When I finish, Katniss has Peeta talking about how his parents feel about him liking a Seam girl. Personally, I doubt that Danny would mind much, though this particular girl -- Ruth and Glen's firstborn -- is probably an awkward thought for him. Mir, on the other hand, is probably hyperventilating at the very thought of a gray-eyed girl eating at her table.
"Anyway," Peeta says, "if we make it back, you won't be a girl from the Seam. You'll be a girl from Victors' Village."
Katniss makes a face. "But then, our only neighbor will be Haymitch!"
Chaff is just turning to me to make a joke about this, probably a quip about what a lousy neighbor I'll make, when he suddenly stands up and yells, "No!"
I look at the main screen.
Coverage has suddenly cut away from Katniss and Peeta and their domestic comedy in the cave, and returned to the Hunger Games.
The rain has turned the field around the Cornucopia into a sea of mud, and the swollen creek is overflowing the sides of the ravine, and the lake is well outside of its banks. Finch is crawling around in circles in the mud, trying to make her confused way to the Cornucopia, and not doing well at all. Thresh, who's been looking for high ground for an hour or so (boring Chaff to tears) has turned to set his sights on the forest instead, where the rain seems to be draining better.
What he doesn't see -- and neither does Chaff, because for once, Brutus hasn't been bragging; we should have been suspicious -- is that Cato has been using the sound of the driving rain to mask his own approach. Dressed in his cracked armor, he's used the grass and the mud for cover, and he emerges now from the mud, a twisted, capering image of Peeta's emergence from under the rock. He rises up with a war cry and attacks Thresh from behind.
Thresh responds quickly, but they're locked into a fight now, and after twenty-four years, I understand the Games well enough to know that this isn't one of their minor skirmishes. This is going to end with one of them dead. They're both in armor, so the machete that Thresh carries and the sword in Cato's hands only serve as prods. The real goal is the raging water. The first to be pushed in will die, especially if the other has done any kind of damage first.
"This is it," Cato says, thrusting at him with the sword. "You die now."
Thresh shoves him back.
Neither of the boys has noticed Finch, and I'm not sure she's aware of either of them as she crawls through the mud. She groans.
Thresh picks it up somehow and looks over his shoulder. Cato strikes him with the flat of the sword, knocking him down. Thresh is able to block the flurry of blows, even able to knock Cato down with a blow to the knees, but neither of them can get a look on the other.
Cato skids backward, directly into the path of one of Finch's wild loops. He raises his sword at her.
Thresh runs at him and knocks him into the mud. "Let her go. She's as good as dead. You don't need to waste your time on her."
Finch looks up, fully conscious of her companions for the first time. She stares at Thresh with wide eyes.
Cato laughs. "You in this to win, or save skinny little girls?" He raises his sword at Finch.
Thresh moves in to block it. "Oh, yeah. Big man, killing a dying girl."
Seeder gasps, reading Cato's move just a second before Chaff and I do.
He waits until Thresh is fully committed to the block, inside the radius of the swing. Then, instead of turning the sword on him, he thrusts backwards with the hilt, catching Thresh in his unprotected face. Even over the rain, the arena microphones catch an unspeakable crunching sound.
Thresh's forehead caves in and he falls.
Cato pushes him into the raging water. "That's for Clove," he says. "Maybe you should have saved her, too."
The cannon goes off.
Cato has entirely forgotten about Finch. He's standing at the edge of the water, glaring after Thresh's body with undisguised hate. Finch gets to her feet and launches herself at Cato, a guided missile. She'd have no chance if he fought her, but she isn't out for a fight.
She shoves him over the edge and into the water. He disappears into the current.
She falls back to her knees and begins to retch, moaning piteously to the sky. She hasn't played their game so far, not until now, and she can't handle it. I'm reminded forcibly of Annie Cresta, and I know that Finnick will be as well.
The cameras remain lovingly on her as her mind comes apart on national television.
"I need to call home," Chaff says dully.
