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Ablaze

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They didn't like me very much in District 13. At least, not at night. That was their main reason for keeping me in the hospital for as long as they had. And the fact that I was constantly under some type of sedation. But it was the first issue that was the real problem. Because every night, and multiple times during the day, I would wake up screaming bloody murder. Throwing around every curse that I knew and some that just sounded vaguely familiar at the figures that would try and relax me.

But it never worked. I would thrash around desperately until there was the stick of some needle through my spine. Usually it was Morphling. Just enough to relax me. But then would come the periods of horror. The realization that the Morphling was leaving my system and leaving behind some kind of horror in its wake. Some kind of memory or sometimes the fear that something awful was happening to me. Usually more screaming would bring them back with another dose.

For the first few weeks that I spent in District 13, I didn't even move from the bed. The first week that I was here was full of violent episodes. The doctors would come in to try and speak to me. They would rarely get more than two words out before I would attempt to get up from the bed and murder them. For what they were doing to me, for what they hadn't done for Cato, and just because I was angry. I hadn't done much more than a few scratches and bruises to the doctors, unfortunately.

That had led them to restraining me. I had broken out of them once and had managed to break a finger in the process. That had led to even more restraints. One on each ankle, one on each wrist, one over my forehead, and one across my midsection. I also had a feeling that they were mildly concerned that I would try and kill myself. And they were right about that. So everything was under lock and key. They wouldn't even give me real food, for fear that I would actually try and choke myself with it.

Everything had been given to me through tubes. Water and food. Just to make sure that I was staying alive. And to make sure that I couldn't try and kill myself. It was obvious enough to me and to everyone else that my life wasn't mine anymore. Not that it ever had been. But at least now I knew that it wasn't. Now I knew just how in control they were and how out of control I was. I was in absolutely no control. I never would be. Never. Just the way that I would never see Cato again.

The second week was when the true depression sank in. When the true gravity of what had happened settled in. When I realized just how awful this really was. Everyone knew that I was depressed about Cato and what had happened, but they didn't really care. The truth was that they would never care about me or what I was feeling. The only thing that they cared about was the fact that I was going to be the Mockingjay. Something that they were sorely mistaken about.

The third week was when they finally released the restraints that they'd put on me in the first week. That was when I would start my routine. Waking up in the middle of the night to scream at the top of my lungs from whatever nightmare was plaguing me and dart off before the doctors would hunt me down to bring me back. Try to do something to put me back to sleep. Usually just more of the medicine and something else that would keep me asleep.

My hiding spots were always changing. Since they would find my one spot and then start placing guards there to make sure that I wasn't hiding there anymore. There were now at least ten guards on duty all night to keep an eye on me. Apparently they always wanted to know where the Mockingjay was. I had a feeling that they were debating on placing a tracker in me. But I would rip it out myself if they did something like that. Even if I had to use my fingernails to rip apart my skin and dig it out.

Some days were worse than others. But they were all bad. Some days I just sat and stared at the ceiling. Those were mostly about a week into my evacuation from the arena. I would just lay in bed and stare off into the distance. Dreaming about anything that I could. Anything that didn't make me want to cry. The memories of Cato, mostly. The few ones that I had that were careless. Where the two of us were laughing and felt free. But there weren't many of them. So eventually it just became a loop.

Other days I would fight against the restraints so hard that I was sure that I was going to rip through them. Then the murderous thoughts would begin. The thoughts about how I was going to kill every single person in District 13. All of the doctors that would keep me in the drug-induced haze. The people in Thirteen who never came to the aid of the Districts. Katniss, Gale, Ms. Everdeen, the Hadley family... Everyone. Everyone who knew about the plan and didn't tell me. Haymitch, more than anyone else.

Sometimes it was just tears. Tears that never seemed to end. It was always miserable. I was more depressed each day. It was slowly getting worse and worse. But those days when I just cried, they would sometimes come in droves. I would sob hysterically to the point that I was sure that it was echoing throughout the entire District. Other days they were just silent sobs, the tears running down my face to the point that I thought that I might have drowned myself.

Every night I had the same nightmares. Not all night, usually. Just at intervals. The fear of what the Capitol was doing to Cato, on the off chance that he was still alive. But it had been over a month since the destruction of the arena and there had been no noise from them. That I had heard of, anyways. What were they doing to him? Were they flaying off each piece of skin? Were they starving him to death? Keeping him constantly awake? Beating him to death? Pulling out all of his teeth and fingernails?

Think of something else, Aspen... Something happier...

What would we normally be doing right now? I saw the clock before I fled the hospital. It was just past one in the morning. What would we have been doing? If he was in bed with me. If things were right. Likely he would have just woken me up from some horrible nightmare. This was normally around the time that I would start having them. He would be leaning over me, gently trying to rouse me from my screams of terror, only to keep his arms around me as I shot upright.

Sometimes I would flail and sometimes I would just cry. He would hold me tightly in his arms. I would lay straight in his lap as he ran his hands through my hair and over my legs. Sometimes he wouldn't say anything to me. Sometimes he would whisper reassurances in my ear. But he would always stay awake with me and make sure that I was okay. He must have barely slept two hours a night, because of his own nightmares and because he wanted to protect me from mine.

That was just the way that he was. That was the kind of man that he was. He used to stay awake with me. Sometimes for the rest of the night. Just to make sure that I was okay. To make sure that I wasn't alone. There were times that he would roll us over to spend some time together. There were other times that he would tell me stories or have me tell him stories. We would talk on some nights and stay utterly silent on others, just holding each other. The only thing that mattered was that he was always there.

Protecting me. Just the way that I had been unable to protect him. Just the way that I wished that I could have protected him. Let him live while I went to the meadow. To wait for him. Where I wished that he wouldn't be for many years. As the dry-heaves began, I placed a hand over my stomach and leaned my head back against the cool bars behind me. Where was I? Where had I ended up? My hand bunched over my shirt as I tried to bite back the sobs.

Sometimes I forgot that the pregnancy that Cato announced was just a clever ruse. Sometimes I dreamt that I was, indeed, pregnant. So many questions came with those dreams. Would it have been a boy or a girl? I didn't know. Cato would have been good with a girl. I believed that. What kind of person could they have grown up to be? Would they have been as strong as Cato? As brash as me? Good with a bow and arrow or knives or a sword? Whose talents would they have been given?

For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing that I could have had a kid. Because now I knew that I never would have. Back in District 12, before the Seventy-Fourth Games, it had all been theoretical. And I hadn't loved anymore. Afterwards, when I was with Cato, I had thought that we would have the rest of our lives to be together. But now he was gone. I had never realized, until it was too late, just how much I really did want that future with Cato. A life together. A child.

There was always the one question that came after the rest of them. What kind of parents would we have made? What would we have done with the child? Cato would have made a wonderful father. He loved Leah and Marley. The way that he played with them. He would have loved a child. And he had always told me that I would have been a wonderful mother. I couldn't imagine myself as one, but maybe he was right. Together we could have made it work out. But only together. Now we would never have the chance.

The doctors tried to get me to open up to them about what had happened and what was happening, but there was nothing that I wanted to talk to them about. All of the memories I had of Cato were mine. And they always would be. No matter what people wanted me to say, I would never tell them about Cato. Because he was mine. The memories were mine. And I didn't want anyone else to hear about them. Not the people who had lied and used me. Not the people who didn't understand what he meant to me.

There were a number of things that I had learned about love and being with someone. Things that I learned about being in love, since having lost Cato. Things that my mother never got the chance to tell me. People always seemed to think that a soul mate was your perfect fit. That's what I thought that it was. And it turned out that it was what everyone wanted. But Cato taught me that a true soul mate was a mirror. They were the person who showed you everything that was holding you back.

That was exactly what Cato had done for me. Showed me all of the things that I was doing to hold myself back. He was the one to tell me what I was truly capable. A soul mate was the person who brought you to your own attention so you could change your life. Something that he had done for me. Taught me exactly what it was that I was capable of. Something that I still knew and was fighting to remember. Everything that I was capable of. It was something that I would likely have to work on for the rest of my life.

A true soul mate was probably the most important person that you would ever meet, because they could tear down your walls and smack you awake. That was something that he had done. Literally and figuratively. But to live with a soul mate forever? That was also unfortunately something that I had learned from Cato. It was too painful. Soul mates, they came into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then would leave. Exactly what Cato had done. Not because he'd wanted to.

It was because he had to. Because I should have known that he would. Deliberately or on purpose. A soul mates purpose was to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life, then leave, and leave their memory. Exactly what Cato had done. I just had to find that light. It was there somewhere. But, where?

Cato taught me that love was a fire. But whether it would warm your hearth or burn down your house, you could never tell. Seeing me like this, I think people finally realized the depth of my love for Cato. I wasn't just a silly romantic. I never had been and never would be. I didn't need someone to give me gemstones or gold. I had those things already. I wanted... a steady hand. A kind soul. I wanted to fall asleep, and wake, knowing my heart was safe. I wanted to love, and be loved. Everything that Cato gave me.

All this time I had somehow been seeking that special person who was right for me. But I would have never found someone. Not back in District 12. Because I was so wrong in some way. Wrong for everyone. Maybe that was also why I found Cato, who was also wrong in some complementary way. The whole time when I'd first met Cato and gotten to know him, I knew that he was the wrong person. But not just any wrong person.

He was the right wrong person - someone who I would lovingly gaze upon and think, this is the problem I want to have. And he was the problem that I wanted to have. It was the problem that I'd had for the past year and it was the problem that I would have for the rest of my life. I had found that special person who was wrong for me in just the right way. The two of us had let our scars fall in love. And he was the only one who understood my scars.

Thoughts of Cato were slowly breaking my heart. And there was no one who I could confront about it. Because my trust had been completely broken. I didn't trust anymore. No one who had known what was happening between Cato and me. And that was every single person here. Everyone had known the truth. But no one had said anything. And I particularly didn't trust myself. I could barely trust what was real that I was seeing and what wasn't. The medicine messed with my head.

And then there came the hate... The way that I hated everyone. Every single person. The people who I hadn't met here in Thirteen. The doctors and nurses who always talked to me. Everyone in the Capitol. Everyone in the Districts. The entire Hadley family. Haymitch... so much. All of the surviving Victors. Seneca Crane and Plutarch Heavensbee. President Snow. My entire family. Gale. His family. Even Cato, for trying so hard to save me and let himself die.

But there was no one that I hated more than myself. Not a single damn person. Because I felt like everything was my fault. I felt like the entire uprising was my fault. Everything that was happening in the Districts. All of the innocent people who had died. The fact that District 12 was now nothing more than a smoldering pile of ash. The fact that Cato was either dead or in the Capitol. Or the worst thing that had happened since I had learned that I was rescued and Cato was taken.

It was a little over a month ago. Not long after I had gotten to District 13. It was just after Gale and Katniss had told me what had happened in District 12. I had been trying to cope with everything. No one had come in to visit me after them. Mostly because I had asked them to stay away. All of my visitors. But eventually the Hadley family had come to visit me for the first time. It was the only time that they had visited me since arriving in District 13.

For the past... how long had it been? Forever? That was what it had felt like. I was just sitting on some bed. Maybe in the hospital wing. I couldn't really be completely sure where I was. The horror from everything had passed. The horror from the loss. Now it was only a numb feeling. The horror would return eventually. Just not now. I barely spoke and didn't move. I was hoping and trying to die from the lethargy. Cato's family had wanted to come and visit me but I had denied them every time. Now my requests were being overridden.

Suddenly the door opened and the Hadley family strolled into the room. They had warned me that they were coming. I had no option for them to come. Aidan, Leah, and Marley were not with them. I had a feeling that they were too young for the family to want them to see me like this. Had they even been told what had happened? Skye and Julie were there. Their eyes were red. All of them. They had been crying. I tried to look away desperately. I didn't want to see them. Never.

