“No forward motion,” I tell him.
“We’re sending out a team to help with the mountain. Beetee and some of the others,” he says. “You know, the brains.”
When the brains are selected, I’m not surprised to see Gale’s name on the list. I thought Beetee would bring him, not for his technological expertise, but in the hopes that he could somehow think of a way to ensnare a mountain. Originally, Gale offered to come with me to 2, but I could see I was tearing him away from his work with Beetee. I told him to sit tight and stay where he was most needed. I didn’t tell him his presence would make it even more difficult for me to mourn Peeta.
Gale finds me when they arrive late one afternoon. I’m sitting on a log at the edge of my current village, plucking a goose. A dozen or so of the birds are piled at my feet. Great flocks of them have been migrating through here since I’ve arrived, and the pickings are easy. Without a word, Gale settles beside me and begins to relieve a bird of its feathers. We’re through about half when he says, “Any chance we’ll get to eat these?”
“Yeah. Most go to the camp kitchen, but they expect me to give a couple to whoever I’m staying with tonight,” I say. “For keeping me.”
“Isn’t the honor of the thing enough?” he says.
“You’d think,” I reply. “But word’s gotten out that mockingjays are hazardous to your health.”
We pluck in silence for a while longer. Then he says, “I saw Peeta yesterday. Through the glass.”
“What’d you think?” I ask.
“Something selfish,” says Gale.
“That you don’t have to be jealous of him anymore?” My fingers give a yank, and a cloud of feathers floats down around us.
“No. Just the opposite.” Gale pulls a feather out of my hair. “I thought…I’ll never compete with that. No matter how much pain I’m in.” He spins the feather between his thumb and forefinger. “I don’t stand a chance if he doesn’t get better. You’ll never be able to let him go. You’ll always feel wrong about being with me.”
“The way I always felt wrong kissing him because of you,” I say.
Gale holds my gaze. “If I thought that was true, I could almost live with the rest of it.”
“It is true,” I admit. “But so is what you said about Peeta.”
Gale makes a sound of exasperation. Nonetheless, after we’ve dropped off the birds and volunteered to go back to the woods to gather kindling for the evening fire, I find myself wrapped in his arms. His lips brushing the faded bruises on my neck, working their way to my mouth. Despite what I feel for Peeta, this is when I accept deep down that he’ll never come back to me. Or I’ll never go back to him. I’ll stay in 2 until it falls, go to the Capitol and kill Snow, and then die for my trouble. And he’ll die insane and hating me. So in the fading light I shut my eyes and kiss Gale to make up for all the kisses I’ve withheld, and because it doesn’t matter anymore, and because I’m so desperately lonely I can’t stand it.
Gale’s touch and taste and heat remind me that at least my body’s still alive, and for the moment it’s a welcome feeling. I empty my mind and let the sensations run through my flesh, happy to lose myself. When Gale pulls away slightly, I move forward to close the gap, but I feel his hand under my chin. “Katniss,” he says. The instant I open my eyes, the world seems disjointed. This is not our woods or our mountains or our way. My hand automatically goes to the scar on my left temple, which I associate with confusion. “Now kiss me.” Bewildered, unblinking, I stand there while he leans in and presses his lips to mine briefly. He examines my face closely. “What’s going on in your head?”
“I don’t know,” I whisper back.
“Then it’s like kissing someone who’s drunk. It doesn’t count,” he says with a weak attempt at a laugh. He scoops up a pile of kindling and drops it in my empty arms, returning me to myself.
“How do you know?” I say, mostly to cover my embarrassment. “Have you kissed someone who’s drunk?” I guess Gale could’ve been kissing girls right and left back in 12. He certainly had enough takers. I never thought about it much before.
He just shakes his head. “No. But it’s not hard to imagine.”
“So, you never kissed any other girls?” I ask.
“I didn’t say that. You know, you were only twelve when we met. And a real pain besides. I did have a life outside of hunting with you,” he says, loading up with firewood.
Suddenly, I’m genuinely curious. “Who did you kiss? And where?”
“Too many to remember. Behind the school, on the slag heap, you name it,” he says.
