You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Still I Rise - Maya Angelou
It's one o'clock on Reaping Day, and because I'm not at death's door, I'm with the rest of District 12 as we head for the square. No one likes that the reaping is drawn in the square. It's the nicest place District 12 has.
The Capitol try to - pun aside - capitalize on the sometime-holiday feel of the place, sending bright banners for the District to string up around the shops, and the place should be cheerful, but it's not. We all know what's about to happen, and there has never been a reaping that has given any sort of cause for cheer.
Around the banners are dotted the camera crew, each camera lenses glinting like a predator's gaze, bright and unflinching. Looking down at us all. I already know what we look like to them, because they show these shots when they televise the Reapings. Sometimes, out in the woods, I pull up rocks, looking for insects to populate our snares, and sometimes beneath the rocks there's a crowd of ants, huddling together. It could be so easy to stomp on them with one foot, massacring them.
I know this is what District 12 looks like to the Capitol.
Everyone's silent. Once a year at school there's a festival, halfway between the Hunger Games. It was probably started a few decades ago to coincide with some Victor's Tour or other. Maybe even way back in the early single digit Hunger Games when District 12 scored its first winner. It's not a huge festival and there's not the fanciest feast in the world, but everyone brings what they can and we - the school children, the pool of potential tributes - dance for them. Old time dances.
My mother calls them country dances and our teacher calls them square dances and I'm good enough at the rhythm and co-ordination - but for the last couple of years I've been in the chorus, plugged away singing some monotone, Capitol-approved melody. I inherited more than just survival and hunting skills from my father, but I don't like to sing too loud. It doesn't do to stand out in District 12, especially when your survival requires on hugging the shadows and breaking more than enough laws.
I've never liked the festival, but I don't say anything to anyone - except to Gale. He hates it too. Anything that was created for the Capitol's amusement loses any kind of joy it might have to us.
Filing to the square for the reaping is just like the dances for the festival. Everyone knows the steps. Everyone files in and does what they're supposed to without chatter or conversation.
The festival doesn't feel as quiet or as stifling as the reaping does.
Just like the dancing, we're sorted by age for the reaping. I follow the other sixteen year olds into our roped-off area. Behind me, Prim will be in her section near the back. It's especially bad when a twelve-year old is drawn. Their walk of despair is the longest. The family members lined up around the perimeter have a longer time to stare in horror at the awful reminder of what the Capitol takes from them, year after year. Our mother is in there somewhere. Alone.
Everyone feels sick.
Everyone is silent.
Everyone's thinking the same thing: Not them, not me, not me.
No one's thinking what they should be thinking, me included, even though every other day of the year the thought is clear: the Capitol is to blame for this.
It's not easy to ignore the racketeerers as they slip around the crowd, especially when I hear my name on a random wisp of wind. The racketeers will silence soon.
They do silence as Mayor Undersee, standing on the temporary stage in front of the Justice Building, begins his usual spiel on the rules and history of the Hunger Games. I tune out and think, of the twenty slips of paper with my name, of Gale and his forty-two slips of paper. I wonder who it is has the unenviable job of writing all the names down on the slips of paper in the small, careful handwriting. I wonder if their hand wavered over any of the names. I wonder if they cried.
I don't wonder about Prim's name on one small, neat slip of paper.
I'm distracted as the mayor intones that it is time for repentence and thanks, and lists the District 12 Victors of the past. The first is dead. The second staggers into his seat, hollering something unintelligible. Haymitch Abernathy. Paunchy, middle-aged and completely drunk as he tries to give District 12 presenter - Effie Trinket - a hug.
I clap along with the rest of District 12, even though Mayor Undersee looks distressed at how bad District 12 now looks to the rest of Panem. District 12 usually ends up as the laughingstock of the Games - last year, the two tributes were paraded around naked but for coal dust before the Games. Weak and underfed, District 12 tributes rarely stood a chance.
And when they did get a chance, they ended up just like Haymitch: broken, incoherent, a District-wide embarrassment.
"Happy Hunger Games!" Effie Trinket tries to trill, in her pink and green ridiculous clothes. "And may the odds be ever in your favor!" I resist the urge to mouth along with the words, the words I was mocking with Gale only a few hours ago. My stomach pinches. Between us, Gale and I have 62 slips of papers in the giant glass balls. It's difficult to find anything to laugh at; even Effie's slightly askew pink wig from Haymitch's lecherous drunk advances can only raise the smallest hint of a smirk on my face.
I look across to find Gale, to see how he's reacting to this day. He's as amused as I am; roughly translated as, not very amused at all. But one has to try and find the humour somewhere in situations like this, or... Well, it's been several years since someone fainted during the reaping, and I still can't erase the memory of the blood from my mind.
The Peacekeepers are not kind to anyone who causes a scene.
Effie is going on about the honour of drawing for District 12, and what an excellent history we have, but maybe Gale's thinking of the number of slips we both have too, because he can't hold my gaze for long.
"But there are still thousands of slips," I repeat to herself, silently, mouth not even moving, wishing Gale could hear my invisible words, and then it's time for the drawing.
"Ladies first!" Effie trills, and canters across the temporary stage to the glass ball with the girls' names in. The stage creaks. Everything sounds ominous on reaping day, but I don't step back automatically. On reaping day, it doesn't feel wrong to want to die quickly before someone else can decide what your fate is.
Then I'm not thinking about death or the fact that crowd has gone so unnaturally still and silent that it feels like you could drop the whole District and everything would shatter into pieces or anything about Gale's forty-two strips of paper at all.
I'm only thinking of my own twenty strips. I'm only thinking not me, not me, not me as fast and as hard as I can, as Effie takes the paper back to the podium. Effie straightens the paper and reads out the name in a clear voice.
There's a horrifyingly sick moment where I feel relief, bubbling, acidic relief when the first sound out of Effie's ridiculously plumped, pink mouth isn't K - it isn't me! my brain is singing - until I realise that the rest of the syllables spell out something worse than Katniss Everdeen.
Prim Rose Ev Er Deen.
It takes a horrifyingly long moment for the syllables to make sense in my brain, for them to pull together into something cohesive, and Prim - shaking, brave, despairing Prim - is already halfway up her Path of Doom before my brain kicks in and spells out the horrifying truth:
The only thing that makes my life worth living, that gives my life any sort of meaning at all, and the Capitol are trying to feed her to some senseless meat machine. A thousand memories of the televised Hunger Games crash through my brain like some awful montage: blood, decapitation, betrayal, explosions, pain.
It's too much.
Prim's face is ghost white. Her little body is tight and stiff. The crowd must be murmuring their disapproval but I can barely hear anything past the horrifying thudding of my heart. It is only the sight of Prim's blouse working free, making a ducktail, that makes my lungs work again.
"Prim!" My voice sounds like a strangled death cry. "Prim!" I move forwards, pushing my elbows up, anticipating a fight through the crowd, but they part effortlessly, like this is one of those rehearsed movements - but it's just en masse guilt, sympathy, relief that it's not them.
With no obstacles in my path, I reach Prim before she even gets to the steps. I sweep out with one arm, pushing Prim firmly behind me. "I volunteer!" I yell, the words forming before I can even recognize the desperate emotion coursing through me, the voice that's screaming through my blood that only says not Prim not Prim NOT PRIM NOT PRIM.
I haul in a deeper, more desperate breath, even as two Peacekeepers move in to try and hold me back. "I volunteer as tribute!"
There is instant chaos on stage. The two Peacekeepers keep me restrained. I keep my face upturned towards the stage, desperate.
"Oh," says Effie Trinket, because this is all-but unprecedented for District 12, because volunteering and suicide are great friends in any District 12 thesaurus. "Oh, um. No, this is quite against protocol, I'm afraid. I must introduce the reaping winner before asking for any volunteers to come forth. Interrupting the protocol, well- Oh, District 4 was the last one this happened to. I'm afraid because you have interrupted, you are no longer eligible to volunteer."
"Now, come on," the mayor starts to say, "what does it matter?"
Prim stumbles forward again, and turns to look at me, horror on her small face.
My heart tumbles hard in my chest. Everything inside of me starts to crumble, and I start to scream, pushing and fighting. It's unclear whose hysterical screams are louder - Prim or mine.
Effie makes some sort of gesture to the Peacekeepers, and the last thing I see is Prim's wide, screaming mouth.
When I wake up, there's some sort of wet cloth on my head. My head's pounding, but I try to sit up regardless. It only takes a few seconds for my memories to make sense again.
Sense. I want to laugh, that crazy outlandish laughter that tastes like acid and colours the sky to dust. I don't think anything's going to make sense ever again.
"Prim!" My brain might be numb but my body hasn't tired of shouting Prim's name. It rips out of me like a gunshot, and thinking that word burns, because a gunshot, a gunshot is merciful compared to the arena. A terrible kind of mercy that's denied my Prim. I shout again, but my skull feels like it's splitting apart; I push my palms into the sides of my head, as if pushing might make the world come back to pain-free focus again. Prim, Prim. Maybe the world will never be pain-free again.
I can feel my heart pounding through my hands.
It takes me a while to realise where I am. The sleek furniture, the smell of roses. It's exactly how Madge smells. My stomach twists in hope. The mayor's house is usually wear the hold the tributes until their family can come to say goodbye. Maybe when I was unconscious, they the Mayor spoke up for me and let me replace Prim.
The door opens and I lift my head out of my hands immediately. It's Mayor Undersee and his face already tells me all I need to know.
He doesn't even try and fight me off when I hurl myself at him. I scratch his face in the chaos but I am unco-ordinated and all energy has left my body. Prim, my Prim. No.
"I'm sorry, Katniss. I'm so sorry," he mutters into my hair as I sink against him. My eyes are cold now. I will not weep. Not until Prim is gone. I will be strong for her, when I get to see her. I will show her how she has to present herself to the sponsors. She's a weak candidate in the eyes of any sponsors as it is; tears and fear will only make it worse.
I back away from the mayor, my eyes like fire. I might even have done him more violence if Madge hadn't taken this moment to step into the room.
She doesn't try and touch me. She doesn't say any hollow words of comfort. It is only now, in this moment, that I realise maybe Madge and I have been friends all along without really knowing. I feel comfort from her silence, and that makes me angrier.
I don't deserve comfort when I have let Prim down.
Madge just looks at me, hands twisted in the edge of her expensive, pretty dress, before she crosses over to their television and turns it on.
On screen, they're televising the Reapings, the rougher cut before the formal one later. I can't help but start mentally cataloguing them. Seeing which one might be the one to steal the light from Prim's eyes. I start mentally listing their possible faults. I memorise their faces, so if one of them emerges the victor, I know who to go after if I can't get Prim out.
Then District 12 comes on, and I can hardly breathe. They don't even screen out the part where I come fleeing forwards. The Katniss onscreen looks small and defenceless as she screams Prim's name. Her voice is weak, thin. My voice isn't like that. My voice can't sound so weak and pathetic. On the screen, a Peacekeeper uses his truncheon to knock me out. As I fall, so does all hope on Prim's face.
District 12 is silent. As I lie unconscious on the floor, the District makes no sound. It is the boldest form of dissent they could manage: silence.
It says we do not agree, we do not condone. All of this is wrong.
It's not enough.
