Prisoners

Chapter 1
I stay in the shower until someone decides to cut off the water supply. Even after that, I sit there in the corner, finding bits of the soap and scrubbing at my fingernails. I imagine I can still see some of Brutus's blood there, though it's probably my own at this point. The aides in the hospital scrubbed me before they even let me come here.

I know it's crazy. It's okay that it's crazy. I murdered someone. I think that pretty much means I'm crazy anyway.

And it's better than looking at the small, waterproof screen that's set at the top of the shower. In the past, this has projected information about the various bath products available to me. Now, it's showing firebombs falling on District Twelve. It's on a constant loop. I have seen my brother Ed and my father set on fire a dozen times. I've seen my brother Jonadab and my sister-in-law running madly from the square, Sarey carrying my niece in her arms. A building falls and they are engulfed. My mother is frozen on the steps of the bakery when a second bomb lands in front of it. She doesn't have time to burn. She is just gone when the flames end. There is a charred thing on the ground which I have so far been able to not look at.

I try not to see it all in my head. It all happened while I was on a transport, breathing through a mask. I was confused. I remembered calling to Katniss and hearing her call my name, and I remembered the sky above me turning to fire. I felt the electricity of the lightning storm, but I wasn't hit. My arm was out of joint from the Peacekeeper grabbing it and dragging me up into the transport, but I was counting myself lucky. Johanna Mason was shackled to the wall, and someone had knocked her unconscious. Her arm was bleeding, and no one had bandaged it. I tried to, but they pushed me back roughly and pointed a gun at me.

Then the broadcast came on, and I saw it all for the first time. The bombs falling. Snow saying it was retaliation for Haymitch and Katniss's treason. I didn't see everything in that first viewing. It wasn't the one that was tailor-made for me.

I sit until my skin and hair are dry, then pull myself out of the shower. Every part of me hurts. My arms are stiff from the fight with Brutus, my shoulder on fire from the repaired dislocation. My throat is sore from all the screaming. My head throbs. My natural leg is scratched and bleeding; I don't even know when I did that. My artificial leg is sending weird little signals up the thigh it's attached to, like it's being bitten by rodents too tiny to see.

I wonder if they are going to take my leg. It's arguably Capitol property. I hate it, but I don't know how I'm supposed to go around without it. I doubt they'd give me a peg to replace it. A crutch, maybe. I could learn to balance on a crutch. It's my stupid hand side, so maybe I'd even be able to stand at an easel and paint, though I'm not sure how I'd hold a palette.

For a long time, I don't bother getting dressed. I lurch to my bed and lie down. On the screen, Jonadab looks back and forth between Dad and Sarey, and Dad yells, "Go!" I can't hear him, because by this point, the power in twelve is off and the feed is coming from the bombers, but I know what he's saying. It's what I would say, though it doesn't do Jonadab any good when he finally goes with Sarey.

Every now and then, there is a flicker in the picture, and a frame or two of Katniss aiming her arrow at the forcefield. I'm probably not supposed to be actually registering this. Delly Cartwright and I read a story once in literature class about someone who started to believe crazy things because of images he didn't even realize he was seeing. It made sense to Delly, but I didn't understand it. "That's because you see everything," Dad told me that night. "You always did. I don't know if that's something to be thankful for."

I don't know what he means by that. I feel like there are a lot of things I don't see, and a lot of things I see wrong. I was sure that when Katniss saw the picture of Gale that she'd understand that she didn't owe me anything, that she could go on living. That I wanted her to. Instead, she was suddenly in my arms, and I felt like I was her whole world, something I never thought I'd feel. I don't know what I see there anymore. I thought I saw her loving me last year, but it turned out to be nothing but a ruse. I don't know if it's different now.

It feels different.

But that was before I was a murderer. There's that to remember. If she loves me, she loves the me who she was so sure wasn't a killer. I didn't see that in myself either. I paid lip service to the idea that I'd kill if it came down to it - aren't we all just men of the world? - but I envisioned it as a last ditch attempt to save my life or hers. I didn't see myself grabbing Brutus from behind and slitting his throat.

I didn't see that at all.

But I guess Dad's right - he was right - about little physical things like this. I always used to finish first when the teacher handed out games where we were supposed to spot the differences between two pictures. Sometimes I found ones that weren't on her list. Katniss was amazed at how accurate the paintings I did of the arena were. I was frustrated that I only got about half of what I remember.