I put a hand on his shoulder, which he acknowledges with a nod, then he gets up and goes to the booths.
It's obvious that Finch believes that she's killed Cato, but the Gamemakers know better. They establish contact with his tracker, and show him climbing out of the water on the far side, coughing and dazed, even as Finch rolls over and begins to crawl toward the woods, batting uselessly at her ears.
Chaff comes back a few minutes later. I tap Effie's shoulder to watch the phones, and Seeder and I lead him over to the lounge. He orders a large brandy.
"The family's under guard," he says. "His grandmother and his sister. The parents are dead."
"What are they pretending to guard them from?"
He laughs without any humor at all. "Supposedly, the people are up in arms about Thresh 'throwing away' a victory." He looks up at one of the televisions on the wall, where Peacekeepers in Eleven are now extolling Thresh's good citizenship. "Apparently, they've been upset about that since about the time Rue died. There are orchards burning. Maybe some cotton fields." He throws his half full glass into the wall.
It doesn't shatter. It thuds to the floor without much drama. The brandy is running down the table onto my skin, and the smell is driving me crazy. I want to lick my hands. I don't. Instead, I think about the string bracelet. I pull on my sleeve to tighten it around my wrist. "That's a lot of anger," I say.
"Yeah, for all the good it'll do. No one in the Capitol is going hungry for it, I promise. It's us who'll starve this winter. Damn girl," he mutters without explanation.
"How are they?" Seeder asks. "Dayflower and Winnow, I mean."
"As well as you can expect," Chaff says. "As well as they ever are. At least they could see that he kept his mind right up to the end, even though he was alone the whole time. He kept his wits." He presses the heel of his remaining hand against his forehead, and I morbidly think of Cato's sword hilt. "I don't know how many more years of this I can take."
Above him, on the screen, I see Peeta looking up at the sky, reading the night's news. While Chaff calls for a fresh drink, he goes inside and tells Katniss. She goes to the back of the cave to mourn. I'll have to ask Effie what the commentators are claiming this is about -- they won't allow it to be what it clearly is -- but she's in no danger right now, and I have more important responsibilities. I sit with my old friends in the night-darkened lounge, as they have always sat with me, and give them what strength I have. We don't talk much.
Finnick comes down to join us just before eleven, and Johanna comes a few minutes later. Beetee is held up in a patent meeting.
Around midnight, Chaff decides that he's had enough of the Viewing Center for the year. Seeder takes him back to the Training Center apartments.
"It's easier when it's at the Cornucopia," Johanna says tentatively. "When you haven't had a chance to start, you know… thinking they might make it."
I shake my head. "No, it's not."
She doesn't push it.
Finnick orders up some hot chocolate and has the Capitol Dreams runners clear away the bottles and glasses Chaff left. He doesn't comment on this.
"Were you watching your feed at all?" he asks.
"Your feed. I tuned to it." He rolls his eyes. "Annie likes the story."
"Annie, nothing," Jo says. "You can't wait to see if they'll live happily ever after."
"But I know better. I like them, though."
I frown. "Did something happen? It looked like they were just talking."
"They were." He smiles. "As it happens, they were talking about you."
"It's true. They had a whole conversation about who you hate less."
"Oo, we've had that conversation," Jo says, picking up on a chance to turn the topic. "Personally, I think you hate me less than Finnick, because I don't remind you of your lost youth and beauty."
"You just did remind me of it, Jo. Again."
"Oops." She grins broadly.
I smile back at her. I can still see the hilt of Cato's sword going into Thresh's forehead, and hear Chaff wondering how many more years he can do this, but life is still going on here. And in the arena, apparently -- Katniss and Peeta are thinking about life on the other side of the Games. That's important.
"Peeta mentioned something about picnics and sitting around the fire telling old Hunger Games stories. Katniss seems to think you won't want her around for such good times."
"This was an actual topic of conversation? I'm going to send a parachute to take that picnic basket back. No one's going to be interested in that."
