FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Last Tribute: Chapter Twenty-Three

The last day of the Games is on us (well, almost the last day). While Katniss and Peeta sleep and prepare themselves, Haymitch does the talk shows, and gets back to the Viewing Center to witness the end.

Chapter Twenty-Three
When they leave the cave -- Katniss touches the rock almost nostalgically -- it doesn't take them long to realize that the Gamemakers are forcing their hands. The stream they've been depending on is bone dry, and they realize that the only place to find water is the lake, where they know Cato has been camping.

Peeta puts his arms around Katniss and holds her. It's not the embrace of lovers, star-crossed or otherwise, but of real friends, about to face danger together.

"Two against one," Peeta says. "Should be a piece of cake." He doesn’t make much effort at putting bravado in the canned line -- in effect, pointing out that it's a canned line, which draws attention to how serious the situation really is, without him actually showing fear. He's good.

Katniss nods. "Next time we eat, it will be in the Capitol."

"You bet it will."

They hold onto each other for a very long time.

As they begin their final walk through the arena, discovering more dried-up water sources, the broadcast switches briefly to the Districts. In Two, an angry looking crowd is gathering, all with signs bearing Cato's face. Clove's mother is giving a speech to whip them into a frenzy.

In Twelve, which I caught a brief glimpse of on the live screen at Claudius's studio, the people are together, and, though the narration doesn't draw attention to it, I can see that they've been sharing food. There's a large table near the bakery, with a few bits of bread left on it, and a giant pot of what I suspect is soup, since it's manned by Greasy Sae. Normally, a peacekeeper would step in to stop this flagrant display of mutual generosity (they don't like it when we try to help each other; all gifts must be controlled by the Capitol), but this isn't a normal time. A few of the Peacekeepers actually seem to be in the crowd, sharing in it. There are a few I can think of who'd probably sneak in a dish to pass. There may be some people who can live in a place for years and never become a part of it, but they're very rare in my experience. I think that's why the government likes to randomly transfer its people at regular intervals. The danger of "going native" is omnipresent. That's why they grabbed Effie and made her believe that her generous instincts were a mental disorder.

Finnick arrives as Mir Mellark gives a spirited statement about how she's sure she'll see her darling boy again. If I didn't know better, I'd buy it.

"Have the mutts come yet?" Finnick asks.


"You must have been on the way to the studio. Claudius was nattering on about why people feared the mutts. I figure they must have a doozy coming."

"I missed most of the patter," I say. "The opening, too."

"Usual last day opening," Finnick says, wrinkling his nose. "The recap opening."

I don't bother responding. I'm usually drunk somewhere in the Capitol by the last day of the Games, and I only see mandatory viewing through a haze, but I know what he means. When they know it's ending, they play a bombastic theme and recap the glorious moments of the Games that are ending, generally involving children dying in clever ways.

At least it means that it's almost over.

That I can get them through.

If I can do that, if I've actually managed to change the Games, then, I promise Maysilee in my head, I will become a Donnerist.

I'm not there yet, though, and something tells me that I shouldn't start planning their Victory Tour just yet.

The coverage cuts to Claudius, who is smiling impishly, like a small boy with a secret that's just too big to keep. Knowing Claudius as well as I've come to, I'm not expecting him to suddenly announce that the Gamemakers have decided to send everyone home with a new puppy.

"From the beginnings of the Hunger Games," he says, "our tributes have faced genetically engineered animals. This is a holdover from the Dark Days, when these creatures were used not only to help physically subdue the traitors, but to strike fear in them for generations to come. This has often been forgotten, or turned into foolish children's Games." He cuts to a shot of Rue whistling to the mockingjays, and when the shot returns to him, his grin has turned predatory. "Today, we will remember the fear."

Effie reaches over and grabs my hand. Her eyes are wide.

On screen, Cato is waking up at his camp by the lake. He sits up drowsily and blinks at a shrub.

