“I’m bringing you to my mother.” I address the guard. “Unchain them.”
The guard shakes his head. “It’s not authorized.”
“Unchain them! Now!” I yell.
This breaks his composure. Average citizens don’t address him this way. “I have no release orders. And you have no authority to–”
“Do it on my authority,” says Plutarch. “We came to collect these three anyway. They’re needed for Special Defense. I’ll take full responsibility.”
The guard leaves to make a call. He returns with a set of keys. The preps have been forced into cramped body positions for so long that even once the shackles are removed, they have trouble walking. Gale, Plutarch, and I have to help them. Flavius’s foot catches on a metal grate over a circular opening in the floor, and my stomach contracts when I think of why a room would need a drain. The stains of human misery that must have been hosed off these white tiles…
In the hospital, I find my mother, the only one I trust to care for them. It takes her a minute to place the three, given their current condition, but already she wears a look of consternation. And I know it’s not a result of seeing abused bodies, because they were her daily fare in District 12, but the realization that this sort of thing goes on in 13 as well.
My mother was welcomed into the hospital, but she’s viewed as more of a nurse than a doctor, despite her lifetime of healing. Still, no one interferes when she guides the trio into an examination room to assess their injuries. I plant myself on a bench in the hall outside the hospital entrance, waiting to hear her verdict. She will be able to read in their bodies the pain inflicted upon them.
Gale sits next to me and puts an arm around my shoulder. “She’ll fix them up.” I give a nod, wondering if he’s thinking about his own brutal flogging back in 12.
Plutarch and Fulvia take the bench across from us but don’t offer any comments on the state of my prep team. If they had no knowledge of the mistreatment, then what do they make of this move on President Coin’s part? I decide to help them out.
“I guess we’ve all been put on notice,” I say.
“What? No. What do you mean?” asks Fulvia.
“Punishing my prep team’s a warning,” I tell her. “Not just to me. But to you, too. About who’s really in control and what happens if she’s not obeyed. If you had any delusions about having power, I’d let them go now. Apparently, a Capitol pedigree is no protection here. Maybe it’s even a liability.”
“There is no comparison between Plutarch, who masterminded the rebel breakout, and those three beauticians,” says Fulvia icily.
I shrug. “If you say so, Fulvia. But what would happen if you got on Coin’s bad side? My prep team was kidnapped. They can at least hope to one day return to the Capitol. Gale and I can live in the woods. But you? Where would you two run?”
“Perhaps we’re a little more necessary to the war effort than you give us credit for,” says Plutarch, unconcerned.
“Of course you are. The tributes were necessary to the Games, too. Until they weren’t,” I say. “And then we were very disposable–right, Plutarch?”
That ends the conversation. We wait in silence until my mother finds us. “They’ll be all right,” she reports. “No permanent physical injuries.”
“Good. Splendid,” says Plutarch. “How soon can they be put to work?”
“Probably tomorrow,” she answers. “You’ll have to expect some emotional instability, after what they’ve been through. They were particularly ill prepared, coming from their life in the Capitol.”
“Weren’t we all?” says Plutarch.
Either because the prep team’s incapacitated or I’m too on edge, Plutarch releases me from Mockingjay duties for the rest of the day. Gale and I head down to lunch, where we’re served bean and onion stew, a thick slice of bread, and a cup of water. After Venia’s story, the bread sticks in my throat, so I slide the rest of it onto Gale’s tray. Neither of us speaks much during lunch, but when our bowls are clean, Gale pulls up his sleeve, revealing his schedule. “I’ve got training next.”
I tug up my sleeve and hold my arm next to his. “Me, too.” I remember that training equals hunting now.
My eagerness to escape into the woods, if only for two hours, overrides my current concerns. An immersion into greenery and sunlight will surely help me sort out my thoughts. Once off the main corridors, Gale and I race like schoolchildren for the armory, and by the time we arrive, I’m breathless and dizzy. A reminder that I’m not fully recovered. The guards provide our old weapons, as well as knives and a burlap sack that’s meant for a game bag. I tolerate having the tracker clamped to my ankle, try to look as if I’m listening when they explain how to use the handheld communicator. The only thing that sticks in my head is that it has a clock, and we must be back inside 13 by the designated hour or our hunting privileges will be revoked. This is one rule I think I will make an effort to abide.
