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The Girl Who Burned

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Prim had seen more than enough mining accidents and bombings to know what it meant to burn. Even as she felt herself rolling and heard herself screaming, a cool, distant part of her was listing off all the horrifying details of what she’d endure if she didn’t die immediately.

But she was in the Capitol now. If the rebels won, they’d have access to its medical technology. If she could hold on long enough for them to get her to a doctor, maybe she’d live.

Was she still burning? She couldn’t feel anything now – not pain, not heat, not even her body touching the ground. She must be in shock. Shock, and full-thickness burns over most of her body. Even with Capitol technology, there was probably no surviving that.

If the rebels won, but Prim died, what would that do to Katniss?

Prim couldn’t die. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. As she felt herself fading away, she held tight to that promise, and took it into the darkness with her.

Prim’s first coherent thought was, Capitol technology is better than I realized.

She vaguely recalled an eternity of pain and confusion, of bright lights shining in her eyes and cold metal slicing into her body. But now she lay in bed, under a warm blanket, and she felt no pain.

They had fixed her. She was alive. They had won.

Katniss must be waiting for Prim to wake up.

Prim opened her eyes.

She lay in a small white room, with only a few wires and tubes connecting her to machines. A man with purple eyes, hair, eyebrows, and elaborate swirling tattoos stood beside the bed, checking a monitor. At the foot of the bed stood the last person Prim would have expected: Coin, the president of District Thirteen. As Prim blinked in surprise, the air seemed to shimmer around Coin. Prim blinked again, deliberately, and the shimmer went away.

“Where’s Kat…” Prim’s words trailed off as she heard her own voice. It was hoarse as Buttercup’s rusty meows.

“You’ll see your sister soon enough,” said Coin. She turned to the purple man. “Well? How soon can you get her on her feet?”

The man flinched, bringing one hand up as if to block a blow. His fingernails were also purple. Then he hastily dropped his hand. “Today, President Coin. Now, if you like. Her muscular strength and lung capacity have been brought up to their previous levels – better, actually, I would think.” He let out a high-pitched, nervous giggle.

“Then get her up,” said Coin impatiently.

The doctor flipped down the blanket, sending a rush of cool air over Prim. She started to sit up, but was caught by the sight of her own body, barely covered by a flimsy gown: her legs, both covered in shiny, mottled scar tissue. Her right arm, the same. And her left… Incredulously, Prim raised her left arm, then closed her left hand into a fist. The rods and pulleys of the prosthesis smoothly clicked into place. A perfect replica of the bones and tendons of a human arm was attached to her shoulder, made of some light metal that looked like steel.

Dazed, Prim didn’t resist as the purple doctor tugged her to her feet. She wobbled, dizzy, but her weakness slowly ebbed as the man led her in circles around the room. The bottoms of her feet were tender, her calluses gone. She had none of the stiffness and limited range of motion that she should have had, with so much scar tissue. If they could re-grow damaged muscle and tissue, why couldn’t they have given her back her smooth pale skin? They had erased Katniss’s scars after her first Hunger Games. And why not give Prim a natural-looking prosthesis, like Peeta’s leg?

She halted, making the doctor stumble, then turned to stare at Coin. The air once again briefly shimmered around her.

“I want a mirror.” Prim’s voice was as raspy as before. Smoke and fire damage to her vocal cords, no doubt.

Coin’s lips twitched into something like a smile. “Are you sure?”

“I’m a medic,” said Prim. “I know what to expect.”

“I doubt that,” said Coin.

She snapped her fingers at the doctor, who fumbled at a switch on the wall. One white wall now reflected another white wall, a purple man, a gray-haired woman… and a girl Prim barely recognized. A girl with one arm of red flesh and one of steel bones. A girl with red rippled scars covering the top half of her face, as if she was masked. A girl with unnatural silver eyes.

“What happened to my eyes?” Prim asked.

“They were burned,” said the doctor. “Destroyed. We had to replace them. Luckily, the nerves weren’t damaged, or you’d be blind. That’s the one thing we can’t make from scratch. Maybe next year, if we get the funding.” He glanced hopefully at Coin, then cringed when she turned her expressionless gray gaze toward him.

“You may leave,” said Coin.

The doctor fled.

Part of Prim wanted to throw herself down on the bed and sob. Part of her wanted to laugh in delight that she was alive, and could walk and see and feel. Part wanted to demand of Coin why she had been deliberately altered to look damaged and strange. But the part of her that had taken over as she burned, the cool cautious part that thought and analyzed, was the one that spoke. “When can I see my sister?”

