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Others your reason, like the tracker jackers. However, the true atrocities, the most frightening, incorporate a perverse psychological twist designed to terrify the victim. The sight of the wolf mutts with the dead tributes’ eyes. The sound of the jabberjays replicating Prim’s tortured screams. The smell of Snow’s roses mixed with the victims’ blood. Carried across the sewer. Cutting through even this foulness. Making my heart run wild, my skin turn to ice, my lungs unable to suck air. It’s as if Snow’s breathing right in my face, telling me it’s time to die.

The others are shouting at me, but I can’t seem to respond. Strong arms lift me as I blast the head off a mutt whose claws have just grazed my ankle. I’m slammed into the ladder. Hands shoved against the rungs. Ordered to climb. My wooden, puppet limbs obey. Movement slowly brings me back to my senses. I detect one person above me. Pollux. Peeta and Cressida are below. We reach a platform. Switch to a second ladder. Rungs slick with sweat and mildew. At the next platform, my head has cleared and the reality of what’s happened hits me. I begin frantically pulling people up off the ladder. Peeta. Cressida. That’s it.

What have I done? What have I abandoned the others to? I’m scrambling back down the ladder when one of my boots kicks someone.

“Climb!” Gale barks at me. I’m back up, hauling him in, peering into the gloom for more. “No.” Gale turns my face to him and shakes his head. Uniform shredded. Gaping wound in the side of his neck.

There’s a human cry from below. “Someone’s still alive,” I plead.

“No, Katniss. They’re not coming,” says Gale. “Only the mutts are.”

Unable to accept it, I shine the light from Cressida’s gun down the shaft. Far below, I can just make out Finnick, struggling to hang on as three mutts tear at him. As one yanks back his head to take the death bite, something bizarre happens. It’s as if I’m Finnick, watching images of my life flash by. The mast of a boat, a silver parachute, Mags laughing, a pink sky, Beetee’s trident, Annie in her wedding dress, waves breaking over rocks. Then it’s over.

I slide the Holo from my belt and choke out “nightlock, nightlock, nightlock.” Release it. Hunch against the wall with the others as the explosion rocks the platform and bits of mutt and human flesh shoot out of the pipe and shower us.

There’s a clank as Pollux slams a cover over the pipe and locks it in place. Pollux, Gale, Cressida, Peeta, and me. We’re all that’s left. Later, the human feelings will come. Now I’m conscious only of an animal need to keep the remnants of our band alive. “We can’t stop here.”

Someone comes up with a bandage. We tie it around Gale’s neck. Get him to his feet. Only one figure stays huddled against the wall. “Peeta,” I say. There’s no response. Has he blacked out? I crouch in front of him, pulling his cuffed hands from his face. “Peeta?” His eyes are like black pools, the pupils dilated so that the blue irises have all but vanished. The muscles in his wrists are hard as metal.

“Leave me,” he whispers. “I can’t hang on.”

“Yes. You can!” I tell him.

Peeta shakes his head. “I’m losing it. I’ll go mad. Like them.”

Like the mutts. Like a rabid beast bent on ripping my throat out. And here, finally here in this place, in these circumstances, I will really have to kill him. And Snow will win. Hot, bitter hatred courses through me. Snow has won too much already today.

It’s a long shot, it’s suicide maybe, but I do the only thing I can think of. I lean in and kiss Peeta full on the mouth. His whole body starts shuddering, but I keep my lips pressed to his until I have to come up for air. My hands slide up his wrists to clasp his. “Don’t let him take you from me.”

Peeta’s panting hard as he fights the nightmares raging in his head. “No. I don’t want to…”

I clench his hands to the point of pain. “Stay with me.”

His pupils contract to pinpoints, dilate again rapidly, and then return to something resembling normalcy. “Always,” he murmurs.

I help Peeta up and address Pollux. “How far to the street?” He indicates it’s just above us. I climb the last ladder and push open the lid to someone’s utility room. I’m rising to my feet when a woman throws open the door. She wears a bright turquoise silk robe embroidered with exotic birds. Her magenta hair’s fluffed up like a cloud and decorated with gilded butterflies. Grease from the half-eaten sausage she’s holding smears her lipstick. The expression on her face says she recognizes me. She opens her mouth to call for help.

Without hesitation, I shoot her through the heart.