I roll my eyes. “So when did I become so special? When they carted me off to the Capitol?”
“No. About six months before that. Right after New Year’s. We were in the Hob, eating some slop of Greasy Sae’s. And Darius was teasing you about trading a rabbit for one of his kisses. And I realized…I minded,” he tells me.
I remember that day. Bitter cold and dark by four in the afternoon. We’d been hunting, but a heavy snow had driven us back into town. The Hob was crowded with people looking for refuge from the weather. Greasy Sae’s soup, made with stock from the bones of a wild dog we’d shot a week earlier, was below her usual standards. Still, it was hot, and I was starving as I scooped it up, sitting cross-legged on her counter. Darius was leaning on the post of the stall, tickling my cheek with the end of my braid, while I smacked his hand away. He was explaining why one of his kisses merited a rabbit, or possibly two, since everyone knows redheaded men are the most virile. And Greasy Sae and I were laughing because he was so ridiculous and persistent and kept pointing out women around the Hob who he said had paid far more than a rabbit to enjoy his lips. “See? The one in the green muffler? Go ahead and ask her. If you need a reference.”
A million miles from here, a billion days ago, this happened. “Darius was just joking around,” I say.
“Probably. Although you’d be the last to figure out if he wasn’t,” Gale tells me. “Take Peeta. Take me. Or even Finnick. I was starting to worry he had his eye on you, but he seems back on track now.”
“You don’t know Finnick if you think he’d love me,” I say.
Gale shrugs. “I know he was desperate. That makes people do all kinds of crazy things.”
I can’t help thinking that’s directed at me.
Bright and early the next morning, the brains assemble to take on the problem of the Nut. I’m asked to the meeting, although I don’t have much to contribute. I avoid the conference table and perch in the wide windowsill that has a view of the mountain in question. The commander from 2, a middle-aged woman named Lyme, takes us on a virtual tour of the Nut, its interior and fortifications, and recounts the failed attempts to seize it. I’ve crossed paths with her briefly a couple of times since my arrival, and was dogged by the feeling I’d met her before. She’s memorable enough, standing over six feet tall and heavily muscled. But it’s only when I see a clip of her in the field, leading a raid on the main entrance of the Nut, that something clicks and I realize I’m in the presence of another victor. Lyme, the tribute from District 2, who won her Hunger Games over a generation ago. Effie sent us her tape, among others, to prepare for the Quarter Quell. I’ve probably caught glimpses of her during the Games over the years, but she’s kept a low profile. With my newfound knowledge of Haymitch’s and Finnick’s treatment, all I can think is: What did the Capitol do to her after she won?
When Lyme finishes the presentation, the questions from the brains begin. Hours pass, and lunch comes and goes, as they try to come up with a realistic plan for taking the Nut. But while Beetee thinks he might be able to override certain computer systems, and there’s some discussion of putting the handful of internal spies to use, no one has any really innovative thoughts. As the afternoon wears on, talk keeps returning to a strategy that has been tried repeatedly–the storming of the entrances. I can see Lyme’s frustration building because so many variations of this plan have already failed, so many of her soldiers have been lost. Finally, she bursts out, “The next person who suggests we take the entrances better have a brilliant way to do it, because you’re going to be the one leading that mission!”
Gale, who is too restless to sit at the table for more than a few hours, has been alternating between pacing and sharing my windowsill. Early on, he seemed to accept Lyme’s assertion that the entrances couldn’t be taken, and dropped out of the conversation entirely. For the last hour or so, he’s sat quietly, his brow knitted in concentration, staring at the Nut through the window glass. In the silence that follows Lyme’s ultimatum, he speaks up. “Is it really so necessary that we take the Nut? Or would it be enough to disable it?”
“That would be a step in the right direction,” says Beetee. “What do you have in mind?”
“Think of it as a wild dog den,” Gale continues. “You’re not going to fight your way in. So you have two choices. Trap the dogs inside or flush them out.”
“We’ve tried bombing the entrances,” says Lyme. “They’re set too far inside the stone for any real damage to be done.”
