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In the living room, the front door slams, people shout. Then footsteps pound down the hall as the black wave roars past the building. From the kitchen, we can hear the windows groan, shatter. The noxious tar smell permeates the air. Finnick carries in Messalla. Leeg 1 and Cressida stumble into the room after them, coughing.

“Gale!” I shriek.

He’s there, slamming the kitchen door shut behind him, choking out one word. “Fumes!” Castor and Pollux grab towels, aprons to stuff in the cracks as Gale retches into a bright yellow sink.

“Mitchell?” asks Homes. Leeg 1 just shakes her head.

Boggs forces the Holo into my hand. His lips are moving, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. I lean my ear down to his mouth to catch his harsh whisper. “Don’t trust them. Don’t go back. Kill Peeta. Do what you came to do.”

I draw back so I can see his face. “What? Boggs? Boggs?” His eyes are still open, but dead. Pressed in my hand, glued to it by his blood, is the Holo.

Peeta’s feet slamming into the closet door break up the ragged breathing of the others. But even as we listen, his energy seems to ebb. The kicks diminish to an irregular drumming. Then nothing. I wonder if he, too, is dead.

“He’s gone?” Finnick asks, looking down at Boggs. I nod. “We need to get out of here. Now. We just set off a streetful of pods. You can bet they’ve got us on surveillance tapes.”

“Count on it,” says Castor. “All the streets are covered by surveillance cameras. I bet they set off the black wave manually when they saw us taping the propo.”

“Our radio communicators went dead almost immediately. Probably an electromagnetic pulse device. But I’ll get us back to camp. Give me the Holo.” Jackson reaches for the unit, but I clutch it to my chest.

“No. Boggs gave it to me,” I say.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snaps. Of course, she thinks it’s hers. She’s second in command.

“It’s true,” says Homes. “He transferred the prime security clearance to her while he was dying. I saw it.”

“Why would he do that?” demands Jackson.

Why indeed? My head’s reeling from the ghastly events of the last five minutes–Boggs mutilated, dying, dead, Peeta’s homicidal rage, Mitchell bloody and netted and swallowed by that foul black wave. I turn to Boggs, very badly needing him alive. Suddenly sure that he, and maybe he alone, is completely on my side. I think of his last orders….

“Don’t trust them. Don’t go back. Kill Peeta. Do what you came to do.”

What did he mean? Don’t trust who? The rebels? Coin? The people looking at me right now? I won’t go back, but he must know I can’t just fire a bullet through Peeta’s head. Can I? Should I? Did Boggs guess that what I really came to do is desert and kill Snow on my own?

I can’t work all of this out now, so I just decide to carry out the first two orders: to not trust anyone and to move deeper into the Capitol. But how can I justify this? Make them let me keep the Holo?

“Because I’m on a special mission for President Coin. I think Boggs was the only one who knew about it.”

This in no way convinces Jackson. “To do what?”

Why not tell them the truth? It’s as plausible as anything I’ll come up with. But it must seem like a real mission, not revenge. “To assassinate President Snow before the loss of life from this war makes our population unsustainable.”

“I don’t believe you,” says Jackson. “As your current commander, I order you to transfer the prime security clearance over to me.”

“No,” I say. “That would be in direct violation of President Coin’s orders.”

Guns are pointed. Half the squad at Jackson, half at me. Someone’s about to die, when Cressida speaks up. “It’s true. That’s why we’re here. Plutarch wants it televised. He thinks if we can film the Mockingjay assassinating Snow, it will end the war.”

This gives even Jackson pause. Then she gestures with her gun toward the closet. “And why is he here?”

There she has me. I can think of no sane reason that Coin would send an unstable boy, programmed to kill me, along on such a key assignment. It really weakens my story. Cressida comes to my aid again. “Because the two post-Games interviews with Caesar Flickerman were shot in President Snow’s personal quarters. Plutarch thinks Peeta may be of some use as a guide in a location we have little knowledge of.”

I want to ask Cressida why she’s lying for me, why she’s fighting for us to go on with my self-appointed mission. Now’s not the time.

“We have to go!” says Gale. “I’m following Katniss. If you don’t want to, head back to camp. But let’s move!”

Homes unlocks the closet and heaves an unconscious Peeta over his shoulder. “Ready.”

“Boggs?” says Leeg 1.

“We can’t take him. He’d understand,” says Finnick. He frees Boggs’s gun from his shoulder and slings the strap over his own. “Lead on, Soldier Everdeen.”

I don’t know how to lead on. I look at the Holo for direction. It’s still activated, but it might as well be dead for all the good that does me. There’s no time for fiddling around with the buttons, trying to figure out how to work it. “I don’t know how to use this. Boggs said you would help me,” I tell Jackson. “He said I could count on you.”