“Katniss is under the impression that you’re dead,” said Coin. “It will be a lovely surprise for her to find out that you aren’t. Unfortunately, your sister turned out to be a traitor. She tried to shoot me with one of those trademark arrows of hers. But I was protected by a force field.”

Coin lightly slapped at her own chest. The air shimmered, and her hand bounced away.

Prim’s thoughts spun in frantic circles. Was that true? Why would Coin lie? Was that why Prim had been altered, as punishment for Katniss? Wouldn’t it have been a worse punishment to have simply let Prim die?

“I wanted to find out who was loyal to me,” Coin explained, sounding as calm and reasonable as if she was telling Prim the day’s schedule. “So I let Katniss think you were dead. I wanted to see what she’d do if she wasn’t worried about protecting you. She and her friends took the opportunity to try to assassinate me and take over. But first, they voted to hold the next Hunger Games with Capitol children as tributes.”

“I don’t believe that,” Prim blurted out. “Katniss would never do that.”

Coin’s pale eyes narrowed. “I see. You have no trouble believing that your sister would try to murder me, but you find it impossible to believe that she’d vote to lawfully hold Hunger Games with enemy tributes?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I don’t believe either!” Prim’s stumbling, raspy words sounded false even to herself.

“You were right the first time,” said Coin. “Katniss only voted for the Games in order to get an opportunity to assassinate me. She never thought they’d actually be held. But they will be. And you…”

Coin paused, giving Prim plenty of time to realize what Coin was going to say next. Prim’s ears were ringing, and she couldn’t feel the floor under her feet. Everything seemed unreal. Maybe she was going to pass out. People did sometimes, from purely emotional shock. But the feeling faded, leaving Prim standing with her sore feet on a cold hard floor, very much awake, in the grip of a terror she hadn’t felt when her home had been bombed, hadn’t felt when she’d gone to war, hadn’t even felt when the bomb had exploded in her face and she’d been eaten alive by fire.

She’d felt it, though, when her name had been called at the reaping.

“You’ll be a tribute,” said Coin. “And your sister will be your mentor.”

People talked about anger like it felt hot, but for Prim it had always felt cold. A sensation like icy water flowed down from her head to her toes, until her whole body was chilled. When she spoke, she felt as if her words would freeze and snap like frostbitten plants. “You can force me into the arena, but you can’t force me to kill.”

Coin shrugged. “Once you’re there, you can do whatever you like. It’s your death.”

Chapter Text

When Katniss woke up, the other side of the bed was as warm as if someone had been sleeping there. But it was only the temperature-controlled mattress. Prim was dead. Peeta had been hijacked. Gale had invented the bombs that had killed Prim. Everyone Katniss had loved best was dead or damaged beyond recovery, and no one would ever share her bed again. Tears began to leak out of her still-closed eyes as she stretched out her hand, knowing she would touch only emptiness.

A sharp pain slashed across her hand, accompanied by a vicious hiss. Katniss threw herself backward, fell out of bed, and slammed into the floor. Buttercup hissed again, triumphantly. Katniss opened her eyes, and met the cat’s malignant yellow stare.

Buttercup spat at her, then stalked to the food dispenser and began pacing back and forth in front of it, yowling demandingly.

“Like I care if you starve,” Katniss muttered.

But that ugly cat was all that she had left of Prim. And every day, even if she hadn’t bothered to eat anything herself, she’d gone obediently to the food dispenser for his sake. Buttercup was like the anti-Finnick, getting people to cater to him by sheer force of unlikability.

Katniss got up and fed the beast, then walked to the bathroom, stripped, and looked at her body in the mirror. They had smoothed away all her scars, from hunting and from the Games and from the war. Her burns had been the last thing she’d ever shared with Prim, and Katniss would have kept the pain and scars of them if she’d had a choice. That was probably why they’d been taken from her. Everything she had been given, from her creepily perfect skin to her very life, was a subtle form of punishment.

She’d expected Coin to kill her, but Coin had been smarter than that. The point of the Hunger Games had never been to make the tributes suffer. It had been to use the suffering of the tributes as a warning to others. And the victors, left to live with their guilt and grief, were the best warnings of all.

It was the day of the reaping. Katniss would be assigned some Capitol brat or young rebel traitor to mentor and watch die. That, too, would be a warning to all.

