Chapter16 - ALL THE PROMISES WE BREAK
"Now this is what I call a forest," Karl cheered when the hovercraft landed.
Rose had to agree with Hazelle's boyfriend who'd volunteered to pilot them on their first school trip. They'd crossed the barren plains that surrounded the bunkers of District 13 with the children flattening their noses against the windows or staring in awe at the navigation screen in the cockpit. When the first trees rose in the distance they gasped in delight.
For most of them - save for the Twelvers and a few refugees from District 7 - this was the first time they saw a real forest, not the tame foliage that edged the plains.
Here ancient giants towered over the hovercraft that nested in a clearing like a fat bird. The two dozen children ventured out of the loading bay. The sky was clear and blue, the air already icy. Oak and ash had lost their leaves, which formed a deep soft carpet on the ground. Pine trees creaked in the wind.
Posy Hawthorn grabbed an armful of leaves and threw them at her new friend Leif, giggling with joy.
Amused, Rose watched first Posy's brothers and then all the children join in the fight.
"That was a good idea you had there." Karl smiled at the scene. "Just to smell the pines makes me feel better."
"Some of the Twelvers were convinced they were sent to their certain death. The stories about wild beasts and plants they came up with!" And their parents were just as bad. "Still, they went on board and into the unknown like brave little soldiers."
"Why don't you go and save them from dangerous beasts and carnivorous trees, and I give you a signal when the time is up?"
She slipped into her coat, wrapped a shawl around her head and followed the children. They'd play a while, then collect specimen to study in class later. Leaves and bark and mushrooms and stone, all strange and interesting objects for small children who knew nothing of the wild outdoors. The sun set early this time of year, so all this had to happen within three hours. At 1600 they'd be joined by a small hunting party, consisting of Katniss, Gale, Johanna and Briar Oconnel's dad, and fly back to District 13.
Rose picked teams, carefully mixing and matching children from different districts. Then she passed out lists of collectable items, and watched the kids run and search. Soon the Thirteeners overcame their suspicion and fear, and one or two even followed the Hawthornes' example and climbed small trees to get to an abandoned bird's nest.
Later she called them back to the clearing and fed them what the refugee children called 'cardboard-biscuits', District 13s version of sweet treats, made from starch, fibre and glucose. Delly, who worked in food administration, had passed Rose a bag of small apples with a conspiratorial smile when they boarded. Now she made some of the children name the parts of the fruit and tell how they were harvested. In the end each got half of an apple.
Munching away happily, the children sat in a half circle on two fallen logs. Again the dangerous beasts of lore came up, and Rose did her best to deflate the rumours. "I've never seen blood-sucking hamsters, and I grew up in the wild wild mountains."
By herself she thought that there might be worse creatures around, at least near the arenas. Too many mutts must have escaped over the years. But the clearing and surrounding woods had been screened carefully before the excursion was sanctioned.
When two hands blindfolded Posy Hawthorne from behind without warning, the girl shrieked excitedly.
Gale lifted her up and claimed her seat on the log, placing her firmly on his knees. "Look out, a blood-sucking hamster!" He gave her a mock-bite on the neck, until Posy giggled helplessly.
Katniss and the other two stepped out of the trees. Briar ran to her father, who picked her up effortlessly, handing Johanna his prey. They'd been lucky, carrying a deer and half a dozen birds between them.
The hunters joined the children, politely rejecting the stale biscuits but passing out handfuls of crumpled blackberries, wrapped in leaves. Soon every tongue was blackish-blue.
"If there are any monsters in the woods, just stick out your tongue and they'll take off screaming!" Vick Hawthorne laughed.
While they all joked and told stories about the hunt and let the children study their haul, one of the younger children, a sombre eyed Thirteener named Una, tugged at Rose's sleeve.
"Gustav is AWOL."
Normally it amused Rose to hear her small charges use military terms like tough Peacekeepers, but 'absent without leave' was not good, especially now that the sinking sun painted the sky pink and violet.
Gustav was Una's brother and maybe eight or nine. Nobody had seen him leave the group. They called for him - no result. Finally Katniss and Johanna hunched down and studied the tracks of so many small feet on the leave-covered ground. Johanna pointed at a mighty pine a few dozen meters away from the clearing. The lowest branch was just within reach for a little boy.
Gale frowned. "Think he climbed up there?"
"I would have at his age," Johanna shrugged. "It's the highest tree with the best view."
She passed Gale the airgun she had slung over her back, and nimbly scaled the mighty trunk. Soon she was hidden from sight by the evergreen needles.
Una held Rose's hand so tight her fingers hurt. "Maybe there's a monster bird up there in a nest. Maybe it picked up Gustav and carried him away to eat him!"
Gale kneeled down next to her. "Johanna has a great big axe. If there really is a monster bird up there, it will be very sorry."
After ten tense minutes Johanna returned, Gustav on her back, holding on to her for dear life. He was pale, but unhurt. Only his knuckles were bruised and scraped from climbing the tree.
Johanna set him down and looked into his eyes. "What is the first rule?"
"Never look down," Gustav replied in a small voice.
"And the second rule?"
"Fear …" He stuck out his chin. "Fear is the enemy."
After patting him down for injuries, Rose let him run to his sister and friends, very fast forgetting his fear and boasting about the great view and the huge pine cones he'd seen. "Thank you, Johanna."
The young woman shrugged and watched the children. "How it must be to grow up in those bunkers," she wondered. "Nothing but concrete and steel, no trees, no grass."
Gale slapped her shoulder. "Well done, Private Lumberjack."
Johanna flipped him the finger.
On the flight back, Rose watched her sit a bit away from the group, listening in, smiling at the most outrageous stories. She'd gained weight and muscles in the weeks she'd trained with the soldiers. Her hair was slowly growing back, the wounds on her body scarring over. But what had been done to her soul would never fully heal.
Rose rubbed her aching temples. Now, with the war effort at full strength, the lab was understaffed and most of the clerical work rested on her. Only two days ago some of the junior engineers had been transferred into other districts to oversee the deployment of 13s advanced weaponry to rebel strongholds.
The remaining team worked in three shifts. But all the lists, supply orders and reports eventually landed on her desk. Sometimes she feared she'd drown in data. When Plutarch Heavensbee entered the lab, accompanied by a tall woman in uniform and President Coin plus her staff, it was a welcome distraction.
Plutarch nodded at Jacob, then went straight to Beetee's section and carefully set a small silver cube onto the desktop.
Beetee pushed up the magnifying glasses he wore. "What's this? Feature or bug?"
"You tell me."
Down went the glasses, and two now grotesquely magnified eyes studied the object.