We go outside into the large, fenced-in training area beside the woods. Guards open the well-oiled gates without comment. We would be hard-pressed to get past this fence on our own–thirty feet high and always buzzing with electricity, topped with razor-sharp curls of steel. We move through the woods until the view of the fence has been obscured. In a small clearing, we pause and drop back our heads to bask in the sunlight. I turn in a circle, my arms extended at my sides, revolving slowly so as not to set the world spinning.
The lack of rain I saw in 12 has damaged the plants here as well, leaving some with brittle leaves, building a crunchy carpet under our feet. We take off our shoes. Mine don’t fit right anyway, since in the spirit of waste-not-want-not that rules 13, I was issued a pair someone had outgrown. Apparently, one of us walks funny, because they’re broken in all wrong.
We hunt, like in the old days. Silent, needing no words to communicate, because here in the woods we move as two parts of one being. Anticipating each other’s movements, watching each other’s backs. How long has it been? Eight months? Nine? Since we had this freedom? It’s not exactly the same, given all that’s happened and the trackers on our ankles and the fact that I have to rest so often. But it’s about as close to happiness as I think I can currently get.
The animals here are not nearly suspicious enough. That extra moment it takes to place our unfamiliar scent means their death. In an hour and a half, we’ve got a mixed dozen–rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys–and decide to knock off to spend the remaining time by a pond that must be fed by an underground spring, since the water’s cool and sweet.
When Gale offers to clean the game, I don’t object. I stick a few mint leaves on my tongue, close my eyes, and lean back against a rock, soaking in the sounds, letting the scorching afternoon sun burn my skin, almost at peace until Gale’s voice interrupts me. “Katniss, why do you care so much about your prep team?”
I open my eyes to see if he’s joking, but he’s frowning down at the rabbit he’s skinning. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“Hm. Let’s see. Because they’ve spent the last year prettying you up for slaughter?” he suggests.
“It’s more complicated than that. I know them. They’re not evil or cruel. They’re not even smart. Hurting them, it’s like hurting children. They don’t see…I mean, they don’t know…” I get knotted up in my words.
“They don’t know what, Katniss?” he says. “That tributes–who are the actual children involved here, not your trio of freaks–are forced to fight to the death? That you were going into that arena for people’s amusement? Was that a big secret in the Capitol?”
“No. But they don’t view it the way we do,” I say. “They’re raised on it and–”
“Are you actually defending them?” He slips the skin from the rabbit in one quick move.
That stings, because, in fact, I am, and it’s ridiculous. I struggle to find a logical position. “I guess I’m defending anyone who’s treated like that for taking a slice of bread. Maybe it reminds me too much of what happened to you over a turkey!”
Still, he’s right. It does seem strange, my level of concern over the prep team. I should hate them and want to see them strung up. But they’re so clueless, and they belonged to Cinna, and he was on my side, right?
“I’m not looking for a fight,” Gale says. “But I don’t think Coin was sending you some big message by punishing them for breaking the rules here. She probably thought you’d see it as a favor.” He stuffs the rabbit in the sack and rises. “We better get going if we want to make it back on time.”
I ignore his offer of a hand up and get to my feet unsteadily. “Fine.” Neither of us talks on the way back, but once we’re inside the gate, I think of something else. “During the Quarter Quell, Octavia and Flavius had to quit because they couldn’t stop crying over me going back in. And Venia could barely say good-bye.”
“I’ll try and keep that in mind as they…remake you,” says Gale.
“Do,” I say.
We hand the meat over to Greasy Sae in the kitchen. She likes District 13 well enough, even though she thinks the cooks are somewhat lacking in imagination. But a woman who came up with a palatable wild dog and rhubarb stew is bound to feel as if her hands are tied here.
Exhausted from hunting and my lack of sleep, I go back to my compartment to find it stripped bare, only to remember we’ve been moved because of Buttercup. I make my way up to the top floor and find Compartment E. It looks exactly like Compartment 307, except for the window–two feet wide, eight inches high–centered at the top of the outside wall. There’s a heavy metal plate that fastens over it, but right now it’s propped open, and a certain cat is nowhere to be seen. I stretch out on my bed, and a shaft of afternoon sunlight plays on my face. The next thing I know, my sister is waking me for 18:00–Reflection.