When she stepped out of the shower, she noticed that her tears no longer flowed. That was strange. She’d hardly ever stopped crying since Prim had died, not even when they’d found Peeta and Cinna alive in the Capitol cells, or when it became clear that Cinna, at least, had survived the war with his heart and mind intact.

The pain of grief was still there, like a sucking hole in the middle of her chest. But for the first time, she could feel other things too: a touch of pity for the new tributes. A blaze of anger at Coin. And a dizzying lightness and freedom that came from having nothing left to lose. Maybe there was some small way she could strike back at Coin. But first, she had to get out of her room.

Katniss rummaged through the wardrobe, and put on black pants, black boots, and a white shirt. They didn’t allow her sharp objects, so she used her teeth to rip into the sleeves of a black jacket, then put it on and buttoned it up.

She had no idea where the bugs and hidden cameras were, but surely all angles were covered. Katniss pursed her lips and whistled Rue’s mockingjay signal, raised her arms to let the white flash through the black, and walked out the door.

The guards glanced up in surprise, but let her pass. The victors were allowed the freedom of the building. It, like the Capitol itself, was nothing more than a giant and luxurious prison cell.

Katniss was the last to arrive in the room where the victors had been ordered to gather to watch the reaping. She took in the scene at a glance. Predictably, Enobaria, Johanna, and Finnick seemed unconcerned, munching snacks and sipping drinks as they watched the pre-reaping ceremonies on a screen that filled an entire wall. Even more predictably, Haymitch was slouched in a chair with a three-quarters-empty bottle in his hand. Katniss could smell the alcohol fumes from across the room. Beetee was using pliers and tweezers to build some tiny machine. Annie Cresta was curled up in a chair near Finnick, with her gaze fixed on some distant point. Peeta was curled up in another chair, far from anyone else, his eyes shifting back and forth and he scanned the room. And before Katniss could see what Gale had been doing when she’d arrived, he sprang up to stand between her and Peeta.

“Welcome back, Catnip,” said Gale.

Peeta face twisted with rage, and he rocketed out of the chair. Katniss leaped backward, her hands raising in automatic defense. Gale slammed Peeta back down into the chair and held him down by the shoulders. Peeta struggled, then fell back, gasping.

Katniss’s heart was pounding, and her breath came fast. But she tried to make her voice gentle. “It’s me, Peeta. Remember?”

“I remember you trying to kill me!” Peeta shouted. Then he looked confused. “No. That wasn’t real. Was it?”

“It wasn’t real,” Katniss said. He blinked at her, seeming to listen. Maybe she was getting through this time. “I saved your life. Remember? In the cave? Your leg was infected. You had a fever. I brought you broth and medicine.”

His fists clenched. “I remember you tying me down on a table. You cut into me with a knife. You cut off my leg.” He frowned. “No, that’s not it. You put leaves on my leg, to heal it.”

“That’s right,” Katniss said.

But Peeta spoke over her. “You cut off my leg.” His words came faster and faster, tumbling over each other, louder and more frantic with each repetition. “You put leaves on my leg. You cut off my leg. You put leaves on my leg. You cut off--”

“Will someone get him out of here?” Enobaria demanded. “I’m trying to watch the show.”

When no one responded, she slammed her hand down on the table, making a crack like a gunshot. Katniss jumped. Peeta tried to throw himself backward. The chair tipped, but Gale grabbed it and set it back upright.

“It’s all right,” said Gale. “You’re with friends.”

Peeta stared wildly into Gale’s eyes, then started to scream.

Katniss instinctively stepped toward him, then froze. If she went near him, he’d try to kill her.

Haymitch staggered to his feet and beckoned to Beetee. “I’ve seen enough reapings. Think I can skip this one.”

As he weaved his way toward Peeta, he seemed to see Katniss for the first time. “Morning, sweetheart. Help yourself to the rest of the bottle.”

In what looked like a practiced move, he and Beetee took Peeta from Gale’s grasp and steered him out of the room. The door slammed behind them. To Katniss’s relief, it cut off all sound.

“Is Peeta any better when I’m not here?” Katniss asked.

“He’s quieter,” said Johanna. “I’d definitely call that an improvement.”

Gale shook his head. “Not that I’ve noticed. He spends most of his time in his room, though. I’ve tried going in to talk to him, but it mostly ends more-or-less like you just saw. Sorry, Catnip.”

