"Warn them!" Johanna screams. "You'll be live! Warn them!"
Snow pauses as he walks out into the hall in front of the guards pushing me in a wheelchair. He nods to another guard and says, "Bring Miss Cresta as well, if you would."
"Leave her alone!" Johanna screams. "Let her go! She never knew about this any more than Peeta did!"
She may as well not have spoken. Snow moves on without looking at her, and as I'm shoved out, I hear Annie screaming as she's dragged from her cell.
We are thrown into the back of a car together. Annie is still naked. I want to give her my shirt, but I'm cuffed and can't get to it. "Hey!" I say. "Would you guys cover her at least?"
I don't expect anything, but one of the Peacekeepers actually blushes and passes back his white coat. Annie wraps it around herself. In the close quarters of the car, this requires a little squirming around, and it brings her close to me. She puts her face close to my ear and whispers, "Katniss isn't alone there."
Her voice is shaky, and I have no idea what she means by telling me this. She can't explain, and when she draws away, she looks pale and shaky, as though she's guaranteed herself a night of whatever they're doing to her by saying it. I shake my head, but she just puts her hands over her ears and leans forward over her knees.
We are taken to Snow's mansion, back to the room where Caesar and I were held. There is a large green screen, in front of which is a podium, set on the white-tiled floor in front of the fireplace. Cameras are pointed at it. Computer screens show a map of Panem. Caesar, looking too thin and badly scared, is sitting in a tall chair, under guard. Annie is shoved into a chair beside him. He reaches over and pats her hand.
I am pushed into a small room off to the side where a prep team I don't know dresses me and powders me. Nothing they do makes a big difference. A medic comes in and re-wires my leg, but I know there's something wrong, because it won't stop jittering. This is apparently a problem of some magnitude, because producers and cameramen are called in, and finally, Snow himself.
"Some of the circuits in the leg are melted," a director tells him. There's no way he can be standing beside you at the podium."
"Who was authorized to destroy the leg?" a producer demands.
"No one was." Snow grimaces. "Very well, leave him in the chair. I doubt that anyone left in Thirteen would buy that he's uninjured at any rate. Tomorrow, we'll release information to anyone left that he tried to escape. Did some damage to his leg."
The director apparently doesn't care about stories to explain my predicament. His concerns are more immediate. "The wheelchair is too low. I won't be able to frame the shot properly."
"Find a way to fix it, Mr. Henderson. I have more important matters to attend to." Snow sweeps out.
For the next hour, technicians rush around, trying different things. A doctor is called from the hospital, and he declares the leg beyond rescue outside of surgery, where various chips will need to be replaced. There is no time for this. They try putting me in a brace that they attach to a pole, but the leg keeps moving, jittering me away from the spot where I'm supposed to be. Finally, they find a high chair with a metal rung. I can't get into it independently, and there's certainly no way I can get out of it. I am manhandled into the seat, and a clever production assistant uses the brace to secure me to it, in case the incessant movement of my leg tries to throw me. It still makes a weird, staccato ticking noise against the rung, and an emergency sound crew is called in to figure out how to muffle it.
Annie Cresta has been given a hospital gown while they've worked on me. She and Caesar are sitting on the floor together a few feet behind the cameras. Snow's personal guards are holding guns on them.
I hear a hum, and there is a sharp pain just under my ribs.
The brace is electrified.
"Just a precaution," a tech says. "As long as you don't deviate from the material, I won't need to do that. And your friends will be fine." He nods amiably toward Annie and Caesar, for all the world as though he hasn't just threatened their lives.
Twenty minutes before air time, Snow comes in, dressed in a dark suit with one of his white roses tacked to the lapel.
"Coriolanus," Caesar says, "why are you doing this here? Where is Prisca?"
"She's in her room. This is no place for a child."
"She'll hear anything you do."
They go back and forth on this, much longer than they need to. Snow seems annoyed by it. I try to put it together. The only thing I can think of is that Caesar believes Snow won't kill him with their granddaughter to consider.
That doesn't mean he won't kill Annie. Or hurt Caesar.
I can't put it together. I hear Annie again, in the car, Katniss isn't alone there.
The argument is finally settled one way or another, and Snow comes to the podium and starts arranging his notes.
An aide rushes up to him. "The missiles have launched," he says. "They should reach District Thirteen in three hours. The war will be over by morning."
"At the very least," Snow says, setting up a small screen on the podium where I can see little dots tracking the missiles, "our most organized enemies will be dead by morning. Don't imagine that the violence will stop immediately, though hopefully, Mr. Mellark here will be of use in that endeavor." He jerks his head back toward me without much concern.
"I'll warn them," I try to say, but the words stick in my throat. I see the guns pointed at Annie and Caesar. I think of Johanna and Effie and Portia and my preps.