Suddenly, he jumps to his feet and scrambles backward. "Clove?" he chokes.

The angle changes. Now, in the shadows deep inside the bush, I see a pair of human eyes looking out toward the setting sun.

Clove's eyes.

"What have they done?" Finnick whispers in a moment of perfect stillness in the Viewing Center, as everyone left seems to understand what we're seeing. Even Brutus looks sick.

Then the silence breaks. The line of shrubs along the lake shore breaks open, and huge, vicious looking creatures break free from them.

They split the screen into three, leaving Cato running madly from the creatures in the middle. On the right side, a holographic image of one of the creatures comes up, and on the left, Claudius gleefully explains them. Four-inch claws, gnashing teeth, strong limbs. They're werewolves. Because the Gamemakers are such inveterate readers, apparently.

"And," he finishes up with delight, "to add to the terror, they have eyes that resemble those of our fallen tributes." He listens in on his earpiece, and chuckles, giving a condescending smile. "I've been told to assure our audience that the bodies have not been desecrated, and the effect is cosmetic only."

"It better be," Finnick says. "I'm checking Char's body on the train, and if there's anything wrong with her eyes…"

He doesn't finish.

I think we both know that there's nothing he can do right now.

I think we both also know that it will be all we can do to hold back an immediate uprising -- and it needs to be held back until we have support -- if the bodies have actually been tampered with.

Claudius and the hologram disappear, and Cato has the full screen now. Though the mutts could kill him easily, even with his armor on, they don't. They keep herding him forward along the lake shore, toward the Cornucopia. When he cuts one down (the Gamemakers perversely identify it as the one based on Beetee's tribute), the Clove-mutt knocks away his sword.

Cato, the boy who has spent the Games storming around the arena, blustering his way through the rest of the pack, has been reduced to a terrified, weeping boy, running for his life.

What will they do to the star-crossed lovers?

The thought comes in full blast, before I have any chance to prepare myself for it.

If they've made the boy who boasted of his strength and fearlessness run in terror, what will they do to the kids who've been displaying love?

For the first time -- and I am ashamed that it's the first time -- it occurs to me that the Gamemakers might not keep their word to the audience.

I shove it aside. I'm sure they don't want two victors, but…

But the story. The story they'll want is Katniss taking revenge on Cato.

For killing Peeta.

And I can't do anything, not now.

The kids have reached the lake. The coverage goes back to them. It's surreally peaceful. After they fill their water bottles, Katniss spots a flock of mockingjays, and sings Rue's song to them. They start to pick it up.

"Just like your father," Peeta says.

Katniss touches Maysilee's pin, and I think about mutts. "That's Rue's song," she says. "I think they remember it."

The microphones in the arena pick up the song of the mockingjays, clear and brilliant as it swells through the flock, bouncing to birds that are further away, heading toward the place where Cato and the werewolves are running, full tilt, toward the kids.

Katniss realizes it when the mockingjay song breaks up.

She doesn’t stop to contemplate, and neither does Peeta. He raises his knife. She nocks an arrow. They realize that Cato is coming. They just haven't realized yet that he's not alone.

When he breaks through the trees, about fifty yards ahead of the mutts, Katniss fires without hesitation, but his body armor stops the arrow, bouncing it harmlessly off to one side.

He doesn't even notice the arrow. Or Katniss and Peeta.

The mutts come into sight.

Katniss and Peeta begin to run.

At first, Peeta is falling behind without notice, but Katniss realizes it quickly. She turns at the Cornucopia and fires an arrow at the mutts, and the one with Char's eyes falls. There are more than enough to fill in the empty spot.

Peeta yells at her to keep going, and she does. She scrambles up the side of the Cornucopia.

Cato has beaten her to the top, and again, she loads an arrow to kill him, but Peeta screams somewhere below. He's at the tail of the Cornucopia, the mutts right behind him.

