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Downstairs after supper, we continue to rack our brains for a plan. Nothing good comes up, but we do agree that we can no longer go out as a group of five and that we should try to infiltrate the president’s mansion before I turn myself into bait. I consent to that second point to avoid further argument. If I do decide to give myself up, it won’t require anyone else’s permission or participation.

We change bandages, handcuff Peeta back to his support, and settle down to sleep. A few hours later, I slip back into consciousness and become aware of a quiet conversation. Peeta and Gale. I can’t stop myself from eavesdropping.

“Thanks for the water,” Peeta says.

“No problem,” Gale replies. “I wake up ten times a night anyway.”

“To make sure Katniss is still here?” asks Peeta.

“Something like that,” Gale admits.

There’s a long pause before Peeta speaks again. “That was funny, what Tigris said. About no one knowing what to do with her.”

“Well, we never have,” Gale says.

They both laugh. It’s so strange to hear them talking like this. Almost like friends. Which they’re not. Never have been. Although they’re not exactly enemies.

“She loves you, you know,” says Peeta. “She as good as told me after they whipped you.”

“Don’t believe it,” Gale answers. “The way she kissed you in the Quarter Quell…well, she never kissed me like that.”

“It was just part of the show,” Peeta tells him, although there’s an edge of doubt in his voice.

“No, you won her over. Gave up everything for her. Maybe that’s the only way to convince her you love her.” There’s a long pause. “I should have volunteered to take your place in the first Games. Protected her then.”

“You couldn’t,” says Peeta. “She’d never have forgiven you. You had to take care of her family. They matter more to her than her life.”

“Well, it won’t be an issue much longer. I think it’s unlikely all three of us will be alive at the end of the war. And if we are, I guess it’s Katniss’s problem. Who to choose.” Gale yawns. “We should get some sleep.”

“Yeah.” I hear Peeta’s handcuffs slide down the support as he settles in. “I wonder how she’ll make up her mind.”

“Oh, that I do know.” I can just catch Gale’s last words through the layer of fur. “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without.”

24

A chill runs through me. Am I really that cold and calculating? Gale didn’t say, “Katniss will pick whoever it will break her heart to give up,” or even “whoever she can’t live without.” Those would have implied I was motivated by a kind of passion. But my best friend predicts I will choose the person who I think I “can’t survive without.” There’s not the least indication that love, or desire, or even compatibility will sway me. I’ll just conduct an unfeeling assessment of what my potential mates can offer me. As if in the end, it will be the question of whether a baker or a hunter will extend my longevity the most. It’s a horrible thing for Gale to say, for Peeta not to refute. Especially when every emotion I have has been taken and exploited by the Capitol or the rebels. At the moment, the choice would be simple. I can survive just fine without either of them.

In the morning, I have no time or energy to nurse wounded feelings. During a predawn breakfast of liver pate and fig cookies, we gather around Tigris’s television for one of Beetee’s break-ins. There’s been a new development in the war. Apparently inspired by the black wave, some enterprising rebel commander came up with the idea of confiscating people’s abandoned automobiles and sending them unmanned down the streets. The cars don’t trigger every pod, but they certainly get the majority. At around four in the morning, the rebels began carving three separate paths–simply referred to as the A, B, and C lines–to the Capitol’s heart. As a result, they’ve secured block after block with very few casualties.

“This can’t last,” says Gale. “In fact I’m surprised they’ve kept it going so long. The Capitol will adjust by deactivating specific pods and then manually triggering them when their targets come in range.” Almost within minutes of his prediction, we see this very thing happen on-screen. A squad sends a car down a block, setting off four pods. All seems well. Three scouts follow and make it safely to the end of the street. But when a group of twenty rebel soldiers follow them, they’re blown to bits by a row of potted rosebushes in front of a flower shop.

“I bet it’s killing Plutarch not to be in the control room on this one,” says Peeta.

Beetee gives the broadcast back to the Capitol, where a grim-faced reporter announces the blocks that civilians are to evacuate. Between her update and the previous story, I am able to mark my paper map to show the relative positions of the opposing armies.