"They're not going to re-run it, anyway," Finnick says. "Given that they segued from that into figuring out that you won by outsmarting the Gamemakers." He shrugs. "Well, Peeta said you outsmarted the others, but it's pretty clear that they both know who's really getting outsmarted."
"What do you mean, 'figuring out'?" Jo asks. "Don't you ever… I don't know, go to the schools and talk about it? Jack and Blight and I do that. Plus, re-runs."
"No one at the school wants me there, and they don't re-run my Games."
She frowns. "You know, I never thought about that. I never have seen yours."
"You watch other people's?"
"I don't sleep much. Never did. I'd watch whatever they had on. How did you win?"
"Bled out slower than the girl from One," I say.
Finnick shakes his head. "He used the forcefield on the arena as a weapon."
"Yeah. I watched the highlight reel at Mags's a few times -- worst editing ever; you must have really annoyed them -- but I've picked up a bunch of other things over my years as an Abernathy groupie. He was telling stories, talking philosophy…"
"Not fascinated," Jo says.
"That's because you're hard-hearted." He sticks his tongue out at her. "Anyway, I heard he even jammed up their mutt delivery systems. Not that it would have made the reel."
I wonder briefly where he heard about that, but I guess it could be anywhere. Chaff, maybe, or Plutarch. More likely, Mags. She'd have been here watching. I guess I never really thought about that. She's never mentioned it.
"Do we have to talk about this?" I ask.
"Do you ever talk about it?" Finnick is still smiling, but a serious look has started to creep into his eyes. "You should. If you don't want to tell us, you should tell them when we get them out. They've earned it, and you need to do it."
"Is victor therapy your new talent?" I ask.
He could take it badly -- as some kind of a slur on Annie, which would put me in the direct sights of the victor with the most kills in Games history -- but he doesn't. Instead, he gives his stage grin and says, "Hey, you have to admit… it would be a lucrative business."
Johanna throws an olive at him, and serious talk is done for the evening.
Effie and I each get a couple of hours of sleep, but this close to the end, with only Cato and Finch left on the field, neither of us can stay under for very long. We're both up with the sun, groggily drinking coffee when the kids wake up in the cave. At some point during the night, the rain stopped, and the sun is out. Katniss means to go hunting, so they finish up everything that they have. Katniss tries to scrape the last of the stew with her fork, then gives up and goes for it with her fingers. Effie winces.
On screen, Katniss says, "I can feel Effie Trinket shuddering at my manners."
Effie is surprised into a brief, high-pitched laugh. "Haymitch, she said my name."
"Hey, Effie!" Peeta calls. "Watch this!" He picks up his plate and licks it enthusiastically clean. Effie seems to be caught between offense and laughter. She finally decides on laughter when he blows a kiss (straight at a camera; he must have found them all by now) and calls out, "Effie! We miss you!"
Katniss makes a half-hearted effort to get him to stop joking around, but neither of them stops laughing. Neither does Effie. Her smile is broad and real. She keeps touching it, like she's not sure what it is. I look at the kids laughing in the cave, and at Effie smiling here, and I can't put a name to what I feel. Something just clicks inside me, and the world feels just a little bit different than it did a few minutes ago, even though nothing at all has changed.
The kids get the giggling under control as they go out to hunt. I don't know much about hunting, and I'm not sure why Katniss seems to be getting increasingly irritated. I'm not worried about them. Finch is nearby (coverage cuts to her now and then, muttering "Killer" under her breath), but she doesn't have the strength to take on a butterfly mutt right now. I think she's hovering nearby for company as much as anything, and possibly to steal their food. She's not a real threat. Cato is on the far side of the lake, rummaging through Thresh's remaining belongings.
