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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.

Chapter Text

The first thing I saw in the morning were the doctors. They were standing above me, doing their usual morning routine. First they played the game. Figuring out everything that I knew. My name is Aspen Antaeus. I am twenty years old. Today I will be going to see the ruins of District 12. I know that it will give me what I need to be the Mockingjay. My only chance to save Cato, if he is still alive. They didn't usually like me talking about Cato in the sessions, as they thought that it only made me more depressed.

But I refused to just forget about him. The doctors then played my other least favorite game. Going back and talking about everything that happened. The same thing, every single day. We then went over the breathing techniques, as the doctors believed that a panic attack was likely today. They didn't want me going back to District 12, but I had to see it. We then went through the eye movements and temple massage that they'd taught me to subdue the effects of the concussion.

Once they were finally sure that I wasn't going to have a panic attack right now and after I had reassured them about a hundred times that I was going to be fine going to District 12, they finally left my side. They were no longer giving me the medicine. The Morphling had since made its way out of my system. I was almost grateful. The pain from the concussion was back but I didn't feel quite as foggy as I had before. Although my hands were shaking and sweating. Withdrawal, probably.

But I knew that I couldn't say anything to the doctors. They would just put me straight back on the table and hook me up to some new intravenous medication. Something less intense while I detoxed. They would then suggest that I couldn't go back to District 12. They had barely wanted to agree to this expedition. They were convinced that it was going to be dangerous and damaging to my psyche. I had just laughed and convinced them that I was already long past damaged.

Just about an hour into the morning, right after the doctors had finished their daily routine, Boggs had come to tell me that there was only going to be about two hours before we were ready to leave and head to District 12. But then something occurred to me. There was someone else that I had to speak to before we left. Someone that I owed a big apology to. So I nodded at Boggs, letting him know that there was something that I had to do before we left.

He agreed without complaint. I had a feeling that Boggs and I would eventually become friends. He seemed to be one of the few people here that would protect me for more than the reason that I was the Mockingjay. He just seemed to like me. Before Boggs left, he also informed me on where my family was staying. Room 307. That meant that I would be staying there now that I was officially discharged from the hospital.

After a moment I nodded and moved to get changed for the day. I ran a brush through my hair but didn't bother to braid it back. I wanted to have something to hide behind. Just in case. I had been given the same clothing that I was normally in. The ugly little gray jumpsuit. Maybe I had picked up on some Capitol traits... Seeing as I wasn't technically a soldier, I couldn't wear the black uniform that Boggs wore. But even the jumpsuit was better than the slip that they had given me as a hospital patient.

Eventually, once I had everything together for the day, I made my way out of the hospital. Boggs escorted me down to the member apartments, which I had asked him to show me to, before heading straight for the Hadley's apartment. Boggs had asked me if I was sure that I wanted to speak to them and I had reassured him that I had to do it. He showed me their apartment and I nodded. It was straight across the way from my own family's apartment.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed open the door and walked in. It was far too small for the large family but they didn't seem to have any complaints. Even though they were all crammed together. Although I supposed that it was a little smaller without two of them here. Alana and Damien were sitting on one bed, with Carrie, Dean, and Marley on the other. Aidan was sitting on the floor, as Cato had once told me that he so often did. Skye and Julie were crammed together by the desk.

"Hi," I muttered awkwardly.

The door fell closed behind me. The family hadn't even noticed that I was here yet. But they spotted me now. It was the first time that any of us had even seen each other since I had screamed at them to get out when they had told me that Leah had been killed. Their heads whipped around to me in surprise. But none of them looked angry. They looked surprised, and maybe a little dumbfounded, but there was no trace of anger on their faces.

"Aspen!" Alana said, finally shattering the tense silence. She moved forwards and brought me into a hug. "Sweetheart... We're so happy to see you."

"I can't stay for long," I muttered dumbly, pulling out of her embrace.

The family looked a little bit happier, but they still looked tired and worn out. "That's alright. We're just glad that you dropped by," Carrie said, moving forward and hugging me.

"How are you feeling?" Dean asked, giving me another hug.

"Head hurts," I admitted.

"Can you take more medicine?" Skye asked, following the line of hugs.

"No. I don't want anymore medicine. It makes me hallucinate," I admitted. At least, I was reasonably sure that they were hallucinations. It was hard to tell sometimes. "I'm sick of the hallucinations. I'd rather just deal with the pain. It's the remnants of the concussion that Johanna gave me."

"They're letting you leave the hospital now, then?" Julie asked, brushing back a few stray hairs.

"They've been trying to get me to leave for weeks. I finally accepted the offer," I said.

"Really?" Alana asked, surprised.

Maybe people were a little more surprised than I had thought that they would be, now that I was finally up and moving around. "Yes. I'm ready to start... I don't know. Doing something," I muttered.

"We're very glad to hear that," Damien said, hugging me softly.

I nodded blankly at him, standing in silence with the family. "We hear that you're returning to District 12 today," Alana said, probably for the sake of conversation.

"Have they been telling everyone about that?" I asked curiously.

"They just let us know. We're family, you know," Skye said.

She wasn't even the Hadley's family, but I knew what she meant. No matter what, we were all family. "I know. I know that. I'm - I'm sorry," I said, stumbling over my words. "About when you came to visit me and I -"

"Aspen, you have nothing to apologize for," Alana said, interrupting my poor and pathetic attempt at an apology. Which I dumbly hadn't prepared. "You had just been through one of the most traumatic things that anyone could ever go through. You were under pressure from everyone and everything."

"I shouldn't have shouted at you all like that," I said.

"We should have given you more time," Alana said.

"We all did things wrong," Damien said, stepping in between the two of us. He placed a hand on each of our shoulders and we both smiled weakly at each other. "But we meant one thing that we said. We're your family. We're here for you. This isn't the time for us all to start pulling away from each other."

"I guess I'm just used to being on my own. Handling everything by myself and protecting everyone else - even Cato - from the truth. It's what I do," I said.

"We understand that. But you don't have to do it anymore. We're here for you," Julie said.

"Whenever you need us," Carrie added.

Slowly I nodded at them. "I'm going to District 12 because... I don't really know why," I admitted. "But I have to see it. I have to know what he did to my home. I can't just hear it. I need to see it."

"We understand," Carrie said.

"And once I see it... I'm going to agree to be the Mockingjay," I said determinedly.

That was when I saw it. The first spark of excitement that I'd seen on their faces in a long time. The first time that they'd looked like they might have had some faith that it could all work out. And it was the first time that I'd said it to someone other than Katniss and Gale. The entire family looked thrilled at the news. Skye and Julie exchanged an excitable look. The idea of being the Mockingjay was terrifying, but it was something that I would have to do. For Cato.

"Really?" Skye asked hopefully.

"Really," I confirmed.

"You have no idea how happy we are to hear that," Dean said.

"No happier than Coin will be," I pointed out. She would be thrilled that I wasn't fighting against her anymore. "Not that she likes me very much."

"She doesn't like anyone," Alana said.

"Definitely not me," I said.

"Doesn't matter. The people like you. That's what matters," Damien said.

Alana walked over and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Cato would be very happy to hear that you're going to be the Mockingjay. That's what he would have wanted. To know that you aren't going to give up," she said.

And I knew that she was right. I had always known that. "He's why I'm doing this. Why I'm agreeing to fight. Because I know that he would have wanted me to," I said weakly.

"He would," Alana confirmed.

For a moment I batted the idea back and forth about whether or not I should tell them. "I think he might still be alive," I spit out, before I could think better of it.

Obviously my words surprised them. Everyone looked over at me. I didn't want to give them false hope. I knew how cruel that was. But I also wanted them to know that there was the slightest chance that he was still alive. That was the chance that I was holding onto. Alana's face turned up in a small smile. Damien looked shocked. The others were exchanging looks with each other, trying to weigh whether or not my words had any merit.

"You do?" Julie asked.

"Sort of. I get the inkling that he might still be alive. Likely he already is dead. But there's a chance that he's still alive. Not doing well. They'll be hurting him. Torturing him. But they'll keep him around long enough to know whether or not I'm alive. And once they find out that I am, they'll use him against me," I explained.

They were all old enough to know the truth. Marley wouldn't understand me, anyways. "So we make sure that they don't know that you're alive," Aidan said, surprising me.

I'd gotten the feeling that he would never speak to me again. "I understand. Once you set foot in District 12, they'll likely know that you're alive," Dean said.

They would definitely know. Which was why I had to be the Mockingjay right after. Before they could do this again. "Yes. They'll hide it from the Districts, to keep them from banding together to fight, but they'll know. And soon enough they'll show me what they're doing to him," I said slowly.

Damien placed his hand on my shoulder. "It's okay. You fight, we move in on the Capitol, and we save him," Damien said determinedly.

That was when I saw it. The striking similarly that Cato had to his father. They didn't look that similar. Cato had light blonde hair while Damien had deep brown. But they both had those piercing blue eyes. They both had that fire that burned underneath their veins. Calm in the face of threat, but always ready to strike. His personality reminded me of what I knew Cato would have been like, had he gotten to grow a little older. He certainly was his father's son.

"And if not... It's okay. I might have lost a son, but I gained a daughter," Alana said.

I turned to her, smiling softly. She brought me into a hug. "Thank you, Alana. For everything," I whispered.

"Of course. You meant the world to Cato. More than anyone else ever could," Alana admitted.

"I know," I said, my voice breaking.

It was easy enough to see the looks of pity that the rest of the family were giving me. It was enough to make me blink back the tears that were threatening to fall. "I took something from the house before we left. I thought that you would want it. I was just waiting for the right time to give it to you," Carrie said.

It disturbed the quiet and peaceful world that we had been in a moment beforehand. My brow raised in curiosity. Carrie walked over to the dresser and picked something up. It was a photograph. A second later she handed it over to me. I took it and stared blankly. The breath immediately left my lungs. It was the picture of the two of us in the cave together on my birthday. The one that Cato had told me about. My head spun. Partially from the memory of the kiss and partially from the remnants of the concussion.

"Thank you," I said weakly.

"He used to say that it was that day, when he saw you on the riverbank, that he knew for a fact that he could never hurt you. Because of how he felt seeing you like that," Carrie said.

He had admitted to everyone that he knew he couldn't kill me when that had happened. "Yes... I know how he feels. That's how I feel right now. Knowing that he's hurt and there's nothing that I can do to help," I muttered.

"There is. Be the Mockingjay. Just like he would have wanted," Dean said.

"I'm trying," I said.

"You'll succeed. We believe in you," Damien said encouragingly.

"All of you?" I asked, looking around at the family.

"All of us," Aidan said.

I whipped back around to the young boy in surprise. "Thank you, Aidan," I said softly.

"And if Leah was here, she would have believed in you, too," Skye said.

"Speaking of Leah, I was wondering if I could ask you something," I said awkwardly to Alana and Damien.

"Of course," Alana said.

"I - I missed the funeral - which - which I'm sorry about, by the way," I stuttered.

"That's alright. We understand," Damien said quickly.

"But... Well... Where is she resting?" I asked, quickly realizing just how rude it was that I had said. "If you don't mind my asking."

Alana waved off my concern. "Oh. Of course not. They can't bury people in Thirteen. Not being below ground in essentially a metal container. The land above ground is too dangerous to use for burials, too. Not with the threat of incoming Capitol hovercrafts. They cremate those who die. Leah was cremated. Her urn... it's just over there," Alana said.

She was pointing off to the right. My gaze followed her hand and I saw it. There it was. Sitting right on top of the dresser. The ashes of a seven-year-old girl. My stomach churned in knots as my throat closed itself off. It was a soft green with a golden rim. It looked like it had been painted. It was likely just silver beforehand. There was even a painting on it. It was a pretty little tree. Something that looked like one of the oaks that were spread thinly over the woods back in District 12.

"I - I like the painting," I said weakly, searching for the right words.

"I did it. Cato took some painting lessons with us when he got back to Two. It helped him calm down," Julie explained.

So that was how he'd become a good artist. "Yeah... I saw some of them. They were really good. He did a self-portrait of me. The day before the Interviews..." I said weakly.

The family exchanged a quick look with each other. A moment later Skye walked over to the cabinet, pulled something out, and walked back over to me. "Is it this one?" she asked.

She handed me over the paper and I gasped. It the the drawing that he'd done. "Yes. How - How did you get this?" I asked, shocked.

"Seneca Crane brought it to us once we had been evacuated from District 2. He had gotten it from your bedroom, where Cato must have left it. He took it. Told us to do with it what we pleased," Skye explained. I smiled. Maybe Seneca really was my friend. "He would have wanted you to have it."

"I thought that it was lost," I whispered.

"Seneca must have known what it would mean to you," Alana said, smiling down at the picture.

"Thank you for giving it back," I said.

"You're welcome," Skye said.

We stood in silence for a few moments longer as I debated on how to bring up what I had wanted to come and ask them. It might not have been the nicest thing in the world that I could ask. It could end up sounding a little cruel. But it wasn't meant that way. I wanted to try and make things just a little bit better, a little bit easier, for them if I could. Since I couldn't do anything for Cato right now, maybe I could try to do something for Leah.

"I was - I was just wondering if you might want to do something a little... different for Leah," I stumbled over my words.

"How's that?" Damien asked.

"We have this Meadow back in District 12. It's where we spread the ashes of those who die. The children. These wildflowers grow out there. It's pretty. Untouched, I'm hoping, by the Capitol firebombs. I'll bring the urn back and you don't have to say yes. I understand if you want her to stay with you. But... I thought that you might want her to be in the Meadow," I explained.

Alana and Damien exchanged a look before smiling. "I think that we would love that," Alana said softly.

"Leah always did love flowers," Damien said.

"She would have liked to be in a field. With flowers," Carrie agreed.

"Like the one where Rue died." A small twitch from the memory of her. "Right?" Dean asked.

"Y - Yes. That's the Meadow that the song is about," I said.

"Leah liked that song," Alana said.

She must have heard me sing it when Rue was dying. "Cato did, too," I said softly.

"Did he?" Carrie asked.

"Yes. He asked me about it one day. When we were up on the roof, the day before the Interviews, I just started singing. After a while he asked me to sing the song that I sang Rue. And I sang it to him. He said that it was pretty. I told him that it was the meadow that I liked to imagine that everyone that I cared about was in. My parents, Thresh, Rue, Peeta, Cinna... Leah," I said.

Damien stepped forward at the mention of Cinna. "We were sorry to see what happened to Cinna," he said.

"That's okay," I said, even though it was anything but okay. "I thought that he was already dead. I wish that they had killed him earlier. I don't want him suffering."

"He loved you very much," Alana said.

"I know. I loved him, too," I said, remembering Cinna and I agreeing that we were each other's family. "I told Cato about the meadow and who I hoped was there. He told me that he would tell them that I said hello. He asked me if I thought that one day we would be in the meadow together. I told him that I believed that we had to be."

Out of the corner of my eyes I saw that Alana was crying softly. She must have never thought that Cato could be that kind of person. I hadn't thought so either. For so long I had thought that he was just a typical Career. But he had proven me wrong. Time and time again he had shown me the kind of person that he really was. The kind of man who would gladly give up his life for someone that he loved. Maybe that was why I hated him sometimes, too. Because he would be thrilled that I was still alive.

"That's good to hear," Alana whispered.

"He loved you so much," Skye said.

"I love him, too," I whispered.

"Take Leah," Alana said, handing me over the green urn. She took out a bag and let me slip the urn into it. "She would have wanted to be there."

"Thank you," I said.

A second later, there was a small tugging sensation at my ankles. I looked down and saw that Marley was motioning for me to pick her up. I leaned down and grabbed her, pulling her up into my chest, smiling down at her. She threw her arms around my neck and I noticed the rest of the family smiling softly as I laid my head down on top of hers. She reminded me of Prim when she had been a baby. She reminded me that there were still people out here to fight for.

"Will you sing?" Marley asked.

"Sing? What do you want me to sing?" I asked.

"About the meadow," Marley said.

"Okay."

The meadow was one of the hardest things to sing about. Because I now associated it with those who were closest to me. All of those people who had died. Everyone who I couldn't even count. My parents... Cinna... Rue... Peeta... Cato... Leah... The list just went on and on and on. And I knew that it wasn't going to end. People were going to keep dying all around me. But there was one thing that I could do. Fight back. Just keep fighting. I cleared my throat and looked down at Marley.

"Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you."

The entire family was watching and listening. Marley's eyes were drooping slightly. It had been designed as a lullaby. "I can see why he liked it," Alana finally said.

"I'll sing it when I..." I trailed off, unable to say it.

"Thank you," Alana said, her voice breaking.