"Very nice, if I may say so myself." Beetee's fingertip gently pushed the small cube into the centre of the desktop where a bright beam scanned it.
"I assume you invented this," Alma Coin said tersely. "What is it?"
"Data storage cube," Beetee replied and tapped rapidly at his keyboard. "Old model. I'll have to tweak a few parameters to read it."
"How old?" Plutarch watched the cube guardedly as if it might explode any second.
"Ah, years. Actually I built it for one of your predecessors, to save Game plans and arenas. These thingys can hold huge quantities of data." He frowned. "They have much better now, of course. Last I saw one of these, the Avoxes used it for the administration of the Inner Circle service and maintenance plans." Beetee shrugged. "May be a map, may be something completely different."
On the screen a sequence of numbers and letters appeared.
"What does it say?"
Beetee gave the President a bleak stare and pointed at the screen. "It says A11#$879879!/3."
Two, three impatient keystrokes, and the screen read: enter password.
"Now it says … enter password."
Before Coin could have him court-martialled, Plutarch's assistant, Fulvia, intervened. "It's an Avox cube, so I guess it needs an Avox password?"
Plutarch picked up the ball fast. He looked at the woman in uniform. "Commander Lyme, the man who gave this to you, was he by any chance an Avox?"
Lyme checked her data pad. "Says here he was a civilian, and dying when one of my men found him. Wrote '13' with his own blood on the soldier's hand and passed him the cube. That's all we know."
Beetee and Plutarch exchanged a look, then Plutarch shrugged. "We had a contact in the Avox centre, a man named Perikles. This might be a way in."
Beetee perked up. "Yeah, I can see that. But the password won't unlock the cube, just open a connection to ... I don't really know. Whoever sent the thing to us."
"If it is really one of the Avoxes, why should we trust them?" Jacob asked.
Plutarch gave him a cold stare. "The question is, why should they trust us."
"District 13 has fought for ..."
"Rose," Plutarch ignored Jacob and went to Rose's desk. "May I bother you to run down to the training centre at level R?"
"Of course." She got up immediately. Everything to escape the lab.
"Fetch everyone who's ever been to the Capitol and may have come in closer contact with an Avox."
She nodded. "That means all the victors."
"I'll contact Cressida and have her and her team come as well."
"Pollux, the camera-man," said Rose. "He is an Avox."
"He fled the Capitol two years ago. That's a long time, the life expectancy of Capitol slaves is not very high, as you can imagine. But maybe he can help nevertheless."
Alarmed by the urgency in Plutarch's voice, Rose hurried to the training centre. She'd never been there and had to ask for the way twice. Finally she found the facilities in one of the deepest levels of 13.
When the scanner at the automatic door wouldn't admit her, she paced nervously until one of the elevators opened. Twelve recruits stumbled out, all of them soaked through and utterly exhausted. Rose didn't recognize Johanna until the girl went down on her knees right in front of her. She shivered so violently, Katniss and Rose could hardly stabilize her.
"Surface exercise. Rain." Johanna's teeth chattered so much she could barely answer.
Rose tried to massage warmth in her frozen fingers. Katniss too looked like hell, mud in her hair and water squelching from her boots, but she was still standing.
"She'll be fine," she assured hastily and stepped between Johanna and the drill sergeant. "She just needs a hot shower."
Johanna retched. Katniss winced.
"A rub down, I meant. A dry blanket and hot tea."
"Better get her to your quarters then," Rose said and addressed the sergeant. "Plutarch Heavensbee sent me. All the victors are to report to the weapons lab immediately."
The woman ordered Katniss and Johanna to move and get ready. The elevator spit more wet soldiers into the lobby, all dripping wet. The sergeant nodded at Rose.
"Odair and Abernathy are in section 2 with Boggs."
Rose held up her arm. "I am not authorized."
The sergeant opened the door for her and pushed her in, then she turned to sort out the chaos in the lobby.
The lights were dim, and it took Rose a while until she could make out the sheer size of the hall. It was much larger than the training centre in the Capitol, and less glamorous. It smelled of sweat and wet boots. This was built to train soldiers for war, not to dazzle sponsors. In the middle of the room some kind of hologram simulated a dark alley bordered by brick walls and rubble.
Soldiers in fatigues watched from the margins, as Finnick, trident in hand, balanced on a beam and then lightly jumped down. He landed catlike, full of grace. Rose had seen him navigate through similar set-ups in the arena. He never stumbled, never set a foot wrong.
Forgetting her mission, she watched with bated breath how he made his way through the warren of ruins. When he reached a doorway, he stopped and relaxed for a second. Only to find a knife at his throat. He ducked instinctively, using the trident to slash at his attacker's knees.
Rose gasped, when Haymitch grabbed Finnick's hair and yanked him back hard. The younger man lost his footing and landed on his back. Again there was the blade, and this time Haymitch would not let him get away.
For three seconds they stared into each other's eyes, both taunt like wire. Then Finnick gave up, muttering his surrender.
Haymitch's hand held the knife so hard his knuckles were white. His breath was shallow.
"Soldier Abernathy!" Boggs's voice cracked like a whip.
It was enough to break the fighter's trance. His hand suddenly trembling, Haymitch laid the knife down and helped Finnick up. Rose watched them slap each other's back, but she also saw Boggs frown.
Before they could start another bout, Rose informed Boggs about Plutarch's order. The tall soldier was not pleased, and neither was Haymitch.
"If this is for another propo, I swear …"
Finn just shrugged. "I'm beaten and battered, and if I have to smile at a camera to get a break, I'm all for it."
"Maybe next time you watch out for attackers while you prance around the battle field, Odair," Boggs wound him up. "Three times he got you! And he's almost twice as old as you!"
"Gee, thanks," muttered Haymitch.
Walking past Rose as if she wasn't there, he pushed through the door.
Boggs frowned again, then looked around. "Jackson, your command."
While his second took over, he ushered Katniss and Johanna, now somewhat dryer but still looking like death warmed over, to the elevator.
Finnick casually put an arm around Rose's shoulders when they waited. "Man's a fucking artist with that blade, " he whispered into her ear. "Easy to forget if you see him plot and plan with Plutarch."
She remembered well. She remembered how Haymitch slept with a knife, how he trained in that hidden room in his house in the victors' village. How he turned into a stranger in the arena, a man who'd lost all compassion and humanity.
'To keep me alive,' she reminded herself. 'To keep all of us alive.'
First there was nothing but a green screen and an insistent beeping signal.
"What now?" Plutarch's voice was strained with impatience.
Haymitch put a hand on his arm. "Wait."
A minute passed by. Then the signal stopped. Beetee perked up. "There!"
A grey shadow appeared.
"Focus!" Cressida muttered to herself.
