FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

Repost: The Narrow Path, Chapter 27

Significant changes near the beginning, including a brief reunion with Gia. Clean-ups throughout.

One more chapter, and it's a short one...

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Effie puts her arms around me and sighs when I embrace her. "I've missed you."

I've missed you, too seems like too much of an understatement, but I can't think of anything else, so I don't end up saying anything at all. I just hold on to her for a long moment, then call for a cab. I give her address, and have a boy throw my bags in the trunk.

We've gone about a block when Effie tentatively says, "Are you…?"


She bites her lip. "Sober."

"Yeah. You?"

"Yes." She nods sheepishly. "Dr. Aurelius had something of a meltdown when he saw my prescription history. He's been trying to get Mimi's brother's medical license revoked. I guess I'm not the only one he was treating for entafaistic syndrome. Which turns out not to be real. Though I am supposed to not let you get away with drinking anymore. Which I'm perfectly happy to go along with. I'm also supposed to tell you to make an appointment to have your liver scanned for damage."

"Duly noted."

"How long will you stay?"

"Well…" I'm not sure how to answer this, since I didn't actually ask to stay with her at all. "Well, the mission will be a lot of travel, so I might not have much time to find a place right away…"

She rolls her eyes at me. "Really, Haymitch, are we back to that? I meant, how long will you be in the Capitol with me -- as a home base -- before you go back to Twelve?"

"I wasn't planning to leave." I look out the window. "I'm not saying that you and I have to make any forever decisions. I really can get a place of my own. I probably should, so that we can get our footing. But…" I laugh ruefully. "I'm not cut out for rebuilding Twelve. I want to be in the Capitol. You're a big part of it, but I think I would have come back anyway." She doesn't say anything, which makes me nervous. "Is that okay?"

"Of course it is! The university will be back on a full schedule in the fall. If you're done with the arenas, you should get a degree."

"In what?"

"Anything that makes you happy."

I squeeze her hand. We don't talk the rest of the way to her apartment, and conversation isn't a major theme for the rest of the evening.

I meet with Plutarch, Johanna, Enobaria, Beetee, and Gale the next morning, to plan out the destruction of the arenas. There've been some token concerns about preserving the sites so that we never forget how low the country sank, but Plutarch means to mark each arena with a memorial plinth made from its Cornucopia, and to re-tool the Games Museum as a Remembrance Hall. "We won't forget," he says. "But in all likelihood, if we leave the sites there, they'll be tourist attractions again in twenty years, with people pretending to be maudlin and repentant, but really just looking for the gory stuff."

"Burn them down and seed the ground with salt," Enobaria says.

"Like you were an anti-Games activist," Johanna snorts.

"You think I like being thought of as a half-feral predator?"


They look at each other for a minute, then laugh. Gale seems less confused by it than he might once have been.

"Ahem," Plutarch says when their laughter passes. "We aren't seeding anything with salt. In the foreign arenas, we will put up the plinth, destroy the Games detritus, and leave the rest for nature to reclaim -- "

"Did they clear the nasty little bugs out of my arena?" Jo asks. "I don't have a raging desire to catch the plague."

"That was considered a serious enough danger that Snow had scientists out there for three years. They tested animals until they found the limit of the plague well, and decontaminated it. Somehow. I'm not sure how. But it was one of the things we'd been talking about at Games headquarters. It was considered safe to allow visits. They'd planned to open it in tandem with the Quell arena."

"Charming," Jo says.

We sit down and plan out the destruction schedule. We're going to take them in chronological order. Plutarch, of course, means to make a production of it, showing the end of each arena on television, with a special on its victims. He has to be talked down from actually re-running the official Games recordings, but none of us object to putting together a lot of the filler material. We plan on one destruction every week.

