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Beginning, Middle, and End
Mags remembers before. She's not sure how many people still alive can say that, but she guesses no more than a handful. The memories are the swirling, not quite logical images of very early childhood, almost like a fever dream, intense but hard to put into the right order. She knows her father was a tall man, that he had wide brown eyes and a broad nose, and that he used to laugh when she would blow bubbles in the water as he taught her to swim. His face is remarkably clear. She knows this memory is from before because he was killed in the Dark Days. Her mother never said exactly how it happened, and maybe she never knew.
She remembers a lot of noise that sounded like thunder, even flashes that looked like lightning, though she supposes now that these were Capitol bombs. A large portion of the seaboard was destroyed, but it never seemed the purpose was to wipe out the people there, at least not at first. The Capitol needed them for their skill in the water, so if they could be salvaged, it would be more convenient. Instead they had targeted the harbors, the boats, especially the larger ones. Later she reasoned that they were preventing District 4 from evacuating across the Wide Water. No one really knew what was on the other side of it now. The old maps were no good. Too much had changed, and the water might go on forever. She knew the world was round, but sometimes when she looked at the horizon, it seemed as though the water would come to a straight drop and spill over into nothingness. Mags knew it was foolishness, but she also knew they were all just as trapped here as if it were true. Their world had borders that could not be crossed.
There is only one other memory she is sure happened in the before. She had been playing in their old home, the one with the floor made of driftwood. Her little sister was there as well, a tiny bundle wailing in a cradle as their mother rocked her to and fro, humming the same lullaby until she sounded hoarse. Mags hadn't liked the sound of it. She'd known something was wrong. She knows this was before because her sister died from one of the Capitol's manufactured diseases before Mags turned five. Her name was Deidanae. They left the little house soon after because her mother said sadness lived there.
And she remembers the first Games, the end of before. There was talk at first of trying to put a stop to it, but the smoke curling from the Justice Building in District 13 on the TV was enough to make them wonder if two children might not be a decent trade for the rest of their lives. It would only be this once, they said. No one could believe that the Capitol really meant to do this year after year. Surely it was a ruse and they would back away, not do this dreadful thing. It was a test of their loyalty, and they would be rewarded when the districts showed they were ready to submit to the will of the Capitol, and mercy would be given to them.
There hadn't been any mercy.
She remembers standing in the square for the required viewing on the TV. She'd thought it might be some kind of party, but she didn't know why all the grown-ups looked sad and worried. Then she remembers looking at the screen and seeing red. It's strange, the way her memory saved her from the details. All she remembers is red, and a noise like a thousand sobs at once. She remembers crying, not because she understood what was happening, but because of the uneasy, unmistakable feeling once again that something was wrong. Something big was broken, something important. That much she did understand. She's not sure that feeling ever went away.
She was seven years old, the third Hunger Games, when she started to know what was happening. She remembers that the arena looked like the sand from the beach, but there had been no water. The Gamemakers had begun to get creative. She knows, not from remembering but from later research, that the first two games had been fairly straight forward, plain areas littered with crude weapons, like rocks or sharpened sticks. Then the idea of making the Games not merely a humiliating punishment but a source of entertainment had begun to take root. The desert was the first attempt at a real show. Towards the end, they'd released muttations of rattlesnakes that inexplicably grew bats' wings and killed all but one last tribute. At least that had been the intention. She still remembered that young boy from District 2 (Careers were yet unknown), the way he'd screamed for his mother as the things came at him, just after what should have been the final cannon went off. The Capitol claimed they had gotten to him in time, that he was healed by their advanced medicine. When they trotted out a completely different boy for the closing interviews, no one contradicted them. Everyone pretended he was the same. Everyone lied. It wasn't even that they knew what would happen if they didn't. It was that they couldn't imagine the horror that would happen if they told the truth.
