Chapter Nine

9.

Someone gives my shoulder a shake and I sit up. I've fallen asleep with my face on the table. The white cloth has left creases on my good cheek. The other, the one that took the lash from Thread, throbs painfully. Gale's dead to the world, but his fingers are locked around mine. I smell fresh bread and turn my stiff neck to find Peeta looking down at me with such a sad expression. I get the sense that he's been watching us awhile.

"Go on up to bed, Katniss. I'll look after him now," he says.

"Peeta. About what I said yesterday, about running - " I begin.

"I know," he says. "There's nothing to explain."

I see the loaves of bread on the counter in the pale, snowy morning light. The blue shadows under his eyes. I wonder if he slept at all. Couldn't have been long. I think of his agreeing to go with me yesterday, his stepping up beside me to protect Gale, his willingness to throw his lot in with mine entirely when I give him so little in return. No matter what I do, I'm hurting someone. "Peeta - "

"Just go to bed, okay?" he says.

I feel my way up the stairs, crawl under the covers, and fall asleep at once. At some point, Clove, the girl from District 2, enters my dreams. She chases me, pins me to the ground, and pulls out a knife to cut my face. It digs deeply into my cheek, opening a wide gash. Then Clove begins to transform, her face elongating into a snout, dark fur sprouting from her skin, her fingernails growing into long claws, but her eyes remain unchanged. She becomes the mutta-tion form of herself, the wolflike creation of the Capitol that terrorized us the last night in the arena. Tossing back her head, she lets out a long, eerie howl that is picked up by other mutts nearby. Clove begins to lap the blood flowing from my wound, each lick sending a new wave of pain through my face. I give a strangled cry and wake with a start, sweating and shivering at once. Cradling my damaged cheek in my hand, I remind myself that it was not Clove but Thread who gave me this wound. I wish that Peeta were here to hold me, until I remember I'm not supposed to wish, that anymore. I have chosen Gale and the rebellion, and a future with Peeta is the Capitol's design, not mine.

The swelling around my eye has gone down and I can open it a bit. I push aside the curtains and see the snowstorm has strengthened to a full-out blizzard. There's nothing but whiteness and the howling wind that sounds remarkably like the muttations.

I welcome the blizzard, with its ferocious winds and deep, drifting snow. This may be enough to keep the real wolves, also known as the Peacekeepers, from my door. A few days to think. To work out a plan. With Gale and Peeta and Haymitch all at hand. This blizzard is a gift.

Before I go down to face this new life, though, I take some time making myself acknowledge what it will mean. Less than a day ago, I was prepared to head into the wilderness with my loved ones in midwinter, with the very real possibility of the Capitol pursuing us. A precarious venture at best. But now I am committing to something even more risky. Fighting the Capitol assures their swift retaliation. I must accept that at any moment I can be arrested. There will be a knock on the door, like the one last night, a band of Peacekeepers to haul me away. There might be torture. Mutilation. A bullet through my skull in the town square, if I'm fortunate enough to go that quickly. The Capitol has no end of creative ways to kill people. I imagine these things and I'm terrified, but let's face it: They've been lurking in the back of my brain, anyway. I've been a tribute in the Games. Been threatened by the president. Taken a lash across my face. I'm already a target.

Now comes the harder part. I have to face the fact that my family and friends might share this fate. Prim. I need only to think of Prim and all my resolve disintegrates. It's my job to protect her. I pull the blanket up over my head, and my breathing is so rapid I use up all the oxygen and begin to choke for air. I can't let the Capitol hurt Prim.

And then it hits me. They already have. They have killed her father in those wretched mines. They have sat by as she almost starved to death. They have chosen her as a tribute, then made her watch her sister fight to the death in the Games. She has been hurt far worse than I had at the age of twelve. And even that pales in comparison with Rue's life.

I shove off the blanket and suck in the cold air that seeps through the windowpanes.

Prim ... Rue ... aren't they the very reason I have to try to fight? Because what has been done to them is so wrong, so beyond justification, so evil that there is no choice? Because no one has the right to treat them as they have been treated?

Yes. This is the thing to remember when fear threatens to swallow me up. What I am about to do, whatever any of us are forced to endure, it is for them. It's too late to help Rue, but maybe not too late for those five little faces that looked up at me from the square in District 11. Not too late for Rory and Vick and Posy. Not too late for Prim.

Gale is right. If people have the courage, this could be an opportunity. He's also right that, since I have set it in motion, I could do so much. Although I have no idea what exactly that should be. But deciding not to run away is a crucial first step.