The last thing that I wanted was to deal with them. Not after everything that had happened. Not when they knew that Cato was likely dead, and he was dead because they had tried to save me. I didn't want to know how they must have felt. They must have been here to yell at me. Maybe try to kill me. I wouldn't stop them. I would beg for them to do it. The Hadley family slowly moved around the bed, looking down at me, with Alana and Carrie standing the closest to the bed.

"I told them to not let you in," I said, staring up at the ceiling.

"They thought that it was time that you started speaking to people again," Alana said.

"I don't want to speak to anyone. I don't want to speak to you. Leave me alone," I muttered.

Carrie laid a hand on my shoulder and I jerked away. "Don't pull away from us, Aspen. You need to be around your family right now," she whispered, tears brimming in her eyes.

"I don't have a family. My family died in the Fifty-Fifth, Fifty-Seventh, and Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games," I said.

"We’re still your family. Cato was your family. We’re his. We’re yours," Carrie said.

"Leave," I growled.

Dean stepped forward. He didn't touch me, but he was close. "Aspen... We’re hurting. Of course. Just like you. But we can’t do this alone. You can’t do this alone. We lost Cato. Don’t make us lose you, too," Dean said softly.

"You’d be better off without me," I said.

"Maybe. But we don’t want to be without you," Alana said.

"We don’t blame you, Aspen. No one blames you," Damien said, surprising me.

If I had thought that anyone would blame me, I had thought that it would be Damien. "You should," I said.

"We knew, Aspen," Skye said, speaking in a soft voice that was usually reserved for telling little children bad news. "We knew about the plan. We knew that they needed to get you. We knew that Cato was only a maybe. We were hoping that he would get out, of course, but we knew that it was very likely that we wouldn’t see him again."

"So you, just like everyone else, failed to tell me," I growled under my breath.

"It was for -" Julie started.

"Your own safety," I finished, interrupting her. The same thing that so many people had told me over the past few days. "So I’ve heard. You should have taken him. He was the right person to save."

"You’re here, Aspen. We’re here. Let’s try and make the best of it," Julie said, making me laugh humorlessly. "We can join the rebellion. End the Games and the Capitol’s rule forever."

"The Games will never be over," I said.

"They might be," Carrie said.

The entire family exchanged a little look with each other. Now I knew that the berating was coming. "We’re having a funeral, Aspen. We’d really like for you to be there," Alana said.

"Why? There’s no body to bury," I said heartlessly.

They hadn't saved him. They hadn't saved their own family. They deserved to hear it, as much as I knew that it was the wrong thing to say. Alana pressed her head into Damien's shoulder and sobbed. I should have said something, I should have said that I was sorry for my words. But I couldn't. Because I was so angry and so dead to the world. All because they hadn't kept their promise to me. They hadn't saved him, even when they had said that they would.

"It’s not for Cato," Damien said slowly.

"So..." I muttered.

Eventually I trailed off. My gaze flitted around the people in the room for the first time. I looked at them. I really looked at them. Before I hadn't cared, but now... Now I cared. Because at least one of them was dead. More than Cato. Someone else in the family was dead. The kids were missing. I had thought that they were being taken care of. But were they all dead? Three, seven, and eleven years old. Not even old enough to be in the Games. They couldn't be dead. Cato's family had lost enough.

"Where are the kids?" I asked, the first hint of emotion seeping into my voice in a long time.

"Aidan and Marley are being watched by one of the women in the nursery," Alana said.

"And Leah?" The family remained silent, all staring down at the ground. "Where is Leah?" I repeated, more sternly this time.

"It was while we were evacuating District 2," Dean said, stepping in when he noticed that his parents couldn't. "Just after the power to the arena went out. We already knew that we had to leave. A hovercraft was waiting for us. They were enforcing martial law on District 2. We were trying to sneak into the woods. It was the middle of the night. The Peacekeepers saw us as we attempted to flee. They were shooting. We were running. One stray bullet. That was all that it took. Straight to the brain."

"I was carrying her. We think that they were aiming for my heart. They didn’t see her," Damien explained.

My hands were bound to the bed from a violent episode the other day. I wasn't able to cover my mouth as a sob escaped from deep in my throat. Leah. Sweet little Leah was dead. All because District 2 had enforced a martial law because of my relationship with Cato. They were trying to flee so that they could get to me. And maybe Cato. That time I couldn't help the strangled sob that escaped me. Another member of the Hadley family was dead. Little Leah, who called me the pretty girl on the television.

"They’ve agreed to allow us a funeral for her," Alana said, tears running down her face. "We would -"

"Get out," I interrupted.

My heart was pounding. "Aspen -" Carrie started.

"Get out," I repeated.

The world was swooping and sweat was breaking out on my forehead. "Her heart rate and blood pressure are rising. Let’s give her a moment. Let her process the information. She may need some time," a doctor said, sounding like he was a thousand miles away.

"It’s okay, Aspen. We don’t blame you," Carrie said.

They needed to be gone. Far away from me. I couldn't look at them. Not now and not ever. "Get out. Get out!" I screamed, desperately thrashing around, needing to run. The doctors reached out for me. "Get off of me! Let go!"

"Please. She needs to be sedated. Perhaps we can try again later," the doctor said.

The Hadley family was staring at me. I could see them giving me frightened and heartbroken looks. But I didn't care. I wanted them far away from me. Where I could never see them again. Where I could never feel this guilt again. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and thrashing against everyone who was trying to sedate me. There was a pinch in my neck as I tried to break the restraints. I just killed a little girl. Cato's little sister. The girl who he had promised to spend his first day back from the Games with.

They had been forced to keep me sedated for most of the next few days. Each time that the Morphling had worn off I had started screaming to try and break the restraints. Because I'd wanted to be gone. Somewhere where I could never hurt anyone again. It was horrible, hearing everyone start to plan a seven-year-old's funeral. A funeral that I had caused. I didn't actually end up going, but Katniss had tried very hard to get me to go.

The restraints were finally gone as I was back to numbness. The door burst open suddenly and Katniss strolled in. "Come on. Get up. It’s time for the funeral," Katniss said.

"I’m not going," I said determinedly.

"You are. Come on. You can come back right after. You don’t have to speak to anyone but you do need to be there," Katniss said.

"You go. I’m not."

"I’m not family. I’m going because they’re friends. That is your family out there and they’ve asked that you be there. Because Leah loved you."

"And look how much good that did for her," I mumbled.

Katniss stood at the edge of the bed and shoved my foot. "Get up. We’re going. Now," she snapped.

"Go away."

"No. Your family is out there. They want you there."

"I don’t have a family."

Something shot through Katniss's eyes. "Yes. You do. I am your sister," she said softly, placing her hand against my leg, which I jerked away. "They are your family, too."

They would have told me the truth if they were my family. "You have one sister. Prim. And they were only family through marriage. Not even a real one. It’s dissolved now. He’s dead. Or as good as dead," I said cruelly.

Katniss sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "Okay... I have tried to be nice because I know that you're hurting. No more. You’re going to get up and get out there. Because that is a seven-year-old girl who looked up to you. Do it for her if you can’t do it for anyone else," Katniss snapped, yanking at my arms.

"That’s it!" I shouted, raising my voice for the first time since they had told me that Leah was dead. "A seven-year-old girl who looked up to me. Who I killed."

"You didn’t kill her," Katniss said softly.

"No. The Peacekeeper did. But it might as well have been my finger on the trigger," I muttered.

"You need to be there. They lost their son. They lost their daughter. They don’t need to lose you."

"Yes, they do. They’d be better off with me dead."

"Well, I wouldn’t. And they want you there. Get up, Aspen!" Katniss shouted, yanking at me again. I harshly kicked out at her. "I don’t care if you hate me. Hate me all you want. Just get up!"

"Leave me alone," I snarled.

But I should have known that she wasn't going to give up that easily. Katniss stormed back up to my bed and grabbed me by the arm. Immediately I shoved her backwards. She stumbled back and nearly collapsed over herself. But she managed to straighten up at the last second and scowl at me. I merely stared back at her. She stomped back up to me and grabbed me by the arm. That time I shoved her back but she managed to hold onto me. Just a moment later we began shouting at each other.

"Get the hell off of me!" I barked.

"Get up!" Katniss ordered.

The last thing that I wanted was to be at a seven-year-old girl's funeral. I just wanted to be left alone to die. Why wouldn't they let me die? Katniss was slowly pulling me from the bed and I reached back for a vase that was holding flowers that had been laid out for me. I took it in my hands and threw it at Katniss, before I could think better of it. The glass shattered against her arm and cut her up slightly, slicing through the jumpsuit. My anger was dissipated, replaced with shock at what I had just done. Katniss looked shocked, too.

Katniss wiped off a little bit of the blood on her arm. "Okay. Fine. I’ll tell them that you send your regards," she panted.

"Miss Everdeen," the doctor said, walking in and placing a hand on Katniss's arm. "Please let Miss Antaeus sleep."

Katniss nodded, still staring at me. We hadn't broken eye contact. "Alright. You might hate me right now. You might hate me for the rest of your life. But I’m still your sister. I always will be," she said softly.

Then she was gone. Later on I saw pictures and videos of the funeral. I didn't want to see if but the doctors felt that I should. It had just ended up launching me into a tirade and I'd been forced to be given more Morphling to put me back to sleep. I hadn't gone and spoken to the Hadley's about their newest loss. I felt no desire to be near them or see them. My hands were shaking even worse as I stared into the darkness. How long had I been here? Where was I?

What do you know, Aspen? What do you know?

Nothing. I knew nothing. The truth made no sense. What was the truth? Think straight. That was hard because the effects of the concussion Johanna Mason gave me with the coil of wire hadn't completely subsided and my thoughts still had a tendency to jumble together. Also, the drugs they used to control my pain and mood sometimes made me see things. I guessed. I still wasn't entirely convinced that I was hallucinating the night the floor of my hospital room transformed into a carpet of writhing snakes.

It was enough to send me into a hysterical state that had taken hours to bring me down from. Even after it had all ended I had found myself nervous at the slightest movement. Everything made me nervous these days. Everything made me jumpy and terrified and mistrusting. I used a technique one of the doctors suggested. I started with the simplest things I knew to be true and worked toward the more complicated. The list began to roll in my head....

My name is Aspen Antaeus. I am twenty years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capitol hates me. Cato was taken prisoner. He never got the chance to turn twenty. He is thought to be dead. Most likely he is dead. It is probably best if he is dead...

Tears slowly began to flow as I brought my knees up to my chest and started to breathe a little heavier. My chest was now heaving as my entire body began to quake. My nightmare had been a recurring one. It was the image of Leah, bloody and dead in her mother's arms. Too late to save her. Too late to do anything but watch, knowing that it was my fault. Then Cato had come, trying to kill me for killing his little sister.

Suddenly the world began to shift. My heart was pounding and my head was spinning. The vomit was slowly building in the back of my throat. The scream built up in the back of my throat, coming straight from the tips of my toes. My vision was now becoming blurry. It felt like I was back under the influence of the Tracker Jacker venom. But it was worse. Because this time it was real. I thought so, at least. Because right now I couldn't tell what was real and what was fake.

Slowly I started rocking back and forth. "Start simple. Start with what you know is true. My name is Aspen Ha… Antaeus. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. Cato... Cato was left behind," I whispered, my voice breaking.

There was a loud clang and suddenly a bright light. I whipped around, terrified for what was coming for me. Then I turned back, hiding behind the bars. "Miss Antaeus? You can't be in here," a woman called.

My breathing was still labored. "I had a nightmare. Just five more minutes," I called back, not moving from my spot.

"You need to sleep. We can help you sleep," the woman said.

"Just five more minutes," I said, fighting back tears. "No. No, please, don't. It's just five more..." The woman laid a hand on my shoulder. "Don't touch me! Don't! No! No! Get off of me!"