Prim tells me they’ve been announcing the assembly since lunch. The entire population, except those needed for essential jobs, is required to attend. We follow directions to the Collective, a huge room that easily holds the thousands who show up. You can tell it was built for a larger gathering, and perhaps it held one before the pox epidemic. Prim quietly points out the widespread fallout from that disaster–the pox scars on people’s bodies, the slightly disfigured children. “They’ve suffered a lot here,” she says.
After this morning, I’m in no mood to feel sorry for 13. “No more than we did in Twelve,” I say. I see my mother lead in a group of mobile patients, still wearing their hospital nightgowns and robes. Finnick stands among them, looking dazed but gorgeous. In his hands he holds a piece of thin rope, less than a foot in length, too short for even him to fashion into a usable noose. His fingers move rapidly, automatically tying and unraveling various knots as he gazes about. Probably part of his therapy. I cross to him and say, “Hey, Finnick.” He doesn’t seem to notice, so I nudge him to get his attention. “Finnick! How are you doing?”
“Katniss,” he says, gripping my hand. Relieved to see a familiar face, I think. “Why are we meeting here?”
“I told Coin I’d be her Mockingjay. But I made her promise to give the other tributes immunity if the rebels won,” I tell him. “In public, so there are plenty of witnesses.”
“Oh. Good. Because I worry about that with Annie. That she’ll say something that could be construed as traitorous without knowing it,” says Finnick.
Annie. Uh-oh. Totally forgot her. “Don’t worry, I took care of it.” I give Finnick’s hand a squeeze and head straight for the podium at the front of the room. Coin, who is glancing over her statement, raises her eyebrows at me. “I need you to add Annie Cresta to the immunity list,” I tell her.
The president frowns slightly. “Who’s that?”
“She’s Finnick Odair’s–” What? I don’t really know what to call her. “She’s Finnick’s friend. From District Four. Another victor. She was arrested and taken to the Capitol when the arena blew up.”
“Oh, the mad girl. That’s not really necessary,” she says. “We don’t make a habit of punishing anyone that frail.”
I think of the scene I walked in on this morning. Of Octavia huddled against the wall. Of how Coin and I must have vastly different definitions of frailty. But I only say, “No? Then it shouldn’t be a problem to add Annie.”
“All right,” says the president, penciling in Annie’s name. “Do you want to be up here with me for the announcement?” I shake my head. “I didn’t think so. Better hurry and lose yourself in the crowd. I’m about to begin.” I make my way back to Finnick.
Words are another thing not wasted in 13. Coin calls the audience to attention and tells them I have consented to be the Mockingjay, provided the other victors–Peeta, Johanna, Enobaria, and Annie–will be granted full pardon for any damage they do to the rebel cause. In the rumbling of the crowd, I hear the dissent. I suppose no one doubted I would want to be the Mockingjay. So naming a price–one that spares possible enemies–angers them. I stand indifferent to the hostile looks thrown my way.
The president allows a few moments of unrest, and then continues in her brisk fashion. Only now the words coming out of her mouth are news to me. “But in return for this unprecedented request, Soldier Everdeen has promised to devote herself to our cause. It follows that any deviance from her mission, in either motive or deed, will be viewed as a break in this agreement. The immunity would be terminated and the fate of the four victors determined by the law of District Thirteen. As would her own. Thank you.”
In other words, I step out of line and we’re all dead.
Another force to contend with. Another power player who has decided to use me as a piece in her games, although things never seem to go according to plan. First there were the Gamemakers, making me their star and then scrambling to recover from that handful of poisonous berries. Then President Snow, trying to use me to put out the flames of rebellion, only to have my every move become inflammatory. Next, the rebels ensnaring me in the metal claw that lifted me from the arena, designating me to be their Mockingjay, and then having to recover from the shock that I might not want the wings. And now Coin, with her fistful of precious nukes and her well-oiled machine of a district, finding it’s even harder to groom a Mockingjay than to catch one. But she has been the quickest to determine that I have an agenda of my own and am therefore not to be trusted. She has been the first to publicly brand me as a threat.