Snow finishes what he's doing and looks at me. "Peeta, I won't script you, but I strongly suggest you stick to the images you will see just beyond where Caesar and Miss Cresta are sitting."
"They'll break into your broadcast," Caesar says. "You said they were filming in Twelve yesterday. What do you think it's for?"
"They may break into District feeds," Snow says. "The Capitol is safe. And if they do break in, it hardly matters, does it? We'll be broadcasting live from Thirteen in three hours anyway."
"I'll-" I manage.
Snow looks at me mildly. "You'll what?"
"Warn them," I say.
"I don't think so." He frowns. "But just to be safe, perhaps a little control." He pushes a button on the podium, and a minute later, a guard from the prison comes in with a syringe.
"No!" I yell.
The brace around me gives me a jolt, then tightens.
"Not much," Snow says. "I need him coherent."
The needle jabs me at the base of my neck, and hot, bright pain spreads out. It's not like the other times. The room doesn't waver. I don't start imagining things talking to me. But everything is bright and echoing, like the world on the edge of sleep, when you can't quite get there.
The producer holds up his hand and says, "We're on in five, four, three..." His fingers finish, ...two, one...
"Good evening, citizens of Panem," Snow says to the camera. "This crisis has gone on too long. I have with me Peeta Mellark, victor from District Twelve. Peeta, what would you like to say?"
Behind the man holding the gun on Annie Cresta, a picture a broken dam in comes up, with the date, statistics, and location beside it. The words "cease-fire" appear. Beside it, I can see the map that's undoubtedly projected on the green screen behind me, the location of the dam flashing. On Snow's private screen, I can see the progress of missiles as they crawl slowly toward District Thirteen.
"We need to stop this war," I say. "We need to call a cease-fire. Immediately. On both sides."
Annie's head is yanked back, the gun pressed to her temple.
I go back to the script. "This dam was destroyed in the riots in District Seven. More than two hundred people died." The picture switches to the derailed trains, and I see the picture in my cell again, lying over the feet of a laughing Gale Hawthorne as Katniss feeds him berries. The only times she fed me berries were to drug me or threaten to kill me. I clench my teeth. Both times, it was a game to save my life. "This train in District Six was carrying industrial waste. It's polluted the ground-water supply. People in District Six are sick. Seventy-eight people died in the rebel riots there." The picture changes. "In District Eleven" - I see Chaff in my head, Chaff falling down in the arena, just before I grab Brutus by the head and cut his throat. I swallow. "In District Eleven, the year's harvest has been substantially destroyed. The Capitol has enough to live on, but what will the districts live on? They-"
The map disappears suddenly, and Katniss looks up and says my name.
I stop talking.
She is surrounded by grayish-white ash, and is standing in front of melted oven. "Peeta, this is your home," she says, and as she speaks, I see her fingers curve, harden into talons. "None of your family has been heard of since the bombing. Twelve is gone. And you're calling for a cease-fire? There's no one left to hear you!" Her eyes darken and turn black. She seems to reach out of the screen, and I see my family, laid out in my cell, lit up by the lights in their coffins. I see my mother's hand, beckoning me as Katniss's does, but blackened and charred, with her ring melted across her fingers.
"Get it back!" Snow yells at the booth. "Get it back, now!"
He turns on me. "She dares talk about your family? She's the one who killed them. You keep going, before you and she are responsible for more death."
With a flickering of the lights, our feed is back on. There is a picture of a water purification plant. I try to read the information about it, try to say something, but then there is a burst of static, and Annie Cresta cries, "Finnick!"
Finnick Odair looks out at the camera. He is carrying a picture of Rue, the girl Katniss buried in flowers in the arena. "We remember," he says. "We remember Rue McKissack, this beautiful little girl, murdered in the arena. She loved music. And dancing. She climbed trees." In my mind's eye, I see Finnick in his Games, as I watched them when we prepared for the Quell. He netted his victims. Speared them. Just like Rue.
The techs get control again, and Snow doesn't bother trying to make me talk. Instead, he just shows pictures of the devastation from the war.
They cut in again, showing Katniss walking among the wounded in Eight.
We take over, and Snow says that Eight was only bombed because of the rebellion. They cut in with Finnick talking about Cecelia. Snow accuses him of sending Mags, his own mentor, to her death just to save the mockingjay. Gale appears and talks about the bombing of Twelve. All he has time to say before Snow gets control is, "It's all gone."
There is either blood or berry juice on his mouth.
I look around the room. There is chaos in the production booth. Snow is furious. One of his guards says, "Should we shoot them?""
Snow shakes his head.
I wonder why.
Finnick cuts back in, talking about Annie's district partner. Annie wails.