"Climb!" she yells.

She shoots wildly into the pack, and another one goes down, knocking a few of its companions away with itself.

Katniss grabs for Peeta and yanks him upward.

She looks over her shoulder at Cato, but he seems utterly unconcerned with her. "Can they climb it?" he asks.

Katniss looks over the edge, where the mutts are starting to try for the climb, but not having much luck at it. She stares at them, and then I see the realization dawning in her eyes. The understanding of what these things are.

She shrieks.

The arrow she fires next is less about defense, more disgust at what she sees. It hits the mutt with Glimmer's eyes and sends it crashing to the ground.

Peeta grabs her shoulder. "Katniss?"

"It's her!"


Panicked and frantic, Katniss starts looking from one mutt to the next, her bow hand shaking. If she fires now, she'll be wasting arrows.

"What is it, Katniss?" Peeta asks.

"It's them. It's all of them." She breathes harshly. "The others. Rue and Foxface and… all of the other tributes."

Peeta looks down and he sees what she has. He blanches and sways a little. "What did they do to them?" he asks, unknowingly echoing Finnick. "You don't think those could be their real eyes?"

There's no time for them to debate the question. One of the mutts makes a great leap and grabs Peeta by the leg, yanking him down again. Katniss grabs at him blindly and manages to hold on.

"Kill it, Peeta!" Katniss yells. "Kill it!"

Peeta swings his knife and hits the mutt in the side of the throat. It falls away, tearing a piece of his calf along with it.

Katniss pulls him up onto the Cornucopia, dragging him toward the top, away from the reach of the mutts. His leg is bleeding profusely, leaving a trail of red on the gold. My readings show his pulse rising and his blood pressure dropping rapidly. Adrenaline is keeping him going -- I know this works from personal experience -- but if we don't pull him out of there soon, he'll die.

Then Cato grabs him.

He takes him in a headlock, blocking his breathing, leaving his wounded leg unprotected and bleeding out.

Katniss raises her bow.

Cato laughs. "Shoot me, and he goes down with me."

I can see the gamblers in my head, wondering if she'll take victory by a shot that will surely kill Peeta. In fact, a little ribbon appears at the base of the Capitol broadcast, and the odds of Katniss winning alone have now gone to almost eight to one. Anyone who placed that bet early on stands to make a fortune.

She doesn't fire.

She stares helplessly at Peeta.

He raises his hand to Cato's.

At first, I think it's a vain effort to pull Cato's arm away from his neck, then I see it -- the way Peeta's finger is tracing something in his own blood. His finger drags over the back of Cato's hand once. Twice.

An "x."

"Cheater!" Brutus howls, pushing his desk away from him, disconnecting all of its feeds.

Katniss fires an arrow into Cato's hand.

He reflexively lets go of Peeta, and she dives forward to catch him, as Cato falls down from the Cornucopia, into the pack of werewolf mutts.

Katniss holds Peeta tightly and looks to the sky. I've seen it many times -- the last tribute, waiting for the trumpets to sound.

They don't.

Cato isn't dead.

The mutts have him, but the body armor is keeping them from mortally injuring him. They're crushing his bones, and he's screaming. He tries once to jump back to the Cornucopia. He's nothing if not frighteningly strong. But his arm and ankle are broken, and he doesn't make it. The mutts drag him back down.

Katniss and Peeta huddle together on top of the Cornucopia, dirty and bloodied and frightened at the sounds coming up from beneath them.

Peeta keeps getting paler. There's a cut to District Twelve, and a reporter asking Ruth Everdeen, "How long can a human body sustain these kinds of injuries before death?"

If she answers, I don't see it. The coverage cuts away to the main stage, where Merle Undersee is staring, dumbfounded, at the screen.

They don't go to District Two. I wonder what's happening there.