They must have been more careful with winners in the future since she never caught them in that lie again, or perhaps they were just better at creating lookalikes. The Games continued, every year, as the adults who remembered when such a thing was unthinkable began to callus themselves to the pain. The children stood each year, waiting for a name to be called, hoping it wasn't theirs, knowing that no one could save them. The first ones hadn't wanted to kill. They cried. But the newer ones had learned, watching from the public TVs, that the choice not to kill was always the cue for the game makers to kill them in some new, twisted, horrifying way. One girl, from District 9 Mags thought, had refused to move in the fifth Games. She was probably about twelve years old. With the chaos around her, she had simply sat down on the Launch Plate and watched. After a few minutes, the Gamemakers electrocuted her. Mags had wondered what would have happened if all the children had done the same, just sat. The Gamemakers couldn't have killed all of them. Then she realized they probably would have done exactly that before holding another Reaping and killing another lot until someone fought back.
Mags liked that girl. She was a fool, of course, but she was a fool without blood on her hands. Mags's hands have had blood on them for over half a century now.
She still has nightmares about the ones she killed, the ones who tried to kill her. She had been fifteen, not young enough to elicit the sympathy that went to a twelve-year-old tribute, but not old enough to be one of the strongest. She hadn't even been pretty enough to draw attention, at the worst of the gawky period every girl goes through. The ninth Games were held in an arena that looked like a garden, filled with vegetables and flowers, most of them poisonous but intoxicatingly delicious to the scent. A wide river had flowed in a circle around the outside of the garden, and the Cornucopia, the first year it was used, sat in the precise center of the killing field. There was no cover to speak of, and all the contestants could see to the edge of the vast arena in every direction. There was nowhere to run. The previous games had dragged on for too long, even with the Gamemakers creating ever more devious ways to force them to kill one another, and this year they wanted to make it quick, vicious, memorable, and less boring.
Mags had stood at the edge of the Launch Platform, waiting for the signal. When it had come, she had run, not towards the alluring Cornucopia, but in the opposite direction, sprinting across the field, quickly forgotten in the melee for weapons and food. She didn't stop until she reached the encircling river that flowed forever in a ring, and she dived. It was the one spot that offered concealment, and very few of the others knew how to swim.
The water was drinkable, but dark, and the three lives she took had all ended in the same way. A tribute would come to drink, bent low over the water, and Mags had been beneath the surface, waiting, holding her breath as her father had taught her. When they were no longer on guard, feeling the momentary pleasure of relieving thirst, she struck. Her hands would flash through the surface, close around their throats, and drag them down. Her mother had told her the same story everyone in the district knew of Jenny Greenteeth, the hideous monster who killed children who strayed too close to water's edge before they learned to swim. She became the monster.
And somehow, she won. She walked out alive. When her mother wept for joy to see her again, Mags didn't have the heart to tell her that the daughter she had known was as dead as the others. Her innocence had been murdered.
She didn't know when the custom of prostituting champions at the age of eighteen began, maybe since the beginning, just another way to show that the Capitol owned them, body and soul. She still hadn't been a great beauty, which she was glad of, and other winners were more attractive, chosen more often. Her own first had been Flavius Snow, one of the more important citizens of the Capitol and apparently a collector of champions, and he wanted the full set. He had a son by his actual wife, a boy about fourteen. He had watched her enter their home, surrounded by armed men meant to look like an honor guard who were in reality forcing her along. The boy had looked at her silently, examining her, and she knew he was wondering the same thing everyone else did: if it were held again today, would she still win, or was it all a coincidence, a freak bit of luck in the design of the arena. His eyes were cold, almost inhuman, and while that was enough to give her gooseflesh, what he did next was unspeakably worse. He smiled, and it was the smile of a snake that wanted to devour the world.
It had very nearly been a relief to leave the strange, soulless boy standing in the hallway and go up to Flavius. It was horrible, but at least it was understandable, a crime that had been committed since the dawn of time. The child felt like some sort of new, unthinkably malicious atrocity of nature. It was like he was a human mutt. He reminded her of those rattlesnakes with wings, and a horrible thought grew in her mind, and slowly, over the long years, she became sure she was right and that President Snow wasn't actually human.