“I wasn’t thinking of that,” says Gale. “I was thinking of using the mountain.” Beetee rises and joins Gale at the window, peering through his ill-fitting glasses. “See? Running down the sides?”
“Avalanche paths,” says Beetee under his breath. “It’d be tricky. We’d have to design the detonation sequence with great care, and once it’s in motion, we couldn’t hope to control it.”
“We don’t need to control it if we give up the idea that we have to possess the Nut,” says Gale. “Only shut it down.”
“So you’re suggesting we start avalanches and block the entrances?” asks Lyme.
“That’s it,” says Gale. “Trap the enemy inside, cut off from supplies. Make it impossible for them to send out their hovercraft.”
While everyone considers the plan, Boggs flips through a stack of blueprints of the Nut and frowns. “You risk killing everyone inside. Look at the ventilation system. It’s rudimentary at best. Nothing like what we have in Thirteen. It depends entirely on pumping in air from the mountainsides. Block those vents and you’ll suffocate whoever is trapped.”
“They could still escape through the train tunnel to the square,” says Beetee.
“Not if we blow it up,” says Gale brusquely. His intent, his full intent, becomes clear. Gale has no interest in preserving the lives of those in the Nut. No interest in caging the prey for later use.
This is one of his death traps.
The implications of what Gale is suggesting settle quietly around the room. You can see the reaction playing out on people’s faces. The expressions range from pleasure to distress, from sorrow to satisfaction.
“The majority of the workers are citizens from Two,” says Beetee neutrally.
“So what?” says Gale. “We’ll never be able to trust them again.”
“They should at least have a chance to surrender,” says Lyme.
“Well, that’s a luxury we weren’t given when they fire-bombed Twelve, but you’re all so much cozier with the Capitol here,” says Gale. By the look on Lyme’s face, I think she might shoot him, or at least take a swing. She’d probably have the upper hand, too, with all her training. But her anger only seems to infuriate him and he yells, “We watched children burn to death and there was nothing we could do!”
I have to close my eyes a minute, as the image rips through me. It has the desired effect. I want everyone in that mountain dead. Am about to say so. But then…I’m also a girl from District 12. Not President Snow. I can’t help it. I can’t condemn someone to the death he’s suggesting. “Gale,” I say, taking his arm and trying to speak in a reasonable tone. “The Nut’s an old mine. It’d be like causing a massive coal mining accident.” Surely the words are enough to make anyone from 12 think twice about the plan.
“But not so quick as the one that killed our fathers,” he retorts. “Is that everyone’s problem? That our enemies might have a few hours to reflect on the fact that they’re dying, instead of just being blown to bits?”
Back in the old days, when we were nothing more than a couple of kids hunting outside of 12, Gale said things like this and worse. But then they were just words. Here, put into practice, they become deeds that can never be reversed.
“You don’t know how those District Two people ended up in the Nut,” I say. “They may have been coerced. They may be held against their will. Some are our own spies. Will you kill them, too?”
“I would sacrifice a few, yes, to take out the rest of them,” he replies. “And if I were a spy in there, I’d say, ‘Bring on the avalanches!'”
I know he’s telling the truth. That Gale would sacrifice his life in this way for the cause–no one doubts it. Perhaps we’d all do the same if we were the spies and given the choice. I guess I would. But it’s a coldhearted decision to make for other people and those who love them.
“You said we had two choices,” Boggs tells him. “To trap them or to flush them out. I say we try to avalanche the mountain but leave the train tunnel alone. People can escape into the square, where we’ll be waiting for them.”
“Heavily armed, I hope,” says Gale. “You can be sure they’ll be.”
“Heavily armed. We’ll take them prisoner,” agrees Boggs.
“Let’s bring Thirteen into the loop now,” Beetee suggests. “Let President Coin weigh in.”
“She’ll want to block the tunnel,” says Gale with conviction.
“Yes, most likely. But you know, Peeta did have a point in his propos. About the dangers of killing ourselves off. I’ve been playing with some numbers. Factoring in the casualties and the wounded and…I think it’s at least worth a conversation,” says Beetee.