I take a shower, and this morning my brain is not assembling lists of supplies for the wild, but trying to figure out how they organized that uprising in District 8. So many, so clearly acting in defiance of the Capitol. Was it even planned, or something that simply erupted out of years of hatred and resentment? How could we do that here? Would the people of District 12 join in or lock their doors? Yesterday the square emptied so quickly after Gale's whipping. But isn't that because we all feel so impotent and have no idea what to do? We need someone to direct us and reassure us this is possible. And I don't think I'm that person. I may have been a catalyst for rebellion, but a leader should be someone with conviction, and I'm barely a convert myself. Someone with unflinching courage, and I'm still working hard at even finding mine. Someone with clear and persuasive words, and I'm so easily tongue-tied.

Words. I think of words and I think of Peeta. How people embrace everything he says. He could move a crowd to action, I bet, if he chose to. Would find the things to say. But I'm sure the idea has never crossed his mind.

Downstairs, I find my mother and Prim tending to a subdued Gale. The medicine must be wearing off, by the look on his face. I brace myself for another fight but try to keep my voice calm. "Can't you give him another shot?"

"I will, if it's needed. We thought we'd try the snow coat first," says my mother. She has removed his bandages. You can practically see the heat radiating off his back. She lays a clean cloth across his angry flesh and nods to Prim.

Prim comes over, stirring what appears to be a large bowl of snow. But it's tinted a light green and gives off a sweet, clean scent. Snow coat. She carefully begins to ladle the stuff onto the cloth. I can almost hear the sizzle of Gale's tormented skin meeting the snow mixture. His eyes flutter open, perplexed, and then he lets out a sound of relief.

"It's lucky we have snow," says my mother.

I think of what it must be like to recover from a whipping in midsummer, with the searing heat and the tepid water from the tap. "What did you do in warm months?" I ask.

A crease appears between my mother's eyebrows as she frowns. "Tried to keep the flies away."

My stomach turns at the thought. She fills a handkerchief with the snow-coat mixture and I hold it to the weal on my cheek. Instantly the pain withdraws. It's the coldness of the snow, yes, but whatever mix of herbal juices my mother has added numbs as well. "Oh. That's wonderful. Why didn't you put this on him last night?"

"I needed the wound to set first," she says.

I don't know what that means exactly, but as long as it works, who am I to question her? She knows what she's doing, my mother. I feel a pang of remorse about yesterday, the awful things I yelled at her as Peeta and Haymitch dragged me from the kitchen. "I'm sorry. About screaming at you yesterday."

"I've heard worse," she says. "You've seen how people are, when someone they love is in pain."

Someone they love. The words numb my tongue as if it's been packed in snow coat. Of course, I love Gale. But what kind of love does she mean? What do I mean when I say I love Gale? I don't know. I did kiss him last night, in a moment when my emotions were running so high. But I'm sure he doesn't remember it. Does he? I hope not. If he does, everything will just get more complicated and I really can't think about kissing when I've got a rebellion to incite. I give my head a little shake to clear it. "Where's Peeta?" I say.

"He went home when we heard you stirring. Didn't want to leave his house unattended during the storm," says my mother.

"Did he get back all right?" I ask. In a blizzard, you can get lost in a matter of yards and wander off course into oblivion.

"Why don't you give him a call and check?" she says.

I go into the study, a room I've pretty much avoided since my meeting with President Snow, and dial Peeta's number. After a few rings he answers.

"Hey. I just wanted to make sure you got home," I say.

"Katniss, I live three houses away from you," he says.

"I know, but with the weather and all," I say.

"Well, I'm fine. Thank you for checking." There's a long pause. "How's Gale?"

"All right. My mother and Prim are giving him snow coat now," I say.

"And your face?" he asks.

"I've got some, too," I say. "Have you seen Haymitch today?"

"I checked in on him. Dead drunk. But I built up his fire and left him some bread," he says.

"I wanted to talk to - to both of you." I don't dare add more, here on my phone, which is surely tapped.

"Probably have to wait until after the weather calms down," he says. "Nothing much will happen before that, anyway."

"No, nothing much," I agree.

It takes two days for the storm to blow itself out, leaving us with drifts higher than my head. Another day before the path is cleared from the Victor's Village to the square. During this time I help tend to Gale, apply snow coat to my cheek, try to remember everything I can about the uprising in District 8, in case it will help us. The swelling in my face goes down, leaving me with an itchy, healing wound and a very black eye. But still, the first chance I get, I call Peeta to see if he wants to go into town with me.