After ten minutes of this -- who knows how long it must seem to them -- Katniss realizes how badly Peeta really is bleeding. She takes her jacket off, removes her shirt for bandages, then puts the jacket back on. She mops at the blood a little bit, then seems to realize that it's no good. She takes his knife and cuts a sleeve off her shirt, then wraps it around his leg, just under his knee. She twists it around her last arrow and makes a tourniquet (coverage helpfully explains all of this to the Capitol audience). When she's done, she bandages the gaping wound with her shirt, then Peeta opens his jacket to her, and they hold each other tightly against the cold.

The mutts drag Cato into the Cornucopia.

I look to my sponsor book to find something to help her with that leg, something to keep Peeta going until tomorrow. We have money.

But there's nothing for sale.

All gifts have been canceled.

"Mr. Abernathy?"

I almost don't hear the voice, and probably wouldn't take any notice other than the fact that Effie lets go of my hand for the first time since Cato came crashing into Katniss and Peeta's path.

"Haymitch," she says, and nods over my shoulder.

A boy in a Games runner uniform is staring at the screen over my shoulder, not really noticing me anymore.

"Need something?" I ask him.

He winces as Cato's shoulder is crushed, and looks at me with wide, bright eyes. "Mr. Heavensbee wants you," he says.

"Right now?"

The boy nods. He is growing paler. Effie stands up and puts him in her chair. She starts fussing over him.

I stand up and look to Finnick. "Stay here. Watch."

"You got it," he says, moving to my chair. He can't do any more than I can, but I want to make sure someone is with them.

I go to the elevators, but I don't need to go up to the Gamemakers' control room. Plutarch is waiting for me. He nods sharply and directs me into an empty glass-walled conference room. Fulvia is at a table with a pile of papers. A brief glance is enough to assure me that they're props, mostly ads and posters that she's shuffling through importantly.

"This better be good," I tell him.

"Keep smiling," he says. "Or at least don't change your expression. We're clear of bugs."

"What's going on, Plutarch?"

"We're going to have to contain the backlash. We can't let it go yet. Not without backup."

"I was just thinking about that. Mauling the corpses for spare parts is a new low, even for Gamemakers?"

He frowns. "What? No, that's not…" He makes a sharp wiping motion with his hand, like he's erasing the conversation. "Haymitch, they never intended to have two winners. You know that, don't you? It was meant to end -- "

"With Katniss murdering Cato in revenge for his killing Peeta?" I nod, pasting a crazy-feeling smile on my face. "Yeah. It occurred to me."

"That would have solved everything. We'd have the storyline, it would end with a triumphant win from a district that hasn't had one in a while. Everyone could rejoice in the triumph of love -- "

"With one of them dead?"

"--and everything would go on."

"And we'd have our mockingjay singing," Fulvia hisses. "Everyone would feel for her. She'd rally people in the name of her lost love…"

Plutarch moves to stand between us, and I realize that I'm twitching my fingers and leaning in on her. "Haymitch," he says, "you knew we were making plans for her. I'd have loved to have both of them" -- he gives Fulvia a stern look over his shoulder -- "but we knew that Snow wouldn't go for it in the end, so we planned it for her. She's the one the districts are looking to."

"Snow wouldn't go for it," I repeat.

"Haymitch, he's making Seneca revoke the rule change. The call came in as soon as Cato fell off the Cornucopia."


"Don't get angry. Don't lose your temper now, Haymitch. Don't. She's going to need you when she comes out of there."

"The best we can hope for," Fulvia says, "is that the boy dies before Cato does."

I ball my hands up into fists and shove them in my pockets. I have to. I will strangle her if I don't. "The best."

"If he doesn't, then Snow will make her kill him -- at least that's what we guess -- and if that happens, she'll be completely broken as a symbol."

I back into the glass wall. I feel my hands itching. "As a symbol."

"I think that's Snow's game plan," Plutarch says. "I think he's starting to figure out that she's not a harmless distraction. Probably because of those idiots in Eleven."

