This is really hard stuff to write.
The jabberjays are listening.
Whenever we wanted to start a game, Ed or Jonadab would say, "The jabberjays are listening, Peeta." It meant that the game was on. It was time to start spinning stories. At first, we all did it. Ed and Jonadab were both pretty good. But after a while, it became something that I did, something that made my big brothers laugh. It was one of the few things we all enjoyed.
I am not going to enjoy it this time.
"Peeta, don't!" Johanna cries. "Don't give them anything!"
"I have to," I say. And it's true. I can't let them hurt Johanna anymore. I can't give them whoever has survived District Twelve.
It's a jabberjay drill again, but the stakes are higher than anything I ever played for. Whatever I say, it has to be completely plausible. Snow will have to believe that I'd hold it back. It will have to make sense. And it can't get the Capitol anywhere near the lake. I hope I'm remembering right that it's southwest of town. Dad told me that the Everdeens once had property southwest of town, before the fence was sealed.
"I'm waiting," Snow says.
"I'm trying to think of where to start," I say. "It's true that I never went out there. And for all I know, Gale went someplace else entirely. I don't know him very well."
"But you remember something," Snow says, his voice a low hiss.
"It might not be anything."
The chains tighten my cuffs again, and I shake my head. Enough hesitation will help. Too much, he'll think I'm playing him. "Stop! Stop, this is it. It's Thirteen! They know about it."
Snow frowns. "I beg your pardon?"
I close my eyes. I'm reasonably sure I look terrified, since I am terrified. I can only hope I look ashamed. "They know about Thirteen. Katniss and Gale. A few other people. It's the mockingjay."
"In all the footage from the news. The same mockingjay goes by the corner. People talk about it. And about why the building is still smoldering. They figure the Capitol must not be allowed to go in and film. And if you're not allowed, then there must be someone there not allowing you, right?"
Snow's jaw tightens and he breathes in sharply through his nose. "This is a common rumor?"
"Maybe not common, but I'm not the only one who's heard it." I cast around inside my head for some thread of a story, something I can use. I have to trust that Thirteen is strong enough to defend itself and whoever is under its protection. The mockingjay on the news is a start, but it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't lead to any place that I can give Snow.
At least it seems to have caught his attention.
I wait to see if he's going to produce something to contradict me, but he doesn't. He just fumes at the oversight, which is very real, and he'll be able to verify it. So far, so good.
I put in the first embellishment. "Katniss said she talked to Gale about it a lot before the Games... about how they could go off and find their way to District Thirteen."
Snow narrows his eyes suspiciously. "And she discussed this with you?"
I nod and look down at the table. "She... she pretty much only kept up the pretense about us where there were cameras or bugs. The rest of the time, we told each other the truth. We're friends. She's my best friend."
"Your best friend."
"I wanted more, okay? But it just wasn't there." I think about the last night on the beach, the feel of her skin under my hands, the fast beat of her pulse, the pressure of her fingers on my back. I force it away. Force myself to think about her kneeling beside Gale when he'd been whipped, about the kiss they shared in the woods, about the way they smiled at each other while we were training for the Quell. I let my voice shake a little. "She wanted to be with him."
"I am not entirely surprised," Snow says. "I also don't particularly care. How does this reflect on where Gale Hawthorne has gone?"
I take a deep breath. It's shaky and somehow thick. I can feel my broken rib, and I'm afraid it's torn something. I clench my teeth. I think about Katniss. And her mother, and my father, and finally I get an inkling of an idea.
I don't know much about the outside of the fence, but there is a story my father told me when I asked about Mrs. Everdeen. When they were children, they dared each other to slip under the fence and follow the train tracks. I used to imagine that long walk, how it would have been if they'd just kept walking. I don't know how often I asked him for details. Often enough that he finally got frustrated and said, "Peeta, I've told you everything."
The whole story comes into my head. They will need a goal. They'll need a reason. They'll need water and hunting grounds. And Dad's story has it all.
"Katniss told me... she said..."
I bite my lip and try to look like I'm ashamed to tell. "She said they used to walk along the train tracks. That they'd go around the fence to the other side of town and they'd walk up there, up toward Thirteen. They'd daydream about life outside District Twelve. They just wanted to get away, be someplace where no one else was calling the shots."
Snow smiles bitterly. "They may find themselves unpleasantly surprised." He doesn't explain. "Go on."