"Of course," I said.

My stomach roiled painfully when I saw that Alana was crying softly. She had been through a lot recently. Too much for a good mother. I stepped forwards and gave her a tight hug, gradually tightening my grip after a moment. The rest of the family slowly joined in, closing in on us from the sides. To my surprise, so did Aidan. Katniss was right, as much as I hated to admit it. They were my family. I just wished that it hadn't taken me this long to figure it out.

We all stood together for a while longer. I felt Carrie rubbing my back and Dean squeezing my shoulder. Finally the door slid open. We all broke apart for a moment to see that Boggs was standing right in the doorway. We must have been almost ready to leave. Again, just like before, Boggs looked oddly uncomfortable at the display of emotion. So I nodded at Boggs, knowing that it was time to go, and straightened up when Damien placed a hand on my cheek, briefly touching the urn. Their final goodbye.

"We'll be ready to go to District 12 in about an hour," Boggs said.

"Okay," I said.

"Soldier Everdeen would like to speak to you," Boggs informed me.

It sounded almost strange. Katniss was a soldier. Technically, so was almost everyone in the Hadley compartment. "I'll be right there," I said.

"Go on. We'll see when you get back," Damien said.

"I'll take care of her. I promise," I said, keeping a tight grip on the urn.

"We know," Alana said.

"Stay safe out there," Carrie said, giving me another hug.

"You'll be on the headset. Just let them know if you need to come back," Julie told me.

But that wasn't something that I could do. "No. I don't want to, but I know that I have to. I need to see what he's done. It's just something that I have to do," I said determinedly.

It was something that no one liked, but most people understood. So the entire family nodded and gave me their final well-wishes. Once I was sure that they didn't need another second with the urn, I turned and headed out with Boggs. The two of us walked out and headed back into the hospital. It was the last time that I would be here. At least, until the next miserable thing happened to me. As far as now went, when I came back I would start staying with the Everdeen's in their cabin.

Just a few minutes after we left the member compartments, Boggs dropped me off in the hospital wing. He allowed me to change into some boots that were sturdier than the one that I had been wearing before. It was the only part of the new outfit that I was being given. Goosebumps rose over my arms when I realized that it was very likely that I would be walking over some disgusting things back in District 12. I didn't even want to think about what I would likely encounter.

That was something that I could put off for a while. Slowly I flexed my feet around in the boots. They were the same ones that the foot soldiers would wear with the rest of their uniforms. Even though I wasn't technically a soldier, I would be down on the ground and that meant keeping me a little more protected. My feet particularly, which would be very open to infection if they were cut up. No. I wasn't a soldier yet. Not until I could manage myself and my affairs. Which was going to start with today.

Unfortunately one of the things that I really didn't like was the fact that I wouldn't be allowed to have any weapons on me when I was in District 12. I had asked about it last night and they had told me that there was no reason to be giving me one. After all, they would be watching over me and keeping me safe. The knowledge that I wouldn't have a weapon while I was so close to the Capitol's reach put me on edge, but I had agreed to it. Because it would be the only way for me to see it.

In the meantime I started brushing my hair out to try and make myself look the slightest bit presentable. Not that it mattered. No one would be there to see me. But I knew that I had to at least look like I was trying and hadn't been trying to commit suicide in every way that I knew how over the past few weeks. I had to pull myself together. I just didn't want to get dressed up. Not when I was about to see the almost seven thousand people that I had killed.

Plus there was the thought lingering in the back of my mind, wondering if someone might manage to get some photographs of me or something of the likes. Not that I really cared what I looked like to anyone. Not even to myself. But if there was a chance that they could get a photograph, and if it got back to Snow, I didn't want him to realize just how much he had managed to mess me up. I wanted him to think that I was still just as strong as I had always been.

A while later the door opened and Katniss walked in. "I don't think I've seen you move with that much purpose in a long time," Katniss said, noting that I was pacing back and forth.

"Haven't had that much reason to move with purpose in a long time," I said.

"Fair. You gonna be okay with going?"

"No. But I have to see it. I asked to see it."

"You don't know what you're going to find down there."

"I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to see down there." We paused for a moment and I turned back to her. "Remember when Snow came to visit before the Victory Tour?" I asked.

"Yes," Katniss said, surprised.

"It wasn't just to visit me. It wasn't to check up on me. It wasn't even just to threaten Gale. He said something to me that I can't forget. Not then and especially not now. 'You should imagine thousands upon thousands of your people dead. This town of yours reduced to ashes. Imagine it gone. A radioactive buried under dirt as if it never existed, like District 13.' That was what he said to me when talking about my actions were causing the system to collapse," I said.

Katniss let out a deep breath. "Aspen," Katniss started, "you -"

"Can't even try to deny it," I finished. "Snow firebombing District 12 was my fault."

"But there's something that you can do to get him back for it."

"Yes. I can. And it starts with remembering who the enemy is and what they do."

That was what I needed to do. That was what would get me to finish this. "If that's what you need to do, let's do it," Katniss said, grabbing my shoulder and squeezing.

"Have you seen it?" I asked curiously.

"I saw it go up."

Her tone was short and shaky. It must have been a nightmare to watch our childhood home go up in flames. "But the aftermath?" I asked.

"No. No one's seen the aftermath. I don't think anyone really wanted to see it."

"Can't say that I blame them."

Katniss's gaze dropped down to the urn that was sitting on the table. "What is that?" she asked.

"The urn where they put Leah's ashes."

Her face paled. "What are you doing with it?" Katniss asked.

"I was thinking of heading out to the Meadow," I said, knowing that Katniss would know exactly which one I was talking about. "The meadow that I sang to Rue about. I was thinking that I could spread her ashes. Told them I'd sing the song while I did it. She likes flowers. Alana told me that."

"That's good of you, Aspen," Katniss said, looking a little sick. "So you've spoken to them?"

"Yes. I went to see them today."

"I bet they liked that."

"They seemed to. I apologized to them. They told me that I had nothing to apologize for."

"And they're right. You were distraught. No one blamed you."

"I blamed myself."

"I know. I like that painting," Katniss said, looking over the urn.

"Julie did it," I explained.

"Did she?"

"Yeah. Cato apparently took some drawing class with Julie and Skye after we won the Games. Something to try and help him cope with what he'd done. He was good," I said slowly.

Katniss turned back to me curiously. "Did he ever draw something?" Katniss asked.

"Plenty. This is the only thing that I have," I said, placing the drawing of me on the table. A second later I pulled out the photograph of us in the cave. "They saved the picture from their house."

The corners of Katniss's lips turned upwards as she picked up the frame and smiled down at it. "I remember this. You looked so happy. So stunned. That was when I knew that neither one of you were acting," Katniss said.

I smiled and showed her the picture that Cato had drawn. "And Seneca saved this from Cato's room in the Capitol. Gave it to his family. They just gave it to me," I explained.

Katniss glanced down at it. Her eyes widened. "He did this?" she asked.

"Yes."

"It's good. It's really good. When did he do this?"

"The day before the Interviews. We were up on the rooftop. I was making a flower crown and singing. We were just enjoying the peace. He was drawing me and listening to my songs."

She smiled again. "I wish I could have seen you two. That day. Carefree. In love," Katniss said.

The two of us exchanged a little smile. It had been so long since we had just sat and laughed and smiled together. I wished that she could have been there that day. I wished that they all could have been. Although it might have made things a little awkward, since we really weren't wearing any clothes that day.

"Me, too. That was the day that we really just got to be ourselves. Nothing else there. No Games and no Capitol," I admitted.

"We're going to get there one day. I promise," Katniss said.

"I'm supposed to be the older sister. The one that protects you," I teased.

Katniss smirked at me. "Every now and again I can be there to protect you. After all, you've already done so much for me," she said.

"I love you, Cat," I said happily.

"I love you, too," she said.

The two of us stared at each other before I opened my arms and Katniss fell into them. Just as she used to when we were kids and Mr. Everdeen had died. We just stood together for a long time. Neither one of us dared to move away from each other for a long time. The hug was something that I had so desperately needed. We had both needed it. I had missed the feeling of just a simple human touch. A hug. The forms of comfort that I hadn't had from anyone in a long time.

When we finally released each other, Katniss looked back at me. "Can you pick up a few things from the house while you're there?" she asked.

"I've already got the list going in my head," I said.

"Thanks. Do you want me to go with you? I - I want to see it," Katniss said, not exactly looking sure of herself.

"I need to do this alone, Katniss. I'm sorry, but I have to do this alone."

"I understand. I would have wanted to do it alone."

"If you really want to know, I'll tell you about it when I get back," I promised, almost wishing that I hadn't.

"I'm not sure that I even want to know what it's like down there," Katniss said.

"I don't know if I even want to see it," I admitted.

"I'm proud of you, Aspen."

"Thanks, Cat. I'm proud of you, too, you know?"

"Really?"

"You've been so strong. Even more than me. You've been strong for me when I couldn't be. You've been my Mockingjay when I couldn't be. You and Prim. Both of you. You're my sisters and I'm so proud of you both," I told her honestly.

"We're proud of you, too," Katniss said.

And I always would be proud of them. Because I knew just how strong and brave they both were. The two of us just sat together for a while. We collapsed back on the bed as we waited for the hour to pass. It wasn't something that I wanted to do, go down to District 12, but I had to see it. Katniss definitely wasn't coming down into District 12 with me, but she would be up in the hovercraft, watching me from above. One of the many people who would be keeping an eye on me.

A while later Boggs arrived back in the room. Katniss and I straightened up as we looked at him. He gave us both scrutinizing looks, probably curious if we genuinely were ready to go. Which we weren't, but it was time. I had to see what they had done. I had to know just how bad things were. Boggs waited a moment before telling us that it was time to go. We both nodded - unable to bring ourselves to speak - and walked with him out of the hospital.

We walked through the halls together as my hands bunched at my sides. The whole thing was incredibly tense. Because I knew what I was about to see. We headed into one of the elevators that appeared to be for service out to the hangars. Boggs lifted up a door from the bottom and we stepped out together, heading straight into the hangar. Finally people weren't staring at me quite as much as they had been. Because they all knew where I was planning on going today and didn't want to make me feel worse.

My hands were now shaking even worse than they had been before. We would be in9 District 12 within the hour. And deep down I knew that I wasn't ready to see it yet. Because I knew what I was going to find. It horrified me, to think about what was going to happen. To think about everything that I had already caused. Now I was finally going to see it for myself. I was about to turn down another hallway that Boggs led me down when a loud shout echoed behind us.

"Aspen!"

"Just a second," I told Katniss and Boggs. They both nodded. I turned back to see that Dean was waiting for me. "Dean?"

"Almost forgot something," Dean said.

He handed me over the fabric bag that had Leah's urn. I had almost forgotten about taking it with me. "Oh. Right. Thanks for getting it back to me," I said dumbly, grabbing the bag.

"You're welcome."

We both hesitated. I got the feeling that Dean wanted to say something else. "You alright?" I asked.

"Just wondering if you'd like for someone to come with you. It might not be a great idea for you to be wandering around District 12 by yourself," Dean said.

His words made me smile slightly. Everyone kept offering to go with me. But I couldn't take anyone with me. "It's something that I have to do. I know District 12. If they're out there I can find a hiding spot. I'll know where to go. And I'll just have to wait for the hovercraft to come and get me," I said, trying to reassure him.

"They're not giving you a weapon?" Dean asked, spotting my empty hands.

"No. They don't think I'm stable enough yet," I said.

"That's a little funny, coming from some of them."

It was enough to make the corners of my lips tilt upwards. "I've thought the same thing. I miss the bow. I got rather attached to it over the past few months," I admitted.

"I can try and get you another one," Dean offered.

"Would they listen to you?" I asked.

"I'm on their security council. I might get a say in what we can do for the Mockingjay. Once you officially agree, at least," Dean said.

"I'd like that."

"We're on your side, Aspen. All of us. Me, too. And I can be there with you right now, if you want me to be."

"This is something that I have to do alone. But thank you. I appreciate it."

"Anytime."

That was when I realized that maybe one day I would have wanted them to come back and see the District. "If they ever let me come back, if they even manage to calm everything down, I'll bring you back with me one day. I'll show you once it's safe to be out there. Once they... clean it up," I muttered, unable to say the truth of what they would have to do.

"I would like that," Dean said happily.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Why do you want to go to District 12?"

Obviously my question surprised him. "Excuse me?" Dean asked.

"Katniss wanted to go with me, too. But District 12 was her home. It's not your home. That's District 2, which, last I heard, was still standing," I said, trying to be as delicate as possible.

"Standing, but there have been a lot of issues there with Cato being in... the state he's in. Unknown, I mean," Dean said.

But at least they still had their home. "So why do you want to go to District 12?" I asked.

"Because Cato never really got the chance to see your home. He was there for a few minutes and a few hours a few different times. But he only saw your home and the Justice Building. That was it. He always wanted to see it, you know. He wanted to see the house that you grew up in. He wanted to see your Hob. He wanted to see the woods that you used to hunt in. And your meadow..." Dean trailed off, sounding like he might have been getting choked up.

Leaning over, I placed a hand on his arm. "Yeah. We used to talk about how I would walk him around the District and bore him silly with stories about what each place meant to me," I said, smiling fondly.

"He really wanted to see it, believe it or not," Dean said.

"He said that he did."

"For him, I wanted to see it. Since he might not ever get the chance to see District 12, I wanted to do it for him," Dean explained.

Immediately I knew that Dean was someone that was like an older brother. He was the kind of older brother that I would have wanted. He was the kind of older brother that I had now. Whether or not I wanted him around. He was family now. Something that I hadn't thought that I would ever have again. I had been so convinced that the last of my family was gone. But they weren't. It turned out that I had an astounding amount of family members still around. But I could handle myself.

"You know, Dean, you don't have to watch out for me. I think I've got enough people here watching out for me," I said, motioning around to everyone watching us.

"But how many of them do you trust?" Dean asked.

The truth was, I didn't trust very many of them. I trusted Katniss and Gale, of course. I had known them forever. I trusted Cato's friends and family, but I still had a hard time looking them in the eye. I likely would for a while. I trusted Prim and Ms. Everdeen, but they weren't fighters. Unfortunately my trust with Haymitch was broken and I had never trusted Plutarch. Coin was a definite no. I wanted to try and trust Seneca. Boggs was slowly starting to gain my trust.

"Very few," I admitted.

"You're my sister, Aspen. Whether or not you like it. Now and always. The only thing that I ever wanted was for Cato to find himself a good girl. And I know that he found one. With or without Cato, I'll always protect you," Dean said determinedly.

A good older brother. Protecting his likely deceased brother's wife. "Thank you. I don't need it, but thank you," I said honestly.

"I see why he was in love with you," Dean said, giving me a fond smile.

"Thanks," I said, blushing softly.

"I always knew that Cato wasn't just the Career-driven kid that he showed himself to be. I saw who he was at home. I knew that he wasn't like that. Not really. When I saw him with you in the Games, I realized that it would just take the right person to bring it out. And that person was you. You brought out the man that I knew that he was," Dean said.

"Is that why you don't hate me?" I asked.

"Yeah. Because I know just how happy you made him. And, no matter what's happening or will happen or has happened to him, he would think that it was all worth it. Just to get to know you," Dean said.

No matter what happened to him... He was right about that. I knew that he was. "I think I needed to hear that," I said, my hands relaxing slightly.

"Come by if you ever need to hear it again, okay?"

"Okay."

"Be careful out there. We'll see you back here soon," Dean promised.

The moment that he brought me into a hug I realized that I definitely would take him up on his offer to go and talk about Cato. Something that I hadn't wanted to talk about beforehand. But I knew that I did miss him. I wanted to talk to him. Because he knew my husband. Likely better than anyone. As we pulled apart, Dean placed a little peck on my cheek. I knew that this was what it would have been like to really have a brother. But, I supposed that he was my brother now.

But it was also that little peck on the cheek that told me something that I had been trying to fight back against. It told me that Gale was something more to me than just a brother. Because I felt something more than being with Dean. Not to the level that I felt with Cato, but there was definitely something there. And it was more than having just known him for a longer time. I knew that there was something there. But it wasn't something that I was anywhere near ready to acknowledge. Not now. Not ever.

After waving to Dean, I walked up to Katniss and Boggs, where they were waiting for me. "Okay," I said, nodding at them and adjusting the strap of the bag.

"Are you ready to go?" Katniss asked.

"Yeah. I think so. Let's get this over with," I said.

"Come on, then," Katniss said.

