It starts like this -
Alma Coin forbids me from joining the troops in the Capitol or Two. She commands, and expects me to obey. I look her in the eyes and tell her I'll do what they need me to do. She smiles, accepts my word as my bond.
Alma Coin likes to think she does not make mistakes, but she's wrong - because she underestimated the Mockingjay, and it is the greatest error I know she could have made.
Hours after I give Coin my promise, I'm in a hoverjet landing in Two. Gale - along with half the workers at the docking point - greets me with a smile, one that betrays curiosity at why I'm here in the district. All I can feel is relief. If Coin thinks I will be a piece in her games just because I do not want to be a pawn in Snow's, she is mistaken, and I intend to prove it to her. I am tired, angry, weary to the bone, and the moment I sit in a tent fixing up one of my arrows while waiting to be assigned to a squad, I never want to get up again.
Until Jackson arrives, with her soldiers in tow, and Boggs, and Cressida -
I'm on my feet in a shot, pushing Gale aside to get to her, to get her in my arms, to touch her and hold her and breathe her in. I haven't seen her since she was assigned to the troops, haven't seen her in so long, too long. I can feel their eyes on me, but all of it fades out into static when her lips meet mine in a kiss, her hand sliding to cup my neck. "Hi."
"Hi," I answer breathlessly, feeling something twist beneath the bars of my ribcage. I want everything else to disappear. I want to hold this moment in my hands and never let it go, but it passes all too fleetingly, and then Boggs is stepping forward with a grim look on his face. "I hate to interrupt the moment, but we need to brief you on your roles as 451."
Cressida accedes, stepping back, but her hand lingers on mine before we part. It's all I need, for now.
The first night we finish scouting a few blocks, we set up in what used to be a fancy cafe, now blackened with soot and ash, the walls reduced to gaping holes and scattered rubble. Castor finds two packs of sugared biscuits buried beneath fallen debris and splits it carefully amongst our party. The pieces are tiny, but sweet, and Cressida presses her share into my palm with a brief smile before taking up her gun for first watch. Most everyone drops off once they lie down, exhausted from a long day of scouring the streets and triggering Pods from a safe distance, but I can't sleep. Cressida sits in a darkened corner, lit by a single lamp, eyes bright and safety off. I slide into the space next to her and rest my head on her shoulder. I feel the rigid tension in her muscles seep out, just the slightest, as she turns to look at me. "Not tired?"
"Can't sleep," I respond. "I can do the watch with you."
Cressida nods in assent as I lay my bow by my side. We look out into the darkness, keeping our eyes peeled for dangers. It's a quiet watch, and I must fall asleep without realising it, because I wake in the morning near one of the benches, with my head in Cressida's lap.
The circumstances are dire, but I feel safe, nevertheless.
We cover more ground as time passes, get closer to the inner city circle. Boggs and Jackson never let up their guard, and neither do we. At least, not until we set off the Pods, the two massive machine guns that riddle the walls with bullets and take chunks of concrete out of them. In the haze of fog and dust, Boggs doesn't see where he's putting his feet. Doesn't see the mine that blows off both his legs. Then the other pod gets triggered when the light's still leaving Boggs' eyes, and suddenly we're no longer running towards the city. We're running for our lives, trying to stay ahead of the cascade of oil that licks at our feet, threatens to overwhelm us. I nearly collapse on the spot when Mitchell trips, falls, triggers a Pod that pulls him into a barbed wire net. His screams echo in my ears when we shoot open the door of a building and run like the wind to the highest floor.
"We have to keep moving," Jackson states while we're catching our breath. Leeg 1 looks at her sister and her mangled leg in distress. "She can't move in this state. I'll stay with her."
Jackson nods tersely. "I promise that once we get back to base, we'll send someone to come collect both of you."
When we leave, Leeg 2's leaning against her sister and Leeg 1's got a gun in her hand, eyes haunted. It takes Cressida tugging hard on my arm to get me to move out. Every step away from them feels like a betrayal of the worst kind, even though I know we have to leave if we want to survive.
