The following evening, the newest member of our squad arrives. With no manacles. No guards. Strolling out of the train station with his gun swinging from the strap over his shoulder. There’s shock, confusion, resistance, but 451 is stamped on the back of Peeta’s hand in fresh ink. Boggs relieves him of his weapon and goes to make a call.
“It won’t matter,” Peeta tells the rest of us. “The president assigned me herself. She decided the propos needed some heating up.”
Maybe they do. But if Coin sent Peeta here, she’s decided something else as well. That I’m of more use to her dead than alive.
I’ve never really seen Boggs angry before. Not when I’ve disobeyed his orders or puked on him, not even when Gale broke his nose. But he’s angry when he returns from his phone call with the president. The first thing he does is instruct Soldier Jackson, his second in command, to set up a two-person, round-the-clock guard on Peeta. Then he takes me on a walk, weaving through the sprawling tent encampment until our squad is far behind us.
“He’ll try and kill me anyway,” I say. “Especially here. Where there are so many bad memories to set him off.”
“I’ll keep him contained, Katniss,” says Boggs.
“Why does Coin want me dead now?” I ask.
“She denies she does,” he answers.
“But we know it’s true,” I say. “And you must at least have a theory.”
Boggs gives me a long, hard look before he answers. “Here’s as much as I know. The president doesn’t like you. She never did. It was Peeta she wanted rescued from the arena, but no one else agreed. It made matters worse when you forced her to give the other victors immunity. But even that could be overlooked in view of how well you’ve performed.”
“Then what is it?” I insist.
“Sometime in the near future, this war will be resolved. A new leader will be chosen,” says Boggs.
I roll my eyes. “Boggs, no one thinks I’m going to be the leader.”
“No. They don’t,” he agrees. “But you’ll throw support to someone. Would it be President Coin? Or someone else?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it,” I say.
“If your immediate answer isn’t Coin, then you’re a threat. You’re the face of the rebellion. You may have more influence than any other single person,” says Boggs. “Outwardly, the most you’ve ever done is tolerated her.”
“So she’ll kill me to shut me up.” The minute I say the words, I know they’re true.
“She doesn’t need you as a rallying point now. As she said, your primary objective, to unite the districts, has succeeded,” Boggs reminds me. “These current propos could be done without you. There’s only one last thing you could do to add fire to the rebellion.”
“Die,” I say quietly.
“Yes. Give us a martyr to fight for,” says Boggs. “But that’s not going to happen under my watch, Soldier Everdeen. I’m planning for you to have a long life.”
“Why?” This kind of thinking will only bring him trouble. “You don’t owe me anything.”
“Because you’ve earned it,” he says. “Now get back to your squad.”
I know I should feel appreciative of Boggs sticking his neck out for me, but really I’m just frustrated. I mean, how can I steal his Holo and desert now? Betraying him was complicated enough without this whole new layer of debt. I already owe him for saving my life.
Seeing the cause of my current dilemma calmly pitching his tent back at our site makes me furious. “What time is my watch?” I ask Jackson.
She squints at me in doubt, or maybe she’s just trying to get my face in focus. “I didn’t put you in the rotation.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“I’m not sure you could really shoot Peeta, if it came to it,” she says.
I speak up so the whole squad can hear me clearly. “I wouldn’t be shooting Peeta. He’s gone. Johanna’s right. It’d be just like shooting another of the Capitol’s mutts.” It feels good to say something horrible about him, out loud, in public, after all the humiliation I’ve felt since his return.
“Well, that sort of comment isn’t recommending you either,” says Jackson.
“Put her in the rotation,” I hear Boggs say behind me.
Jackson shakes her head and makes a note. “Midnight to four. You’re on with me.”
The dinner whistle sounds, and Gale and I line up at the canteen. “Do you want me to kill him?” he asks bluntly.
“That’ll get us both sent back for sure,” I say. But even though I’m furious, the brutality of the offer rattles me. “I can deal with him.”