23

Who the woman was calling to remains a mystery, because after searching the apartment, we find she was alone. Perhaps her cry was meant for a nearby neighbor, or was simply an expression of fear. At any rate, there’s no one else to hear her.

This apartment would be a classy place to hole up in for a while, but that’s a luxury we can’t afford. “How long do you think we have before they figure out some of us could’ve survived?” I ask.

“I think they could be here anytime,” Gale answers. “They knew we were heading for the streets. Probably the explosion will throw them for a few minutes, then they’ll start looking for our exit point.”

I go to a window that overlooks the street, and when I peek through the blinds, I’m not faced with Peacekeepers but with a bundled crowd of people going about their business. During our underground journey, we have left the evacuated zones far behind and surfaced in a busy section of the Capitol. This crowd offers our only chance of escape. I don’t have a Holo, but I have Cressida. She joins me at the window, confirms she knows our location, and gives me the good news that we aren’t many blocks from the president’s mansion.

One glance at my companions tells me this is no time for a stealth attack on Snow. Gale’s still losing blood from the neck wound, which we haven’t even cleaned. Peeta’s sitting on a velvet sofa with his teeth clamped down on a pillow, either fighting off madness or containing a scream. Pollux weeps against the mantel of an ornate fireplace. Cressida stands determinedly at my side, but she’s so pale her lips are bloodless. I’m running on hate. When the energy for that ebbs, I’ll be worthless.

“Let’s check her closets,” I say.

In one bedroom we find hundreds of the woman’s outfits, coats, pairs of shoes, a rainbow of wigs, enough makeup to paint a house. In a bedroom across the hall, there’s a similar selection for men. Perhaps they belong to her husband. Perhaps to a lover who had the good luck to be out this morning.

I call the others to dress. At the sight of Peeta’s bloody wrists, I dig in my pocket for the handcuff key, but he jerks away from me.

“No,” he says. “Don’t. They help hold me together.”

“You might need your hands,” says Gale.

“When I feel myself slipping, I dig my wrists into them, and the pain helps me focus,” says Peeta. I let them be.

Fortunately, it’s cold out, so we can conceal most of our uniforms and weapons under flowing coats and cloaks. We hang our boots around our necks by their laces and hide them, pull on silly shoes to replace them. The real challenge, of course, is our faces. Cressida and Pollux run the risk of being recognized by acquaintances, Gale could be familiar from the propos and news, and Peeta and I are known by every citizen of Panem. We hastily help one another apply thick layers of makeup, pull on wigs and sunglasses. Cressida wraps scarves over Peeta’s and my mouths and noses.

I can feel the clock ticking away, but stop for just a few moments to stuff pockets with food and first-aid supplies. “Stay together,” I say at the front door. Then we march right into the street. Snow flurries have begun to fall. Agitated people swirl around us, speaking of rebels and hunger and me in their affected Capitol accents. We cross the street, pass a few more apartments. Just as we turn the corner, three dozen Peacekeepers sweep past us. We hop out of their way, as the real citizens do, wait until the crowd returns to its normal flow, and keep moving. “Cressida,” I whisper. “Can you think of anywhere?”

“I’m trying,” she says.

We cover another block, and the sirens begin. Through an apartment window, I see an emergency report and pictures of our faces flashing. They haven’t identified who in our party died yet, because I see Castor and Finnick among the photos. Soon every passerby will be as dangerous as a Peacekeeper. “Cressida?”

“There’s one place. It’s not ideal. But we can try it,” she says. We follow her a few more blocks and turn through a gate into what looks like a private residence. It’s some kind of shortcut, though, because after walking through a manicured garden, we come out of another gate onto a small back street that connects two main avenues. There are a few poky stores–one that buys used goods, another that sells fake jewelry. Only a couple of people are around, and they pay no attention to us. Cressida begins to babble in a high-pitched voice about fur undergarments, how essential they are during the cold months. “Wait until you see the prices! Believe me, it’s half what you pay on the avenues!”

We stop before a grimy storefront filled with mannequins in furry underwear. The place doesn’t even look open, but Cressida pushes through the front door, setting off a dissonant chiming. Inside the dim, narrow shop lined with racks of merchandise, the smell of pelts fills my nose. Business must be slow, since we’re the only customers. Cressida heads straight for a hunched figure sitting in the back. I follow, trailing my fingers through the soft garments as we go.

