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At midnight, I’m standing outside the door to his cell. Hospital room. We had to wait for Plutarch to finish getting his wedding footage, which, despite the lack of what he calls razzle-dazzle, he’s pleased with. “The best thing about the Capitol basically ignoring Twelve all these years is that you people still have a little spontaneity. The audience eats that up. Like when Peeta announced he was in love with you or you did the trick with the berries. Makes for good television.”

I wish I could meet with Peeta privately. But the audience of doctors has assembled behind the one-way glass, clipboards ready, pens poised. When Haymitch gives me the okay in my earpiece, I slowly open the door.

Those blue eyes lock on me instantly. He’s got three restraints on each arm, and a tube that can dispense a knockout drug just in case he loses control. He doesn’t fight to free himself, though, only observes me with the wary look of someone who still hasn’t ruled out that he’s in the presence of a mutt. I walk over until I’m standing about a yard from the bed. There’s nothing to do with my hands, so I cross my arms protectively over my ribs before I speak. “Hey.”

“Hey,” he responds. It’s like his voice, almost his voice, except there’s something new in it. An edge of suspicion and reproach.

“Haymitch said you wanted to talk to me,” I say.

“Look at you, for starters.” It’s like he’s waiting for me to transform into a hybrid drooling wolf right before his eyes. He stares so long I find myself casting furtive glances at the one-way glass, hoping for some direction from Haymitch, but my earpiece stays silent. “You’re not very big, are you? Or particularly pretty?”

I know he’s been through hell and back, and yet somehow the observation rubs me the wrong way. “Well, you’ve looked better.”

Haymitch’s advice to back off gets muffled by Peeta’s laughter. “And not even remotely nice. To say that to me after all I’ve been through.”

“Yeah. We’ve all been through a lot. And you’re the one who was known for being nice. Not me.” I’m doing everything wrong. I don’t know why I feel so defensive. He’s been tortured! He’s been hijacked! What’s wrong with me? Suddenly, I think I might start screaming at him–I’m not even sure about what–so I decide to get out of there. “Look, I don’t feel so well. Maybe I’ll drop by tomorrow.”

I’ve just reached the door when his voice stops me. “Katniss. I remember about the bread.”

The bread. Our one moment of real connection before the Hunger Games.

“They showed you the tape of me talking about it,” I say.

“No. Is there a tape of you talking about it? Why didn’t the Capitol use it against me?” he asks.

“I made it the day you were rescued,” I answer. The pain in my chest wraps around my ribs like a vise. The dancing was a mistake. “So what do you remember?”

“You. In the rain,” he says softly. “Digging in our trash bins. Burning the bread. My mother hitting me. Taking the bread out for the pig but then giving it to you instead.”

“That’s it. That’s what happened,” I say. “The next day, after school, I wanted to thank you. But I didn’t know how.”

“We were outside at the end of the day. I tried to catch your eye. You looked away. And then…for some reason, I think you picked a dandelion.” I nod. He does remember. I have never spoken about that moment aloud. “I must have loved you a lot.”

“You did.” My voice catches and I pretend to cough.

“And did you love me?” he asks.

I keep my eyes on the tiled floor. “Everyone says I did. Everyone says that’s why Snow had you tortured. To break me.”

“That’s not an answer,” he tells me. “I don’t know what to think when they show me some of the tapes. In that first arena, it looked like you tried to kill me with those tracker jackers.”

“I was trying to kill all of you,” I say. “You had me treed.”

“Later, there’s a lot of kissing. Didn’t seem very genuine on your part. Did you like kissing me?” he asks.

“Sometimes,” I admit. “You know people are watching us now?”

“I know. What about Gale?” he continues.

My anger’s returning. I don’t care about his recovery–this isn’t the business of the people behind the glass. “He’s not a bad kisser either,” I say shortly.

“And it was okay with both of us? You kissing the other?” he asks.

“No. It wasn’t okay with either of you. But I wasn’t asking your permission,” I tell him.

Peeta laughs again, coldly, dismissively. “Well, you’re a piece of work, aren’t you?”

Haymitch doesn’t protest when I walk out. Down the hall. Through the beehive of compartments. Find a warm pipe to hide behind in a laundry room. It takes a long time before I get to the bottom of why I’m so upset. When I do, it’s almost too mortifying to admit. All those months of taking it for granted that Peeta thought I was wonderful are over. Finally, he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly.

And I hate him for it.

17

Blindsided. That’s how I feel when Haymitch tells me in the hospital. I fly down the steps to Command, mind racing a mile a minute, and burst right into a war meeting.

“What do you mean, I’m not going to the Capitol? I have to go! I’m the Mockingjay!” I say.