Someone did, and the crowd in District 13's weapons lab stared at a small girl. The girl stared back.
"What the ..." Plutarch frowned at Beetee. "Is this a joke?"
Katniss pushed him aside. "I know her. It's ..." She bit her lip. "Reeva?"
The girl beamed back at her. "Mockingjay!"
"Soldier Everdeen, explain." Alma Coin's voice called all to order. "Who is this girl?"
A bit amused, Rose watched Katniss straighten up and ball her fists behind her back. Six weeks of training had at least taught her to pretend she'd follow the orders of her superiors.
"During the last Games we tried to fix sponsor gifts for Haymitch and Rose." A quick glance at Haymitch. "But District 12 could not raise enough money. And Snow had locked all the victors' bank accounts so we could not tap into our private funds."
"True," Fulvia acknowledged. "We tried to find a way around that, but it meant a lot of red tape and ..."
"Anyway," Katniss cut her off. "One of the Avoxes, Darius, took me down to the sub-level where the Capitol keeps its maintenance slaves."
"You went down there, without Peeta?" Haymitch blew up. "Didn't you promise me ..."
"Yeah well, didn't you promise me you'd ..."
Finnick raised a hand. "Cut it out, Abernathy, Everdeen. The two of you can beat each other up once we know what is going on here." He pointed at the screen where the little girl still waited.
Katniss shot Haymitch a bitter glance. "Their gift saved Rose's life. If I'd listened to you she'd be dead."
When she saw Haymitch's eyes widen in surprise, she spun around. Two men had joined Reeva.
Rose gasped. How long since she'd seen the young man who'd once been a proud Peacekeeper? She'd assumed he'd be long dead by now, executed immediately after the disastrous attempt to free him. He was deathly pale, his reddish hair shaved off. Like the girl and the other man h wore a uniform, not unlike the common dress in District 13. She hadn't really paid attention - at the time she'd been distracted with the whole damn Games business - but as far as Rose remembered, the Avoxes who cleaned rooms, served food, walked dogs, were dressed in red. Once or twice she'd seen men in green uniforms vanish into service elevators - so maybe they were the maintenance crew.
The two Avoxes wore green, the girl an obviously homemade tunic and leggings ensemble in different colours. Patchwork really - red and green and blue stitched together.
Reeva piped up, sitting at a slight angle so she could see both the Avoxes and the screen. She translated for Darius. "Haymitch."
Haymitch bowed his head. "Good to see you alive, my friend."
"We saw what happened to District 12. Has nobody but you survived?"
"Some." Katniss answered. "Mostly people from the Seam. My family, Greasy Sae ..."
Darius grinned. "That woman will survive everything. Gale?"
"Is on a training mission right now. But he's fine and so are his family."
Darius nodded. "Rose?"
Tentatively she stepped forward and caught Darius' attention. He smiled and let his hands flutter. The girl translated.
"We remember, clever woman." Reeva frowned, shook her head. "No. Clever woman is wrong. Teacher."
Rose laid a hand on her heart. "Thank you for your gift."
Reeva's smile was so big it showed a tooth gap when she translated Darius' words. "The Seam won't forget. Neither will the Avoxes."
"Somebody explain what is going on here," President coin demanded sharply. "Who are these people?"
Haymitch cleared his throat. "This is Darius. He used to be a Peacekeeper in our district. The other man is ..." Haymitch squinted at him. "We've never met in person," he muttered. "But you must be Perikles."
The other Avox bowed his head. He was older and taller than Darius, and held himself with the calm poise of a leader.
"Perikles was ... is, I hope ... our ally," Plutarch explained to Coin. "When we started to plan the rebellion, it soon became clear we had no chance in hell without the support of the Avoxes. A young woman who served in the Game labs made contact." His face darkened. "What happened to Livia?"
Perikles tapped Reeva on the shoulder to make her translate. "Livia was killed when the dome came down. The Peacekeepers executed all Avoxes on site."
Rose winced. Somehow they'd known all along but ...
"Cinna?" Katniss burst out, only to turn away when Darius shook his head mournfully. "They shut down the arena and Game control. Nobody survived."
"Our brother ... your brother ... is said to be with you. Can we see him speak?"
Plutarch looked at Haymitch , then Katniss. "What does he mean? Whose brother?"
"Mine by blood." That was Castor, making way for Pollux. "Theirs by the knife."
Rose shuddered. Everybody knew how Avoxes were made, that their tongue was cut out. Still...
Castor laid a big hand on his brother's shoulder. "Speak to them."
The cameraman bit his lip and stared at his hands. He'd escaped from the Capitol three years ago, and probably not used sign language with anybody but his brother Castor since. He gave the equivalent of a stutter - his hands flexed and balled into fists. Then his hands took flight.
It was a beautiful sight - three men writing sentences into the air, their eyes intent on each other. Tears streamed down Pollux' face. Castor rubbed his back comfortingly but did not stop him.
Finally Perikles gave Reeva a signal. The girl took a deep breath and translated sentence by sentence what the Avox leader hand-signed.
"We the voiceless have always believe the day would come when we'd be free. Now we are running out of time," Perikles began. "The districts have united but the Capital still stands strong."
"They are surrounded from all sides. They won't last," Coin replied coolly. "Snow's days are counted. Very soon we'll storm the Inner Circle."
"And the voiceless are once more willing to honour the allegiance. We offer you this." Perikles opened his hand and showed them a small metal cube, just like the one on Beetee's desk. "This is a holo-map of the city."
Suddenly a greenish landscape appeared over his flat hand. A shiver went through the audience in the lab. They knew the skyline. This was the Capitol.
Darius moved his hand over the holo, zooming in and out of streets, squares and buildings. "All the burrows, all the Peacekeeper stations. All the pods."
"What's a pod?" one of Coin's advisors asked.
"It's a trap," Plutarch explained. "Released by touch, by motion detection, by body warmth."
"Mines?" That was Boggs, in his matter-of-factly way.
"Mines. And mutts. And worse. I've seen most of these pods in development …" Plutarch waved a hand at the holo. A sphere appeared, showing opaque simulations - mutts with black teeth, acid dust, moving oil blobs.
'I bet you have,' Rose thought angrily. 'I bet you invented some of them.'
Haymitch pinched the bridge of his nose, looking pained. "Think of your wildest nightmares. They'll wait for you in these pods."
The silence that followed almost suffocated them.
In the end it was Finnick who spoke first, elbowing Katniss slightly in the ribs. "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games!"
"The Avoxes offer us a map of the pods," Haymitch reminded Coin.
"They obviously expect something in return," muttered Boggs. "But without it..." He shrugged. "Madame President, we need this map."