So I see the little glimpses of Katniss raising her bow in the middle of my family's deaths. I register them as consciously as I register anything else I see. The message is clear enough: Katniss Everdeen killed your family. I'm not supposed to realize that it's hidden there.

It's a wasted message.

I know why they burned District Twelve and killed my family. It's because there's a rebellion. There's a rebellion because Katniss held up a handful of poison berries.

Which she did because she decided to save my life.

If I'd died like I was supposed to, no rebellion. My family would be alive and as crazy as usual. Katniss most likely would have won the Games anyway, once they sent her the burn ointment and she got the bow from Glimmer. After that, I didn't do her any good. Cato should have killed me, and then she'd have been free to win the Games in whichever way made sense to her.

No rebellion.

No burning of District Twelve.

But here I am. Even now, still alive. I have no idea why.

I pull on a pair of shorts. It's all I have the energy for, but I know I'm on camera somewhere, and I've had enough of people looking at me. I go out to the living room and pour a cup of tea, which I set down and forget about.

The tape loop starts again, and I see my brother Ed in the stocks. He is watching the area where I know the big screen is set up. He looks disgusted. So does my father, who is standing beside him. In a few minutes, Katniss will blow out the forcefield, which means that they must have just watched me murder Brutus.

In another shot, my mother covers her eyes. My sister-in-law looks terrified, and holds the baby close to her. The Games microphones are still on them, and Jonadab whispers, Come out of it, Peeta, you had to do it.

Back at the stocks, Ed is shaking his head in negation. I hear my father sigh, Oh, Peeta.

His voice is full of pain and disappointment and love. He always called me his "good son." He loved all of us, and was proud of us for different reasons. He was proud of me for being good.

And I've just murdered a man in front of him. It is the last thing he will ever see me do.

Brutus hadn't even turned on me yet. He would have, and he probably would have killed me if he had, but I didn't even try to get away. All I could think was that he was slowing me down, that I had to get back to the rendezvous point and find Katniss. And that he'd killed Chaff, of course. Chaff, who was Haymitch's friend, who'd just spoken to me in my mentor's voice, ordering me to leave. Who'd taken on Brutus to give me time.

My knife was in my hand.

I should have thrown it away. I should have thrown it into the jungle and started running. If he'd caught me, maybe it would have been a fair fight, at least.

On screens all around me, the power goes out in District Twelve. In a few minutes, the screaming will begin.

I want them to take it back a minute or so. I want to hear my father say my name again. I'm sure I will, as soon as the whole thing has played through. He will say Oh, Peeta, and then he will die screaming. I will never hear his voice again. There will be no more stories of his grandfather's grandfathers, told over a flour-strewn kneading table. I'll never find out why he and Mom... were. My gentle, romantic father and my cold mother, with her occasional nuclear flare-ups. I never understood them together, how the interplay between them created my brothers and me in a million different ways, and I never will now.

There is a chime, and the elevator door opens. I don't look up. It's not like I can control who comes and goes.

"May I come in?" a familiar voice asks.

I stand up and turn. "Caesar?"

Caesar Flickerman smiles sadly, an expression so unlike his usual toothy grin that for a moment, I doubt my recognition of him. His hair is still lilac-colored, but it's mostly hidden under his hat. He's wearing no makeup. He's carrying a large picnic basket.

"How are you holding up?" he asks.

"My family's dead," I tell him, as the bombs start to drop again on the television screens.

"I know. I'm sorry."

"We never got along very well. It was better after the Games, but..." I take a deep breath. "My niece was only a few months old."

"You never mentioned her."

"She was ours. She didn't belong to the Games."

Caesar nods miserably. "May I sit down?"

"You're not a guest. I'm not a host. Do they want you to get me to tell you something?"

"Yeah." He takes a seat in a large wing chair by the window. I sit across from him. We might be on his stage, getting ready for a big interview. "They want to know what you knew, and when you knew it."

"I know what they know, and I knew it when they knew it," I say. This isn't totally true. I knew about the rebellion. I knew about the uprising in Eight. I guessed as far back as the Victory Tour that Haymitch was hiding something, but I trusted him to tell me when I needed to know. I didn't know anything specific. I had no idea they were going to blow the arena. If I'd known, I'd have kept Katniss still and stayed with her. I'd be wherever she is now.