Coin barely looks up from her screen. “And as the Mockingjay, your primary goal of unifying the districts against the Capitol has been achieved. Don’t worry–if it goes well, we’ll fly you in for the surrender.”

The surrender?

“That’ll be too late! I’ll miss all the fighting. You need me–I’m the best shot you’ve got!” I shout. I don’t usually brag about this, but it’s got to be at least close to true. “Gale’s going.”

“Gale has shown up for training every day unless occupied with other approved duties. We feel confident he can manage himself in the field,” says Coin. “How many training sessions do you estimate you’ve attended?”

None. That’s how many. “Well, sometimes I was hunting. And…I trained with Beetee down in Special Weaponry.”

“It’s not the same, Katniss,” says Boggs. “We all know you’re smart and brave and a good shot. But we need soldiers in the field. You don’t know the first thing about executing orders, and you’re not exactly at your physical peak.”

“That didn’t bother you when I was in Eight. Or Two, for that matter,” I counter.

“You weren’t originally authorized for combat in either case,” says Plutarch, shooting me a look that signals I’m about to reveal too much.

No, the bomber battle in 8 and my intervention in 2 were spontaneous, rash, and definitely unauthorized.

“And both resulted in your injury,” Boggs reminds me. Suddenly, I see myself through his eyes. A smallish seventeen-year-old girl who can’t quite catch her breath since her ribs haven’t fully healed. Disheveled. Undisciplined. Recuperating. Not a soldier, but someone who needs to be looked after.

“But I have to go,” I say.

“Why?” asks Coin.

I can’t very well say it’s so I can carry out my own personal vendetta against Snow. Or that the idea of remaining here in 13 with the latest version of Peeta while Gale goes off to fight is unbearable. But I have no shortage of reasons to want to fight in the Capitol. “Because of Twelve. Because they destroyed my district.”

The president thinks about this a moment. Considers me. “Well, you have three weeks. It’s not long, but you can begin training. If the Assignment Board deems you fit, possibly your case will be reviewed.”

That’s it. That’s the most I can hope for. I guess it’s my own fault. I did blow off my schedule every single day unless something suited me. It didn’t seem like much of a priority, jogging around a field with a gun with so many other things going on. And now I’m paying for my negligence.

Back in the hospital, I find Johanna in the same circumstance and spitting mad. I tell her about what Coin said. “Maybe you can train, too.”

“Fine. I’ll train. But I’m going to the stinking Capitol if I have to kill a crew and fly there myself,” says Johanna.

“Probably best not to bring that up in training,” I say. “But it’s nice to know I’ll have a ride.”

Johanna grins, and I feel a slight but significant shift in our relationship. I don’t know that we’re actually friends, but possibly the word allies would be accurate. That’s good. I’m going to need an ally.

The next morning, when we report for training at 7:30, reality slaps me in the face. We’ve been funneled into a class of relative beginners, fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds, which seems a little insulting until it’s obvious that they’re in far better condition than we are. Gale and the other people already chosen to go to the Capitol are in a different, accelerated phase of training. After we stretch–which hurts–there’s a couple of hours of strengthening exercises–which hurt–and a five-mile run–which kills. Even with Johanna’s motivational insults driving me on, I have to drop out after a mile.

“It’s my ribs,” I explain to the trainer, a no-nonsense middle-aged woman we’re supposed to address as Soldier York. “They’re still bruised.”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Soldier Everdeen, those are going to take at least another month to heal up on their own,” she says.

I shake my head. “I don’t have a month.”

She looks me up and down. “The doctors haven’t offered you any treatment?”

“Is there a treatment?” I ask. “They said they had to mend naturally.”

“That’s what they say. But they could speed up the process if I recommend it. I warn you, though, it isn’t any fun,” she tells me.

“Please. I’ve got to get to the Capitol,” I say.

Soldier York doesn’t question this. She scribbles something on a pad and sends me directly back to the hospital. I hesitate. I don’t want to miss any more training. “I’ll be back for the afternoon session,” I promise. She just purses her lips.

Twenty-four needle jabs to my rib cage later, I’m flattened out on my hospital bed, gritting my teeth to keep from begging them to bring back my morphling drip. It’s been by my bed so I can take a hit as needed. I haven’t used it lately, but I kept it for Johanna’s sake. Today they tested my blood to make sure it was clean of the painkiller, as the mixture of the two drugs–the morphling and whatever’s set my ribs on fire–has dangerous side effects. They made it clear I would have a difficult couple of days. But I told them to go ahead.

It’s a bad night in our room. Sleep’s out of the question. I think I can actually smell the ring of flesh around my chest burning, and Johanna’s fighting off withdrawal symptoms. Early on, when I apologize about cutting off her morphling supply, she waves it off, saying it had to happen anyway. But by three in the morning, I’m the target of every colorful bit of profanity District 7 has to offer. At dawn, she drags me out of bed, determined to get to training.