We rouse Haymitch and drag him along with us. He complains, but not as much as usual. We all know we need to discuss what happened and it can't be anywhere as dangerous as our homes in the Victor's Village. In fact, we wait until the village is well behind us to even speak. I spend the time studying the ten-foot walls of snow piled up on either side of the narrow path that has been cleared, wondering if they will collapse in on us.

Finally Haymitch breaks the silence. "So we're all heading off into the great unknown, are we?" he asks me.

"No," I say. "Not anymore."

"Worked through the flaws in that plan, did you, sweetheart?" he asks. "Any new ideas?"

"I want to start an uprising," I say.

Haymitch just laughs. It's not even a mean laugh, which is more troubling. It shows he can't even take me seriously. "Well, I want a drink. You let me know how that works out for you, though," he says.

"Then what's your plan?" I spit back at him.

"My plan is to make sure everything is just perfect for your wedding," says Haymitch. "I called and rescheduled the photo shoot without giving too many details."

"You don't even have a phone," I say.

"Effie had that fixed," he says. "Do you know she asked me if I'd like to give you away? I told her the sooner the better."

"Haymitch." I can hear the pleading creeping into my voice.

"Katniss." He mimics my tone. "It won't work."

We shut up as a team of men with shovels passes us, headed out to the Victor's Village. Maybe they can do something about those ten-foot walls. And by the time they're out of earshot, the square is too close. We step into it and all come to a stop simultaneously.

Nothing much will happen during the blizzard. That's what Peeta and I had agreed. But we couldn't have been more wrong. The square has been transformed. A huge banner with the seal of Panem hangs off the roof of the Justice Building. Peacekeepers, in pristine white uniforms, march on the cleanly swept cobblestones. Along the rooftops, more of them occupy nests of machine guns. Most unnerving is a line of new constructions - an official whipping post, several stockades, and a gallows - set up in the center of the square.

"Thread's a quick worker," says Haymitch.

Some streets away from the square, I see a blaze flare up. None of us has to say it. That can only be the Hob going up in smoke. I think of Greasy Sae, Ripper, all my friends who make their living there.

"Haymitch, you don't think everyone was still in- - " I can't finish the sentence.

"Nah, they're smarter than that. You'd be, too, if you'd been around longer," he says. "Well, I better go see how much rubbing alcohol the apothecary can spare."

He trudges off across the square and I look at Peeta. "What's he want that for?" Then I realize the answer. "We can't let him drink it. He'll kill himself, or at the very least go blind. I've got some white liquor put away at home."

"Me, too. Maybe that will hold him until Ripper finds a way to be back in business," says Peeta. "I need to check on my family."

"I have to go see Hazelle." I'm worried now. I thought she'd be on our doorstep the moment the snow was cleared. But there's been no sign of her.

"I'll go, too. Drop by the bakery on my way home," he says.

"Thanks." I'm suddenly very scared at what I might find.

The streets are almost deserted, which would not be so unusual at this time of day if people were at the mines, kids at school. But they're not. I see faces peeking at us out of doorways, through cracks in shutters.

An uprising, I think. What an idiot I am. There's an inherent flaw in the plan that both Gale and I were too blind to see. An uprising requires breaking the law, thwarting authority. We've done that our whole lives, or our families have. Poaching, trading on the black market, mocking the Capitol in the woods. But for most people in District 12, a trip to buy something at the Hob would be too risky. And I expect them to assemble in the square with bricks and torches? Even the sight of Peeta and me is enough to make people pull their children away from the windows and draw the curtains tightly.

We find Hazelle in her house, nursing a very sick Posy. I recognize the measles spots. "I couldn't leave her," she says. "I knew Gale'd be in the best possible hands."

"Of course," I say. "He's much better. My mother says he'll be back in the mines in a couple of weeks."

"May not be open until then, anyway," says Hazelle. "Word is they're closed until further notice." She gives a nervous glance at her empty washtub.

"You closed down, too?" I ask.

"Not officially," says Hazelle. "But everyone's afraid to use me now."

"Maybe it's the snow," says Peeta.

"No, Rory made a quick round this morning. Nothing to wash, apparently," she says.

Rory wraps his arms around Hazelle. "We'll be all right."

I take a handful of money from my pocket and lay it on the table. "My mother will send something for Posy."

When we're outside, I turn to Peeta. "You go on back. I want to walk by the Hob."

"I'll go with you," he says.

"No. I've dragged you into enough trouble," I tell him.

"And avoiding a stroll by the Hob ... that's going to fix things for me?" He smiles and takes my hand. Together we wind through the streets of the Seam until we reach the burning building. They haven't even bothered to leave Peacekeepers around it. They know no one would try to save it.