We would likely be back in District 13 within a few hours. I was already antsy to get back to District 13. I knew the horror that awaited me. At least I would be able to go back and be with my family. I would be heading straight back to the barracks the moment that I arrived back in Thirteen. Right now they were still trying to wean me off of the medicine so that I would no longer be under the influence of Morphling, which was both terrifying and thrilling.

As Boggs walked Katniss and I over to the hovercraft that would take me to District 12, I looked over it. Suddenly bile built in the back of my throat. We hadn't even moved yet and and I was already nervous. Because the hovercraft here looked just like the one that took the Tributes to the arena. It was rising on a platform as men and women were walking back and forth around it. Likely getting ready for takeoff. The doors opened on the other side of the launch pad, filling the hangar with light.

That was when I realized that I would finally see the outdoors. Something that I hadn't seen in a long time. Not since I had left the Capitol for the Quell. The plank for the hovercraft was already lowered and I let out a little groan. I felt like I was walking to my death. I felt like I was about to be back in the arena. Which, I supposed, in a way, I was. Because this was something that the same people who had tortured me in the arena had done.

Sirens and bells were echoing everywhere. My eyes widened when I realized that someone was standing near the lowered plank. We were about halfway there when I spotted Gale there. Of course he would already be here. Waiting for me. Leaving Boggs and Katniss behind, I rushed forwards and flung myself into his arms to embrace him. He tightened his arms around my back as I pressed my chin against his shoulder. We were best friends. I just had to remember that.

"I can't believe you're going through with this," Gale muttered in my ear. A moment later he released me and I stepped back. "You can say no."

"I need to see it for myself," I said determinedly.

"This way," Boggs said.

He was motioning towards the hovercraft. Boggs stood back behind us as Gale, Katniss, and I walked forward. Katniss and Gale trailed behind me as I walked in. The doors to the hovercraft closed as the engines began to whir and it raised up into the air. My entire body tensed as I remembered how I felt the first time that I was on one of these things. Gale stopped and looked over at me. I smiled and shook my head nervously and somewhat awkwardly.

"You okay?" Gale asked.

Katniss looped her arms over my shoulders. "We can stop this if you need. Or we can do in there with you," she offered.

"No. No. I need to see it. Sorry... This just looks like the hovercrafts that they use to take us into the Games," I said, looking around the darkened area.

"We'll give you a minute if you need," Katniss offered.

"No. I'm fine. Let's go," I said.

That was all that it took for them to realize that it was time. Now or never. And it had to be now. Immediately I took a seat near the front of the hovercraft, with Katniss on one side and Gale on the other. To my surprise, Boggs would not be going with us. But everyone would be watching out for me while I was back in Twelve. They would have visuals on me and they were giving me some type of comm to use so that we could speak and I could let them know if I needed to leave.

The hovercraft jerked slightly before rising into the air and shooting straight forward. I watched the windows for a while to see what was happening. I could see that we were leaving something that looked like a cave. As we flew through the air I noticed that everything around Thirteen was woods. Very pretty, a little greener than the woods back in Twelve. Of course the rest of Panem didn't know that they were out here. It just looked like empty woods.

The entire ride took about an hour. It turned out that District 13 hadn't been very far from District 12. Especially not with the ability to travel by hovercraft. The entire ride was spent with Katniss and Gale trying to get me to talk to them. Probably trying to make me feel a little better before having to see one of the worst sights that I ever would. I barely responded to them as they tried to talk to me. I was much more concerned about what I would find.

"What's in the urn?" Gale asked, spotting it inside my bag.

"Leah's ashes," I answered bluntly.

Katniss had already known what was in there, but she didn't like hearing it again. I could tell. Gale flinched slightly. Neither one of them wanted a little girl to die. They didn't want anyone to die. Except those who deserved it, of course. I knew that while Gale might not have loved Cato, he did like how he was always willing to save me. And he didn't have an issue with the two little girls in his family. They probably reminded him of Posy.

"I'm going to go to the Meadow at some point. Spread her ashes out there. It's more peaceful than being trapped underground in Thirteen," I explained.

"That's good of you," Gale said.

"She would have loved it," Katniss said.

"Yeah. The flowers out there are beautiful," Gale said.

They were trying to make me feel better. But I couldn't bring myself to say anything more. So I just leaned back in the chair again and pressed my head back against the cold metal. My hands gently ran over Leah's urn. Pain and loss. I had suffered so much of it recently. And I had realized something. They defined me as much as happiness or love did. Whether a world, or a relationship... Everything had its time, and everything ended. But until my time came, I would make something out of that pain and loss.

Finally the hovercraft gave a little lurch and I felt us dropping through the air. I didn't look off through the windows. I didn't want to see what was happening out there. We were back in District 12. Finally. As I tried to glace out, just to see something, but I wasn't tall enough to see out of them. Gale and Katniss were giving me concerned looks, probably trying to see if I would back out of it now that we were here. But I wouldn't. I took in a deep breath as the ramp lowered.

The three of us got up and stood at the edge of the ramp, holding onto the roof as we got to the ground. "Thirteen swept everything, top to bottom so you'd be safe," Gale called loudly, over the roar of the engine. "You sure you don't want me to go with you?"

"Yeah. I'm sure," I said.

"Call us if you need someone to come with you," Katniss prodded.

"I'll manage," I said.

"We'll have our eyes on you from above," Gale said.

"It's fine. I'll see you in an hour," I called back.

"Be careful," Katniss said.

The protective one, as always. It was something that had come out the moment that Prim was born. She became the protector. Something that I had always been. Which was exactly how we had ended up volunteering for Prim not that long ago. The two of them gave me quick hugs but they didn't linger for that long. Which was good, because I couldn't bring myself to hug them back. They didn't seem offended. Because they knew that I wasn't into it. Not right now.

They finally released me and I stumbled weakly out of the hovercraft. I wanted my bow with me. I had a terrible feeling that something was going to jump out and kill me. I knew that they were watching me as I stepped fully out of the hovercraft. The moment that I had and I was clear of the machine, it rose back up into the air. And that was when I realized just how bad it was. Because I was immediately hit with a pile of soldering ash and half-destroyed buildings.

The scent of smoke and ash was still heavy in the air. It smelled like they had bombed Twelve just days ago, not almost five weeks ago. It must have been bad if it was still this horrible out here. The smell in the air reminded me of the fire that the Gamemakers had set during the Games last year. It made my eyes water and the back of my throat burn. I was all too familiar with how it felt. Ash was blown into my face by the wind and I leaned over, coughing to try and clear it from my system.

It wasn't so bad that I needed to lean over and vomit like I had then. But that was when I realized something even more awful than all of this. People must not have just died from the firebombs. It was so much worse than that. Some of them likely had, but many of them must have died from smoke inhalation. Just the way that I almost had. I remembered the way that it felt like my internal organs were actually being cooked and how each breath had sent a searing pain through me. I knew how painful it was.

As I looked off into the distance I realized that this entire thing was a complete nightmare. Everything was still smoking, like it had just been burned down a few days ago. And the colors... District 12 had never been a particularly bright and shiny place. But we'd had the natural browns and whites. The colors that had always shown me just how simple we were. But I had loved it. And now the colors were gone. Everything, every single thing, was gray. Even the air seemed to hold a gray tinge.

Slowly I started to move forwards towards the Hall of Justice. The Justice Building. The very place where my own Reaping took place was burned to the ground and destroyed. Only a piece of the sign remained, sitting half-buried under the rubble that was once the magnificent building. It was hard to walk towards it as every step was covered with rubble. It made it very hard to keep my balance as I paced through the streets, getting closer and closer to the building.

Only the very shell of the building remained. I could see all of the wiring and piping that kept the building once standing that was sticking out. The stage that the Reapings occurred on was buried underneath the rubble. But I knew where I was. The same place that I had stood not even two months ago. When my second Reaping had happened. Where everything had really changed. My hand gently brushed over the rubble. Still hot. How was it still hot? Had the firebombs been that hot?

Fire... The Girl on Fire... If these hadn't been people that I loved, I might have laughed. Because Snow was very good at getting to me. He always had been. He knew what my weaknesses were and he knew how I would respond. He knew that I would hate seeing this. He knew that it would break me. I gently stumbled through more of the remains and I turned around in a circle, staring in horror at the bits of District 12 that remained.

Only the shells of all of the buildings remained. And those were only the buildings that had managed to survive the bombing. The stone and metal buildings. What had happened to the wooden homes? They must have been ash by now. I breathed in heavily - taking in more ash - before letting out a deep breath. My hands were shaking. I was terrified by the sight of it. This was what Snow had done. To destroy me. He had destroyed District 12. And almost everyone in it.

It was very hard to force myself to keep moving. I almost wanted to go back to the hovercraft. The further that I got in, the harder that it would become. But I had to see it. So I fought my way back to my old home. It was almost impossible to walk over the rubble and remains of the bombing. All of the paths and streets were gone. With each step that I took the rocks slid out from underneath me and I would come close to falling over. But I managed to keep myself upright.

Gradually I made my way to what I assumed was the interior of one of the larger marketplace shops. It was hard to tell without a point of reference. And I hadn't spent much time in the marketplace anyways. Even after winning the Games, I had always wanted to support those in the Hob. So I had gone and bought from them. Even things that I didn't need. Sometimes just to give it to those who did need it. As I attempted to walk down a sloping pile of rocks, I practically fell to the ground.

Everything kept shifting with my weight. I started walking back up an incline towards what would lead me to what remained of the Seam when I brought my foot down. Something cracked underneath it. I glanced down and slowly moved my foot off to the side. I immediately stumbled backwards as my hand shot to my mouth and I breathed out weakly. It was a human skull. Despite my best efforts to calm down, I couldn't. My entire body erupted into horrible quakes as I continued on.

The only thing that I wanted was to get away from the remains. So I stumbled backwards with my hand still over my mouth. It was the only thing that I could do to keep from screaming. I tried to tell myself that they were already dead. There was nothing that I could do to help them now. So I continued climbing up the rubble of what had once been a building. I was heading straight for where my home used to be in the Seam. But the moment that I made it over the crest I realized that the skull was nothing.

Because, right in front of me, was the worst sight that I had ever seen. Worse than anything that the Hunger Games could have thrown at me. Just two feet away from me was the beginning of thousands and thousands of human remains. Covered in ash. Barely recognizable. Some were piles of bones while others still retained their shape. The ash having settled over them only gave them a gray tint, adding to the obvious recognition that they were dead.

Some of the bodies still had their arms thrown up. It was obvious enough that they had been trying to crawl out. They must have been desperately trying to claw their way out of what had become their death chamber. Each one of them was someone that I had known. Someone that I might have spoken to. Someone that I might have loved. Not far from me was a dog sifting through the remains. Trying to find a meal. My breaths were coming in ragged gasps as I stumbled towards the remains.

Suddenly I was unable to hold my own weight anymore. I collapsed to the ground, my legs becoming rubbery and useless. I weakly crawled through the rubble, fighting back tears, staring down at the rocks and bones, trying to drag myself through the bodies. It was almost impossible to stop myself from having a panic attack. One that likely would never end. My entire body was shaking so badly that I could hardly breathe or move. This was what had become of my home.

Eventually I had managed to drag myself away from the bodies. I couldn't go through there. Because I would just want to sit and wish that I was dead with them. So instead I forced myself to my feet and tucked tail. I sprinted back through the remains of District 12 and away from the bodies of all of those who I had killed. My legs were shaking as I ran and more than once I collapsed when a piece of the debris would shift under my feet. But I refused to stop. I had to flee.

It was like with the Jabberjay's. I couldn't face them, so I had to run. On and on. Until I finally made it to a place that looked a little familiar. Some sense of normalcy. The scent of the flowers was barely enough to distract from the scent of smoke back in the District. I was in the Meadow. The Meadow just outside of the woods. It was the one place that I had seen in District 12 so far that looked like it might have been untouched. The sight of it made me take it as a good sign. It would be a happy place for Leah.

Keeping my voice low, I sat back on my knees and opened up the urn as I prepared to give the same goodbye that I had to Peeta's parents at his funeral. "Those we love don't go away, they walk beside us every day, unseen, unheard, but always near, still loved, still missed and very dear. For you, Leah," I whispered.

"Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you."

The moment that I finished the song, I tilted the open urn over and released the ashes. The wind gently carried them away just a moment later. I watched for a long time, knowing that I was wasting my hour away, but refusing to move. I hoped that her ashes never got mixed into the ashes that were all that remained of District 12. I never wanted her to know about the horrors that killed her. I wanted her to be at peace in the Meadow. Maybe with Cato. Where I would eventually meet them.

Once I had managed to get back to myself, knowing that I had a limited amount of time to do everything that I needed to do, I knew that it was time for me to leave. I still felt horrible about everything that I had seen, but I did feel the slightest bit better about Leah. Taking a deep breath, I knew that it was time to head home. To all of them. The little one that I'd lived in back in the Seam. The one that the Everdeen's had shared next door. And the home we had in Victor's Village.

So I trekked back to my old home in the Seam. In the remains of what had once been District 12. I couldn't get over it. District 12 was gone and we were never going to get it back. Eventually I made my way over to my little shack. The snow didn't collapse the roof as I had thought that it would. As I had been expecting. But it was too early for the heavy snow anyways. Instead the ash had settled completely over the house, almost burying it. I ignored the call that it was almost time to leave and walked forward.

They weren't getting me to leave until I was good and ready. Instead I got down on my hands and knees and spent at least ten minutes trying to dig out the door to my house. Once I had, I entered the house. I folded up the bag that Dean had given me and grabbed my own game bag, tucking in their bag and Leah's urn. They would want it back. As I walked through the house, not that it was very much, I glanced around. The ash had dyed everything an ugly gray.

But the house had always been a tiny and pathetic little thing. I was surprised that it was even still standing. But I lived pretty far back in the Seam and most of the damage had been done up near the Square. Most of the damage out here was the ash. I walked over to the dresser and picked up the black-and-white photograph that I had of my parents, giving them a silent apology. Since I had destroyed their home. Then I took my father's hunting jacket and slipped it over my shoulders.

A moment of comfort. I missed the feeling of having my parents near me. A moment later I started to pace around the house, touching everything. One last time, because I doubted that anyone would ever let me come back here. Not just because of security, but because of my sanity. They were concerned enough about this visit. I touched the scorched cabinet that Katniss gave me before leaving the house, saying my final goodbye, and headed over to the Everdeen house.

Theirs was much easier to enter. I just had to force the door open and slip in through the narrow crack that I made. I stared down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settled on the tough leather. While my home was mostly untouched by the damage, their home was much worse out. It was larger and heavier. It had clearly taken more damage. My house must have been hidden by theirs. At least most of our things were in the house in Victor's Village. I froze after a few seconds.

Now I knew exactly where I was. Right where I was standing was the bed where Katniss had shared with Prim had stood. The bed that we had all crammed into so many times before. It was long gone by now, mixed in with the rest of the ashes of the house. Over just a few feet from where I stood was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provided a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I have oriented myself in the sea of gray?

Almost nothing remained of District 12. I realized it the more that I looked around. Everything was gone. As Katniss' voice came through my headset she told me that the only area that escaped incineration was the Victor's Village. Who could guess why? Perhaps so anyone forced to come here on Capitol business would have somewhere decent to stay. The odd reporter. A committee assessing the condition of the coal mines. A squad of Peacekeepers checking for returning refugees.

But no one was returning except me. At least, from Thirteen. And this was only a brief visit. Last night had been a rather large argument over my visit. The authorities in District 13 were against my coming back. They viewed it as a costly and pointless venture, given that at least a dozen invisible hovercraft were circling overhead for my protection and there was no intelligence to be gained. I had to see it, though. So much so that I made it a condition of my cooperating with any of their plans.

They knew that this was the only way to even hope that I was going to work with them. Finally, Plutarch threw up his hands in frustration. He had already agreed but the District 13 leaders were not happy when they'd heard the plan. He had given them the same argument he'd given me. That they might as well let me go. Better to waste another day than another month and how a tour of Twelve would be just what I needed to convince me that we were on the same side.

The same side. Were we honestly on the same side? I couldn't even think straight. But we couldn't have been on the same side. Not completely, because they never told me the truth. Because they never told me the damn plan that helped get District 12 burned to the ground. A pain stabbed my left temple and I pressed my hand against it. Right on the spot where Johanna Mason hit me with the coil of wire. The memories swirled as I tried to sort out what was true and what was false.

What series of events led me to be standing in the ruins of my city? That was hard because the effects of the concussion she gave me still hadn't completely subsided and my thoughts now were definitely having a tendency to jumble together. And the drugs were still making me see things. If I hadn't known that Snow was really as cruel as he was, I would have thought that the bodies that I'd seen back in the Square were a hallucination. My hands started to shake again.