We make it in time - in time to watch a horde of Peacekeepers come streaming in, to watch a few gunshots from the window hit two Peacekeepers in the chest, to watch them retaliate by lighting it on fire with the Leegs in it. A cold, slimy horror sinks into me, all too familiar, as the building turns into an inferno. There is no way they could have survived. We haven't even come close to Snow's mansion, and already three of our own are dead.
We see the propo that the Capitol screens, later on. Finnick has a good chuckle, seeing his face on the TV. They think we are dead. We have to take advantage of that. We have the element of surprise now. It means we have to move fast, to get to Snow as soon as possible. The moment Jackson pulls up the map of the known Pods in the city, my heart sinks - there are so many that we'll never cover enough ground in time before they know we're alive.
Until Pollux gestures at Castor, points downwards, and Castor nods, turning to look at all of us. "There might be another way."
Jackson nods approvingly. "We'll discuss it. But for now, we rest. It's been a trying day." Her voice is firm. "Tomorrow, we leave, first thing in the morning. Get some sleep. Finnick, please take first watch. Castor, Pollux, outline your plan to me."
Gale, Messalla and Homes disperse to find a comfortable place to tuck in and sleep; Finnick arms himself and sets himself up in an ideal spot to keep watch; Cressida holds me close, and we watch the last rays of the sun disappear beyond the horizon.
Everyone is asleep when she first speaks. "If we get out of this alive - "
"When," I answer fiercely, and she laughs, a soft, hoarse sound. "When we get out of this alive, what will you do?"
I think about it, and shrug. We've been fighting and killing and watching people die for so long, I no longer sure what peace means. She sighs, pulls me close, and I wonder if perhaps that might be enough.
We end up in the sewers. The water comes up to my chest, it's dark and claustrophobic, and the stench clings to my skin, but Pollux navigates the waterways like he's known them all his life. With him in the lead, I feel safe. That sense of security lasts up till we stop to rest in a cramped, but thankfully dry spot. Jackson puts me on first watch, which means I end up staring into an endless sea of black with my bow in my hands and the weight of my quiver on my back.
Cressida sits with me and doesn't speak, but her presence is more than sufficient to calm me somewhat. It almost lulls me, until I catch a scent that sends goosebumps down my arms. Blood and roses - and a sound that starts up, low and almost inaudible but there. I turn to Cressida, whose eyes narrow. "Do you hear that?"
We pause for a moment, and the sound gets a little louder. Cressida darts to Jackson's side, shakes her shoulder. Within a few seconds everyone is awake, and Finnick's eyes widen. "Mutts."
Jackson turns to Pollux. "Get us out of here."
After that we're running again. Pollux seal-crawls through a tiny opening which can only accomodate one person at a time. Gale follows after him, pushing his crossbow through the passage painfully slowly, and Jackson brings up the lead. We're almost in there, all of us. I almost have time to catch my breath -
And then the mutts - what must be at least forty slavering muttations - come out of nowhere, pounce onto Jackson and sink their teeth into her flesh. Gale screams for us to run, and everything is a blur, whirling past me. There is one adrenaline shot of panic, and then my mind shifts into survival mode. There is no time to feel. The only thing now is to do. I am on full automatic when I shoot my arrows into the mutts and send them sprawling. All around me, it's chaos.
We cannot die in here. We can't. Not like this.
"Up here!" Someone screams, and that's when I see the ladder. Gale clings to it, gesturing wildly at us. I dart blindly towards it, shooting at every mutt that stands in my way. "Come on, hurry!"
"Castor!" Messalla's cry sends chills down my spine. I glance to my right to see four mutts dragging Castor into the water, Messalla valiantly trying to fight off another two. A couple of arrows leave my bow, flying true, and I drag him by the arm and direct him up the ladder. "Go, go, go!"
I'm the last up the ladder. I'm sure of it. We're safe, we're safe, but as Gale pulls me up into safety I hear a piercing shriek from below.
Cressida. My blood goes cold as I look back down. She and Finnick are still there, holding off the mutts. They're thrashing in the water, fighting as hard as they can. I nock an arrow, but the space is too cramped to draw back, and they're moving so much I can't shoot for fear of hitting one of them instead.
Then there's the briefest moment - the briefest space of opportunity when the way is clear. Something sparks inside me. "Come on!" I yell down, and if not for Gale and Pollux pulling me back I nearly jump back down to help them up.