The woman was yanking me away from the tubes and pipes that I was hiding behind. I was trying desperately to grab onto them and stay here, far away from everyone else, but I couldn't. I was losing my grip on the beams. Suddenly a figure stepped in and pried the woman off of me. My screams were still echoing as Katniss leaned down and pressed a hand against my face. She picked me up and shoved the woman with the flashlight back away from me.

"Let her go! Now," Katniss demanded.

Slowly I tried to get away, to crawl somewhere that they couldn't find me, but they wouldn't let that happen. Katniss grabbed my shoulder and picked me up with her. She was trying to keep my head in her shoulder so that I didn't have to look into the light. I shoved her off of me and yanked myself away from Katniss desperately. Almost immediately I collapsed back to the ground. I tried to fight Katniss off and shove her away from me. I didn't want anyone touching me.

No one was supposed to touch me. No one was allowed to touch me. The only person's hands that I wanted on me were Cato's. And I would never feel that again. There wasn't a damn person that I wanted putting their hands on me. Not even Katniss. Not anymore. Because I was still so furious with her. I would likely always be angry with her. Because I was furious with everyone. Especially those who I was supposed to trust above all others.

"Come on," Katniss said, hushing me.

"Get off of me," I sobbed, trying to push her away.

"Come on. It’s okay. We’re bringing you back. To get some sleep," Katniss whispered.

"I hate you," I said through tears.

"I know. But that doesn’t change the fact that I love you. And I always will. Come on," Katniss said.

Slowly I started pushing back against her. But it wasn't easy. I was weak from my long days in bed and lack of food. "Stop. Don’t touch me," I begged, trying to get away from her.

"Come on. It’s time to go back to bed," she said.

So we slowly started walking down the hall. One of her arms was on my shoulder while the other was around my waist. She was keeping me locked firmly in place against her. I started sobbing even harder as Katniss grabbed my head and pushed it down against her shoulder, running her hands through my hair. She was pushing it back into place as she gently dropped me into my hospital bed. Katniss then crawled in with me. Just like she used to do when we were kids.

"You should have told me," I cried.

I saw the tears rising in the back of Katniss's eyes. "I know, Aspen. I know that I should have told you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I tried to fight the longest to tell you both. But I knew that they were right. It was safer for you not to know. God, I’m so sorry," Katniss said, crying with me.

"Cat..." I whispered desperately.

There was nothing else I could say or do. "I’m so sorry, Aspen. I hate them, too," Katniss said.

And she laid back in the bed, letting me sob into her shoulder. We were curled up together, just as we did after Mr. Everdeen died. For just tonight we were allowed to be those little kids that had lost their father. She was stroking my hair back into place as I wet her shoulder with tears. It was the first time in a month that I had genuinely let all of my emotions come to surface. We both cried together - myself for my loss and Katniss for me - as she hushed me, keeping my head in her shoulder.

I wasn't sure what time I fell asleep. Or even if it was sleep. I just knew that I was somewhere distant, no longer in District 13. Actually, I was back in District 12. It was the first good dream that I'd had in a long time. The first dream in a long time that hadn't involved Cato. It was a memory of being back in school one day. We were younger at the time. A little friendlier. Happier. I was fifteen. Katniss was thirteen. I had gotten bored in class and had gone to see Katniss, who was in lunch at the time.

"Ladies," I chirped, walking into the lunch room and dropping in between Katniss and Madge.

Katniss whipped around to stare at me. "What are you doing here? You should be in class," Katniss hissed.

"Whatever," I said, shrugging her off and stealing a strawberry from Madge, who laughed. "I got bored of listening to how wonderful the Capitol was. Figured I’d come see what you were up to."

It was the weekly lecture on the history of Panem. Today we had been talking about how the Capitol was so strong and unbeatable. How the Districts were fools for trying to rise up during the Dark Days. It had been infuriating to listen to them. Every week for years at a time. I didn't want to have to hear it anymore. So I had feigned feeling sick to go to the bathroom. The teacher had let me out and I'd decided to see what Katniss was up to.

"You’re going to get in so much trouble," Madge said, giggling.

"Worth it," I said.

"Why is that guy staring at you?" Katniss asked.

She was turned back towards another table. I was curious what she was looking at. Some boy. Obviously not in my year. I turned back and saw that it was a boy who was obviously from the merchant sector. Long blonde hair and blue eyes. I recognized him. His family owned one of the coal distribution plants. He was very wealthy. Sixteen, from what I could remember. I didn't know his name but I knew that he was friendly with Peeta Mellark, the boy who had saved my life. He was smiling at me.

I turned back and shrugged my shoulders. "I don’t know," I said.

Madge snorted and looked back at the boy briefly. "Because he’s never seen her. You’re not in this lunch period," Madge explained.

Which was the truth. Twelve, thirteen, sixteen, and seventeen-year-old's ate together. I ate with the fourteen, fifteen, and seventeen-year-old's. "Gross," I muttered.

"I think that you’re the only girl besides us that never cares that boys look at her," Madge said.

"I’ve got no reason to care," I said, shrugging.

"Better things to worry about," Katniss said.

"Exactly," I agreed.

"Well you are really pretty, Aspen," Madge said.

Turning to her, I raised a brow. "What do you want?" I asked.

"Nothing!" Madge chirped.

It was one of the few times that I had genuinely felt like she was a real friend. One of the times where I wasn't concerned that she might rat out Katniss and me about what we were doing. The three of us threw our heads back and laughed. It wasn't uncommon to see Madge laughing. She usually did, but with her friends in the merchant sector. Katniss and I rarely laughed. At least, in public. So to see the three of us laughing together in public was something very strange.

"So we shouldn’t hold our breath for Aspen Antaeus’ wedding?" Madge asked, once we had calmed down.

"Nope, I’ve got my sisters with me. That’s all I need," I said happily.

Madge smiled as I wrapped an arm over Katniss's shoulder, who rolled her eyes at me and threw my arm off. "The one girl in the world that will never suffer a heartbreak," Madge laughed, eating her roll of bread.

"Oh, yeah?" I asked.

"Yeah. Because you’ll never get that attached to someone," Madge said.

"Good," I said.

Katniss rolled her eyes. "Well if you do, I’ll be there for you," she said.

I turned to her, surprised. "Will you?" I asked.

"Sure. Laughing and telling you to get the hell over it," Katniss said.

We all laughed again, something that drew attention from everyone all over the dining room. "And that’s why I love you," I said, wrapping my arm back over her shoulder.

"Miss Antaeus!" a loud voice shouted. All three of us jumped apart as I turned back to see the basic math teacher standing behind us. "I don’t believe that this is your lunch period. Is it?"

"Wow..." I gasped softly, feigning looking around the dining room. "You’re right. I was wondering why all of these people didn’t look familiar. My apologies."

"Go to class," the teacher snapped.

"Yes, ma’am," I said, jumping up and darting back to the classroom.

When I woke up the next morning, there was a brief moment of happiness that was associated with the memory. It reminded me of the way that I had woken up after that night with Cato in the arena. The way that I had felt, so happy for just that moment. But like that day in the arena, I quickly felt the depression seep back into my bones. Because the truth of what was happening came back to my mind. And right now I realized just how horrible that memory was. At least, in regards to what was happening now.

Because I did fall in love with someone. Harder and faster than I had ever thought was possible. And Katniss knew that. She was the one person who genuinely knew what my true feelings were for Cato. She knew just how deeply they ran. I knew that, right now, Katniss would never dare make fun of me. Likely not ever. Not about this, at least. Because she knew just how hurt I was about the loss of Cato. How hurt I would always be, even as years passed, if I was still alive.

Slowly forcing myself to peel my eyes open, I turned back and glanced over. Katniss was still in bed with me. I would have thought that she had left to go back to wherever she was staying once she had realized that I was good and asleep. It was the first time that someone had stayed with me overnight, with the exception of when Gale and Katniss told me about the fate of District 12. It was almost strange to see someone in my bed other than Cato, even though Katniss and I used to share one.

That was also when I realized that someone was standing above me. Someone who wasn't a doctor. They would have woken me up to start running the tests that they normally did in the morning. I jumped slightly when I realized that it wasn't someone that I knew. I was about to scream for Katniss when I realized who it was. Someone that I did know. They were standing above me, smiling, wearing a white suit, just the way that he was the last time that I saw him a number of months ago.

"Peeta..." I whispered. For a moment I glanced back at Katniss. She was still sleeping. Had I finally overdosed on Morphling, as I had been trying to do before? "Am I dead?"

"No. Not yet," Peeta said.

"I wish I was," I mumbled.

"I know. Remember when I visited you after the Quell was announced?"

"Yes."

Of course, it had been a dream after I had passed out from a big hit to the head. "I came because I thought that you needed someone to visit you. That's why I’m here now. I thought that you needed to talk to someone. Anyone but the people here," Peeta said, motioning around us.

"I hate them all," I said, the weakness in my voice distracting from the hostility in my words. "They all knew. No one told me."

"I know. I understand how much you hate them," Peeta said.

"Why didn't they tell me?" I asked him, knowing that he wouldn't have an answer.

"Because they thought that it would be safer. And it very likely is safer. Because at least he can keep you safe if he doesn’t know where you are," Peeta said.

That was when I realized that he would know the truth. Whether or not Cato was alive. He had to know. He was my last option. "Is he alive?" I asked Peeta desperately.

"I can’t tell you that," Peeta said regretfully.

"Peeta, please," I begged.

"You will find out. I promise."

We sat in silence for a moment as he smiled down at me. "Are you in the meadow?" I finally asked.

Peeta smiled. "Yes," he said.

"Is Rue there?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Keep her safe."

"I'll keep her safe. I promise. I'll keep them all safe. You just keep yourself safe," Peeta said.

"And the people?" I asked.

No one cared if I was safe. The only thing that mattered to them was that the people were safe. And I could die for them, as far as the leaders of the rebellion died. "My only concern is you," Peeta said.

"I can't be the one who does this. It should have been Cato. It should have been you. You were always so good with words," I said, making Peeta smile. He always had been the best public speaker that I had known. Cato was a close second. "I can't do it. I can’t say what they need me to. I can’t do what they need."

"I wouldn’t bet on that," Peeta said, giving me a small smile. "Why would people have followed you in the first place?"

"Because I’m brainless," I said, accidentally repeating what Johanna had called me so many times. "I do things first and think second. It’s what got me in so much trouble in the first place."

Peeta grinned down at me. "You’re so strong, Aspen. Don’t let them take that away from you," he said.

"I’m not strong, Peeta," I whined.

"You are. And know that, no matter what, you’re my Mockingjay," Peeta said. I let out a little breath. I couldn't be the Mockingjay. "No matter what you decide to do."

"I wish you were here," I whispered softly.

If there was anyone that I wanted here more than Cato, it was Peeta. But it was too late for that. "I am, Aspen. Always. Right here," Peeta said, pressing a hand against my chest, right over my heart.

"Aspen. Who are you talking to?"

It wasn't Peeta who had just spoken to me. I whipped back around to see that Katniss was staring at me. She was awake now and staring at me like I had lost my mind. Which maybe I had. She looked like she was trying to wipe the sleep out of her eyes. Had my voice woken her up? When I was talking to... Peeta! I whipped back around and realized that Peeta was gone. I was just imagining things. My hands were shaking again. It was the medicine, making me hallucinate.

"Peeta..." I answered her.

Katniss leaned forward and pressed a hand against my leg. "Aspen... Peeta’s not here. He died a year ago," Katniss said, her voice shaking. She didn't like talking about Peeta.

"I know. I know. Just imagining things," I said, trying to shake the feeling of his touch.

"I'm going to go get you something to eat," Katniss said.

I had a feeling she just wanted to walk away for a minute and catch her breath. "I don't want anything," I muttered.

"Well, you have to. I'll be back in a few minutes," Katniss said.