Years passed, more quickly than she had supposed they would, really. She never married. She lived with her mother in the Victors' Village in a lovely, well decorated, comfortable house by the sea that was never really home. Her mother died eventually, and there were no new champions from District 4 for many years. She was their mentor, a new innovation that didn't come into the games until a good twenty years after her games were done. She didn't really know what to tell her charges that wasn't obvious. Play to your strengths. Be watchful. Trust no one. Survive.
None of them did, and it hurt. She felt like she had lost almost three dozen children over the years, hoping they would survive, begging for sponsors for them, holding her breath, hoping, and then having to come back to their parents with a box that held their son or daughter. But then had come the 65th Games, and Finnick, and all she had to do was look at him to know, first, that he would win, and second, that he would probably wish he had died before the Capitol was through with him.
Finnick had barely needed her to court sponsors. One look at the charming, handsome boy and they were climbing all over themselves to save him, but the trident sealed everything. It really shouldn't have been legal, and the moment she saw it floating in on its silver parachute, she knew who had paid for it, if he'd bothered to pay at all. Snow had seen something he wanted, and he had just bought it.
This time, she came home with only one dead body. The girl, Niama, had died early and fast, but Mags supposed that really wasn't all that much comfort to the parents. Finnick had stood with Mags, quiet and solemn, as the parents wept for their murdered child. His hand had sought hers, and she saw guilt written on his face. He hadn't killed her, but he had survived, and to him somehow that seemed like the same thing. Mags knew the feeling well, and she had squeezed his hand in return.
Finnick's parents died quite soon after, and then only Mags and he were living in the Victors' Village. He felt like her grandson, and she smiled as he was able to secure gifts for their tributes from sponsors easily. Eventually, though, his eighteenth birthday came. It had been years since she had last been forced into service, but she knew there was a waiting list for the boy, and she knew what name would be first. When they came for him, she wanted to fight them, to claw them to pieces. She had killed before, and now she actually wanted to. But she knew it would make no difference. If she fought, she would be killed, and he would have no family to return to. He would need family later. He was taken, and once he was gone, she wept for the first time since she was fifteen.
He came home, and they didn't speak of it. They never did. It was much better that way. Instead they talked about the sea, the district, what the catch was like that day, or they sat and quietly listened to the gulls overhead and watched the sun go down in red and orange, untouchable by the world and all that was wrong in it. Representatives of the Capitol came for him often, trips that lasted weeks, and she hated it every time. But he came home again.
The following year brought Annie. Poor, dear, sweet Annie who had never in her life so much as thought of killing anything more than bait on a hook. Mags had known it wouldn't end well, even when it became obvious she would be one of the few left near the end. The poor boy, he'd been a strong contender that year, but how he had died was so horrific that even the most hardened of the Capitol citizens had flinched, and more than a few had become sick. Then the arena had filled with water, and Mags knew what would happen. Swimming was like breathing in District 4. Annie had survived purely on instinct and nothing else, because Mags knew if the girl had had a choice, she wouldn't have picked survival.
District 4 had a winner again, twice in five years, and their little village had a new citizen. It was almost inevitable, Mags supposed. Annie was lovely in her delicate, fragile way, and Finnick wasn't immune. There had never been love before for him, not like this. Yes, Mags thought, he'd had his sweet old grandmother, and there had been lovers without count by now in the city, not that he loved any of them. He was a very skilled actor, though, and more than likely they believed he was besotted with them individually. But with Annie, this was real, and it terrified him. He was almost as hurt as she was, though the pain showed itself in different ways, but he was endlessly patient with the girl, patient in the way the fishermen had when they waited for hours without moving, knowing the fish were down there somewhere.
She was glad Annie and Finnick kissed once before she was taken away to the city for the first time. At least that much was untainted for the child. When she returned, she was worse than ever. However, the good citizens preferred their acquisitions to be less crazy than Annie, and apparently she'd had one of her fits in the middle of a ball being held by a highly important Capitol official. Not very many offers came in after she'd lit the centerpieces on fire and nearly burned his home down.