“I don’t think I can do it,” I confess.

“You can do it. We both can. We’re victors, remember? We’re the ones who can survive anything they throw at us,” she snarls at me. She’s a sick greenish color, shaking like a leaf. I get dressed.

We must be victors to make it through the morning. I think I’m going to lose Johanna when we realize it’s pouring outside. Her face turns ashen and she seems to have ceased breathing.

“It’s just water. It won’t kill us,” I say. She clenches her jaw and stomps out into the mud. Rain drenches us as we work our bodies and then slog around the running course. I bail after a mile again, and I have to resist the temptation to take off my shirt so the cold water can sizzle off my ribs. I force down my field lunch of soggy fish and beet stew. Johanna gets halfway through her bowl before it comes back up. In the afternoon, we learn to assemble our guns. I manage it, but Johanna can’t hold her hands steady enough to fit the parts together. When York’s back is turned, I help her out. Even though the rain continues, the afternoon’s an improvement because we’re on the shooting range. At last, something I’m good at. It takes some adjusting from a bow to a gun, but by the end of the day, I’ve got the best score in my class.

We’re just inside the hospital doors when Johanna declares, “This has to stop. Us living in the hospital. Everyone views us as patients.”

It’s not a problem for me. I can move into our family compartment, but Johanna’s never been assigned one. When she tries to get discharged from the hospital, they won’t agree to let her live alone, even if she comes in for daily talks with the head doctor. I think they may have put two and two together about the morphling and this only adds to their view that she’s unstable. “She won’t be alone. I’m going to room with her,” I announce. There’s some dissent, but Haymitch takes our part, and by bedtime, we have a compartment across from Prim and my mother, who agrees to keep an eye on us.

After I take a shower, and Johanna sort of wipes herself down with a damp cloth, she makes a cursory inspection of the place. When she opens the drawer that holds my few possessions, she shuts it quickly. “Sorry.”

I think how there’s nothing in Johanna’s drawer but her government-issued clothes. That she doesn’t have one thing in the world to call her own. “It’s okay. You can look at my stuff if you want.”

Johanna unlatches my locket, studying the pictures of Gale, Prim, and my mother. She opens the silver parachute and pulls out the spile and slips it onto her pinkie. “Makes me thirsty just looking at it.” Then she finds the pearl Peeta gave me. “Is this–?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Made it through somehow.” I don’t want to talk about Peeta. One of the best things about training is, it keeps me from thinking of him.

“Haymitch says he’s getting better,” she says.

“Maybe. But he’s changed,” I say.

“So have you. So have I. And Finnick and Haymitch and Beetee. Don’t get me started on Annie Cresta. The arena messed us all up pretty good, don’t you think? Or do you still feel like the girl who volunteered for your sister?” she asks me.

“No,” I answer.

“That’s the one thing I think my head doctor might be right about. There’s no going back. So we might as well get on with things.” She neatly returns my keepsakes to the drawer and climbs into the bed across from me just as the lights go out. “You’re not afraid I’ll kill you tonight?”

“Like I couldn’t take you,” I answer. Then we laugh, since both our bodies are so wrecked, it will be a miracle if we can get up the next day. But we do. Each morning, we do. And by the end of the week, my ribs feel almost like new, and Johanna can assemble her rifle without help.

Soldier York gives the pair of us an approving nod as we knock off for the day. “Fine job, Soldiers.”

When we move out of hearing, Johanna mutters, “I think winning the Games was easier.” But the look on her face says she’s pleased.

In fact, we’re almost in good spirits when we go to the dining hall, where Gale’s waiting to eat with me. Receiving a giant serving of beef stew doesn’t hurt my mood either. “First shipments of food arrived this morning,” Greasy Sae tells me. “That’s real beef, from District Ten. Not any of your wild dog.”

“Don’t remember you turning it down,” Gale tosses back.

We join a group that includes Delly, Annie, and Finnick. It’s something to see Finnick’s transformation since his marriage. His earlier incarnations–the decadent Capitol heartthrob I met before the Quell, the enigmatic ally in the arena, the broken young man who tried to help me hold it together–these have been replaced by someone who radiates life. Finnick’s real charms of self-effacing humor and an easygoing nature are on display for the first time. He never lets go of Annie’s hand. Not when they walk, not when they eat. I doubt he ever plans to. She’s lost in some daze of happiness. There are still moments when you can tell something slips in her brain and another world blinds her to us. But a few words from Finnick call her back.

Delly, who I’ve known since I was little but never gave much thought to, has grown in my estimation. She was told what Peeta said to me that night after the wedding, but she’s not a gossip. Haymitch says she’s the best defender I have when Peeta goes off on some kind of tear about me. Always taking my side, blaming his negative perceptions on the Capitol’s torture. She has more influence on him than any of the others do, because he really does know her. Anyway, even if she’s sugarcoating my good points, I appreciate it. Frankly, I could use a little sugarcoating.

