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.

«Except that you won’t find her,» says Finnick to the empty screen, voicing what we’re all probably thinking. The grace period will be brief. Once they dig through those ashes and come up missing eleven bodies, they’ll know we escaped.

«We can get a head start on them at least,» I say. Suddenly, I’m so tired. All I want is to lie down on a nearby green plush sofa and go to sleep. To cocoon myself in a comforter made of rabbit fur and goose down. Instead, I pull out the Holo and insist that Jackson talk me through the most basic commands—which are really about entering the coordinates of the nearest map grid intersection—so that I can at least begin to operate the thing myself. As the Holo projects our surroundings, I feel my heart sink even further. We must be moving closer to crucial targets, because the number of pods has noticeably increased. How can we possibly move forward into this bouquet of blinking lights without detection? We can’t. And if we can’t, we are trapped like birds in a net. I decide it’s best not to adopt some sort of superior attitude when I’m with these people. Especially when my eyes keep drifting to that green sofa. So I say, «Any ideas?»

«Why don’t we start by ruling out possibilities,» says Finnick. «The street is not a possibility.»

«The rooftops are just as bad as the street,» says Leeg 1.

«We still might have a chance to withdraw, go back the way we came,» says Homes. «But that would mean a failed mission.»

A pang of guilt hits me since I’ve fabricated said mission. «It was never intended for all of us to go forward. You just had the misfortune to be with me.»

«Well, that’s a moot point. We’re with you now,» says Jackson. «So, we can’t stay put. We can’t move up. We can’t move laterally. I think that just leaves one option.»

«Underground,» says Gale.

Underground. Which I hate. Like mines and tunnels and 13. Underground, where I dread dying, which is stupid because even if I die aboveground, the next thing they’ll do is bury me underground anyway.

The Holo can show subterranean as well as street-level pods. I see that when we go underground the clean, dependable lines of the street plan are interlaced with a twisting, turning mess of tunnels. The pods look less numerous, though.

Two doors down, a vertical tube connects our row of apartments to the tunnels. To reach the tube apartment, we will need to squeeze through a maintenance shaft that runs the length of the building. We can enter the shaft through the back of a closet space on the upper floor.

«Okay, then. Let’s make it look like we’ve never been here,» I say. We erase all signs of our stay. Send the empty cans down a trash chute, pocket the full ones for later, flip sofa cushions smeared with blood, wipe traces of gel from the tiles. There’s no fixing the latch on the front door, but we lock a second bolt, which will at least keep the door from swinging open on contact.

Finally, there’s only Peeta to contend with. He plants himself on the blue sofa, refusing to budge. «I’m not going. I’ll either disclose your position or hurt someone else.»

«Snow’s people will find you,» says Finnick.

«Then leave me a pill. I’ll only take it if I have to,» says Peeta.

«That’s not an option. Come along,» says Jackson.

«Or you’ll what? Shoot me?» asks Peeta.

«We’ll knock you out and drag you with us,» says Homes. «Which will both slow us down and endanger us.»

«Stop being noble! I don’t care if I die!» He turns to me, pleading now. «Katniss, please. Don’t you see, I want to be out of this?»

The trouble is, I do see. Why can’t I just let him go? Slip him a pill, pull the trigger? Is it because I care too much about Peeta or too much about letting Snow win? Have I turned him into a piece in my private Games? That’s despicable, but I’m not sure it’s beneath me. If it’s true, it would be kindest to kill Peeta here and now. But for better or worse, I am not motivated by kindness. «We’re wasting time. Are you coming voluntarily or do we knock you out?»

Peeta buries his face in his hands for a few moments, then rises to join us.

«Should we free his hands?» asks Leeg 1.

«No!» Peeta growls at her, drawing his cuffs in close to his body.

«No,» I echo. «But I want the key.» Jackson passes it over without a word. I slip it into my pants pocket, where it clicks against the pearl.

When Homes pries open the small metal door to the maintenance shaft, we encounter another problem. There’s no way the insect shells will be able to fit through the narrow passage. Castor and Pollux remove them and detach emergency backup cameras. Each is the size of a shoe box and probably works about as well. Messalla can’t think of anywhere better to hide the bulky shells, so we end up dumping them in the closet. Leaving such an easy trail to follow frustrates me, but what else can we do?

Even going single file, holding our packs and gear out to the side, it’s a tight fit. We sidestep our way past the first apartment, and break into the second. In this apartment, one of the bedrooms has a door marked utility instead of a bathroom. Behind the door is the room with the entrance to the tube.

Messalla frowns at the wide circular cover, for a moment returning to his own fussy world. «It’s why no one ever wants the center unit. Workmen coming and going whenever and no second bath. But the rent’s considerably cheaper.» Then he notices Finnick’s amused expression and adds, «Never mind.»

The tube cover’s simple to unlatch. A wide ladder with rubber treads on the steps allows for a swift, easy descent into the bowels of the city. We gather at the foot of the ladder, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dim strips of lights, breathing in the mixture of chemicals, mildew, and sewage.

Pollux, pale and sweaty, reaches out and latches on to Castor’s wrist. Like he might fall over if there isn’t someone to steady him.

«My brother worked down here after he became an Avox,» says Castor. Of course. Who else would they get to maintain these dank, evil-smelling passages mined with pods? «Took five years before we were able to buy his way up to ground level. Didn’t see the sun once.»

Under better conditions, on a day with fewer horrors and more rest, someone would surely know what to say. Instead we all stand there for a long time trying to formulate a response.