Of course, we go off schedule almost immediately, because the first one, in the Amazon, is harder than we expected to destroy. They didn't enclose it particularly well, and the jungle has grown up and tangled through the Cornucopia. We don't want to cause any incidental damage to the natural environment -- there's no reason to -- so we have to hack through vines to get rid of the various built features. Worse than that, they were still using real war mutts -- the kind that weren't created sterile for the Games. Most, we just have to give up on. Like the mockingjays and the tracker jackers, they're part of the world now.

We finally free up the Cornucopia and take it back to the Capitol. It's the best we can do. They will melt it down and turn it into the memorial plinth, dedicated to the first twenty-four tributes. The victor, Edith Alleman, is included -- if there's one thing we all know, it's that none of the twenty-four really came out alive. We'll put it back where it came from, and maybe someday, the human race will return to it, if we don't manage to destroy ourselves before we bring the population back up.

This is a major "if," of course. Paylor has finished a rough census, and the real numbers of war dead are starting to come in. It looks like we've managed to kill nearly a third of the world again. District Twelve took the biggest proportional hit, of course. Even with people returning and immigrating, we've lost more than ninety-five percent of our population. District Two, where there was a civil war raging in the street, lost almost seventy percent. District Eight didn’t fare much better, with the repeated bombing raids. Even the Capitol lost more than a third in the final, brutal push. District Thirteen, as per Coin's plan, was barely scathed, but then, a lot of the people there are infertile, so that's not going to help the population problem.

Couples are encouraged to have large families if they can. Help will be available, and outside our little circle, a lot of people seem interested in that particular cause. Within our group, we make a lot of jokes about the subject. Most of them taste bitter to me. Johanna finally realizes that I'm serious about this and yells at me for fifteen minutes about how well I took care of her and Katniss and Peeta and Finnick. I point out that one of them is dead, another in a precarious psychological place, and the other two abandoned to Snow's mercy, in case she forgot.

"I didn't forget," she spits. "I'm the one who still has the scars, and not one of them has anything to do with you, you idiot."

Gale, who's been making an awkward attempt to be a peacemaker, says, "Jo's right, Haymitch. I was a little old for it, but Posy and Vick and Rory said you were great. You should have kids."

"See?" Jo says.

"You first," I tell her.

"Yeah, right," she says. "That's me. Just get me an apron and a cookie recipe." She sniffs and goes back to a munitions inventory. I glance at Gale, who seems disappointed by this.

We move on with the mission.

The second arena is northeast of District Twelve, along a wild and rocky seashore. It was enclosed by a tall electric fence, a direct relative of the one around District Eleven. I blow up several sections of it for Chaff, even though it's not really our target. Like the jungle arena, it's a natural habitat, so we don't plan to just firebomb it. We take down walls, burn the death site attractions, and take down the banner of Rogan Lally. It's no wonder the victor here was from Four. The ocean isn't anything like theirs, but it is an ocean. He'd have been at a huge advantage. Plutarch's television special shows Rogan as a young, freckled boy who played the Games hard, and hated everyone.

Duronda's arena, the third Games, were in the hard packed desert outside of the Capitol. There's no place I can imagine less like District Twelve, so Duronda must have been a pretty tough, resourceful kid back then. The Capitol long since got rid of the natural mutts out here; they'd be too close for comfort. We mostly destroy the amusement park elements. While the others dismantle the Cornucopia, I take down Duronda's flag. I don't know what I mean to do with it. I never met her, but at the same time, I feel very bound to her. I almost hanged myself from the same tree she did, after all.

Plutarch's special introduces me to her as an ex-soldier who was in the Capitol when the Green Tower fell. She was tough, and as far as I know, she's the only one of the tributes who actually served during the Dark Days, though her period of service was very brief. She had the sort of looks that would have been called "handsome" rather than "pretty," almost coltish and wild. I can imagine that my mother would have looked like this when she was a girl.

The real surprise (and Plutarch plays it for all it's worth) is that the interviews at home feature an ancestor of Katniss's, with whom she had some unspecified adventure during the war. He and his girl (who is probably also Katniss's ancestor, though Plutarch can't find out for sure, given that every record in Twelve is gone) sit on the steps of the Community Home, laughing fondly at Duronda's unbreakable stubbornness.