It was enough to tell me that I would be in a state of panic in a matter of minutes. Not something that I could afford. They would come down here and drag me out, kicking and screaming if they had to. But I wasn't done here yet. There was something that I still had to do. So I used the technique one of the doctors suggested. Starting with the simplest things that I knew to be true and worked toward the more complicated. The list began to roll in my head as it had so many times before.

My name is Aspen Antaeus. I am twenty years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games twice. I escaped once. I was pulled out the second time. The Capitol hates me. So many people have died because of me. District 12 was burned to the ground because of my actions. Cato was taken prisoner. He is thought to be dead. Most likely he is dead. It is probably best if he is dead...

"Aspen. Should I come down?"

Gale's voice reached me through the headset that the rebels insisted that I wear. He was up in the hovercraft with Katniss and a few other men, watching me carefully, ready to swoop in if anything went amiss. I realized that I was crouched down now, elbows on my thighs, my head braced between my hands. I must have looked on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Which I might have been. It wouldn't do. Not when they were finally weaning me off the medication. I straightened up and waved his offer away.

"No. I'm fine."

To reinforce my words, which I knew that he didn't believe, I began to move away from my old house and back in toward the town. Not that I wanted to be there. But because I knew that it was the way back towards where I needed to be. I was grateful that Gale and Katniss hadn't pushed coming into Twelve with me. They both understood that I didn't want anyone with me today. Not even them. Some walks you had to take alone. And I didn't want them to see what I had done.

The summer had been scorching hot and dry as a bone. There had been next to no rain to disturb the piles of ash left by the attack. Which only made things even worse. There was no rain to even start to wash away the aftermath of the attack. They shifted here and there, in reaction to my footsteps. But that was it. The little breeze that had been present before, while I had scattered Leah's ashes, was gone. Now there was no breeze to scatter them. Now that Leah was gone, so was the breeze.

As I walked I kept my eyes on what I remembered as the road. As I continued on I managed to walk straight into another skull. I accidentally kicked it and watched as it went flying away from me. It rolled over and over and landed face up, and for a long time I couldn't stop looking at the teeth, wondering whose they were. Probably someone that I had spoken to a million times before. Then I was thinking of how mine would have probably looked the same way under similar circumstances.

Eventually I managed to convince myself to keep walking. I stuck to the road out of habit, but it was a bad choice, because it was full of the remains of those who tried to flee. Just like in the street back near what used to be the Square. Some were incinerated entirely. But others, probably overcome with smoke, escaped the worst of the flames and now laid reeking in various states of decomposition, carrion for scavengers, blanketed by flies. My hands started to shake again. Seven thousand dead. All my kills.

In the Hunger Games, we were credited for those we killed or had a hand in killing. I was credited with over seven thousand people. An entire District, dead, because of me. I saw the remains of a body, someone with only one arm, and stifled a sob. Ripper. The woman who had so often told me how to handle Haymitch. Who had been one of the few to never treat me like a broken doll after I came back from the Games the first time. Eventually I forced myself to keep walking, passing more piles of remains.

I killed you. And you. And you.

Because I did. It was my arrow, aimed at the chink in the force field surrounding the arena, that brought on the firestorm of retribution. That sent the whole country of Panem into chaos. Everything that was happening in the Districts right now, all of the people who were still dying for the rebellion, more and more every day, were dead because of me. No matter who was pulling the trigger. In my head I heard President Snow's words, spoken the morning I was to begin the Victory Tour.

"You should imagine thousands upon thousands of your people dead. This town of yours reduced to ashes. Imagine it gone. A radioactive buried under dirt as if it never existed, like District 13. You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Antaeus. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war?"

It turned out that he wasn't exaggerating or simply trying to scare me. He was, perhaps, genuinely attempting to enlist my help. But I had already set something in motion that I had no ability to control. And it was getting worse and worse by the day. The only good thing was that there was a chance that there would never be another Hunger Games. Because everyone in the world will be dead by the time that this war is over.

As I continued walking, I spotted another skull. There were so many laying everywhere. I was starting to get a little numb to seeing them.I stopped long enough to lean down and look at it. Did I know them? Probably. If not by name, by face. Because everyone knew their precious Victor. I could tell by the appearance of it that it was from a child. I put a hand over my mouth and let out a dry sob. More children, just like Leah, dead because of me.

Burning. Still burning, I thought numbly. The fires at the coal mines belched black smoke in the distance. I hadn't even realized that they would still be burning. Of course they would. No one put them out. There was no one left to care, though. More than ninety percent of the District's population was dead. We were mostly extinct. The remaining eight hundred or so were refugees in District 13 - which, as far as I was concerned, was the same thing as being homeless forever.

In the back of my mind I knew that I shouldn't have thought that; I knew that I should have been grateful for the way we had been welcomed. Sick, wounded, starving, and empty-handed. Still, I could never get around the fact that District 13 was instrumental in Twelve's destruction. That didn't absolve me of blame - there was plenty of blame to go around. But without them, I would not have been part of a larger plot to overthrow the Capitol or had the wherewithal to do it.

The citizens of District 12 had no organized resistance movement of their own. No say in any of this. They only had the misfortune to have me. Some survivors thought it was good luck, though, to be free of District 12 at last. To have escaped the endless hunger and oppression, the perilous mines, the lash of our final Head Peacekeeper, Romulus Thread. To have a new home at all was seen as a wonder since, up until a short time ago, we hadn't even known that District 13 still existed.

The credit for the survivors' escape had landed squarely on Gale's shoulders, although he was loath to accept it. As soon as the Quarter Quell was over - as soon as I had been lifted from the arena - the electricity in District 12 was cut, the televisions went black, and the Seam became so silent, people could hear one another's heartbeats. No one did anything to protest or celebrate what had happened in the arena. Yet within fifteen minutes, the sky was filled with hovercrafts and the bombs were raining down.

The wedding was a cover-up formed by Plutarch Heavensbee to bring in my family and Cato's and warn them what was going to happen in the arena. He had warned them to be prepared. The only good thing that he had done for me. It had informed them to be weary of an attack once the arena was destroyed. But they hadn't known what I would do and they hadn't known what the Capitol would do. They had only been prepared for a potential and likely attack.

District 2 had been placed under martial law. Because they were favored from the Capitol - and because Cato hadn't been stupid enough to jam his sword into the force field - they had been left mostly alone. Cato's family had evacuated to save themselves from a type of interrogation. Skye and Julie had come with them, as had a few other of Cato's friends. People that I hadn't met yet and didn't really feel the need to. It was during their evacuation that Leah had been killed.

Back in District 12, it was Gale and Katniss who thought of the Meadow, one of the few places not filled with old wooden homes embedded with coal dust. He herded those he could in its direction, including Katniss, Prim, and Ms. Everdeen. They had been concerned that the Capitol would do something extraordinarily cruel, which they had been completely right about. Which was a good thing. They might have saved no one if they hadn't reacted when they did.

Gale had formed the team that pulled down the fence - now just a harmless chain-link barrier, with the electricity off - and led the people into the woods. He and Katniss had managed to keep everyone who survived out of the sight of the Capitol bombers. They took them to the only place that they could think of, the lake that Katniss's father had shown us as children. And it was from there that they watched the distant flames eat up everything that they knew in the world.

By dawn the bombers were long gone, the fires dying, and the final stragglers were rounded up. Ms. Everdeen and Prim had set up a medical area for the injured and were attempting to treat them with whatever they could glean from the woods. It hadn't been easy, but apparently it had worked out alright. They had managed to keep everyone alive until they got to District 13. The real problem had been finding enough food to keep everyone from starving to death.

Thankfully, being raised in District 12, they were used to not having enough food. But not for days on end. They had all known that they would have to do something. Snares had been one thing, but they had only had so much rope and twine to use. And they had to wait for animals to cross their paths. So they had done as we normally did. Gale and Katniss had three sets of bows and arrows, one hunting knife, one fishing net, three throwing knives and over eight hundred terrified people to feed.

With the help of those who were able-bodied, they managed for three days. As they had both told me, they likely wouldn't have been able to make it much longer. People had already started to collapse but no one had died. They were in for trouble if they couldn't figure out what to do soon. And that was when the hovercraft unexpectedly arrived to evacuate them to District 13, where there were more than enough clean, white living compartments, plenty of clothing, and three meals a day.

The compartments had the disadvantage of being underground, the clothing was identical, and the food was relatively tasteless, but for the refugees of Twelve, those were minor considerations. They were safe. They were being cared for. They were alive and eagerly welcomed. That enthusiasm was interpreted as kindness. But a man named Dalton, a District 10 refugee who had made it to Thirteen on foot a few years ago, leaked the real motive to me about a week ago.

"They need you. Me. They need us all. Awhile back, there was some sort of pox epidemic that killed a bunch of them and left a lot more infertile. New breeding stock. That's how they see us."

Back in District 10, he had worked on one of the beef ranches, maintaining the genetic diversity of the herd with the implantation of long-frozen cow embryos. He was one of the few people that spoke to me like I was just a normal human being. He had found me one day after having a nightmare. He hadn't tried to calm me down. He had just spoken to me. But it had actually made things a little bit better. As bitter as Dalton was, I almost liked seeing him around. Because I was bitter, too.

He was very likely right about Thirteen, because there didn't seem to be nearly enough kids around. But so what? We weren't being kept in pens, we were being trained for work and the children were being educated. Those over fourteen had been given entry-level ranks in the military and were addressed respectfully as 'Soldier.' Every single refugee - from District 12 and beyond - was granted automatic citizenship by the authorities of Thirteen.

Still, I hated them. Those in Thirteen, all of the refugees, and every single other person who was still breathing. But, of course, I hated almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone. Although as much as I hated them, I really hated seeing District 12 in the state that it was in. Because I had grown up here. These people, as much as I had hated some of them, had watched me grow up. Some of them had loved my parents. What would they have said if they could have seen what I had done to their home?

The surface beneath my feet hardened, and under the carpet of ash, I felt the paving stones of the Town Square. I must have circled the District at least three times. But I couldn't stop walking. I just had to see what was going on. There was another call from Gale and I asked him to give me another half hour. The authorities wouldn't be happy with me, but Gale wouldn't argue. Around the perimeter of the Square was a shallow border of refuse where the shops stood.

A heap of blackened rubble had replaced the Justice Building. I crossed over it, at least knowing that no Reaping would ever be held here again. I walked to the approximate site of the bakery Peeta's family owned. Nothing much left but the melted lump of the oven. Peeta's parents, his two older brothers - none of them made it to Thirteen. Fewer than a dozen of what passed for District 12's well-to-do escaped the fire. Maybe it was a good thing that he was already dead.

Everything that he loved was gone. Now I just had to hope that he was in the meadow with his family. I felt sick at the thought that so many people in District 2 were dead, too. Plutarch had mentioned to me last night that there was a small rebel force there. They were the ones who had stuck up for Cato and me after the collapse of the arena. Many of them were killed. Cato's home was likely burned to the ground. His sister was dead, too. He wouldn't have had much to come home to. Except me...

There was a little bit of the shell of the bakery left. And the second floor - where they had lived - was still standing in some place. Maybe I could get up there. As I walked in, the first thing that I spotted was four bodies. Burned to a crisp, huddled together. His family. Rye, my friend. My legs buckled as I turned backwards and sprinted up the stairs that would likely collapse at any moment. It was a good thing that I hadn't eaten much lately. I had lost weight. Obviously enough to keep the stairs from breaking.

I couldn't even pretend that Peeta's family might have made it somewhere else. They were dead. Right downstairs. My breathing came in labored gasps as I leaned up against the wall upstairs. As my gaze slowly turned upwards I realized where I was. It was a place that I had only been in once before. I had ran straight into what was once Peeta's room. It hadn't been redecorated since his death. And it had been mostly untouched by the bombs. Just as my home had been mostly standing.

His family had let me in here just a few weeks after the Games so that I could see it. But I had barely been able to stand being in here back then. Now I wanted to linger. So I slowly paced back and forth through the room, also well aware that the floor might collapse. His room was nice. There were paintings sitting everywhere. Most of them were half-finished. A good amount of them had ash settled over them and some were burned from the heat of the bombs. He even had one painting still sitting out.

It was right on his bed. The paints and brushes were sitting off to the side. He must have been doing it before the Reaping. He had thought that he would be coming straight back here. He had never gotten the chance to finish it. I picked up the little painting, no bigger than a dish plate, and sobbed softly. It was of the meadow. He must have been thinking about it. I had seen Peeta the day before the Reaping. He must have been thinking about drawing Katniss and I into it. I saw the hints of blonde and brown.

Many of his paintings had Katniss and me in them. I had noticed that the first time that I had been in here. As I walked back and forth through the room, I picked up the painting and tucked it into the bag. I also grabbed one of his paintbrushes, a few cans of paint, and a plaque. It was the plaque that Peeta's family had received for his death. It wasn't the nicest memory, but I couldn't bring myself to leave it here. I wanted the memory of Peeta with me, not in this horrible place.

My stomach was churning in knots as I looked over the remains of the bakery. Not much and it would continue collapsing over the next few weeks. Soon it would be nothing but rubble, just like the rest of District 12. I walked back out and down the stairs. Just three steps from the bottom, the stairwell collapsed. I dropped to the ground and rolled forwards, grunting from the impact, and sprawling out a few feet from the base of the stairs. And right in front of the remains of Peeta's family.

It was enough to get me to gasp loudly and jump back to my feet. Gale's voice came back over the comm, asking me if I was okay, but I ignored him. Quickly I backed away from the bakery and bumped straight into something. Not again. I needed to pay more attention. Before I could stop myself, I lost my balance, fell backwards, and found myself sitting on a hunk of sun-heated metal. It burned my hands and I hissed, pulling them back off and into my lap as I got back to my feet.

Just like everything else in District 12, it was almost completely destroyed. There was barely enough of a shape for me to tell what it was. For a moment I stared at the remains of the metal structure. I puzzled over what it might have been, and then I remembered Thread's recent renovations of the Town Square. Stocks, whipping posts, and this. This was the remains of the gallows. Bad. This was bad. I knew it was as I started to breathe heavily in and out.

It brought on the flood of images that always tormented me, awake or asleep. Cato being tortured - drowned, burned, lacerated, shocked, maimed, beaten - as the Capitol tried to get information about the rebellion that he didn't know. It made me sick. If he was alive, I knew that was what was happening. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to reach for him across the hundreds and hundreds of miles, to send my thoughts into his mind, to let him know he was not alone. But he was. And I couldn't help him.

Running. Suddenly I was running away from the Town Square and to the one place the fire did not destroy. I passed the wreckage of the mayor's house, where my friend Madge lived. No word of her or her family. Were they evacuated to the Capitol because of her father's position, or left to the flames? Likely left to the flames. Ashes billowed up around me, and I pulled the hem of the jumpsuit up over my mouth. It wasn't wondering what I was breathing in, but who, that threatened to choke me.

Again I was reminded of running away from the wildfire in the Games last year. The first wildfire. The first one that had burned straight through some of the muscle on my thigh. No evidence that it ever happened, except for in my memories. My eyes were burning as I ran through the remains of the buildings. All of these people, all of these lives, that I had destroyed. My body was shaking again and my legs were threatening to give out. I was sure that I was about to drop to the ground.

The grass had been scorched and the gray snow fell here as well, but that was the only damage from the firebombs. The twelve fine houses of the Victor's Village were unscathed. I bolted into the house that I lived in for the past year, slammed the door closed, and leaned back against it. The place seemed untouched. Clean. Eerily quiet. My hands were shaking as I slid down against the door. Why did I come back to Twelve? How could this visit help me answer the question I couldn't escape?

"What am I going to do?" I whispered to the walls.

Because I really didn't know. People kept talking at me, talking, talking, talking. So many people had been trying to talk to me. Not that I ever really listened to them. Because I didn't want to hear them. But that didn't stop them from speaking about anything and everything. Plutarch Heavensbee. His calculating assistant, Fulvia Cardew. Someone who reminded me of Effie Trinket, but I liked far less. There were a mishmash of District leaders. Military officials.

But not Alma Coin, the president of Thirteen, who just watched. She had only spoken to me once, yesterday, for the first time. She was fifty or so, with gray hair that fell in an unbroken sheet to her shoulders. I was somewhat fascinated by her hair, since it was so uniform, so without a flaw, a wisp, even a split end. Her eyes were gray, but not like those of people from the Seam. They were very pale, as if almost all the color had been sucked out of them. The color of slush that you wish would melt away.

What they wanted was for me to truly take on the role they designed for me. The symbol of the revolution. The Mockingjay. It wasn't enough, what I had done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution. The person who the Districts - most of which were now openly at war with the Capitol - could count on to blaze the path to victory.