Despite a unified belief, no one does anything. I search the screen until I can see Gale's dark head in the crowd. Staying still. Not even looking down at my prone body. His head is turned towards the remaining glass bowl of names.
Prim is trembling as she climbs onto the stage, her ducktail flapping in the wind. She breaks down in tears when she tells Effie Trinket that it was her sister who tried to volunteer. Effie goes through the volunteer protocol and when Effie formally asks for volunteers - where there should have been my voice cutting through the air like a knife - there is nothing but wind.
My stomach curls in revulsion. I want to vomit, but it has been too long since my shared meal with Gale in the woods. The idea that I have shared so much with Gale gives me an odd burn of hope. Could Gale have volunteered to save my Prim? Did he... could he do for me what I would have done for him, if I could?
Prim onscreen starts to cry, and it's embarrassingly loud, and the mayor's face is clearly saying we're going to be punished for this when the remaining District 12 victor, Haymitch Abernathy, causes a scene. He goes up to Prim, pinches her cheek, tells everyone loudly that maybe Prim's farts are deadly. He then promptly rants about whether Prim's ever been flatulent in her life, and I forget for a moment all about the pain in my head and Prim - is this a dig against Prim? Or is it a brave rant against the Capitol? Our diets in District 12 aren't enough to control anything of our bowel movements; I do my best, but sometimes when eating whatever you can find is the only other option to dying, eating a balanced meal isn't exactly on my mind.
Either way, Haymitch punctuates his moment of possible-rebellion in a drunken tumble off the stage. Effie draws from the boys' bowl as Haymitch is carted off on a stretcher.
I have a stunned, horrible moment of time to think Gale? before Effie reads out: "Peeta Mellark!"
Peeta Mellark. No. My stomach makes another attempt to throw out the deeply-seated food. The odds are not in my favour. Once upon a time, Peeta Mellark saved my life. His blue, blue eyes show alarm, like when a rabbit sees my arrow trained right at its heart.
Of course, rabbits don't often see me. I'm very experienced at staying in the shadows.
Peeta's trying his best not to show his emotions. His stoicism is brave. I have the most absurd thought for a second that he's trying to make up for the Everdeen over-showing of emotion.
Effie introduces him and formally asks for a volunteer, and there is nothing but wind. My heart clenches, this is too much, this is too much, and it's then that I do realise the truth: I am expecting Gale to volunteer. It's a huge thing to expect, but I am expecting Gale to stand up and try and save the one thing in life I live for.
He's nearly eighteen. He's strong. He knows how to snare, how to hunt. He stands a chance better than anyone in District 12, better than me, better than a baker's boy with a brilliant heart-
There is nothing but wind.
I search out Peeta's two older brothers in the crowd automatically, but they don't even shuffle guiltily. Family devotion didn't mean much on reaping day - and apparently not even to me , if I couldn't even wait for the proper volunteering protocol to make sure my sister was safe.
The mayor then starts to read the long, dull Treaty of Treason but I don't listen, I know the words already. I'm too busy watching Peeta and Prim. Peeta moves over, and in a completely unprecedented move, he takes Prim's hand.
Prim clenches back. I stare, dumbfounded. Peeta and I are not friends, even though once he saved all our lives - Prim, our mother and me - when he was five. He exchanged a whipping to ensure I got two burned loaves of bread, two loaves of bread that kept us alive long enough to survive.
It was then that I learned I wanted to survive.
It was from then that I really knew the full horror of the Hunger Games. Our chance of survival in District 12 is small, but nothing compared to the odds of the arena.
Madge flicks the switch off as they start doing a recap of last year's games. I stare at her, hollow-eyed, and she just moves over to me. She doesn't touch me or try to comfort me with useless words. She's just there.
I wonder how she knows this is just the kind of comfort I need, the only kind I can contemplate tolerating.
"We're keeping the tributes at the other end of the house," Mayor Undersee says, his voice trembling, especially over tributes. My hands shake, because he knows their names, he does. Not a soul in District 12 hasn't pushed their nose up at the Mellark Bakery, staring at the intricate frosting on their epic, unaffordable cakes. And I know from the guilty twitch on the Mayor's face that he recognises me too. The girl who stands on his back step, surreptitiously selling him strawberries that could only be found illegally.
The girl whose face is a symbol: this is what Prim would look like if she grew up.
This is what Prim will never survive to look like.
The Mayor looks away, and it's then that I realise I'm staring, but it's hard to tear my gaze away. I will not yell at him. One thing I remember before the Peacekeepers clubbed me into unconsciousness is him, trying to stand up for me. Trying to let me volunteer to save my sister.
There are a hundred, thousand things that I want to say, but only one that I need to. "Can I see her?"
The Mayor nods, and turns away.
Madge silently leads me through her large house. I catch a glimpse at her face. She looks a little embarrassed. Embarrassed at the house? Embarrassment that she wasn't reaped and Prim was? Embarrassed about me?
None of it feels like it matters as we come to the end of the corridor. There are two Peacekeepers standing guard. I know one of them. He keeps his face carefully averted from me.
It's hard to look anyone in the eye on Reaping Day.
"Your mother's already seen her and left," Madge mumbles. "Peeta Mellark is in the room over the way." She turns and flees, leaving me standing in front of two different doors.
Two doors I don't know how I'll survive going in.
One door is easier than the other. Darius, the Peacekeeper I know, nods. Like he understands. Fool. He can never understand. "Five minutes," his colleague says, like he's almost convinced himself the "and then you'll never see them alive again" shouldn't be tagged onto the end.
Peeta is alone when I push open the door. He starts when the door opens, and then he slinks back into the chair he's been slumped in.
"You shouldn't slump when you're on screen," I say, because I wouldn't appreciate hello should our positions be reversed. "It'll make you look weak. No one will sponsor you."
Peeta looks at me sharply. "You're giving me tips on how to win, sweetheart?"
The sourness in his tone is fully understandable. "You saved our lives once. Prim and myself," I say, forcing myself past the embarrassed stutter that wants to come first. It's not easy remembering that day, soon after father's death, where I nearly failed at providing for my family. Peeta was beaten for deliberately burning a loaf of bread, which he threw to me where I was busy trying to die in the street.
I've always owed him for this. "So I was a good person once upon a time," Peeta says, and he looks away again, out of the window. "I won't be. In the arena, I'll be a killer. Everyone turns into a killer in there."
"It's not murder in the arena. It's survival." That's something I do know for sure. There isn't a single person in Panem that can fight the Capitol on their own. So you have to follow the rules or die. It's not a difficult choice to make, until you're staring death in the face. The rules I break are so I never have to do that again. "I'm not very good at this," I say. "Saying goodbye."
"I might win," Peeta says, with this funny sort of laugh which falls dead. Because we both know, he's not got a chance in hell. There's only been two District 12 winners since the birth of the games. "And if I did, your sister's blood would be on my hands. So whatever the outcome... This is goodbye for us."
My fingers clench at the words sister's blood. I am trembling. I am fury. I stare at him, letting him see how much I hate him for saying that.
"What if I promised to look after Prim?" Peeta gets up from his seat, and looks at me. No one's ever looked at me with such a serious expression. I don't know how to react. I'm not threatened by him. I'm good with my hands. I'm strong and I'm quick. I could kill Peeta Mellark here in this room, before he even gets to the arena.
I'd be dead before evening. The Capitol required two tributes, a boy and a girl, from every district. Even if the Peacekeepers didn't beat me to death, the family of whichever boy would be drawn to replace Peeta would see to it that I would not see tomorrow.
Still... killing Peeta would be a kindness.
"Why would you do that?" I ask Peeta, partly because I am curious, partly because I am already imagining my hands around his neck. Taking him out before he could do a thing to Prim. Peeta's statement is ludicrous. There's a term for it in the Games—Peeta's hypothesising about being a Champion to Prim. Districts 1 through 4 sometimes have one tribute Championing another—it's to do with honour, and money. If one tribute from a District sacrifices their life to a tribute from their same District—and that survivor goes on to win the games—that tribute is honour-bound to share their money with the dead tribute's family.
There is no reason for Peeta to champion Prim.
"You're my first visitor," Peeta tells me. "Hell, you might be my only visitor. Your mother's already visited Prim. No one has come to see me. I don't have anything to come back to District 12 to. Nothing that would accept me after what will happen in the Arena, anyway."
He's not really making sense. "I'm sure your father will come," I say, awkwardly.
Peeta stretches his mouth into a smile, but there's no humour in it. I would have hated him if it did. There is no space for humour on Reaping day. "I'll Champion Prim," Peeta says. "You have my word. And in return..."
He looks at me with that same curious expression. I can't think of a single thing I have that he could want.
"What?" I ask, and my voice feels raw, and small.
"A kiss," Peeta says. "Kiss me. That's all the payment I want."
I choke out a laugh that burns my throat like acid. "Right. One kiss and you'll throw yourself in the way of a knife for a 12 year old you don't even know."
"I know Prim." Peeta steps closer. I can't look at his face. I can see the curve of his arms now under his bland shirt. He looks strong. I've seen him wrestle. He could kill Prim in a second. "Mother buys milk from her goat sometimes."
"I don't believe you," I say. My voice is a whisper.
Peeta tilts his head. "That I know Prim?"
"That you'd do that," I say.
"I'm about to die," Peeta says. He sounds so reasonable. "What boy would like to die without ever having been kissed?"
I think about it. I swallow. "Fine," I say.
He looks surprised, and he tenses for a second. When he lets that tension go, he looks afraid. He saved my life. I owe him this. That thought makes me step forward.
"So," he says, probably about to say something awkward about the logistics of this, and I don't want to think about it. I always thought my first kiss would be with Gale, but Gale's never made a move towards me. I think about him staying still when they called for volunteers for Peeta, not even twitching, which might have shown me the thought had crossed his mind to volunteer, to try and save Prim. It's a ridiculous ask. I couldn't actually ask anyone but myself to volunteer. But still, the resentment is there, seething, permanent, and I don't think I will ever feel the same way about Gale ever again.
I don't want to think, so I impulsively lean forwards and kiss Peeta, stopping his words. It's the first time I've ever kissed a boy, which should make some sort of impression I guess, but all I can register is how unnaturally dry his lips are from his panic about going into the arena.
He smiles awkwardly, and steps back like walking is difficult. "Thank you," he says, awkwardly. "I guess we're even now."
"No," I say, surprising myself. Peeta's blond eyebrows knit together in confusion. I don't even know what I'm going to say or do. We're not even. That kiss, if it can be called a payment, may only even equal out him taking the beating to give me that burned bread all so long ago. Before I even know what I'm doing, I'm moving. And he moves too.
This is not my first kiss, but it feels more like what the girls giggling at school think a first kiss should be like. I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. I'm just thinking that maybe, just maybe I want another when the door startles open.
"Time's up," says the Peacekeeper.
Peeta looks panicked, terrified. Without thinking, I steal that second kiss, and let go of him, stumbling out of the room while the Peacekeeper smirks at me. I turn just in time for the Peacekeeper to tug the door shut behind us, and I catch one last look at Peeta.
He looks completely stunned. My stomach rolls, and I know I'll watch his interview with Caesar Flickerman. I really don't want that stunned image to be the last of Peeta Mellark I have in my mind.
He looks too much like my prey when they catch sight of my arrow pointed at them.