From thirty rungs below, Finnick meets my eyes. His gaze falls onto Cressida, and I see him set his jaw. A sliver of ice slides through my veins when I realise what he's going to do.
"No!" I shout, but it's too late. Finnick wraps his arms around Cressida's waist and shoves her onto the ladder. She starts climbing immediately, on instinct, and Finnick is just three rungs behind her, but he's three rungs too late. A pack of mutts knock him off the ladder, and then I can't see him anymore. Messalla grabs Cressida's arm, tugs her over, and we can all hear Finnick screaming my name.
The tears are blurring my eyes and the lump in my throat makes it impossible to breathe, but I clumsily grab for the Holo. "Nightlock, nightlock, nightlock," I whisper like a benediction, and drop it into the water.
We make it out of the sewers. "I know where we are!" Cressida shouts as we reach an open area. "We just have to get out of here!"
She leads the remaining few of us across the open space, dodging the traps, the Pods, and only falters when Messalla's under a Pod at the wrong time. Light seems to envelope him, and we all watch in horror as his flesh melts off his bones. Cressida stops entirely, her face going pale, frozen to the spot. Panic seizes me. "Cressida!"
She doesn't respond, and I shake her hard, staring into her eyes. "Cressida, please, we have to run!"
Cressida snaps out of it, nods, starts running once more, but I can see the grip she has on her gun as we reach the surface and she darts to a well-lit clothing store and starts banging on the door. We only just make it inside when the Peacekeepers come storming past, and I turn my bow on the occupant of the store.
"Katniss," Cressida says quietly, resting one hand on my arm, sounding hollow. "No. This is Tigris. She's one of us."
I lower my bow, and Tigris nods to Cressida, who speaks. "We need somewhere safe to stay. Please."
Tigris leads us to the back of the shop, lifts a thick rug and the trapdoor beneath it. This time, I make sure everyone's safely down before I enter.
"Thank you," I tell Tigris, and she gives me a small smile as she closes the door with a resounding thud.
The basement is warm, well-lit, stocked with food, water, sofas, pillows, a bed. Pollux leans against the wall, weeping, and Cressida checks on Gale's injuries with a blank expression.
Our squad is decimated. More than half of them are dead, and all because I decided to run into the fray and join the troops and lead them into danger. I have to end this. I have to end it now - and when Snow announces that he will be offering refuge to his citizens when the rebels storm the city, he gives me a way. I just have to get in there, get close enough, and all this will be over. All the fighting, all the killing, all the dying. Cressida points out the location of Snow's mansion on a map, and shows me how to get there. Our plan involves me and Gale disguising ourselves and joining the throng of Capitol citizens as they move towards Snow's mansion in droves. It involves leaving Pollux, Tigris and Cressida behind to hide.
It isn't until night falls and our squadmates are asleep that Cressida finally comes to my side and presses close. She hides her face, but she shakes, and I know she is crying - for all the people we lost in the sewers. I put one hand against the small of her back, lean in against her.
"I'm sorry," I say, and she turns to look me in the eyes, cheeks tear-stained. "Don't be."
"I got them killed."
She shakes her head. "No. That was Snow, and you know it. None of this is your fault, Katniss. He made us pieces in his game. He's responsible for all of this."
I can't see, I can't breathe, there's a weight sitting on my chest when I think about the squad. "I will kill him."
Cressida doesn't reply, just rests her head on my shoulder and waits for dawn to break.
The sun is up by the time Tigris gets us decked out in her best garb so we can pass as Capitol citizens as long as nobody sees our faces. Pollux and Cressida watch as I slip into my outfit, and Gale tucks his gun into a deep pocket.
We're almost out of the door when Cressida runs over and throws her arms around my neck. "Come back to me," she whispers into my ear, so soft that only I can hear it, and I nod. "I will, I promise."
The door shuts behind us with a slam, and I take a deep breath. It ends today, one way or another.
We almost make it. A Peacekeeper clamps one hand on my shoulder and I just know we're about to die right then, but that's when the rebels come in full force, taking the city by siege. It's anarchy as people run for their lives. Gale gets taken by a group of Peacekeepers, shouts at me to run for it. I manage to make it all the way to the gates of the mansion, with Peacekeepers herding children to the front of the crowd so they can enter the mansion first. There is a loud whirring, grinding, that signifies that the gates are opening to let the children in.