Which might have worked. I could have tried to do it. That was why I came here. Because I was hoping that seeing what President Snow had done to my home would remind me of how much I had lost because of him. It would encourage me to fight back. I wouldn't have to do it alone, after all. They had a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances - as if that didn't sound horribly familiar - and all I had to do was play my part.

It would have been easy enough. Just stand and give a written speech. Just like on the Victory Tour. But we saw how well that worked out. I tried to warn them about it, but they said that it would be fine. Sometimes I listened to them and sometimes I just watched the perfect line of Coin's hair and tried to decide if it was a wig. Eventually, I would have the doctors order them to leave the room because my head started to ache or it was time to eat or if I didn't get above ground I might have started screaming.

This was the first time in months that I had been above ground or out in the air. It almost made me wish that I was still underground in District 13. Because at least I couldn't see all of the damage in there. I wondered what it would look like in the other Districts. The ones that were fighting. Were they getting to this point, too? I would try to ask sometimes, but they didn't tell me. And if they had nothing to say that I wanted to hear, I didn't bother to say anything. I would simply get up and walk out.

Just like I had yesterday. The first time that I had officially met Coin. I had only seen her in pictures beforehand. But her hair and eyes had always fascinated me. There was something about them that I couldn't trust. I remembered being in a slight haze when people would try and talk to me over the past month. When the doctors wouldn't ask them to leave I would get up and go to the boiler room whenever I either got overwhelmed or just didn't want to listen to them.

Yesterday afternoon, as the door was closing behind me, I heard Coin say, "Maybe you should have rescued the boy instead."

Meaning Cato. I couldn't have agreed more. He would have been an excellent mouthpiece. Everyone liked listening to Cato. The way that he spoke in both of his Interviews. He was always a charmer. And the way that he would speak to me about what was happening in the Districts. I knew that he would have been much better than me. I wasn't a public speaker. I hated everyone and had a hard time speaking without getting angry, which would have been wrong for this purpose. I had to be strong, not bitter.

And who did they fish out of the arena instead? Me, who wouldn't cooperate. Even now, by the time that I got back, I couldn't be one hundred percent positive that I would cooperate. Beetee, an older inventor from Three, who I rarely saw anymore because he was pulled into weapons development the minute he could sit upright. Literally, they wheeled his hospital bed into some top secret area and now he only occasionally showed up for meals. Yesterday had been the first time that I had seen him in weeks.

He was very smart and very willing to help the cause, but not really firebrand material. He was a good man. Smart and kind. But those weren't the kind of people who were good for fighting. They needed someone who would be able to stand up and actually fight with the rebels. Then there was Finnick Odair, the sex symbol from the fishing District, who kept Cato alive in the arena when I couldn't. They wanted to transform Finnick into a rebel leader, too, but first they would have to get him to stay awake for more than five minutes.

Even when he was conscious, you had to say everything to him three times to get through to his brain. The doctors said it was from the electrical shock that he received in the arena, but I knew that it was a lot more complicated than that. I knew that Finnick couldn't focus on anything in Thirteen because he was trying so hard to see what was happening in the Capitol to Annie Cresta, the mad girl from his District who was the only person on earth he loved.

Despite serious reservations, I had to forgive Finnick for his role in the conspiracy that landed me here. He, at least, had some idea of what I was going through. He had been my friend for a long time beforehand. He had helped me through my first Games, getting me Sponsor medicine that had saved my life, and had comforted me when everything had happened with Seneca Crane. And it took too much energy to stay angry with someone who cried so much.

Slowly I moved through the downstairs on hunter's feet, reluctant to make any sound. I picked up a few remembrances as I walked. Things that I knew that Katniss, Prim, and Ms. Everdeen would want. A photo of their parents on their wedding day, a blue hair ribbon for Prim, Katniss's arrowhead that I had gotten her for her birthday. And the family book of medicinal and edible plants. The book fell open to a page with yellow flowers and I shut it quickly because it was Rye's brush that painted them.

What was I going to do? Was there any point in doing anything at all? Katniss, Ms. Everdeen, Prim, Gale, Gale's family, and those who remained of Cato's family were finally safe. As for the rest of Twelve, people were either dead, which was irreversible, or protected in Thirteen. That left the rebels in the Districts. And how could I help them? Giving a few speeches? Doubtful. They were already fighting. They were already encouraged to win the war. Wouldn't I just look pompous if I started giving speeches?

Of course, I hated the Capitol, but I had no confidence that my being the Mockingjay would benefit those who were trying to bring it down. How could I help the Districts when every time I made a move, it resulted in suffering and loss of life? Everything that I had done had caused people to be killed. During my first Games, during the Victory Tour, during the Quell, and now afterwards. None of my moves had been small and I had been paid back ten times over for each of them.

The old man shot in District 11 for whistling. The man in District 9 for his comments. The crackdown in Twelve after I intervened in Gale's whipping. My Head Stylist, Cinna, being dragged, bloody and unconscious, from the Launch Room before the Games. The horrible broadcast of his execution, likely a present from Snow to me. Brilliant, enigmatic, lovely Cinna was dead because of me. I pushed the thought away because it was too impossibly painful to dwell on without losing my fragile hold on the situation entirely.

What am I going to do?

To become the Mockingjay... could any good I did possibly outweigh the damage? Who could I trust to answer that question? No one that I could think of off of the top of my head. Certainly not that crew in Thirteen. I could have sworn, now that my family and Gale's and the Hadley's were out of harm's way, I could have run away. Except for one unfinished piece of business. Cato. If I knew for sure that he was dead, I could have just disappeared into the woods and never looked back. But until I did, I was stuck.

My ears were alert to any shift. That was why I spun around and stepped back against the counter at the sound of a hiss. In the kitchen doorway, back arched, ears flattened, stood the ugliest tomcat in the world. Thousands of people were dead, but he had survived and even looked well fed. On what? He could get in and out of the house through a window we always left ajar in the pantry. He must have been eating field mice. I refused to consider the more likely alternative.

"Figures. Buttercup," I said.

The cat was making all sorts of nasty noises. Probably complaining just the way that I was internally. He was probably irritable that I was one of the few that managed to survive the attack on District 12. Just the way that I was angry that he was one of the things that managed to make it through the bombing. How had that stupid cat managed to make it? The one creature that I might have enjoyed having dead. As I had threatened him with so many times before.

I squatted down and extended a hand. "Come here, boy," I whispered.

Not likely. He was angry at his abandonment. Besides, I wasn't offering food, and my ability to provide scraps had always been my main redeeming quality to him. For a while, when we used to meet up at the old house because we both disliked this new one, we seemed to be bonding a little. I had thought that he might have been starting to like me. Not like, but maybe tolerate. That was clearly over. He blinked those unpleasant yellow eyes at me.

"Want to see Prim?" I asked.

Her name caught his attention. Besides his own, it was the only word that meant anything to him. He gave a rusty meow and approached me. I picked him up, having a hard time keeping a hold of him, stroking his fur, then opened my game bag and unceremoniously stuffed him in. There was no other way I would be able to carry him on the hovercraft, and he meant the world to Prim. Her goat, Lady, an animal of actual value, had unfortunately not made an appearance. Likely dead, being out in the pasture.

"There you go. Oh, you're breaking my heart," I mumbled as Buttercup gave a loud howl.

Grabbing some medicinal herbs and concoctions that Ms. Everdeen had used on her patients, I started to slip them into the game bag, hoping that Buttercup wouldn't eat them. In my headset, the metal piece in my ear that sometimes screeched when it picked up interference from the Capitol hearing aid, I heard Gale's voice telling me we must go back. But being here had reminded me of a few more things that I wanted. I slung the strap of the bag over the back of a chair and dashed up the steps to my old bedroom.

At the last moment I turned back to Katniss's. Inside the closet hung Katniss's father's hunting jacket. Before the Quell, I went with her to bring it back here from their old house, thinking its presence might be of comfort to the rest of the Everdeen women when I was dead. Thank goodness, or it would be ash now. Which was good, considering that my house at least had made it through the bombing. Most of the Everdeen's had been incinerated.

The soft leather felt soothing and for a moment I was calmed by the memories of the hours spent wrapped in it. What would Mr. Everdeen have thought if he could see everything that had happened? That I had done? Maybe he would have been proud. Then, inexplicably, my palms began to sweat. A strange sensation creeped up the back of my neck. I whipped around to face the room and found it empty. Tidy. Everything in its place. There was no sound to alarm me. What, then?

Nothing. I was just overreacting. I had to calm down and try to remember that everything was going to be okay. I headed back downstairs, picked up the game bag, stuffed the jacket in, and headed into the study. As I walked up to the desk I picked up a picture of Mr. Everdeen and the picture of Cato and me. Our first kiss at the party before the Games. It was the only photograph that I had, save the one that the Hadley's had given me. I needed to keep it. Maybe to show them. They would like it.

Suddenly my nose twitched. It was the smell. Cloying and artificial. It reminded me of the scent of the garden up on the roof back at the Training Center. Something that set my nerves on edge. A dab of white peeked out of a vase of dried flowers on my desk. It was the only living flower among the dead ones in the vase. I approached it with cautious steps. There, all but obscured by its preserved cousins, was a fresh white rose. Perfect. Down to the last thorn and silken petal.

And I knew immediately who had sent it to me.

President Snow.

For a moment I held it in my hands. But when the goosebumps rose I dropped it back on the desk. When I began to gag at the stench, I backed away and cleared out. Where were they? Close. They had to be close. How long had it been here? A day? An hour? Roses couldn't be left out like that long. The rebels did a security sweep of the Victor's Village before I was cleared to come here, checking for explosives, bugs, or anything unusual. But perhaps the rose didn't seem noteworthy to them. Only to me.

Downstairs, I snagged a few more bottles from the kitchen, hushed Buttercup, who was hissing, and dashed off. I could hear the hovercraft up in the air as I ran along, bouncing the bag along the floor until I remembered that it was occupied. On the lawn, I frantically signaled to the hovercraft while Buttercup thrashed. I jabbed him with my elbow, but that only infuriated him. A hovercraft materialized and landed just a few feet from me. I sprinted up to it as the ramp dropped and ran in as the hovercraft took off again.

Gale helped me back to my seat. "You all right?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, wiping the sweat off my face with my sleeve.

He left me a rose! I wanted to scream, but it wasn't information that I was sure I should share with someone like Plutarch looking on. Everyone in here would hear me and it would make it a nightmare. Because they already thought that I had been in far too of a fragile state to come here in the first place. A stupid comment about one live rose would only make everything worse. First of all, because it would make me sound crazy. Something that they already thought was a possibility. That I was permanently insane.

Like I either imagined it, which was quite possible, or I was overreacting, which would buy me a trip back to the drug-induced dreamland I had recently been trying so hard to escape. No one would fully understand - how it wasn't just a flower, not even just President Snow's flower, but a promise of revenge - because no one else sat in that study with him when he threatened me before the Victory Tour. The only person who might have understood was Seneca Crane, and they still didn't always trust him.

Positioned on that desk, that white-as-snow rose was a personal message to me. A personal message to everyone who knew President Snow. Who genuinely knew him. Not just the way that he made himself appear during speeches. Plutarch Heavensbee, Seneca Crane, and me. We were the only people who might have understood. And we weren't enough. But I knew that the rose spoke of unfinished business. It whispered, I can find you. I can reach you. Perhaps I am watching you now.

Out of the corner of my eyes I could see that Katniss and Gale were giving me concerned looks. But they thought that it was just because of what I had found. And it was. But it was so much more than the decimated remains of District 12. It was my newest warning. So I sat anxiously in my seat as Gale took his place next to me. My heart was pounding out of my chest. What was Snow thinking of doing now? I left the game bag in my lap and placed a hand on it as Buttercup began to growl irritably.

Katniss's head whipped towards the bag. "Is that...?" she trailed off.

"Yes," I said.

"You're joking. That disgusting thing made it?" Katniss asked, looking repulsed.

"Yes. I thought that Prim would want him," I said.

"Better make sure you hide him. I don't think they're too big on cats in Thirteen," Gale said.

He was right about that. We weren't allowed to have animals in Thirteen. At least, animals that we weren't planning on eating or skinning. And I oculdn't imagine the look on Prim's face if they told her that we were going to make gloves out of Buttercup. I would be able to hide him. We would just have to keep him in the room. We would figure out how to feed him and let him wander around. We sat in silence for a while as I stared at the other end of the hovercraft.

"You don't need to talk about it, just tell me that you saw what you needed to see," Gale said.

"I did," I said, not bothering to look at them.

They knew that it was the wrong time to try and talk to me. Right now I just needed to think. I had to sit and stare angrily at the other end of the hovercraft. I had to steam over what President Snow had done to my home for a long time. To all of those innocent people. I knew now what I must do. I had to go and get revenge for all of those who had died in District 12. For all of those who had died for my actions. They would not have died in vain.

After a while I started looking out of the windows. Someone from the Capitol had to have been close recently. Were there Capitol hovercrafts speeding in to blow us out of the sky? As we traveled over District 12, I watched anxiously for signs of an attack, not telling the others why I was concerned, but nothing pursued us. After several minutes, when I heard an exchange between Plutarch and the pilot confirming that the airspace was clear, I began to relax a little.

Gale nodded at the howls coming from my game bag. "Now I know why you had to go back."

"If there was even a chance of his recovery." I dumped the bag onto a seat, where the loathsome creature began a low, deep-throated growl. "Oh, shut up," I told the bag as I sank into the cushioned window seat across from it.

"I can't believe you brought him back here," Katniss said.

"I would have rather had Lady. At least she's useful," I said.

Gale and Katniss took their places next to me. "Pretty bad down there?" Gale asked.

"Couldn't be much worse," I answered.

"Was there -?" Katniss started.

"You don't want to know. Trust me," I said shortly.

That was the end of that conversation. I looked into their eyes and saw my own grief reflected there. That was our home. It had been for our entire lives. And just one foolish action on my part had destroyed it. Our hands all found each others, holding fast to a part of Twelve that Snow had somehow failed to destroy. The love that we all shared. The familial bond. He could do what he wanted. No one blamed me. They still supported me. They were still rooting for me to pull it together and be the Mockingjay.

We sat in silence for the rest of the trip to Thirteen, which ended up taking about forty-five minutes. I had a feeling that they wanted to be out of the airspace. Just in case. It was a mere week's journey on foot. Bonnie and Twill, the District 8 refugees who Katniss and I encountered in the woods last winter, weren't so far from their destination after all. They apparently didn't make it, though. When I asked about them in Thirteen, no one seemed to know who I was talking about. Died in the woods, I guessed.

From the air, Thirteen looked about as cheerful as Twelve. The rubble wasn't smoking, the way the Capitol showed it on television, but there was next to no life above ground. In the seventy-five years since the Dark Days - when Thirteen was said to have been obliterated in the war between the Capitol and the Districts - almost all new construction had been beneath the earth's surface. The only new development had been the hangars that were just underneath the low hills in the valleys.

There was already a substantial underground facility here, developed over centuries to be either a clandestine refuge for government leaders in time of war or a last resort for humanity if life above became unlivable. Which was a good idea, since apparently for some years the air pollution had been so bad that people had died from it. But it was well before the First Rebellion that the air had become breathable again. And it had remained that way since, seeing as only a few Districts put out pollution.

Most important for the people of Thirteen, it was the center of the Capitol's nuclear weapons development program. During the Dark Days, the rebels in Thirteen wrested control from the government forces, trained their nuclear missiles on the Capitol, and then struck a bargain. The bargain that would ensure that we would never hear about them. They would play dead in exchange for being left alone. Something that had actually stunned me out of my drugged state a few weeks ago.

The Capitol had another nuclear arsenal out west, but it couldn't attack Thirteen without certain retaliation. It was forced to accept Thirteen's deal. The Capitol demolished the visible remains of the District and cut off all access from the outside. Perhaps the Capitol's leaders thought that, without help, Thirteen would die off on its own. It almost did a few times, but it always managed to pull through due to strict sharing of resources, strenuous discipline, and constant vigilance against any further attacks from the Capitol.

Now the citizens lived almost exclusively underground. You could go outside for exercise and sunlight but only at very specific times in your schedule. Mostly so they didn't end up missing someone. With so few people in Thirteen, and disease being very likely in the close quarters, they had to keep an eye on everyone. You couldn't miss your schedule. Katniss had told me all about the scheduling works last night. Since I was about to start getting them now that I was discharged.