“You mean until you take off? You and your paper map and possibly a Holo if you can get your hands on it?” So Gale has not missed my preparations. I hope they haven’t been so obvious to the others. None of them know my mind like he does, though. “You’re not planning on leaving me behind, are you?” he asks.
Up until this point, I was. But having my hunting partner to watch my back doesn’t sound like a bad idea. “As your fellow soldier, I have to strongly recommend you stay with your squad. But I can’t stop you from coming, can I?”
He grins. “No. Not unless you want me to alert the rest of the army.”
Squad 451 and the television crew collect dinner from the canteen and gather in a tense circle to eat. At first I think that Peeta is the cause of the unease, but by the end of the meal, I realize more than a few unfriendly looks have been directed my way. This is a quick turnaround, since I’m pretty sure when Peeta appeared the whole team was concerned about how dangerous he might be, especially to me. But it’s not until I get a phone call through to Haymitch that I understand.
“What are you trying to do? Provoke him into an attack?” he asks me.
“Of course not. I just want him to leave me alone,” I say.
“Well, he can’t. Not after what the Capitol put him through,” says Haymitch. “Look, Coin may have sent him there hoping he’d kill you, but Peeta doesn’t know that. He doesn’t understand what’s happened to him. So you can’t blame him–”
“I don’t!” I say.
“You do! You’re punishing him over and over for things that are out of his control. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a fully loaded weapon next to you round the clock. But I think it’s time you flipped this little scenario around in your head. If you’d been taken by the Capitol, and hijacked, and then tried to kill Peeta, is this the way he would be treating you?” demands Haymitch.
I fall silent. It isn’t. It isn’t how he would be treating me at all. He would be trying to get me back at any cost. Not shutting me out, abandoning me, greeting me with hostility at every turn.
“You and me, we made a deal to try and save him. Remember?” Haymitch says. When I don’t respond, he disconnects after a curt “Try and remember.”
The autumn day turns from brisk to cold. Most of the squad hunker down in their sleeping bags. Some sleep under the open sky, close to the heater in the center of our camp, while others retreat to their tents. Leeg 1 has finally broken down over her sister’s death, and her muffled sobs reach us through the canvas. I huddle in my tent, thinking over Haymitch’s words. Realizing with shame that my fixation with assassinating Snow has allowed me to ignore a much more difficult problem. Trying to rescue Peeta from the shadowy world the hijacking has stranded him in. I don’t know how to find him, let alone lead him out. I can’t even conceive of a plan. It makes the task of crossing a loaded arena, locating Snow, and putting a bullet through his head look like child’s play.
At midnight, I crawl out of my tent and position myself on a camp stool near the heater to take my watch with Jackson. Boggs told Peeta to sleep out in full view where the rest of us could keep an eye on him. He isn’t sleeping, though. Instead, he sits with his bag pulled up to his chest, clumsily trying to make knots in a short length of rope. I know it well. It’s the one Finnick lent me that night in the bunker. Seeing it in his hands, it’s like Finnick’s echoing what Haymitch just said, that I’ve cast off Peeta. Now might be a good time to begin to remedy that. If I could think of something to say. But I can’t. So I don’t. I just let the sounds of soldiers’ breathing fill the night.
After about an hour, Peeta speaks up. “These last couple of years must have been exhausting for you. Trying to decide whether to kill me or not. Back and forth. Back and forth.”
That seems grossly unfair, and my first impulse is to say something cutting. But I revisit my conversation with Haymitch and try to take the first tentative step in Peeta’s direction. “I never wanted to kill you. Except when I thought you were helping the Careers kill me. After that, I always thought of you as…an ally.” That’s a good safe word. Empty of any emotional obligation, but nonthreatening.