"What's happening in Eleven?"

"Smile," Plutarch spits. "When you leave, all I've been telling you is about our plans for handling two victors in the post-Games events. Do you understand me?"

I force the corners of my mouth upward.

"Good. What's happening in Eleven is a full-scale uprising. It started when Katniss pulled that stunt with the flowers after her ally died. They've burned fields. They've burned a communications tower, and twenty Peacekeepers are dead. Snow's sent in his elite troops now. There are going to be a lot of dead people. And they've been doing it with the damned mockingjay. Snow can't mention it. He can't stop her from wearing the pin everyone's seen, because they'll want to know why, and he's not going to let anyone know. But he knows. He wants her destroyed as a symbol. Killing the boy who loves her will serve his purposes very well."

"She won't do it," I say. "She'll just sit there."

"Until he bleeds out?"

"He'll make sure he does," I say.

"Or until mutts attack them, and she's left with no choice?"

"That wouldn't serve Snow's purpose. She won't do it."

"Are you sure? Are you really sure?"

"Yes! But even if I'm not… what in the hell do you expect me to do about it? I can't even send her anything!"

"You need to come up with a plan for after," Fulvia says. "Haymitch, you'll need to make her viable again."

"If she does that, it's not going to destroy her as a symbol," I say. "It's going to destroy her as Katniss Everdeen. And I can't think of one thing that will fix it."

I turn to go. Plutarch grabs my arm. He has a maddening smile on his face. "Haymitch, do not walk out there and say anything. I gave you a heads-up so you could start working on a way to spin this. If you go storming out there, we'll both get arrested -- me for giving you forbidden information, you for treason, because it'll take them about five minutes to figure out why I gave it to you. You're going to smile and nod and go out there and say you need to talk to Cinna about matching up their outfits. Then you'll go to Cinna, and you'll give him this plan of action."

He hands me a list of instructions for handling matched up costumes for Katniss and Peeta -- things I'm pretty sure Cinna's already thought about. If there's a code in it, I don't see it.

I take the list.

Force another smile, and shake Plutarch's hand.

Go back to my table.

I don't think Finnick is fooled for even a second, and Effie seems deeply alarmed. I squeeze her shoulder and tell her that I need to run to Cinna's to talk about the post-Games events.

I don't wait for an answer.

I call a Games car and have it take me over to Cinna's studio. It's an underwhelming area for someone who's made as big a splash as he has, just a studio flat above a small boutique. When he rings me in, I climb a small, narrow staircase. The studio itself is crowded with clothes racks, and Cinna is pinning a stunning yellow dress onto a mannequin.

I give him Plutarch's list. He sprays it with some kind of fixative, and a message appears: Make her innocent.

He crumples it and throws it into a bin full of wet, decaying paper. (It's labeled "Portia's next big project," but I have no idea what that means.) "Well," he says, "looks like we might have an unexpected circumstance."

I nod. I can't talk, because if I do, I will tell him everything, and by now, they've bugged his studio.

He seems to understand this.

He sets me up in front of his television. Viewing is now mandatory until the Capitol decides otherwise. Katniss and Peeta are shivering together in the dark. Cato is dying slowly and horribly.

"Why don't they just kill him?" Katniss asks.

"You know why," Peeta says, and I wonder if she really does. I wonder if she has any idea that it's so that she will have someone to kill in righteous anger after Peeta dies.

I think she probably doesn't.

Peeta almost certainly does.

I watch for forty minutes, then Cinna sends me back with a fresh sketch of Katniss and Peeta on a stage together, waving to the crowd. He tells me to give it to Plutarch.

I go back to the Viewing Center. Go up to Plutarch's office and give him the sketch. Leave before he decodes whatever Cinna has sent him.

I have never cared less about overthrowing the Capitol, even though it's the cause of this.