Mags had never fallen in love. It wasn't uncommon for victors to remain solitary. Aside from the horrifying regularity with which victors' children began to crop up as tributes, it was hard to trust anyone again. Mags had her happiness, though, in the child she'd never had, and Annie became nearly as dear to her as Finnick in time. They couldn't be touched here in their village. They were safe. They had been through enough.
She hadn't expected the stroke. Death perhaps, but not a stroke. Finnick had found her on the floor, and she had heard his panicked voice making the emergency call for her. As a victor, she was given what was supposed to be the very best medical care in the Capitol. In reality, no one cared about an old woman who had won in a Game that was from so long ago that almost no one remembered it, who wasn't attractive, who wasn't useful, who had been entirely eclipsed by the handsome and charismatic Finnick. They patched her together, but she knew they could have done better. Oddly, she was glad they didn't. They had left enough of their marks on her, and she didn't need any more. She could barely speak, but Finnick didn't seem to care. He listened closely, and he understood her. Annie was a little frightened of her at first, but she had come around eventually, and within a few weeks the girl was pillowing her head on old Granny's lap again, listening to her tuneless humming.
Time passed. Each year Finnick acted as mentor, charming gifts from the sponsors, and she could now stay by the water, stumbling along on the sand, no longer required to attend. Annie somehow mysteriously never received a summons to attend the Games again. Mags was no fool. She knew whose doing that was. She just wondered how many of them he'd had to sleep with to get it done. Mags tried not to watch the Games, but they were required viewing after all. No longer having to keep up a façade for potential gift givers, Mags found, to her shock, that she wept when the children died. She had never permitted herself to before, but now that she had the privacy to do what she liked, she found the tears she had forced to dry up within her.
Then had come the year when everything changed, when a girl had caught fire, when the city was incapable of hiding just how horrific the games truly were anymore. That little girl, Rue, had been almost too perfect, to the point that Mags wondered for a wild moment if she had been planted by those who wanted to sow rebellion simply to wake up the world once more. But no, Mags knew falsehood, and this was real. The girl Katniss, whoever she was, had a spark within her that people simply couldn't ignore. She found herself rooting for her, not to win, but for something more, something she couldn't even name yet. That final moment, when she and the boy nearly beat them at their own game by trying to commit suicide together—if that had ever really been their intention, and of that Mags wasn't sure—was going to come at a very heavy cost. They had succeeded in making the Capitol look like what they were: murderous thugs who thrived on the blood of the innocent. Yes, Mags thought, there would be consequences, but maybe they wouldn't be the ones the Capitol was planning.
Finnick returned home, to Annie, to Mags, and he was too quiet. She waited a few days, letting him mull it over, reassure Annie that he was fine (she was always afraid when he went to the Capitol that he was never going to return), work through whatever it was in his mind. Finally, he went for a walk with Mags along the beach at sunset one evening, and she knew what he was going to tell her even before he began.
"It has to stop, Mags."
She hadn't said anything, just nodded.
"It's like I forgot this doesn't have to be this way. It really doesn't, does it."
Mags looked at him, willing herself to speak clearly.
"I remember before."
Most people wouldn't have understood the words, but Finnick did. He seemed surprised.
"Just how old are you?" he asked.
"Old enough to tan your hide, whipper snapper," Mags said, trying to give him a smirk.
He laughed, but it was only for a moment before he was lost in thought again.
"Most of the world can't," he said. "For everyone else, the Games have always happened."
"No more," she'd said, and her voice was steadier than usual.
"I've been saving up ammunition, just in case," he said, and when he saw her look of shock he added, "not the literal kind, but something just as explosive."
Smart boy, she thought. Dangerous boy. But they would have to wait.
As it turned out, the wait wasn't long at all, and the opportunity that presented itself at the Quarter Quell was almost too perfect. It was obvious what Snow was trying to do. He wanted the happy couple dead, and very publicly. But he'd made a serious misstep. He had chosen to bring in not a group of terrified, inexperienced children, but a whole bevy of tributes who were veterans, and most of whom hated the games with a ferocity he couldn't begin to understand.
