at the hospital, but who doesn’t?

«On my authority,» says Paylor. «She has a right to anything behind that door.» These are her soldiers, not Coin’s. They drop their weapons without question and let me pass.

At the end of a short hallway, I push apart the glass doors and step inside. By now the smell’s so strong that it begins to flatten out, as if there’s no more my nose can absorb. The damp, mild air feels good on my hot skin. And the roses are glorious. Row after row of sumptuous blooms, in lush pink, sunset orange, and even pale blue. I wander through the aisles of carefully pruned plants, looking but not touching, because I have learned the hard way how deadly these beauties can be. I know when I find it, crowning the top of a slender bush. A magnificent white bud just beginning to open. I pull my left sleeve over my hand so that my skin won’t actually have to touch it, take up a pair of pruning shears, and have just positioned them on the stem when he speaks.

«That’s a nice one.»

My hand jerks, the shears snap shut, severing the stem.

«The colors are lovely, of course, but nothing says perfection like white.»

I still can’t see him, but his voice seems to rise up from an adjacent bed of red roses. Delicately pinching the stem of the bud through the fabric of my sleeve, I move slowly around the corner and find him sitting on a stool against the wall. He’s as well groomed and finely dressed as ever, but weighted down with manacles, ankle shackles, tracking devices. In the bright light, his skin’s a pale, sickly green. He holds a white handkerchief spotted with fresh blood. Even in his deteriorated state, his snake eyes shine bright and cold. «I was hoping you’d find your way to my quarters.»

His quarters. I have trespassed into his home, the way he slithered into mine last year, hissing threats with his bloody, rosy breath. This greenhouse is one of his rooms, perhaps his favorite; perhaps in better times he tended the plants himself. But now it’s part of his prison. That’s why the guards halted me. And that’s why Paylor let me in.

I’d supposed he would be secured in the deepest dungeon that the Capitol had to offer, not cradled in the lap of luxury. Yet Coin left him here. To set a precedent, I guess. So that if in the future she ever fell from grace, it would be understood that presidents—even the most despicable—get special treatment. Who knows, after all, when her own power might fade?

«There are so many things we should discuss, but I have a feeling your visit will be brief. So, first things first.» He begins to cough, and when he removes the handkerchief from his mouth, it’s redder. «I wanted to tell you how very sorry I am about your sister.»

Even in my deadened, drugged condition, this sends a stab of pain through me. Reminding me that there are no limits to his cruelty. And how he will go to his grave trying to destroy me.

«So wasteful, so unnecessary. Anyone could see the game was over by that point. In fact, I was just about to issue an official surrender when they released those parachutes.» His eyes are glued on me, unblinking, so as not to miss a second of my reaction. But what he’s said makes no sense. Whenthey released the parachutes? «Well, you really didn’t think I gave the order, did you? Forget the obvious fact that if I’d had a working hovercraft at my disposal, I’d have been using it to make an escape. But that aside, what purpose could it have served? We both know I’m not above killing children, but I’m not wasteful. I take life for very specific reasons. And there was no reason for me to destroy a pen full of Capitol children. None at all.»

I wonder if the next fit of coughing is staged so that I can have time to absorb his words. He’s lying. Of course, he’s lying. But there’s something struggling to free itself from the lie as well.

«However, I must concede it was a masterful move on Coin’s part. The idea that I was bombing our own helpless children instantly snapped whatever frail allegiance my people still felt to me. There was no real resistance after that. Did you know it aired live? You can see Plutarch’s hand there. And in the parachutes. Well, it’s that sort of thinking that you look for in a Head Gamemaker, isn’t it?» Snow dabs the corners of his mouth. «I’m sure he wasn’t gunning for your sister, but these things happen.»

I’m not with Snow now. I’m in Special Weaponry back in 13 with Gale and Beetee. Looking at the designs based on Gale’s traps. That played on human sympathies. The first bomb killed the victims. The second, the rescuers. Remembering Gale’s words.

«Beetee and I have been following the same rule book President Snow used when he hijacked Peeta.»

«My failure,» says Snow, «was being so slow to grasp Coin’s plan. To let the Capitol and districts destroy one another, and then step in to take power with Thirteen barely scratched. Make no mistake, she was intending to take my place right from the beginning. I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it was Thirteen that started the rebellion that led to the Dark Days, and then abandoned the rest of the districts when the tide turned against it. But I wasn’t watching Coin. I was watching you, Mockingjay. And you were watching me. I’m afraid we have both been played for fools.»

I refuse for this to be true. Some things even I can’t survive. I utter my first words since my sister’s death. «I don’t believe you.»

Snow shakes his head in mock disappointment. «Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen. I thought we had agreed not to lie to each other.»

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