I hear scuffling out on the street, move to the windows, and peek out a crack in the shutters. In the early morning light, I see a bizarre spectacle. Refugees from the now occupied blocks are streaming toward the Capitol’s center. The most panicked are wearing nothing but nightgowns and slippers, while the more prepared are heavily bundled in layers of clothes. They carry everything from lapdogs to jewelry boxes to potted plants. One man in a fluffy robe holds only an overripe banana. Confused, sleepy children stumble along after their parents, most either too stunned or too baffled to cry. Bits of them flash by my line of vision. A pair of wide brown eyes. An arm clutching a favorite doll. A pair of bare feet, bluish in the cold, catching on the uneven paving stones of the alley. Seeing them reminds me of the children of 12 who died fleeing the firebombs. I leave the window.

Tigris offers to be our spy for the day since she’s the only one of us without a bounty on her head. After securing us downstairs, she goes out into the Capitol to pick up any helpful information.

Down in the cellar I pace back and forth, driving the others crazy. Something tells me that not taking advantage of the flood of refugees is a mistake. What better cover could we have? On the other hand, every displaced person milling about on the streets means another pair of eyes looking for the five rebels on the loose. Then again, what do we gain by staying here? All we’re really doing is depleting our small cache of food and waiting for…what? The rebels to take the Capitol? It could be weeks before that happens, and I’m not so sure what I’d do if they did. Not run out and greet them. Coin would have me whisked back to 13 before I could say “nightlock, nightlock, nightlock.” I did not come all this way, and lose all those people, to turn myself over to that woman. I kill Snow. Besides, there would be an awful lot of things I couldn’t easily explain about the last few days. Several of which, if they came to light, would probably blow my deal for the victors’ immunity right out of the water. And forget about me, I’ve got a feeling some of the others are going to need it. Like Peeta. Who, no matter how you spin it, can be seen on tape tossing Mitchell into that net pod. I can imagine what Coin’s war tribunal will do with that.

By late afternoon, we’re beginning to get uneasy about Tigris’s long absence. Talk turns to the possibilities that she has been apprehended and arrested, turned us in voluntarily, or simply been injured in the wave of refugees. But around six o’clock we hear her return. There’s some shuffling around upstairs, then she opens the panel. The wonderful smell of frying meat fills the air. Tigris has prepared us a hash of chopped ham and potatoes. It’s the first hot food we’ve had in days, and as I wait for her to fill my plate, I’m in danger of actually drooling.

As I chew, I try to pay attention to Tigris telling us how she acquired it, but the main thing I absorb is that fur underwear is a valuable trading item at the moment. Especially for people who left their homes underdressed. Many are still out on the street, trying to find shelter for the night. Those who live in the choice apartments of the inner city have not flung open their doors to house the displaced. On the contrary, most of them bolted their locks, drew their shutters, and pretended to be out. Now the City Circle’s packed with refugees, and the Peacekeepers are going door to door, breaking into places if they have to, to assign houseguests.

On the television, we watch a terse Head Peacekeeper lay out specific rules regarding how many people per square foot each resident will be expected to take in. He reminds the citizens of the Capitol that temperatures will drop well below freezing tonight and warns them that their president expects them to be not only willing but enthusiastic hosts in this time of crisis. Then they show some very staged-looking shots of concerned citizens welcoming grateful refugees into their homes. The Head Peacekeeper says the president himself has ordered part of his mansion readied to receive citizens tomorrow. He adds that shopkeepers should also be prepared to lend their floor space if requested.

“Tigris, that could be you,” says Peeta. I realize he’s right. That even this narrow hallway of a shop could be appropriated as the numbers swell. Then we’ll be truly trapped in the cellar, in constant danger of discovery. How many days do we have? One? Maybe two?

The Head Peacekeeper comes back with more instructions for the population. It seems that this evening there was an unfortunate incident where a crowd beat to death a young man who resembled Peeta. Henceforth, all rebel sightings are to be reported immediately to authorities, who will deal with the identification and arrest of the suspect. They show a photo of the victim. Apart from some obviously bleached curls, he looks about as much like Peeta as I do.

“People have gone wild,” Cressida murmurs.

We watch a brief rebel update in which we learn that several more blocks have been taken today. I make note of the intersections on my map and study it. “Line C is only four blocks from here,” I announce. Somehow that fills me with more anxiety than the idea of Peacekeepers looking for housing. I become very helpful. “Let me wash the dishes.”