I look up at the Peacekeeper defiantly. "I'd like to see my sister now."
"I bet you would," the Peacekeeper says, in a tone I don't like. I stare him down, and he jerks his head towards the door. "Five minutes."
Part of me wants to suspend this moment forever, so I can live in the denial the space provides. But the other part of me wants to get this done fast. I'll never be able to let Prim know the magnitude of how much I love her. I meant to spend our whole lives showing her. It would take that long.
Instead, I am strong for her this one last time where she cannot be.
She cries and flings her small body into mine, and I start telling her what to do. No crying on camera. In the training time, stick to learning how to survive. Especially identifying edible food that she can forage for. Tributes have won the game just by surviving. Don't be afraid to climb a tree and throw things down if she's found.
Prim quivers beneath me as I keep telling her what to do. I pet her hair, and feel how small her neck is beneath my hands. My hands are strong from a childhood full of skinning small animals. It would be so easy to push, to snap her neck myself. To save her from all this pain.
My voice trembles a little as I push through the best advice I have. Don't show her strength during training. She's excellent at hiding in small spaces. Don't show anyone she has that talent until she sees the people who judge her score. Smile and dimple for the audience. Sponsors love cute blonde girls. If a Career wants to make her their favourite, do what they say until she has a chance to run for it. Then run. If cornered, be as cute as possible. It'll put them off guard. Throw dirt or sand in their eyes.
Don't trust anyone. Peeta might have promised to look after her, but he's just as likely as anyone else to kill her in the heat of the moment. No one wants to die-
My voice breaks, and I push my face into her neck. I am too cowardly to kill her. To deprive the Capitol of their tribute. Even if the Capitol just killed me and spared mother, the family of whichever girl was Reaped in Prim's place would finish off the job of eradicating all trace of Everdeen from this world.
Eventually I trail off. I have so many things left to say to her, but no words left for them. Two minutes. Two minutes, and the next time I see her, she'll be on a television screen and she'll be part of what we outlying Districts call the walking dead.
The two minutes fall away like the fear does on Reaping day when our name isn't called—rapidly, but with a bitter aftertaste.
It's not fair to Prim, but the words rip out of my throat, like acid, "Win for me. Prim, Prim, come back. You can do it. I love you."
"I love you too," is all she manages to say, before the Peacekeepers come in.
"You're not taking her," I tell them, tilting my head.
"Don't be stupid," the Peacekeeper I know tells me. I think his name is Darius. I don't care what his name is. I'll rip his face off with my fingers if it will keep Prim safe. My fists clench automatically. There is violence in my soul, and none—absolutely none—in Prim's.
"Stupid? You're talking about stupid in the face of this stupid contest-"
"Katniss!" Prim howls, in the microsecond before the Peacekeepers baton finds my cheek. My vision explodes and my hand grazes the carpet as I try and steady myself, but I'm not quick or strong or powerful enough to avoid the blows that follow.
The world is a whitewash of pain and Prim screaming, and maybe I'm screaming too. I don't know anything that I am being dragged away from my Prim, and the people dragging me away are happy to just let her be sent to her death.
As I'm dragged out of the room, Peeta's door flings open. He shouts my name but is pushed back inside violently by a third Peacekeeper who's heard the commotion.
Darius bodily slams me into some of the wood panelling. Everything hurts but I don't care. "Listen. Listen. You are no good to your mother like this. Think of the family you have left. If you stay, if you try and fight us, we will kill you. And they'll probably kill your mother just to be thorough. It doesn't hurt the Capitol to present her as an orphan. So calm down and get out. Save at least yourself. Don't let this day take out all the Everdeen line."
His voice is thick and hot against my cheek. I struggle blankly throughout it, but I sink against their grasp at his last hissed line. I look at him, hollow and hurting.
"Take her outside," Darius says, loudly. He must have been whispering to me. It doesn't matter what volume he spoke in. His words felt like howling.
Madge finds me outside. She sits down next to me on the step. I'm still wearing the pretty blue Reaping dress, the relic of my mother's past, and I am getting it dirty and I do not care.
She's silent. She doesn't try to touch me. It occurs to me for a moment that Madge might have been my friend all this time. Then I think I would give her up to save Prim in a heartbeat, and any attempt I want to make to reach out to her withers in an instant.
Once, in the very first Quarter Quell, on the 25th anniversary of the rebellion (the Capitol advises us not to capitalise it, even in our own heads—capital letters bring glory and nothing that has brought us that much pain with the Hunger Games should be capitalised. And yet we have to capitalise the Hunger Games. It all sounds like a death knell anyway, to us out in the outlying districts.)
"I was going to give her this," Madge says, out of nowhere. I glance at her. She's turning something over in her pale, soft hands. Madge has never had to work for food, something Gale's been angry about a lot in his life. I've never felt resentful of Madge until today, even then my envy (that she is here, and Prim is being sent away) is tempered by Prim having one slip. Even Madge's five slips were worse odds than Prim had.
The object glints in the sun. Gold. My mother had a couple of pieces, but she sold them, long ago. You can't eat gold.
"It's a Mockingjay," Madge says. "I like Mockingjays. Something the Capitol created that wasn't meant to survive. Something that did anyway. A lot like us, out here."
I look at her, sharply. Madge is staring off in the direction of the forest, her eyes carefully blank. Sometimes Madge and I sit together at school. She never says anything against the Capitol. She is nothing but soft praise.
I wonder if everyone in District 12 is like that. Calm face to the outside. Bristling fiery rage beneath.
"It was my aunt's." Madge flips the golden bird between her fingers, glittering, like Raaj in the Hob does with coin when he's showing off. The Peacekeepers are best bribed with currency, although my goods are just as good. You can't eat money. "Maysilee Donner. The name doesn't mean anything to you, does it?"
I don't know what reply Madge is searching for. I shake my head. My head feels heavy and my mouth feels dry, cracked. I am an old woman. An hour ago, I had my first kiss, and it might have been a lifetime before.
"It's funny. She was your mother's best friend, back when they were our age."
"She's never mentioned her," I say. I know my tone is harsh, but I can't stop myself. If words were bullets, everyone trying to take Prim away would be taken down with my words. They are harsh and strong and fast and bitter.
"I'm not surprised. Not really. People don't... talk about the tributes after they've gone." Madge stops spinning the Mockingjay, and drops it onto the table her dress makes between her knees, the fabric taut. "Maysilee Donner, my aunt, was one of the four tributes taken in the last Quarter Quell. The one where Haymitch Abernathy won."
In the past, I thought only jealousy to Haymitch's money. I always saw him at the Hob, stumbling around. But I think of seeing him on screen at the Reaping, and I think of his kindness to Prim, and I can't think ill of him.
"Still," Madge says, obviously not looking for more words from me, "my mother always thought the Mockingjay pin would protect her, somehow. When Maysilee left it behind..." Madge lets out this desperately little half-sound which I'm rapidly starting to understand. "Well, sometimes I think that's why mother doesn't fight so much anymore." Madge flickers a look upstairs, to what might be a bedroom window. There are curtains pulled over the panels. Madge picks up the Mockingjay pin, and flips it in her hands. "I wanted Prim to take it, but the Peacekeepers wouldn't let me in to see her. I couldn't give it to her." Madge turns to me, and stretches her hand out. I put my hand out automatically, and she drops the pin into it. She gets to her feet quickly, a determined look on her face, and she darts in and kisses me on the cheek, fleetingly. "You could," she whispers, like it's a challenge. "The train leaves in 30 minutes. Prim will be guarded the whole time, but... there's someone who won't be."
She skips away then, fleeing back into the house, and I turn and stare at her retreating back for a long moment, probably more time than I have to waste. She shuts the door behind her, and I look down at the pin in my hand.
Prim would be guarded the whole time. It would be suicide trying to get to her. But Madge is right. There's one person I can get to.
The winner of the second Quarter Quell. District 12's sole living victor. From the story Madge told me, he lived while her aunt died.
I pocket the Mockingjay and start running.
I go home first. Mother sits by the fire, staring silently. She's already checked out. She doesn't even notice me, even though I fling my dress off the moment I get through the door, running up the stairs in my undergarments.
I'm fast. I have to be. I slip into my hunting gear in a couple of minutes, taking the time to ensure I have my sturdiest boots. I have a mad plan forming in the back of my head, and I may be gone a while.
My hunting satchel is still ready to go. I hurry downstairs and go straight for mother's cabinet where the most expensive stuff is. Mother doesn't even look up when I take the only remaining half-full bottle of sleep syrup that we have left, the one that took four months of Prim's goat's milk to procure.
"I'm going to get her back," I say into the empty room, but mother's eyes don't even leave the fire. I send a silent command to Gale to keep her alive, because if he doesn't step in, she'll wither in front of that fire.
I have no need for a mother who won't fight to keep herself alive. She still has me, and I am not enough for her.
As soon as I leave my house I run. I am fleet-footed and sure, because I know this place. It's only as I approach the station that I start to become nervous. How will I sneak onto a Capitol train? Won't they be as fully guarded as Prim and Peeta are right now?
The answer's no, and Madge must have known that to hint that to me. For some reason, they must think District 12 is too docile to try anything. In the end, it is ridiculously simple. The end carriages are all open.
It is in the third carriage I find myself in that causes me a little trouble. There's someone in there, with long red hair and a pale, pale face. A girl. She turns, and startles on seeing me, but doesn't make a sound.
I tense. Surely she's going to raise an alarm. But she doesn't. She taps at a TV screen in the corner. A replay of the Reaping is playing. Our District's Reaping will play on loop until tonight, when the proper edit of all 12 Districts will play. Prim is onscreen, and I nod, and put a hand to my chest.
The girl looks terribly sad, and that's when I realise with a start—I know this girl. She's the one Gale and I saw in the woods, being taken away by a hovercraft. My heart lurches into my throat. She has every right to hate me.
She doesn't. At least, she doesn't raise the alarm. She points at the door, and her sign is clear, leave while you can.
I shake my head. "Haymitch Abernathy. I need to find him."
The girl looks torn, and turns. She drops to her knees and opens a cupboard I hadn't noticed. This whole place is plush and technologically rich, and for a moment I think Prim will love this. Except the price of her enjoying this place is never too far from my mind, and I fight down the bile that rises in the back of my throat. This train is paid for in blood and sweat and death—the blood and the sweat and the death of my District, and the others around us.
She hands me something, then, and I take it and grin. She makes a motion across her mouth. Sealing it shut. I understand, and slip the spare robe over her head. If I stay still and silent, they might think I'm like her.
She hurries over to me and points at the door, and then puts three fingers up.
"Three carriages across?" I guess. She nods. "Thank you. And..." My tongue is a tangle. I can't find the right words. I think about our positions, reversed, and how much help she's been. "I'm sorry. About not saving you and your..." I make a guess. "Brother."
She looks at me, still silent, and then makes our District's three-fingered salute, her eyes full of tears. I understand. She forgives me, and wishes me well on my journey. She understands what I am doing, because she has been there herself, and fallen for it.
I turn and hurry through the door, not wanting to waste the gift she has given me.
I find Haymitch Abernathy slumped in a chair in a half-darkened room. He smells like a brewery. In the corner is a large delivery of various kinds of alcohol, and a wheeled contraption that they were brought in on. As I hadn't thought how I was going to get Haymitch off the train, that's a brilliant find.