"You know they're not going to believe that," Caesar says.

"They can believe what they want. You want me to tell them that time travelers from the past came and picked up Katniss so she can assassinate Snow in the cradle? Fine. I'll do that. I'll make them believe it, too."

"If anyone could, you could. I wouldn't recommend trying."

"Why didn't they just kill me?"

Caesar is quiet for a very long time, then he says, "Peeta, do you know who took Katniss?"

"I told you, I don't know anything about it!"

"No, I was asking personally." He takes off his hat and sets it down, and digs his fingers into his hair. When he looks up, he says, "We know who took her already. That's not a mystery."

I look up. "What? Who? What do they want from me, if they know?"

"She's in District Thirteen."

I can't think of a thing to say except, "What?"

He nods. "They were supposed to keep to themselves, but sources say that they're re-arming. They mean to start the wars again. And we suspect - all of us suspect - that they mean to rally around Katniss."

"If so, she doesn't know anything about it."

Caesar doesn't say anything. He's waiting for me to put pieces together.

Thirteen exists. They're arming for a war. They want Katniss to speak for them.

The Capitol hasn't killed me.

"They want me to rally against her," I realize. "They're still trying to pit us against each other. Finally get it down to a single victor."

"More or less."

"Forget it. I have no idea what they're doing, but whatever they're doing, I'm on their side."

"Their side is going to end up with a lot of people dead."

"Well, that fits. I'm a murderer now."

"Brutus?" Caesar asks, surprised. "He'd have killed you without thinking twice."

"Which is exactly how I killed him."

Caesar wraps his hands around my upper arms. I expect him to start shaking me. Instead, he just waits until I look at him, then says, "Stop that. Just stop it. You're a human being. You were in an inhuman situation. The Games exist to break people as much as kill them."

"Well, it worked."

"No. You wouldn't be obsessing over it if it had worked. Do you think Brutus ever gave a second thought to anyone he killed?"

"Probably not," I admit.

"Definitely not. I spent a lot of time with him over the years. He laughed about people he killed in the arena. He was doing it again in the Quell arena."

"That doesn't make it all right."

"No. But the fact that you know that does mean that you're still Peeta Mellark. And you are going to need to hold onto that, tighter than you've ever held on to anything. Don't let go." I have no idea what to say to this, so I just wait until he lets go of my arms and sits back. He leans forward like he's about to start interviewing me again. "Do you understand what I'm saying, Peeta?"

I shake my head.

"Whatever happens, you need to find a way to hold on to who you are."

There is something in the intensity of his stare, the fear in his voice, that terrifies me. "You think they're going to torture me," I guess.

He points at the screens around the room, which are showing District Twelve crumbling to ash. The whole thing will begin again in a minute, and my father will say, Oh, Peeta. "They already started. And the Capitol has a lot of ways to hurt you before they resort to anything as crude as physical torture. They will get to it eventually, though. I'll do whatever I can to keep that from happening. But..."

"So I'm supposed to play along?" I stand up and go to the window. "Is that why you're really here, to tell me that if I don't go along with the scheme to rally against Katniss, they'll torture me?"

"No." He stands up and goes across the living room. He stops by the elevator door. "I'm sorry you would think that about me, Peeta."

I see his reflection in the window glass. He looks sad and hunched, his hat in his hands. I want to apologize, but I don't. It would open doors that need to stay closed.

He sighs and points at the wicker picnic basket and says, "I brought you something to pass the time. Something to look at other than..." He trails off. "Something to focus on."

The elevator chimes and he gets in, leaving me alone again just as my father says my name.

I stay by the window for a long time. It's one-way glass, and people on the street can't see me (unless there's a live feed from a camera, of course). I lean my forehead against it, press my hands onto the cool glass to let out the heat in my body. The lights go off, and the light from the screens is my only illumination (it is quite sufficient to see). The pictures reflect in the glass, turning to blurry gray when they pass over my hands then resolving again on the other side.

I wonder what they'll do to me. Ripping out my artificial leg seems like a good start. Just unplug the wires from my nerves, one by one. Maybe they'd burn me, wreck my hands so I can't paint. Or my eyes, so I can't see anymore.

Maybe they'd grab me by my hair, pull my head back, and slit my throat, like I did to Brutus. That wouldn't get them any information, but if they did it on television, they'd find a way to show it to Katniss in Thirteen, the same way they're showing me my family's deaths here. They'd kill me, and convince her that it's her fault. Snow already convinced her that the uprisings were her fault.