"Anyway, you can follow the tracks for a few miles out of town. I don't know how many. As many as you can cover in about five hours, I guess. But then there's a ravine. The tracks used to go across, but they must have been bombed in the war. She says they're melted. They look like they were tied in a knot."
"Fascinating, I'm sure. But if they can't get through, then I don't see why you'd think they'd be there."
"The thing is, there's a river at the bottom of the gorge. Water. Fish. And there's enough leaf cover out there that the whole thing is probably hidden from a hovercraft. A lot of people could be hidden there. They could even make shelters from the trees." I shrug and look down. "That's why I thought of it. He knows the place, and it has what he'd need."
I chance a look up. Snow is frowning at me.
"That's all I know," I say. "It's everything."
Finally, Snow nods. "All right. Take Miss Mason back to her cell. And send in a hovercraft north of town."
The Peacekeepers leave. Snow stays. "I recommend not withholding information from me again."
I close my eyes. "I'm sorry. I was just scared of what you'd do if I was wrong."
"Well, I assure you, you'll find out when the reports come in."
He leaves, locking my cell door behind him. I imagine I will not like whatever happens when he finds no sign at all of District Twelve in the ravine. At least I hope he doesn't -- it really is a plausible place for them to go. But hopefully, it will waste enough of his time for the rebels to find the survivors.
The cuffs on my wrists abruptly release, leaving me free to wander my cell. They turn up the volume on my video, and now they've cut in pictures of Gale giving interviews about Katniss, and the surveillance photograph of him at the fence is intercut with footage of my family burning to death.
I go over to the wall I share with Johanna. There is small air vent at the top, and I speak to it. "Are you okay?"
Her voice comes up, echoing flatly on the metal. "Don't talk to me."
"He's just going to kill them, you know. You just killed them all. You should have let them kill me. He's going to, anyway."
I wonder if supposed to apologize for not letting them murder her in front of me. It doesn't seem polite, so I don't say anything. I go to the cot and lie down, and my rib sends out another wave of agony. I bite my hand to keep from crying out. When the wave finally passes, I stare at the ceiling, wondering what pain is going to come from each of the arms and vices I see there.
On the screen, Katniss sits in front of Caesar Flickerman, and can't even come up with a good lie about when she supposedly fell in love with me. My sister-in-law runs away, the baby under a blanket to protect her from the smoke. The building falls on them.
I close my eyes. Sleep is an impossibility, caught between the pain in my rib and the horribly loud video, but I let myself drift again. I want the playing cards. I want to build something. I imagine building. One card, balanced against another. District Twelve survivors, balanced against Johanna Mason. My family dead, balanced against Katniss surviving. Placed together. Covered by one lie, hanging over the edge, waiting to fall. I try to find something else to brace it.
Somewhere in the room, Katniss stammers through an interview.
I think about the beach again, and this time, I don't push it away. I let myself feel it. I remember every second. I want her, not just physically. I don't want to talk. I don't have anything to say. I don't even necessarily want to caress or kiss her. I just want her here. Or I want to be where she is. I feel like I'd be perfectly happy if we were just sitting in her living room, working on her plant book, or watching some ridiculous programming on the television while she tries to spot a mockingjay in District Thirteen.
This pulls my mind to a sunlit afternoon, when her foot was healing. I looked up, and I saw her looking at me. I looked up because she was looking at me. I could feel her eyes on me, a soft, tentative, fluttering caress. I remember a moment's thought that I was something to her... maybe more than something. Maybe a lot more. But I pushed it aside. I didn't believe my own eyes.
I should have gone to her and kissed her then. I'd have known for sure. I could have suggested that we do the toasting and forget about the Capitol, like I said in the interview. A part of me wonders what she would have said that day.
I try to tell myself a story about it. A story where I didn't lie, where we've been married for months, where we're expecting a child. It will be a girl. She'll look like Katniss. I'll have her in the kitchen with me while I bake, and I'll toss a little flour at her, and she'll laugh, her face covered with white powder. She will ask me for a story, and I'll tell her that once upon a time, I loved the girl in the rain, the girl who looked up at me and saw me standing in my mother's shadow. The girl whose eye I could never seem to catch after that, though I saw her frequently lurking in the shadows nearby. "That's Mommy!" my daughter will say and clap, because she knows this story well. It is her favorite. And I will say, "That's just right, and aren't you glad we finally figured it out?"
Katniss calls my name from somewhere in the video, and I open my eyes in time to see her shoot at the forcefield. The lightning comes down and throws her backward, hurting her badly, and if she had been pregnant, it would have killed the baby. There will never be a little girl. The bakery is gone. The story is a lie I made up for the Games.