He's already half-drunk, if not all the way there, so in the end, this part of the plan is easy too. The Capitol expects its rebellions big and brash. They've spent so long broadcasting hours of TV painting us as foolish and stupid that sometimes they underestimate us. As the farthest District out, District 12 is—of course—the stupidest. Our tributes are often played as fools. Looking at Haymitch, it's easy to see why they come to this conclusion.
Apparently he's more awake than he looks. "You," he slurs, "you Avox, you freak me out." Avox. I turn the word over in my head and mimic how the red-haired girl looked as best as I can. "The Capitol take your tongues, you don't have to add a creepy stare to their disturbing repertoire." He sighs when I don't move. "Make yourself useful and get me a bottle of the green stuff."
I turn to the rows and rows of bottles in his train carriage. I edge a look out of the window, and wonder what will happen if the train goes now. Prim would be on board. I could take her. The train goes fast, but maybe we could jump out from a door—
No, the Capitol needs their tributes. The doors will be locked. We might die jumping out.
"Sometime today, love," Haymitch slurs. I nod, and he makes a disgusting sound. I slip out the bottle of sleep syrup and add the whole lot to the green liquid. If needs be, I can pinch his nose and force it down him, but from the way he clamours again for it, I don't think I'll have to.
I cross the room and pour him a generous amount into the glass he waves at me. "About time," he mutters. "Do they take your brain as well as your tongue?"
His words are harsh, rambling, and his eyes are glazed. He doesn't even sniff at what I've poured him, just downs a whole mouthful of it. He does pull back the glass suspiciously, and I can't help my grin. His head dips. The syrup, especially in that size of a dose acts fast.
He turns and looks up at me, eyes wide. "What did you do?" Haymitch gasps out, and tries to rise from the chair, but his body betrays him and he slumps to the ground.
I work fast. It takes a burst of energy to get Haymitch into the sack I picked up from one of the other storage carriages on the train. Then more energy to get him into one of the alcohol boxes. Then one more heavy to get him onto the trolley with wheels.
A faint snore comes from inside the box, and I wince. I need to get him out of there, immediately. Haymitch knows the arena, better than anyone, and that's what I need.
I don't have time to travel all the way back through the train, so I take a risk. I want to hide what I've done, confuse the Capitol. Slow them down. I rip one of the cushion covers from one of the plush chairs, dowse it in alcohol and fashion quickly a long fuse. I run into another full bottle of alcohol and lie the fuse along the floor, dampening the floor with water so the whole place doesn't go up. I position Haymitch in his box near the door, and take the tinder box from my hunting satchel. I spark a light and set the twisting fabric on fire.
I really won't have long. I open the door and bump him out in the wheeled contraption. I freeze for a moment when I see all the people at the other end of the train, and some of the District crowded around behind them, behind a fence. Waving them off. Like they're just going on a vacation.
I move like I belong there. Like I have been told what to do. Like this is just my job. I am an Avox, whatever that is, with just this task to do.
It works. No one challenges me. I wheel my box, and my drunk, drugged, snoring victor captive, right off the station without the Capitol any the wiser.
It's when I make it to the first line of trees that Haymitch's carriage billows into flame. The windows explode outwards. It sounds like music to me. I look back once, to see the billowing flames, to see the shouting, and then see the spray of the onboard water sprinklers dousing the whole fire out almost immediately. The carriages detach, and the half with Prim on sails off into the distance.
I blink back tears, and push off with my cargo before anyone notices me and links me to the fire.
At least the fire will have wiped out all trace of anything I might have left behind. And it will have burned up the sleep syrup. The Capitol will have no idea where Haymitch has gone.
But I know where he is. And better, I know where to take him.
Haymitch wakes up eventually.
Tied to a chair.
He curses and spits and struggles before even trying to look around him. He swears some more when he sees it is the inside of a rather dishevelled, grungy little hut.
He swears even more when he sees me sitting opposite him. My Avox robe is spread over a rudimentary table my father made once, showing Haymitch immediately who is captor is. My hunting bow is across my knees and I am not even trying to look kind.
"You," Haymitch spits, and struggles in his bonds. He won't get out. Gale makes the best snares in any of the 12 Districts. "What have you done?"
"Kidnapped you," I say, in an unconcerned voice designed purely to drive him mad.
He lets out a few more choice words.
"I'm only sixteen, Mr. Abernathy. Am I old enough to hear that sort of language?" I tease.
He tells me to get lost in even worse language.
He stops struggling. Eventually. "You're not an Avox," he spits.
"And here I thought I'd acquired Haymitch Abernathy, last remaining District 12 victor of the Hunger Games," I say, my tone mocking, "not Captain Obvious."
"You'd be better as an Avox," Haymitch mutters. "Blow Snow, my head, girl. What did you do?"
"Drugged you with sleep syrup and then burned down your carriage," I tell him. There's no point in lying.
"You- Why would you-" Haymitch forgets he's tied to the chair and struggles, smacking back into the seat of the chair pretty soundly. He sighs again, and looks me over, suspiciously. "Wait, you. You're that girl. The girl from the Reaping."
"Katniss Everdeen," I say, introducing myself. "My sister got picked as tribute."
"I'm genuinely sorry," Haymitch says. "But you're an idiot."
"Says the guy kidnapped and tied to a chair," I return.
"You're the one who messed up, girlie." Haymitch tries to point one of his fingers at me as best as he can in his restraints. "If you'd waited just a few more minutes, you'd have been on that stage and I'd have been meeting you on the train in very different circumstances." He paused. "Did you say you burned down my carriage?"
I tilt my head. "What about it?"
"Man, I'd have loved to see that." Haymitch makes this pleased whistle through his perfect teeth. The sight of them make me mad. Only the richest in our District can afford to keep their teeth in that good a condition.
"Say that again," I say, straightening. My bow stays on my knees even when I move, like it really is part of me.
"I'd have loved to see that?" Haymitch tries.
"Before," I say. Something he said is tugging at something in my brain.
"You're the one who messed up?" Haymitch says, like he's decided to humour the crazy girl. "If you'd just waited a few more minutes-"
"There." See, I don't know Haymitch Abernathy, but I've seen a lot of people in pain come to our house. Mother fixes—or tries to fix—all who come. And sometimes when they're in a lot of pain, they lie to make mother feel better.
I don't know what he's lying about, but Haymitch is lying about something. "You know something. Even if I had gone with proper procedure, they wouldn't have let me volunteer, would they?"
Haymitch's face is carefully blank, then he shrugs as much as he can in his bonds. "Word coming through from the Capitol is that anyone who might volunteer for emotional reasons as opposed to District pride is to be rejected. There's all manner of laws to cover any eventuality. Even if you'd volunteered at the right time..."
I'm stunned. I thought I could have done something to save her. But to learn nothing would have worked... "Why?"
"President Snow has a direct line right to my house, poppet," Haymitch says, "he keeps me informed of all of his terrible, secret plans to crush us all under his thumb-"
I roll my eyes. "Why do you think it's happening?"
Haymitch shrugs, and looks down at his bound wrists disinterestedly, like he's anywhere but here. Tied to a chair in the middle of nowhere by a crazy girl. "I've got my theories."
"Well, it's not like I've got anything else on my agenda today. Kidnapping, fire setting, letting my little sister be taken to her death—all done. I'm free."
"You've got about as much charm as a dead slug," Haymitch snits at me, and exhales, a huffy little annoyed sound I am getting used to. "The country's ripe for a rebellion. No one wants to go through another Quarter Quell. Districts are bigger, more populated, than they've ever been. If all twelve Districts rose up now, at once, word is... maybe we could do it. Hell, what would it matter if we failed? The Quarter Quell this time could take all of our children. All at once. Wouldn't put it past the Capitol. But they'd have to leave enough people behind to keep themselves in the fashion they're accustomed to, or their own people would rebel too. The Districts would survive either way. Comes a time when people are willing to risk everything again. The Capitol think... maybe soon is that time. 'course," he adds, settling into his ropes like it's his choice to be there, "they don't actually think it'll happen. But just in case, as soon as they see any spark of hope, they're crushing on down on it."
A rebellion. The idea sinks heavy in my stomach. The Hunger Games are a punishment for the last rebellion. Our hearts break every time tributes are taken. But if we do nothing, they'll keep taking them.
Surely it might actually be worth the risk. To lose a portion of our people now to a war that will free us?
Or is this the thinking that led us to the Hunger Games in the first place?
"Doesn't matter either way," Haymitch says. "I'm the sitting dead."
I scoff. "I'm not going to kill you. Might leave you out in the middle of nowhere if you don't co-operate, but my flawless aim is reserved for prey I can eat. Your body is so made up of alcohol you'd explode if I tried to cook you."
"You think the Capitol will let me live for missing the train?" Haymitch isn't lying now. There's a raw honesty in his voice that resonates deep inside me. "The Capitol won't take my disappearance impersonally. You've just stranded your sister and her avowed protector in the Games without a mentor."
"Surely-" I start, confused by what he's saying.
"They'll make Primrose and the boy—Peeta—ah, I see you know him too. Boyfriend, is he?"
I narrow my eyes, but maybe the memory of the kiss is making me blush, because Haymitch looks much too aware all of a sudden.
"Regardless," Haymitch says. "The Capitol don't take any disrupted plans kindly. They'll make Peeta and Primrose pay for what you've done by not giving them a mentor. Without a mentor, they won't get sponsors. You've doomed them both." He grins, no humour. "Well done."
My mind is racing. I finger the Mockingjay pin in my pocket, the one I meant to get to Prim. But that idea changed as soon as I saw the train. Take Haymitch, my plan's first step.
Get him to tell you about the arena, my second.
My plan was never to disrupt the Capitol's plans. "They were doomed anyway," I say, looking at him with hard eyes. If he makes any inclination to dub me in, I'll leave him here. I think about telling him I wouldn't kill him, but we both know that's a lie. If I think he'll get me in trouble, I'll leave him tied to the chair, one of my arrows right through his heart. I may be thinking like the Capitol right now, but he's better dead than stopping me. "That's not what I- That's not why I've detained you."
"Right," Haymitch says. "I guess you detained me to have tea."
"Don't be an idiot," I say. "I kidnapped you for your brain."
Haymitch does actually pause at that. After a moment he says, slowly, unsurely, "Not many women say that to me." He adds a rather crass wink.
"Drunk, paunchy, middle-aged—you're a catch all right." I roll my eyes. "Tell me everything you know about the arena. Where is it. How is it protected. How big was it. Is it in the same location every year or do they move it. How-"
"Woah, woah, wait a second," Haymitch says. "What would you do with information like that? I mean, I can give you it. I can definitely give you it. Especially if you soothe the way with something to drink, if you get what I mean. But- To help me focus the answers. It's not like your little sister can break out of the arena, even if you got the answers to her. What do you want it for?"
"Isn't it obvious?" I lean forwards, both hands now on the curve of my bow. "No one's even broken out." I smile at him, wide, showing my wisdom teeth. I am deadly, and I am capable of this. "But I want to be the first to break in."
Haymitch obviously has some sense of self-preservation left, because he manages not to start laughing for a good few seconds.
"That," he says, when he regains some modicum of self-control, "is the most hilarious thing I've heard in a long, long time."
