26.

Out in the hall, I find Paylor standing in exactly the same spot. «Did you find what you were looking for?» she asks.

I hold up the white bud in answer and then stumble past her. I must have made it back to my room, because the next thing I know, I’m filling a glass with water from the bathroom faucet and sticking the rose in it. I sink to my knees on the cold tile and squint at the flower, as the whiteness seems hard to focus on in the stark fluorescent light. My finger catches the inside of my bracelet, twisting it like a tourniquet, hurting my wrist. I’m hoping the pain will help me hang on to reality the way it did for Peeta. I must hang on. I must know the truth about what has happened.

There are two possibilities, although the details associated with them may vary. First, as I’ve believed, that the Capitol sent in that hovercraft, dropped the parachutes, and sacrificed its children’s lives, knowing the recently arrived rebels would go to their aid. There’s evidence to support this. The Capitol’s seal on the hovercraft, the lack of any attempt to blow the enemy out of the sky, and their long history of using children as pawns in their battle against the districts. Then there’s Snow’s account. That a Capitol hovercraft manned by rebels bombed the children to bring a speedy end to the war. But if this was the case, why didn’t the Capitol fire on the enemy? Did the element of surprise throw them? Had they no defenses left? Children are precious to 13, or so it has always seemed. Well, not me, maybe. Once I had outlived my usefulness, I was expendable. Although I think it’s been a long time since I’ve been considered a child in this war. And why would they do it knowing their own medics would likely respond and be taken out by the second blast? They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Snow’s lying. Manipulating me as he always has. Hoping to turn me against the rebels and possibly destroy them. Yes. Of course.

Then what’s nagging at me? Those double-exploding bombs, for one. It’s not that the Capitol couldn’t have the same weapon, it’s just that I’m sure the rebels did. Gale and Beetee’s brainchild. Then there’s the fact that Snow made no escape attempt, when I know him to be the consummate survivor. It seems hard to believe he didn’t have a retreat somewhere, some bunker stocked with provisions where he could live out the rest of his snaky little life. And finally, there’s his assessment of Coin. What’s irrefutable is that she’s done exactly what he said. Let the Capitol and the districts run one another into the ground and then sauntered in to take power. Even if that was her plan, it doesn’t mean she dropped those parachutes. Victory was already in her grasp. Everything was in her grasp.

Except me.

I recall Boggs’s response when I admitted I hadn’t put much thought into Snow’s successor. «If your immediate answer isn’t Coin, then you’re a threat. You’re the face of the rebellion. You may have more influence than any other single person. Outwardly, the most you’ve ever done is tolerated her.»

Suddenly, I’m thinking of Prim, who was not yet fourteen, not yet old enough to be granted the title of soldier, but somehow working on the front lines. How did such a thing happen? That my sister would have wanted to be there, I have no doubt. That she would be more capable than many older than she is a given. But for all that, someone very high up would have had to approve putting a thirteen-year-old in combat. Did Coin do it, hoping that losing Prim would push me completely over the edge? Or, at least, firmly on her side? I wouldn’t even have had to witness it in person. Numerous cameras would be covering the City Circle. Capturing the moment forever.

No, now I am going crazy, slipping into some state of paranoia. Too many people would know of the mission. Word would get out. Or would it? Who would have to know besides Coin, Plutarch, and a small, loyal or easily disposable crew?

I badly need help working this out, only everyone I trust is dead. Cinna. Boggs. Finnick. Prim. There’s Peeta, but he couldn’t do any more than speculate, and who knows what state his mind’s in, anyway. And that leaves only Gale. He’s far away, but even if he were beside me, could I confide in him? What could I say, how could I phrase it, without implying that it was his bomb that killed Prim? The impossibility of that idea, more than any, is why Snow must be lying.

Ultimately, there’s only one person to turn to who might know what happened and might still be on my side. To broach the subject at all will be a risk. But while I think Haymitch might gamble with my life in the arena, I don’t think he’d rat me out to Coin. Whatever problems we may have with each other, we prefer resolving our differences one-on-one.

I scramble off the tiles, out the door, and across the hall to his room. When there’s no response to my knock, I push inside. Ugh. It’s amazing how quickly he can defile a space. Half-eaten plates of food, shattered liquor bottles, and pieces of broken furniture from a drunken rampage scatter his quarters. He lies, unkempt and unwashed, in a tangle of sheets on the bed, passed out.

«Haymitch,» I say, shaking his leg. Of course, that’s insufficient. But I give it a few more tries before I dump the pitcher of water in his face. He comes to with a gasp, slashing blindly with his knife. Apparently, the end of Snow’s reign didn’t equal the end of his terror.

«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.

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