And I understand. I am not being held because of what I can do. I'm being held against Katniss. And she isn't alone. Annie is being held against Finnick.
Snow won't kill her as long as she's of use to him.
He won't kill Caesar because of their granddaughter. Maybe he won't kill Effie because of Haymitch. And maybe he thinks Portia and my preps will control me.
He gets control again, and rails about the wanton destruction of human life in the war, the cost of maintaining control.
Katniss comes back onto the screen. She says, "If we burn, you burn with us." And then I see her in flames. I see her floating in the coffin in my cell. I see her lying in the mud, feathers growing in place of her hair, a bird-mutt, the way the other tributes were turned into wolf-mutts after they died.
I close my eyes and try to make the image go away. It's crazy. I was with her almost to the end. She's human. She held me and kissed me and I was her whole world for a few minutes.
On screen, I see the shiny black feathers falling down over her shoulders.
I shove my hand into my mouth and bite it, and reality comes back. Katniss is just sitting in the ashes of Twelve now. But I can see the other, shimmering.
"Cut the feed!" Snow commands. "Now!"
The screen goes blank, then the national emblem comes up on it, with a long, low whine beneath it. I see Caesar pushed to the floor. Annie is standing up against the wall. Her eyes are open too wide to be natural.
"We've got it," a tech says. "I can't promise how long."
Snow speaks coldly. "Clearly, the rebels are trying to interrupt the dissemination of the truth when it's inconvenient for them. We will resume our broadcast when security is restored."
I look over Annie's shoulder at the screen showing the missiles approaching Thirteen. Security will be restored when there is no one left there to threaten it.
"Peeta," Snow says. "Do you have any parting thoughts for Katniss Everdeen?"
I tear my eyes away from the screen, trying to push away the strange, nightmare image in my head. "Katniss," I say. I try to catch my breath. She's human. She loves me. She... I... "How do you think this will end?" I ask her. "No one is safe. Not in the Capitol. Not in the districts." I stare at the missiles. "And you..." The picture of her in Twelve comes into my head again - smiling, feeding Gale.
Oh, Peeta, my father whispers in my mind, and I hear it. I hear it with my ears. I feel the puff of his breath as he speaks my name.
I realize that it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter if she fed berries to Gale. It doesn't matter if she caused the bombing. None of it matters, because she is not alone there.
"...in Thirteen," I say. Snow turns on me. If I don't say it now, he will make sure I never do. It sticks in my throat. If I'm wrong, then I will kill everyone he's holding against me. But even that doesn't matter.
I clench my teeth, then say, "DEAD BY MORNING!"
"End it!" Snow yells. "End it now!"
A picture of Katniss flashes onto the screen, standing in front of the hospital in the bird suit. The techs wrest it away and I see us live, but the camera has been hit, and it's now just showing the tiles and part of the wall at a strange, skewed angle.
Katniss's image comes back.
Is sent away. "Listen," I try to say. "Listen, we have to stop this, we have to stop all of it, we have to-"
The brace around me sends out a horrible jolt of electricity, then releases. The guards pull me off the chair and throw me to the floor. I feel my nose break, and see my blood splatter across the tiles. I turn over just in time to see a wooden club coming at me. I try to squirm away, but my leg won't take my weight. It comes down and breaks another rib.
On screen, I see Katniss again, and her eyes are black.
The lights go out. The screens go dark. Someone has cut power.
A flickering emergency light comes on, and Snow's guards grab me, drag me to him.
"It seems," he says, "that Miss Everdeen wants a word with you. And you with her. Don't worry. You'll see her soon enough." He takes out his pocket handkerchief and daubs blood off the corner of his mouth. He looks at the guards and hisses, "Break him."
"No!" Caesar screams. "Coriolanus, you have to stop this! You're not doing Panem any good! You're not even doing yourself any good!"
"I can't count on him to state our case," Snow says as the guards drag me to my wheelchair. "So you, Caesar, will be back on the air tomorrow. And every day until this is over."
"I will not!"
"You can't help this one anymore," Snow says. "But unless you want Miss Cresta to find herself with a good deal of company in the near future, you will do exactly as you're told."
I don't know what Caesar says because I am tied into the wheelchair and shoved out to a waiting van. They don't secure me, and the ride back to the prison is a thumping, jarring nightmare.
By the time they drag me out, I'm nearly unconscious from the pain, but they don't let me slip under. One of them jabs me in the newly broken rib, setting that wound on fire. I'm jostled deliberately as the go down the hall, and thrown out into my cell. I lurch across the room with no control over my legs, and crash down against Brutus's coffin. The liquid moves, and the head turns to look at me. I hear myself laughing madly in the night, almost feel his blood running over my hands.