"Snow's beard," whispered Lyme. "We could march right through to the mansion."
Alma Coin straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. "We will take the city, map or not. We have superior arms and more troupes."
Perikles fixed her with his strangely luminous eyes. "The President's mansion is now a fortress."
"There are no walls strong enough to withstand our weapons," Coin replied.
"These walls may well be." Perikles touched a marker on the holo-scape. But for the victors and Plutarch, none of them had ever seen the lovely grounds, the extensive green houses and the famous library with the Quarter Quell shrine. They'd all grown up with the image of Snow's beautiful mansion. What they saw now, made them gasp. On the lawn between the building and the outer fence were people - hundreds of them.
Rose drew closer. No, not just people. Mostly children. Sitting on the bare ground, huddled in cloaks.
"This is the government's plan of last resort."
"A human shield." Plutarch grit his teeth. "The bastard."
Coin said nothing, only studied the image.
"What is it you want?" she asked finally, her voice unmoved. "If you want guarantees for all these people ..."
"Children," Cressida intercepted bitterly. "They are children."
"For any citizen of the Capitol," the President cut the filmmaker off, "I will not give you a guarantee. This is war. They are the enemy."
Perikles nodded. "We know that." He pointed at Reeva who faced him with big eyes. "It's them we demand you save."
The camera angled away from the leaders and framed two dozen children, sitting on wooden benches, their hands between their knees, preternaturally quiet.
"We received intel from Snow's inner circle. The undergrounds will be sealed off as soon as the rebel troupes break through the city's defence. The Avoxes are considered a liability." Perikles' eyes showed that they all knew what that meant.
"They'll kill them," whispered Katniss.
"Poison gas." Plutarch turned to the President, urgency straining his usually so calm voice. "I know there are facilities to gas the underground. It was meant as a defence …"
"Which we duly considered in out attack plans," Coin reassured him.
Lyme nodded. "We'll steer clear of the tunnels where possible. Thanks to 13 we do have a considerable supply of gas masks but I'd rather not endanger my people if not absolutely necessary."
"But the Avoxes!" Katniss looked wildly from Coin to Lyme and back. "How are they to survive?"
Reeva's small voice made them all turn back to the screen. "They'll send us out to the streets." It was clear she now spoke for herself. "They want us to mingle with the children around the President's mansion."
Perikles und Darius, who'd read her lips, nodded.
"From the frying pan straight into the fire." Rose shook her head.
Lyme addressed the two Avoxes. "This is Snow's last stand. The battle for the mansion will be a fierce one. The rebels will do their best to keep the children out of it, but there will be collateral damage. In the thick of the fight no one is safe, not even children."
Perikles held up a hand. Once more he laid a hand on Reeva's shoulder to make her speak for him. "This is what we offer. The holo-map of the Capitol, with all the defences and traps installed."
"And your price?" Coin tried to play it cool, but her staff's excitement was all too obvious.
"Our children," Perikles signed. "You get them out before you take the mansion."
"And you?" Plutarch had to clear his throat.
The Avox leader looked straight at him, his grey eyes cool and resigned. "We fight. We die."
Silence followed when everyone in the room looked at Alma Coin. She grit her teeth. She obviously did not like it to be cornered like this.
Without being asked, Beetee murmured: "No chance. It will self-destroy if I try to hack it."
President Coin turned to her staff and ushered them into Jacob's office. A whispered discussion followed.
Then she faced the Avoxes once more. "We have a deal," she confirmed formally. "You give us the password for the holo-map, and I give you my word as President of District 13 that we will save your children."
Rose awakened with a muffled scream.
Another night, another nightmare. She'd never get used to the overwhelming panic, the bone crushing fear. But by now she'd developed a routine to get over the bad dreams as fast as possible.
Cautiously she slipped out of bed and dragged on a warm sweater over her pyjamas. One of the women from District 12 had knitted her a pair of warm socks – 'school fees', she'd laughingly called it. Most nights the socks allowed her to sneak out of the bedroom without waking Jacob.
But not tonight. Not that she was too noisy - no, his bed was empty, and had been for a while. The sheets were cool.
The corridor was quiet and empty. Those on day-shift were fast asleep, the rest at their work stations. She wandered to the elevator, counting the light bulbs, concentrating on the next breath. The next step.
In a glass door she caught a reflection of her pale face, her braid unravelled and wild. She finger combed the strains until she looked like just any female Twelver. The women from 13 envied them their long hair, always neatly braided or tied into complicated knots, and maybe they were right and it was a luxury that demanded time, water and shampoo. But for many Twelvers who'd lost everything, their hair was the only thing of beauty they had left.
In the dining hall the night-shift's 'lunch' was over, the tables scrubbed, the floor shiny with disinfectant. The door was locked, so no chance to get a mug of herbal tea. Maybe she could sneak into the kitchens through the back door, thought Rose. There must be someone preparing food, or what went for food down here, for the next meal.
Indeed there were people in the utilitarian loading bay behind the kitchen. Chattering excitedly amongst themselves, they unloaded the freight elevator. Chests and barrels, stamped with numbers and barcodes, were passed along and disappeared in the kitchen.
Rose spied a familiar face.
The old woman squinted at her. "Ah, it's the teacher girl."
They'd first met in the Hub, where Greasy Sae had been the undisputed queen of that den of illegal trade and Rose a rookie, trying to sell the honey she'd harvested from her bees. Sae had helped her with a few well-placed words – and stern warnings concerning certain clients. Sometimes, when business was slow, they'd talked about Sae's granddaughter, and Rose's village in the mountain. Sae's mother hailed from 12A, and she still had relatives up in the mountain branch.
Nobody had ever dared to ask what went into Sae's stew, everybody in District 12 too starved and hungry after a long day's work. Rumour ran from wild dog to much worse things. But she had a daft hand with wild herbs – she was a born cook, able to create a satisfying meal with not much mire than a crust of bread and a kettle of water.
"Supplies?" Rose asked and nodded at the load that was quickly and efficiently shifted.
"Food!" Sae showed all her remaining teeth. "And not the grey mush – real food. Meat! And vegetables. The other districts made good on their promise to support 13."
"Don't say…" Rose's voice trailed off as she watch workers haul huge frozen sides of beef into the kitchen. "Is that…?"
"Oh yeah. Beef stew. Beef steak even." Sae smacked her tongue. "And we'll dine on carrots and onions and real potatoes for a while. Potatoes from real soil, not the slop they grow them in here in 13."
She mustered Rose's face, didn't like what she saw and gave a curt command to finish the unloading without her but not "bugger up the tally".
Rose smiled to herself. Hub or bunker, Sae was in charge. She just couldn't help.