I resist the urge to stamp my feet. I've never had that urge before. "I'm serious."
"As a heart attack," he wheezes, which just sets him off laughing again. "It's just-" He manages to flail a little bit in his ropes. "What skills do you have that you think you could make it all the way to the Capitol? The Games will start in two weeks. And you think it'll be as easy to get into the arena as it was to get me? The Capitol underestimates placid District 12. It doesn't underestimate any of its surrounding Districts, or do you forget what part District 3 played in the rebellion?"
Our teacher in fourth grade was from District 3, Electronics. You could see her ribs even through her clothes. In District 12, you can starve to death in safety. In District 3, you starve to death in fear—if you live that long.
"You'd have to get into the Capitol to find the location of the arena. Out again. Then into the Command Centre, because there's a forcefield right around the arena, wherever it is. You're just a little girl, Katniss. Go home to mother. You've got nothing."
Haymitch's condescension snaps my last nerve and before I even know it, my bow is in my hand, and I set off three arrows in quick succession.
It's the mark of someone who has seen death and survived that he does not even blink. He does slowly blink when he realises where my arrows are.
Exactly either side of his neck, and one a hairbreadth away from his groin.
There had been a belligerent amusement in his face before, but now there was nothing but a serious consideration.
"What would you say," Haymitch says, "if there were already plans being made to disrupt the Games - and I could get you into it."
"I'd say you'd been drinking too much," I say, coolly.
"But what if it's true?" he says. I frown.
"If what you're saying is true," I say, "why would you even-"
He tuts, annoyed now. His fingers, the only part of him really left free to move, tap impatiently against his knee. "You're so limited in your vision. Impulsive. It's got you this far. You need people who can see further. And they need someone like you."
"I don't-" I start, but I don't know how to finish. I don't have any plans. He could betray me, but the forest is still my territory. I could get away from him if things turn nasty.
"There's no point keeping me tied up, either," Haymitch says, "I'm too drunk still to move coherently, and I make one wrong move and you'll shoot me down."
"I can't do this tied to the seat," Haymitch says. There's a little less slur in his voice, and maybe a glint of something in his eye that wasn't there before. Something which makes him look a little more alive.
"Can't give all the magic away, can I, sweetheart?" Haymitch winks. I pretend to vomit and bring my bow up. "I'm not playing you, I swear. You think I want to keep living like this? Waiting for the Capitol to show up and take me again? After your little stunt, I'm dead anyway. Shoot me."
Oh, he thinks I plan to shoot him. I smirk, and unleash my arrows at him.
Right at the pivotal rope that leaves the whole binding slithering away from his body.
I keep my bow pointed at him as he pushes the ropes free from his body, and rubs his wrists where I was perhaps a little less than kind with my knots. He looks at me sourly, and reaches around to his back.
He might be going for a knife, so I let my arrowhead track his every movement.
"Relax, it's just a thing," Haymitch says, eloquently.
"A thing," I reply, loading the word with as much sarcasm as I could.
"One day your sarcasm's going to get you into trouble," Haymitch says. "Although you seem to get along with trouble well enough on your own." He pulls out what he's tugging at from behind his back slowly, slowly. I peer at it. It's a small screen, a lot like I've seen some of the more senior Peacekeepers have. "This here's a fancy communicator type thing," Haymitch explains. "Like a phone. But portable. And a TV in there, too. And some sort of game with a ball-"
"The Capitol can track those," I say, interrupting him. I back up a pace, levelling the arrow at his eyes.
Haymitch sighs. "Then you're already toast. It's been on since this morning." He tilts the screen, and thumbs at a meter in the corner. A power meter. Half full. He grins, lopsided. "You need to cater for all possibilities when you plan something. Getting me here, that was just luck. You being here..." He thumbs at something else, and squints at me a little. Like he's considering me for something, except I feel suddenly like livestock.
"I've met President Snow, y'know." Haymitch settles back, staring out of the window, looking like he could be sat in the Capitol itself, not in his kidnapper's dark dungy hut. "He goes on and on about fear being a motivator, and how hope is dangerous. But you know what's more dangerous?"
"A thousand poisoned arrows aimed straight at his stupid head?" I ask. I'm surly. I'm boiling with feelings, none of them that I like. In the darkness, I can see the gleam of Haymitch's teeth as he smiles.
"Love," Haymitch says, simply.
"Oh, give me a break." I get to my feet. Haymitch just follows me with his eyes. "You can't do squat with love. You can't feed your family after your father dies in a ridiculous mine explosion with just love. You can't stop the Capitol taking my baby sister away, taking children away, year after year. You can't stop the stupid Hunger Games with love-"
"You're wrong," Haymitch says. "What if I told you that you could stop the Hunger Games with love?"
That's his plan to break into the arena? With love? I feel like an idiot for thinking he had genuine plans.
"I'd say you've been drinking too much of Ripper's White Liquor."
"Well, that too," Haymitch admits. He taps his fingers against his knee in a pattern. There's an old piano at school. It doesn't work well, only the lower half, and that's out of tune, but Prim got to play it once last year and her fingers moved in just the same way.
Haymitch might have gone to our school twenty-five years ago. Walked those same halls, until the Reaping where he was called up with Maysilee Donner and two others. May the odds be ever in your favor must have sounded even more hollow during that particular Quarter Quell.
I wonder if he felt at useless during our Capitol-approved history lessons. I wonder how much has even changed in the last twenty-four years.
The look on Haymitch's face clearly tells me the answer: nothing.
"So?" I prompt, annoyed at the smug smirk on Haymitch's face. "What is this grand thing that love can do?"
"Love's a spark, nothing else," Haymitch says.
I deflate. I hadn't realised that I'd been waiting for something genuinely amusing. The disappointment chokes me a little. He said that before. A spark. What the hell is a spark supposed to do?
"But a spark... can start a fire. And that's what we need. We need to burn through all the Districts. We need them all alive and on fire. We need to wake them up, Katniss." Haymitch's eyes are gleaming in the dark, and I finally get what he means.
"You mean..." I start, and fall off. Because what he's suggesting, well. That caused a spark of its own. A spark that flamed into the Hunger Games. "You mean to start a revolution."
"There's nothing else, and I guarantee that, nothing else that will get your sister out of that arena alive," Haymitch says, leaning back.
He still looks smug. As well he should.
I am already sold. "What do I do?"
He smiles, and presses another button on his small screen. There's a beep. I think I recognise that beep from around the Peacekeepers.
"Hey, Paylor. Abernathy, here."
"Are you drunk?"
I can hear a woman's voice, but Haymitch keeps the screen tilted from me.
"No," Haymitch insists automatically. "Well, yes. But that's not why I called."
"The line's secure."
"You know you were waiting for the right thing, the right spark to light this rebellion?" Haymitch pauses, and looks across at me, and continues speaking. This time his look isn't like I'm livestock. It's contemplative. It's oddly hopeful. I shuffle, feeling oddly vulnerable. "I think I found her."
I wonder selfishly over the next ten minutes if this is anywhere near how Prim felt, being pulled away to the Hunger Games. I don't know whether I've just opened myself to death - or something amazing. Prim knows she's walking to her death.
I know that's what she's thinking. Even though she's looked to me to protect her for her whole life, there's nothing even one sixteen year old can do against something as oppressive as the Capitol.
Things I've gleaned from the brief conversation between Abernathy and the woman called Paylor:
Haymitch, as an outlying District victor, has only been loosely associated with the rebellion. A lot of the victors are involved, including—as Paylor accidentally leaks, from her muffled curse and Haymitch's apologetic look in my direction to say that I'm dead if the Capitol finds this out from me—Finnick Odair, the beloved District 4 tribute from a few years ago.
They've been looking for a figure to inspire the Districts. Someone with fire in their belly. Someone who would do anything to take the Hunger Games down. They had been holding back. Waiting for a suitable victor to rouse the masses. But this Game... with two 12-year olds in the arena... and the Quarter Quell due next year...
The timing is right. And I might be perfect. Someone called Coin had already suggested me, which makes Haymitch chuckle.
It makes more sense later.
A hovercraft finds us. I want to run and hide, but this is too great an opportunity to give up. Plus, as Haymitch points out, even if I managed to travel interrupted it would take me the full training fortnight to even reach the Capitol. And then it would be a matter of finding out which of the 10 arenas the Games have been set up in this year.
At least, Haymitch says, I have good taste in kidnapping victims.
On the hovercraft, some people I don't recognize give Haymitch and me a dark, almost cozy room with a TV and nothing much else.
"Guess we're being transferred somewhere," Haymitch says, with a shrug. He slumps into one of the armchairs and goes for the TV. "How long was I out?"
I'm about to answer when Haymitch lets out a stuttering curse. "Too long," he says, throwing me a dark look. "They're already onto District 11. Not even a chance to see who's your sister's most likely murderer."
I scowl at him, which just makes him smile a little. Onscreen is a small 12-year-old girl. Rue from District 11, the caption says. She reminds me so much of Prim in size and demeanour that my heart makes an escape bid for my mouth, and despite that flight of fancy I do have to swallow, like I'm swallowing the whole organ back down into my chest.
Rue's sweet and beautiful and it's heart-breaking to see someone that young drawn for the Games. Her feet as she sits in her chair don't even touch the ground.
The tribute that follows her makes my blood run cold. Thresh. He's easily six foot and built like an outhouse. His skin is the same colour as Rue's, but that's where their resemblance ends. I find my fingers are clenching my knees automatically. One of Thresh's hands is powerful enough to snap Prim's pale, skinny neck in one go. I find myself hoping, oddly, that if any of them are to take my Prim out, at least can it be this one. He's terse and no-nonsense. He wouldn't make a 12 year old suffer for long.
And then it's time for Prim.
She looks adorable. Whoever her stylist is, he's created this beautiful yellow dress. She looks like a single candle flame, like she would be so easy to extinguish. She looks like the picture of innocence. I think back to what Haymitch said. I'm not the spark of a rebellion—Prim's that.
Then the interview turns to talk of fire. I don't understand what Caesar Flickerman is saying, but Prim gets up to twirl her pretty dress—and then she's suddenly on fire.
I let out a shout, and hurtle towards the screen. Haymitch holds me back, his hands heavy and painful on my shoulders.
"Relax," Haymitch says, "the Capitol use that stuff for fire sculptures at parties. I've fallen headfirst into enough on them to know they don't hurt."
Prim stops twirling, her face shining, and Caesar looks stunned.
Caesar sits her back down and says, "There was an incident during your Reaping. Your sister wanted to replace you—but incorrectly followed the volunteer protocol, stranding you in the Games. Do you hate her for not trying her best to save you?"
"No," Prim says, and turns directly to the camera. Gone is her little girl innocent expression. Her face is hard. Prim, I think woefully, what are you thinking? "My sister loves me. She'd do anything for me. You'd better look out. She might burn you all down for taking me. She will. You'll burn. She'll burn you."
Caesar looks completely stunned, and the crowd murmurs, and Caesar obviously gets instructions from an invisible speaker, because he says, "And that's all the time we have! Our little fake firebird, District 12's Primrose Everdeen!"
I stay kneeling on the floor as Prim is marched off stage by two Peacekeepers, when only one led her on. It feels like all I need to do is reach out to touch her.