"Okay."

She would have gone to get me food even if I had told her that I didn't want any. I likely wouldn't eat whatever it was that she wanted to get me, but if it made her feel better, I supposed that I could let her. I had spent too long pushing everyone away from me. If nothing else, I could at least try letting some people back in. Katniss, Gale, Ms. Everdeen, and Prim... The people who had always been there for me. Maybe the Hadley's, too, in time.

Slowly I leaned back against the bed. I wanted so desperately to get up and do something. I was sick of feeling useless. But there were always those lingering thoughts. The thoughts about him. I let out a soft breath as I stared up at the ceiling. Was Cato dead? I hoped that he was, as much as I hated to admit it. What were they doing to him if he was alive? It would definitely be something to make him wish that he was dead. His words from the day we got back to the Capitol echoed in my head.

You deserve better than me. You're going to win these Games and go home. You'll never lose anything again.

But I had lost something. I'd lost the thing that mattered most. Him.

I love you. I wish that we would have worked out. I wish that more than anything. I would have married you. Without hesitation. Just know, you are the only person that I've ever loved. You are the only person that I could ever love.

Just like he was the only person that I could love. I could feel my heartbeat speeding up as I thought of him, as I so often did. "Cato... Where are you?" I whispered to the roof.

"Dead. Just the way that you wish that you were," a sudden voice called.

My head turned downwards and I saw that Brutus was standing at the foot of my bed. "Go away. I am not in the mood to talk to you," I snarled.

It was the way that we had always been. I had always hated Brutus. And he had always hated me. From the moment that we had seen each other. He was an asshole who had loved the Games. But now I realized who Brutus really was. Someone who enjoyed fighting, but not the complete control that the Capitol had. I assumed that seeing what had happened to Cato over the past year was enough to turn Brutus off to the Capitol. It was why he was on our side now.

He was one of the only people that completely ignored my feelings. He completely hated me and couldn't have cared less about how much I was hurting. It was something that I almost appreciated. I was sick of people treating me like a broken doll. Brutus never did. He was also the only person who had kept his promise. Brutus had promised Cato that he would keep me safe, as Cato had begged him to. And Brutus had done just that, as much as he probably wished that he hadn't.

"I don't think that you've really been in the mood to talk to anyone these days," Brutus commented.

"So take the hint," I snapped.

"Listen to me," Brutus started, ripping the blankets off of me. I groaned and looked up at him. "Cato was willing to die for you. He'll be thrilled that you made it out of that arena. He was willing to do anything to keep you alive."

"I don't care. I wanted him to live. Haymitch swore to me that he would," I growled.

"You should have known that Haymitch was going to go back on his word."

"Of course I should have. But I didn’t. You were the only one that did what you said you would do. You said that you would keep me safe and you did."

"Trust me, I would have much rather saved him. I hate you."

Sparing my feelings, as always. "I do, too," I snapped.

Brutus sighed and took a seat on the edge of the bed. I had the overwhelming urge to kick him in the head. "But... I do love Cato, in my own way," Brutus said. I was just reminded of the moment that Cato had attacked Brutus for insulting me. But, like Brutus had said, their love was in their own way. "I've known him since he was a baby. Watched him grow up."

"So I've heard," I commented.

"He loved you. More than I've ever seen someone love someone else. He used to wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Couldn't calm down unless we could convince him that you were alright. His only concern was that you were alright. He was so afraid for you," Brutus told me.

Had he really done that? Cato had told me that he did. He had told me about it the day before the Interviews. When we had been up on the roof after Haymitch had kicked us out of the living room. He had been so angry with us. But Cato had mentioned it to me. That Carrie or Dean would usually have to come and calm him down because he was so sure that the Capitol had done something to me. And then he had gotten that picture of us. On my birthday last year.

"By the way, Aspen. Try not to die anymore. It's getting a little tiring saving you."

"Sure thing. Try not to kiss me again unless it's without a pill."

Cato grinned at me. He surprised me by sliding back into the cave and grabbing me around the waist. I gasped as he pulled me against his own chest and held me in a searing kiss. He leaned me back against the rocks as he pushed his hands through my hair. It was a little painful but I did enjoy it. I had never been kissed like that. His hands were tight around me as my heart hammered in my chest. We were together for a few moments before he pulled away and pressed a final kiss on my lips.

"Like that?" Cato asked.

There was something almost soft in his eyes. "Yeah... Like that," I whispered.

That kiss. That kiss had stunned me. It was the first one, genuinely the first one, that I had really been all there for. The kiss after the wolf mutt had been mostly for Sponsors. The one after the Careers had unknowingly trapped me in the tree had been amazing, but it was half so that I could get away from him and half because I was shocked that he had done it. And the one up on the roof I still hadn't been expecting. And I hadn't been in love with him yet. That kiss had been the one to really undo me.

Now my birthday had already passed. And I had been in a Morphling induced haze. I had been practically dead. Maybe I had been passed out for my entire birthday. All I knew was that I wanted him back. I wished that we could have spent my entire birthday together. Doing something actually fun. Actually being in love with each other with no worries about anything else in the world. The tears brimmed in my eyes as I remembered that kiss and each one that had followed.

"I want him back, Brutus," I whispered, allowing myself the momentary weakness.

"I know, kid. I do, too," Brutus said, surprising me.

I had thought that he was going to insult me. But he only gave me a bitter smile. "How do we get him back?" I asked.

"We don’t even know if he’s alive, Aspen," Brutus said, probably trying to be gentle.

Recently I had realized that he was likely still alive. Wishing that he was dead, though. "They'll keep him alive. To torture me, I'm sure. Maybe to try and lure me in, hoping that I'll come and save him," I said softly.

"Yes. You’re probably right about that. But he'll be dead soon enough," Brutus said, almost reassuringly.

"That's all I can think about, all of the time. What are they doing to him? How much are they hurting him?" I admitted.

"Don't do that to yourself. You can't think like that. All you can think about is what you can do to help him," Brutus said.

"Die," I deadpanned.

"No. That's what you would do to help me," Brutus said. I scowled at him. But the comment did make me feel a little amused. Not happy, but I felt something. More than I had in a while. "To help him, you have to help us. Overthrow the Capitol. Destroy them. Just the way that they've destroyed you. You do that and you free Cato."

"If he's still alive," I muttered.

"If he's still alive," Brutus agreed.

"I can't, Brutus. I can't do what they want me to do."

"Why not?"

There were so many reasons. The list went on and on. "Because that's not me. I can't be the Mockingjay. I'm just... Aspen. I'm just some idiot that shoots first and thinks later," I said.

Every action that I made was without thinking. Each time that I did something, I just reacted. My thoughts were never fast enough to catch up with my body. The moment that I had volunteered. All I'd known was that Prim would die if she went and I couldn't let Katniss do it. The many little comments that I'd made to Cato. Each of my reactions out of anger during my private sessions. The flowers for Rue. The knives at the Death Match. Everything. I was the kind of person who acted first and thought... sometimes never.

"Yes. You are," Brutus admitted, making me scowl. "And that’s what makes you right for the job."

"I don't understand," I said dumbly.

"That's why people love you. That's why they support you. Because you're just like them. Just some kid that got sick of the Capitol ruling everything. That's why you're so important to them. Because you are them. Because if you can do it, so can they," Brutus explained.

And I understood where they were coming from. But that didn't mean that I could save them. I couldn't. "But I can't do it. Not anymore. I tried, Brutus... I tried," I said weakly.

"Not hard enough. And if Cato was here, he would be telling you the same thing. Get it together, girl," Brutus sneered harshly. "You love your husband?"

"Yes," I answered, without hesitation.

"Try and imagine that he's still alive. Begging for you. What are you going to do? Leave him there to suffer?"

The sudden thought of Cato, lying on a metal table, as the Capitol continuously tortured him for information that he didn't have was enough to almost make me cry. Burning and branding him. Wrapping barbed wire around his ankles and wrists. Shocking and electrocuting him. Drowning him and stopping just before he died. Feeding him little bits of rotten food with water dirty enough to give him all kinds of sicknesses. Setting some type of semi-lethal mutt on him. Each worse than the next.

"No," I said desperately.

"Then get up and save him," Brutus snarled.

Just a moment later the door flew open. Katniss walked in and looked in between Brutus and I. Her eyes narrowed. "Everything okay?" she asked curiously.

"Yes. Just wanted to see the Mockingjay in person. Not too impressive, I must say," Brutus said, glancing back at me. "But you can be. Think about it, kid. Dry your eyes." That was when I realized that I was crying. Again. As I seemed to always be doing these days. "Leaders of the rebellion don’t cry."

He was halfway to the door when I called him back. "Brutus? Thanks," I said softly.

"Don't get sentimental. I still hate you," Brutus said.

For whatever reason, it almost made me smile. "I know. I hate you, too," I said.

We exchanged something that might have been akin to a friendly gaze with each other. I didn't like Brutus and he didn't like me, but we understood each other. We were some of the few people in here that genuinely felt a real connection with Cato. Some of the few people that really loved him. There were the Hadley's, too, but I couldn't bring myself to speak with them. Not after what had happened to two of their children, because of me. For whatever reason, it was easier and more comfortable to talk to Brutus.

"What was that?" Katniss asked, sitting on the edge of my bed.

"Nothing," I answered.

She didn't need to know about that last conversation. She really hated Brutus, more than she had even hated Cato. From what I had heard, she apparently thought that Brutus was going to betray us. But even he had stepped in at one point and told her that he had no intentions of doing that. Not after what the Capitol had done to Cato. That hadn't stopped them from putting Brutus on lock down for a few weeks, following the breakout of the arena.

Katniss and I sat and ate our... breakfasts? I couldn't even figure out what time it was. To ensure that I was sleeping and not concerned about what hour of the day or night it was, the doctors had removed the clocks from my room. And all of the food in Thirteen tasted so similar. It was impossible to tell without those clocks that were mounted on the wall. We ate in silence for a long time and I leaned back against the bed frame and stared off into space.

If there was one good thing about having Brutus around, it was the fact that Brutus never spared my feelings. He told me everything that I needed to hear without worrying about how it would affect me. He was right about one thing. I needed to get off of my ass and save Cato. Even if he was already dead, I wanted to get his body back. Bury him back home in District 2. And if not, I had to save him. I had to get myself together and be the Mockingjay. For Cato.

"I'm sorry about the vase," I finally said, breaking the silence.

Katniss glanced over at me, obviously surprised by my words. "What?" Katniss asked. Finally she seemed to realize what I was talking about. "Aspen, that was weeks ago. You were upset and I was trying to push you. I shouldn’t have. I’m not upset about it. I never was."

"Still... I shouldn’t have thrown it," I said.

"It's alright," Katniss said.

She moved over and leaned back against the bed frame with me. "How did we get here, Katniss?" I asked softly.

"I don't know," she admitted.

"How did two words land us here?"

Those two stupid words that had escaped my mouth before I could think better of it. Just to save Katniss and Prim. "It would have happened sooner or later. You know that it would have," Katniss reasoned.

We all had known that it was coming sooner or later. "But it didn’t have to happen to me. To us. I just... I didn’t realize what something like this would do. I didn’t realize how awful it would be," I said.

"War isn’t pretty, Aspen. You knew that," Katniss said.

"I know." We sat in silence for a while a while longer. "Cat?" I called.

"Yeah?"

"Do you think he's still alive? Cato?"

"I don't know, Aspen. But there's one way to find out."

"What's that?"

"Do what they want. Get the Districts to join in the fight. We can move in on the Capitol once we're all banded together," Katniss explained. It was likely the plan that they had been forming over the past month. Unite the Districts, move in against the Capitol. "And once we're there, you can go and find him. If he's there, you'll have him back."

"Do you really think that I can do it?" I asked softly.

"I know that you can. You're the only person who can," Katniss said, pushing back the hair off of my forehead.