I decide not to die near a camera, if I can help it.

I think about going to my room to try and sleep, but I switch directions and go to Katniss's instead. I half expect the door to be locked, but it isn't. There's no reason for it to be. All of her screens are broadcasting the same video as the ones in the living room and my room and my shower. And she's not here.

I crawl into her bed and ball up a pillow behind my neck. The other pillow, I hold under one arm, like I hold her when we sleep. It doesn't help much. It doesn't even smell like her perfume or any other maudlin thing. It's just a pillow.

But she slept on it, and that makes it precious. I hold it tightly and watch the bakery collapse into rubble. As the false front gives way, for an instant I can see into my house, into my old bedroom. Everything in it is etched in flame. Then the floor falls out and I recognize nothing.

Utter weariness finally takes me at some unnamable time of night. I only know I'm dreaming because I'm inside the fire instead of watching it on a screen. I am with my father as he dies. My mother is holding my arm hard enough to leave bruises when she is suddenly turned to ash. My niece is crying, but I can't find her. My brothers burn like torches in the night. I look up at the giant screen in the square, the one for public viewing, which burned like everything else, but in my dream, I see myself on it, killing Brutus. I see Katniss calling for me, then I see her raise her bow toward the sky. She shoots toward a star, and then the world is in flames.

I open my eyes in the darkness, where the flickering broadcast is still going on. It's still night. I don't know if I've slept very long at all.

I go back to the living room, holding Katniss's pillow, and sit down at the table. Caesar's picnic basket Is still there, unopened. I don't know what he thinks will help me, and my confusion on that point is not assuaged at all when I open the basket and find about a hundred decks of playing cards. The backs are decorated with a motif from Caesar's show. On top of the pile is a handwritten list of instructions on how to build card houses.

I blink at this strange gift for a long time, wondering what Caesar means by it. There may be a way to use them as weapons, but if there is, I don't know it. I'm sure the basket wouldn't have been allowed up here if it was something easy to learn. I have never expressed any interest in cards to Caesar, or to anyone else that I'm aware of. I've played a few poker games with my brothers, but the main interest there was the bluff. We got bored with the card game part of it after a few tries, and just switched to jabberjay drills, which all of us were better at. In a jabberjay drill, a game developed during the Dark Days as a way to lie to the spying birds which developed into a childhood pastime for a lot of us, you start with some simple truth - "I was in English class today, and we were reading a book about the plague" - then begin to embellish it. At first, it's some little lie, maybe "Izzarel Tarpley decided to sing a song about it." Then you start layering on deeper and deeper lies until it's gotten so absurd that everyone is laughing. Maybe the teacher gets a call from a Capitol agent, and someone is sent off to explore the moon. The last one to laugh wins.

It's simpler than poker, and much more fun.

I frown at the cards, and take out Caesar's list of instructions. I'm sure he gave it to me for some reason. I believe that Caesar is on my side, one way or another, though his interpretation of what my side is may be different from mine.

Step one, take two cards, and lean them against each other in an inverted "V" shape. Concentrate.

I pick up two cards and try this. The list is very long, and I'm sure the first step must be simple.

I can't get the cards to stay up. They want to slide against each other, push each other back down onto the table. I look at the underlined word. Concentrate.

It takes quite a while before I can get one inverted V right, and even longer for me to set a second one up beside it without knocking the first one down. Step two, getting a card laid across the peaks, is even harder.

I finally succeed in making one little structure. I stare at it and wonder what kind of message it's supposed to have. Caesar's face smiles at me from the backs of the cards. I look at it from a different angle and still see nothing. I peer into the little shapes, which look like abstract eyes, but if Caesar is trying to pass me a code, I'm missing it entirely.

I look up, frustrated. The early morning sunlight is coming through the window. The video of the burning of District Twelve is still playing, but I haven't paid attention to it since I started building.

I look at Caesar's instructions again. Over and over, he has underlined words. Concentrate. Focus. Balance.

The bombs start falling.

I turn deliberately away from the screens and deal myself two more cards from the first deck. Carefully balance them. Concentrate. Set them beside the first pair. Put another card on top.

Start the next level.

My tower collapses before I finish the second level, but I pick the cards up calmly and start again.