Chapter 43

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Finnick and I wake up quickly to the sound of Peeta's voice.

"Friend. Lover. Victor. Enemy. Fiancee. Target. Mutt. Neighbor. Hunter. Tribute. Ally. I'll add it to the list of words I use to try to figure you out." His words became harsher every time and I sat up confused. He weaves a piece of rope in and out of his fingers. "The problem is, I can't tell what's real anymore, and what's made up."

Finnick's voice pipes up. "Then you should ask, Peeta."

"Ask who?" Peeta says. "Who can I trust?"

"Ask us," I tell him.

"We're your squad," says Jackson.

"You're my guards," he points out.

"That, too," she says. "But you saved a lot of lives in Thirteen. It's not the kind of thing we forget."

At a few minutes before four, Peeta turns to Katniss again. "Your favorite's green?"

"That's right. And yours is orange."

"Orange?" He seems unconvinced.

"Not bright orange. But soft. Like the sunset," Katniss says. "At least, that's what you told me once."

"Oh." He closes his eyes briefly, maybe trying to conjure up that sunset, then nods his head. "Thank you."

But more words tumble out of Katniss's mouth. "You're a painter. You're a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces."

Then she dives into her tent. Peeta stares after her looking confused. I give him a reassuring smile. "Get some rest, Peeta. We all need it,"

He gives me a curt nod and we settle back down. In the morning, Gale, Finnick, Katniss, and I go out to shoot some glass off the buildings for the camera crew. When we get back to camp, Peeta's sitting in a circle with the soldiers from 13, who are armed but talking openly with him. Jackson has devised a game called "Real or Not Real" to help Peeta. He mentions something he thinks happened, and they tell him if it's true or imagined, usually followed by a brief explanation.

"Most of the people from Twelve were killed in the fire."

"Real. Less than nine hundred of you made it to Thirteen alive."

"The fire was my fault."

"Not real. President Snow destroyed Twelve the way he did Thirteen, to send a message to the rebels." This seems like a good idea until I realize that Katniss will be the only one who can confirm or deny most of what weighs on him, which I imagine will be a little frosty. Jackson breaks us up into watches. She matches up Gale, Katniss, Finnick and me each with a soldier from 13. This way Peeta will always have access to someone who knows him more personally. It's not a steady conversation. Peeta spends a long time considering even small pieces of information, like where people bought their soap back home. Gale fills him in on a lot of stuff about 12; Finnick and I are the experts on both of Peeta's Games, as we were both a mentor in the first and a tribute in the second. But since Peeta's greatest confusion centers around Katniss - and not everything can be explained simply - their exchanges are painful and loaded, even though they only seem to touch on only the most superficial of details. The colour of her dress in 7. Her preference for cheese buns. The name of their math teacher when they were little. Reconstructing his memory of Katniss seems excruciating. I could see the physical toll it was taking on Katniss, looking more down every time they spoke.

The next afternoon, we're notified that the whole squad is needed to stage a fairly complicated propo. Peeta's been right about one thing: Coin and Plutarch are unhappy with the quality of footage they're getting from the Star Squad. Very dull. Very uninspiring. The obvious response is that they never let us do anything but playact with our guns. However, this is not about defending ourselves, it's about coming up with a usable product. So today, a special block has been set aside for filming. It even has a couple of active pods on it. One unleashes a spray of gunfire. The other nets the invader and traps them for either interrogation or execution, depending on the captors' preference. But it's still an unimportant residential block with nothing of strategic consequence. The television crew means to provide a sense of heightened jeopardy by releasing smoke bombs and adding gunfire sound effects. We suit up in heavy protective gear, even the crew, as if we're heading into the heart of battle. Those of us with specialty weapons are allowed to take them along with our guns. Boggs gives Peeta back his gun, too, although he makes sure to tell him in a loud voice that it's only loaded with blanks.

Peeta just shrugs. "I'm not much of a shot anyway." He seems preoccupied with watching Pollux, to the point where it's getting a little worrisome, when he finally puzzles it out and begins to speak with agitation. "You're an Avox, aren't you? I can tell by the way you swallow. There were two Avoxes with me in prison. Darius and Lavinia, but the guards mostly called them 'The Redheads'. They'd been our servants in the Training Center, so they arrested them, too. I watched them being tortured to death. She was lucky. They used too much voltage and her heart stopped right off. It took days to finish him off. Beating, cutting off parts. They kept asking him questions, but he couldn't speak, he just made these horrible animal sounds. They didn't want information, you know? They wanted me to see it."

My eyes squeeze shut. I can remember it. The struggled screams stuck in Darius's throat echoing around the cell they were in. Snow making a show of forcing us to watch. Seeing the blood spray everywhere. Finnick's hand wraps in mine and he pulls me into a hug.