"Feisty," Haymitch says. "Perhaps that's the right Everdeen for the job after all."
I throw him a look. I am too busy glaring, and I miss Peeta Mellark coming onto the stage. When I turn back, Caesar's smelling him and the crowd is laughing. I frown, paying the interview more attention. I wonder if he's going to look after Prim, or if even now he's still thinking he may have to kill her.
Caesar asks Peeta whether he has a girlfriend back home. Peeta hesitates, and then shakes his head. I'm not convinced by it. I look across at Haymitch, and he doesn't look convinced either.
"Handsome lad like you," Caesar says, with a little leer that turns my stomach. "There must be some special girl. Come on, what's her name?"
Peeta sighs. "Well, there is this one girl. I've had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I'm pretty sure she didn't know I was alive until the reaping."
The crowd sighs. I think of our kiss, and I get a weird feeling in my stomach that I don't like. I distract myself and edge a look at Haymitch. "Why are they sighing?"
Haymitch snorts. "Do you have a heart?" He rolls his eyes when I don't even blink. "Unrequited love, pet. They can relate to it. It's a good angle. Might have got him some sponsors, if I'd been there to get them."
The digs he makes at me, unlike his digs at the Capitol, are not so cleverly disguised. "Oh."
"So, here's what you do," Caesar says, after Peeta's said something about the girl having a lot of admirers. I try and run through my head all the girls at school who might have had their eye on Peeta. There are so many who would go for him: he's strong, silent, kind. Since when had I noticed him so much? Since the kiss? Or since he saved my life? "You win, you go home. She can't turn you down then, eh?" Caesar says, winking broadly and digging Peeta in the ribs like he's trying to be encouraging.
Peeta wrinkles his pink mouth. "I don't think it's going to work out," he says, self-deprecatingly. "Winning... won't help in my case," he adds, sounding much surer of himself.
"Why ever not?" Caesar asks, clearly mystified. The crowd are on the edge of their seats. I find I'm on the edge of mine. There's a weird feeling in my chest that I can't quite explain, that doesn't match the feeling in my chest when I kissed him, and I'm halfway thinking it might be jealousy when Peeta drops a bomb I'm not sure I'll ever be able to recover from.
Peeta blushes beet red, lowers his eyes and stammers, "Well, if I survive, it means... It means I'll have either killed her little sister... or stood by and let it happen." He looks up at Caesar, a more determined expression on his face. "I won't hurt her. I won't. So the other tributes better be aware. If they put a finger on Primrose Everdeen, they'll pay. They'll pay."
Caesar starts laughing a little at Peeta's determination, but the crowd are cooing. It's unprecedented. There's been love shown for tributes at the reaping stage, but never at the interview stage, never such devotion from one tribute to another; with this show of emotion, Peeta's won the whole crowd.
Hell, what am I saying. Not just the crowd.
"Now after that, had your impulsiveness not gotten in the way, that I could have used to get you some sponsors," Haymitch says. "He's made you the one thing you can't manage on your own. Not a soul in the Capitol knows who you are, but they all think you're the perfect girl right now."
I'm not really listening to Haymitch. How could I be so stupid? How could I never have spoken to him? He saved my life and now, and now he's talking as if he's going to give his own for Prim?
"Oh, hell, sweetheart." Haymitch shuffles closer. "Now this, this I couldn't have worked with. Star-crossed lovers? Hell of a pitch. You two would have ripped the games apart."
I don't know why he's talking more kindly until I look at him, and he looks a bit fuzzy around the edges. At first I think, oddly, he's drunk, but then I remember alcohol only affects the drinker's perception. So then I think I'm drunk? because it's easier than the truth. Easier to think that than to examine why I would be crying for Peeta Mellark.
"Isn't ripping the Games apart the plan?" I say, angry. I'm not angry at him. All of my anger, all of my life, has been directed to the Capitol.
If it wasn't for them, Prim would be safe, and I wouldn't be in some hovercraft still possibly going to a painful, protracted death. Or maybe towards the Capitol to something worse than death. I think of the red-haired girl. Haymitch called her an Avox, and said something about Avoxes having no tongue.
Decades and decades of the Hunger Games proved that the Capitol are nothing if not creative with their punishment.
There's a knock on the door and I turn. They've still left me with my bow and arrows, and I automatically notch an arrow into my bow as the door slides open. A man stands there, swallowing and tracking the arrowhead with his eyes.
"Ignore her, she's not house-trained," Haymitch says.
"Uh," the guy says.
"He's not a threat," Haymitch tells me. I sigh, and reluctantly lower my weapon.
"We're nearing the drop-off point," the man says. "We'll be using the vacu-tubes so if you have anything loose-" He looks at my arrows again. "Ensure they're secured."
I find myself sending a grin in Haymitch's direction. It feels natural and normal, and he grins back as I take a flap from the inside of my quiver that I normally use during the winter so my arrows don't get wet and bend and knot it over the feathers. My smile fades as my fingers find the gold Mockingjay pin in my pocket, and I pull it out and look at it. This would have kept Prim safe, I think, not even sure if I believe that. I pin it to my jacket, and tie my bow to the quiver tightly before shouldering it.
Now I'm vulnerable. But there's no turning back.
We land in a clearing in what I think is District 7 from the herd of cows scattered in a nearby field. Several of the men and women from the hovercraft come down, and Haymitch and I are told to run with them, to keep by the tree line, and they would let us know when to stop.
Haymitch swears, and says he needs a drink. One of the men passes him a flask. It turns out to be water. Haymitch sprays some of it over me in surprised disgust before eyeballing the guy and swigging some of it down. "I'm going to get the DTs soon. You'd better top me up or it'll be like lugging an incontinent child around."
The guy promptly lets Haymitch keep the water flask, an unhappy expression to his face.
I stay by Haymitch's side as we start running. The ground and the trees are so much different here to watch I'm used to. The leaves are not the right shade of green. Haymitch is breathing hard after just a couple of minutes. He looks pale.
"Alcohol withdrawal," he pants, wasting air, "has the same symptoms as someone 800 metres above sea level. But you wouldn't know that feeling, would you?"
He looks a little sad for a moment. "Most of the arenas are quite high up," he wheezes, like it's just a fact, no emotion attached to it at all, but he wouldn't waste his breath on something without any meaning. "It's okay for the Districts who are used to the altitude, but the outlying Districts to the East..."
"We have some mountains," I offer, ducking my head under some branches so I can keep to Haymitch's side.
It takes us a long time to reach our apparent destination, and Haymitch isn't kidding about these DTs or whatever it is he called them. He's shaking and breathing much too hard for someone just simply out of shape. He looks terrible as we're led into the back of a large warehouse.
The building is clinical, reflective steel panels all over the wall, the like of which I've only ever seen on TV in glimpses of the Capitol. We have no use for metal sheeting like this in District 12, although now I think about it, I guess I've seen some houses outside of the Seam which use them on the roofing. The whole place has a funny smell which takes me a moment to place, until I recall it from home. From all the times someone has lain bleeding on our table.
Blood. The smell crawls up my nostrils. I am gripped by the feeling that I don't want this to be the last thing Prim smells. She deserves flowers and freshly-baked bread and freedom. Haymitch then asks in a low mutter if I'm okay. Considering how he's faring, his skin drained white, his eyes swollen and dull, I must look dreadful.
Then we're ushered into a room filled with a people in beds. Patients. There's a woman in the corner who looks up when she comes in. She has dark brown eyes, puffy with fatigue. She looks to be in her early thirties.
"Commander Paylor of Eight," one of the men leading us says, moving into a salute that his men follow. I stay stood, uneasily not moving. Haymitch breaks out the most shit-eating grin I've ever seen him pull.
She looks much too young to be a Commander. She draws up to us with smart, regimented steps. Up close I can see that one shoulder is dropped. She's been injured. Has there already been fighting? But we've not heard about it.
No, of course, the Capitol would keep it secret that people had already been protesting. I look around at the patients and the couple of women who are dressed in District 7 overalls who are moving between them, applying poultices to injuries. They're healers like my mother, then. The injuries range from bloodied faces to an amputation in a bed closer to us. There's been a lot of fighting, then.
When I look back to Paylor, she's looking me up and down like I'm a sack of potatoes she's unhappy with. "This is her?"
There's an authority to her voice which, at least, makes me realise why she's a Commander even though she's so young. She sounds disappointed.
"I could say the same about you," I say, sounding far braver than I feel. I am disappointed. If this is the leader of this so-called rebellion, I start to think maybe it's not a good idea. I'm closer to the Capitol now than I was. Getting to Prim on my own is still an—albeit possibly stupid—option.
Paylor laughs. "Okay, I see the spark." She pushes her lips together and looks me over again. "We should get her training with the others."
A man behind me gives me a shove, and I glare and refuse to move. "Hey, come on, not without a bit of an explanation as to what's going on here. I know I'm just a kid from District 12 who wants her sister back, but I'm not stupid. How do I know you're not just going to shove me into a room, or turn me over to the Capitol, or-"
"You don't know," one of the men says, sounding quite amiable about it.
"Boggs," Paylor says, with a sigh. She looks at me, and talks about me like I'm not there. "She does have a right to know."
"A right to know what?" I demand.
Haymitch steps forward, still sweating even though it's cold in this steel building. "I'll try and house train her," Haymitch promises, "but the girl's been through an emotional ringer. If you want a figurehead to lead the cause, it doesn't hurt to get her on your side. A little information won't hurt, and if the Capitol get to her, she wouldn't last long enough to tell them anything useful. And if you brought us to a fundamental piece in the revolution puzzle, well, that makes you all kinds of not smart, not her."
Paylor makes a whistling sound between her teeth. "Fine. Come with me."
She jerks her head. I throw an uncertain look at Haymitch and he tilts his head, meaning clearly, follow. I do. When I look back, Haymitch has already snatched a bottle of white spirits from one of the shelves. I wince. That stuff is meant for cleaning wounds and it tastes particularly unpleasant. I know. Mother keeps a bottle of it around, and I went through a phase of tasting every one of her remedies to make sure Mother couldn't kill herself with any of them while I was out.
Paylor jerks her head at one of the men, who hurries up with a portable screen and some wires with some complicated equipment that Paylor snaps into the wall with a collection of sighs which show she'd really rather be using her time more usefully than interacting with an impulsive sixteen year old.
"This is this year's official footage of the Reaping," Paylor says, pushing the last piece of equipment into place. She sounds a lot like a teacher when she says, "Tell me what's different about it."
I swallow and watch it, desperate to see who else might be the one to hurt Prim. There's been a worse thought, deep in the back of my mind, that if it's the Victor who kills her, then the Victor would live, and taking out a Victor would hurt the Capitol too. I don't think I should voice this thought. Not because I am ashamed for thinking it, although that's true too, but because these people might think it's a good idea.
I am much too impulsive when it comes to plan-making. Haymitch is right.
The Reapings are cut together seamlessly, moving from one District to the next. District 1 and 2 take the longest. They have the most complicated volunteer process. Then it's rapid from then on, moving from face to face to face until they all blur into one impossibly strong, fast, determined tribute intent on mowing Prim down in the most horrible way.
When they get to District 12, it's not smooth. It's not seamless. It's jumpy, badly edited. I put my hands to my mouth in realisation. They've edited me out, and I made too much of a stir. I was too obvious.