“I’ll give you a hand.” Gale collects the plates.

I feel Peeta’s eyes follow us out of the room. In the cramped kitchen at the back of Tigris’s shop, I fill the sink with hot water and suds. “Do you think it’s true?” I ask. “That Snow will let refugees into the mansion?”

“I think he has to now, at least for the cameras,” says Gale.

“I’m leaving in the morning,” I say.

“I’m going with you,” Gale says. “What should we do with the others?”

“Pollux and Cressida could be useful. They’re good guides,” I say. Pollux and Cressida aren’t actually the problem. “But Peeta’s too…”

“Unpredictable,” finishes Gale. “Do you think he’d still let us leave him behind?”

“We can make the argument that he’ll endanger us,” I say. “He might stay here, if we’re convincing.”

Peeta’s fairly rational about our suggestion. He readily agrees that his company could put the other four of us at risk. I’m thinking this may all work out, that he can just sit out the war in Tigris’s cellar, when he announces he’s going out on his own.

“To do what?” asks Cressida.

“I’m not sure exactly. The one thing that I might still be useful at is causing a diversion. You saw what happened to that man who looked like me,” he says.

“What if you…lose control?” I say.

“You mean…go mutt? Well, if I feel that coming on, I’ll try to get back here,” he assures me.

“And if Snow gets you again?” asks Gale. “You don’t even have a gun.”

“I’ll just have to take my chances,” says Peeta. “Like the rest of you.” The two exchange a long look, and then Gale reaches into his breast pocket. He places his nightlock tablet in Peeta’s hand. Peeta lets it lie on his open palm, neither rejecting nor accepting it. “What about you?”

“Don’t worry. Beetee showed me how to detonate my explosive arrows by hand. If that fails, I’ve got my knife. And I’ll have Katniss,” says Gale with a smile. “She won’t give them the satisfaction of taking me alive.”

The thought of Peacekeepers dragging Gale away starts the tune playing in my head again….

Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

“Take it, Peeta,” I say in a strained voice. I reach out and close his fingers over the pill. “No one will be there to help you.”

We spend a fitful night, woken by one another’s nightmares, minds buzzing with the next day’s plans. I’m relieved when five o’clock rolls around and we can begin whatever this day holds for us. We eat a mishmash of our remaining food–canned peaches, crackers, and snails–leaving one can of salmon for Tigris as meager thanks for all she’s done. The gesture seems to touch her in some way. Her face contorts in an odd expression and she flies into action. She spends the next hour remaking the five of us. She redresses us so regular clothes hide our uniforms before we even don our coats and cloaks. Covers our military boots with some sort of furry slippers. Secures our wigs with pins. Cleans off the garish remains of the paint we so hastily applied to our faces and makes us up again. Drapes our outerwear to conceal our weapons. Then gives us handbags and bundles of knickknacks to carry. In the end, we look exactly like the refugees fleeing the rebels.

“Never underestimate the power of a brilliant stylist,” says Peeta. It’s hard to tell, but I think Tigris might actually blush under her stripes.

There are no helpful updates on the television, but the alley seems as thick with refugees as the previous morning. Our plan is to slip into the crowd in three groups. First Cressida and Pollux, who will act as guides while keeping a safe lead on us. Then Gale and myself, who intend to position ourselves among the refugees assigned to the mansion today. Then Peeta, who will trail behind us, ready to create a disturbance as needed.

Tigris watches through the shutters for the right moment, unbolts the door, and nods to Cressida and Pollux. “Take care,” Cressida says, and they are gone.

We’ll be following in a minute. I get out the key, unlock Peeta’s cuffs, and stuff them in my pocket. He rubs his wrists. Flexes them. I feel a kind of desperation rising up in me. It’s like I’m back in the Quarter Quell, with Beetee giving Johanna and me that coil of wire.

“Listen,” I say. “Don’t do anything foolish.”

“No. It’s last-resort stuff. Completely,” he says.