Finally, Peeta turns to Pollux. «Well, then you just became our most valuable asset.» Castor laughs and Pollux manages a smile.

We’re halfway down the first tunnel when I realize what was so remarkable about the exchange. Peeta sounded like his old self, the one who could always think of the right thing to say when nobody else could. Ironic, encouraging, a little funny, but not at anyone’s expense. I glance back at him as he trudges along under his guards, Gale and Jackson, his eyes fixed on the ground, his shoulders hunched forward. So dispirited. But for a moment, he was really here.

Peeta called it right. Pollux turns out to be worth ten Holos. There is a simple network of wide tunnels that directly corresponds to the main street plan above, underlying the major avenues and cross streets. It’s called the Transfer, since small trucks use it to deliver goods around the city. During the day, its many pods are deactivated, but at night it’s a minefield. However, hundreds of additional passages, utility shafts, train tracks, and drainage tubes form a multilevel maze. Pollux knows details that would lead to disaster for a newcomer, like which offshoots might require gas masks or have live wires or rats the size of beavers. He alerts us to the gush of water that sweeps through the sewers periodically, anticipates the time the Avoxes will be changing shifts, leads us into damp, obscure pipes to dodge the nearly silent passage of cargo trains. Most important, he has knowledge of the cameras. There aren’t many down in this gloomy, misty place, except in the Transfer. But we keep well out of their way.

Under Pollux’s guidance we make good time—remarkable time, if you compare it to our aboveground travel. After about six hours, fatigue takes over. It’s three in the morning, so I figure we still have a few hours before our bodies are discovered missing, they search through the rubble of the whole block of apartments in case we tried to escape through the shafts, and the hunt begins.

When I suggest we rest, no one objects. Pollux finds a small, warm room humming with machines loaded with levers and dials. He holds up his fingers to indicate we must be gone in four hours. Jackson works out a guard schedule, and, since I’m not on the first shift, I wedge myself in the tight space between Gale and Leeg 1 and go right to sleep.

It seems like only minutes later when Jackson shakes me awake, tells me I’m on watch. It’s six o’clock, and in one hour we must be on our way. Jackson tells me to eat a can of food and keep an eye on Pollux, who’s insisted on being on guard the entire night. «He can’t sleep down here.» I drag myself into a state of relative alertness, eat a can of potato and bean stew, and sit against the wall facing the door. Pollux seems wide awake. He’s probably been reliving those five years of imprisonment all night. I get out the Holo and manage to input our grid coordinates and scan the tunnels. As expected, more pods are registering the closer we move toward the center of the Capitol. For a while, Pollux and I click around on the Holo, seeing what traps lie where. When my head begins to spin, I hand it over to him and lean back against the wall. I look down at the sleeping soldiers, crew, and friends, and I wonder how many of us will ever see the sun again.

When my eyes fall on Peeta, whose head rests right by my feet, I see he’s awake. I wish I could read what’s going on in his mind, that I could go in and untangle the mess of lies. Then I settle for something I can accomplish.

«Have you eaten?» I ask. A slight shake of his head indicates he hasn’t. I open a can of chicken and rice soup and hand it to him, keeping the lid in case he tries to slit his wrists with it or something. He sits up and tilts the can, chugging back the soup without really bothering to chew it. The bottom of the can reflects the lights from the machines, and I remember something that’s been itching at the back of my mind since yesterday. «Peeta, when you asked about what happened to Darius and Lavinia, and Boggs told you it was real, you said you thought so. Because there was nothing shiny about it. What did you mean?»

«Oh. I don’t know exactly how to explain it,» he tells me. «In the beginning, everything was just complete confusion. Now I can sort certain things out. I think there’s a pattern emerging. The memories they altered with the tracker jacker venom have this strange quality about them. Like they’re too intense or the images aren’t stable. You remember what it was like when we were stung?»

«Trees shattered. There were giant colored butterflies. I fell in a pit of orange bubbles.» I think about it. «Shiny orange bubbles.»

«Right. But nothing about Darius or Lavinia was like that. I don’t think they’d given me any venom yet,» he says.

«Well, that’s good, isn’t it?» I ask. «If you can separate the two, then you can figure out what’s true.»

«Yes. And if I could grow wings, I could fly. Only people can’t grow wings,» he says. «Real or not real?»

«Real,» I say. «But people don’t need wings to survive.»

«Mockingjays do.» He finishes the soup and returns the can to me.

In the fluorescent light, the circles under his eyes look like bruises. «There’s still time. You should sleep.» Unresisting, he lies back down, but just stares at the needle on one of the dials as it twitches from side to side. Slowly, as I would with a wounded animal, my hand stretches out and brushes a wave of hair from his forehead. He freezes at my touch, but doesn’t recoil. So I continue to gently smooth back his hair. It’s the first time I have voluntarily touched him since the last arena.

«You’re still trying to protect me. Real or not real,» he whispers.

«Real,» I answer. It seems to require more explanation. «Because that’s what you and I do. Protect each other.» After a minute or so, he drifts off to sleep.

Shortly before seven, Pollux and I move among the others, rousing them. There are the usual yawns and sighs that accompany waking. But my ears are picking up something else, too. Almost like a hissing. Perhaps it’s only steam escaping a pipe or the far-off whoosh of one of the trains….

I hush the group to get a better read on it. There’s a hissing, yes, but it’s not one extended sound. More like multiple exhalations that form words. A single word. Echoing throughout the tunnels. One word. One name. Repeated over and over again.

«Katniss.»

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