Every morning, you were supposed to stick your right arm in this contraption in the wall. It tattooed the smooth inside of your forearm with your schedule for the day in a sickly purple ink. 7:00 - Breakfast. 7:30 - Kitchen Duties. 8:30 - Education Center, Room Seventeen. And so on. The ink was indelible until 22:00 - Bathing. That was when whatever kept it water resistant broke down and the whole schedule rinsed away. The lights-out at 22:30 signaled that everyone not on the night shift should be in bed.

At first, when I was so ill in the hospital, I could forgo being imprinted. Before I had moved out of the hospital, but once they knew that I was physically healthy enough to start doing my duties, they had tried to imprint me. But I had panicked and trashed to the point that they had finally just written it down on a piece of paper. At that point I had been expected to get with the program. Except for showing up for meals, though, I pretty much ignored the words on the piece of paper.

Ignoring everyone who was trying to get me to get up and do whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing, I would just sit in the hospital and try to block out everything. I would sometimes wander around Thirteen or fall asleep in a place that was hidden. An abandoned air duct. Behind the water pipes in the laundry. There was a closet in the Education Center that was great because no one ever seemed to need school supplies. They were so frugal with things here, waste was practically a criminal activity.

Fortunately, the people of Twelve had never been wasteful. But once I saw Fulvia Cardew crumple up a sheet of paper with just a couple of words written on it and you would have thought she had murdered someone from the looks she got. Her face turned tomato red, making the silver flowers inlaid in her plump cheeks even more noticeable. The very portrait of excess. One of my few pleasures in Thirteen was watching the handful of pampered Capitol 'rebels' squirming as they tried to fit in.

In the back of my mind I had been realizing that I didn't know how long I would be able to get away with my complete disregard for the clockwork precision of attendance required by my hosts. Right now, they left me alone because I was classified as mentally disoriented - it said so right on my plastic medical bracelet - and everyone had to tolerate my ramblings. Plus they still thought that I was suffering from a miscarriage. But that couldn't last forever. Neither could their patience with the Mockingjay issue.

All of a sudden one of the screens in the hovercraft started playing the Panem anthem. The last time that I had seen something like this it had shown me Cinna's execution. I felt Gale and Katniss's hands tightening around my own. The people in Thirteen hadn't been able to intercept all of the transmissions from the Capitol that had been sent out. Apparently Beetee had been unable to break through their system, which was what he had been trying so hard to do since getting here.

"What is this?" I whispered.

"Warning, probably," Gale said.

President Snow's face filled the screen and I balled my fists. "Citizens, tonight I address all of Panem as one. Since the Dark Days, Panem has had an unprecedented era of peace. It is a peace built upon cooperation. And a respect for law and order. In the past weeks, you have heard of sporadic violence following the actions of a few radicals in the Quarter Quell. Those who choose this destructive path, your actions are based on a misunderstanding of how we have survived. Together. It is a contract.

"Each District supplies the Capitol. Like blood to a heart. In return, the Capitol provides order and security. To refuse work is to put the entire system in danger. The Capitol is the beating heart of Panem. Nothing can survive without a heart.

"The criminals that kneel before you use symbols for the purpose of sedition. Which is why all images of The Mockingjay are now forbidden. Possessing them will be considered treason. Punishable by death. Justice shall be served swiftly. Order shall be restored. To those who ignore the warnings of history, prepare to pay the ultimate price."

The screen went blank. It must have been a warning before an execution in the Districts. "Asshole," I growled.

"He's just trying to quell the fight," Katniss said.

"It won't work," I said determinedly.

"We know, Aspen," Gale said reassuringly.

From the look that Plutarch was giving me, I knew that it was his warning. To tell me that this would only get worse the longer that I said no to being the Mockingjay. And he was right. More people were going to die for me. The least that I could do was fight alongside them. The people who believed in me. Plutarch and I exchanged a long look. Finally, after what felt like hours, I gave the most imperceptible nod. It was time for me to get off of my ass and do something.

From the landing pad, Gale, Katniss, and I walked down a series of stairways to Compartment 307. We could have taken the elevator, only it reminded me too much of the one that lifted me into the arena. I was having a hard time adjusting to being underground so much. I liked the hills of District 12. But after the surreal encounter with the rose, for the first time the descent made me feel safer. I hesitated at the door marked 307, anticipating the questions from my family.

"What am I going to tell them about Twelve?" I asked Gale.

"I doubt they'll ask for details. They saw it burn. They'll mostly be worried about how you're handling it." Gale touched my cheek. "Like I am."

I pressed my face against his hand for a moment. "I'll survive."

"Ready?" Katniss asked, placing a hand on my shoulder.

"Let's do it. Hey. Don't tell them about Twelve, okay?" I asked Katniss.

"They don't need to know. I don't even need to know. You were the only person who needed to see it," Katniss said.

"Right," I said weakly.

"It'll be okay," Katniss reassured me.

"I know," I said.

Then I took a deep breath and opened the door. The first time that I had ever been in here before. I had tried to never drop by. Gale gave me a final nod before turning to see his own family. Katniss and I stood at the doorway. Ms. Everdeen and Prim were home for 18:00 - Reflection, a half hour of downtime before dinner. I immediately saw the concern on their faces as they tried to gauge my emotional state. But I was a master at hiding my emotions.

"It's okay. We're okay," Ms. Everdeen said, rushing forward to embrace me. I had only seen her a few times since arriving at District 13. "We're all here now."

A second later Prim heard Buttercup growling. "Buttercup!" she cheered happily.

"I smuggled him in. And I got Dad. And I got some of your herbs from the kitchen," I said, slowly taking things from the bag.

"They have strict rules. I don't know what they'll do if they find him here," Ms. Everdeen said.

Before anyone could ask anything about how I got him and what things were like back home, I turned the bag over and emptied it. Obviously Buttercup was not happy with being practically thrown from the bag. But it became 18:00 - Cat Adoration. Prim just sat on the floor weeping and rocking that awful Buttercup, who interrupted his purring only for an occasional hiss at Katniss or me. He gave me a particularly smug look when she tied the blue ribbon around his neck.

Of course Katniss and I rolled our eyes. Ms. Everdeen hugged the wedding photo tightly against her chest and then placed it, along with the book of plants, on our government-issued chest of drawers. I handed Katniss their father's jacket. She smiled and placed it on the back of a chair. For a moment, the place almost seemed like home. So I guessed that the trip to Twelve wasn't a complete waste. I took the photograph of my parents and Cato and me on the dresser.

"Thanks for grabbing all of it," Katniss said, as I spread everything else out.

"I had to," I said.

The last thing that I pulled from the bag was Peeta's last unfinished painting. I wasn't really sure where I could put it since there were no nails to hang it up and it felt a little too precious to just prop it up against the floor. So I pushed everything on the dresser forwards and set it down against the wall behind the dresser. In the back of my mind I couldn't figure out what forced me to take it, but I knew that I needed it. Katniss walked straight over to it and stared blankly.

"That's..." she trailed off.

"Peeta's. Yeah. I don't know, I felt like I needed it," I said.

"It's - nice," Katniss said, her voice breaking.

"Do you want it?" I asked.

She started to shake her head. "He was your friend," Katniss said.

"He would have wanted you to have it. He would have wanted you to like it," I said gently.

Katniss took the painting from me and placed it on her dresser at the side of her bed, gently touching the canvas. "I love it. Thank you," she said, her voice becoming very weak.

"You're welcome," I said gently.

We all knew that Katniss was never in love with Peeta. She hadn't known him, just the way that I hadn't, before the Games. But I knew that she had always felt some draw to him because of that moment with the bread. I knew that they could have made a good couple. So I sat with Katniss on the bed and told her all about how precise Peeta was with his strokes, telling her all about painting that I could remember Peeta telling me about. She had never looked so entranced with my words.

The four of us sat together for a while as Katniss and I talked and Prim and Ms. Everdeen played with Buttercup. We were finally heading down to the dining hall for 18:30 - Dinner, where Gale met up with us, when his communicuff began to beep. It looked like an oversized watch, but it received print messages. Being granted a communicuff was a special privilege that was reserved for those important to the cause, a status Gale achieved by his rescue of the citizens of Twelve. Katniss had denied one to stay with me until I would stand and fight.

"They need the three of us in Command," Gale said.

"Damn it. I was actually hungry," I growled.

"Afterwards," Gale said, grinning sideways.

Trailing a few steps behind Gale and Katniss, I tried to collect myself before I was thrown into what was sure to be another relentless Mockingjay session. This time they would harass me for longer, since I was no longer in the hospital. I lingered in the doorway of Command, the high-tech meeting and war council room complete with computerized talking walls, electronic maps showing the troop movements in various Districts, and a giant rectangular table with control panels I wasn't supposed to touch.

No one noticed me, though, because they were all gathered at a television screen at the far end of the room that was designed to air the Capitol broadcast around the clock. Apparently they were constantly airing things about how it was illegal to be a rebel, they would shoot on sight, martial law, and everything like that. All of the obvious things. There were even executions. Things that they were trying to use to intimidate the Districts. I didn't want to have to see it.

For right now I had seen enough of President Snow. Maybe for a lifetime. I was thinking that I might have been able to slip away when Plutarch, whose ample frame had been blocking the television, caught sight of me and waved urgently for me to join them. I reluctantly moved forward, trying to imagine how it could be of interest to me. It was always the same. War footage. Propaganda. Replaying the bombings of District 12. Which I particularly loved. An ominous message from President Snow. Just like earlier.

That was when I realized that there were others who I knew in the room. Cato's family - at least, the adults - were also in the room. They looked as curious as I now was. What were they doing in here? Dean was the only one who held the same status that Gale did. Maybe it would be a warning to District 2. But it wasn't. Instead it was almost entertaining to see Caesar Flickerman, the eternal host of the Hunger Games, with his painted face and sparkly suit, preparing to give an interview.

Likely it would be something about how the rebels were horrible people, we were only lying to ourselves about what we could and couldn't do, and another comment about how the 'Capitol darling' Aspen Antaeus was now fighting against those who loved her. Whatever. I rolled my eyes and turned to leave. They were the ones who had started this. Maybe we should show your people just what you did to thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and then we'll see who the real villain is.

"Hello. Good evening. And a big welcome to all in Panem. I'm Caesar Flickerman. And whoever you are, whatever it is you're doing, if you're working, put down your work. If you're having dinner, stop having dinner. Because you are going to want to witness this tonight. There has been rampant speculation about what really happened in the Quarter Quell. And here to shed a little light on the subject for us is a very special guest."

It was probably just some Gamemaker making me out to be the bad guy again. As they liked to do so often. Plutarch was trying to say something but I ignored him. Unless it was something important, I didn't care. But my footsteps were halted the moment that I heard Alana's mouth drop open into a shriek. My head whipped back around and I ran to comfort her. But I stopped again when the camera pulled back and I saw what she was screaming about. She was screaming because his guest was Cato.

Chapter Text

A sound escaped me. What was it? That was a good question. Not a sound that I had ever thought that I could make. Not a sound that I had thought that any human being could make. It was the same combination of gasp and groan that came from being submerged in water, deprived of oxygen to the point of pain. I pushed people aside so that I could get to the screen. Even though I couldn't touch him, I needed to be near him. I needed to... just be there.

Some people stepped backwards to let me up closer to the screen. Others were trying to stand in front of the screen, just like I was. I practically stomped over Skye and Julie to get near the screen. They were trying to get close, too, but they stepped off to the side to let me be up front. Dean elbowed a few people out of the way so that I could be there. Cato's family was close, but no one was closer than me. Within two seconds I was right in front of him with my hand resting on the screen.

My entire body was flooded with relief. It might have been something even more than that. There was no way that I could tell what the feeling really was. It was just the happiest that I had felt in months. A number of people had told me that he was alive. They had said that there was a chance that he was alive and just being held captive in the Capitol. I had always thought that they were just trying to comfort me. But now I knew that it was the truth. He was alive. And I was going to get him back.

It just kept repeating in my mind. The idea that I was going to get my husband back. He was going to be back with me. He was going to be my husband again. Here, in District 13, safe and sound, where he belonged. In the back of my mind I had always been thinking that it wasn't a possibility. I had thought that he really was dead. But now I knew that it was the truth. He was right there. In the Capitol. Getting him back was a possibility. Not even just that. It was the eventual truth.

For a moment I broke my glance away from the screen to see what else was happening around the room. I had to know what was happening. Because it wasn't just me who would be thrilled with the idea that Cato was back and alive. There were a number of people who loved him. I wanted to gauge the reactions of the rest of the Hadley family. They were all clinging to each other, scattered throughout the room. Of course. Because they hadn't lost two children. I couldn't bring Leah back, but Cato was alive.

At least one of their children could be saved. Carrie had her head pushed into Dean's shoulder by now. I could see that her body was wracking with sobs. Marley was cooing at the screen, obviously recognizing her uncle. Skye and Julie had tears in their eyes that were about to slip down their faces. Their best friend was alive. Aidan had his hand over his mouth as he jumped up and down. Alana was down on her knees, sobbing wickedly, as Damien attempted to calm her down, hushing her gently.

They weren't sad tears. They were happy tears. Because her son was alive. She had lost her daughter, but her son was alive. My husband was alive... I noticed that Katniss and Gale were both looking at me. A number of people in the room were looking at me. Katniss was smiling, really smiling, for the first time in a long time. She grabbed my shoulder comfortingly. Gale had an unreadable mask on his face. He likely felt a little bit of happiness and depression at the fact that Cato was alive.

But he wouldn't say anything, even if he was angry, because he knew what this meant to me. My hand shot to my mouth as I let out another gasp and a strangled sob. Something very pathetic that was still choked. A second later my knees started buckling. A moment later Dean was at my side, keeping me supported. Carrie was smiling at me, her chin resting on Marley's head. Dean had his arms wrapped around me. I was about to cry as I rested a hand on his chest. But these were not sad tears.

"He's alive," Dean muttered.

"Cato... You're alive..." I whispered, my hand shaking against the screen.

"We're going to get him back, Aspen. We're going to get him," Dean said, his mouth near my ear.

A somewhat hysterical laugh escaped my throat. Cato was alive. He was okay. And it looked like he was safe. I turned back for a moment to notice that Brutus was in the room now. He must have been called in just when the broadcast started. He was standing with Alana and Damien. Of course, they were old friends. Brutus glanced over at me and gave me a little smile. The only one that he had ever given me. I gave a small one back, tears building in my eyes again. He was going to come back to me.

"Your husband is alive," Seneca said.

He had come up to stand next to me. I was so happy that I didn't care who was standing near me. So I threw myself onto Katniss and Gale, standing right in between them. They both laughed as I tightened my grip almost painfully around them. It had been a long time since they had seen me like this. A moment later I turned and threw myself onto Seneca, despite everything. He caught me in his arms, looking very surprised at my sudden actions and change of demeanor.

"I think that's the first time that you've ever given me a real hug," Seneca muttered in my ear.

In fact, I had a feeling that it was the only time that we had ever really hugged. "He's alive. I never thought I'd see him alive," I said, my voice very shaky.

Seneca pulled away from me a moment later. "I'll do everything in my power to get him here," he promised.

"Thank you," I said, my voice breaking.

"Anything for you, Aspen. I swear that to you," Seneca said.

His hand was on my shoulder and I nodded. Finally I turned back to the screen to look over Cato. I searched his so familiar eyes for any sign of hurt, any reflection of the agony of torture. There was nothing. Cato looked healthy to the point of robustness. His skin was glowing, flawless, in that full-body-polish way. His manner was composed, serious, as it was the first time that I had seen him at his first Reaping. I couldn't reconcile that image with the battered, bleeding boy who haunted my dreams.

In fact, he actually looked very healthy. He looked even healthier than I did. Of course, he was in the Capitol and they had the capability to keep him looking nice after the arena. I still had lingering scars and wounds. His hair had been shaved on the sides again and the hair in the middle had been brushed back. It looked like he had been shaved, too. He was in a pristine white suit that had obviously been recently ironed. He looked better than I could have ever imagined.

It was obvious that everyone else was thinking the same thing. That there was something strange about the way that he looked. I couldn't quite process the information. Had they really been taking that good of care of him? I had thought that they would be torturing him. Maybe he had been willing to work with them to get them to let him live. Maybe he had made a deal with them or something. Maybe he had been working hard to ensure his own survival.

In the end I supposed that it really didn't matter. I didn't care about anything like that. Not the muttering about why he looked so good. The only thing that mattered to me was that he was alive and looked to be rather well. Maybe a little nervous and off-put, but that was to be expected after being in the Capitol for as long as he had. We could talk about everything when he was here in District 13. Safe. With me. Exactly where he belonged.