Behind a counter sits the strangest person I’ve ever seen. She’s an extreme example of surgical enhancement gone wrong, for surely not even in the Capitol could they find this face attractive. The skin has been pulled back tightly and tattooed with black and gold stripes. The nose has been flattened until it barely exists. I’ve seen cat whiskers on people in the Capitol before, but none so long. The result is a grotesque, semi-feline mask, which now squints at us distrustfully.

Cressida takes off her wig, revealing her vines. “Tigris,” she says. “We need help.”

Tigris. Deep in my brain, the name rings a bell. She was a fixture–a younger, less disturbing version of herself–in the earliest Hunger Games I can remember. A stylist, I think. I don’t remember for which district. Not 12. Then she must have had one operation too many and crossed the line into repellence.

So this is where stylists go when they’ve outlived their use. To sad theme underwear shops where they wait for death. Out of the public eye.

I stare at her face, wondering if her parents actually named her Tigris, inspiring her mutilation, or if she chose the style and changed her name to match her stripes.

“Plutarch said you could be trusted,” adds Cressida.

Great, she’s one of Plutarch’s people. So if her first move isn’t to turn us in to the Capitol, it will be to notify Plutarch, and by extension Coin, of our whereabouts. No, Tigris’s shop is not ideal, but it’s all we have at the moment. If she’ll even help us. She’s peering between an old television on her counter and us, as if trying to place us. To help her, I pull down my scarf, remove my wig, and step closer so that the light of the screen falls on my face.

Tigris gives a low growl, not unlike one Buttercup might greet me with. She slinks down off her stool and disappears behind a rack of fur-lined leggings. There’s a sound of sliding, and then her hand emerges and waves us forward. Cressida looks at me, as if to ask Are you sure? But what choice do we have? Returning to the streets under these conditions guarantees our capture or death. I push around the furs and find Tigris has slid back a panel at the base of the wall. Behind it seems to be the top of a steep stone stairway. She gestures for me to enter.

Everything about the situation screams trap. I have a moment of panic and find myself turning to Tigris, searching those tawny eyes. Why is she doing this? She’s no Cinna, someone willing to sacrifice herself for others. This woman was the embodiment of Capitol shallowness. She was one of the stars of the Hunger Games until…until she wasn’t. So is that it, then? Bitterness? Hatred? Revenge? Actually, I’m comforted by the idea. A need for revenge can burn long and hot. Especially if every glance in a mirror reinforces it.

“Did Snow ban you from the Games?” I ask. She just stares back at me. Somewhere her tiger tail flicks with displeasure. “Because I’m going to kill him, you know.” Her mouth spreads into what I take for a smile. Reassured that this isn’t complete madness, I crawl through the space.

About halfway down the steps, my face runs into a hanging chain and I pull it, illuminating the hideout with a flickering fluorescent bulb. It’s a small cellar with no doors or windows. Shallow and wide. Probably just a strip between two real basements. A place whose existence could go unnoticed unless you had a very keen eye for dimensions. It’s cold and dank, with piles of pelts that I’m guessing haven’t seen the light of day in years. Unless Tigris gives us up, I don’t believe anyone will find us here. By the time I reach the concrete floor, my companions are on the steps. The panel slides back in place. I hear the underwear rack being adjusted on squeaky wheels. Tigris padding back to her stool. We have been swallowed up by her store.

Just in time, too, because Gale looks on the verge of collapse. We make a bed of pelts, strip off his layers of weapons, and help him onto his back. At the end of the cellar, there’s a faucet about a foot from the floor with a drain under it. I turn the tap and, after much sputtering and a lot of rust, clear water begins to flow. We clean Gale’s neck wound and I realize bandages won’t be enough. He’s going to need a few stitches. There’s a needle and sterile thread in the first-aid supplies, but what we lack is a healer. It crosses my mind to enlist Tigris. As a stylist, she must know how to work a needle. But that would leave no one manning the shop, and she’s doing enough already. I accept that I’m probably the most qualified for the job, grit my teeth, and put in a row of jagged sutures. It’s not pretty but it’s functional. I smear it with medicine and wrap it up. Give him some painkillers. “You can rest now. It’s safe here,” I tell him. He goes out like a light.

While Cressida and Pollux make fur nests for each of us, I attend to Peeta’s wrists. Gently rinsing away the blood, putting on an antiseptic, and bandaging them beneath the cuffs. “You’ve got to keep them clean, otherwise the infection could spread and–”

“I know what blood poisoning is, Katniss,” says Peeta. “Even if my mother isn’t a healer.”