"It's okay," he whispers into my hair and I nod and open my eyes.

Peeta looks around at our stunned faces, as if waiting for a reply. When none is forthcoming, he asks, "Real or not real?" The lack of response upsets him more. "Real or not real?!" he demands.

"Real," I say hoarsely. "It's real. I was there, too."

Peeta sags. "I thought so. There was nothing...shiny about it." He wanders away from the group, muttering something about fingers and toes.

With Peeta's grisly account fresh in our minds, we crunch through the streets of broken glass until we reach our target, the block we are to take. It is a real, if small, goal to accomplish. We gather around Boggs to examine the Holo projection of the street. The gunfire pod is positioned about a third of the way down, just above an apartment awning. We should be able to trigger it with bullets. The net pod is at the far end, almost the next corner. This will require someone to set off the body sensor mechanism. Everyone volunteers except Peeta, who doesn't seem to know quite what's going on. Katniss however, doesn't get picked. She get sent to Messalla, who dabs some makeup on her face for the anticipated close-ups. The squad and I position ourselves under Boggs's direction, and then we have to wait for Cressida to get the cameramen in place as well. They're both to our left, with Castor toward the front and Pollux bringing up the rear so they'll be sure not to record each other. Messalla sets off a couple of smoke charges for atmosphere.

Cressida calls, "Action!"

We slowly proceed down the hazy street, just like one of our exercises in the Block. Everyone has at least one section of windows to blow out, but Gale's assigned the real target. When he hits the pod, we take cover - ducking into doorways or flattening onto the pretty, light orange and pink paving stones - as a hail of bullets sweeps back and forth over our heads. After a while, Boggs orders us forward. Cressida stops us before we can rise, since she needs some close-up shots. We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it's supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. Especially when it turns out that Katniss is not the worst actor in the squad like we both expected. Not by a long shot. We're all laughing so hard at Mitchell's attempt to project his idea of desperation, which involves teeth grinding and nostrils flaring, that Boggs has to reprimand us.

"Pull it together, Four-Five-One," he says firmly. But you can see him suppressing a smile as he's double checking the next pod. Positioning the Holo to find the best light in the smoky air. Still facing us as his left foot steps back onto the orange paving stone. Triggering the bomb that blows off his legs.

I let out an involuntary scream and grip onto Finnick. Blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television. A second explosion seems to split the air and leaves my ears ringing. But I can't make out where it came from. Katniss reaches Boggs first, trying to make sense of the torn flesh, missing limbs, to find something to stem the red flow from his body. Homes pushes her aside, wrenching open a first-aid kit. Boggs clutches her wrist as Finnick and I wrap our arms around each other's waist and I press my cheek against his chest. He rests his chin on top of my head and holds me.

"The Holo." Boggs commands Katniss. She scrambles around, digging through chunks of tile slick with blood, shuddering when she encounters bits of warm flesh. Find it rammed into a stairwell with one of Boggs's boots. Katniss retrieves it, wiping it clean with bare hands as she returns it to my commander. Homes has the stump of Boggs's left thigh cupped by some sort of compression bandage, but it's already soaked through. He's trying to tourniquet the other above the existing knee. The rest of the squad has gathered in a protective formation around the crew and us. Finnick untangles himself from me and goes and attempts to revive Messalla, who was thrown into a wall by the explosion. Jackson's barking into a field communicator, trying unsuccessfully to alert the camp to send medics, but I just know it's too late. That much blood loss...can't be fixed.

I watch as Katniss kneels beside Boggs and gives him someone to hold on to as he's released from life. But Boggs has both hands working the Holo. He's typing in a command, pressing his thumb to the screen for print recognition, speaking a string of letters and numbers in response to a prompt. A green shaft of light bursts out of the Holo and illuminates his face.

He says, "Unfit for command. Transfer of prime security clearance to Squad Four-Five-One Soldier Katniss Everdeen." It's all he can do to turn the Holo toward her face. "Say your name."

"Katniss Everdeen," she says into the green shaft. Suddenly, it has her trapped in its light and I frown, curious. "What did you do?"

"Prepare to retreat!" Jackson hollers. Finnick's yelling something back, gesturing to the end of the block where we entered. Black, oily matter spouts like a geyser from the street, billowing between the buildings, creating an impenetrable wall of darkness. It seems to be neither liquid nor gas, mechanical nor natural. Surely it's lethal. There's no heading back the way we came.

"Shit," I say, wide-eyed.

Finnick appears beside me, holding up Messalla. "If Effie heard you..."

"Not the time, Finnick!" I give him a sharp look and he silences.

Deafening gunfire sounds out as Gale and Leeg 1 begin to blast a path across the stones toward the far end of the block. I don't know what they're doing until another bomb, ten yards away, detonates, opening a hole in the street. Then I realise this is a rudimentary attempt at mine-sweeping. Homes and Katniss latch on to Boggs and begin to drag him after Gale.