Jackson scowls, snatches the Holo from me, and taps in a command. An intersection comes up. “If we go out the kitchen door, there’s a small courtyard, then the back side of another corner apartment unit. We’re looking at an overview of the four streets that meet at the intersection.”

I try to get my bearings as I stare at the cross section of the map blinking with pods in every direction. And those are only the pods Plutarch knows about. The Holo didn’t indicate that the block we just left was mined, had the black geyser, or that the net was made from barbed wire. Besides that, there may be Peacekeepers to deal with, now that they know our position. I bite the inside of my lip, feeling everyone’s eyes on me. “Put on your masks. We’re going out the way we came in.”

Instant objections. I raise my voice over them. “If the wave was that powerful, then it may have triggered and absorbed other pods in our path.”

People stop to consider this. Pollux makes a few quick signs to his brother. “It may have disabled the cameras as well,” Castor translates. “Coated the lenses.”

Gale props one of his boots on the counter and examines the splatter of black on the toe. Scrapes it with a kitchen knife from a block on the counter. “It’s not corrosive. I think it was meant to either suffocate or poison us.”

“Probably our best shot,” says Leeg 1.

Masks go on. Finnick adjusts Peeta’s mask over his lifeless face. Cressida and Leeg 1 prop up a woozy Messalla between them.

I’m waiting for someone to take the point position when I remember that’s my job now. I push on the kitchen door and meet with no resistance. A half-inch layer of the black goo has spread from the living room about three-quarters of the way down the hall. When I gingerly test it with the toe of my boot, I find it has the consistency of a gel. I lift my foot and after stretching slightly, it springs back into place. I take three steps into the gel and look back. No footprints. It’s the first good thing that’s happened today. The gel becomes slightly thicker as I cross the living room. I ease open the front door, expecting gallons of the stuff to pour in, but it holds its form.

The pink and orange block seems to have been dipped in glossy black paint and set out to dry. Paving stones, buildings, even the rooftops are coated in the gel. A large teardrop hangs above the street. Two shapes project from it. A gun barrel and a human hand. Mitchell. I wait on the sidewalk, staring up at him until the entire group has joined me.

“If anyone needs to go back, for whatever reason, now is the time,” I say. “No questions asked, no hard feelings.” No one seems inclined to retreat. So I start moving into the Capitol, knowing we don’t have much time. The gel’s deeper here, four to six inches, and makes a sucking sound each time you pick up your foot, but it still covers our tracks.

The wave must have been enormous, with tremendous power behind it, as it’s affected several blocks that lie ahead. And though I tread with care, I think my instinct was right about its triggering other pods. One block is sprinkled with the golden bodies of tracker jackers. They must have been set free only to succumb to the fumes. A little farther along, an entire apartment building has collapsed and lies in a mound under the gel. I sprint across the intersections, holding up a hand for the others to wait while I look for trouble, but the wave seems to have dismantled the pods far better than any squad of rebels could.

On the fifth block, I can tell that we’ve reached the point where the wave began to peter out. The gel’s only an inch deep, and I can see baby blue rooftops peeking out across the next intersection. The afternoon light has faded, and we badly need to get under cover and form a plan. I choose an apartment two-thirds of the way down the block. Homes jimmies the lock, and I order the others inside. I stay on the street for just a minute, watching the last of our footprints fade away, then close the door behind me.

Flashlights built into our guns illuminate a large living room with mirrored walls that throw our faces back at us at every turn. Gale checks the windows, which show no damage, and removes his mask. “It’s all right. You can smell it, but it’s not too strong.”

The apartment seems to be laid out exactly like the first one we took refuge in. The gel blacks out any natural daylight in the front, but some light still slips through the shutters in the kitchen. Along the hallway are two bedrooms with baths. A spiral staircase in the living room leads up to an open space that composes much of the second floor. There are no windows upstairs, but the lights have been left on, probably by someone hastily evacuating. A huge television screen, blank but glowing softly, occupies one wall. Plush chairs and sofas are strewn around the room. This is where we congregate, slump into upholstery, try to catch our breath.

Jackson has her gun trained on Peeta even though he’s still cuffed and unconscious, draped across a deep-blue sofa where Homes deposited him. What on earth am I going to do with him? With the crew? With everybody, frankly, besides Gale and Finnick? Because I’d rather track down Snow with those two than without them. But I can’t lead ten people through the Capitol on a pretend mission, even if I could read the Holo. Should I, could I have sent them back when I had a chance? Or was it too dangerous? Both to them personally and to my mission? Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to Boggs, because he might have been in some delusional death state. Maybe I should just come clean, but then Jackson would take over and we’d end up back at camp. Where I’d have Coin to answer to.