The heat from the flames melts the surrounding snow and a black trickle runs across my shoes. "It's all that coal dust, from the old days," I say. It was in every crack and crevice. Ground into the floorboards. It's amazing the place didn't go up before. "I want to check on Greasy Sae."

"Not today, Katniss. I don't think we'd be helping anyone by dropping in on them," he says.

We go back to the square. I buy some cakes from Peeta's father while they exchange small talk about the weather. No one mentions the ugly tools of torture just yards from the front door. The last thing I notice as we leave the square is that I do not recognize even one of the Peacekeepers' faces.

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don't receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we've forgotten they are illegal.

Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can't help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family. Rory has signed up for tesserae, something Gale can't even speak about, but it's still not enough with the inconsistent availability and the ever-increasing price of food.

The only bright spot is, I get Haymitch to hire Hazelle as a housekeeper, resulting in some extra money for her and greatly increasing Haymitch's standard of living. It's weird going into his house, finding it fresh and clean, food warming on the stove. He hardly notices because he's fighting a whole different battle. Peeta and I tried to ration what white liquor we had, but it's almost run out, and the last time I saw Ripper, she was in the stocks.

I feel like a pariah when I walk through the streets. Everyone avoids me in public now. But there's no shortage of company at home. A steady supply of ill and injured is deposited in our kitchen before my mother, who has long since stopped charging for her services. Her stocks of remedies are running so low, though, that soon all she'll have to treat the patients with is snow.

The woods, of course, are forbidden. Absolutely. No question. Even Gale doesn't challenge this now. But one morning,

I do. And it isn't the house full of the sick and dying, the bleeding backs, the gaunt-faced children, the marching boots, or the omnipresent misery that drives me under the fence. It's the arrival of a crate of wedding dresses one night with a note from Effie saying that President Snow approved these himself.

The wedding. Is he really planning to go through with it? What, in his twisted brain, will that achieve? Is it for the benefit of those in the Capitol? A wedding was promised, a wedding will be given. And then he'll kill us? As a lesson to the districts? I don't know. I can't make sense of it. I toss and turn in bed until I can't stand it anymore. I have to get out of here. At least for a few hours.

My hands dig around in my closet until I find the insulated winter gear Cinna made for me for recreational use on the Victory Tour. Waterproof boots, a snowsuit that covers me from head to toe, thermal gloves. I love my old hunting stuff, but the trek I have in mind today is more suited to this high-tech clothing. I tiptoe downstairs, load my game bag with food, and sneak out of the house. Slinking along side streets and back alleys, I make my way to the weak spot in the fence closest to Rooba the butcher's. Since many workers cross this way to get to the mines, the snow's pockmarked with footprints. Mine will not be noticed. With all his security upgrades, Thread has paid little attention to the fence, perhaps feeling harsh weather and wild animals are enough to keep everyone safely inside. Even so, once I'm under the chain link, I cover my tracks until the trees conceal them for me.

Dawn is just breaking as I retrieve a set of bow and arrows and begin to force a path through the drifted snow in the woods. I'm determined, for some reason, to get to the lake. Maybe to say good-bye to the place, to my father and the happy times we spent there, because I know I'll probably never return. Maybe just so I can draw a complete breath again. Part of me doesn't really care if they catch me, if I can see it one more time.

The trip takes twice as long as usual. Cinna's clothes hold in the heat all right, and I arrive soaked with sweat under the snowsuit while my face is numb with cold. The glare of the winter sun off the snow has played games with my vision, and I am so exhausted and wrapped up in my own hopeless thoughts that I don't notice the signs. The thin stream of smoke from the chimney, the indentations of recent footprints, the smell of steaming pine needles. I am literally a few yards from the door of the cement house when I pull up short. And that's not because of the smoke or the prints or the smell. That's because of the unmistakable click of a weapon behind me.

Second nature. Instinct. I turn, drawing back the arrow, although I know already that the odds are not in my favor. I see the white Peacekeeper uniform, the pointed chin, the light brown iris where my arrow will find a home. But the weapon is dropping to the ground and the unarmed woman is holding something out to me in her gloved hand.

"Stop!" she cries.

I waver, unable to process this turn in events. Perhaps they have orders to bring me in alive so they can torture me into incriminating every person I ever knew. Yeah, good luck with that, I think. My fingers have all but decided to release the arrow when I see the object in the glove. It's a small white circle of flat bread. More of a cracker, really. Gray and soggy around the edges. But an image is clearly stamped in the center of it.

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