Through the vent, I can hear Johanna crying in her sleep until she wakes up with a furious scream.
"Johanna?" I call.
After a minute, she says, "I'm here."
"Me, too," I say. There is nothing else to say.
The afternoon moves into evening, with no way to tell other than the clock on the wall. At six, the door opens, and a guard comes in carrying a tray. She chances eye contact as she sets the tray down and gives me a sympathetic smile. I take the cover off the tray and close my eyes.
There is a loaf of bread that I'd recognize anywhere -- I made it every day. It is sitting in a blackened, cracked, and melted pan which it was obviously not baked in. I can just make out the words "Mellark Bakery" etched into the lip.
I push it away, not hungry.
An hour later, Caesar comes. He has a black eye, but otherwise seems all right. He has brought the basket of cards. He looks distastefully at the bread pan. "Snow told me they'd been digging through the ruins looking for survivors."
"Looking for something, anyway," I say.
"Are you all right?"
"Better than Johanna is," I say. "Johanna?"
She calls back. "Still here."
Caesar grimaces. "I’m pretty useless at keeping you safe. I'm so sorry. I thought... I thought Coriolanus would listen a little bit longer."
"Why would you think that?"
"Simple enough. We share a granddaughter. Our children ran off together. They didn't make it far. But we still have Prisca. Generally, he takes her into account. I overestimated."
I don't have anything to say to this.
"Let me see your hands," he says. I hold them out and he inspects the cuts from the cuffs, and the dark bruises that are starting to form on my wrists. "Anything else?"
"Broken rib," I say.
"I'll make sure a medic comes down."
"For Johanna, too? She got cut."
"I'll try." He looks at my hands for a long time, then flings them down in frustration and goes to the wall. "Johanna, it's Caesar. Are you all right?"
"Oh, I'm great," she calls sarcastically. "It's a real vacation in here. You ever try it?"
He puts his hand on the wall and says, "Hold on. Just hold on, all right?"
Johanna doesn't answer.
I don't know what else to say, and Caesar doesn't look to be going anywhere, so I say, "I never heard that your son...?"
"--that your daughter went off with Snow's son."
He gives me a weary roll of the eyes. "My great secret is that I was born in District Five. I don't talk about it. Not a lot of fond memories. My family was not particularly popular there. But I gave my daughter my original name. I thought it might keep her out of the spotlight. No one here remembers it."
I understand this, and nod.
"So I was trying to shelter her, and Snow wouldn't admit that his granddaughter is more than a little bit District Five. We have that to hold over each other, too. Apparently, he didn't care as much about it as I thought."
"Thanks for trying."
He shakes his head. "I'll see if I can get you some food you can actually look at."
With that, he leaves.
Fifteen minutes later, they turn off the sound on my videos, and half an hour after that, Valentine, the medic from my prep team, comes in, carrying an emergency bag.
She smiles faintly. Her hands are shaking. I see one of her own fingers is in a splint. Carefully, she touches my side, where the deep purple bruise above the rib is. I gasp at the pain.
She presses harder, and I almost faint.
"It's fractured," she says. "There's no broken edge. The only thing to do is kill the pain while it heals." She hands me a pill, and I take it gratefully. It occurs to me after I swallow it that it could be poison, but nothing happens. I don't really care. A quick dose of poison seems better than finding out what the equipment in the ceiling does.
"I thought something in there ripped," I say.
She inspects the bruise. "There's soft tissue damage," she says. "Be careful. Give it a little respect."
I nod. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. They're keeping me upstairs with Claudia and Sergius. Claudia has a sprained ankle, but that's the worst of it."
"Are you going to be able to look in on Johanna?"
"After I've finished looking you over," she says.
She sits me down on the table and looks me over. Aside from the rib and the cuts on my wrists (which she puts some kind of ointment on), she looks over my injuries from the arena and checks the connections on my leg. When she's finished, she carefully hugs me and kisses my cheek. She seems unable to speak after this, and scurries out. I hear her speaking quietly to Johanna a minute later.
I go to my bunk and close my eyes. For the first time since they locked me up, I am free of the videos. I fall asleep almost instantly. If I dream, I am unaware of it.
I wake up very suddenly when the volume comes back on with a great explosion. More screens have been installed around me, and I can now see the forcefield blowing up above my head.