The old woman took her to a nook behind the kitchen and fixed a steaming mug of tea for her. "I've seen you wander around a'times. Can't sleep?"
Sae nodded knowingly and, after a glance at the entrance, dug out a small jar from behind tins of detergent in a supply chest. Brandishing a spoon, she added a generous dollop of syrup in Rose's tea.
"It's not honey," she shrugged. "Not like the nice stuff you used to sell. Will have to do though."
The sweet tea and familiar accent were comforting. Rose relaxed a little.
"Now tell us about your dream," said Sae casually. "It helps, you know."
A metal door slammed shut and Rose flinched. Sae just shrugged. "They are done. Won't disturb my tea break. Them boys know better."
She took a sip from her own mug and made a face. "Uhh. It's not tea. But it's hot. Now tell."
"It more or less the same dream every night," she began tentatively.
"No. It should be, shouldn't it? All the other tributes keep dreaming about the arena. But I dream of the mine back in 12A."
"When the shaft collapsed." Sae stood up and added another spoon of syrup to Rose's mug. "We saw the old news report when that Cesar Flickerman had you on stage, remember."
"We were the rescue team. It was not our first assignment. We knew it was dangerous, but we were not prepared for the explosion." Rose closed her eyes and tried to remember the dream, tried to distinguish it from her memories. "When I dream, it is always the few seconds before. We walk in a line, the light is dim. We have carbide lamps but can only see a few meters. If I'm awake I can't recall what exactly happened ... Just the pressure of air slamming into me. The bang of the explosion."
"But in your dream you remember more?"
Rose frowned. "I walk behind Richert. He was one of the prospectors and team leader. Big man, broad shoulders. He ... stumbles. I reach out to help him up. I touch ... something that should not be there."
"A lost tool, maybe?"
"No. A ... wire?"
"Makes sense." Sae nodded slowly. "He tripped over the wire. You had your head down trying to help him. That's why you survived the explosion in the first place, I guess."
Rose had come to the same conclusion. "Right. When I awoke, I was the only one still alive. Richerts's body must have shielded me. But why do I dream about it night after night?"
"Can't tell you. Just give yourself time to work it out."
Licking the last drop of syrup off the spoon, Sae fixed Rose with a stare. "That husband of yours …"
Rose flinched. Not another lecture about … whatever team her current counterpart was on. How she'd hurt Haymitch. How Jacob had older rights. She was so sick and tired of defending herself.
"Jacob," she said wearily. "His name's Jacob."
"Yeah, right." Sae nodded. "Pretty much a miracle to find him after so long a time."
"He's a handsome fella. Nice teeth."
Rose had to smirk. It rather sounded like praise for a horse. "Very nice."
"Good though he lost the beard. Made him look like a bear." Sae got up and took both mugs to a sink. With a nod to the digital clock announcing the end of shift, she shrugged into her kitchen apron.
"How do you know Jacob used to have a beard?" Rose wondered.
"Saw him in the Hub once or twice."
"In the Hub? But…" The people from 12A hardly ever came to town, and certainly not to the Hub. "On Reaping day, you mean." For the Reaping, some adults had to accompany the eligible youths on the daylong foot-march down the mountain.
"Nah." Sae washed out the mugs. "Can't be. He was with two peacekeepers."
"What?!" Rose could not wrap her mind around Sae's tale.
"They had a talk, and a bowl of my squirrel stew each. Even paid for it." Sae opened the door and called her crew to work. "Lets go, boys and girls. Hungry mouths to feed!"
"Wait!" Rose grabbed the old woman's sleeve and held her back. "I still don't understand."
"Sorry, girl, can't help you there. He was with Cray, that mean ol'bastard, who held the post before Romulus Thread. Seemed quite chummy, he and your Jacob."
Large burners were turned on, pots and trays heated. Two men mixed a huge amount of protein powder with water. The resulting sludge would be processed as patties, dumplings or even something that was supposed to resemble meat. A work party carried a whole side of beef into the kitchen and lugged it onto the counter.
Then they just stood there, staring at the meat.
One of the men prodded it with a knife. Another one sniffed it and cursed.
Sae smirked and gave back a much more colourful curse.
"My boys need me. Most of them have never handled real meat, let alone whole carcasses."
With that she gently pushed Rose out of the work area. It was obvious the refugee woman from 12 had taken over completely, no matter that – officially - she was but a lowly worker in the kitchen brigade.
They ate like Capitol citizens that day.
Things most Thirteeners had never known existed, and most Twelvers had never tasted. Big chunks of beef in thick gravy with parsnips and carrots. And apple crumble with cream – real cream! – for desert.
Posy Hawthorn ran over from the children's table to Rose and beamed at her, her face smeared with applesauce. "It tastes like harvest fire!"
Rose remembered with a bang of sadness the crab apples she'd baked in honey for the Harvest Moon bonfire. How long ago? Eternities. But really just a year. It must be late November now, and the ground covered with frost. A year to find love and lose it again and again, to stumble from death sentence to reprieve and back.
"You are right," she smiled at the girl. "Tell your class mates about harvest fires. I bet they don't have them down here. " She could imagine the disbelieve on the young Thirteeners' serious faces. Open fire was the biggest no-no in an environment like District 13.
Jacob smacked his lips. "Now this is what I call food. When we win the war I'll eat like this every day."
"Hardly." Beetee licked his spoon. "The first time I ate sweet cream was on the train to the Capitol. Never before and not much of it after – and I was a victor and wealthy. I can't see a united Panem producing enough for everybody to live like the upper ten-thousand in the Capitol."
"We'll have to manage ressources, that's obvious." It was rare that Kristen, Jacob's assistants, ever contributed to a discussion. "Not all will profit from change, but those who are willing to work hard and …"
Rose let her talk. It sounded just like one of Jacob's pep talks. She and Beetee exchanged a wry look. Their view of the future was not so optimistic, no matter what Coin's speeches about alliances and cooperations promised. Thirteeners had been conditioned to follow orders. They could not imagine that the rebels had just tasted freedom and would not be willing to give it up to follow Coin's regime. All the talk about free elections, about a republic … Even Plutarch winced when he heard it.
A movement across the brimming dining hall caught her eye. The younger victors had all congregated at a table, even Peeta. Katniss stood and waved at her.
Rose took her bowl and spoon and carried it to the conveyor belt. Jacob and the lab engineers were so deep in discussion they didn't even notice her leaving the table.
The girl-on-fire looked tired. "Do you have a minute?" she asked and didn't wait for an answer but drew Rose out into the deserted corridor.
"Listen," she began, twisting her fingers awkwardly. The gesture was so uncharacteristically for her, it instantly alarmed Rose. "I know we are not that close …"
Rose slid down the wall, until she sat on her heels and patted the ground beside her.
