6.

The shock of hearing Haymitch’s voice yesterday, of learning that he was not only functional but had some measure of control over my life again, enraged me. I left the studio directly and refused to acknowledge his comments from the booth today. Even so, I knew immediately he was right about my performance.

It took the whole of this morning for him to convince the others of my limitations. That I can’t pull it off. I can’t stand in a television studio wearing a costume and makeup in a cloud of fake smoke and rally the districts to victory. It’s amazing, really, how long I have survived the cameras. The credit for that, of course, goes to Peeta. Alone, I can’t be the Mockingjay.

We gather around the huge table in Command. Coin and her people. Plutarch, Fulvia, and my prep team. A group from 12 that includes Haymitch and Gale, but also a few others I can’t explain, like Leevy and Greasy Sae. At the last minute, Finnick wheels Beetee in, accompanied by Dalton, the cattle expert from 10. I suppose that Coin has assembled this strange assortment of people as witnesses to my failure.

However, it’s Haymitch who welcomes everyone, and by his words I understand that they have come at his personal invitation. This is the first time we’ve been in a room together since I clawed him. I avoid looking at him directly, but I catch a glimpse of his reflection in one of the shiny control consoles along the wall. He looks slightly yellow and has lost a lot of weight, giving him a shrunken appearance. For a second, I’m afraid he’s dying. I have to remind myself that I don’t care.

The first thing Haymitch does is to show the footage we’ve just shot. I seem to have reached some new low under Plutarch and Fulvia’s guidance. Both my voice and body have a jerky, disjointed quality, like a puppet being manipulated by unseen forces.

«All right,» Haymitch says when it’s over. «Would anyone like to argue that this is of use to us in winning the war?» No one does. «That saves time. So, let’s all be quiet for a minute. I want everyone to think of one incident where Katniss Everdeen genuinely moved you. Not where you were jealous of her hairstyle, or her dress went up in flames or she made a halfway decent shot with an arrow. Not where Peeta was making you like her. I want to hear one moment whereshe made you feel something real.»

Quiet stretches out and I’m beginning to think it will never end, when Leevy speaks up. «When she volunteered to take Prim’s place at the reaping. Because I’m sure she thought she was going to die.»

«Good. Excellent example,» says Haymitch. He takes a purple marker and writes on a notepad. «Volunteered for sister at reaping.» Haymitch looks around the table. «Somebody else.»

I’m surprised that the next speaker is Boggs, who I think of as a muscular robot that does Coin’s bidding. «When she sang the song. While the little girl died.» Somewhere in my head an image surfaces of Boggs with a young boy perched up on his hip. In the dining hall, I think. Maybe he’s not a robot after all.

«Who didn’t get choked up at that, right?» says Haymitch, writing it down.

«I cried when she drugged Peeta so she could go get him medicine and when she kissed him good-bye!» blurts out Octavia. Then she covers her mouth, like she’s sure this was a bad mistake.

But Haymitch only nods. «Oh, yeah. Drugs Peeta to save his life. Very nice.»

The moments begin to come thick and fast and in no particular order. When I took Rue on as an ally.Extended my hand to Chaff on interview night. Tried to carry Mags. And again and again when I held out those berries that meant different things to different people. Love for Peeta. Refusal to give in under impossible odds. Defiance of the Capitol’s inhumanity.

Haymitch holds up the notepad. «So, the question is, what do all of these have in common?»

«They were Katniss’s,» says Gale quietly. «No one told her what to do or say.»

«Unscripted, yes!» says Beetee. He reaches over and pats my hand. «So we should just leave you alone, right?»

People laugh. I even smile a little.

«Well, that’s all very nice but not very helpful,» says Fulvia peevishly. «Unfortunately, her opportunities for being wonderful are rather limited here in Thirteen. So unless you’re suggesting we toss her into the middle of combat—»

«That’s exactly what I’m suggesting,» says Haymitch. «Put her out in the field and just keep the cameras rolling.»

«But people think she’s pregnant,» Gale points out.

«We’ll spread the word that she lost the baby from the electrical shock in the arena,» Plutarch replies. «Very sad. Very unfortunate.»

The idea of sending me into combat is controversial. But Haymitch has a pretty tight case. If I perform well only in real-life circumstances, then into them I should go. «Every time we coach her or give her lines, the best we can hope for is okay. It has to come from her. That’s what people are responding to.»

«Even if we’re careful, we can’t guarantee her safety,» says Boggs. «She’ll be a target for every—»

«I want to go,» I break in. «I’m no help to the rebels here.»

«And if you’re killed?» asks Coin.

«Make sure you get some footage. You can use that, anyway,» I answer.

«Fine,» says Coin. «But let’s take it one step at a time. Find the least dangerous situation that can evoke some spontaneity in you.» She walks around Command, studying the illuminated district maps that show the ongoing troop positions in the war. «Take her into Eight this afternoon. There was heavy bombing this morning, but the raid seems to have run its course. I want her armed with a squad of bodyguards. Camera crew on the ground. Haymitch, you’ll be airborne and in contact with her. Let’s see what happens there. Does anyone have any other comments?»