“Ally.” Peeta says the word slowly, tasting it. “Friend. Lover. Victor. Enemy. Fiancee. Target. Mutt. Neighbor. Hunter. Tribute. Ally. I’ll add it to the list of words I use to try to figure you out.” He weaves the rope in and out of his fingers. “The problem is, I can’t tell what’s real anymore, and what’s made up.”
The cessation of rhythmic breathing suggests that either people have woken or have never really been asleep at all. I suspect the latter.
Finnick’s voice rises from a bundle in the shadows. “Then you should ask, Peeta. That’s what Annie does.”
“Ask who?” Peeta says. “Who can I trust?”
“Well, us for starters. We’re your squad,” says Jackson.
“You’re my guards,” he points out.
“That, too,” she says. “But you saved a lot of lives in Thirteen. It’s not the kind of thing we forget.”
In the quiet that follows, I try to imagine not being able to tell illusion from reality. Not knowing if Prim or my mother loved me. If Snow was my enemy. If the person across the heater saved or sacrificed me. With very little effort, my life rapidly morphs into a nightmare. I suddenly want to tell Peeta everything about who he is, and who I am, and how we ended up here. But I don’t know how to start. Worthless. I’m worthless.
At a few minutes before four, Peeta turns to me again. “Your favorite color…it’s green?”
“That’s right.” Then I think of something to add. “And yours is orange.”
“Orange?” He seems unconvinced.
“Not bright orange. But soft. Like the sunset,” I say. “At least, that’s what you told me once.”
“Oh.” He closes his eyes briefly, maybe trying to conjure up that sunset, then nods his head. “Thank you.”
But more words tumble out. “You’re a painter. You’re a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces.”
Then I dive into my tent before I do something stupid like cry.
In the morning, Gale, Finnick, and I go out to shoot some glass off the buildings for the camera crew. When we get back to camp, Peeta’s sitting in a circle with the soldiers from 13, who are armed but talking openly with him. Jackson has devised a game called “Real or Not Real” to help Peeta. He mentions something he thinks happened, and they tell him if it’s true or imagined, usually followed by a brief explanation.
“Most of the people from Twelve were killed in the fire.”
“Real. Less than nine hundred of you made it to Thirteen alive.”
“The fire was my fault.”
“Not real. President Snow destroyed Twelve the way he did Thirteen, to send a message to the rebels.”
This seems like a good idea until I realize that I’ll be the only one who can confirm or deny most of what weighs on him. Jackson breaks us up into watches. She matches up Finnick, Gale, and me each with a soldier from 13. This way Peeta will always have access to someone who knows him more personally. It’s not a steady conversation. Peeta spends a long time considering even small pieces of information, like where people bought their soap back home. Gale fills him in on a lot of stuff about 12; Finnick is the expert on both of Peeta’s Games, as he was a mentor in the first and a tribute in the second. But since Peeta’s greatest confusion centers around me–and not everything can be explained simply–our exchanges are painful and loaded, even though we touch on only the most superficial of details. The color of my dress in 7. My preference for cheese buns. The name of our math teacher when we were little. Reconstructing his memory of me is excruciating. Perhaps it isn’t even possible after what Snow did to him. But it does feel right to help him try.
The next afternoon, we’re notified that the whole squad is needed to stage a fairly complicated propo. Peeta’s been right about one thing: Coin and Plutarch are unhappy with the quality of footage they’re getting from the Star Squad. Very dull. Very uninspiring. The obvious response is that they never let us do anything but playact with our guns. However, this is not about defending ourselves, it’s about coming up with a usable product. So today, a special block has been set aside for filming. It even has a couple of active pods on it. One unleashes a spray of gunfire. The other nets the invader and traps them for either interrogation or execution, depending on the captors’ preference. But it’s still an unimportant residential block with nothing of strategic consequence.
The television crew means to provide a sense of heightened jeopardy by releasing smoke bombs and adding gunfire sound effects. We suit up in heavy protective gear, even the crew, as if we’re heading into the heart of battle. Those of us with specialty weapons are allowed to take them along with our guns. Boggs gives Peeta back his gun, too, although he makes sure to tell him in a loud voice that it’s only loaded with blanks.