Katniss sat, but kept fidgeting.
"Results are out." When she saw that Rose had no idea what she was talking about, she sighed. "They put us through stress tests. Some kind of simulation to isolate our weak spots. I guess Plutarch wants no surprises from his "star squad"." A quick nod to the dining hall. "This is our last meal. We'll be deployed tomorrow at first light."
An icy fist grabbed Rose's heart.
But before she could ask, Katniss shook her head. "Not Haymitch."
Rose swallowed. "How did you know what I was going to ask …"
The girl snorted derisively. "I'm not stupid, you know. I see how the two of you circle each other, each pretending not to care for the other. But if one of you is in danger, the other one springs to high alert."
"Okay, okay." Rose raised both hands. "But you got it all wrong. We are just friends."
"Yeah right." Katniss fixed her through half-closed lids. "What if I told you he's part of the squad?"
When Rose just stared at her, she shrugged. "Well, he isn't. He didn't pass. Neither did Johanna."
"He didn't pass?" Crazy as it was, Rose felt indignant for Haymitch's sake. "He is one of the best fighters, maybe even better than Finnick…"
Katniss just pursed her lips. "I guess they are not looking for fighters, but for camera fodder. And as I said – they checked for weak spots and Haymitch …"
"Haymitch has a whole lot," Rose finished the sentence for her.
"So they won't take the risk. He's staying."
"Completely lost it when she had to dive through a simulated tunnel." Katniss' face darkened. "They tortured her with water and electric shocks, you know, back in the Capitol. But she's stronger now, and she desperately wants to fight."
Rose understood only too well what Johanna was going through. She still felt like she'd suffocate whenever she touched a piece of chalk. She even found clever ways to avoid writing on the blackboard. And she only had spent an hour or so in the chalk-storm back in the arena. Johanna had been tortured for weeks.
"Finnick," she asked, although she already knew the answer.
"Will go," Katniss confirmed. "Poor Annie, they didn't have much of a honeymoon." She counted off her fingers. "Finn and Gale and I. The rest is soldiers." When she saw Rose's look, she smirked self-deprecatingly. "Don't think I don't know they only see us as actors for Plutarch's 'How-the-war-was-won'-propo. I'll follow orders – at least I'll try."
But although she mocked herself, there was a steely note in her voice. If they got a chance, she would fight.
And then she said it. "Snow must die." No hesitance, no doubt.
They both went silent for moment, listening to the chatter and clanging of dishes in the mess hall.
"I don't have too many people I trust," Katniss began haltingly. "So I'll ask you to have an eye on Prim. She is with the medics, and I know she is so proud about it an d all… She'll take it hard if anything happens to me."
"So will your mother."
Katniss nodded, not very convinced. "And maybe you find time to check on Johanna. And Delly and the others from 12. Haymitch of course, and Annie." Staring straight ahead, she added casually. "And Peeta."
"For someone who doesn't trust people, you have quite a list of people you care about," Rose smiled.
"Ironic, isn't it?" Katniss rose and held out a hand to help Rose up. "Love is strange, Johanna says. And she's oh so right."
"Don't expect me to commiserate," Plutarch stated flatly.
Haymitch gave him a flat stare and continued with his scrutiny of the Capitol holo-scape. Very slowly he wandered around the table, once in a while zooming in on a street, measuring a distance, taking extensive notes about a pod on his data pad.
Plutarch let him finish his current round, then grabbed his sleeve. "Sit!" he ordered.
Another frown. Haymitch appeared only mildly irritated, but Plutarch knew the cold anger in his friend's eyes. He had seen him like this a few times before. The first time in a hospital bed in the Capitol, hours after he'd been declared victor of the 2nd Quarter Quell.
"Sit down! That's an order," he repeated. "Didn't they teach you anything, soldier?" Pointedly he stared at the grey uniform Haymitch wore and tapped the three stars on his own collars. "I outrank you."
Haymitch sneered and pointedly looked to the back section of the lab where four of Jacob's junior engineers worked on a rocket launcher. He dropped onto one of the chairs next to the holo and yanked at the tight collar of his tunic. His voice was a low whisper. "We don't do rank, you and I. It's nothing but a fucking disguise."
"Glad to hear it." Plutarch placed a stack of old files on the table, in the process casually sliding Haymitch's data pad closer so he could read the screen upside down. "For a moment I feared you were in it for the glory."
"Boggs is a good man. Great fighter," Haymitch snapped annoyed. "He and his comrades, they don't do this for the decorations or the glory."
"I give you that." A bit abstracted by the data on the pad, Plutarch nodded. "But you, who despises nothing more than orders - what would make a man like you enlist?"
Plutarch leaned back and crossed his arms. He could wait. They'd played that game often enough. This time the Head Gamemaker won.
"Oh for fucks sake! You know exactly why I did it." It was as much an answer as an admittance of defeat.
"To kill Snow." Plutarch's eyes narrowed. "That was clear from the beginning. But what made you think they'd let you even come into shooting distance of the President's mansion?"
"Men lose their unit." The blue eyes showed no emotion. "Has happened before."
"Ah yes. I really tried to find them, sir!" Plutarch mocked. "But I found Snow instead and just couldn't help it." In a sudden fit of rage he hit the table. "Are you out of your mind, Abernathy? These people are military, have been for generations. They shoot rule breakers like you!"
Haymitch balled his fists. "I am not a citizen of District 13. If anything at all, I am an ally. And I make war my way, not theirs!"
"Tell that to Coin when she calls for the firing squad."
The door to the lab opened with a hiss. Jacob Cumberland entered, followed as usual by his assistant. Plutarch didn't really trust the man - hell, he hardly trusted anybody but Haymitch and maybe Fulvia, but still ... The engineer was too arrogant, too sly for his taste. But he had Coin's ear and was a force to be reckoned with, at least for the time being.
"I thought," the engineer said dissaprovingly, "I made it clear the Avox cube must stay in the safe?"
"This is not the original. It is a clone Beetee made." Plutarch answered mildly. "President's orders. She wants the remaining victors to add to the intel we get from the holo."
There was nothing Jacob could say to that. "Make sure someone locks the lab when you leave."
"Beetee will return in an hour." Kristen checked the time. "He is on night shift and knows the password for the safe."
"See?" Plutarch gave Jacob a sickeningly sweet smile. "No need to fret."
The two engineers picked up some equipment and left, but not without Jacob advising the other engineers under his breath to have an eye on the holo-table. The phrase was 'offer assistance', but the meaning was clear.
"What an ass," Plutarch sighed and lowered his voice so they wouldn't overhear. "Of course he is one of the best technicians 13 has, and his weaponry designs are pure genius."