The camera continued to pull back until it showed both of them. Looking reasonably pleasant. Tenser than normal but pleasant enough. Caesar looked about as demure as I had ever seen him. He was still dressed up but his personality was calm. He wasn't laughing, cheering, or waving. Maybe even he knew just how serious this was. Cato crossed his legs and placed his hands stiffly on his knee. Caesar settled himself more comfortably in the chair across from Cato and gave him a long look.

"Please welcome Mr. Cato Hadley," Caesar finally continued, after what had felt like an eternity. "So... Cato... welcome back."

Cato smiled slightly. The smile that I wished would have been given for me. "I bet you thought you'd done your last interview with me, Caesar," Cato said, as charming as ever.

"I confess, I did. The night before the Quarter Quell... well, who ever thought we'd see you again?" Caesar said.

"It wasn't part of my plan, that's for sure," Cato said with a frown.

My stomach twisted into knots. This hadn't been my plan either. Caesar leaned in to him a little. "I think it was clear to all of us what your plan was. To sacrifice yourself in the arena so that Aspen Antaeus and your child could survive," Caesar said, making my hand twitch slightly on the screen.

"Hadley," Cato muttered, almost absentmindedly.

That definitely caught Caesar off-guard. "Excuse me?" he asked.

"Hadley. She's still my wife. I haven't forgotten the wedding that you graciously gifted us," Cato said.

Caesar smiled slightly. "Of course. Pardon me. Aspen Hadley," he said.

Everyone was staring at me but I forced a even stare, looking straight into Cato's eyes, willing him to know that I was watching him. That I was here. But it wouldn't work. The only way that he would know that I was alive and well, here, waiting for him, would be if we could somehow get Cato and the others out of the Capitol. We would be able to do it. They would do it if they wanted me to play the role that they had already designed for me.

"That was it. Clear and simple," Cato continued, from Caesar's previous comment. Cato's fingers traced the upholstered pattern on the arm of the chair. "But other people had plans as well."

Yes, other people had plans. But not me. Cato knew my plan. To off myself so that he could live back in District 2. Because that was what he had always deserved. Had Cato guessed, then, how the rebels used us as pawns? How my rescue was arranged from the beginning? And finally, how our Mentor and fellow Tribute, Haymitch Abernathy, betrayed us both for a cause he pretended to have no interest in? How Brutus was the only one to keep his promise to keep me alive?

Suddenly my stomach churned with the thought that I hadn't bothered to think about before. Something that I had been too excited to see him alive to even think about. There was now the lingering fear that Cato might have been angry with me. Maybe thinking that I had been involved with this. But he had to have known better. Obviously he had to put on a front in front of the cameras, but I didn't know what he was saying that was real and what wasn't. His love for me... That was what was real.

In the heavy silence that followed, I noticed the lines that had formed between Cato's eyebrows. He had guessed or he had been told. But the Capitol had not killed or even punished him. Why not? Even to get to me, I would have thought that they would do something. Bruise him up a little bit, at least. For right now, that exceeded my wildest hopes. I drank in his wholeness, the soundness of his body and mind. It ran through me like the Morphling they gave me in the hospital, dulling the pain of the last weeks.

All this time I had been panicking over nothing. Because he wasn't dead. He wasn't even being hurt. Not like I had thought that he was, at least. Cato was alive and well the entire time. What a fool I had been. I should have thought a little harder. The Capitol was likely hoping that I would off myself after believing that they had killed him. That had been their plan, of course. Thankfully I hadn't actually gone through with it. Or it hadn't worked. Either way, I supposed.

"Cato, a lot of people feel as though they are in the dark," Caesar continued.

"Yeah, Yeah. I know how they feel," Cato said slowly.

Caesar chuckled softly. "Now, so set the stage for us. Why don't you tell us about that final and controversial night in the arena? Help us sort a few things out," Caesar suggested.

What was there to sort out? There was nothing for him to sort out. Cato didn't know the truth of the plans. I hadn't even known the truth of the plans until they had put me on that damned hovercraft. Cato nodded but took his time speaking. It didn't matter. Everyone, all over Panem, all of the people who had thought that he was dead, including me, would be hanging onto his every word, desperate to know what had really happened. At least, what Cato thought had happened.

"That last night... to tell you about that last night... well, first of all, you have to imagine how it felt in the arena. It was like being an insect trapped under a bowl filled with steaming air. And all around you, jungle... green and alive and ticking. That giant clock ticking away your life. Every hour promising some new horror. You have to imagine that in the past two days, sixteen people have died - some of them defending you. At the rate things are going, the last eight will be dead by morning. Save one. The Victor. And your plan is that it won't be you."

My body broke out in a sweat at the memory. A few more people had walked up behind me. To try and comfort me or pull me away, I wasn't sure. I felt Katniss's hand on my shoulder, but she didn't try to pull me away. Not right now. I wouldn't have left anyways. My hand slid down the screen and hung limply at my side. Cato didn't need a brush or pencil to paint images from the Games. He worked just as well in words. As he always had. His words were always an advantage.

They were what had attracted me to him, weren't they? Perhaps after his looks, at least. Of course... My heart gave a painful pang at his words. I was being an idiot. He had never once faltered on his plan. Even at the end. His plan was always to get me out of the Games alive. No matter what the cost could have been. He would have been willing to slaughter every person in there. Turn into the most violent and lethal Career in the history of the Games to keep me alive. Anything. Just if it meant that I walked out.

Which I had. At least, lifted out. Not what I had wanted. I wanted him to get out. I stared at Cato, drinking in the far-off look in his eyes. What are you thinking about? Me? Did he even know if I was alive or not? Maybe that he thought that he had given me a chance at a real life. A life that he had always thought that I could have had with Gale. The kind of life that I had only ever really wanted to have with Cato. And now I could... The moment that all of this was over.

"Once you're in the arena, the rest of the world becomes very distant," Cato finally continued. "All the people and things you loved or cared about almost cease to exist. The pink sky and the monsters in the jungle and the Tributes who want your blood become your final reality, the only one that ever mattered. As bad as it makes you feel, you're going to have to do some killing, because in the arena, you only get one wish. And it's very costly."

"It costs your life," Caesar said.

"Oh, no. It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people? It costs everything you are," Cato said.

"Everything you are," Caesar repeated quietly.

A hush had fallen over the room, and I could feel it spreading across Panem. Anyone who had been speaking before was suddenly silenced. Because no one had ever heard someone speak like this. Particularly not a Career, who had once been jumping at the opportunity to go into the Games. No one had ever realized how taking the life of a child genuinely changed you. Some for the better... A nation leaning in toward its screens. Because no one had ever talked about what it was really like in the arena before.

No one had ever known what the true horrors in the arena were like. We were only allowed to speak so much about it. That it was hard. That it was scary. That was about the extent that they were allowed to say. We had never been allowed to speak freely like that before. But obviously things were much different now. Cato was not being monitored right now. At least, not as much as normal. Because things were already so bad all over Panem.

When had Cato become like this? Earlier than I had originally thought. Because of me. It started that night on the roof before the first Games. He had already been starting to change. But it was that night above the sleeping Careers. "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." That was what Alana had told him. I exchanged a quick look with her. She was thinking the same thing. I could tell. Finally Cato went on.

"So you hold on to your wish. And that last night, yes, my wish was to save Aspen. But even without knowing about the rebels, it didn't feel right. Everything was too complicated. I found myself regretting I hadn't run off with her earlier in the day, as she had suggested. But there was no getting out of it at that point."

"But you didn't," Caesar said.

"No," Cato agreed.

"You were too caught up in Beetee's plan to electrify the salt lake," Caesar said.

"Too busy playing allies with the others. I should have never let them separate us!" Cato burst out. Caesar jumped slightly but Cato quickly regained his composure, speaking much softer the next time. "That's when I lost her."

A hand tightened on my shoulder. "Cato," I whispered.

"When you stayed at the lightning tree, and she and Johanna Mason took the coil of wire down to the water," Caesar clarified.

"I didn't want to!" Cato flushed in agitation. "But I couldn't argue with Beetee without indicating we were about to break away from the alliance. When that wire was cut, everything just went insane. I can only remember bits and pieces. Trying to find her. Watching Enobaria kill Chaff. She ran off before I could kill her myself. Trying to run off and find her, knowing everything was going to hell. I was just going to let them slaughter each other. We were going to wait it out. Spend a few days in the arena afterwards. We were hoping that they would just give us a few days. Just to be married."

"I think we would have all liked to see that," Caesar said quietly.

"I never got the chance to really be married to her," Cato continued softly.

"We were very regretful about that fact," Caesar said reassuringly.

He honestly believed that. But the rest of the Capitol just would have wanted to get it over with. I felt my stomach churning with nerves. My husband had been so determined to save me. The entire time. Even at the end. Even if it had meant his own life. He wanted to get a few nights with me. Then there begged the question. What would he have done? Killed himself while I slept so that I couldn't try and stop him? Wake up to be crowned the Victor? The thought made a silent tear fall.

"Tell us more about that night, Cato. What else happened?" Caesar asked.

"I know she was calling my name. Then the lightning bolt hit the tree, and the force field around the arena... blew out," Cato continued.

"Aspen blew it out, Cato," Caesar said.

"No."

"You've seen the footage."

"She didn't know what she was doing. None of us could follow Beetee's plan. You can see her trying to figure out what to do with that wire," Cato snapped back.

"All right. It just looks suspicious. As if she was part of the rebels' plan all along," Caesar said.

Obviously the quasi-friendship that I had once had with Caesar Flickerman was gone. Too bad, because I had almost liked him at one point. He had actually been rather kind to me. Of course, he likely thought that I was part of the plan to destroy the arena and start the rebellion. Faster than I had thought was possible, Cato reacted. Cato was now on his feet, leaning in to Caesar's face, hands locked on the arms of his interviewer's chair.

"Really? And was it part of her plan for Johanna to nearly kill her? For that electric shock to paralyze her? To trigger the bombing?" He was yelling now. "She didn't know, Caesar! Neither of us knew anything except that we were trying to keep each other alive!"

Looks were exchanged all throughout the room. I felt terribly for them both. I could see the lines of stress in Cato's eyes. He might have been treated rather well in the Capitol, but that didn't mean that he wasn't being constantly spoken to and interrogated. He didn't know the truth and he wouldn't until he got here. Caesar placed his hand on Cato's chest in a gesture that was both self-protective and conciliatory. Cato was still a very large man and was easily capable of killing Caesar without a weapon.

"Okay, Cato, I believe you."

"Okay."

There must have been Peacekeepers or something in the room. I could see Caesar looking over his shoulder and give an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Taking a deep breath, Cato withdrew from Caesar, pulling back his hands, running them through his hair, mussing his carefully styled blonde wave. He slumped back in his chair a moment later, obviously distraught. Caesar waited a moment, studying Cato carefully, probably wondering what was safe to say at this point.

"What about Aspen's Mentor, Haymitch Abernathy?"

Cato's face hardened. "I don't know what Haymitch knew."

"Could he have been part of the conspiracy?" Caesar asked.

"He never mentioned it," Cato said.

Caesar pressed on. "What does your heart tell you?"

"That I shouldn't have trusted him. That's all," Cato said.

But some part of him should have been happy about everything. Haymitch had promised to keep me safe. He had lived up to his promise. I hadn't seen Haymitch since I attacked him on the hovercraft, leaving long claw marks down his face. Still not something that I felt guilty for. In fact, the whole thing made me want to laugh. Because he deserved it. For everything that he had done and everything that he had lied about. I knew that it had been bad for him here. Not that it hadn't been bad for everyone.

District 13 strictly forbid any production or consumption of intoxicating beverages, and even the rubbing alcohol in the hospital was kept under lock and key. That made me laugh when they had told me that. A lot. Everyone had thought that I was finally losing it. But I wasn't losing it. It was the first time that I had thought that something was mildly amusing. He was just as miserable here as I was. Finally, Haymitch was being forced into sobriety, with no secret stashes or home-brewed concoctions to ease his transition.

They had gotten him in seclusion until he was totally dried out, as he was not deemed fit for public display. I had seen him go through a withdrawal once, so I could only imagine how awful it was to completely detox. It was bad enough during my slow withdrawal from Morphling. It must have been excruciating, but I had lost all my sympathy for Haymitch when I realized how he had deceived us. I hoped that he was watching the Capitol broadcast now, so he could see that Cato had cast him off as well.

Caesar patted Cato's shoulder. "We can stop now if you want."

"Was there more to discuss?" Cato asked wryly.

"I was going to ask your thoughts on the war, but if you're too upset..." Caesar began.

"Oh, I'm not too upset to answer that."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, absolutely."

"Thank you," Caesar said.

Cato took a deep breath and then looked straight into the camera. "I want everyone watching - whether you're on the Capitol or the rebel side - to stop for just a moment and think about what this war could mean. For human beings. We almost went extinct fighting one another before. Now our numbers are even fewer. Our conditions more tenuous. Is this really what we want to do? Kill ourselves off completely? In the hopes that - what? Some decent species will inherit the smoking remains of the earth?"

"I don't really... I'm not sure I'm following..." Caesar trailed off.

"We can't fight one another, Caesar. There won't be enough of us left to keep going. If everybody doesn't lay down their weapons - and I mean, as in very soon - it's all over, anyway," Cato explained.

"So... you're calling for a cease-fire?" Caesar asked.

"Yes. I'm calling for a cease-fire," Cato said tiredly. "Now why don't we ask the guards to take me back to my quarters so I can build another hundred card houses?"

Caesar swallowed an awkward lump in his throat and turned to the camera. "All right. I think that wraps it up. So back to our regularly scheduled programming," he said.

My jaws had set together. As the camera faded I tried to walk closer, desperate to keep the image of Cato in front of me. But it didn't work. Even standing right up against the screen, it didn't stop him from leaving. Caesar and Cato shook hands as it faded out. I made a strangled kind of noise in the back of my throat. I didn't care what he was saying. I needed to see him again. I needed to see more of him. I needed to constantly see him until he was back with me, to make sure he was okay.

But the image was gone. There was nothing that I could do for him right now and no way for me to tell that he was going to be left alone. It didn't matter. We had to do something. Anything. Saving him would come soon enough. But for now came something even harder than saving him. Now came the damage control. Because, as wonderful as it had been to see that he was alive and well, I now realized that he had done something very dangerous.

Music played them out, and then there was a woman reading a list of expected shortages in the Capitol. It was almost funny to hear what they had shortages of. Things that I had never had before I had won the Games. But things that they were so used to having at their disposal. Fresh fruit, solar batteries, and soap. All because the Districts were refusing to supply them. I watched her with uncharacteristic absorption, because I knew that everyone would be waiting for my reaction to the interview.

But there was no way that I could process it all so quickly - the joy of seeing Cato alive and unharmed, his defense of my innocence in collaborating with the rebels, and his undeniable complicity with the Capitol now that he ha called for a cease-fire. Oh, he made it sound as if he were condemning both sides in the war. But at this point, with only minor victories for the rebels, a cease-fire could only result in a return to our previous status. Or worse.

Actually, I knew that it would be much worse. Because now there would be two unsuccessful rebellions. What would happen? We would just keep rebelling, one District destroyed in each one, until only the Capitol remained? Cato was right about one thing. There weren't many of us left. Behind me, I could hear the accusations against Cato building. The words traitor, liar, and enemy bounced off the walls. Since I could neither join in the rebels' outrage nor counter it, I decided the best thing to do was clear out.

Before I could move I started to hear the shouts that were coming from the dining room. Of course. It was dinnertime. Everyone else would have heard the interview on the monitors. It had been played everywhere. Even in the Districts. Everyone would have heard what he had said. Cato would be an enemy of the rebellion soon enough, if he wasn't already. I just knew that I had to leave. I couldn't speak to anyone, and they would all want to know what I was thinking.

"He's one of them," one of the citizens in the dining room called.

"I can't believe he's doing this," another said.

"Traitor!"

More shouts followed. "He's not one of us!"

"This is treason!"

"You're a puppet!"

"Hang him!"

"Traitor!"

It was getting worse and worse by the second. They weren't thinking as rationally as I was. I knew what the Capitol could do to someone. I had lived through it. More than once. But they didn't understand. They thought that the Games were the culmination of their cruelty. They had no idea that it was just the beginning. They had no idea that what Cato was saying was for a specific reason. He didn't believe in a cease-fire. As I reached the door, Coin's voice rose above the others.

"You have not been dismissed, Soldier Antaeus."

"I'll be dismissing myself today, thank you," I called back.

"Soldier Antaeus," Coin warned.

I whipped around, silencing everyone in the room. "I've just found out that my husband, who you left in that arena to die, is still alive. I just need a few minutes to process everything," I snarled.