I run my fingers through the thick layer of bubbles in my tub. Cleaning me up is just a preliminary step to determining my new look. With my acid-damaged hair, sunburned skin, and ugly scars, the prep team has to make me pretty and then damage, burn, and scar me in a more attractive way.
“Remake her to Beauty Base Zero,” Fulvia ordered first thing this morning. “We’ll work from there.” Beauty Base Zero turns out to be what a person would look like if they stepped out of bed looking flawless but natural. It means my nails are perfectly shaped but not polished. My hair soft and shiny but not styled. My skin smooth and clear but not painted. Wax the body hair and erase the dark circles, but don’t make any noticeable enhancements. I suppose Cinna gave the same instructions the first day I arrived as a tribute in the Capitol. Only that was different, since I was a contestant. As a rebel, I thought I’d get to look more like myself. But it seems a televised rebel has her own standards to live up to.
After I rinse the lather from my body, I turn to find Octavia waiting with a towel. She is so altered from the woman I knew in the Capitol, stripped of the gaudy clothing, the heavy makeup, the dyes and jewelry and knickknacks she adorned her hair with. I remember how one day she showed up with bright pink tresses studded with blinking colored lights shaped like mice. She told me she had several mice at home as pets. The thought repulsed me at the time, since we consider mice vermin, unless cooked. But perhaps Octavia liked them because they were small, soft, and squeaky. Like her. As she pats me dry, I try to become acquainted with the District 13 Octavia. Her real hair turns out to be a nice auburn. Her face is ordinary but has an undeniable sweetness. She’s younger than I thought. Maybe early twenties. Devoid of the three-inch decorative nails, her fingers appear almost stubby, and they can’t stop trembling. I want to tell her it’s okay, that I’ll see that Coin never hurts her again. But the multicolored bruises flowering under her green skin only remind me how impotent I am.
Flavius, too, appears washed out without his purple lipstick and bright clothes. He’s managed to get his orange ringlets back in some sort of order, though. It’s Venia who’s the least changed. Her aqua hair lies flat instead of in spikes and you can see the roots growing in gray. However, the tattoos were always her most striking characteristic, and they’re as golden and shocking as ever. She comes and takes the towel from Octavia’s hands.
“Katniss is not going to hurt us,” she says quietly but firmly to Octavia. “Katniss did not even know we were here. Things will be better now.” Octavia gives a slight nod but doesn’t dare look me in the eye.
It’s no simple job getting me back to Beauty Base Zero, even with the elaborate arsenal of products, tools, and gadgets Plutarch had the foresight to bring from the Capitol. My preps do pretty well until they try to address the spot on my arm where Johanna dug out the tracker. None of the medical team was focusing on looks when they patched up the gaping hole. Now I have a lumpy, jagged scar that ripples out over a space the size of an apple. Usually, my sleeve covers it, but the way Cinna’s Mockingjay costume is designed, the sleeves stop just above the elbow. It’s such a concern that Fulvia and Plutarch are called in to discuss it. I swear, the sight of it triggers Fulvia’s gag reflex. For someone who works with a Gamemaker, she’s awfully sensitive. But I guess she’s used to seeing unpleasant things only on a screen.
“Everyone knows I have a scar here,” I say sullenly.
“Knowing it and seeing it are two different things,” says Fulvia. “It’s positively repulsive. Plutarch and I will think of something during lunch.”
“It’ll be fine,” says Plutarch with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Maybe an armband or something.”
Disgusted, I get dressed so I can head to the dining hall. My prep team huddles in a little group by the door. “Are they bringing your food here?” I ask.
“No,” says Venia. “We’re supposed to go to a dining hall.”
I sigh inwardly as I imagine walking into the dining hall, trailed by these three. But people always stare at me anyway. This will be more of the same. “I’ll show you where it is,” I say. “Come on.”
The covert glances and quiet murmurs I usually evoke are nothing compared to the reaction brought on by the sight of my bizarre-looking prep team. The gaping mouths, the finger pointing, the exclamations. “Just ignore them,” I tell my prep team. Eyes downcast, with mechanical movements, they follow me through the line, accepting bowls of grayish fish and okra stew and cups of water.