I’m jolted back in time, to another wound, another set of bandages. “You said that same thing to me in the first Hunger Games. Real or not real?”

“Real,” he says. “And you risked your life getting the medicine that saved me?”

“Real.” I shrug. “You were the reason I was alive to do it.”

“Was I?” The comment throws him into confusion. Some shiny memory must be fighting for his attention, because his body tenses and his newly bandaged wrists strain against the metal cuffs. Then all the energy saps from his body. “I’m so tired, Katniss.”

“Go to sleep,” I say. He won’t until I’ve rearranged his handcuffs and shackled him to one of the stair supports. It can’t be comfortable, lying there with his arms above his head. But in a few minutes, he drifts off, too.

Cressida and Pollux have made beds for us, arranged our food and medical supplies, and now ask what I want to do about setting up a guard. I look at Gale’s pallor, Peeta’s restraints. Pollux hasn’t slept for days, and Cressida and I only napped for a few hours. If a troop of Peacekeepers were to come through that door, we’d be trapped like rats. We are completely at the mercy of a decrepit tiger-woman with what I can only hope is an all-consuming passion for Snow’s death.

“I don’t honestly think there’s any point in setting up a guard. Let’s just try to get some sleep,” I say. They nod numbly, and we all burrow into our pelts. The fire inside me has flickered out, and with it my strength. I surrender to the soft, musty fur and oblivion.

I have only one dream I remember. A long and wearying thing in which I’m trying to get to District 12. The home I’m seeking is intact, the people alive. Effie Trinket, conspicuous in a bright pink wig and tailored outfit, travels with me. I keep trying to ditch her in places, but she inexplicably reappears at my side, insisting that as my escort she’s responsible for my staying on schedule. Only the schedule is constantly shifting, derailed by our lack of a stamp from an official or delayed when Effie breaks one of her high heels. We camp for days on a bench in a gray station in District 7, awaiting a train that never comes. When I wake, somehow I feel even more drained by this than my usual nighttime forays into blood and terror.

Cressida, the only person awake, tells me it’s late afternoon. I eat a can of beef stew and wash it down with a lot of water. Then I lean against the cellar wall, retracing the events of the last day. Moving death by death. Counting them up on my fingers. One, two–Mitchell and Boggs lost on the block. Three–Messalla melted by the pod. Four, five–Leeg 1 and Jackson sacrificing themselves at the Meat Grinder. Six, seven, eight–Castor, Homes, and Finnick being decapitated by the rose-scented lizard mutts. Eight dead in twenty-four hours. I know it happened, and yet it doesn’t seem real. Surely, Castor is asleep under that pile of furs, Finnick will come bounding down the steps in a minute, Boggs will tell me his plan for our escape.

To believe them dead is to accept I killed them. Okay, maybe not Mitchell and Boggs–they died on an actual assignment. But the others lost their lives defending me on a mission I fabricated. My plot to assassinate Snow seems so stupid now. So stupid as I sit shivering here in this cellar, tallying up our losses, fingering the tassels on the silver knee-high boots I stole from the woman’s home. Oh, yeah–I forgot about that. I killed her, too. I’m taking out unarmed citizens now.

I think it’s time I give myself up.

When everyone finally awakens, I confess. How I lied about the mission, how I jeopardized everyone in pursuit of revenge. There’s a long silence after I finish. Then Gale says, “Katniss, we all knew you were lying about Coin sending you to assassinate Snow.”

“You knew, maybe. The soldiers from Thirteen didn’t,” I reply.

“Do you really think Jackson believed you had orders from Coin?” Cressida asks. “Of course she didn’t. But she trusted Boggs, and he’d clearly wanted you to go on.”

“I never even told Boggs what I planned to do,” I say.

“You told everyone in Command!” Gale says. “It was one of your conditions for being the Mockingjay. ‘I kill Snow.'”

Those seem like two disconnected things. Negotiating with Coin for the privilege of executing Snow after the war and this unauthorized flight through the Capitol. “But not like this,” I say. “It’s been a complete disaster.”

“I think it would be considered a highly successful mission,” says Gale. “We’ve infiltrated the enemy camp, showing that the Capitol’s defenses can be breached. We’ve managed to get footage of ourselves all over the Capitol’s news. We’ve thrown the whole city into chaos trying to find us.”