Cato's P.O.V.

Five Weeks Prior...

The Capitol. He had to be in the Capitol. Right? He remembered being in the hovercraft after Aspen had destroyed the arena. He remembered them telling him that she was dead. Then he had passed out. He had thought that he was dead. But then he had woken back up. Now he had been in the same room for... however long had passed. Cato Hadley wasn't sure. He had no idea how long it had been. He barely even knew who he was. He definitely knew that it didn't look like the Capitol.

He was lying in an all-white room. Blindingly white. He hated opening his eyes. He hated seeing the lights above his head, drilling into his eyes like needles. He knew that people had been bathing him. Keeping him relatively clean. The stiffness in his limbs told him that he had to have been out for at least three or four days. But the numbness in his mind told him that the drug-induced coma that they had placed him in hadn't passed. He just knew that he was in a hospital. He had no idea what was happening elsewhere.

Actually, that wasn't completely true. He had a vague idea that there had been some fighting around the Districts. He had to have been in the Capitol. Yes, that much I know. Because just the other day he was forced to sit down with Caesar Flickerman and give an interview. Just in case Aspen was alive. They wanted her to hear it. It wasn't scripted, but Cato knew exactly what he had to say. The Peacekeepers in the back of the room had made it obvious enough. Call for a ceasefire. He wasn't sure who had seen it.

The only thing that he knew for a fact was that Aspen was dead. No matter what the Capitol thought, Aspen was dead. That was the important thing. The only thing that mattered. He had never been so grateful that Aspen was dead. The thought that should have broken his heart only filled him with relief. He couldn't tolerate the thought that she would be in the clutches of the Capitol. Instead she was safe in her meadow. That was the only thing that mattered.

It would take him a long time to get over the idea that she was gone. Maybe the rest of his life. His very brutal, likely torturous, life. Some nights - or maybe it was the daytime - he would jerk awake and desperately search for her. He would moan her name, fighting back against the bonds to find out where she was. Then someone would stick him with some needle and he would eventually realize that she was dead. Sometimes he would cry, other times he would scream and fight back, and then there were the days that he would laugh happily, thrilled that she wasn't in their grasp.

Suddenly the door to the room was thrown open and two Peacekeepers arrived. They demanded that he came with them almost immediately. He didn't say anything or move without argument. Cato was given the black clothing in their hands and he slowly changed into them, shifting around with slow and deliberate movements. Once he was changed into the simple slacks and long-sleeved shirt, he walked with the Peacekeepers down countless hallways before stopping at a thick wooden door.

The Peacekeepers knocked on the door. "Come in!" an all-too-familiar voice called. The Peacekeepers opened the doors and Cato was pushed in. "Come in, my boy. I was just fending off some of your rabid fans now. Sit down." Cato did as told, seating himself across on the opposite couch from President Snow. "I called you here to thank you."

"Sir?" Cato asked, trying to remain impassive.

"For the success of your interview. You surpassed my wildest expectations," President Snow said.

"I was just saying how I felt," Cato said.

His voice was half-deadened. He had felt dead ever since the arena had blown. And he hadn't dared to talk about why he had only said what he had said because the Peacekeepers had been standing right there. Because he knew what would happen if he even got too close to saying what he really wanted to say. They had been relatively kind to him so far. What would they do if he tried to fight back? He would have to slowly make his way out and join the war efforts. Just the way that Aspen would have wanted.

"Which makes it all the more effective. You know the difference between reality and destructive adolescent fantasies. You were always the thoughtful one. Less impulsive than Aspen. Despite the fact that so many always believed you were the brash one. I always knew that it was her. If Panem follows her arrow into a civil war, we’ll witness something far worse than the Dark Days," President Snow explained.

"Aspen is dead," Cato said numbly.

"Perhaps. But her body was never found in the ruins of the arena. They haven't told you that. You can't know that. But, sooner or later, if the Mockingjay does indeed live, she won't hide forever," President Snow said.

That was something that genuinely shocked Cato. He had to fight to keep his face steady and not react. He thought that she was dead. They had told him that she was dead. But where was she? If she was dead, where was she? Obviously not a captive in the Capitol, like him. She might still be alive out there somewhere. But he couldn't react. He couldn't question it. He just had to pray that she might have really been alive out there and someone was keeping her safe.

In the meantime, he knew that he had to be careful while in the Capitol. It was no longer just about trying to wait out his own death. It was no longer about trying to join her in their meadow. Because she wasn't there. He wanted so desperately to believe that President Snow was telling the truth. She was alive. Somewhere. Who knew? But he could be with her again. One day. Until that day came, he had to protect her. No matter the personal cost. He just had to wait to be back with her.

"She never wanted a war," Cato said slowly.

"And there won't be one if Cato Hadley has anything to say about it," President Snow said.

Tread carefully. Keep Aspen safe. "I don't know what more there is to say. I'm sick of the blood. And from what I've seen, it's more on the hands of the Peacekeepers," Cato said.

President Snow smiled. "My boy. There might be a hundred things in a home that need to be fixed. But that doesn't justify burning it to the ground. We agree a war might end humanity. Keep saying that. It's the sincerity that comes so naturally to you. Mr. Hadley, sometimes in this world, whether we like it or not, we become symbols. And since I am a symbol of power and formality, like a seal on the door, which means I can't always reach into a living room. That has to come from a friend. From someone people feel that they might know. A blacksmith's son. The sooner these uprisings are put to rest... the sooner you'll see your home again," President Snow said.

Home... District 2... He'd almost forgotten about that. He had been so busy with his thoughts of Aspen. And he loved her. But he also loved his home. He missed his family. He wanted them to know that he was alive. One day he wanted to be back with them. He wanted to be with all of them. His family, Aspen, and hers. That was what they all deserved. And if he was careful enough, with his actions and words, that was exactly what was going to happen.

"So you're asking me to be what, sir? Your voice of reason?" Cato finally asked.

"You've understood everything but one, small, detail. I'm not asking," President Snow warned.

Aspen's P.O.V.

Present Day...

Later that day I was sitting on the bed in the hospital again. We hadn't moved from here in a long time. It was the only place that I felt even mildly comfortable. Katniss was still with me and now Prim was here, too. She was the one person that I had never lost my temper with. Because I knew she didn't deserve it. But we rarely spoke. Now I was laying in Prim's lap as she slowly brushed my hair. Which was good, since it was extremely tangled. We weren't speaking but Katniss was humming under her breath.

A moment later the door opened and we all straightened up. A dark-skinned man that appeared to be in his mid-forties was standing up against the wall. He was in an all-black uniform of a soldier. Different from the jumpsuits that everyone else wore. It meant that he was a soldier. I could also tell by his impeccable posture. He was bald and had deep brown eyes. He looked friendly enough but I still tensed up at the sight of him. Katniss positioned herself slightly in front of me as Prim grabbed my hand.

"Miss Antaeus. Or do you prefer to be called Hadley?" the man asked.

"Does anyone even care what I prefer to be called? As long as I'm the Mockingjay," I growled under my breath.

"Antaeus it is, then," the man decided. "Colonel Boggs, District Thirteen's head of security." I nodded blankly at him. "I know you've been discharged, but President Coin's requested to meet with you first."

President Coin... I'd heard her name mentioned but no one had actually forced the two of us to meet. I had assumed that they'd been giving us time. "I don't want to meet her," I sneered.

"It's an order, I'm sorry," Boggs said.

"No, you're not. None of you are," I said.

"You're right," Boggs said.

In a way, he reminded me of Brutus. But Boggs seemed at least a little friendlier. And I didn't know him. I did know Brutus. "You’re the first person that hasn’t been afraid to spare my feelings," I admitted.

"What good would that do?" Boggs said, not in a cruel way.

"What does she want that can't be delivered through you?" I asked.

"Come with me, please," Boggs requested.

"You should go, Aspen. Do you want me to come with you?" Katniss offered.

"Just Miss Antaeus. President Coin's orders," Boggs said.

Suddenly something occurred to me. If there was something about President Coin wanted, and she couldn't send someone to tell me,it might have been some news about the Capitol. It might have been news about the war. It might have been news about the other Districts uniting themselves. Obviously the Capitol hadn't won. Not if we were still alive. So had we made a big victory? Or, was it possible, that they had found Cato?

"Is there any news?" I asked, a mixture of fear and excitement in me.

"I'm just here to escort you," Boggs said.

Quickly I gave Katniss and Prim well-wishes. They both wished me luck with a promise that they would speak to me later, if I needed it. Which I had a feeling would likely happen. But I would manage. Prim gave me a small hug and Katniss patted me on the shoulder. They were both worried about my well-being. As they likely always would be. I quickly changed from the hospital robe that I had been in for so long and slipped on one of the jumpsuits for the first time.

It had been so long since I had worn actual clothing. It almost reminded me of the way that I was dressed for the Seventy-Fifth Games. My hands started to shake but I forced myself to remain steady as Boggs led me out of the hospital room. So we walked out together. For a while I didn't speak. And neither did Boggs. I had been here for a little over a month - as far as I could tell - but they hadn't actually let me walk around. I would only run off to the boiler room during my nightmares.

Even after being in District 13 for just over a month, I still had yet to meet President Coin. I had only heard a little bit about her. Evidently she was stern and strict about the rules, but everyone understood that she was a good leader who cared for her people. I wasn't sure that I cared about how she ruled. I just cared that she had never come to our aid. And I had a feeling that she'd had no desire to meet me unless I agreed to be the Mockingjay. I didn't know who had convinced her to meet me now.

Currently we were in an elevator and heading down. Down and down and down. Even further underground than we already were. Everything in District 13 was dark and lit up with these horrible bright white lights. The same ones in the hospital. Everything looked much older than it did in the Capitol, but it was much more impressive than District 12. But I didn't like being down here. It felt a little strange. I liked being up in the air in the trees. Not suffocating under the dirt.

"We were always told there was nothing left of Thirteen," I commented.

"Capitol bombed the surface to rubble. But we're military, so we learned to survive down here. Preparing, training," Boggs explained.

"You were born here, then?" I asked.

This whole time, there were people here. Just waiting to fight. "Yes. Born and raised. To know everything that happened in the Dark Days and the rebellion and the Hunger Games," Boggs explained.

"But never offer any help to the Districts," I sneered.

"We just had to wait for our opportunity. We're here now," Boggs said.

"You're seventy-five years too late."

"Maybe not. The war never stopped for us."

"It never stopped for us either. Just ask the one thousand seven hundred and thirty-one families who have lost their children to the Hunger Games," I sneered under my breath.

That was when I noticed something in Boggs' eyes. Something that looked a little strange to me. Something that I hadn't seen much of since arriving to District 13. Understanding. Everyone felt guilty for not saving Cato. But no one truly understood. Boggs didn't look very happy about my last comment. But he said nothing as the elevator opened and we were let out into the hallway. Immediately I noticed that everyone was staring at me as we walked. Probably because they hadn't seen me yet.

There was a lot of muttering from the crowd out in District 13. As much as they had seen from me on their televisions, none of them had seen me in reality. And there was also the problem that they had known that I was here in Thirteen. But none of them had known when they would actually get a chance to see me. Plus they all thought that I was recovering from a miscarriage. Which apparently took time. Up to a month. They should have been expecting to see me anyways.

Eventually we turned down a corridor that very few people were standing in. I was grateful for the loss of whispering. And the loss of those horrible faces. The ones who felt so guilty. At the loss of my husband and unborn baby. We ultimately entered something that looked like a war planning room. Plutarch, Beetee, and a woman that I assumed to be President Coin were in the room. Beetee was now in a wheelchair that was pressed up against the table.

Slowly my gaze turned back over to President Coin. She was the only person here that I had never met. And, up until now, had seemed to have no interest in meeting me. She was wearing a very covering gray suit that buttoned up to her throat. Her hair was gray and pin straight, ending at exactly the same length just below her shoulders. There were two strips in the front of her hair that were almost white. And her eyes were almost a bright yellow. She looked to be in her fifties.