We take seats at my table, beside a group from the Seam. They show a little more restraint than the people from 13 do, although it may just be from embarrassment. Leevy, who was my neighbor back in 12, gives a cautious hello to the preps, and Gale’s mother, Hazelle, who must know about their imprisonment, holds up a spoonful of the stew. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Tastes better than it looks.”
But it’s Posy, Gale’s five-year-old sister, who helps the most. She scoots along the bench to Octavia and touches her skin with a tentative finger. “You’re green. Are you sick?”
“It’s a fashion thing, Posy. Like wearing lipstick,” I say.
“It’s meant to be pretty,” whispers Octavia, and I can see the tears threatening to spill over her lashes.
Posy considers this and says matter-of-factly, “I think you’d be pretty in any color.”
The tiniest of smiles forms on Octavia’s lips. “Thank you.”
“If you really want to impress Posy, you’ll have to dye yourself bright pink,” says Gale, thumping his tray down beside me. “That’s her favorite color.” Posy giggles and slides back down to her mother. Gale nods at Flavius’s bowl. “I wouldn’t let that get cold. It doesn’t improve the consistency.”
Everyone gets down to eating. The stew doesn’t taste bad, but there’s a certain sliminess that’s hard to get around. Like you have to swallow every bite three times before it really goes down.
Gale, who’s not usually much of a talker during meals, makes an effort to keep the conversation going, asking about the makeover. I know it’s his attempt at smoothing things over. We argued last night after he suggested I’d left Coin no choice but to counter my demand for the victors’ safety with one of her own. “Katniss, she’s running this district. She can’t do it if it seems like she’s caving in to your will.”
“You mean she can’t stand any dissent, even if it’s fair,” I’d countered.
“I mean you put her in a bad position. Making her give Peeta and the others immunity when we don’t even know what sort of damage they might cause,” Gale had said.
“So I should’ve just gone with the program and let the other tributes take their chances? Not that it matters, because that’s what we’re all doing anyway!” That was when I’d slammed the door in his face. I hadn’t sat with him at breakfast, and when Plutarch had sent him down to training this morning, I’d let him go without a word. I know he only spoke out of concern for me, but I really need him to be on my side, not Coin’s. How can he not know that?
After lunch, Gale and I are scheduled to go down to Special Defense to meet Beetee. As we ride the elevator, Gale finally says, “You’re still angry.”
“And you’re still not sorry,” I reply.
“I still stand by what I said. Do you want me to lie about it?” he asks.
“No, I want you to rethink it and come up with the right opinion,” I tell him. But this just makes him laugh. I have to let it go. There’s no point in trying to dictate what Gale thinks. Which, if I’m honest, is one reason I trust him.
The Special Defense level is situated almost as far down as the dungeons where we found the prep team. It’s a beehive of rooms full of computers, labs, research equipment, and testing ranges.
When we ask for Beetee, we’re directed through the maze until we reach an enormous plate-glass window. Inside is the first beautiful thing I’ve seen in the District 13 compound: a replication of a meadow, filled with real trees and flowering plants, and alive with hummingbirds. Beetee sits motionless in a wheelchair at the center of the meadow, watching a spring-green bird hover in midair as it sips nectar from a large orange blossom. His eyes follow the bird as it darts away, and he catches sight of us. He gives a friendly wave for us to join him inside.
The air’s cool and breathable, not humid and muggy as I’d expected. From all sides comes the whir of tiny wings, which I used to confuse with the sound of insects in our woods at home. I have to wonder what sort of fluke allowed such a pleasing place to be built here.
Beetee still has the pallor of someone in convalescence, but behind those ill-fitting glasses, his eyes are alight with excitement. “Aren’t they magnificent? Thirteen has been studying their aerodynamics here for years. Forward and backward flight, and speeds up to sixty miles per hour. If only I could build you wings like these, Katniss!”
“Doubt I could manage them, Beetee,” I laugh.
“Here one second, gone the next. Can you bring a hummingbird down with an arrow?” he asks.
“I’ve never tried. Not much meat on them,” I answer.
“No. And you’re not one to kill for sport,” he says. “I bet they’d be hard to shoot, though.”
“You could snare them maybe,” Gale says. His face takes on that distant look it wears when he’s working something out.