I wrap my arms around his neck, feel his arms hesitate before they embrace me. Not as steady as they once were, but still warm and strong. A thousand moments surge through me. All the times these arms were my only refuge from the world. Perhaps not fully appreciated then, but so sweet in my memory, and now gone forever. “All right, then.” I release him.

“It’s time,” says Tigris. I kiss her cheek, fasten my red hooded cloak, pull my scarf up over my nose, and follow Gale out into the frigid air.

Sharp, icy snowflakes bite my exposed skin. The rising sun’s trying to break through the gloom without much success. There’s enough light to see the bundled forms closest to you and little more. Perfect conditions, really, except that I can’t locate Cressida and Pollux. Gale and I drop our heads and shuffle along with the refugees. I can hear what I missed peeking through the shutters yesterday. Crying, moaning, labored breathing. And, not too far away, gunfire.

“Where are we going, Uncle?” a shivering little boy asks a man weighed down with a small safe.

“To the president’s mansion. They’ll assign us a new place to live,” puffs the man.

We turn off the alley and spill out onto one of the main avenues. “Stay to the right!” a voice orders, and I see the Peacekeepers interspersed throughout the crowd, directing the flow of human traffic. Scared faces peer out of the plate-glass windows of the shops, which are already becoming overrun with refugees. At this rate, Tigris may have new houseguests by lunch. It was good for everybody that we got out when we did.

It’s brighter now, even with the snow picking up. I catch sight of Cressida and Pollux about thirty yards ahead of us, plodding along with the crowd. I crane my head around to see if I can locate Peeta. I can’t, but I’ve caught the eye of an inquisitive-looking little girl in a lemon yellow coat. I nudge Gale and slow my pace ever so slightly, to allow a wall of people to form between us.

“We might need to split up,” I say under my breath. “There’s a girl–”

Gunfire rips through the crowd, and several people near me slump to the ground. Screams pierce the air as a second round mows down another group behind us. Gale and I drop to the street, scuttle the ten yards to the shops, and take cover behind a display of spike-heeled boots outside a shoe seller’s.

A row of feathery footwear blocks Gale’s view. “Who is it? Can you see?” he asks me. What I can see, between alternating pairs of lavender and mint green leather boots, is a street full of bodies. The little girl who was watching me kneels beside a motionless woman, screeching and trying to rouse her. Another wave of bullets slices across the chest of her yellow coat, staining it with red, knocking the girl onto her back. For a moment, looking at her tiny crumpled form, I lose my ability to form words. Gale prods me with his elbow. “Katniss?”

“They’re shooting from the roof above us,” I tell Gale. I watch a few more rounds, see the white uniforms dropping into the snowy streets. “Trying to take out the Peacekeepers, but they’re not exactly crack shots. It must be the rebels.” I don’t feel a rush of joy, although theoretically my allies have broken through. I am transfixed by that lemon yellow coat.

“If we start shooting, that’s it,” Gale says. “The whole world will know it’s us.”

It’s true. We’re armed only with our fabulous bows. To release an arrow would be like announcing to both sides that we’re here.

“No,” I say forcefully. “We’ve got to get to Snow.”

“Then we better start moving before the whole block goes up,” says Gale. Hugging the wall, we continue along the street. Only the wall is mostly shopwindows. A pattern of sweaty palms and gaping faces presses against the glass. I yank my scarf up higher over my cheekbones as we dart between outdoor displays. Behind a rack of framed photos of Snow, we encounter a wounded Peacekeeper propped against a strip of brick wall. He asks us for help. Gale knees him in the side of the head and takes his gun. At the intersection, he shoots a second Peacekeeper and we both have firearms.

“So who are we supposed to be now?” I ask.

“Desperate citizens of the Capitol,” says Gale. “The Peacekeepers will think we’re on their side, and hopefully the rebels have more interesting targets.”

I’m mulling over the wisdom of this latest role as we sprint across the intersection, but by the time we reach the next block, it no longer matters who we are. Who anyone is. Because no one is looking at faces. The rebels are here, all right. Pouring onto the avenue, taking cover in doorways, behind vehicles, guns blazing, hoarse voices shouting commands as they prepare to meet an army of Peacekeepers marching toward us. Caught in the cross fire are the refugees, unarmed, disoriented, many wounded.

