Chapter Twenty-Four

24.

Where is she? What are they doing to her? "Prim!" I cry out. "Prim!" Only another agonized scream answers me. How did she get here? Why is she part of the Games? "Prim!"

Vines cut into my face and arms, creepers grab my feet. But I am getting closer to her. Closer. Very close now. Sweat pours down my face, stinging the healing acid wounds. I pant, trying to get some use out of the warm, moist air that seems empty of oxygen. Prim makes a sound - such a lost, irretrievable sound - that I can't even imagine what they have done to evoke it.

"Prim!" I rip through a wall of green into a small clearing and the sound repeats directly above me. Above me? My head whips back. Do they have her up in the trees? I desperately search the branches but see nothing. "Prim?" I say pleadingly. I hear her but can't see her. Her next wail rings out, clear as a bell, and there's no mistaking the source. It's coming from the mouth of a small, crested black bird perched on a branch about ten feet over my head. And then I understand.

It's a jabberjay.

I've never seen one before - I thought they no longer existed - and for a moment, as I lean against the trunk of the tree, clutching the stitch in my side, I examine it. The muttation, the forerunner, the father. I pull up a mental image of a mockingbird, fuse it with the jabberjay, and yes, I can see how they mated to make my mockingjay. There is nothing about the bird that suggests it's a mutt. Nothing except the horribly lifelike sounds of Prim's voice streaming from its mouth. I silence it with an arrow in its throat. The bird falls to the ground. I remove my arrow and wring its neck for good measure. Then I hurl the revolting thing into the jungle. No degree of hunger would ever tempt me to eat it.

It wasn't real, I tell myself. The same way the muttation wolves last year weren't really the dead tributes. It's just a sadistic trick of the Gamemakers.

Finnick crashes into the clearing to find me wiping my arrow clean with some moss. "Katniss?"

"It's okay. I'm okay," I say, although I don't feel okay at all. "I thought I heard my sister but - " The piercing shriek cuts me off. It's another voice, not Prim's, maybe a young woman's. I don't recognize it. But the effect on Finnick is instantaneous. The color vanishes from his face and I can actually see his pupils dilate in fear. "Finnick, wait!" I say, reaching out to reassure him, but he's bolted away. Gone off in pursuit of the victim, as mindlessly as I pursued Prim. "Finnick!" I call, but I know he won't turn back and wait for me to give a rational explanation. So all I can do is follow him.

It's no effort to track him, even though he's moving so fast, since he leaves a clear, trampled path in his wake. But the bird is at least a quarter mile away, most of it uphill, and by the time I reach him, I'm winded. He's circling around a giant tree. The trunk must be four feet in diameter and the limbs don't even begin until twenty feet up. The woman's shrieks emanate from somewhere in the foliage, but the jabberjay's concealed. Finnick's screaming as well, over and over. "Annie! Annie!" He's in a state of panic and completely unreachable, so I do what I would do anyway. I scale an adjacent tree, locate the jabberjay, and take it out with an arrow. It falls straight down, landing right at Finnick's feet. He picks it up, slowly making the connection, but when I slide down to join him, he looks more despairing than ever.

"It's all right, Finnick. It's just a jabberjay. They're playing a trick on us," I say. "It's not real. It's not your ... Annie."

"No, it's not Annie. But the voice was hers. Jabberjays mimic what they hear. Where did they get those screams, Katniss?" he says.

I can feel my own cheeks grow pale as I understand his meaning. "Oh, Finnick, you don't think they ..."

"Yes. I do. That's exactly what I think," he says.

I have an image of Prim in a white room, strapped to a table, while masked, robed figures elicit those sounds from her. Somewhere they are torturing her, or did torture her, to get those sounds. My knees turn to water and I sink to the ground. Finnick is trying to tell me something, but I can't hear him. What I do finally hear is another bird starting up somewhere off to my left. And this time, the voice is Gale's.

Finnick catches my arm before I can run. "No. It's not him." He starts pulling me downhill, toward the beach. "We're getting out of here!" But Gale's voice is so full of pain I can't help struggling to reach it. "It's not him, Katniss! It's a mutt!" Finnick shouts at me. "Come on!" He moves me along, half dragging, half carrying me, until I can process what he said. He's right, it's just another jabberjay. I can't help Gale by chasing it down. But that doesn't change the fact that it is Gale's voice, and somewhere, sometime, someone has made him sound like this.