I’m starving and the stew is so delicious–beef, potatoes, turnips, and onions in a thick gravy–that I have to force myself to slow down. All around the dining hall, you can feel the rejuvenating effect that a good meal can bring on. The way it can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it’s not a mistake to go on living. It’s better than any medicine. So I try to make it last and join in the conversation. Sop up the gravy on my bread and nibble on it as I listen to Finnick telling some ridiculous story about a sea turtle swimming off with his hat. Laugh before I realize he’s standing there. Directly across the table, behind the empty seat next to Johanna. Watching me. I choke momentarily as the gravy bread sticks in my throat.

“Peeta!” says Delly. “It’s so nice to see you out…and about.”

Two large guards stand behind him. He holds his tray awkwardly, balanced on his fingertips since his wrists are shackled with a short chain between them.

“What’s with the fancy bracelets?” asks Johanna.

“I’m not quite trustworthy yet,” says Peeta. “I can’t even sit here without your permission.” He indicates the guards with his head.

“Sure he can sit here. We’re old friends,” says Johanna, patting the space beside her. The guards nod and Peeta takes a seat. “Peeta and I had adjoining cells in the Capitol. We’re very familiar with each other’s screams.”

Annie, who’s on Johanna’s other side, does that thing where she covers her ears and exits reality. Finnick shoots Johanna an angry look as his arm encircles Annie.

“What? My head doctor says I’m not supposed to censor my thoughts. It’s part of my therapy,” replies Johanna.

The life has gone out of our little party. Finnick murmurs things to Annie until she slowly removes her hands. Then there’s a long silence while people pretend to eat.

“Annie,” says Delly brightly, “did you know it was Peeta who decorated your wedding cake? Back home, his family ran the bakery and he did all the icing.”

Annie cautiously looks across Johanna. “Thank you, Peeta. It was beautiful.”

“My pleasure, Annie,” says Peeta, and I hear that old note of gentleness in his voice that I thought was gone forever. Not that it’s directed at me. But still.

“If we’re going to fit in that walk, we better go,” Finnick tells her. He arranges both of their trays so he can carry them in one hand while holding tightly to her with the other. “Good seeing you, Peeta.”

“You be nice to her, Finnick. Or I might try and take her away from you.” It could be a joke, if the tone wasn’t so cold. Everything it conveys is wrong. The open distrust of Finnick, the implication that Peeta has his eye on Annie, that Annie could desert Finnick, that I do not even exist.

“Oh, Peeta,” says Finnick lightly. “Don’t make me sorry I restarted your heart.” He leads Annie away after giving me a concerned glance.

When they’re gone, Delly says in a reproachful voice, “He did save your life, Peeta. More than once.”

“For her.” He gives me a brief nod. “For the rebellion. Not for me. I don’t owe him anything.”

I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but I do. “Maybe not. But Mags is dead and you’re still here. That should count for something.”

“Yeah, a lot of things should count for something that don’t seem to, Katniss. I’ve got some memories I can’t make sense of, and I don’t think the Capitol touched them. A lot of nights on the train, for instance,” he says.

Again the implications. That more happened on the train than did. That what did happen–those nights I only kept my sanity because his arms were around me–no longer matters. Everything a lie, everything a way of misusing him.

Peeta makes a little gesture with his spoon, connecting Gale and me. “So, are you two officially a couple now, or are they still dragging out the star-crossed lover thing?”

“Still dragging,” says Johanna.

Spasms cause Peeta’s hands to tighten into fists, then splay out in a bizarre fashion. Is it all he can do to keep them from my neck? I can feel the tension in Gale’s muscles next to me, fear an altercation. But Gale simply says, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

“What’s that?” asks Peeta.

“You,” Gale answers.

“You’ll have to be a little more specific,” says Peeta. “What about me?”

“That they’ve replaced you with the evil-mutt version of yourself,” says Johanna.

Gale finishes his milk. “You done?” he asks me. I rise and we cross to drop off our trays. At the door, an old man stops me because I’m still clutching the rest of my gravy bread in my hand. Something in my expression, or maybe the fact that I’ve made no attempt to conceal it, makes him go easy on me. He lets me stuff the bread in my mouth and move on. Gale and I are almost to my compartment when he speaks again. “I didn’t expect that.”

“I told you he hated me,” I say.

“It’s the way he hates you. It’s so…familiar. I used to feel like that,” he admits. “When I’d watch you kissing him on the screen. Only I knew I wasn’t being entirely fair. He can’t see that.”

We reach my door. “Maybe he just sees me as I really am. I have to get some sleep.”

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