Only a handful of people are invited to be part of that conversation. Gale and I are released with the rest. I take him hunting so he can blow off some steam, but he’s not talking about it. Probably too angry with me for countering him.
The call does happen, a decision is made, and by evening I’m suited up in my Mockingjay outfit, with my bow slung over my shoulder and an earpiece that connects me to Haymitch in 13–just in case a good opportunity for a propo arises. We wait on the roof of the Justice Building with a clear view of our target.
Our hoverplanes are initially ignored by the commanders in the Nut, because in the past they’ve been little more trouble than flies buzzing around a honeypot. But after two rounds of bombings in the higher elevations of the mountain, the planes have their attention. By the time the Capitol’s antiaircraft weapons begin to fire, it’s already too late.
Gale’s plan exceeds anyone’s expectations. Beetee was right about being unable to control the avalanches once they’d been set in motion. The mountainsides are naturally unstable, but weakened by the explosions, they seem almost fluid. Whole sections of the Nut collapse before our eyes, obliterating any sign that human beings have ever set foot on the place. We stand speechless, tiny and insignificant, as waves of stone thunder down the mountain. Burying the entrances under tons of rock. Raising a cloud of dirt and debris that blackens the sky. Turning the Nut into a tomb.
I imagine the hell inside the mountain. Sirens wailing. Lights flickering into darkness. Stone dust choking the air. The shrieks of panicked, trapped beings stumbling madly for a way out, only to find the entrances, the launchpad, the ventilation shafts themselves clogged with earth and rock trying to force its way in. Live wires flung free, fires breaking out, rubble making a familiar path a maze. People slamming, shoving, scrambling like ants as the hill presses in, threatening to crush their fragile shells.
“Katniss?” Haymitch’s voice is in my earpiece. I try to answer back and find both of my hands are clamped tightly over my mouth. “Katniss!”
On the day my father died, the sirens went off during my school lunch. No one waited for dismissal, or was expected to. The response to a mine accident was something outside the control of even the Capitol. I ran to Prim’s class. I still remember her, tiny at seven, very pale, but sitting straight up with her hands folded on her desk. Waiting for me to collect her as I’d promised I would if the sirens ever sounded. She sprang out of her seat, grabbed my coat sleeve, and we wove through the streams of people pouring out onto the streets to pool at the main entrance of the mine. We found our mother clenching the rope that had been hastily strung to keep the crowd back. In retrospect, I guess I should have known there was a problem right then. Because why were we looking for her, when the reverse should have been true?
The elevators were screeching, burning up and down their cables as they vomited smoke-blackened miners into the light of day. With each group came cries of relief, relatives diving under the rope to lead off their husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings. We stood in the freezing air as the afternoon turned overcast, a light snow dusted the earth. The elevators moved more slowly now and disgorged fewer beings. I knelt on the ground and pressed my hands into the cinders, wanting so badly to pull my father free. If there’s a more helpless feeling than trying to reach someone you love who’s trapped underground, I don’t know it. The wounded. The bodies. The waiting through the night. Blankets put around your shoulders by strangers. A mug of something hot that you don’t drink. And then finally, at dawn, the grieved expression on the face of the mine captain that could only mean one thing.
What did we just do?
“Katniss! Are you there?” Haymitch is probably making plans to have me fitted for a head shackle at this very moment.
I drop my hands. “Yes.”
“Get inside. Just in case the Capitol tries to retaliate with what’s left of its air force,” he instructs.
“Yes,” I repeat. Everyone on the roof, except for the soldiers manning the machine guns, begin to make their way inside. As I descend the stairs, I can’t help brushing my fingers along the unblemished white marble walls. So cold and beautiful. Even in the Capitol, there’s nothing to match the magnificence of this old building. But there is no give to the surface–only my flesh yields, my warmth taken. Stone conquers people every time.
I sit at the base of one of the gigantic pillars in the great entrance hall. Through the doors I can see the white expanse of marble that leads to the steps on the square. I remember how sick I was the day Peeta and I accepted congratulations there for winning the Games. Worn down by the Victory Tour, failing in my attempt to calm the districts, facing the memories of Clove and Cato, particularly Cato’s gruesome, slow death by mutts.