I have played with their lives, and it's going to come to murder in the end. It will be Jack Anderson killing his young lover again. (How could I forget that? The audience loved watching them turn against each other.) It will be Maysilee walking away from me along the cliff, while I laugh at the sky and the mutts gather to kill her.

I don't bother taking my seat at the table now. It doesn't matter. There's nothing I can call for, and the sponsors will do no good.

I sit on the couch with Finnick and Effie. Johanna comes in around two in the morning. She's clearly gotten word from Plutarch somehow, because she doesn't make any cracks. Chaff and Seeder may or may not get word, but they show up just before dawn, and neither of them looks like they're expecting an exciting double victory.

When the sun comes up in the arena, Katniss and Peeta can't stand listening to Cato's death throes anymore, though the poor boy is still holding on inside the Cornucopia. Brutus is crouching in front of the big screen with his fists over his ears.

"I think he's closer now," Peeta says. He's wax white in the morning sun. "Katniss, can you shoot him?"

"My last arrow's in your tourniquet."

Peeta doesn't hesitate. He nods at his leg. "Make it count."

He lets her out of the jacket they've been sharing, and she takes the arrow out of the tourniquet. She does her best to tie it up again, but the blood is already starting to flow.

She crawls to the edge of the Cornucopia and looks over. He reaches out to steady her.

She finds Cato in the shadows. The camera gives him a last look. He's conscious, but all sense has left his eyes.

She fires.

The cannon goes off. The mutts go down through the passage that they used to send up the table for the feast.

They wait for the end, but it doesn't come. For some reason, they take it in their heads that they have to move away from the body, and then all will be well. They manage to get down off the Cornucopia, and limp to the lake. They're both stiff and awkward, and Peeta's wound is bleeding badly again, soaking through Katniss's shirt and dripping down his ankle. He looks like a walking corpse.

Katniss gets them water, then picks up the arrow she shot at Cato back in some other world, the one that bounced off of him. I guess she means to make another tourniquet.

That's when Claudius interrupts them in his most cheerful tone, telling them that the rule change has been revoked, and one of them needs to die.

Katniss has already raised her bow by the time he's done speaking.

I close my eyes, then I hear Peeta say, "No, do it."

When I open them, Katniss has dropped her weapons entirely. "I can't," she says. "I won't."

They actually argue about this. About who will die. About whether or not the mutts will come, and one of them will die like Cato. About going back to District Twelve and living with it. Peeta takes the bandage off his leg and the blood loss accelerates.

Beside me, Effie is crying. Johanna is cursing under her breath. Finnick is watching with a kind of dull and deadened look on his face that I can't really associate with him. Chaff's jaw is clenched and his remaining hand is twisted into a fist so tight the knuckles are as white as Peeta's skin.

The world is moving in slow, cold waves. Peeta's voice seems like it's coming from some other world: "Listen. We both know they have to have a victor. It can only be one of us. Please take it. For me."

I look around. Of course. They have to have a victor. Someone to parade around. Someone for Snow to control. Someone to--

"No, I won't let you!"

I look up.

Katniss has freed a pouch from around her belt.

The nightlock berries.

Peeta knows what she means to do, the only thing she can do to herself that will kill her faster than his bleeding leg will kill him.

"Trust me," she says.

They look at each other for a very long time, and suddenly I know what she heard -- what she really heard -- when he said they had to have a victor.

She means to deprive them of one.

He nods. She fills his open hand with berries, then fills her own. Peeta kisses her, then says, "On the count of three?"

They turn around so their backs are pressing against each other, and hold the berries up to the sky so that the cameras and everyone in the Capitol can see them. It's a high stakes game, the kind of thing that Snow makes everyone else play, but never has to play himself. Will they really die, or will they let the Capitol call their bluff? Who will blink first?

She counts aloud.


Something crashes down above me.


A shot of people on the street shows Capitol fans in their finery, digging their nails into their faces.


They raise the berries to their lips.

And the Capitol blinks.
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