«Wash her face,» says Dalton. Everyone turns to him. «She’s still a girl and you made her look thirty-five. Feels wrong. Like something the Capitol would do.»

As Coin adjourns the meeting, Haymitch asks her if he can speak to me privately. The others leave except for Gale, who lingers uncertainly by my side. «What are you worried about?» Haymitch asks him. «I’m the one who needs the bodyguard.»

«It’s okay,» I tell Gale, and he goes. Then there’s just the hum of the instruments, the purr of the ventilation system.

Haymitch takes the seat across from me. «We’re going to have to work together again. So, go ahead. Just say it.»

I think of the snarling, cruel exchange back on the hovercraft. The bitterness that followed. But all I say is «I can’t believe you didn’t rescue Peeta.»

«I know,» he replies.

There’s a sense of incompleteness. And not because he hasn’t apologized. But because we were a team. We had a deal to keep Peeta safe. A drunken, unrealistic deal made in the dark of night, but a deal just the same. And in my heart of hearts, I know we both failed.

«Now you say it,» I tell him.

«I can’t believe you let him out of your sight that night,» says Haymitch.

I nod. That’s it. «I play it over and over in my head. What I could have done to keep him by my side without breaking the alliance. But nothing comes to me.»

«You didn’t have a choice. And even if I could’ve made Plutarch stay and rescue him that night, the whole hovercraft would’ve gone down. We barely got out as it was.» I finally meet Haymitch’s eyes. Seam eyes. Gray and deep and ringed with the circles of sleepless nights. «He’s not dead yet, Katniss.»

«We’re still in the game.» I try to say this with optimism, but my voice cracks.

«Still in. And I’m still your mentor.» Haymitch points his marker at me. «When you’re on the ground, remember I’m airborne. I’ll have the better view, so do what I tell you.»

«We’ll see,» I answer.

I return to the Remake Room and watch the streaks of makeup disappear down the drain as I scrub my face clean. The person in the mirror looks ragged, with her uneven skin and tired eyes, but she looks like me. I rip the armband off, revealing the ugly scar from the tracker. There. That looks like me, too.

Since I’ll be in a combat zone, Beetee helps me with armor Cinna designed. A helmet of some interwoven metal that fits close to my head. The material’s supple, like fabric, and can be drawn back like a hood in case I don’t want it up full-time. A vest to reinforce the protection over my vital organs. A small white earpiece that attaches to my collar by a wire. Beetee secures a mask to my belt that I don’t have to wear unless there’s a gas attack. «If you see anyone dropping for reasons you can’t explain, put it on immediately,» he says. Finally, he straps a sheath divided into three cylinders of arrows to my back. «Just remember: Right side, fire. Left side, explosive. Center, regular. You shouldn’t need them, but better safe than sorry.»

Boggs shows up to escort me down to the Airborne Division. Just as the elevator arrives, Finnick appears in a state of agitation. «Katniss, they won’t let me go! I told them I’m fine, but they won’t even let me ride in the hovercraft!»

I take in Finnick—his bare legs showing between his hospital gown and slippers, his tangle of hair, the half-knotted rope twisted around his fingers, the wild look in his eyes—and know any plea on my part will be useless. Even I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring him. So I smack my hand on my forehead and say, «Oh, I forgot. It’s this stupid concussion. I was supposed to tell you to report to Beetee in Special Weaponry. He’s designed a new trident for you.»

At the word trident, it’s as if the old Finnick surfaces. «Really? What’s it do?»

«I don’t know. But if it’s anything like my bow and arrows, you’re going to love it,» I say. «You’ll need to train with it, though.»

«Right. Of course. I guess I better get down there,» he says.

«Finnick?» I say. «Maybe some pants?»

He looks down at his legs as if noticing his outfit for the first time. Then he whips off his hospital gown, leaving him in just his underwear. «Why? Do you find this»—he strikes a ridiculously provocative pose—«distracting?»

I can’t help laughing because it’s funny, and it’s extra funny because it makes Boggs look so uncomfortable, and I’m happy because Finnick actually sounds like the guy I met at the Quarter Quell.

«I’m only human, Odair.» I get in before the elevator doors close. «Sorry,» I say to Boggs.

«Don’t be. I thought you…handled that well,» he says. «Better than my having to arrest him, anyway.»

«Yeah,» I say. I sneak a sidelong glance at him. He’s probably in his mid-forties, with close-cropped gray hair and blue eyes. Incredible posture. He’s spoken out twice today in ways that make me think he would rather be friends than enemies. Maybe I should give him a chance. But he just seems so in step with Coin….

There’s a series of loud clicks. The elevator comes to a slight pause and then begins to move laterally to the left. «It goes sideways?» I ask.

«Yes. There’s a whole network of elevator paths under Thirteen,» he answers. «This one lies just above the transport spoke to the fifth airlift platform. It’s taking us to the Hangar.»

The Hangar. The dungeons. Special Defense. Somewhere food is grown. Power generated. Air and water purified. «Thirteen is even larger than I thought.»