Boggs crouches down beside me, his skin pale in the shadows. “We didn’t bomb the train tunnel, you know. Some of them will probably get out.”
“And then we’ll shoot them when they show their faces?” I ask.
“Only if we have to,” he answers.
“We could send in trains ourselves. Help evacuate the wounded,” I say.
“No. It was decided to leave the tunnel in their hands. That way they can use all the tracks to bring people out,” says Boggs. “Besides, it will give us time to get the rest of our soldiers to the square.”
A few hours ago, the square was a no-man’s-land, the front line of the fight between the rebels and the Peacekeepers. When Coin gave approval for Gale’s plan, the rebels launched a heated attack and drove the Capitol forces back several blocks so that we would control the train station in the event that the Nut fell. Well, it’s fallen. The reality has sunk in. Any survivors will escape to the square. I can hear the gunfire starting again, as the Peacekeepers are no doubt trying to fight their way in to rescue their comrades. Our own soldiers are being brought in to counter this.
“You’re cold,” says Boggs. “I’ll see if I can find a blanket.” He goes before I can protest. I don’t want a blanket, even if the marble continues to leech my body heat.
“Katniss,” says Haymitch in my ear.
“Still here,” I answer.
“Interesting turn of events with Peeta this afternoon. Thought you’d want to know,” he says. Interesting isn’t good. It isn’t better. But I don’t really have any choice but to listen. “We showed him that clip of you singing ‘The Hanging Tree.’ It was never aired, so the Capitol couldn’t use it when he was being hijacked. He says he recognized the song.”
For a moment, my heart skips a beat. Then I realize it’s just more tracker jacker serum confusion. “He couldn’t, Haymitch. He never heard me sing that song.”
“Not you. Your father. He heard him singing it one day when he came to trade at the bakery. Peeta was small, probably six or seven, but he remembered it because he was specially listening to see if the birds stopped singing,” says Haymitch. “Guess they did.”
Six or seven. That would have been before my mother banned the song. Maybe even right around the time I was learning it. “Was I there, too?”
“Don’t think so. No mention of you anyway. But it’s the first connection to you that hasn’t triggered some mental meltdown,” says Haymitch. “It’s something, at least, Katniss.”
My father. He seems to be everywhere today. Dying in the mine. Singing his way into Peeta’s muddled consciousness. Flickering in the look Boggs gives me as he protectively wraps the blanket around my shoulders. I miss him so badly it hurts.
The gunfire’s really picking up outside. Gale hurries by with a group of rebels, eagerly headed for the battle. I don’t petition to join the fighters, not that they would let me. I have no stomach for it anyway, no heat in my blood. I wish Peeta was here–the old Peeta–because he would be able to articulate why it is so wrong to be exchanging fire when people, any people, are trying to claw their way out of the mountain. Or is my own history making me too sensitive? Aren’t we at war? Isn’t this just another way to kill our enemies?
Night falls quickly. Huge, bright spotlights are turned on, illuminating the square. Every bulb must be burning at full wattage inside the train station as well. Even from my position across the square, I can see clearly through the plate-glass front of the long, narrow building. It would be impossible to miss the arrival of a train, or even a single person. But hours pass and no one comes. With each minute, it becomes harder to imagine that anyone survived the assault on the Nut.
It’s well after midnight when Cressida comes to attach a special microphone to my costume. “What’s this for?” I ask.
Haymitch’s voice comes on to explain. “I know you’re not going to like this, but we need you to make a speech.”
“A speech?” I say, immediately feeling queasy.
“I’ll feed it to you, line by line,” he assures me. “You’ll just have to repeat what I say. Look, there’s no sign of life from that mountain. We’ve won, but the fighting’s continuing. So we thought if you went out on the steps of the Justice Building and laid it out–told everybody that the Nut’s defeated, that the Capitol’s presence in District Two is finished–you might be able to get the rest of their forces to surrender.”