"Says who?" Haymitch grunted.
"Says Gale. Young Mr Hawthorn spends a lot of time in the lab."
"Gale has to find his way in the world." Haymitch rose and bent over the holo again. "He's a clever guy. In 12 they made him a miner and he there was nothing he could do about him. But if we win the war ..."
"When we win the war, my friend. When. Not if."
"Yeah, yeah. Save the promo-babble for the Capitol." Haymitch gave the Game-maker a fierce smile. "Anyway, with 12 all in ruins ... He won't be a miner, that's for sure." He made notes on his pads and started checking another quadrant. "Look, there's one of yours."
Plutarch followed Haymitch's nod and cautiously touched a pod marker. A bubble appeared and showed fireballs rolling up walls. "Nope, not mine. Mine stayed on the ground. Great design though."
They exchanged wry grins.
"So we better win the war," Plutarch picked up the thread. "For the young Gales and Katnisses and Finnicks and Annies. They should live in peace and freedom."
"Snow must die." Haymitch put down the pad and looked Plutarch straight in the eyes. "That's all I demand."
"Oh, I demand much more. A republic. Free elections. Liberty and equality." It still sounded a bit like a propo, but Haymitch knew this was Plutarch's deepest conviction. The dream at the core of the other man's fight.
For a while neither of them said much, both checking pods, now and then wincing at the mutts and traps they found. When Beetee rolled in, they found an hour had passed. He smiled at the junior engineers and gave them leave for dinner. Within minutes they were alone in the lab.
"Your esteemed colleague suspects us of making off with the holo for our own nefarious aims," Plutarch smiled.
Beetee halted. "My who?" Belatedly he understood. "Oh, him. Chief engineer Cumberland is just very ... ah, conscientious."
Haymitch snorted. "Yeah, right." He made sure the door was locked, then turned to Plutarch. "It's only the three of us. Spit it out then."
Plutarch raised an eyebrow. "Why, is it so obvious?"
Both his comrades nodded. He rolled his eyes upwards.
Beetee, not in the mood for banter, crossed his arms. "We know it anyway, Heavensbee. We just want to hear you say it."
"I tried," Plutarch said quietly. "Don't think I didn't try to change her mind. She won't keep up her end of the deal. And once the war is won, no one will ask how."
In the centre of the city made of light and colour, the President's mansion glowed.
"They trusted us. Not Coin, but us, Plutarch. We were allies." Haymitch stared grimly at the holo-scape. "And now the Avoxes will send their children into certain death."
Yawning Rose slipped under the coverlet and tried to stuff the pillow into a shape that fit her neck. Jacob lay next to her and watched her with a mixture of amusement and irritation.
"Every time you go to bed you try that. It won't budge."
She sighed. He was right. The pillow was old, like most stuff in District 13, and probably a recycled coat that had been recycled from a blanket and so on and on back to the Dark Days.
Through the chipboard walls they heard other couples talk, laugh, quarrel. A small spear of light wandered over the wall, then dimmed. The night shift started, and they were supposed to sleep or …
Jacob reached under the cover and touched Rose's breast. Gently his fingertip felt it's way around and around. She suddenly could not breath. With a small sob she pushed his hand away.
Frustrated Jacob sat up and hugged his knees.
"What is wrong, Rosie? This is the third time this week you …"
"I am sorry." She curled up defensively. "I don't know what it is."
She threw the cover up to her chin. What was wrong with her? Why couldn't she stand his touch anymore? They had their problems, but at least in bed they had always compatible. Maybe there wasn't as much passion, as much … rightness … as with Haymitch. But she knew his body, every inch of skin, every hair and joint and the tiny mole on his shoulder blade.
So why did her heart suddenly race, and not in a good way, when he tried to initiate sex?
"The doctor said it may be that I react badly to life underground."
"Okay." He relaxed visibly. He'd always been like this – focussed on a solution, not the problem. "It won't be long now. Once we've taken the Capitol there'll be no need to live in the bunkers. District 13 will dictate the terms this time."
"What will we do when the war is over?"
She thought about that a lot. Here, in the warren that was District 13, without real privacy, with strict orders and small quarters, they'd never become the close couple they'd once been.
"What would you like to do?" Jacob took the offending pillow, flattened it with a practiced slap, and slipped it under her head.
She smiled into the darkness. "I want to go home. Rebuild the school, rebuild the district. See winter turn into spring and summer into fall. Maybe have a garden and bees."
Jacob snorted. "Oh I completely forgot about your bees!" He was allergic and one sting sufficed to cause him days of swelling and pain."
"You liked the honey," she reminded him.
"Right. But I wouldn't go back to District 12 for all the honey in Panem."
"But what would we do?" Rose asked startled.
"The Capitol!" There was a yearning in Jacob's voice she'd never heard before. "I am chief engineer, I worked my butt off for our victory. There will be important positions to be filled, and I have the President's ear. This is my chance, Rosie. Our chance!"
Rose felt him lay down next to her. The bed was narrow, and his elbow touched her side. He tried to keep his distance and she felt like a monster. It was not his fault he was not Haymitch. Not his fault their dreams did not match anymore. He was the man he'd always been, the one she'd married and vowed to love. She just had to try harder.
"Have you ever been to the Hub, back when we lived in 12A?" she asked sleepily. "With a peacekeeper named Cray?"
Jacob remained silent for a long time – so long in fact that she was almost asleep when he answered. "No. Never." He claimed his half of the coverlet. "Let the past go, Rosie. The future will be glorious."
Now that so many had been deployed as soldiers for the finals attack on the Capitol, the corridors and halls of District 13 were eerily quiet. Some lower levels had been closed off, since most of the living quarters were deserted anyway.
Work in the lab had been reduced to a minimum; all junior engineers were already on their way to the front where they would support the fighting ranks with their weapons expertise. Jacob, Kristen and Beetee would follow with one of the transports in the next days.
Rose's job description had been changed from office clerk to part-time teacher without consulting her. Not that she complained - she loved to teach. When they needed her in the lab at all, it was only for one or two hours a day to compile lists. The rest of her shift she spent in the classroom.
The class itself had almost doubled - more refugees, more Thirteeners, since many of the teachers and the children's parents had enlisted by now. So she'd recruited two teaching assistants, teenage siblings from the Capitol. Their father had been a government official in District 2, working secretly with the rebels. They'd survived the fight for the Nut, but refused to take up arms against the Capitol. Grudgingly the admins of 13 let them support the war effort in other ways.