I realize that all of this happened before she made the acquaintance of Ausonius Glass.

I shudder, wondering how much she changed later.

We're just clearing up from this arena when we get a call from Annie in District Four. She's given birth to a son, who she's named after Finnick.

We promptly drop our business to go visit both of them. I declare the baby to be the spitting image of his father, though at the moment, he could pass for any other baby on the planet. He does have green eyes, though. Ruth Everdeen asks after Katniss, and I tell her that she seemed to be getting better when I left, and she and Peeta are looking after each other. This seems to be enough.

On the second day of the visit, Finnick's mother joins us. I find myself looking at her very closely.

She grins back.

Neither one of us mentions the name "Gia Pepper" in front of the others. It isn't the time for it, and so many years have gone by, and so much has happened that it's hard to know where to put the knowledge. But we still know each other, and the night before we go, I put my arms around her and hold onto her tightly. Finnick is quietly between us.

"Thank you, Haymitch," she says.

"You had a hell of a son," I say.

"I know." She strokes my cheek. "Ollie never did forgive me for moving on so quickly. Will you?"

"Nothing to move on from."

"You meant so much to Finnick. He loved you. I wanted to tell him that we knew each other, so he could tell you I was all right, but they had me in jail, and it was bugged."

We stay up all night on Annie's sun porch, telling each other about our lives. She needles me horribly about my habit of falling in love with my escorts, and I give her a bit of grief about how she tried to sneak me through a sobriety program without telling me, and we laugh at each other's foibles. We talk about what might have been, if she hadn't had to disappear. Mostly, we end up talking about Finnick, though, while I hold baby Finny up against my shoulder, the way I once held Peeta, as we rock in the cool ocean breeze. He starts crying around dawn, and Annie comes out groggily to nurse him, and I know that Gia is gone again, and Carolyn Odair is back for good. It's all right. I like Carolyn a great deal, and I hope we'll stay friends.

I sleep in the train back to the Capitol, and when I get there, I tell Effie everything. I don't tell anyone else, and neither does she.

We step up the schedule on the arena destruction.

For the fifth arena, we travel to a viciously hot desert in northern Africa, where they placed the first primitive forcefield boundary. Over the years, the shifting sands have built up around it, creating strange waves and a permanent semi-twilight on the inside. According to Plutarch, most of the tributes that year died of thirst, and the winner was the one who found and defended the sole water source. Now that we have the forcefields, it's possible to simply firebomb the arena to get rid of the Games detritus without worrying about it spreading to the surrounding area. It makes each destruction quicker.

The seventh Games -- Mags's Games -- were on a cold plateau in Asia. I collect her banner to give to Annie, and try to imagine her here, a pretty young girl with deadly aim with a slingshot. I say goodbye to her here, when no one is looking. The area around the arena is overrun with horses. A contingent from District Ten wants to come and round some up. Dalton will lead it. He's very excited. There's a volcanic island south of Asia for the eighth Games (Prodigy Waterman, from One, who I met once or twice but didn't know well. Plutarch says this was where they learned that real islands didn't make good locations, because of the supply issues. We have to dig for the Cornucopia under several feet of ash to retrieve it for the memorial; the volcano took care of the actual demolition years ago.

After the first eight, we take a break to regroup in the Capitol, since they've gotten behind on re-purposing the Cornucopias. During this time, Plutarch decides that he's going to teach all of us to drive. We go up to a meadow high in the mountains where some long-ago president had an airfield, and spend the morning making our way around the tarmac. Johanna is a natural. Gale is competent, but declares his brothers too young to drive. Enobaria seems to have a death wish. Effie is overcautious. Perhaps the best that can be said of my own attempt is that I give up the keys voluntarily.

After lessons, we spend the afternoon having a picnic in the meadow. Vick and Rory, playing some kind of ball game, disturb some butterflies in the grass, and they swarm up into the sky all at once. For a few minutes, we're in a blizzard of butterflies. I hear Johanna laugh, and when I glance over, I see Gale through a screen of butterflies, watching her fondly. I haven't seen them apart for weeks.