«Can’t take credit for much of it,» says Boggs. «We basically inherited the place. It’s been all we can do to keep it running.»

The clicks resume. We drop down again briefly—just a couple of levels—and the doors open on the Hangar.

«Oh,» I let out involuntarily at the sight of the fleet. Row after row of different kinds of hovercraft. «Did you inherit these, too?»

«Some we manufactured. Some were part of the Capitol’s air force. They’ve been updated, of course,» says Boggs.

I feel that twinge of hatred against 13 again. «So, you had all this, and you left the rest of the districts defenseless against the Capitol.»

«It’s not that simple,» he shoots back. «We were in no position to launch a counterattack until recently. We could barely stay alive. After we’d overthrown and executed the Capitol’s people, only a handful of us even knew how to pilot. We could’ve nuked them with missiles, yes. But there’s always the larger question: If we engage in that type of war with the Capitol, would there be any human life left?»

«That sounds like what Peeta said. And you all called him a traitor,» I counter.

«Because he called for a cease-fire,» says Boggs. «You’ll notice neither side has launched nuclear weapons. We’re working it out the old-fashioned way. Over here, Soldier Everdeen.» He indicates one of the smaller hovercraft.

I mount the stairs and find it packed with the television crew and equipment. Everyone else is dressed in 13’s dark gray military jumpsuits, even Haymitch, although he seems unhappy about the snugness of his collar.

Fulvia Cardew hustles over and makes a sound of frustration when she sees my clean face. «All that work, down the drain. I’m not blaming you, Katniss. It’s just that very few people are born with camera-ready faces. Like him.» She snags Gale, who’s in a conversation with Plutarch, and spins him toward us. «Isn’t he handsome?»

Gale does look striking in the uniform, I guess. But the question just embarrasses us both, given our history. I’m trying to think of a witty comeback, when Boggs says brusquely, «Well, don’t expect us to be too impressed. We just saw Finnick Odair in his underwear.» I decide to go ahead and like Boggs.

There’s a warning of the upcoming takeoff and I strap myself into a seat next to Gale, facing off with Haymitch and Plutarch. We glide through a maze of tunnels that opens out onto a platform. Some sort of elevator device lifts the craft slowly up through the levels. All at once we’re outside in a large field surrounded by woods, then we rise off the platform and become wrapped in clouds.

Now that the flurry of activity leading up to this mission is over, I realize I have no idea what I’m facing on this trip to District 8. In fact, I know very little about the actual state of the war. Or what it would take to win it. Or what would happen if we did.

Plutarch tries to lay it out in simple terms for me. First of all, every district is currently at war with the Capitol except 2, which has always had a favored relationship with our enemies despite its participation in the Hunger Games. They get more food and better living conditions. After the Dark Days and the supposed destruction of 13, District 2 became the Capitol’s new center of defense, although it’s publicly presented as the home of the nation’s stone quarries, in the same way that 13 was known for graphite mining. District 2 not only manufactures weaponry, it trains and even supplies Peacekeepers.

«You mean…some of the Peacekeepers are born in Two?» I ask. «I thought they all came from the Capitol.»

Plutarch nods. «That’s what you’re supposed to think. And some do come from the Capitol. But its population could never sustain a force that size. Then there’s the problem of recruiting Capitol-raised citizens for a dull life of deprivation in the districts. A twenty-year commitment to the Peacekeepers, no marriage, no children allowed. Some buy into it for the honor of the thing, others take it on as an alternative to punishment. For instance, join the Peacekeepers and your debts are forgiven. Many people are swamped in debt in the Capitol, but not all of them are fit for military duty. So District Two is where we turn for additional troops. It’s a way for their people to escape poverty and a life in the quarries. They’re raised with a warrior mind-set. You’ve seen how eager their children are to volunteer to be tributes.»

Cato and Clove. Brutus and Enobaria. I’ve seen their eagerness and their bloodlust, too. «But all the other districts are on our side?» I ask.

«Yes. Our goal is to take over the districts one by one, ending with District Two, thus cutting off the Capitol’s supply chain. Then, once it’s weakened, we invade the Capitol itself,» says Plutarch. «That will be a whole other type of challenge. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.»

«If we win, who would be in charge of the government?» Gale asks.

«Everyone,» Plutarch tells him. «We’re going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don’t look so suspicious; it’s worked before.»

«In books,» Haymitch mutters.

«In history books,» says Plutarch. «And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.»

Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government.

«And if we lose?» I ask.

«If we lose?» Plutarch looks out at the clouds, and an ironic smile twists his lips. «Then I would expect next year’s Hunger Games to be quite unforgettable. That reminds me.» He takes a vial from his vest, shakes a few deep violet pills into his hand, and holds them out to us. «We named them nightlock in your honor, Katniss. The rebels can’t afford for any of us to be captured now. But I promise, it will be completely painless.»

I take hold of a capsule, unsure of where to put it. Plutarch taps a spot on my shoulder at the front of my left sleeve. I examine it and find a tiny pocket that both secures and conceals the pill. Even if my hands were tied, I could lean my head forward and bite it free.

Cinna, it seems, has thought of everything.

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