“Trust me, Plutarch’s thrilled,” Cressida adds.

“That’s because Plutarch doesn’t care who dies,” I say. “Not as long as his Games are a success.”

Cressida and Gale go round and round trying to convince me. Pollux nods at their words to back them up. Only Peeta doesn’t offer an opinion.

“What do you think, Peeta?” I finally ask him.

“I think…you still have no idea. The effect you can have.” He slides his cuffs up the support and pushes himself to a sitting position. “None of the people we lost were idiots. They knew what they were doing. They followed you because they believed you really could kill Snow.”

I don’t know why his voice reaches me when no one else’s can. But if he’s right, and I think he is, I owe the others a debt that can only be repaid in one way. I pull my paper map from a pocket in my uniform and spread it out on the floor with new resolve. “Where are we, Cressida?”

Tigris’s shop sits about five blocks from the City Circle and Snow’s mansion. We’re in easy walking distance through a zone in which the pods are deactivated for the residents’ safety. We have disguises that, perhaps with some embellishments from Tigris’s furry stock, could get us safely there. But then what? The mansion’s sure to be heavily guarded, under round-the-clock camera surveillance, and laced with pods that could become live at the flick of a switch.

“What we need is to get him out in the open,” Gale says to me. “Then one of us could pick him off.”

“Does he ever appear in public anymore?” asks Peeta.

“I don’t think so,” says Cressida. “At least in all the recent speeches I’ve seen, he’s been in the mansion. Even before the rebels got here. I imagine he became more vigilant after Finnick aired his crimes.”

That’s right. It’s not just the Tigrises of the Capitol who hate Snow now, but a web of people who know what he did to their friends and families. It would have to be something bordering on miraculous to lure him out. Something like…

“I bet he’d come out for me,” I say. “If I were captured. He’d want that as public as possible. He’d want my execution on his front steps.” I let this sink in. “Then Gale could shoot him from the audience.”

“No.” Peeta shakes his head. “There are too many alternative endings to that plan. Snow might decide to keep you and torture information out of you. Or have you executed publicly without being present. Or kill you inside the mansion and display your body out front.”

“Gale?” I say.

“It seems like an extreme solution to jump to immediately,” he says. “Maybe if all else fails. Let’s keep thinking.”

In the quiet that follows, we hear Tigris’s soft footfall overhead. It must be closing time. She’s locking up, fastening the shutters maybe. A few minutes later, the panel at the top of the stairs slides open.

“Come up,” says a gravelly voice. “I have some food for you.” It’s the first time she’s talked since we arrived. Whether it’s natural or from years of practice, I don’t know, but there’s something in her manner of speaking that suggests a cat’s purr.

As we climb the stairs, Cressida asks, “Did you contact Plutarch, Tigris?”

“No way to.” Tigris shrugs. “He’ll figure out you’re in a safe house. Don’t worry.”

Worry? I feel immensely relieved by the news that I won’t be given–and have to ignore–direct orders from 13. Or make up some viable defense for the decisions I’ve made over the last couple of days.

In the shop, the counter holds some stale hunks of bread, a wedge of moldy cheese, and half a bottle of mustard. It reminds me that not everyone in the Capitol has full stomachs these days. I feel obliged to tell Tigris about our remaining food supplies, but she waves my objections away. “I eat next to nothing,” she says. “And then, only raw meat.” This seems a little too in character, but I don’t question it. I just scrape the mold off the cheese and divide up the food among the rest of us.

While we eat, we watch the latest Capitol news coverage. The government has the rebel survivors narrowed down to the five of us. Huge bounties are offered for information leading to our capture. They emphasize how dangerous we are. Show us exchanging gunfire with the Peacekeepers, although not the mutts ripping off their heads. Do a tragic tribute to the woman lying where we left her, with my arrow still in her heart. Someone has redone her makeup for the cameras.

The rebels let the Capitol broadcast run on uninterrupted. “Have the rebels made a statement today?” I ask Tigris. She shakes her head. “I doubt Coin knows what to do with me now that I’m still alive.”

Tigris gives a throaty cackle. “No one knows what to do with you, girlie.” Then she makes me take a pair of the fur leggings even though I can’t pay her for them. It’s the kind of gift you have to accept. And anyway, it’s cold in that cellar.

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