And then the plane flies overhead, one with Capitol markings. Parachutes rain down from the aircraft. Silver packages that I remember from my Games. They contain gifts from sponsors, potentially life-saving. Everyone knows what these parachutes signify, which is why people stretch their arms above their heads, clamouring to catch one of them as they float down towards the droves of children by the gates.
Two meters before they reach the ground, they detonate.
I'm far enough from the front that the blast doesn't do more than knock me off my feet. Children scream, medics are rushing in, there is chaos. Nobody understands what's happening. I shakily get back up, about to move into the throng to help.
I see Prim, amongst the medics, see her cradling a child, checking their injuries. Something rings alarm bells inside me, and I stop. "Prim," I call her, and she looks up. "Prim - "
The bombs go off again.
When I next awaken I'm in med bay. My mother is rubbing salve into my wounds, Haymitch is at my side, and it's over.
"They didn't stand a chance," he says heavily. "Once they saw how Snow killed his own - killed children - to hold the rebels off, that was it." His voice is bitter with the irony. "Coin is dealing with the cleanup right now."
But all I can think of is that Prim is dead, Prim is dead and I watched her die in front of me. Nothing feels real, the world is too bright, my mouth is dry. In the haze of unreality, I reach out for the one other person I know I love. "Where... Cressida?"
Haymitch freezes, doesn't speak for a good minute. My words are syrupy, the atmosphere thick, and it's not lost on me how my mother studiously continues to tend to my wounds and refuses to look at me.
"Katniss..." Haymitch's tone is gentle, cautious almost. "They didn't just bomb the mansion."
I look at him dumbly, and then it clicks. My breath comes in rapid gasps, and I know I'm on the verge of a panic attack, but I can't stop. I scream, I flail, thrash, lash out. My mother ducks just in time, backs away, and Haymitch tries to hold me down, calling for help. The sensation of the needle sliding into my skin and dosing me with tranquilliser is a welcome relief.
The next time I finally get out of bed once more, Snow just confirms what I knew deep down about Coin all along. It's easy to tell what kind of person she truly is, when she sits all of the victors down and proposes a final Hunger Games. She does not want to free Panem. She has never wanted a free Panem. With her in the president's seat, we will just be transferring power into the hands of another tyrant.
I vote yes to the final Hunger Games. The look Haymitch gives me tells me he knows exactly what I'm going to do. Annie and Peeta don't speak to me when we file out of the room, but I know they will come to understand tomorrow, at Snow's execution.
I know now what I have to do.
I don't expect footage of the execution, and my heart stops when I see Coin conferring with someone holding a camera. She has blonde hair, a familiar build, and hope blazes inside me as I dart forward and cry her name. "Cressida!"
She looks up at me, sharply, and for the briefest moment, I see her. It's her. It's Cressida.
Then the light changes, minutely, and I notice that her eyes are brown, the shape of her face is different, there is a scar on her left arm I don't recognize, a flare of pain in her expression. "Katniss Everdeen."
She steps forward, away from Coin. "Katniss, I'm so sorry."
The dull grief inside me returns with twice the intensity, and it takes all of my will not to collapse. "Who are you?"
"My name is Cassandra," the woman answers. "Cressida is... was my sister. I was working with the Resistance, but from within the Capitol. I'm here today to record footage of the execution. I'm not as good as Cressida, but I'll try my best."
Her voice is stoic, but I can hear the wavering. The world blurs before me and I try to blink away the tears. "I'm sorry," I whisper, looking at my feet. "I got her killed - I'm - "
Cassandra shakes her head. "I can't accept that." Her tone is firm, so familiar, and it sends a fresh stab of pain through me. "There is nothing to forgive you for, Katniss. My sister thought you were worth dying for, and so do I. She wouldn't blame you for anything, and you know that as well as I do. And I know she would have given up her life a thousand times if it meant that you - and Panem - would be safe."
I close my eyes, try to get my breathing back under control, try not to sob. It takes good minutes, but I finally do. I manage to look at her. "Thank you."
Cassandra smiles. "That, I can accept. I'll see you later, Katniss."