The group traipsing down the stairwell to the med ward consisted of only the younger kids, mainly the group who'd been with Rose from the start. They'd surprised and delighted her this morning, proudly presenting a patchwork-pillow, made from dozens of tiny triangles. The material varied, as did the colours - the blue corduroy of work shirts from District 12, the fine linen of harvest scarves from 11, butter-soft leather from 8 and gaudy flowered cotton from 3. It was a jigsaw of Panem, or at least the Panem presently assembled in this classroom underground.
"For Johanna," Gustav had announced.
After the rescue mission in the woods the victor from District 8 had visited the classroom several times. Usually Johanna didn't say much, sitting in the back, listening to Rose's lessons or the children's' stories.
"She has nothing," whispered his sister Una. "No mum, no dad. Not even a toy."
"I wanted to give her Foxy." Posy's voice trembled a bit. "But I love him so so much, and he is the only thing I have left from back home."
"So we thought, we each give a tiny bit." Gustav showed the hem of his shirt, now a bit shorter. "Posy's mom and the other women sewed it together."
The final test for squad 451 had sent most of the recruits to the front, leaving only Haymitch and Johanna. From what Rose could see, Haymitch was taking it suspiciously stoically. But Johanna had suffered a complete breakdown and had spent the last week in the med-ward.
"Look, there's Prim!" Vick Hawthorne had sharp eyes and spied their friend in a small group of junior medics. "Prim!"
Rose had to smile when she saw Prim in uniform. She looked so serious, so grown up. As was District 13s custom, even the youngest recruits and support personnel wore uniform, this group all marked with red stripes at the sleeves.
"Are you a soldier now?" Rory asked enviously. He had tried to enlist and had lied unsuccessfully about his age. Instead of a commission it had only gotten him a stern talk with his brother. Both he and Gale had agreed that Hazelle must never learn about the whole episode.
"I am a nurse." Prim smiled down at him. "We will follow the front-line to take care of the wounded."
"But they'll shoot at you!" Little Una's eyes filled with tears. "They shot my father dead, and he was a doctor."
"Nobody will shoot at them." Rose met Prim's eyes but kept her voice cheerfully. "They will all be so happy to see them."
"We'll bring medicine and food." Prim did her best to reassure the children. "When we come, people will know war is over. Nobody will hurt us." She pointed at the red stripes at her sleeve. "See that? Nobody shoots at the people with the stripes."
Another exchange of glances, both teacher and medic acknowledging the truth - war did not work this way.
"Any new from your sister?"
Prim shook her head. "Only what we know from the propos. Mum says, no news is good news."
One of the soldiers had been killed by a pod, that much everybody knew.
"Will you take the kids to see Johanna?" asked Rose. "They have a present for her. And I'd like to visit Peeta meanwhile, if it is allowed."
A shadow of concern darkened Prim's face. "Good idea. Maybe you can cheer him up."
"Cheer him up?"
"Haven't you heard? They'll send him to the front, to Katniss' squad. As a replacement for soldier Karen Leegs."
She didn't even get as far as Peeta's room. A door opened, a hand grabbed her sleeve, and she was drawn into the supply cabinet.
"Let's not make a habit of this," she mumbled when she recognized Haymitch's face in the dim light. She had not talked to him after their dance at Finn's wedding.
"Why? Will your dear husband mind?"
"You almost killed him." She crossed her arms. She remembered the moment he'd drawn the knife. It had taken Boggs, Finnick and Gale to tear him away from Jacob. And Haymitch at squad training had been downright scary.
"He started it."
That was true. She still didn't fully understand why what Jacob had said was so insulting. But from the reactions of Finnick and Johanna it was unforgiveable.
"What do you want, Haymitch?"
A bitter laugh escaped her. A favour! "I thought you'd decided I was persona non grata, not worth your attention."
He only stared at her, a flicker of pain in his eyes.
"I need you to steal the holo-cube from the lab."
Now she really had to laugh. "Are you out of your mind? I am just the clerk, and not even that anymore."
"But you still have clearance for the main and inner doors. High command sent Beetee to District 2 to support the invasion. And I can hardly ask you husband, can I?"
He leaned in, his hands at both sides of her face against the wall, leaving her no easy way out. Anger lit a spark in her heart. Oh, she could knee him in the groin ...
"Why would I steal for you?"
"Not for me."
'Because he killed for you,' a small inner voice whispered. 'And you didn't even have to ask.'
Rose slid down the wall and sat cross-legged on the floor, practically forcing Haymitch to do the same if he wanted to see her face.
"Listen, Abernathy," she said quietly. "I know you are used to being the mastermind. You plan, you scheme, and us pawns just follow your cryptic orders. But give me a little respect here and let me know what you are up to."
How she wished she'd be allowed to touch his face! This would be so much easier if she could reassure him, show him she was still on his side.
He drew breath. "Coin ordered Peeta to the front. I'll accompany him as far as the transport centre in 12. Then I'll highjack the hovercraft and bring Camilla home."
Rose's jaw dropped. "Highjack a hovercraft! Do you know how to pilot one?"
"No. But Camilla does."
"I see," Rose conceded slowly. "You have gone completely crazy! Camilla only has to wait until the war is over. Why risk your life and hers to get her out now?"
"Camilla is not a guest, she is a hostage. Coin uses her as leverage against the Thornstroms. They control most of the transport facilities in Panem."
"But doesn't that mean she is save? District 13 needs her family's compliance to win the war."
Haymitch frowned. "And then? What do you think will happen to the enemies of District 13 when the Capitol is taken?"
Her heart missed a beat. "You think Coin is preparing to get rid of any future opposition?"
Haymitch said nothing, but she knew she'd guessed right. "Why send Peeta to the front? He is not fully recovered yet. He'll be a liability at best, a danger for Katniss at worst."
"The war is almost won." All the pieces fell into place and the picture became clear. "No more need for the girl-on-fire."
"From now on the propos will focus on Alma Coin alone. The woman who bested Snow, who brought us peace."
"Only as long as we bow to the regime of District 13."
Haymitch hugged his knees and rested his forehead on his arms. "No peace, just another tyranny." His voice was muffled. "There is nothing I can do for Peeta. But I can save Camilla, maybe."
Rose nodded. "Okay. But why the cube? Why do you need a holo-scape of the Capitol? Camilla's family is in District 6."
"Remember the deal Coin made with the Avoxes? She reneged."
"She took the cube but won't save the children." Anger strangled her voice. "The bitch!"
"Funny, that's exactly what I thought." His blue eyes were cold as ice. "The Thornstroms have trains, crafts, amphi-cars. By air or underground, as long as I have the cube I can reach the President's mansion and get the children out."
"I'll get the cube for you."
Oh, he knew her so well…
"But I'm coming with you," she stated flatly. "And you can save your breath, Abernathy. You won't talk me out of it."
To be continued.