Plutarch led Coin over to where Boggs and I were standing. She had an eerily similar appearance to Snow. At least, I thought she did. "There she is. Our Girl on Fire," Plutarch said, smiling.

"Don't call me that," I snarled.

"Would you prefer Mockingjay?" Plutarch asked.

"I would prefer if you had left me in that arena to die," I said bluntly.

As much as I would have loved to try and pull myself together, I was still angry and heartbroken. "Some of the Morphling may still be in her system," Plutarch told Coin softly. "Madam President, may I present you with the Mockingjay."

"What an honor it is to meet you," Coin said, walking forward.

She grabbed my hand and shook it gently. "Is that so?" I asked.

"Of course," Coin said, surprised.

"Aspen, just hear her out. Please," Beetee said, speaking to me for the first time in weeks.

I glanced down at Beetee before looking back up at Coin. "You're a courageous young woman. I know how disorienting this must be. And I can't imagine what it's like to live through the atrocities of those Games," she said.

"No. You can't," I said, speaking before I could think better of it. "Because you’ve never had to live through them. You’ve never had to watch your children be sent off to die. Never known to start counting your days. Never even stepped in to help."

If she was offended by my words, she didn't make it obvious. She turned back towards Plutarch and smiled. "And you said that she wasn’t a good public speaker," she told him. I scowled at them both as Coin turned back to me. "We had reasons for sitting back and waiting for the opportune moment."

"If only we'd all had that luxury. Time," I said.

Now Plutarch was scowling at me. "Okay, why don’t you go back to your stony silence?" he suggested gently. I shrugged my shoulders. "Aspen, President Alma Coin."

Not that I hadn't figured that out by now. "Please know how welcome you are," Coin said, reaching out to place a hand on my arm.

"Don't touch me," I snapped, jerking away from her.

"My apologies," Coin said, placing her hands back in front of her, not looking offended at my bark. "I understand that you need time. I hope you'll find some comfort with us. We've known loss in Thirteen, too."

"This is history. Right here at this table," Beetee said.

For a moment I turned down to look at him. "I apologize. I wish you had more time to recover, but unfortunately, we don't have that luxury," Coin said, drawing my attention back to her. "Please, have a seat."

"A month is plenty," Plutarch said.

"Theoretically, Aspen should have been given at least two or three months to recuperate," Beetee said.

Recovering in what way? Was he still playing at the pregnancy card? Did Coin know the truth? Maybe. Maybe not. I doubted she would say anything about it either way. Maybe he was talking about the electrical shock, which I had a feeling the effects had long since passed. Or maybe he was talking about the concussion. I knew that much was still lingering. The doctors had told me that much. Slowly I took a seat next to Coin, with Beetee on one side and Plutarch sitting on Coin's other side.

"Are you aware of what's happened?" Coin asked.

"They've told me. I try not to listen," I admitted.

"When you fired your arrow at the force field you electrified the nation. There have been riots and uprisings and strikes in seven Districts. We believe that if we keep this energy going we can unify the Districts against the Capitol. But if we don't, if we let it dissipate, we could be waiting another seventy-five years for this opportunity," Coin said, trying to press the gravity of the situation.

But that didn't stop my mouth from getting the best of me. "So that's why you waited so long. To let someone else do the hard work?" I offered nastily.

"Everyone in Thirteen is ready for this," Coin said, ignoring my last comment.

"What about Cato? Is he alive?" I asked Plutarch, ignoring Coin.

Plutarch shook his head, having the decency to at least look sorry. "I don't know. And I wish that I did. But there's no way for me to contact my operatives inside the Capitol," Plutarch admitted.

"Find one. Tell me that he's alive and I'll fight," I said honestly.

That was a surefire way to get me to fight. In the meantime, I was so angry about everything that had happened. I was so angry with them and I couldn't get over it. "We can't. We need you to take our word for it that we'll do everything that we can for him if he's still alive," Plutarch promised.

"Like you did in the arena?" I snarled.

Obviously they were not happy with my words and refusal to cooperate. "The Capitol has always suppressed communication between the Districts. But I know their system very well. I managed to break through," Beetee said, trying a different tactic.

But that didn't make sense. "What does that mean?" I asked dumbly.

"All we need now is the perfect message," Beetee said.

"Aspen, here's what we need to do," Plutarch said. "We need to show them that the Mockingjay's alive and well -"

"Well..." I said, laughing humorlessly.

"- and willing to stand up and join this fight," Plutarch continued, ignoring my little quip. "'Cause we need every District to stand up to this Capitol. The way you did. So we're gonna shoot a series of propaganda clips, propos, I like to call them, on the Mockingjay. Spreads the word that we're gonna stoke the fire of this rebellion. The fire that the Mockingjay started."

"I meant to be a martyr. To die in that arena. The way that Haymitch promised me I would," I said stubbornly. A moment later I saw a figure move out from the shadows and I turned back to see that Seneca Crane was walking out and towards the table. "The way that you promised me that I would."

These days, Seneca was, surprisingly enough, the person that was trying the hardest to help me. "I tried to help him out of there. But it was always about something bigger than that. It was always about getting you out," Seneca whispered, looking guilty.

"Not me," I snarled, earning confused looks from across the table. "Not Aspen Antaeus. The Mockingjay. If it had been Johanna, you would have let me die to get her out of there. You don’t care about me. Just what they call me."

"You're right," Plutarch said, surprising me. I hadn't thought that he would actually agree with me. "But we need you. The Districts need you. You have more right than anyone else to hate the Capitol. Help us finish them off, once and for all."

"Do it yourself. As you've obviously been managing for so long," I snarled.

"It was all underground. Until you. Until you became the face of the rebellion. Until people saw someone that could stand up and fight back. Someone just like you. A simple girl from District 12. Someone to follow. Because if she could do it, so could they," Plutarch said, trying to be encouraging.

But the anger was back. A radiating fury. "You left him there," I snarled, leaning into Plutarch. "You left Cato in that arena -"

"Aspen -" Plutarch started.

"- to die," I finished.

"There are so many -" Plutarch started again.

But I cut him off by slamming my hand down on the table, making everyone jump slightly. "Cato was the one who was supposed to live!" I shouted loudly.

"Miss Antaeus," Coin said loudly, distracting me from what was sure to be a marvelous temper tantrum. "This revolution is about everyone. It's about all of us. And we need a voice."

"Then you should've saved Cato," I snarled at her, rising to my feet.

"Aspen -" Seneca started.

I whirled around so fast that I practically flew off of my feet from the remnants of the concussion. "I'm done being a piece in everyone's games. Yours, theirs; it's no different. You use people and then dispose of them. Find a new Mockingjay. It won’t be that hard. In the meantime, leave me alone. Let me die," I snarled.

"Cato wouldn't want that," Seneca said gently.

Another humorless laugh escaped my mouth. "Since when did you care what Cato wanted? Since you brought me in your bed and threatened those two little girls?" I asked, earning a surprised look from both Coin and Beetee. Seneca's face flushed. "One of them is dead. Did you know that?"

"Yes," Seneca said regretfully. "And I was very sorry to hear that."

"Don't ever call me back in here. Not unless you get him back," I told them all.

Without giving them a chance to say anything else, I turned back and stormed out of the room. There was nothing that I wanted from them. The only thing that I wanted that they could give me was Cato. Unless they got him back, I wanted them far away from me. To my surprise, I didn't leave the room alone. Boggs followed me. I had thought that he would stay with Coin, being her second-in-command. But clearly he was here for me.

Turning back just for a moment, I realized that there was a strange look on his face. My fists were clenched at my sides as angry tears began to run down my face. More crying that I was powerless to stop. Boggs fell into step at my side. It was obvious enough by looking at Boggs that he wasn't used to seeing displays of emotion like I just had. Particularly in a place with so many cold and hardened soldiers. It was very obvious that he wasn't used to people like me.

"You genuinely loved him," Boggs said softly.

"Love," I corrected quickly. "He’s gone, but it isn't."

"We see everything here in Thirteen. During the Games." I nodded absentmindedly. "I remember, in the Seventy-Fourth, when people questioned if it was genuinely an act or if it was real," Boggs said.

My head snapped over towards him. It was the same thing that President Snow had once told me. How people had questioned if love was my motive for what I had done or if it had been an act of defiance, hidden by love. The truth was that I was in love with Cato the whole time. But that didn't mean that all of my actions had been for love. Some of them had been just to show the Capitol that they couldn't control me. But there had always been love there.

Where had it started? That was the question that I used to think about each time that Katniss would try and act interested in my love life. She would ask me when I had really felt it. For the first time, when I had known that something was there. When I had known that it wasn't just a flirtation and wasn't just me trying to get it out of my system before I died. It had taken me a long time, but I had figured it out. And the entire world had watched it happen. We had been talking about him killing Clove at some point.

"How can you do that?" I asked.

"Don't think. Just kill," Cato said.

"That's what I tell myself when I hunt."

"Tributes?"

"Animals. I guess there's not much of a difference."

"No. There is. They teach us that killing isn't so bad. But I remember what my mother once told me. When I first told him that I wanted to come into the Games. She was proud of me but she said, 'Remember something. To murder an innocent person will change you. You'll never be the same. And there will be one person that haunts you forever.' I ignored her at the time. Now I can't."

What had followed was the first kiss that I had initiated. I remembered feeling that little flip of my heart. I remembered feeling that he was the kind of person that I had never thought that I would meet. I remembered feeling just how horrible it was that we only had so little time to spend to each other. I remembered wishing that we hadn't pulled apart. The real kiss that had genuinely dazed me was in the cave on my birthday, but that was where it had genuinely started. Me falling so desperately in love with him.

"It was real. Every part of it," I said softly.

"I didn’t know that at the time. I know it now," Boggs said, somewhat reassuringly.

"Now is too late," I muttered.

In the War Room...

Everyone was frustrated with Aspen Antaeus. But the question always came. How for could they go when it came to her? What could they say to her that wouldn't seem insensitive? They all felt badly over what had happened between Aspen and Cato. They all knew that she would be hard to get on board once they lost the boy. But they had been hoping by now that she would get over it. Although it became obvious very quickly that she wasn't going to work with them anytime soon.

"Maybe you should have rescued the boy instead," Coin suggested to Plutarch.

"Oh, no. No, no, listen to me. No one else can do this but her. And the boy... Remember that just a year ago he was a Career Tribute from District 2. Careers are universally hated by all those in the other Districts. The Districts who make up the majority of the rebels. Things have gotten better concerning him with the way he's fallen in love with Aspen, but it has to be her," Plutarch reassured the leader of District 13.

"She can't do it," Coin said.

Seneca Crane stepped forward, having a sudden urge to protect Aspen. Just as he had for a long time now. "Aspen is capable of much. She just has to be reminded of what she's capable of," Seneca said.

Coin stared at him for a moment before shifting her gaze to Plutarch. "This is not the girl you described," Coin pointed out.

"You heard the way that she was speaking. That girl, the girl who became the Mockingjay through her own actions, so accidentally, is still there," Plutarch said. Coin stared at him, unconvinced. Maybe she once had been. But not anymore. "We just have to find her. Remind her of who she is."

"She wants to die," Coin said.

"She wants to die because she thinks that Cato is dead. It would help to remind her that Cato wanted her to be brave," Seneca said, only all-too-aware of how much Aspen genuinely had, and still did, love Cato Hadley. "To end the reign of the Capitol."

If she had even managed to change Seneca's ideals about the Games and the Capitol, she could easily to do it to the rest of the people in the Districts. And, if they were brave enough, maybe even some people in the Capitol would start siding with her. It was the fact that she had managed to change him, show him just how cruel the Games and everything that came with them were, that was the reason that Seneca was fighting so hard against the Capitol now. Everything was for her. The rebellion always would be.