I stop fighting Finnick, though, and like the night in the fog, I flee what I can't fight. What can only do me harm. Only this time it's my heart and not my body that's disintegrating. This must be another weapon of the clock. Four o'clock, I guess. When the hands tick-tock onto the four, the monkeys go home and the jabberjays come out to play. Finnick is right - getting out of here is the only thing to do. Although there will be nothing Haymitch can send in a parachute that will help either Finnick or me recover from the wounds the birds have inflicted.

I catch sight of Peeta and Johanna standing at the tree line and I'm filled with a mixture of relief and anger. Why didn't Peeta come to help me? Why did no one come after us? Even now he hangs back, his hands raised, palms toward us, lips moving but no words reaching us. Why?,

The wall is so transparent, Finnick and I run smack into it and bounce back onto the jungle floor. I'm lucky. My shoulder took the worst of the impact, whereas Finnick hit face-first and now his nose is gushing blood. This is why Peeta and Johanna and even Beetee, who I see sadly shaking his head behind them, have not come to our aid. An invisible barrier blocks the area in front of us. It's not a force field. You can touch the hard, smooth surface all you like. But Peeta's knife and Johanna's ax can't make a dent in it. I know, without checking more than a few feet to one side, that it encloses the entire four-to-five-o'clock wedge. That we will be trapped like rats until the hour passes.

Peeta presses his hand against the surface and I put my own up to meet it, as if I can feel him through the wall. I see his lips moving but I can't hear him, can't hear anything outside our wedge. I try to make out what he's saying, but I can't focus, so I just stare at his face, doing my best to hang on to my sanity.

Then the birds begin to arrive. One by one. Perching in the surrounding branches. And a carefully orchestrated chorus of horror begins to spill out of their mouths. Finnick gives up at once, hunching on the ground, clenching his hands over his ears as if he's trying to crush his skull. I try to fight for a while. Emptying my quiver of arrows into the hated birds. But every time one drops dead, another quickly takes its place. And finally I give up and curl up beside Finnick, trying to block out the excruciating sounds of Prim, Gale, my mother, Madge, Rory, Vick, even Posy, helpless little Posy...

I know it's stopped when I feel Peeta's hands on me, feel myself lifted from the ground and out of the jungle. But I stay eyes squeezed shut, hands over my ears, muscles too rigid to release. Peeta holds me on his lap, speaking soothing words, rocking me gently. It takes a long time before I begin to relax the iron grip on my body. And when I do, the trembling begins.

"It's all right, Katniss," he whispers.

"You didn't hear them," I answer.

"I heard Prim. Right in the beginning. But it wasn't her," he says. "It was a jabberjay."

"It was her. Somewhere. The jabberjay just recorded it," I say.

"No, that's what they want you to think. The same way I wondered if Glimmer's eyes were in that mutt last year. But those weren't Glimmer's eyes. And that wasn't Prim's voice. Or if it was, they took it from an interview or something and distorted the sound. Made it say whatever she was saying," he says.

"No, they were torturing her," I answer. "She's probably dead."

"Katniss, Prim isn't dead. How could they kill Prim? We're almost down to the final eight of us. And what happens then?" Peeta says.

"Seven more of us die," I say hopelessly.

"No, back home. What happens when they reach the final eight tributes in the Games?" He lifts my chin so I have to look at him. Forces me to make eye contact. "What happens? At the final eight?"

I know he's trying to help me, so I make myself think. "At the final eight?" I repeat. "They interview your family and friends back home."

"That's right," says Peeta. "They interview your family and friends. And can they do that if they've killed them all?"

"No?" I ask, still unsure.

"No. That's how we know Prim's alive. She'll be the first one they interview, won't she?" he asks.

I want to believe him. Badly. It's just ... those voices ...

"First Prim. Then your mother. Your cousin, Gale. Madge," he continues. "It was a trick, Katniss. A horrible one. But we're the only ones who can be hurt by it. We're the ones in the Games. Not them."

"You really believe that?" I say.

"I really do," says Peeta. I waver, thinking of how Peeta can make anyone believe anything. I look over at Finnick for confirmation, see he's fixated on Peeta, his words.

"Do you believe it, Finnick?" I ask.

"It could be true. I don't know," he says. "Could they do that, Beetee? Take someone's regular voice and make it ..."

"Oh, yes. It's not even that difficult, Finnick. Our children learn a similar technique in school," says Beetee.

"Of course Peeta's right. The whole country adores Katniss's little sister. If they really killed her like this, they'd probably have an uprising on their hands," says Johanna flatly. "Don't want that, do they?" She throws back her head and shouts, "Whole country in rebellion? Wouldn't want anything like that!"