Back at home, there's a television report on the re-building of District Twelve. They've celebrated the arrival of fall with a new harvest festival that actually coincides with the harvest. People are showing off vegetables. Peeta and Greasy Sae have a huge tent set up for people to sample the harvest and share recipes. Katniss isn't interviewed, but I see her in the background plucking turkeys. After Peeta's interview, he goes back to help her, and I see them steal a feathery kiss before the cameras move away. They both look happy for once. Kind of deliriously happy, actually. When the coverage cuts live to a dance that's going on under the moonlight, they look frankly drunk on each other. The camera starts over toward them, but Delly Cartwright interrupts and steers it away, talking about tomatoes.

Peeta calls me the next day to talk about absolutely nothing in a high, nervous tone. Katniss is living with him, and has been for a few weeks, though technically, the harvest festival was their first date. My geese are fine. Delly and Thom went on a date but decided to just be friends. There are twenty houses in town now. And, by the way, just out of curiosity, do I happen to know how long it takes to know whether or not someone is pregnant? Also, Sae wants to open a restaurant, and they heard from Octavia, who's thinking of moving out there, and he's painting a lot today, and did he mention about the geese?

Effie laughs and schedules me on the next train out, arranging with Paylor to get me a few weeks leave while the team goes on with the arena destruction. Effie herself can't get away from the Capitol, but she says that she'll call Katniss and explain how to avoid panicked conversations about geese in the future.

By the time I get there a week later, whatever panic they had seems to have passed. They've decided to get engaged again, with the wedding set in late November, to give everyone time to make arrangements. I'm not entirely surprised to get a phone call early one morning inviting me to a private toasting, along with Delly, Thom, and Sae. We're all sworn to secrecy, though I have no idea who they think they're fooling. Certainly, by the time Effie and I go back for the real wedding two months later, there's not a soul who doesn't know, including the guests from far-flung districts. Maybe Rue's little sisters, who serve as Katniss's bridesmaids, don't know... but I'm not even sure about them.

Not that District Twelve allows that to get in the way of a very big party. They're not just celebrating Katniss and Peeta. They're celebrating being there to celebrate. The party goes on for three days, though it wasn't planned that way. It's out on the green in the open (Beetee has brought little devices to keep it warm under the pavilion tent) and everyone starts bringing in food and drinks of their own, and no one really wants to leave. People dance wildly. One of Rue's sisters latches onto Rory Hawthorne. Delly seems attached to Thom. Gale and Johanna spend the entire time together. Hell, after the first night, Katniss and Peeta come back outside in street clothes and join the rest of us again like regular party guests, though they're subjected to some unmerciful teasing. They take it in good grace. I've never seen either of them look so happy.

"They're so young," Hazelle says on the train back. "Is this really right?"

"I think they stopped being young a long time ago," Annie says. "And they've been through so much. It's good to see them happy." She looks at me mischievously. "Speaking of people it's good to see happy..."

"Don't go there, Annie."

"Go where?" she asks innocently. "I was talking about Johanna and Gale. Who are, of course, just friends." She hands me the baby while she goes off to clean up. Effie comes in and takes him, cooing and making a very big fuss. She talks about how lovely the wedding was. And the Capitol Lake will be lovely in the spring, too.

I am glad to get back to destroying arenas. After the twelfth arena, most of them are in Panem (Jo's duly excepted), which cuts down significantly on travel time between them. As we reach the ones whose victors we knew, all of us say our goodbyes.

There's a vogue for a few months of the districts trying to rename themselves, separating their identity from the Capitol's. District Twelve would become "Appalachia" again, supposedly, and District Thirteen congratulates itself on the creativity of becoming "Lakeland," for its position between two huge lakes. District Two wants to be "Victoria." The Capitol itself holds a contest for a new name, with choices like "Panem City" and "Centerland." By the time the contest is over, the vogue has passed, and people have more important things on their minds again. Thirteen doggedly emblazons everything with "Lakeland," despite no actual person using the name in conversation.