"She can't do that. She's changed," Coin said.

"Well obviously, we need to make it personal. Remind her who the real enemy is," Plutarch said, an idea forming in his mind.

"She knows who the enemy is, that's not the issue," Coin said.

"Unless she's forgotten. There’s explaining and there's showing. Let her see the footage that the Capitol sent out. The broadcast," Plutarch said, surprising the other two in the room.

If there was one thing that would hurt Aspen more than everything already had, it was showing her that. "That's cruel. To show her that," Seneca said.

"That's war," Plutarch said regretfully.

"She can’t see that. It would only make things worse," Seneca said determinedly.

"Seneca is correct. She can't handle it. The Games destroyed her," Coin said.

The Games hadn't destroyed her permanently. Seneca knew that. But that footage might. "This is the only choice you have. People don't always show up the way you want them to, Madam President. But that anger, that anger-driven defiance, that's what we want. And we can redirect it. We need to unite these people out there that have been doing nothing but killing each other in an arena for years. We have to have a lightning rod. They’ll follow her. She’s the face of the revolution. Let her see it," Plutarch said.

"She can't see that," Seneca said determinedly.

Coin turned to him in surprise. "You genuinely do care for her," she said slowly.

"Yes. I do," Seneca admitted, wishing that he hadn't done everything to Aspen that he had. Because she would never know how deeply he did care for her. "Don't show her that footage."

Coin turned back to Plutarch. "You genuinely think that this will work?" she asked.

"I think that it will at least motivate her to do something," Plutarch said.

"Do it," Coin demanded Beetee.

Aspen's P.O.V.

A long time had passed. Or maybe it hadn't. It felt like hours had passed. Of course, with no clock on the wall it became hard to tell just how much time had passed. All I knew was that I was back in my hospital room, alone. It had taken me a long time to convince Boggs that I wasn't going to off myself while he wasn't paying attention. Honestly I wasn't really sure that I wanted to die. Because I knew that it was selfish. Because I knew that Cato wouldn't have wanted me to do that. He would want me to fight.

In the back of my mind I knew that I should have gotten up and done something. Anything. The people had seen me. They knew that I was awake and physically recovered. I should have gone and walked around District 13. Seen what it had to offer. But I didn't want to leave and find my new room assignment. Because I got the sleeping medicine when I was in here. It made the nightmares worse sometimes, but at least it knocked me out right away. I wouldn't get it if I left and went to the barracks.

And I didn't want to scare Prim was my deafening screams. Even though I knew that I wouldn't. She wasn't that weak little girl from just over a year ago. She would be at school right now and volunteering in the hospital later. She always seemed to be busy with them. Ms. Everdeen was always working in the hospital. I had absolutely no desire to see the Hadley family. Right now, at least. Katniss was at work right now. She hadn't told me what she did yet. Something about training.

It was obvious that she was hoping to be out on the front lines of the war efforts. I knew that she could do it. She was a fantastic shot and had the fire under her veins that we needed. She would have made a good Mockingjay. Not me. All I knew was that she was ready to get out there and fight. It was something that I wished that I could do. I wished that I could motivate myself to get up and pick up a weapon again. And I would... I believed that. In time.

Suddenly the door was thrown open. I jumped slightly, fearing that it was the doctors for another psychological profile. But it was only Gale. He walked in and seated himself at the edge of my bed. I waited for him to speak but he said nothing. And I said nothing. There was nothing that I could think to say to him right now. He dropped by sometimes but we never spoke. Barely even looked at each other. We hadn't actually spoken since the day that he told me that District 12 was gone.

As much as I knew that I should have been grateful that he still wanted to be around me, after everything that I had put him through over the past year and a half, I found myself irritable that he was here. Not really because he was here. But just because I wanted to be left alone for a while. But they didn't like leaving me alone. They thought that I would kill myself. But I just wanted to think about Brutus and Katniss' words. I wanted to be the Mockingjay. But I couldn't. I also really wanted to hit someone.

My hands were shaking again. "You might want to take a few steps back," I warned.

"Why?" Gale asked, finally looking at me.

He turned towards me as I curled my knees up to my chest. "Because I have the overwhelming urge to hit you. And I think that if I do hit you, I won't stop," I said honestly. Gale looked unaffected. "And I know you well enough to know that you won't hit back."

"You'd have every right," Gale said, well aware of how angry I was that he had hidden the truth.

"I know," I said.

"I'm sorry, Aspen. I really am," Gale muttered.

An irrational anger shot through me. I sat upright, practically placing myself nose-to-nose with Gale. "You know, I am so sick of hearing people tell me how sorry they are. Everyone is sorry. Everyone wishes that it had happened differently. But it didn't. It happened like this. And no one really cares. The only thing that they care about is that their Mockingjay won’t help. So they say sorry, thinking that it might change something," I snarled, finally admitting how I felt.

Gale reached out for my hand. I tried to yank myself back but his grip on me tightened. He wouldn't let me pull away anymore than I already had. "You can change things," Gale said determinedly.

"If you tell me to be the Mockingjay, I'll scream. And then I will hit you. And then I'll break something. And I won't stop. I want to break something. I want to rip everyone to pieces. I don't know if I'm angry, or heartbroken, or just actually broken. But this is a feeling that I wouldn't wish on anyone," I said, my voice cracking.

"It's helplessness," Gale said softly.

"Oh, no. It is so much more than that," I answered.

Honestly I wasn't even sure what it was. But it was utter misery. The two of us sat in an awkward silence for a while. Gale had never been the best speaker and I had never been very level-headed. It was bad enough that things had been very tense between the two of us for the past few weeks. It was bad enough that we had barely spoken. Mostly because I was still angry about everything that had happened. Gale was my best friend, he knew, and he still hadn't told me.

"You'll be pleased to know that Buttercup isn't here," Gale said, finally breaking the long silence.

"So I noticed. They don't seem to like animals too much here," I said.

Prim must have hated not having Buttercup here. "They're against the rules," Gale said.

The two of us looked over at each other and just stared. The way that we always had. Looking at each other, reading our faces, looking for the hints of hidden emotion. After a minute I leaned in and hugged Gale. I was sick of being so angry with him. He tensed up for a moment before relaxing and letting me lean into his arms. Just as I had so many times before. He pressed his cheek against the top of my head as I finally relaxed into his arms. The first time that I had been relaxed in weeks.

"It's been a long time since you actually hugged me," Gale muttered into my hair.

"I know."

"Didn't think you'd ever do it again."

"Me either," I admitted.

We stayed together for a few more moments before Gale gently pushed me off. We kept our hands linked. "You know, Cato brought me off to the side the day of your wedding," Gale said.

That was news to me. "Did he?" I asked.

"Yeah. He asked me to keep an eye on you after he was gone. He asked me to take care of you," Gale said. Bile built up in my throat. I knew Cato well enough to know where that conversation had gone. "And he asked me to... help you move on. When the time was right."

Even from beyond the grave, Cato was still pushing me towards Gale. I could almost laugh. "He told me the same thing. A number of times before... everything," I said awkwardly.

This wasn't a conversation I was prepared for yet. "I won't push you. But I'm here. Whenever you need me," Gale said.

Good. I couldn't deal with more of those conversations. Not right now. "Thanks. I’m sorry about everything, Gale. Everything from the moment that I went into the arena last year," I said, seeing as there wasn't enough time to apologize for everything.

"Don’t apologize, Aspen. It was my fault. I shouldn't have kept pushing you. I knew that you were in love with him and I was just angry about it. So I took it out on you," Gale admitted.

"And I pushed too hard for you to get to know him. We both did things wrong," I said, owning up to my own mistakes.

Gale gave a gentle shrug, letting me know that he didn't mind my previous attitude. "I guess we did. I'm going to keep my promise to him. The only promise that I ever made to him. I'll protect you, Aspen. I'm going to watch out for you. Whenever you need me, however you need me, I'll be here. You just let me know," Gale promised.

As in, friend right now, lover one day, husband eventually, and maybe even the father to my real children. The exact promise that Cato had made Gale keep. The promise that I hadn't had time to make Skye or Julie keep. Not that it mattered. It was too late now. And right now I couldn't even think about something like that. It would take time. Maybe forever. But that was Gale. He would wait for me forever. Even if he would never be what Cato was to me. Guilt wracked through me. For both Cato and Gale.

"Right now I just need you to be my best friend. Help me through this," I begged.

Gale wrapped an arm around my shoulder. "Always, Aspen," he promised, the same promise that Cato had given me so many times before. "This is the first time that you haven't looked heartbroken in a long time."

"I still am. But I'm trying to figure things out. Trying to figure out if I have what it takes to be the Mockingjay," I muttered.

"You do," Gale said.

"Maybe. But I didn't want it."

"No one ever wants what they get when it comes to things like this. They just get what gets thrown at them."

"Katniss thinks that I can do it."

"We agree on that matter."

Slowly I turned to face him. "Really?" I asked.

Gale smiled and pushed the hair back out of my face. "Really. You're tough, Aspen. I know that you are. And if there's one thing that you can do for Cato... It's ending this. The Capitol's reign. The Hunger Games. All of it. Once and for all. And we need the Mockingjay to do that," Gale said, using the one argument in his arsenal that could motivate me.

Cato... What he wanted me to do. But... "No one ever asked what I needed," I said, my voice breaking.

Pain flashed behind Gale's eyes. "I care about what you need. What do you need?" he asked.

"That's a long list."

"What’s something that I can do for you? Right now," Gale said.

Bring my husband back. "Just stay with me," I whispered.

"Always," Gale promised.

It was the same thing that Cato had told me so many times before. Maybe that was why it had always been so hard for me to let go of Gale. Because he reminded me so much of Cato. I sniffled softly as Gale laid back and allowed me to curl into the crook of his shoulder. The tears started a moment later. Gale wrapped an arm around my shoulder. My rock, as he always had been. Slowly I started to sob into him. I missed Cato more than I had ever thought was possible. His loss was slowly killing me.

"I hate this. I never used to cry," I said, through an annoyingly tearful voice. "Now I can't stop. Even when Mr. Everdeen died, I didn't cry. They were these horrible dry sobs, but I didn't cry. Over the past year... I've cried a lot more than I care to admit."

Gale pressed a small kiss against my forehead. "Doesn't make you weak. You're the strongest person that I know. Who else could have survived everything that you did?" Gale offered.

"Not even me, Gale. I'm alive. But I'm not living," I admitted.

"We're going to fix that. I promise."

How? But I didn't ask that because I knew that he wouldn't have an answer. We laid together in silence before something dawned on me. "Did you come here for something?" I asked.

"Just to see how you were doing. I wanted to make sure that you were okay," Gale said.

"Well... you've seen," I muttered.

The two of us sat together for a long while after that. I didn't know how long it had been but I didn't care. For once, I didn't want that clock in the room. I wanted to just enjoy the peace that I felt being with Gale. It wasn't quite like being with Cato, but it was some form of comfort. As I laid in his shoulders I managed to drift off. Only for a few minutes though, before I had been roused by another nightmare. But finally someone had been there to calm me down.

Gale hadn't seen many of the nightmare-driven panics that I usually woke up in. He was clearly startled by my movements but he managed to calm himself down before reassuring me that everything was okay. Which it wasn't, but I appreciated the lie. I stayed awake afterwards, just lying on his arm. We only exchanged a few comments from time to time but I was glad to have him around me. A while later Gale glanced down at his watch and slowly pried himself away from me. It was his time to go to training.

After placing a small kiss against my forehead, he turned and got ready to leave. One of these days I would have to force myself to get off of my ass and go to training. He promised that he would come back and see me soon. I knew that some meal was coming up soon. I could tell by the way that the doctors were moving around. But I didn't eat in the dining room. I always ate in the hospital wing by myself. It was the only way that I could suffer through eating. Horrified, wondering if Cato was being starved.