Just as the complexity of the mess I’ve dragged everybody into begins to overload my brain, a distant chain of explosions sends a tremor through the room.

“It wasn’t close,” Jackson assures us. “A good four or five blocks away.”

“Where we left Boggs,” says Leeg 1.

Although no one has made a move toward it, the television flares to life, emitting a high-pitched beeping sound, bringing half our party to its feet.

“It’s all right!” calls Cressida. “It’s just an emergency broadcast. Every Capitol television is automatically activated for it.”

There we are on-screen, just after the bomb took out Boggs. A voice-over tells the audience what they are viewing as we try to regroup, react to the black gel shooting from the street, lose control of the situation. We watch the chaos that follows until the wave blots out the cameras. The last thing we see is Gale, alone on the street, trying to shoot through the cables that hold Mitchell aloft.

The reporter identifies Gale, Finnick, Boggs, Peeta, Cressida, and me by name.

“There’s no aerial footage. Boggs must have been right about their hovercraft capacity,” says Castor. I didn’t notice this, but I guess it’s the kind of thing a cameraman picks up on.

Coverage continues from the courtyard behind the apartment where we took shelter. Peacekeepers line the roof across from our former hideout. Shells are launched into the row of apartments, setting off the chain of explosions we heard, and the building collapses into rubble and dust.

Now we cut to a live feed. A reporter stands on the roof with the Peacekeepers. Behind her, the apartment block burns. Firefighters try to control the blaze with water hoses. We are pronounced dead.

“Finally, a bit of luck,” says Homes.

I guess he’s right. Certainly it’s better than having the Capitol in pursuit of us. But I just keep imagining how this will be playing back in 13. Where my mother and Prim, Hazelle and the kids, Annie, Haymitch, and a whole lot of people from 13 think that they have just seen us die.

“My father. He just lost my sister and now…” says Leeg 1.

We watch as they play the footage over and over. Revel in their victory, especially over me. Break away to do a montage of the Mockingjay’s rise to rebel power–I think they’ve had this part prepared for a while, because it seems pretty polished–and then go live so a couple of reporters can discuss my well-deserved violent end. Later, they promise, Snow will make an official statement. The screen fades back to a glow.

The rebels made no attempt to break in during the broadcast, which leads me to believe they think it’s true. If that’s so, we really are on our own.

“So, now that we’re dead, what’s our next move?” asks Gale.

“Isn’t it obvious?” No one even knew Peeta had regained consciousness. I don’t know how long he’s been watching, but by the look of misery on his face, long enough to see what happened on the street. How he went mad, tried to bash my head in, and hurled Mitchell into the pod. He painfully pushes himself up to a sitting position and directs his words to Gale.

“Our next move…is to kill me.”

21

That makes two requests for Peeta’s death in less than an hour.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Jackson.

“I just murdered a member of our squad!” shouts Peeta.

“You pushed him off you. You couldn’t have known he would trigger the net at that exact spot,” says Finnick, trying to calm him.

“Who cares? He’s dead, isn’t he?” Tears begin to run down Peeta’s face. “I didn’t know. I’ve never seen myself like that before. Katniss is right. I’m the monster. I’m the mutt. I’m the one Snow has turned into a weapon!”

“It’s not your fault, Peeta,” says Finnick.

“You can’t take me with you. It’s only a matter of time before I kill someone else.” Peeta looks around at our conflicted faces. “Maybe you think it’s kinder to just dump me somewhere. Let me take my chances. But that’s the same thing as handing me over to the Capitol. Do you think you’d be doing me a favor by sending me back to Snow?”

Peeta. Back in Snow’s hands. Tortured and tormented until no bits of his former self will ever emerge again.

For some reason, the last stanza to “The Hanging Tree” starts running through my head. The one where the man wants his lover dead rather than have her face the evil that awaits her in the world.

Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.

Strange things did happen here

No stranger would it be

If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.

“I’ll kill you before that happens,” says Gale. “I promise.”

Peeta hesitates, as if considering the reliability of this offer, and then shakes his head. “It’s no good. What if you’re not there to do it? I want one of those poison pills like the rest of you have.”

Nightlock. There’s one pill back at camp, in its special slot on the sleeve of my Mockingjay suit. But there’s another in the breast pocket of my uniform. Interesting that they didn’t issue one to Peeta. Perhaps Coin thought he might take it before he had the opportunity to kill me. It’s unclear if Peeta means he’d finish himself off now, to spare us having to murder him, or only if the Capitol took him prisoner again. In the state he’s in, I expect it would be sooner rather than later. It would certainly make things easier on the rest of us. Not to have to shoot him. It would certainly simplify the problem of dealing with his homicidal episodes.