Finnick (with Messalla now in his arms) and I are following as I watch Katniss get yanked backward, losing her grip on Boggs, slamming into the stones. Peeta looks down at her, his gun raised over her face, descending to crush her skull. I'm too far to do anything so I cry out as she rolls and I hear the butt of the gun slam into the street. Mitchell tackles Peeta and pins him to the ground. But Peeta, always so powerful and now fueled by tracker jacker insanity, gets his feet under Mitchell's belly and launches him farther down the block.

There's a loud snap of a trap as the pod triggers. Four cables, attached to tracks on the buildings, break through the stones, dragging up the net that encases Mitchell. It makes no sense - how instantly bloodied he is - until we see the barbs sticking from the wire that encases him.

"Shit," Finnick says and I just give him a look before something catches in the corner of my eye.

The wave of 'oil' has crested and begun to fall. Gale and Leeg 1 shoot through the front door lock of the corner building, then begin to fire at the cables holding Mitchell's net. Others are restraining Peeta now. I help Finnick set down Messalla and we both take an arm to drag him inside the apartment, through someone's pink and white velvet living room, down a hallway hung with family photos, onto the marble floor of a kitchen, where we all collapse. Castor and Pollux carry in a writhing Peeta between them. Somehow Jackson gets cuffs on him, but it only makes him wilder and they're forced to lock him in a closet. In the living room, the front door slams, people shout. Then footsteps pound down the hall as the black wave roars past the building. From the kitchen, we can hear the windows groan, shatter. The noxious tar smell permeates the air. Leeg 1 and Cressida stumble into the room after them, coughing.

"Gale!" Katniss shrieks loudly.

Gale slams the kitchen door shut behind him, choking out one word. "Fumes!" Castor and Pollux grab towels, aprons to stuff in the cracks as Gale retches into a bright yellow sink.

"Mitchell?" asks Homes. Leeg 1 just shakes her head. Boggs forces the Holo into Katniss's hand. His lips are moving, but I can't make out what he's saying from where I am.

"What? Boggs? Boggs?" His eyes are still open, but dead. Pressed in her hand, glued to it by his blood, is the Holo. Peeta's feet slamming into the closet door break up the ragged breathing of the others. But even as we listen, his energy seems to ebb. The kicks diminish to an irregular drumming. Then nothing.

"He's gone?" Finnick asks, looking down at Boggs. Katniss nods.

"We need to get out of here. Now. We just set off a streetful of pods. You can bet they've got us on surveillance tapes." I immediately say, beginning to panic.

"Count on it," says Castor. "All the streets are covered by surveillance cameras. I bet they set off the black wave manually when they saw us taping the propo."

"Our radio communicators went dead almost immediately. Probably an electromagnetic pulse device. But I'll get us back to camp. Give me the Holo." Jackson reaches for the unit, but Katniss clutches it to her chest.

"No. Boggs gave it to me,"

"Don't be ridiculous," she snaps. Of course, she thinks it's hers. She's second in command.

"It's true," says Homes. "He transferred the prime security clearance to her while he was dying. I saw it."

"Why would he do that?" demands Jackson. Maybe because Katniss is a decent human being.

Katniss is silent. And then, "Because I'm on a special mission for President Coin. I think Boggs was the only one who knew about it." This in no way convinces Jackson.

"To do what?"

"To assassinate President Snow before the loss of life from this war makes our population unsustainable." I share a doubtful glance with Finnick.

"I don't believe you," says Jackson. "As your current commander, I order you to transfer the prime security clearance over to me.

"No," Katniss simply say. "That would be in direct violation of President Coin's orders."

Guns are pointed. Half the squad at Jackson (like Finnick and I's), half at Katniss. Someone's about to die, when Cressida speaks up. "It's true. That's why we're here. Plutarch wants it televised. He thinks if we can film the Mockingjay assassinating Snow, it will end the war." This gives even Jackson pause. Then she gestures with her gun toward the closet.

"And why is he here?"

Cressida comes to her aid again. "Because the two post-Games interviews with Caesar Flickerman were shot in President Snow's personal quarters. Plutarch thinks Peeta may be of some use as a guide in a location we have little knowledge of."

"That's also why I'm here," I chip in and Jackson looks at me.

"We have to go!" says Gale. "I'm following Katniss. If you don't want to, head back to camp. But let's move!"

Homes unlocks the closet and heaves an unconscious Peeta over his shoulder. "Ready."

"Boggs?" says Leeg 1.

"We can't take him. He'd understand," says Finnick. He frees Boggs's gun from his shoulder and slings the strap over his own.

He gives me a nod and I half smile and look at Katniss. "Lead on, Soldier Everdeen."  

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