I sleep with my head on the table for an hour or so, and when Effie wakes me up, they've split up for a while, apparently because Peeta walks too loudly. I'd hate to think what she'd think of my tread in the woods. She has him digging up roots while she's shooting small game. She's good -- she's got a couple of rabbits already, and shoots a squirrel as I wake up. Meanwhile, Peeta has found a berry bush by the stream. Claudius informs us that he'd best not snack, because they're nightlock berries, deeply toxic, but I'm not worried. Peeta has been carefully piling things up for them to eat together, and Katniss will know better. He drops a handful on the plastic sheet, then goes back for more.
I expect the morning coverage to follow him, since not much more interesting is going on, but instead, they remain at the picnic, and hear Faraday Sykes swear.
Finch, who's kept up a parallel track to them, obviously walking more quietly than Peeta, emerges from the bushes. There's a hunk of cheese that Katniss must have saved this morning, and she grabs it and gulps it down. I expect her to throw up again, it's so fast.
She doesn't. But she does stand there in the sunlight, swaying. If Peeta turns around or Katniss gets back to the camp, she'll be in easy sight.
Neither of those things happen.
Instead, Finch just increases her swaying. I look at her face. It's been blank and distant for days, but I think, just for a moment, that I see a light in her eyes.
She mutters, "Killer, killer…" and reaches down, grabbing a handful of nightlock berries. She disappears back into the woods.
Further away, Katniss decides that she's had enough, and gives some kind of two note mockingjay call, which Effie says she and Peeta agreed on as a signal, but he doesn't answer. I doubt he can hear over the stream.
Katniss listens, her eyes going wide as the minutes pass, then starts to run back to camp. When she gets there, she starts berating Peeta out of sheer panic.
All of this is irrelevant, and the Gamemakers know it. They don't focus on it. On the main broadcast, I doubt anyone is even paying attention to Katniss's tirade.
The sole focus is on Finch. Claudius reminds the audience that she's skipped nightlock berries before, but must now be confused by hunger and infection, and by seeing Peeta picking them.
I don't think she's confused at all.
The first berry she tries to eat doesn't make it to her mouth. Her hand betrays her, jamming it against her upper lip. She stares blindly at the juice now dripping from her fingers.
Then she forces her hand to her face and shoves the entire fistful of berries into her mouth.
She hasn't even swallowed all of them when she falls to the ground, thrashing. The main broadcast skips this, just showing her drop before cutting to a few minutes on the toxicity of nightlock. There are few enough cameras left now, though, that I can spot her feed. She's convulsing in pain, clawing at her throat.
Then she stops.
The cannon goes off.
Katniss and Peeta stop fighting and watch as the hovercraft plucks Finch's body from the woods.
Peeta sees how near it is, and tries to shove Katniss to a tree, to escape an immediate threat from Cato, but of course, Cato is nowhere near them.
"No, Peeta," Katniss says. "She's your kill, not Cato's."
He looks confused. "What? I haven't seen her since the first day. How could I have killed her?"
It takes Katniss a little while to explain, and Peeta looks increasingly horrified as she does. Brutus is visibly disgusted with this display.
Peeta starts to throw the rest of the berries away, but Katniss stops him. Brutus's smile is wiped off his face when she says that she plans to try and trick Cato into eating them. He starts thumbing through the supply book (now badly mangled), probably trying to find a way to warn his tribute.
Nothing else happens that day.
Katniss and Peeta have lunch, even building a fire to do it, but Cato doesn't take the bait. Peeta talks her into going back to the cave, and they begin another long and tedious trek through the woods.
I sit back.
"We almost have them," Effie says. "Haymitch, we really almost have them."
"I need to set up appearances for you," she says. "People will want to see you after the Games."
"If they get through there, they'll need me -- "
"To watch them in recovery?" She shakes her head. "Haymitch, you'll need to be out there, keeping people up on things. The people love them. They'll want to know everything."
"Let's wait. Let's not jinx it."
She doesn't like it, but she doesn't push it. She may be the only escort in the Capitol who takes seriously the official idea that the mentor is the boss of the team. It's ironic, since she's also the one I'd trust most to make the right decisions for the team, even now.