Aurelian Benz applies for the university. There's an entrance exam, and I help him study for it. He's nervous. No one else in his family has ever stayed with a legitimate career. Justinian pretends to be indignant over this, but laughs about it privately. He promises to stay out of trouble so that Aurelian will be free to study full time. Tazzy is going into her last year of secondary school, and wants to become a psychiatrist. Solly gives up her Katniss doll, now missing most of its hair and all but one of its outfits (and that one is looking a little ratty). The features are nearly wiped out from going in and out of her pocket. We give the doll a proper putting away, then Effie takes Solly shopping for new clothes of her very own.

We keep going through the arenas. We reach Beetee's in April, and he goes along, setting a precedent that I could do without. A few weeks later, we get to mine. It is very close to the Capitol, and I'm glad of it, because I can go home at night and forget where I've spent the day. It takes three days to find and clear away ancient skeletons trapped in pockets near the volcano, where the tourists never went. Their trackers went out, but these weren't immediately incinerated. They must have suffocated from the gases. It's a wonder we all didn't.

The poisons here have been neutralized and the mutts are all dead, replaced by cute squirrels and rabbits. The Cornucopia area was cleared of ash so visitors could role play on the big meadow. I look up at the flag with my face on it, half expecting that Snow would have preserved a picture of me convulsing at the cliff, but it's just like all the others. It's a strange feeling, looking at myself here. It's not alien. After all, I've never really left, and here's the proof.

I make my way to the high meadow where Maysilee died. I sit down on the small rise where she bled out. Even if I didn't remember every detail of this place, it wouldn't be hard to find. Like every other death site, it's marked with a sign: a picture of the tribute, smiling brightly, and a video of her death. There I am again, holding Maysilee's hand while she trembles and bleeds. There is a costume box camouflaged in the grass nearby for interested tourists. There is even a mostly empty jar of fake blood for them to decorate themselves with. Many have left pictures of themselves posing as me and a dying girl whose name has largely been forgotten. Several of the people playing me seem to be Capitol women in dark, curly-haired wigs. A few sensitive souls have written really awful poetry.

I want a drink more than I've wanted one in months. This is worse than I imagined it would be. Someone tries to put a camera in my face, but Jo makes them back off, and everyone leaves me alone. I put the torch to the playacting gear, and I think of Maysilee. I want her here. I want to take her by the hand and lead her out. I never should have come here. I've never been away.

I don't know how long I've been sitting there by the smoky little fire when I see a bright red high heel enter my field of vision. I reach up blindly, and Effie crouches down beside me and holds me.

An hour later, the arena is gone.

Four hours after that, I am dead drunk in a bar in the bad part of the Capitol. I remain drunk, in varying degrees (though never completely blacked out), for three weeks. Effie kicks me out -- she doesn't want to do it, but I won't stop drinking and I won't listen to her and I'm hurting her -- and I end up moving into a spare room at Beetee's Capitol place. I decide that being dumped entitles me to open another bottle. I get lost in it for a while longer.

Johanna drags me up from my stupor when it comes time to go to Finnick's arena. I don't know if it's coincidence or one of Plutarch's bizarre ideas of symmetry, but we go on the baby's first birthday. Annie needs a lot of support. She's been doing well, but not only is this Finnick's arena; her own is scheduled to go down next month, a week after Jo's. Plutarch tells her that she doesn't have to do it, but she insists. She wants to be there. She wants Finny to see it. She also wants the flag with Finnick's face on it. She takes it and folds it up ceremonially, then lets Finny chew on the corner.

I call Effie when we get back. We have an awkward dinner, and I promise to try and stay sober. She tells me that I'll have to, if I want to come home.

"Is there even a chance of that?"

"Of you staying sober? I don't know. That's up to you."

"Of me coming home."