Peeta just shrugs. “I’m not much of a shot anyway.” He seems preoccupied with watching Pollux, to the point where it’s getting a little worrisome, when he finally puzzles it out and begins to speak with agitation. “You’re an Avox, aren’t you? I can tell by the way you swallow. There were two Avoxes with me in prison. Darius and Lavinia, but the guards mostly called them the redheads. They’d been our servants in the Training Center, so they arrested them, too. I watched them being tortured to death. She was lucky. They used too much voltage and her heart stopped right off. It took days to finish him off. Beating, cutting off parts. They kept asking him questions, but he couldn’t speak, he just made these horrible animal sounds. They didn’t want information, you know? They wanted me to see it.”
Peeta looks around at our stunned faces, as if waiting for a reply. When none is forthcoming, he asks, “Real or not real?” The lack of response upsets him more. “Real or not real?!” he demands.
“Real,” says Boggs. “At least, to the best of my knowledge…real.”
Peeta sags. “I thought so. There was nothing…shiny about it.” He wanders away from the group, muttering something about fingers and toes.
I move to Gale, press my forehead into the body armor where his chest should be, feel his arm tighten around me. We finally know the name of the girl who we watched the Capitol abduct from the woods of 12, the fate of the Peacekeeper friend who tried to keep Gale alive. This is no time to call up happy moments of remembrance. They lost their lives because of me. I add them to my personal list of kills that began in the arena and now includes thousands. When I look up, I see it has taken Gale differently. His expression says that there are not enough mountains to crush, enough cities to destroy. It promises death.
With Peeta’s grisly account fresh in our minds, we crunch through the streets of broken glass until we reach our target, the block we are to take. It is a real, if small, goal to accomplish. We gather around Boggs to examine the Holo projection of the street. The gunfire pod is positioned about a third of the way down, just above an apartment awning. We should be able to trigger it with bullets. The net pod is at the far end, almost the next corner. This will require someone to set off the body sensor mechanism. Everyone volunteers except Peeta, who doesn’t seem to know quite what’s going on. I don’t get picked. I get sent to Messalla, who dabs some makeup on my face for the anticipated close-ups.
The squad positions itself under Boggs’s direction, and then we have to wait for Cressida to get the cameramen in place as well. They’re both to our left, with Castor toward the front and Pollux bringing up the rear so they’ll be sure not to record each other. Messalla sets off a couple of smoke charges for atmosphere. Since this is both a mission and a shoot, I’m about to ask who’s in charge, my commander or my director, when Cressida calls, “Action!”
We slowly proceed down the hazy street, just like one of our exercises in the Block. Everyone has at least one section of windows to blow out, but Gale’s assigned the real target. When he hits the pod, we take cover–ducking into doorways or flattening onto the pretty, light orange and pink paving stones–as a hail of bullets sweeps back and forth over our heads. After a while, Boggs orders us forward.
Cressida stops us before we can rise, since she needs some close-up shots. We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it’s supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. Especially when it turns out that I’m not the worst actor in the squad. Not by a long shot. We’re all laughing so hard at Mitchell’s attempt to project his idea of desperation, which involves teeth grinding and nostrils flaring, that Boggs has to reprimand us.
“Pull it together, Four-Five-One,” he says firmly. But you can see him suppressing a smile as he’s double-checking the next pod. Positioning the Holo to find the best light in the smoky air. Still facing us as his left foot steps back onto the orange paving stone. Triggering the bomb that blows off his legs.
It’s as if in an instant, a painted window shatters, revealing the ugly world behind it. Laughter changes to screams, blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television.
A second explosion seems to split the air and leaves my ears ringing. But I can’t make out where it came from.