Katniss sat down in the chair Peeta had vacated. It was still warm from his body. If only they’d managed to rescue him sooner. If only, if only, if only. If only Gale hadn’t designed those bombs. If only Prim had never been called at the reaping. If only Peeta had died in the arena. Katniss would have preferred death by infection to hijacking, and she suspected Peeta would too.

Sound boomed from the TV. Katniss flinched, then looked around for the control. There was none.

She sat up straight and angry, and stared at the screen. Coin had said she’d be forced to mentor, so she might as well see what poor kid she’d get stuck with. Maybe the Games would give her another opportunity to get at Coin. The President had to turn off her force field some time.

Katniss watched as representatives from each District lined up to draw the names of Capitol children. But before they could begin, there was a commotion in the audience of terrified waiting children.

“I volunteer!” A teenage girl was pushing her way forward. She was plain and dressed simply, and had none of the fashionable Capitol ornamentations. Her hair was so blonde as to look white.

The District representatives glanced at each other, confused, then let her take the stage. She stepped up to the microphone. “My name is Fausta Snow, and I volunteer as the first tribute. My grandfather was President Snow.” The camera cut to a close-up of her face. Katniss could see the resemblance now. The girl’s hair was not blonde, but white.

“I’m sure you all understand,” she concluded. She stepped aside, bowing her head humbly, and stood patiently while the announcers babbled about how surprised and impressed they were at her noble sacrifice.

“That girl’s got the making of a victor,” remarked Johanna. “Course, Coin will kill her first. Can’t let Snow’s granddaughter survive the Games.”

“Doesn’t she know that?” asked Katniss.

“Of course she does,” said Finnick. “She volunteered because she knew she’d be picked anyway. It’s rigged for sure. Or, at least, it’s rigged to make sure that certain people will be chosen. You notice how she didn’t say what she thought of her dear departed Grandpa. His supporters in the Capitol will think she volunteered in his honor, and some stupid people from the Districts will think she volunteered to make up for what he did. She’ll get more sponsors than any tribute since, well, me.”

There were no more volunteers. Katniss watched as terrified teenager after terrified teenager was escorted on to the stage. None of them looked like they could last a minute in the arena. Maybe none of them would kill each other, and they’d all be slaughtered by mutts. When a twelve-year-old boy vomited from fear onstage, Katniss got up, walked to the back of the room, and picked up Haymitch’s bottle.

“Primrose Everdeen!”

Katniss felt as if she was caught in a nightmare. Slowly, she turned around. A small blonde girl was walking toward the stage, with the back of her shirt untucked. She was burned and scarred, with one arm replaced with metal, but Katniss would have known her no matter how much she was changed.

“Prim!” The scream burst from Katniss’s throat without her volition.

Her vision went white, then red. Then black. The next thing she knew, she was across the room, smashing a chair into the screen until both splintered in a halo of sparks. Another blackout. Then she was on the other side of the room, throwing Haymitch’s bottle across the room. Then the rest of the bottles. Blackout. Then she was breaking a table against the floor. Blackout. Then Johanna, Gale, and Finnick were holding her down on the floor.

“They can’t do this!” Katniss was yelling so loudly that it felt as if her throat would rip apart from the force of it. “They can’t kill her again! Prim!”


The voice, too, had changed, and yet Katniss knew it. She froze.

Prim was standing in the doorway. Prim. Her baby sister. Alive.

They let go of Katniss, who scrambled to her feet. The sisters ran toward each other. Katniss threw her arms around Prim, and was held by one warm arm and one cold one. How long they stayed that way, Katniss didn’t know, but it felt like forever.

Finally, they broke apart.

“I’m sorry, Prim.” Gale’s voice was nearly as hoarse as Prim’s – Gale, who never cried, not even when he’d been whipped half to death.

“It’s okay,” Prim said. “Really, Gale. I know you'd never have meant to hurt me.”

Katniss shook her head. Prim was so sweet. Too sweet. How could she ever survive the arena?

Katniss took her by the shoulders and looked her in her strange new eyes. “Little duck, you’re going to have to learn to fight.”

Prim looked at Katniss doubtfully. “Katniss, I don’t think I could kill anyone.”

“You’ll have to.” Katniss felt wild, drunk on hope and joy, rage and fear. “Prim, I can’t lose you again!”

“I’ll hide in the trees, like Rue,” Prim said.

“And look how well that worked out for her,” remarked Johanna.

Katniss dug her fingers into Prim’s shoulders. “If you don’t do your best to survive, there’s no point me keeping your mangy cat alive.”