I blink and sit up. The pill Valentine gave me has worn off, and I scream at the pain in my side, which I've forgotten to respect.
When I adjust to it, I blink, and realize that I'm not alone in my cell. President Snow is sitting at the table, flanked by Peacekeepers. There are three small metal boxes in front of him, and larger ones beside him.
"Good morning, Peeta. I trust you slept well."
"It's a lot easier in the quiet," I say. "What time is it?"
"It's afternoon. You've been asleep for more than eighteen hours. A lot can be accomplished in eighteen hours."
I look at him warily. "I noticed the new screens."
"Child's play." He taps the boxes in front of him. "We've gotten back from District Twelve, Peeta. Do you know what we found at the ravine along the train tracks?" He doesn't wait for an answer. "Absolutely nothing. There's no sign of any recent visit. And while we were there, hovercrafts from Thirteen appeared about six miles southwest of the fence. Intelligence tells me that there were nearly nine hundred people there, at a lake."
"Oh. I told you I might be wrong."
"Curiously, you were wrong in almost the precise opposite direction of where we ought to have been looking." I don't say anything. There's not a good way to embellish the lie without being tangled in it. Snow smiles. "Never mind. It wasn't an entire loss. We were able to search the rubble of the city. No survivors, I'm afraid, but I have a few things for you to identify."
He opens the first box, and I recoil. At the bottom, in a pool of viscous fluid, is a charred human forearm. A gold band has melted over the hand and re-solidified. A small green stone floats on it. My mother's engagement ring. When she backhanded me over the bread I gave Katniss, the stone left a scratch on my cheek. I'm glad I haven't eaten, because my gorge rises at the sight and smell of it. "You know who she is," I say. "You don't need me to identify her."
"I do apologize. This is all we could find of her in the square," Snow says. He opens the other two small boxes. I refuse to look. He pushes them in front of me and the Peacekeepers pull me to my feet. I know I am looking at what remains of my father and my brother Ed -- Snow wouldn't have a reason to bring them, otherwise -- but I can't see anything that identifies them. There is a foot, burned black and curled up, in one box, and a jawbone in the other. "They were found at the remains of the stocks," Snow confirms. He points to the wall, where I see that they've installed shelves, and, to my utter disgust, has them put all three boxes there, lit up like grotesque knick-knacks.
I look at the larger boxes, and I know what's in them. I try to will Snow not to open them, but it doesn't work.
"These bodies were found under a wall," he says. "Better preserved. The woman and child may even have died of smoke inhalation."
He opens the first. My sister-in-law, Sarey, lies in a glass-topped coffin full of the same fluid my mother's arm is in. Her skin is gray where it hasn't been burned red, but she is completely recognizable. Someone has even styled the remains of her long blond hair.
The next coffin is my brother Jonadab. He is burned more severely, but much of his face is still intact. There's even one eyebrow that's undamaged. I see his arms, which used to be so tight when we play-wrestled, usually when he was supposed to be babysitting. He would get me in a headlock, then mess up my hair and threaten to do awful things that he'd never go through with. Then he'd sneak us pastries, which he'd get in trouble for later.
Snow goes to the last box. It is larger than the small parts of my parents and my middle brother, but it's too small. I close my eyes. "Please don't," I whisper.
I hear the lid open.
"Open your eyes, Peeta," Snow says.
I shake my head.
"Open them. This is what Katniss Everdeen did to your family."
"You did it," I say.
"Open your eyes."
There is a sharp, jarring pain as someone hits my broken rib, and my eyes open of their own accord.
My niece Betony, unburned and looking fully herself, is in the last box. She is six months old. She will never get older. Her bright blue eyes look up through the preserving liquid.
"Shall I leave them to keep you company?" Snow asks.
I shake my head.
"Very well." He closes the coffins. "But if you need to be reminded not to lie to me again, I believe that young Betony will serve for it." With a flick of his hand, he orders the Peacekeepers to wheel out the coffins. They do not remove the bits of my parents and Ed.
Snow gets up to leave, then stops at the door. "Oh, how careless of me," he says. "I did promise that you'd be the first to know when I got intelligence on Miss Everdeen's condition. I have a source in the hospital in District Thirteen -- or I did until this morning. He was able to get out a single message before he was arrested. She's recovering well. Making new friends. Re-connecting with old ones." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a photograph, which he tosses across the table to me. It shows Katniss in a sickbed. Gale is beside her, holding her hand, looking at her tenderly.
Snow grins and leaves my cell, locking the door behind him.