"People noticed something happened in District 12," Paylor says, as the screen blossoms into an advertisement of the Hunger Games. Coming soon. "The Districts that could get hold of the footage have been passing it around. Your volunteering has spread like wildfire in those Districts. The Districts that couldn't get hold of it, like District 7 at first-" She nods around the room. "They assumed District 12 had an uprising."
"But-" My mind is whirring. "There's no news of 12 being punished. If they think that-"
"They think the Capitol is weak. Allowing protest. Almost five Districts are currently in the midst of protests. There's been a lot of casualties. In three of those, the Capitol has tried to sneak out the footage. I am correct in that you saw your sister's interview?"
I nod. I remember Caesar asking Prim about me volunteering. "It's too late," I say, remembering how quickly Prim was taken from the stage. "They think the Capitol is just covering it up so they can quietly take out the problem." I turn to Paylor. "Tell me. How much are they punishing Prim for what she did?"
Paylor's expression is tight, and then she sees something in my face that resonates with her, because she sags a little. "Very little food, from what I can gather. We have a man on the inside. A stylist. He's been sneaking her food when he can. The other tributes are being encouraged to bully both 12 tributes. And Peeta Mellark was given a 12 as his training score this morning."
"That's too early," I say, "that's not enough time. There's still a week of training left, at least."
"Not now. They've moved it up a week." Paylor shakes her head. "The Games start tomorrow."
"A 12 though," I say, "that's good, right, it-" I trail off. Realising what it means. "It's a punishment. They'll all be after him now. We have to go. We have to go now."
Paylor sighs. "It's going to take us 2 days to get surreptitiously to the arena. By that time, the Games will be mostly over."
Something behind my eyes spark, and I nearly get an arrow fully notched to a bow when someone grabs me, holding my arms behind my back. I turn angrily to see District 4's shining victor, Finnick Odair, holding me down. He's just as beautiful up close as he is on TV, and I feel rage and fury. I want to destroy his perfect, stupid face. Behind that handsome mask is the eyes of a killer. I want to tear his throat out with my teeth, like that District 2 winner did, once upon a time. My teeth are not sharpened, but they will do.
"Stop struggling, Mockingjay," Finnick says, looking at the gold pin I attached to my jacket to keep it safe. "I'm not the enemy."
"Let me go," I snarl.
"There's definitely fire in the family," Finnick says to Paylor. There's laughter in his tone. Of course there would be. Everyone knows how popular Finnick Odair is. They say he has a girl in every District. "Relax. Prim's got protection. My District's sponsoring them. She'll have food, water, weapons. She'll last the two days. We won't get there in time if you hold us all up."
I glare, struggle, and still. Someone yanks my bow and arrows away from me, and I smooth myself down, glaring at them both.
"And you don't have a choice," Paylor says, grimly. "We were going to use Finnick as our symbol, but I think you at the head, with Finnick following, is a much stronger image to show to the Capitol and the Districts. But we can still use Finnick and I can lock you up in the brig until this is all over. Of course, then there'd be no one in the arena with a reason to root for your little sister. No one to take that special care to ensure she doesn't get accidentally hurt by one of our own."
I glare, but I have no arguments left.
"Take her," Paylor says to Finnick.
"With pleasure," Finnick purrs, in his golden, honey-toned voice.
"Get her ready for the arena," Paylor says.
"Nothing ever gets you ready for the arena," Finnick says, in such a haunting tone I think somehow I've misunderstood him. But then he grabs hold of my elbow and I shake him off, anger boiling in my stomach. Finnick is a Victor. Did he feel anything when he killed his opponents? Maybe he killed someone's little sister. "Come on," he adds, in a gentler tone.
I look back desperately, but Haymitch just nods, go on. So I follow, feeling the hope for Prim's rescue fade out of me.
Like a Mockingjay flying away.
I don't know what I thought Paylor had meant by training, but not this. It's a boot camp. To my consternation we do not even get into a hovercraft until 24 hours have passed, and for most of those hours, apart from a short period of sleep time I get, I spend learning how to fight.
Finnick teaches me how to work against a trident. When he sees how I shoot, we move onto sword fighting. After my sleep, we move onto climbing, up a rudimentary sort of climbing wall.
And then we're transferred onto a hovercraft, and instead of being shoved into a small dark room like before, there's a large well-lit room in the back with what Finnick calls gym equipment. He hadn't heard of it either until the Games, but now he's a Victor, he makes sure to have access to it whenever possible, because the only way he can sleep after the Games is to know he can run.
He makes me run on a machine I have never seen the like of before, and joins me, jogging away at a much higher speed than I can manage. I am exhausted, but keep pushing. He tells me we'll have eight hours to rest before touching down in the arena, and I must sleep for as much of that as I can manage, because I will need to be strong.
We take a break and drink something for dinner that Finnick calls a protein shake "with added fat". It's tasteless but will make us stronger, he says.
"I never thought I'd go back into that arena for anything," Finnick says, as he pulls me back onto the running machine after a short rest. "Turns out that sometimes something ends up being worth more than all the terror. Something more than your own life."
He tells me without looking at me with such heartbreaking honesty about this girl, Annie. About how President Snow has sold him all over the twelve Districts, sold his body. In return, Snow has kept the girl Annie alive. Annie's mind got a bit jumbled in the arena, but Finnick's love for Annie—once he begins to talk about her—is so obvious that my heart jars.
I thought no one in the world would understand how badly I needed Prim back. I don't mind telling Finnick Odair that I am wrong. He smiles a sad, terrible smile, and says, "Thanks, Mockingjay."
He doesn't use my name, and soon Paylor and the rest of her people pick up on it. Mockingjay. I am no longer Katniss Everdeen, older sister, District 12 girl. I am the Mockingjay. Some of Paylor's soldiers side-eye me with such hope in their expressions that I am almost physically sick with terror.
What are they expecting from just a District 12 girl, not even old enough to work?
Finnick sees the terror in my face and distracts me with footage from the game. There is not much of Peeta and Prim. The Capitol are editing them out as much as possible. My heart leaps every time there's a cannon blast. Sometimes the Games last for weeks, but this batch of tributes are being mown down. The District 11 girl Rue even claims a victim as I watch, dropping a nest of trackerjackers down on some Careers. I force myself to watch. Even 12 year olds are turned into killers for the games. Prim. Her heart would not survive killing someone. We note down where cameras where in the most popular locations of the Games, so we can take out any that might announce our advance too soon.
Before it is time for me to try and sleep, Prim and Peeta make it into the Final 8. The Capitol are forced to show some footage of them. I let out a holler and nearly stumble from the weight-training thing Finnick's pushed me onto. They're both wearing metallic suits that cover them up to the neck.
"What is that?"
"They would have bankrupted our District," Finnick says, sounding just as overwhelmed. "Some other Districts must be helping. They're weapon-proof suits, Katniss. Only a headshot would take them out and look, look at the survivors. No shooters left."
It's the first time Finnick's used my name, his hope overwhelming his brain. My heart stutters. I won't be sleeping well now, I know. I'd barely dared to hope, and now- Now it seemed like this might work. The whole rebellion took flight in my brain, spinning out into all its wondrous possibilities. The world alight. The world free.
And then it feels like the world is crashing down around me when all the survivors so far get a quote about them from a loved one... apart from ours. "Mrs. Everdeen remained impossible to find for a comment following the tragic illness which led to death of her remaining daughter, Katniss. Mr. Mellark's family refused to comment."
So they were pretending I was dead. I swallowed. My mother might even be dead. It surprised me how much I did care, but I cared more about Prim. As far as I think my heart was concerned, Mother died with Father down in the mine. She'd been about as present as a ghost after the explosion.
Finnick claps me on the shoulder. I can see from his face he's still thinking about Annie. I nod at him, determined.
We can do this.
We can set the world free.
We have to.
In order to take the Capitol by surprise, they cannot drop us off in the middle of the arena, even though they have some District 3 past Victor called Beetee who's worked out how to take the forcefield down. Haymitch gets misty-eyed at that part of the briefing.
I was right. I barely slept. But the training—although short—has not worn me out. I feel strong. I feel capable of anything. I am not going into the arena as tribute. I am going in as the Mockingjay.
Seriously. Finnick's continued nickname of Mockingjay for me had made Paylor and the woman who she was really working under decide that it was as good a working name as any. I was a symbol of freedom, and what better symbol than a bird who the Capitol hadn't intended to survive in the first place?
Paylor's superior is a slush-coloured woman called Coin who makes me feel a little uneasy so thank goodness I'd met Paylor first, because I'm struck with the sensation I might have gone ahead and shot Coin And the way everyone interacts with Coin is a little too much like people act around President Snow for my liking. I'd have been dead in a heartbeat.
I am wearing my District 12 clothes still. There was talk about dressing me up, maybe even as a Mockingjay, but artifice is the Capitol's speciality, not ours. We are truthful. We are the heart of the country and the heart of everything that matters to people. I am a simple District 12 girl with the strength of truth and justice behind me.
We were not born to be slaves to the Capitol. We were born to be free. To make our own choices, our own lives. The punishment of the Games—of our whole lives of servitude—has been going on too long.
"Look at you," Haymitch says, as I repeat some of the words Coin has given me to learn, "Miss. Rebellion herself." He pats me awkwardly on the shoulder. "Stay alive, kid."
"You too," I say, eyeballing the bottle in his hand.
He looks back at me sadly and just nods. I turn to Paylor. "I'm ready," I tell her.
"You're never ready for the arena," Finnick tells me.
"Cheerful," I say.
"Always." Finnick grins.
There's a couple of faces I recognise in the soldiers coming down with us, some other past Victors. They're tense. Coming back into the arena, deliberately, it must be like walking voluntarily into Snow's grasping, vengeful fingers. They're all decked in black but they do not hide their faces, even though should we fail completely, the Capitol will use our faces as a warning. My stomach flips. What right do we have to decide the fate of the whole Districts? Last time District 13 was annihilated for our sins. There's something mocking in Coin's face when I say that in desperation, and I settle down.
This is still Prim's best chance. The weapon-proof suits were not a gift to save my baby sister. They were a sign. We're just Districts, but we have the power to save people too. We give you this, so you can give us freedom. If I did not do this, there's every chance the Districts who sent Prim and Peeta those suits would kill them for the betrayal of trust. If we do not succeed, the Capitol will punish whoever sent them especially.
"Come on, Mockingjay, it could be worse," Finnick says, as we arrange ourselves in the vacuum tubes to be deposited in the arena. If Beetee's invention works. Or we could all be fried on the way in and that's the end of everything.
"How?" I mutter, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. My feet are sore from all the training, but pain doesn't matter. Prim, I think. Prim.
"You could be doing this without me. Imagine it. All this work and you're deprived from the joy of seeing my face," Finnick says, deadpan.
I'm smiling as the tubes take us away.
The arena is even more terrible in person.
As some of the soldiers around me shoot out places we know from watching the footage of the game so far hold cameras, I can't help but think about what it must be like to be here. Dying. Killing.
Boggs came down with us. He's holding a small screen thing like Haymitch had. "We've got the frequencies of the tributes. Four left now."
"Four?" My stomach twinges.