I make it two rooms away before I break down.
When I walk into the amphitheatre, when Coin makes her speech, when I nock my arrow and line it up at Snow -
I think of them. All of them, every single one. Marvel, Glimmer, Thresh, Cato, Clove, Foxface - from my first Hunger Games. Blight, Mags, Gloss, Cashmere, Wiress - from the Quarter Quell, the one designed to kill me and took the others. Homes, Mitchell, Messalla, Pollux, Castor, the Leegs, Tigris. Rue. Prim. Cressida.
They are dead, because of the man standing just a few meters in front of me.
I cannot let this happen again. It must never happen again. Too many innocent people have lost their lives at the whimsy of Snow and his lackeys. My mission, from the very beginning, has always been to kill Snow. An arrow through his heart, and it will all be over.
Or will it?
For all her talk - for everything that has come to this - Coin is just another Snow. And if I leave her to lead to Panem, then everything we have done will have amounted to nothing.
I can hear my heartbeat, see my breath fogging in the cold air. This is a choice I have to make, like I did so long ago, when Effie called Prim's name.
With one swift motion I raise my bow, release the arrow, watch it fly, watch it sink into Coin's heart, watch her fall.
I smile all the way back into the prison cell that I'm thrown into.
After that, nothing matters. I don't know how long they keep me in there. There is a constant rotation of guards at my door, and they never stop watching me, but at least they treat me well. When I am hungry, I merely have to ask and food is delivered; when I tire, they lessen their movement so it is quiet and I can sleep. I lose track of time, until Haymitch comes to get me. Apparently I've been in the cell for a week, and he reads me a letter from Plutarch. I almost laugh when he tells me he has a ride out of the city for me to lay low, to go home. Home? Where is that even any more?
Haymitch folds up the letter, gets up, obviously expecting me to follow. When I don't, he sighs and shakes his head. "Katniss. There's someone you need to see."
"I don't want to see anyone."
"Trust me on this, Girl on Fire."
And the thing is, after all this time -
When I walk out of the cell for the first time in a week -
I expected many, many things.
"Hi," Cressida says, looking haggard, worn out, pale, but a smile on her face nevertheless.
I don't move for what seems like an eternity, and when I finally do, I fling myself against her with such force we nearly go flying into the adjacent wall. I grip her shoulders so tight I can see her wince, my face inches from hers, studying her features with an insatiable hunger. She is flesh and blood beneath my palms. She is here. She is real.
She is alive.
In front of three guards and Haymitch, I kiss her, so fiercely and tenderly I hear her gasp. When I finally pull back for air, she is laughing, breathless, light dancing in her eyes. "Katniss."
"I thought you were dead," I choke out, and she nods, touching her forehead to mine. "Believe me, when the bombs came down we thought we were too. Tigris' shop just collapsed on top of the basement, the entire thing just... gone. Thankfully we were all underground when they came, and it wasn't a direct strike, and Tigris had the place stockpiled. We were safe, and alive, but we were trapped - the debris was piled on the trapdoor, and we couldn't get out. We knew it was just a matter of time until they started to clean up, but I was so afraid we would die of starvation before that." She shakes her head with a slight smile. "When we heard the cleanup crew coming in, we started calling for help. Took quite a while, but they got us out of there. So here I am."
I can't speak. I don't know what to say. Nothing is sufficient. I just bring her close again, wrap my arms around her. "Cressida."
"I'm here," she replies quietly, and something settles inside me, warm and real and right.
Things change - Johanna and Effie come to stay in Twelve, my mother leaves, Gale becomes a captain in Two.
Others don't - Peeta and Haymitch return to the Victors Village and stay for good, the nightmares don't just go away, and I still wake up screaming.
Those are the bad nights, and there are a lot of them at first. They start growing less and less, though I know they'll never stop. I'll see Prim's face stamped on the inside of my eyelids every night when I close my eyes to sleep.
But we stick together - Johanna and I go out to the forests together every morning to gather firewood and hunt game; Peeta bakes and cooks for all of us; Haymitch and Effie talk, a lot; and every night, when I scream, when I cry, Cressida holds me and tells me I'll be all right, that we're safe.
And step by step, we heal.