She nods. "I miss you, Haymitch. And..." She smiles. "And I love you. Why do you think I can't stand to watch you trying to kill yourself?"

I hold her hand, and promise to try. I throw myself back into the work with the arenas and the memorials.

I am perfectly sober when we fly to Europe for Jo's arena, the last one outside of Panem. It's already been mostly reclaimed by nature, and the biotechs confirm that the plague is gone, though the rats were still there.

"The rats weren't the problem," Plutarch says. "It was the fleas."

"Fleas," Johanna repeats, bemused. "I lived through spear chucking crazy people, and almost got taken down by fleas."

"These particular fleas have taken out more than a handful of scared tributes," Plutarch says. "They nearly wiped out Europe twice before the Catastrophes. I suppose someone morbidly but historically minded let loose a genetically modified strain at the end, when everything was falling apart. The record is pretty sketchy, but the symptoms we do know about seem the same."

"But they're gone now? The fleas."

"Yes. Well, inside the arena, it's been fumigated within an inch of its life, anyway."

"And outside the arena?"

"We're all inoculated and covered with repellants. That's what the spray-down was for. We'll stop in Iceland and disinfect the hovercraft again on the way home."

We go into the arena. Johanna, looking young, beautiful, and cruel, looks down on us from the flag. The real Johanna rips it down and proceeds to cut it to shreds while we set the charges. She takes the detonator and goes up into the hills outside the arena with Gale to watch it blow up. Gale accidentally turns off his comm device and it takes us two hours after the arena goes up to find them. I'm in the hovercraft when it blows, and I watch the firestorm burn itself out under the dome of the forcefield.

Annie and Finny join us again a week later for the destruction of the Seventieth arena. Annie is stoic throughout it. When it's done, she says, "It's over, then," and goes back to District Four. Finny is teething and cranky, and there's no reason for her to stay.

The rest of us keep going.

Effie and I go on a few actual dates -- a movie, a concert, and an official presidential dinner (though I'm not sure that counts as a date, since Effie is working and has to keep the wait staff, security, and the entertainers all on schedule). I stay sober. I don't always want to, but I do.

We're working to the end of the arenas now. The ones for future Games that were only partly built -- never stocked with mutts, never enclosed, their Cornucopias never placed -- are left alone. Plutarch thinks they can become the basis of new districts eventually, especially the one that was being built as a city mock-up. All of the amenities are already there waiting, and they're not haunted by child sacrifice.

Three weeks after Annie's arena burns, only a few days before Katniss and Peeta's official first anniversary, I wake up to the smell of baking bread.

Peeta is in Beetee's kitchen, and so, to my surprise, is Katniss. She has put on a little weight and cut her hair short. She looks different.

I frown. "How are you here?"

"Minor reprieve," she says. "Plutarch wants to film us when the destroy the arenas. Well, the Quell arena is mostly destroyed already, so it's going to be the Seventy-Fourth he finishes with. For historical purposes, he says. Then it's straight back to Twelve with me."

Beetee wheels out of his study. "I'm working on that," he says. "I don't think an open-ended sentence like you have is, strictly speaking, legal."

"It's okay," Katniss says. "I'd just as soon go home."

"That's not the point," Beetee says. "It should be your choice, at least at some point."

The doorbell chimes gently, and Beetee opens it by remote control. Effie comes in, dressed in a floaty sort of dress with a bright pink wig. She smiles and says, softly, "I understand it's a big, big, big day."

Peeta goes to her and hugs her. Katniss follows.

The four of us take a taxi together to Plutarch's launch pad, and take a hovercraft out to the arena with Gale, Jo, Plutarch, and a camera crew. It's a few miles outside of District Seven, and it seems very small from above. No one says much as we enter through the visitors' door and come out beside the Cornucopia (in other arenas, we've come up through the tubes, but after what happened to Cinna at the Quell, no one wants to put Katniss in that position). Peeta takes down the flag. Unlike the other arenas, the victors aren't staring out at the visitors here. Instead, they are gazing intently at each other.