"Cato from District 2. Thresh, District 11. And Peeta and Prim, District 12," Boggs reads from the display. I try and think about who was alive this morning when we watched the footage. There were eight. "Rue from District 11 was caught in a snare. Speared by a boy from District 1. Thresh took him out, deliberately chased him by the look of things, and a girl named Clove from District 2. There was a girl from District 5..." His head flew up from the reader. "It's attributing the death to Prim Everdeen."
"What?" My fingers tremble as I notch my first arrow into the bow, ready to use it if I have to. I think of six-foot broad-shouldered Thresh. Would one arrow take him down? Would I be able to? Or would I be able to save him too? Talk sense into him? Yes, I think fiercely. He was large but his eyes were kind.
"Nightlock berries," Boggs reads. "The feed here says 5 was stealing food from everyone. Your sister must have accidentally gathered Nightlock berries. They're poisonous. They can kill within a minute of ingesting even one."
"Wow," Finnick breathes. His trademark golden trident flashes in the sun bearing down between the heavy trees of this arena, and he looks up, shielding his eyes. "Little sis is quite the killer."
The anger boils through me and I grit my teeth. I desperately want to shove Finnick, but Haymitch has been one at me repeatedly for the last couple of days. My impulsiveness is what got me entangled in this revolution. I should really try my best not to get tangled in it.
My heart is breaking, though. Just a little. Does Prim know she killed the girl? Prim won't survive this. She might survive the game, but killing a person... Prim cries when I bring home dead squirrels, even though she knows we have to eat. Prim cries when she steps on a bug.
"We have to get her," I say. "Now."
"Definitely a plan," one of the soldiers says at the back. "We can't have got all the cameras. We have to run."
I don't understand what he means, until I see them—a flock of Mockingjays hurtling through the trees in the direction that—according to Bogg's screen—is way away from the Cornucopia, where Peeta and Prim seem to be hiding out.
Something's coming our way. Something birds are frightened of.
We start running, the same way the Mockingjays went. Panic runs through my veins. Have they been throwing things like this at Prim? How many nightmares has she had to run from for these past two days?
"Beetee," Finnick yells into the earpiece he's wearing, "they're manipulating the arena. Can you get us a path through to Prim?"
There's a buzz which might be affirmative, might not be. Finnick reaches over and takes Bogg's screen, effortlessly doing something to the display as we hurtle through the undergrowth. The air smells tart, acidic, and that's when I realise—there's a wall of fire moving towards us.
The world transforms to flame and smoke as the uniform wall of fire marches towards us. Somewhere up above in a clinical room, the Gamemakers are creating this spectacle. I wonder if they have been told it is a tribute gone astray, or if this is a regular thing to do to intruders, or if all the Gamemakers are in on the truth from the start? That this Game, more than most, has been manipulated heavily from the start.
Burning branches crack from trees, falling in showers of sparks at our feet. Rabbits and deers break free of the treeline now, hurrying through the underbush faster than we can. Our boots catch on roots, on fallen tree limbs, and the heat is bad, but worse is the smoke that barrels through. I pull the top of my shirt over my nose. I run swiftly, my quiver of arrows banging against my back. Everyone is choking from the smoke. A soldier near to me stumbles and I drop to help her up, finally recognising her in this moment. Johanna Mason. So many Districts, so many Victors, all working together—this can't be ruined now.
She's hurt. I put my arm around her and we run, our faces cut with branches that materialise from the grey haze with no warning, and we have to hurdle over a burning log. The adrenaline and our combined power take us over it. I wonder if I could have managed the same, scared, alone. If my clothes set on fire too, I do not know how I would have reacted.
The Games teach people how to react in circumstances no one should know how to deal with.
It only takes minutes for my throat and nose to burn. The choking turns to coughing, and my lungs feel like someone is cooking them. Each breath is searing pain. One of the soldiers nearby vomits painfully. Finnick drops back and hauls the soldier over his back, vomit spraying over his shoulders. We know we have to keep moving, even if we're moving in the wrong direction.
The air is filled with coughing and crackling. Finnick won't be able to hear above it. The smoke is starting to be too thick. I'm starting to think Beetee won't be able to get us in the right direction when the first fireball blasts into a rock in the path ahead, and the wall of fire shifts direction.
Beetee hasn't been able to tell us where to go, but he's using the fire—much like the Gamemakers—to force us in the right direction.
Except he musn't have full control, because there's a hiss and one of the fireballs smacks into one of the soldiers, blasting them right into the marching wall of fire. I struggle in the direction but Johanna, still under my arm, hisses, "Are you an idiot? He's dead. We knew that was a cost coming in. We've got to keep going, or it's all been for nothing."
She's right. Remaining still is death—not just ours. Of the revolution. There's another hiss and Johanna and I share a look and take off, running in the path Beetee is clearing up for us. Finnick's just behind us. We lose another soldier as the third fireball becomes a pillar of fire where Johanna and I had just been standing.
Time almost loses meaning as we frantically keep heading forwards. Some fireballs come straight at us—some direct us a certain way. We don't know which is which. We wait for the hiss and dive out of the way. We lose a couple more soldiers. I don't know their names, and that's the thought that's lodged in my head when we come stumbling out into some sort of a clearing.
Even though there's bound to be a thousand cameras pointed at us, Finnick forces us on. The wall of fire continues to chase us, until the very end of the treeline. As we all stumble out into the grass, looking behind in horror at the shimmering wall of heat, the canon sounds.
My heart leaps into my mouth and I'm shouting, screaming some of the obscenities Haymitch taught me up into the sky. Let the Capitol get this. Let them see my defiance. I do not care. I think of Prim and Peeta burning, of it being my fault. The heat was searing. Even those suits wouldn't have stopped them from boiling alive.
"Mockingjay," Finnick says, and then slaps me. I still, and fall silent, looking at him desperately. My eyes communicate what my burned throat cannot handle. If this was Annie, would you not do the same?
The sadness on his face says, yes, and more.
"They're fine," Finnick says. "See?" He tilts the screen towards me. "They're only over in the next clearing."
"You mean where those dogs are going," Johanna Mason says. I watched her year in the Games. She came across as weak—until she showed it was an act and she was strong, all along. To voluntarily join this revolution, you did have to be strong. I felt unworthy to be standing amongst them. I was selfish. I was foolish. I was... thinking about myself when Johanna had said something about dogs.
"They're not dogs," Finnick says, and starts running again, "they're muttations."
I let out another of Haymitch's choicer swear words and follow. This is where I can be of best hope to Prim.
And we are.
When the muttations, another cruel creation of the Gamemakers up there in their control room, realise that they're being picked off from behind, they swerve from their intended easier prey of Peeta and Prim, but it's too late.
Ten of us survived the fire. There are 22 muttations. They are terrible dogs, with human-looking eyes and numbers on their collars. Probably to make Prim think about the dogs all representing the tributes that were dead instead of her. Prim is sentimental like that.
I take out six of them before they even get close. Finnick shows easily when they get closer why he was a master with his trident. The muttations are no match for us all. Johanna takes out the last one, which was headed towards me, and we look at each other.
"They're on the Cornucopia," Finnick says, "this way."
We run. Even though I am hurt and aching from the fire, it doesn't feel hard. I know I am running to Prim. I'm coming to save her, just like I promised I would. Everything's worked out, somehow. Prim and Peeta are free, and then we can free everyone else. We can ban the Hunger Games and make the Capitol people work too, and we can share what we have. No one has to die at all in the future, not for anything other than old age and the illnesses we can't cure yet.
I scream Prim's name as we come onto the field, but she doesn't respond. I can see two figures on the Cornucopia. Maybe there was something that meant they couldn't hear me. I scream Prim's name louder, but something cuts me off.
A single canon shot.
I hurtle forwards now, running faster, faster. Breaking away from the group. There is strength in me that I don't understand and I climb up the Cornucopia's shiny golden side without even knowing how my desperate feet are finding purchase on its slip-smooth surface.
My legs give out when I find Peeta standing there dully, his hand stretched out towards Prim's prone body.
At first I think Peeta's done it. Peeta's killed my little girl. Killed my Prim. But then I notice the way Peeta's sleeves are rolled up, and the deep cuts in Peeta's wrist. I notice the blood dripping down his arms, the paleness of his face. The pool of blood he's standing in.
And I notice the berry stain around Prim's mouth.
I drop to her in horror, putting my hand over her small, open mouth. There's still warmth in her.
Prim's eyes flutter, and I jolt. There's still hope. If we can heal her, if we can just- "I couldn't," Prim says, "I just couldn't- I couldn't- Someone died from me, Katniss, someone- Not Peeta too. Not for me. I couldn't-"
And then she dies, in my arms.
When I look up, Peeta sinks to the ground. Finnick's already hurtling up onto the Cornucopia's horn, bandaging Peeta's wrists. Peeta tried to kill himself to save Prim, and Prim...
Prim must have kept the Nightlock berries she accidentally killed the District 5 girl with. And the guilt from that, and seeing Peeta try and kill himself to keep her alive, it had been too much. Too much for my glorious, wonderful Prim.
I am broken. I am fury.
Above our head is a tremendous sound. There has been a death, of course, and a hovercraft must come and take the dead body away before the Victor can be crowned.
Normally they wait til the body's alone, unsurrounded. Hovercrafts can hurt people too close to them. The Capitol want to hurt me.
There is nothing they can do to me that hasn't already been done.
I lay Prim's body on the ground and pull out my arrows. I do not need to be Beetee, an electric genius, to guess where to hit to hurt this thing.
I draw the string back and start shooting my arrows at the hovercraft. One after another. I do not need impulsiveness or luck. One arrow has to strike a fuel source eventually.
The eighth one does. The Hovercraft teeters and falls, crashing down into the arena in flames.
I am cold. I am revenge. I am merciless.
I know there's a camera at the mouth of the cornucopia. I lift Prim in my arms and slide down the Cornucopia. I land steadily. I walk to the camera and face it.
"My name," I say, "is Katniss Everdeen. I am a District 12 girl. But you're going to know me better as the Mockingjay, President Snow. Today we've hit out at you. Today, the Districts turn against you. We're tired of being your slaves. We are not your puppets. And you might try and turn against us, but..." I glance back.
Behind me, the Hovercraft is still burning. I stand in its glow, a terrible silhouette. I look across at Finnick and he is grinning, tight and fierce. Johanna stands next to him. We're united in our grief, and in our rage.
"Just remember.... My sister Prim. She was a Girl on Fire. But now I've caught alight too. Others will too. You can try and burn us down, but remember... If we burn - you burn with us!"
Nestled in my arms, it's almost like Prim is just asleep. Another Hovercraft comes down, but this one is ours. Its metal belly is painted with a white Mockingjay. My stomach clenches, burning with anger, as I turn away from the camera.
"Where do we start?" I say.
Finnick's face is still alight. I've woken something in him. The same thing that's awake in me. "District 13 was never destroyed." His voice is loud so the microphones will pick it up. If the Capitol haven't cut off the broadcast, everyone will know this new fact. And they'll know exactly how far from indomitable the Capitol really is. "Maybe we'll start there."
News that would have surprised me before just tastes bitter in my mouth. "Okay," I say.
I lie Prim on the ground, and shoot out the camera with my last arrow. She's dead, but so is Katniss Everdeen along with her, an innocent girl from District 12.
I am the Mockingjay.
And the Capitol is going down.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.