I don’t know if it’s the pods, or the fear, or watching Boggs die, but I feel the arena all around me. It’s as if I’ve never left, really. Once again I’m battling not only for my own survival but for Peeta’s as well. How satisfying, how entertaining it would be for Snow to have me kill him. To have Peeta’s death on my conscience for whatever is left of my life.

“It’s not about you,” I say. “We’re on a mission. And you’re necessary to it.” I look to the rest of the group. “Think we might find some food here?”

Besides the medical kit and cameras, we have nothing but our uniforms and our weapons.

Half of us stay to guard Peeta or keep an eye out for Snow’s broadcast, while the others hunt for something to eat. Messalla proves most valuable because he lived in a near replica of this apartment and knows where people would be most likely to stash food. Like how there’s a storage space concealed by a mirrored panel in the bedroom, or how easy it is to pop out the ventilation screen in the hallway. So even though the kitchen cupboards are bare, we find over thirty canned goods and several boxes of cookies.

The hoarding disgusts the soldiers raised in 13. “Isn’t this illegal?” says Leeg 1.

“On the contrary, in the Capitol you’d be considered stupid not to do it,” says Messalla. “Even before the Quarter Quell, people were starting to stock up on scarce supplies.”

“While others went without,” says Leeg 1.

“Right,” says Messalla. “That’s how it works here.”

“Fortunately, or we wouldn’t have dinner,” says Gale. “Everybody grab a can.”

Some of our company seem reluctant to do this, but it’s as good a method as any. I’m really not in the mood to divvy up everything into eleven equal parts, factoring in age, body weight, and physical output. I poke around in the pile, about to settle on some cod chowder, when Peeta holds out a can to me. “Here.”

I take it, not knowing what to expect. The label reads Lamb Stew.

I press my lips together at the memories of rain dripping through stones, my inept attempts at flirting, and the aroma of my favorite Capitol dish in the chilly air. So some part of it must still be in his head, too. How happy, how hungry, how close we were when that picnic basket arrived outside our cave. “Thanks.” I pop open the top. “It even has dried plums.” I bend the lid and use it as a makeshift spoon, scooping a bit into my mouth. Now this place tastes like the arena, too.

We’re passing around a box of fancy cream-filled cookies when the beeping starts again. The seal of Panem lights up on the screen and remains there while the anthem plays. And then they begin to show images of the dead, just as they did with the tributes in the arena. They start with the four faces of our TV crew, followed by Boggs, Gale, Finnick, Peeta, and me. Except for Boggs, they don’t bother with the soldiers from 13, either because they have no idea who they are or because they know they won’t mean anything to the audience. Then the man himself appears, seated at his desk, a flag draped behind him, the fresh white rose gleaming in his lapel. I think he might have recently had more work done, because his lips are puffier than usual. And his prep team really needs to use a lighter hand with his blush.

Snow congratulates the Peacekeepers on a masterful job, honors them for ridding the country of the menace called the Mockingjay. With my death, he predicts a turning of the tide in the war, since the demoralized rebels have no one left to follow. And what was I, really? A poor, unstable girl with a small talent with a bow and arrow. Not a great thinker, not the mastermind of the rebellion, merely a face plucked from the rabble because I had caught the nation’s attention with my antics in the Games. But necessary, so very necessary, because the rebels have no real leader among them.

Somewhere in District 13, Beetee hits a switch, because now it’s not President Snow but President Coin who’s looking at us. She introduces herself to Panem, identifies herself as the head of the rebellion, and then gives my eulogy. Praise for the girl who survived the Seam and the Hunger Games, then turned a country of slaves into an army of freedom fighters. “Dead or alive, Katniss Everdeen will remain the face of this rebellion. If ever you waver in your resolve, think of the Mockingjay, and in her you will find the strength you need to rid Panem of its oppressors.”

“I had no idea how much I meant to her,” I say, which brings a laugh from Gale and questioning looks from the others.

Up comes a heavily doctored photo of me looking beautiful and fierce with a bunch of flames flickering behind me. No words. No slogan. My face is all they need now.

Beetee gives the reins back to a very controlled Snow. I have the feeling the president thought the emergency channel was impenetrable, and someone will end up dead tonight because it was breached. “Tomorrow morning, when we pull Katniss Everdeen’s body from the ashes, we will see exactly who the Mockingjay is. A dead girl who could save no one, not even herself.” Seal, anthem, and out.

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