A pod’s activated ahead of us, releasing a gush of steam that parboils everyone in its path, leaving the victims intestine-pink and very dead. After that, what little sense of order there was unravels. As the remaining curlicues of steam intertwine with the snow, visibility extends just to the end of my barrel. Peacekeeper, rebel, citizen, who knows? Everything that moves is a target. People shoot reflexively, and I’m no exception. Heart pounding, adrenaline burning through me, everyone is my enemy. Except Gale. My hunting partner, the one person who has my back. There’s nothing to do but move forward, killing whoever comes into our path. Screaming people, bleeding people, dead people everywhere. As we reach the next corner, the entire block ahead of us lights up with a rich purple glow. We backpedal, hunker down in a stairwell, and squint into the light. Something’s happening to those illuminated by it. They’re assaulted by…what? A sound? A wave? A laser? Weapons fall from their hands, fingers clutch their faces, as blood sprays from all visible orifices–eyes, noses, mouths, ears. In less than a minute, everyone’s dead and the glow vanishes. I grit my teeth and run, leaping over the bodies, feet slipping in the gore. The wind whips the snow into blinding swirls but doesn’t block out the sound of another wave of boots headed our way.

“Get down!” I hiss at Gale. We drop where we are. My face lands in a still-warm pool of someone’s blood, but I play dead, remain motionless as the boots march over us. Some avoid the bodies. Others grind into my hand, my back, kick my head in passing. As the boots recede, I open my eyes and nod to Gale.

On the next block, we encounter more terrified refugees, but few soldiers. Just when it seems we might have caught a break, there’s a cracking sound, like an egg hitting the side of a bowl but magnified a thousand times. We stop, look around for the pod. There’s nothing. Then I feel the tips of my boots beginning to tilt ever so slightly. “Run!” I cry to Gale. There’s no time to explain, but in a few seconds the nature of the pod becomes clear to everyone. A seam has opened up down the center of the block. The two sides of the tiled street are folding down like flaps, slowly emptying the people into whatever lies beneath.

I’m torn between making a beeline for the next intersection and trying to get to the doors that line the street and break my way into a building. As a result, I end up moving at a slight diagonal. As the flap continues to drop, I find my feet scrambling, harder and harder, to find purchase on the slippery tiles. It’s like running along the side of an icy hill that gets steeper at every step. Both of my destinations–the intersection and the buildings–are a few feet away when I feel the flap going. There’s nothing to do but use my last seconds of connection to the tiles to push off for the intersection. As my hands latch on to the side, I realize the flaps have swung straight down. My feet dangle in the air, no foothold anywhere. From fifty feet below, a vile stench hits my nose, like rotted corpses in the summer heat. Black forms crawl around in the shadows, silencing whoever survives the fall.

A strangled cry comes from my throat. No one is coming to help me. I’m losing my grip on the icy ledge, when I see I’m only about six feet from the corner of the pod. I inch my hands along the ledge, trying to block out the terrifying sounds from below. When my hands straddle the corner, I swing my right boot up over the side. It catches on something and I painstakingly drag myself up to street level. Panting, trembling, I crawl out and wrap my arm around a lamppost for an anchor, although the ground’s perfectly flat.

“Gale?” I call into the abyss, heedless of being recognized. “Gale?”

“Over here!” I look in bewilderment to my left. The flap held up everything to the very base of the buildings. A dozen or so people made it that far and now hang from whatever provides a handhold. Doorknobs, knockers, mail slots. Three doors down from me, Gale clings to the decorative iron grating around an apartment door. He could easily get inside if it was open. But despite repeated kicks to the door, no one comes to his aid.

“Cover yourself!” I lift my gun. He turns away and I drill the lock until the door flies inward. Gale swings into the doorway, landing in a heap on the floor. For a moment, I experience the elation of his rescue. Then the white-gloved hands clamp down on him.

Gale meets my eyes, mouths something at me I can’t make out. I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave him, but I can’t reach him either. His lips move again. I shake my head to indicate my confusion. At any minute, they’ll realize who they’ve captured. The Peacekeepers are hauling him inside now. “Go!” I hear him yell.

I turn and run away from the pod. All alone now. Gale a prisoner. Cressida and Pollux could be dead ten times over.

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