"Stupid fool," Mags had said, and Finnick had nodded, though he still seemed a little in shock from the announcement on TV.
Annie began screaming a second later. They couldn't calm her. For once, something had pierced through the fog of her denial entirely, and she knew she might go back to the arena. When she finally was asleep, thanks to sedatives sent from the wonderfully caring, kind, and compassionate doctors of the Capitol City (who were responsible for all this in the first place), Mags went to the front porch of the house and stared out at the sun rising. She felt rather than saw Finnick standing beside her as her eyes continued to look straight ahead. She was thinking of the Katniss girl again, how a year ago she had come forward, taking her sister's place. That moment had touched Mags deeply, and she wondered at the girl's courage, her acceptance of what was very nearly suicide with such bravery. She hadn't known how she had found the courage to do it.
Now she understood completely. It was a simple thing, really, when you loved someone.
"I'm going," Mags said with as much firmness as she could muster.
"Mags, if you—"
"No. She stays."
She saw him rubbing his face with his hands, exhausted, but he didn't argue with her. He knew better than to do a fool thing like that.
The plot to protect Peeta and Katniss formed slowly and carefully among the other victors they knew they could trust. No one could say who started the plan, but it built. There was help from District 13. She'd long suspected it wasn't dead. Actually, she'd long suspected anything the Capitol said was a lie. The moment came closer, the formality of drawing names and taking Annie's place, the trip to the Capitol once more (it looked somehow even more bizarre than it had the last time she had seen it years ago), and yes, meeting the girl, being chosen by her as her ally. She liked Katniss. She was glad she liked her. It would have been monumentally amusing if she had hated the girl, she supposed, since it wasn't really about her but about the power of what she symbolized. Still, it was much easier to like her.
When the day came and she went up the tribute tube (it hadn't existed in her day) and into the arena, for a moment she was stunned by the water, and she wondered if, somehow, one of the Gamemakers hadn't pulled strings one last time to make things as easy as possible for his or her darling Finnick Odair, hoping he might win again and return to the city for more fun and games. She wasn't sure if they could take it that far, but she saw Finnick smile at her from his place. Poor, dear, sweet boy. Then they were off.
The games were, as always, bloody. She saw the faces of the tributes who had died as their images were projected on the night sky, horrifying, smiling, almost obscene, and she cried. Victors, she had told her charges over the years, never cry. Don't cry. The sponsors won't help you if you cry. But of course, she had no intention of being a victor again.
The bread came, just as it should, exactly the right number of pieces, exactly on time. All was going well, she supposed, or as right as it was possible for things to go in a death trap. She was still monumentally uncertain of the wisdom of taking in Johanna. The woman obviously hated the Capitol, but she seemed unhinged in a very different way from Annie. She was vicious, ruthless, cunning, and she seemed to be enjoying all this just a little too much: not the games, but the thought of revenge. She could be dangerous to her own side without even meaning to be. But that was beyond Mags now.
The day went on, and like the hiss of a serpent, the fog came. She had begun to hope as their escape time drew near and she was still somehow alive that perhaps she might be able to go with the rest of them. It would be good to see a world without the games again. It would be good to know that things had come around full circle, that it was right once more. Her Finnick tried to carry her, and she knew he would try to save her even if it cost him his life. Annie would never be able to survive that. So she kissed him and ran towards her death, knowing that as unpleasant as it might be, she had seen much worse.
And now she lies on the grass, staring up at the trees overhead as they disappear into the clouds of mist, her body bowing with the poison, but strangely, everything seems to have slowed down. She can still hear the retreating noise of the rest of them running through the underbrush, the shouts, even Finnick's voice, but she is removed from that. It's outside of her. As it starts to happen she remembers it all. She remembers each moment of her life in a long line as far as her mind's eye can reach. Katniss and Peeta, Annie, Finnick, her mother, her father, and there, at the very beginning, distinct and blurry at once, are the memories of before.
As death takes her, her last thought is that before might soon be now once again, and she smiles the smile of child.