Nest is a funny name for a reinforced emplacement flanked with machine guns and heavy repeating rifles, but you don't really have the time for those sorts of thoughts when you're charging it, top speed, grenade belt thumping against your chest like a half dozen volatile heartbeats, flagrant to match your own.
You were eating your bread ration three tents down when the kid from Nine who'd put them together lost both hands working on more. Crossed wires, Commander said in public, enforcing stricter sleep schedules. At night, disobeying her own orders, she'd murmur her worries of sabotage directly into your ear, and in the daylight you'd sit watch next to the munitions without being ordered.
That keenness was only natural and even now you cannot blame yourself: even bronze and oak and granite are soft for wrought iron spikes, and if ever there was a woman of worthy mettle it was Elijah.
The lead slugs warm up in your palms before, break action, you slide them into the breech. This many years into the war, starved for supplies and soldiers both, they'd have called you Shotgun for next-to-nothing. Maybe she just didn't want people thinking of a snake in the grass when they spoke to you. At least you can fire one. The pig drops to the mud and the shell hits the grass at your feet. You loot the body. Service revolver, four in the barrel and one in the chamber. Belt and boots, worn leather. Hardtack, nibbles taken from the corners. This many years into the war there isn't a soul spared from shortages.
Combat drags its feet. Coiled up on the side of the mountain, in position, waiting to strike, it felt foolish to let perfect timing be the enemy of opportunity. If you wound up casualties, so be it. A soldier could be killed, but at least she'd have died a free woman who'd chosen her allegiance. You know so many who died for so much less.
Winter came, and even huddled under every coat and blanket, you forgot how to be warm. Piled together with your comrades and still chilled to your core, you dreamed of firebombs dropped on the encampment at night. At least there would be heat.
It was supposed to be straightforward. Airtight. There were so few of you left, and with so little remaining, traveling light was a given. Your explosives experts all dead, but those who remained were incendiary enough. Even with a dislocated shoulder, Strangler did what he did best and the watch slumped over without a sound.
Strangler, whose mother named him Steve, who used to collect marbles and let you borrow his comic books when he was done with them. They've been comrades for so long it was impossible to remember a time when they were neighbors, classmates, one another's best friends and schoolyard bullies. That Wild Will cried on his first day of kindergarten, inconsolable until he was moved to the corner of Commander's class, needing his big sister for comfort. That Mouse lost their front teeth boxing with him and Gadsden after calling their papa a bootlicking coward. That your little sister used to ride on Flintlock's shoulders and declare herself queen empress of the gravel mountain, until Feldspar on top of yours dethroned her with a well-placed shove. That you used to act like you were better than Kneecaps because she wore ribbons and hated bugs and dirt, and because the teacher liked her better than you.
You put on the pilfered Capitol uniform, pin the badge that Mouse hands you to your chest. Wearing the enemy's skin feels powerful until you catch a glimpse of yourself reflected in the black of a dead monitor. Then you suppress the impulse to shoot on sight. Faced with an array of buttons and knobs, you mourn Circuit out of utility, then fumble with the switches until the tracks swivel and the magnetic locks release their holds on the bay door.
Things don't go awry until the train is loaded with the Capitol's own explosives. Flintlock drives it deeper into the depot, parks it under the barracks. He returns sprinting, four whitecoats on his tail, hollering Blow it! Blow it! Even when they open fire, Commander does not. You blink, either unable to make sense of the detonator slipped back into her coat pocket, or just unwilling to. Gadsden gets it: gut shot mid-lunge, his pistol clatters to the concrete and his swung fist misses his sister's face by inches.
The fist of hell unfurls. A swarm of pigs fils the tunnels, flashbang blinding, your ears ring and when you stop seeing stars you see the skirmish through the smoke:
Kneecaps kneecaps the nearest peacekeeper and is brought down by a baton to the back of the head; Flintlock and Feldspar already lie in a bloody heap; Mouse, riding on a Capitol soldier's back, tugging at jaws and biting at ears; an eyeball dangling from Wild Will's socket, one held in his fist to match; Strangler, whose mother named him Steve, shoved to his knees, a barrel pressed to the back of his head.
You can't hear the gunshot like you can't hear the curses coming out of your throat as they drag you away, eyes fixed on the commander, the partner, the friend who betrayed you, her brothers, her compatriots. What did they give you? Elijah! What did you get? you scream, as if there is anything in the world that might be worth what she has done.
In your holding cell, you stew on it, grief and grudge rotting your gut.
Ames may be called Adder, but Johnwayne is the snake.