My mouth drops open in shock. No one, ever, says anything like this in the Games. Absolutely, they've cut away from Johanna, are editing her out. But I have heard her and can never think about her again in the same way. She'll never win any awards for kindness, but she certainly is gutsy. Or crazy. She picks up some shells and heads toward the jungle. "I'm getting water," she says.

I can't help catching her hand as she passes me. "Don't go in there. The birds - " I remember the birds must be gone, but I still don't want anyone in there. Not even her.

"They can't hurt me. I'm not like the rest of you. There's no one left I love," Johanna says, and frees her hand with an impatient shake. When she brings me back a shell of water, I take it with a silent nod of thanks, knowing how much she would despise the pity in my voice.

While Johanna collects water and my arrows, Beetee fiddles with his wire, and Finnick takes to the water. I need to clean up, too, but I stay in Peeta's arms, still too shaken to move.

"Who did they use against Finnick?" he asks.

"Somebody named Annie," I say.

"Must be Annie Cresta," he says.

"Who?" I ask.

"Annie Cresta. She was the girl Mags volunteered for. She won about five years ago," says Peeta.

That would have been the summer after my father died, when I first began feeding my family, when my whole being was occupied with battling starvation. "I don't remember those Games much," I say. "Was that the earthquake year?"

"Yeah. Annie's the one who went mad when her district partner got beheaded. Ran off by herself and hid. But an earthquake broke a dam and most of the arena got flooded. She won because she was the best swimmer," says Peeta.

"Did she get better after?" I ask. "I mean, her mind?"

"I don't know. I don't remember ever seeing her at the Games again. But she didn't look too stable during the reaping this year," says Peeta.

So that's who Finnick loves, I think. Not his string of fancy lovers in the Capitol. But a poor, mad girl back home.

A cannon blast brings us all together on the beach. A hovercraft appears in what we estimate to be the six-to-seven-o'clock zone. We watch as the claw dips down five different times to retrieve the pieces of one body, torn apart. It's impossible to tell who it was. Whatever happens at six o'clock, I never want to know.

Peeta draws a new map on a leaf, adding a JJ for jabberjays in the four-to-five-o'clock section and simply writing beast in the one where we saw the tribute collected in pieces. We now have a good idea of what seven of the hours will bring. And if there's any positive to the jabberjay attack, it's that it let us know where we are on the clock face again.

Finnick weaves yet another water basket and a net for fishing. I take a quick swim and put more ointment on my skin. Then I sit at the edge of the water, cleaning the fish Finnick catches and watching the sun drop below the horizon. The bright moon is already on the rise, filling the arena with that strange twilight. We're about to settle down to our meal of raw fish when the anthem begins. And then the faces ...

Cashmere. Gloss. Wiress. Mags. The woman from District 5. The morphling who gave her life for Peeta. Blight. The man from 10.

Eight dead. Plus eight from the first night. Two-thirds of us gone in a day and a half. That must be some kind of record.

"They're really burning through us," says Johanna. "Who's left? Besides us five and District Two?" asks Finnick.

"Chaff," says Peeta, without needing to think about it. Perhaps he's been keeping an eye out for him because of Haymitch.

A parachute comes down with a pile of bite-sized square-shaped rolls. "These are from your district, right, Beetee?" Peeta asks.

"Yes, from District Three," he says. "How many are there?"

Finnick counts them, turning each one over in his hands before he sets it in a neat configuration. I don't know what it is with Finnick and bread, but he seems obsessed with handling it. "Twenty-four," he says.

"An even two dozen, then?" says Beetee.

"Twenty-four on the nose," says Finnick. "How should we divide them?"

"Let's each have three, and whoever is still alive at breakfast can take a vote on the rest," says Johanna. I don't know why this makes me laugh a little. I guess because it's true. When I do, Johanna gives me a look that's almost approving. No, not approving. But maybe slightly pleased.

We wait until the giant wave has flooded out of the ten-to-eleven-o'clock section, wait for the water to recede, and then go to that beach to make camp. Theoretically, we should have a full twelve hours of safety from the jungle. There's an unpleasant chorus of clicking, probably from some evil type of insect, coming from the eleven-to-twelve-o'clock wedge. But whatever is making the sound stays within the confines of the jungle and we keep off that part of the beach in case they're just waiting for a carelessly placed footfall to swarm out.

I don't know how Johanna's still on her feet. She's only had about an hour of sleep since the Games started. Peeta and I volunteer for the first watch because we're better rested, and because we want some time alone. The others go out immediately, although Finnick's sleep is restless. Every now and then I hear him murmuring Annie's name.