I crawl away. My hand lands in a basket that I don't even recognize at first. It seems to be full of nightlock berries. Then my head clears, and I see that they are the cards Caesar gave me, the gift to help me concentrate. I fumble out a pack, but I can't open it with my shaking fingers.
Next door, Johanna screams, and the lights flicker as they start to shock her again.
I fumble out another pack of cards. The cardboard rips when I try to open it, and the cards fly all over the floor of my cell. The three of clubs skitters across to the wall where the coffins are. I follow its progress, look up at my mother's beckoning hand. My brother's head. My niece.
I turn away. Katniss isn't dead. I just saw her. She talked to me.
I pull myself over to the table. There is something new under it. A briefcase. It's emblazoned with Snow's initials.
He must have left here earlier.
I reach out and touch it.
Pull my hand back.
I look at the wall again.
He's destroyed enough of my things.
I pick it up and throw it. My broken rib screams at the effort.
It isn't latched. Files and papers float out. One heavy file lands right in front of me. Darius's blood still covers part of Katniss's picture.
The folder is labeled "Mockingjay."
I open it. The first picture in it is Katniss after her training evaluation, just before they gave her the eleven. She is kneeling on the floor of the evaluation room, held up by two Peacekeepers.
She's been shot in the head. There's a splash of gore behind her.
I shake my head. "No," I hear myself say. "No, it's not..."
I try to turn the page, but I can't get hold of it. The corner tears away and I see a picture of a blackbird and some scribbled notes.
The cell door opens and guards come in. They take the folder and throw it away.
The woman who shocked me in the car is back. "That's not for your eyes, traitor," she says, then pushes me into the chair. Handcuffs come up on their chains, and my wrists are secured. Needles jab me, over and over.
There is pain. It comes from everywhere at once. The shots, the prod, the cuffs pulling down on my wrists. My leg is on fire. The noise from the videos is too loud. Bright, colorful apparitions materialize around me and then disappear.
They ask no questions.
They don't mark my face any more than it's already been marked.
They burn me with hot metal coins. Cut wires in my leg. Hang me by my arms from a bar on the ceiling for what seems an eternity.
And every two hours, a new set of shots.
The walls of my cell boil and drip. On the screens, I see Katniss... always Katniss. I see her digging me out of the mud, and the mud boils around me while she makes me bathe in it. I see her dropping tracker jackers on me. The swarm around me in the cell, stinging me over and over. I see her hovering over me in the cave, her eyes as black as coal.
I see the painting I made of her. I don't know whether it's there or not - the gray, haunting picture of the girl in the rain. Her eyes - her real eyes - look out at me, and they aren't the same as the eyes of the girl in the videos.
Sometimes I hear Johanna screaming beside me, and I see her covered in blood, kicking at Wiress.
Snakes crawl out from Brutus's body, twining around him, hissing at me until he is nothing but a sculpture of snakes, a writhing mummy. The baby stares out at me. She has my eyes. She is dead. I remember telling the audience about her, about how we never should have had her.
I see someone familiar, an old man with white hair, and he is laughing. Then there is the woman in the green gown, weeping, and the screaming from next door.
The noise is constant, horrible. High whistles and crying children. I can smell my own waste in the cell around me. Things are taken and returned. The Mockingjay file remains.
I can't read it. The water and blood have obscured it. There are only pictures. Katniss dying. Some laboratory. Katniss with feathers for hair.
A stamp that says, "Deceased."
My hands come across the pile of cards and I try, desperately, to remember how to put them together. Hold up one. Balance another.
My hands can't even grasp them.
I finally pass out, and in the fireland of my dreams, I walk the streets of District Twelve with the people I've killed. Brutus, wrapped in snakes, screeches at me in my mother's voice. Finch tells me that there's a way out, that she knows it and can show me, and she offers me a handful of nightlock berries. We are on the rock where I saw Katniss and Gale feeding each other, and Finch tosses one of them at me. I duck and fall off, and Kersey Green catches me, wraps me in yarn and says, "Be safe, Peeta. Be safe."
I wake up and find my cell filled with roses, the same ones that were strewn on Caesar's stage. Snow stands above me. "She's alive," he says. "I gave her the same gift. The best from my own gardens."
Then the flowers are gone, and the world is pain and terror again.
I feel myself hanging over an abyss, a coal-dark mine that goes on forever. I know that in that darkness, there is no time, no knowledge. There is only fear. Only the visions. I hold tight to a string of cards that suspends me.
They show me the death of my district. They show me Katniss and Gale, caught kissing by a security camera in her house. They show me my brother going up in flames, and my mother disappearing in an instant.
I try to hold on. I imagine her on the beach, or in the cave. I try to remember what it felt like to be her world.
There are more shots. More nightmares.
The bridge of cards collapses.
I fall into the abyss, and whatever waits for me there.