I reach Boggs first, try to make sense of the torn flesh, missing limbs, to find something to stem the red flow from his body. Homes pushes me aside, wrenching open a first-aid kit. Boggs clutches my wrist. His face, gray with dying and ash, seems to be receding. But his next words are an order. “The Holo.”
The Holo. I scramble around, digging through chunks of tile slick with blood, shuddering when I encounter bits of warm flesh. Find it rammed into a stairwell with one of Boggs’s boots. Retrieve it, wiping it clean with bare hands as I return it to my commander.
Homes has the stump of Boggs’s left thigh cupped by some sort of compression bandage, but it’s already soaked through. He’s trying to tourniquet the other above the existing knee. The rest of the squad has gathered in a protective formation around the crew and us. Finnick’s attempting to revive Messalla, who was thrown into a wall by the explosion. Jackson’s barking into a field communicator, trying unsuccessfully to alert the camp to send medics, but I know it’s too late. As a child, watching my mother work, I learned that once a pool of blood has reached a certain size, there’s no going back.
I kneel beside Boggs, prepared to repeat the role I played with Rue, with the morphling from 6, giving him someone to hold on to as he’s released from life. But Boggs has both hands working the Holo. He’s typing in a command, pressing his thumb to the screen for print recognition, speaking a string of letters and numbers in response to a prompt. A green shaft of light bursts out of the Holo and illuminates his face. He says, “Unfit for command. Transfer of prime security clearance to Squad Four-Five-One Soldier Katniss Everdeen.” It’s all he can do to turn the Holo toward my face. “Say your name.”
“Katniss Everdeen,” I say into the green shaft. Suddenly, it has me trapped in its light. I can’t move or even blink as images flicker rapidly before me. Scanning me? Recording me? Blinding me? It vanishes, and I shake my head to clear it. “What did you do?”
“Prepare to retreat!” Jackson hollers.
Finnick’s yelling something back, gesturing to the end of the block where we entered. Black, oily matter spouts like a geyser from the street, billowing between the buildings, creating an impenetrable wall of darkness. It seems to be neither liquid nor gas, mechanical nor natural. Surely it’s lethal. There’s no heading back the way we came.
Deafening gunfire as Gale and Leeg 1 begin to blast a path across the stones toward the far end of the block. I don’t know what they’re doing until another bomb, ten yards away, detonates, opening a hole in the street. Then I realize this is a rudimentary attempt at minesweeping. Homes and I latch on to Boggs and begin to drag him after Gale. Agony takes over and he’s crying out in pain and I want to stop, to find a better way, but the blackness is rising above the buildings, swelling, rolling at us like a wave.
I’m yanked backward, lose my grip on Boggs, slam into the stones. Peeta looks down at me, gone, mad, flashing back into the land of the hijacked, his gun raised over me, descending to crush my skull. I roll, hear the butt slam into the street, catch the tumble of bodies out of the corner of my eye as Mitchell tackles Peeta and pins him to the ground. But Peeta, always so powerful and now fueled by tracker jacker insanity, gets his feet under Mitchell’s belly and launches him farther down the block.
There’s a loud snap of a trap as the pod triggers. Four cables, attached to tracks on the buildings, break through the stones, dragging up the net that encases Mitchell. It makes no sense–how instantly bloodied he is–until we see the barbs sticking from the wire that encases him. I know it immediately. It decorated the top of the fence around 12. As I call to him not to move, I gag on the smell of the blackness, thick, tarlike. The wave has crested and begun to fall.
Gale and Leeg 1 shoot through the front door lock of the corner building, then begin to fire at the cables holding Mitchell’s net. Others are restraining Peeta now. I lunge back to Boggs, and Homes and I drag him inside the apartment, through someone’s pink and white velvet living room, down a hallway hung with family photos, onto the marble floor of a kitchen, where we collapse. Castor and Pollux carry in a writhing Peeta between them. Somehow Jackson gets cuffs on him, but it only makes him wilder and they’re forced to lock him in a closet.