Peeta and I sit on the damp sand, facing away from each other, my right shoulder and hip pressed against his. I watch the water as he watches the jungle, which is better for me. I'm still haunted by the voices of the jabberjays, which unfortunately the insects can't drown out. After a while I rest my head against his shoulder. Feel his hand caress my hair.

"Katniss," he says softly, "it's no use pretending we don't know what the other one is trying to do." No, I guess there isn't, but it's no fun discussing it, either. Well, not for us, anyway. The Capitol viewers will be glued to their sets so they don't miss one wretched word.

"I don't know what kind of deal you think you've made with Haymitch, but you should know he made me promises as well." Of course, I know this, too. He told Peeta they could keep me alive so that he wouldn't be suspicious. "So I think we can assume he was lying to one of us."

This gets my attention. A double deal. A double promise. With only Haymitch knowing which one is real. I raise my head, meet Peeta's eyes. "Why are you saying this now?"

"Because I don't want you forgetting how different our circumstances are. If you die, and I live, there's no life for me at all back in District Twelve. You're my whole life," he says. "I would never be happy again." I start to object but he puts a finger to my lips. "It's different for you. I'm not saying it wouldn't be hard. But there are other people who'd make your life worth living."

Peeta pulls the chain with the gold disk from around his neck. He holds it in the moonlight so I can clearly see the mockingjay. Then his thumb slides along a catch I didn't notice before and the disk pops open. It's not solid, as I had thought, but a locket. And within the locket are photos. On the right side, my mother and Prim, laughing. And on the left, Gale. Actually smiling.

There is nothing in the world that could break me faster at this moment than these three faces. After what I heard this afternoon ... it is the perfect weapon.

"Your family needs you, Katniss," Peeta says.

My family. My mother. My sister. And my pretend cousin Gale. But Peeta's intention is clear. That Gale really is my family, or will be one day, if I live. That I'll marry him. So Peeta's giving me his life and Gale at the same time. To let me know I shouldn't ever have doubts about it.

Everything. That's what Peeta wants me to take from him.

I wait for him to mention the baby, to play to the cameras, but he doesn't. And that's how I know that none of this is part of the Games. That he is telling me the truth about what he feels.

"No one really needs me," he says, and there's no self-pity in his voice. It's true his family doesn't need him. They will mourn him, as will a handful of friends. But they will get on. Even Haymitch, with the help of a lot of white liquor, will get on. I realize only one person will be damaged beyond repair if Peeta dies. Me.

"I do," I say. "I need you." He looks upset, takes a deep breath as if to begin a long argument, and that's no good, no good at all, because he'll start going on about Prim and my mother and everything and I'll just get confused. So before he can talk, I stop his lips with a kiss.

I feel that thing again. The thing I only felt once before. In the cave last year, when I was trying to get Haymitch to send us food. I kissed Peeta about a thousand times during those Games and after. But there was only one kiss that made me feel something stir deep inside. Only one that made me want more. But my head wound started bleeding and he made me lie down.

This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.

It's the first crack of the lightning storm - the bolt hitting the tree at midnight - that brings us to our senses. It rouses Finnick as well. He sits up with a sharp cry. I see his fingers digging into the sand as he reassures himself that whatever nightmare he inhabited wasn't real.

"I can't sleep anymore," he says. "One of you should rest." Only then does he seem to notice our expressions, the way we're wrapped around each other. "Or both of you. I can watch alone."

Peeta won't let him, though. "It's too dangerous," he says. "I'm not tired. You lie down, Katniss." I don't object because I do need to sleep if I'm to be of any use keeping him alive. I let him lead me over to where the others are. He puts the chain with the locket around my neck, then rests his hand over the spot where our baby would be. "You're going to make a great mother, you know," he says. He kisses me one last time and goes back to Finnick.

His reference to the baby signals that our time-out from the Games is over. That he knows the audience will be wondering why he hasn't used the most persuasive argument in his arsenal. That sponsors must be manipulated.

But as I stretch out on the sand I wonder, could it be more? Like a reminder to me that I could still one day have kids with Gale? Well, if that was it, it was a mistake. Because for one thing, that's never been part of my plan.

And for another, if only one of us can be a parent, anyone can see it should be Peeta.

As I drift off, I try to imagine that world, somewhere in the future, with no Games, no Capitol. A place like the meadow in the song I sang to Rue as she died. Where Peeta's child could be safe.

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