That was why I wanted to be alone. Just in case I was hit with a panic attack. For a while it had also been so that I wouldn't have to eat anything. But now I was determined to eat something. Just to try and build up my strength again. I wanted to try and go out there to see what was happening. So I could go out there and try to be the Mockingjay. I would give it a try first. Before diving in headfirst. Because I knew that they were all right, as much as I hated to admit it.

If there was any chance that Cato was still alive, there was only one thing that I could do that could possibly save him. I had to go and become the Mockingjay. That was the only thing that would help him at this point. The rebels would advance on the Capitol once I could manage to join the Districts. I could manage it. I knew that I could. I genuinely believed that. Because I had done it when I'd blown up the arena. I could do whatever I needed to do. If it meant that he would live.

At that point I could even try breaking into the center of the Capitol. There was a chance that I could get into the palace. It wouldn't be easy. But I could give my own life to do it. I could get in and rescue Cato. There was a chance that it might not work, but I had to try. I had to try to save Cato. There was a good likelihood that he wasn't even alive, and it was probably better that he wasn't, but I was so desperate to save him. As I always had been.

The door hissed open and I glanced up to see Katniss walk into the room. "Get some sleep?" she asked, looking at the rumpled sheets.

"Let's go out to the dining room," I said, standing from the bed.

"Really?" Katniss asked, surprised.

"Yeah. I want to get out of here," I said.

"Okay. Come on," Katniss said.

It was the happiest that I had seen her looking in a long time. Because she knew that I was finally ready to try. The two of us headed out of the hospital together. Katniss was standing very close to me. Even though I had been discharged more than once, I hadn't been able to bring myself to leave. The first time that I had left the hospital was earlier today when Boggs had brought me to the War Room. We headed out and down some hallway that I had never been down before.

Suddenly I realized that I had never bothered to look around District 13. Never when I was walking back and forth, trying to hide from my nightmares. I hadn't even looked that much when I had headed into the elevator with Boggs. Now I noticed that it looked very tense. The air was thick and the lights were dark. There were only the florescent lights that provided any way to really see each other. Everyone looked exactly the same. Everything was made out of metal. Nothing natural. Not like District 12 had been.

About halfway to the dining room, Boggs met up with us. He didn't say anything, even as I looked over at him, but he fell into step with me. We were about to enter what appeared to be the dining room when I realized that people were lined up. They were placing their arms underneath some type of scanner. One at a time, not looking in pain or mildly interested in what was happening. It looked like they were getting something tattooed on them. Almost like in the Capitol. But these were lines. My brow raised.

"What is that?" I asked softly.

"Every morning they get a temporary tattoo on the underside of their arm that shows their daily schedule. It shows where to be and what activities are to be performed at specific times. Meals are scheduled regularly every day, while others might vary significantly. Eventually the ink breaks down and gets washed off in preparation for the next day," Katniss explained.

"Controlling," I muttered.

"Yeah. It is," Katniss agreed.

"You sound like a robot," I said, referring to her explanation.

"So do you," Katniss shot back.

That was when I realized what she had just said. "Is it morning?" I asked.

It felt like it should have been at least mid-afternoon. "Yeah. You woke up in the middle of the night and have been awake since then," Katniss said. I nodded at her and groaned a second later, placing my hands against my temple. A searing pain from the site of impact from the coil. "You okay?"

The concern was clear in her voice. "Headache," I answered.

"Want to go back and get some more medicine?" Katniss offered.

"No."

It was time for me to wean myself off of the medicine. It wouldn't be fun, but I needed to do it. I needed to get off of my ass and do something. Together we headed into the dining hall. I hadn't stood this much in weeks. Probably the exact reason that the headache was coming on. There were a number of people who were sitting around the tables. They were all staring at me and muttering but I ignored them. I didn't want to hear what they were saying. I didn't want any of them looking at me.

"Do you want to sit with someone?" Katniss asked.

"No. Just us. Where's Gale?" I asked, looking around.

"I'm not sure. Come on. Let's see if we can find him," Katniss said.

They were the only three people that I wanted to sit with right now. Except Prim, who was working. As the two of us wound in and out of the tables, there was a loud shriek and everyone turned up to see that there was a message on the screen. But it wasn't from District 13. It had the Capitol seal. Katniss and I had just seated ourselves. But the moment that I saw the Capitol seal I stood up from the table and moved in front of the screen. People were muttering as President Snow took the screen.

"A reminder to the rebels… of the fate of all those who support the Mockingjay," President Snow said.

"What is this?" I asked Katniss weakly.

"I don't know," Katniss said.

"Do they know that I'm alive?" I asked.

"I don't think so. I think that they're just guessing," Katniss said.

"Hey. It's okay," Gale said, appearing at my side.

The two of them had their arms around me. This was a message for me. I was smart enough to know that. Which meant that this was likely going to be one thing. Someone was suddenly thrown down into the screen. I stilled for a moment, letting out a strangled sob, fearing that it was Cato. But the dark skin tone, black shirt, and familiar figure told me that it wasn't. It was someone whom I had thought was already dead the last time that I had seen them.

"Cinna!" I shouted.

Some of the people who had been watching the screen in horror whipped back to stare at me. Now there was even more pity in their eyes. Because everyone knew just how much I cared about Cinna. How much I loved him. How much I had been convinced that he was already dead. I lunged at the screen, although there was no reason to do that. But I couldn't just stand here and do nothing. Gale caught me around the waist and kept me pressed against him.

"It's okay. It's okay. You can't get to him. It's a recording. This has already happened, Aspen," Gale said.

"Cinna..." I begged.

"Look away, Aspen. Don't watch it," Katniss whispered.

Gale had me pulled flush against his chest as Katniss stood at my back, brushing back my hair. I knew that they were right. I knew that I shouldn't have been watching this. I knew that it was the wrong thing to do. But I couldn't stop myself. I had to see the last few moments of his life. I watched as Peacekeepers with studded gloves hit Cinna progressively harder and harder, just as they did when I was in the tube before the Games. I was so convinced that he was already dead.

It went on and on as they hit him. His skull looked like it might have been dented in some places. They had broken it. Many of his bones looked broken, too. It was brutal. The entire thing was brutal beyond belief. Because I loved Cinna. Gale was right. This had already happened. That was the first thing that I realized. Snow was just sending it out so that I could watch. He must have figured that I was alive. This was just to show me how powerful and in control he was.

Hours must have passed. There was no way that it had only been a few minutes or a few seconds. This was going on for ages. It never seemed to end. Katniss and Gale tried to pull me away from the screen, as did some others, but I refused to leave. I was gasping as Cinna progressively looked worse and worse. He said nothing back to the Peacekeepers and never tried to fight them. It was something that chilled me to the bone. I wished that he would fight back against them.

Finally it ended. They pulled away from him. Were they going to let Cinna live? Even as an Avox. As anything. Just like I had thought that they might have done with Cato. That was better than nothing. But that wasn't what happened. Just a moment later a Peacekeeper raised a gun to his head. I was about to scream. They were finally going to execute him. And they were showing it for the entirety of Panem to see. And hoping that I would see it, if I was indeed still alive.

"No!" I screamed.

"Look away. Now," Gale demanded.

But I couldn't break my gaze from the screen. I couldn't look away from Cinna. The man who had always been so strong for me. Gale wouldn't let me watch it, though. He grabbed my head and forced me to tuck it down into his shoulder. Just a second later a shot echoed through District 13. And my head. I jumped harshly at the sudden noise. That was when the truth of what had just happened hit me. Cinna was dead. Now I knew that Cinna was dead. Because of what he did for me.

"You will pay the ultimate price," Snow's voice ended the transmission.

Then the screen went blank. "Aspen? Aspen?" Katniss called. I ignored her, staring blankly at the screen. "Are you okay?"

"Tiger? Come on. We should get you back to bed," Gale begged.

They were both pulling gently on my shoulders. They wanted me away from where I had just seen Cinna die. But I couldn't leave. Because I had just had a sudden thought. There was something that I now knew that I needed to do. I needed to take the first step. I had to do something right now. Anything that Cato would have wanted me to do. He would have wanted me to fight back. And I would. But there was something that I had to do first. There was something that I had to see.

"Where are you going?" Katniss called.

"The War Room," I said.

"Why?" Katniss asked.

"I need them to do something," I said.

"Hang on! Aspen!" Katniss shouted.

She was trying to chase me down but Gale pulled her back. I heard him saying something along the lines of letting me do what I had to do. Because he knew the truth. He knew that I was about to take the first step towards becoming the Mockingjay. I ignored Katniss's final call and stalked off. Quickly I pushed through the crowd, ignoring people asking me if I was okay and the doctors, who were pleading with me to stop. Finally I arrived at the War Room, ignoring the pleas from the guards outside, and entered.

Plutarch, Seneca, and Coin were still in there. It looked like they had been talking with each other before I had entered. "I thought that you said that you were never coming back," Plutarch said, staring at me.

"I said to never call me back," I corrected.

"So why are you here?" Plutarch asked.

"I want to go home," I said.

The two of them exchanged a quick look. Plutarch raised a brow and nodded while Coin shook her head and looked back at me. "I'm afraid that sending you back to District 12 is impossible. You would not be safe living there. You have to remain here," Coin said reproachfully.

"You misunderstand me. I don't want to go back permanently. I just want to go out there for the day. I want to see what Snow did to my home," I explained.

But that didn't change anything. "No. It's not safe," Coin said.

"Let me rephrase that," I said, raising my voice and giving it a dangerous edge. "I have to go. You will make it work."

They exchanged a look again. Now Plutarch and Seneca were smiling. Coin still didn't look happy. "Going home is too dangerous. The Capitol will likely think that you will go there if you are still alive. They'll be waiting for you," Coin said.

"So clear it out. Then send me there," I demanded sharply. "I need to see it."

"You have no idea what you'll be walking into," Coin said.

But I did. Thousands upon thousands of my people dead. The town reduced to ashes. But I just had to see it. I had to see what he had done. "No. I know exactly what I’ll be walking into. But I have to see it. If you want me to be the Mockingjay... You have to let me do this. You have to let me see what he's done. I need to see it," I said determinedly.

"What's the harm? We've already wasted a month. What's another day? Might as well just let the girl see it," Plutarch suggested.

Obviously he and Seneca agreed that I needed to go. Coin sat in silence for a few moments as I stared at her with narrowed eyes. My threat of being the Mockingjay would be enough to convince her. I knew that it would. Because I was finally letting them know that I was at least thinking about becoming the Mockingjay. Coin didn't look happy at all, but she knew that this was the way to get me to at least try and unite the Districts. Something that we desperately needed. Finally she gave a slow nod.

"You will have one hour once you arrive in District 12," Coin said. I nodded. Not wonderful, as I wanted more time, but it would be better than nothing. "We will send out teams to clear the area first and have a hovercraft nearby. A team will go in with -"

"No. I do it alone," I interrupted.

"Miss Antaeus -"

"Alone. Or no Mockingjay. That's my deal. Take it or leave it," I interrupted her again.

She set another glare on me. But I wasn't backing down. This was something that I had to do alone. "One hour. The hovercraft will be nearby. You'll have a headset to keep in communication with us the entire time that you're down on the ground," Coin said, leaving no room for argument on the subject.

"Tomorrow. I want to go tomorrow," I said.

"We'll call you when we're ready," Coin said, not bothering to argue with me on that point.

They had given me what I wanted. That was all that I needed. The promise that I could go home. Just to see... I just needed to remember the reason that I had hated the Capitol so much in the first place. Their cruelty. So I nodded and stalked off, without another word, not wanting to speak to them anymore. I noticed that Seneca had retained his place in the background. He was nodding at me. He looked proud of me. Just the way that I knew that Cato would have been.