“You wouldn’t hurt Buttercup!” gasped Prim, jerking away. Then her silver eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t hurt Buttercup. No matter what happens to me.”

Johanna glanced up. “I don’t know about Katniss, but I have no qualms about cat-killing.”

“Me neither.” Enobaria bared her fangs. For the first time, Katniss warmed to her.

Prim’s lips trembled. For a moment Katniss saw her as the timid little girl she’d been when she’d first been called to the reaping. Then Prim pressed her lips together and stood up straight, with her good right hand and her prosthetic left both clenched in fists. Even apart from the brutal scars the fire and Capitol had inflicted on her, Prim had changed. The steel wasn’t only on the outside.

“I’ll do my best to survive.” Prim’s voice was rough and shaky, but she sounded resolute. “I’ll run. I’ll hide. But I won’t kill.”

Katniss ground her teeth in frustration. “No one’s ever survived the Hunger Games without killing,”

“Annie did,” Prim said.

“Annie didn’t,” came a soft voice.

Katniss jumped. She hadn’t even realized Annie had been following the conversation.

Prim, like everyone else, turned to stare at Annie. “I thought an earthquake broke the dam and flooded the arena. And you won because you were the best swimmer and everyone else drowned.”

“I was the best swimmer,” Annie echoed. “And everyone else drowned.”

She paused, tilting her head as if listening to a sound coming from the ceiling. Katniss couldn’t hear anything.

Annie spoke as if she was recounting a dream. “There were ten of us left. Five couldn’t swim. That left four, and me. I used to dive for abalone. Eat the flesh and keep the pretty shell. Salty and sweet. I can hold my breath for a very long time.”

“Annie…” Finnick began, then broke off, looking from Annie to Prim.

Annie’s gaze was fixed upward. “I swam underwater. They didn’t see me. The cameras didn’t see me. I’m looking for legs dangling down. White like pearls. Brown like sand. Grab an ankle, pull them down. Girl from One, boy from One, girl from Three, all close together. I have to search for the last one, the boy from Twelve. Thirteen years old, but he looks ten. Slippery as a minnow. I call him Minnow. I take him all the way down and push his face into the bottom until his lungs fill up with silt. Is it still called drowning, if it isn’t water that kills you?” Annie smiled at Prim, a sweet innocent smile that made Katniss shiver. “I can hold my breath for a very long time.”

In the silence that fell, Katniss heard the rods of Prim’s steel fingers click together as she too shuddered.

“I told you, Prim,” Katniss said. “No one can survive the Games without killing.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Prim’s voice was a scratchy whisper. “But…”

“But what?” Katniss shouted. “You’re not squeamish! You’ll do any sort of disgusting medical thing. I’ve seen you stand over a screaming man and stuff a rag into his mouth, then go fetch our mother the saw.”

“And then Catnip ran into the woods to throw up,” Gale added.

Katniss kicked his ankle, but gave him a little smile at the same time. She would never be able to look at him again without thinking of his role in what had happened to Prim, but she was glad he was backing her up now.

“You can do it, Prim,” Gale went on. “When someone’s coming at you, trying to kill you… You’ll be surprised how easy it is to do whatever you have to do to survive.”

“Absolutely,” said Johanna, echoed by Finnick and, to Katniss’s annoyance, Enobaria. None of them were what Prim was likely to consider a role model, and Katniss especially didn’t want Prim to think defending herself meant she’d have to tear out someone’s throat with her teeth.

“I’ll try,” Prim said at last. “Now can we please talk about something else? Just for a little while? Katniss, do you have your own room?”

“Yes, let’s go there.”

With immense relief, Katniss took Prim back to her room, where Prim had a joyous reunion with her hideous cat. Buttercup seemed overjoyed as well. The girls lay together on Katniss’s bed, with Buttercup curled at Prim’s feet. They hardly spoke, but then again, there was nothing to talk about that wouldn’t be some sort of reminder of what had happened, and what was to come.

Katniss lay stroking Prim’s soft hair. She refused to think of Prim dying. Prim being torn apart by mutts. Prim being stabbed to death by some spoiled Capitol kid. Prim being executed by Coin, on the miraculous chance that she actually won.

Prim was alive now. She was alive. And Coin had to keep her that way at least until she entered the arena. After that… Well, tributes had been broken out of the arena once before, and Haymitch had organized a conspiracy under the nose of the Capitol once before. It had to be possible again. And this time, with her sister’s life at stake, Katniss was determined to be more than a pawn in someone else’s game.