I go to the lounge to get some supper while the kids continue their walk. I'm contemplating allowing myself a drink. I know better, but the idea is in my head, and I can still catch the ghost smell of Chaff's brandy from where it spilled on my hand. Just one. Maybe two. They're most likely safe for the day, since the Gamemakers have a death to broadcast. I could --
Something like a small artillery tank slams into me, shoving me away from the table and into the wall.
Brutus pins me easily. It's been a long time since I've needed to get away from anyone, and I'm out of practice. And surprised. "What the --?"
"A trap to poison my tribute? They're going two against one, playing out this farce for sponsors, and they're still cheating?"
I manage to get my footing, and shove him off of me. "Yeah. Cheating in the Hunger Games. You can't cheat in the Games, Brutus. You know that."
"I train my tributes to fight up front. To make it a fair match."
"A fair match against kids who haven't been training for years?"
"That's not our fault. There's nothing stopping you from training them."
"Except it's illegal to train for the Games."
"And you care about legal." He snorts. "It's just adding a few things to normal physical training. Your boy supposedly wrestles, though I don't believe it. He probably just cuddles people until they're so disgusted with him that they concede."
"What's your point?"
"My point is, if you can teach them to wrestle, you teach them to throw a spear or fight with a sword. It's just a sport. So if the other districts don't bother, that's not my responsibility, or my tributes'. They fight in the open, and if the others can't keep up, that's their fault. Or their mentors'."
"A sport," I repeat, dumbfounded. "You really believe that, don't you?"
"You get them to sneak around. Play games behind the scenes. Manipulate the audience." He sneers. "At least I don't treat it like a show. I don't count on my tributes being actors. Even if they win, they haven't really won anything."
"They'll be alive," I say, pulling away. I grab a sandwich from the table. I don't really want it anymore, but I don't want Brutus thinking he can stop me from doing anything, either.
"That's all that matters to you, isn't it? Living. You were a coward in your arena, and you're still a coward."
I grab a knife from the table and shove Brutus backward, pinning him as easily as he pinned me. I press the knife against his throat. "I'm saving their lives, you idiot. I'd save Cato's if I could. I'd even save yours if I ever had a reason to."
"I wouldn't ask you to. And I don't think you're planning a life-saving surgery with that knife."
I look at it, disgusted, and throw it away. "You're not worth it," I tell him.
I walk away.
Faraday Sykes is cleaning up the District Five station when I get back out. She shrugs and rolls her eyes. I have no idea what she's trying to say. I think she might be a rebel, in her own way, and she hates the Games, but I've never totally understood her.
Effie is fielding a phone call at our table. At this point, the sponsors won't be able to do much. The Gamemakers will undoubtedly force a battle soon, and all the supplies in the world won't help with it. But I'll need their goodwill after the Games.
Katniss and Peeta get back to their cave around sunset. Peeta is obviously exhausted from the day, and goes to sleep. I wonder if it's entirely exhaustion, or if he's thinking about Finch, who died because he didn't identify berries very well, or Kersey, who begged him to slit her throat. He's said nothing about either death, but I imagine that they weigh on him.
After he drifts off to sleep, Katniss watches him fondly for a while, running her fingers through his hair. She kisses his forehead. Of course it's aired live, but I don't think she does it for the camera. She's not that good.
She keeps a watch through the night, and wakes Peeta at dawn. He makes her sleep for several hours as well.
Cato also sleeps. Somewhere in the bowels of the arena, the Gamemakers turn off the water supply.
In the afternoon, Brutus and I are called to the studio for an interview, which he spends ridiculing Peeta and suggesting that Katniss ought to cut him loose, or Cato will kill both of them.
I manage not to grab a knife again, but it's a close thing. I warn him that one of these days, he's going to underestimate the wrong person. He laughs.
When I get back to the Viewing Center, Katniss is waking up. She and Peeta both seem to understand the truth.
The Games are almost over.