He hands it to Katniss. She balls it up and throws it into the mud, starting our pile of debris, which will include costumes, play weapons, make-up, and everything else. Here at the Cornucopia, there are even wolf costumes labeled with their district numbers. No one wants to touch them, though Plutarch finally steels himself up and puts them in the pile. This part of the demolition mainly involves looking for anything we don't want to destroy -- things that ought to go to tributes' families, if there are any; there usually aren't -- but building up a pyre of the Capitol toys is, as Johanna puts it, therapeutic. Once we've finished around the Cornucopia proper, Gale goes off to check the fields where Thresh hid and Johanna goes to the lake shore. I see Katniss and Peeta disappear into the woods.

Effie stands at the Cornucopia and watches the kids on the feed from Plutarch's planned filming. The camera floats along behind them. They have their arms linked around each other companionably.

"They look happy together," she says. "Even here."

"It's good to be young and in love."

"It's good to be any age and in love."

I kiss her. We continue looking around the Cornucopia until Plutarch calls me and tells me that he wants to get an interview with Katniss and Peeta and me, all together.

I am not surprised to find them at the river, at the spot where Peeta nearly died. They're sitting on the rock he was hidden under. I find another rock nearby. Plutarch asks ridiculous questions about how it felt when we all realized that they'd changed the Games, and how it will feel to end the Games once and for all. He records our answers for posterity.

"Well, then," he says jovially, "I suppose that's it. Let's blow this one."

"Can we have a minute?" Peeta asks.

"Oh, yes, of course. No hurry."

I get up to go as well, assuming that they want a private moment in the place where things began for them, but Peeta signals to me to sit down again. He waits for Plutarch to disappear, then says, "We've been talking."

"What?" I ask.

"We realized that neither of us ever managed to say thank you," Katniss says. "So... Thank you. For getting us through it."

I shake my head. "All I did was send you a few things."

"You gave us the best advice ever," Peeta says.

We all grin at each other and say it together: "Stay alive."

We laugh. It's an odd sound here in the arena.

"We want you to stay alive, too," Peeta says.

Katniss nods. "Stay alive and actually be alive. Being alive is a good thing." She smiles at Peeta, and takes his hand, then looks at me. "This is the last one, Haymitch. The Games are over."

"Now what happens?" I ask. "It's been a while since I haven't thought about the Games or the war. What do I do?"

"Whatever you want," Peeta says.

"What if I don't want to do anything?"

"Hmm," Katniss says. "Maybe you should finally get a talent. It has been twenty-seven years, you know. Effie can help. She always has suggestions. Flower arranging. Cooking. Playing the flute. I've still got the flute she sent me, if you want it." She grins.

"Very funny," I say.

"But not untrue," Peeta says. "You should do something for the fun of it."

We sit there in their arena, watching the sun go down over the forcefield. At first they come up with reasonable suggestions, like going to college or teaching literature, since I enjoy teaching and reading. As we go on, the suggestions become crazier and crazier, until they somehow have me captaining a pirate ship off the coast of District Seven, and exploring the surface of the moon. We sit there on the rocks by the river, in the last of the killing fields, laughing together and keeping each other warm until Gale signals us over a comminicuff that it's time to go.

We get up together and walk back toward the Cornucopia, where the rest of the crew is waiting. We leave the way we came, and come out fifty yards from the forcefield. The whole place has been wired to go. Plutarch hands Katniss the detonator. She looks at it for a long time, then looks at Peeta and me. We put our hands over hers. She whispers "Goodbye, Rue," and Peeta whispers goodbye to his allies, and the girl who screamed by her fire, and all of the others. I don't say anything. I said goodbye when we wrote in the book.

Katniss presses the button, and the arena goes up in flames bright enough to turn the early evening into bright daylight. We all watch until the flames use up the oxygen and smother themselves.

Katniss puts the detonator down and loops one arm around my waist and the other around Peeta's. We stand there in the sudden darkness together, then turn and walk away from the arena.
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