It put an end to the discussion. One of Coin's men laid a hand on my arm. I didn't even bother to look at who it was. It wasn't an aggressive move, really, but after the arena, I reacted defensively to any unfamiliar touch. I jerked my arm free and took off running down the halls. Behind me, there was the sound of a scuffle, but I didn't stop. My mind did a quick inventory of my odd little hiding places, and I wound up in the supply closet, curled up against a crate of chalk.

"You're alive," I whispered.

For once, my worst fear hadn't been confirmed. For once, I was getting exactly what I wanted. Almost. Slowly I pressed my palms against my cheeks, feeling the smile that was so wide it must have looked like a grimace. But it wasn't. It was a hysterical smile, one that only someone who was shocked beyond belief could make. Cato was alive. And a traitor. But at the moment, I didn't care. Not what he said, or who he says it for, only that he was still capable of speech.

A thought entered my mind as I laid back against the wall and laughed. He wasn't in our meadow yet. For some reason, that was all that I could think about. He wasn't with Leah just yet. But I genuinely believed that Peeta and Rue and my own parents and Cinna were watching over her. In the meantime, Cato was still alive and fighting. Not fighting, but he couldn't. It would make it worse for him. I didn't want him to fight. That was my job. His was to be there for me. He was going to come home to me.
District 12 was gone. It was burned to the ground and there was no way that it was coming back. So many of my friends and family members were dead. Lost to the world forever. But my real home, the one that I had found so unexpectedly, and didn't even want in the first place, was still here. Not with me, but that would change. I knew exactly how to change it. My home... It was still here. I just had to go and get it back. And I would. No matter the cost.

Cato's P.O.V.

All of Cato Hadley's life, he had never wanted to die. Not when he had made mistakes at the Academy. Those had only made him want to train even harder. Not when he had volunteered to go into the Games the first time. He had wanted to win, of course. Not even when he had met Aspen. He had wanted them both to live. Not at the end of the Games. He had just wanted to save them. Not even when the Quarter Quell had been announced. He had wanted to save her, but he hadn't genuinely wanted to die.

Things were different now. Death would have been something that he welcomed. A peace. A finality. Something that Aspen had once said... What was it? There's a finality in death. It's peaceful. Yes. It would have been very peaceful. Very pleasant. No one to hurt him ever again. He wanted to be dead. For the first time in twenty years, he wished more than anything else that he was dead. Because being alive was worse than anything else right now.

Nothing helped. They weren't giving him medicine to fight off the pain. That was bad enough. The pain was bad enough. He had tried fighting desperately. But nothing ever worked. Fighting only made things worse. They would beat him, practically to death. There was no chance to escape. Only death. That would be his only way to escape. But obviously death wasn't going to come to him easily. Because they were keeping him just healthy enough to stay alive.

It was obvious enough that no one else wanted to be alive either. The people who were near him, at least. He could hear the strangled screams of people. People whom he didn't know. He had a feeling that they must have been Avoxes. That would have explained those horrible noises that he was hearing. In the next room over was someone that he did know. He recognized her screams. It was Johanna. He could hear her screams echoing all throughout the night. She must have been hearing his, too.

There was only one thought that kept him alive. Otherwise he would have tried to do anything in his power to kill himself. But there was the thought of her nagging at the back of his mind. He wasn't sure whether President Snow was lying about Aspen being alive or not. But if she was alive, he had to help her. He had to keep her safe. He was willing to do anything, endure anything, to keep her safe. Because he loved her. And he always would.

It was the thought of being back with her, wherever she was, that was keeping him alive. The knowledge that he had to get back to her. They could still be together. There had to be a way for him to get out of here and get back to her. He would find out where they were keeping her or wherever they were hiding her. He could manage. After all, they had managed for so long. They needed each other. They had learned that a long time ago. She was the love of his life. He would find a way to get back to her.

Her face was all that he pictured whenever things got too unbearable. Which was quite frequently. Because just days after arriving in the Capitol, not long after that interview that he had made with Caesar Flickerman, the true horrors had started. The torture had begun and it hadn't once stopped. Not even while he was asleep. The torture had been going on for weeks now. Was it week? Months? Year? He couldn't quite be sure.

First it had started with the physical. Just three days after his interview with Caesar, men in masks had walked in and brought him out of his padded room, kicking and screaming. He had tried to fight them back but it hadn't worked. They had dragged him into the same room that he had now been in for weeks. He thought that it had been weeks, at least. They had strapped him down to the same table that he was sitting on right now. He had watched as the doctors had walked around him.

For a moment he had thought that it was just a physical or something of the likes that they would be doing. But it wasn't that. Instead they had placed pieces of metal on hot coals; that was when he knew. He knew that they really were going to torture him. The guards had stripped him of his clothes a moment later. He had tried so desperately to fight against the bindings and the doctors but it hadn't worked. They had merely taken the pieces of metal and placed them down against Cato's naked body.

One had gone straight across his throat, burning into his vocal chords. More had gone over his chest and stomach. Thighs and feet and hands. Everywhere, with the exception of his face. In case they needed him in front of a camera. Not long after that, they had taken a few chains from the walls and hung him there. The handcuffs had kept him firmly locked in his place. He couldn't move. Not from already being weak and not from the pain that was radiating from the fire.

Not long afterwards, without his body even getting a chance to recover from the burns, he had been subjected to a whipping. Just the way that Aspen once had. It happened over and over and over again. Down his entire back, over his torso and stomach, and against his legs. Cutting almost down to the bone from the strength of the impacts. It happened until his entire body was torn open and raw. They had only stopped long enough to close and treat the wounds to keep him healthy enough to survive.

The moment that the wounds had sealed, they had released him from the restraints. He had been so weak that he had instantly collapsed to the ground. But that hadn't stopped them from coming in. Peacekeepers. Hoards of them. They had come and beaten him with their fists, brass knuckles, and gloves with spikes on them. Harder than he had ever been hit. Already too weak to be able to fight back. So he had just laid there and taken it. Waiting for it to end. He was sure that they had broken a few bones.

Those were just some of the first ways that they had tried to hurt him. After that, things had only gotten worse. The beatings had just changed after that. They would use either their hands or fabric or some type of tougher material to wrap around his throat and tighten. More and more and more until he couldn't breathe. They would only stop when he was sure that he couldn't take it anymore and he was going to die. It would then take hours for him to be able to breathe normally again.

But that didn't mean that they would wait for him to recover. They would just make things even worse. They had a habit of taking heavy metal blocks and placing them down on his chest. They would get heavier and heavier until he was sure that he was about to die. They would bruise his chest so badly that he was sure that the bruises would never go away. But they wouldn't let him die. Not until they were good and ready. So the blocks would only remain on him for so long.

Other times they would take knives of all sizes, some large and some small, and run them over his body. It reminded him of the way that he had once seen Clove try to do to Aspen. They would sometimes just make small slits in his body. Other times they would run them over his veins, practically bleeding him dry, like an animal, before stitching him up and waiting. Sometimes they would just give him small stab wounds, twisting the knife, cutting into the muscle.

He would be shocked if he would ever be able to walk again. Even stand. There were the times that they would strap him down and peel off his fingernails and toenails. One by one. One for each time that he gave them an answer that they didn't like. Or they would try to drown him; shoving him underneath the water and holding him there as he fought for breath, only bringing him back up once he was about to die. He would lean over and throw the water up, feeling that familiar burn deep in his lungs.

Recently they had brought him back to the table, strapping him down again, and placing electrical simulators against his body. More questions. Some he knew the answer to, many that he didn't. Every time that they got an answer that they didn't like, they would send a shock that he was sure would stop his heart. At first it was just like touching a doorknob on an icy winter day. By the end they were even worse than the one that had hit him in the arena.

Then there were the more mental forms of torture that they had gone through. Sleep deprivation was the worst. Every time that he would start to drift off, they would hit or stab him, waking him up. He was sure that he didn't sleep more than half an hour at a time now. Or they would play deafening music for hours on end. They were barely feeding him. The food that they did give him was enough that a dog would deny. The water was dirty and likely somewhat poisonous.

The worst that they had done to him was the pain simulators. Pads of all sizes were placed down along his body to simulate different kinds of pain. Despite the fact that they were just shocks that hit him, they were excruciating. In every single way. The pain was always something different. Sometimes it felt like knives were stabbing him or he was being shot or his skin was being torn off in chunks. Even better were the moments that it felt like his intestines were being slowly ripped out.

It never left more of a mark than a red spot from being burned, but it was the worst kind of pain. From time to time he could feel something happen. It was something that was being pumped into his body. More than likely a sedative. But it was heavier. It felt almost like liquid lead was being pumped into his body. It also gave him strange hallucinations. Or maybe that was from the lack of food. It didn't matter. He couldn't fight back against the bindings. He was too weak anyways.

The only time that he didn't feel the sedative was when they were questioning him. It was never President Snow or Caesar Flickerman. It was always one of the doctors. They had hooked him up to all kinds of different machines to see whether or not he was telling the truth. But it always said that he was. So instead they simply used him as a punching bag, probably to vent their frustration. It only added to the fuzziness in his head that was worsening with each passing day.

Today it seemed that they were playing at something different. He was strapped down to the metal table that he had become so accustomed to. There was no way for him to move, more than simply arching his back slightly. A screen lowered in front of him and he groaned. He didn't want to have to hear or see whatever it was that they wanted to show him. Especially not if it was what was happening to the other prisoners. He just wanted to try and leave. He wanted to go back to her.

The screen faded in and showed a deep red room. Somewhere in the Capitol, more than likely. That was when he saw her. Aspen. Her name slipped out of his mouth, barely audible. For a moment he thought that she was here. But it was a recording. It was from the night of their engagement. He recognized her in the red and white dress from that night. Cato smiled at the sight of her. She looked beautiful. It must have been from the night that she was asked to see Seneca Crane.

Just as Cato had come to that conclusion, the figures on the screen started to move. He saw Aspen glance off to the side as Seneca Crane came into the room. The two exchanged niceties as he walked towards her and offered her a drink, which she graciously accepted. Cato watched the screen curiously. He didn't know much about what had happened during their meetings. The two of them were standing very close together. Far closer than Cato was comfortable with.

"You look absolutely gorgeous," Seneca said, his fingers tracing the neckline to the dress.

Cato squirmed slightly. Why wasn't she pushing him away? "Thank you," she said sweetly.

The two of them laughed. Cato found himself wishing that he could look away, but being unable to do that. Instead Seneca grabbed her arms and turned her around. The breath caught in Cato's throat as he caught her zipper to the dress in between his fingers and pulled it down. She immediately allowed it to drop to the floor and pool around her. Sensing where this was going, Cato began jerking against the binds. She wouldn't have done that. She loved him. Not Crane.

His head was being held down by another one of the straps. He was unable to look anywhere but at the screen, as much as he wanted to look anywhere else. Or smash the screen to bits. He knew for a fact that he was the only man that she had ever been with. She had told him that and it had been obvious enough. He knew that she loved him. Desperate to think about anything else, he thought back on the first time that the two of them had been together. That night, actually.

She was embarrassed. He could tell. She had caught her breath and now she looked like she wanted to bury her head in the sand. She turned over to him and pressed her head into his chest, blushing softly as he pulled the covers over her. His chest was rumbling with laughter. Not at her. She had done nothing wrong. It was just cute how bashful she was about it. Something that he had never experienced. He had never been with someone like her. She whined softly and dug her head down a little bit further into his shoulder.

"Stop laughing," she barked, her voice muffled.

Cato grinned and pulled her to roll over and face him. Her face was a little red. "I'm not laughing. Not at you. It's okay. You didn't do anything wrong," he comforted her, running his hands over her arm.

"I just laid there the whole time," she said.

"That doesn't make it bad."

"But you've been with... I don't know. At least, a number of girls. They had to have been better than me. Right?"

A strange pang shot through him. In a way, this had been his first time, too. Because he had never attached emotion to it before. Not the way that he just had. "No. No one was ever better than you. No one will ever be better than you. I wish there had never been anyone but you," he said honestly.

Her face became a little redder. "But... I still didn't do anything," she mumbled.

"You'll get better. It'll get better."

"It wasn't bad. I just didn't do anything."

"That's how it goes the first time around. It takes some time to get used to it. But this was wonderful, Aspen. Are you okay?" he asked, hoping that he hadn't hurt her.

For the first time, she smiled. "I'm fine. Better than fine, actually," she said.

"You did everything right. It was perfect."

"Good. Thanks for not laughing. Even though you did laugh a little bit."

"Because you're bright red. You're embarrassed and it's cute," he teased, grabbing the bottom of her chin lovingly. "But I'll never laugh at you for it. You might be a little sore in the morning, though."

"Oh, I'm used to it by now. Being sore in the morning, I mean."

"Are you okay?" he repeated.

"Of course. I'm with you. I'm happy. And I love you."

"I love you, too. Now and always. Go to bed. You're safe."

"I know," she said, tucking herself into his chest.

The night was slightly fuzzy now. It had always been such a clear memory. Why was he having almost a hard time remembering seeing her that night? As they had fallen asleep together... It didn't matter. He knew that their night together was the truth. Not this. It had to be a lie. He knew that it was. The scene that was on the monitor was from hours before he had slept with her. And she had bled when they had been together. It had to be a lie... But still... It looked so real...

"Do you think that he actually believes that you love him?" Crane asked, pressing a kiss against her throat.

"Of course he does. He's a fool," Aspen said, laughing.

"There's only one man that you belong to," Crane growled.

"You think that I don't know that? You're the one that I love. I failed to kill him in the arena." Cato wrestled against the binds. She loved him. She had saved him. "But I won't keep failing. It will work, my love. I promise," Aspen whispered.

"Good. Come here," Crane said.

"With pleasure."

Her voice... It didn't even sound like hers. It was too teasing. A little too happy. It just wasn't hers. It wasn't her. He didn't know what they had done to the video, but it wasn't her. It couldn't have been. Cato fought back against the bounds as hard as he could as Aspen and Crane began to do something that he knew that she had only ever done with him. It had to be a lie. She would have never done that. They were doing something to the video. She had only ever kissed one other man. Gale. That was it.

But he couldn't look away. He was forced to watch as the doctors shocked him, keeping his eyes open. There was no other option. He had to watch it. She place her hands on the front of his jacket and easily slid open the first two buttons. Like she had done it a thousand times before. Which she hadn't... She hadn't... Only with him. He knew that. Crane watched her closely the entire time as she opened the front of the jacket and gently pushed the piece of fabric from his body. They both smiled at each other.

She tilted herself up onto her toes to give him a kiss as the jacket slid off of his shoulders and to the floor. A pain worse than any he had felt while being in the Capitol shot through Cato as Crane grabbed her waist and brought her against him. She let out a soft giggle that Cato had heard so many times before as she started to slowly untuck the shirt from his pants. Her hands gently worked at the buttons as she undid them. It wasn't long before Crane grabbed her hair and pulled her back in for a lingering kiss.

She didn't fight back against him. She just smiled and wrapped her arms over his shoulders. Crane stepped back and allowed the shirt to fall off of his frame. She pulled back only long enough to smile at him before Crane pulled her back in for another heated kiss. Crane slipped the belt off of his pants and tossed it off to the side. He kicked off his shoes and motioned for her to do the same. She did so and took another step backwards. Cato grunted in intense mental pain.

Slowly she turned back as he placed a hand on her lower back, right where the scars from the wolf mutt had once been. The wolf that he had set after her. His hands traveled from her waist up to the middle of her back, right where the bra strap was. Cato fought back against the bindings painfully as she laughed softly. Just a second later he unhooked it. She playfully held it to her chest for a moment before Crane reached around and gently pulled it from her body, placing a small bite on her shoulder.

As Cato himself had done so many times before... Crane turned her back and gently put a hand on her chest, brushing over the skin. "Lovely," he said.

"Thank you. It's all yours," she said, stepping into him.

"Has he touched you?" Seneca asked, obviously referring to Cato.

"Not like this. And his touch will be nothing. Not compared to yours," she said.

Crane grabbed the back of her head and brought her into a lingering kiss. Crane gently walked them backwards towards the bed and separated the kiss. Then he turned her back away from himself. His hands went around her front, trailed down her body, and finally hit her at the hips. Right above where the band of her underwear was. Cato grunted in horror as Crane brushed the hair off of her shoulders and moved it in front of her chest. A second later he pressed a kiss to the back of her neck.

Just as he himself had done so many times to her. The way that he knew would make her shiver. Just as she was right now. Crane reached around her and grabbed her chin. He turned her head back to give him a kiss as his hands gently wandered down from her chin, to her throat, to her chest, to her stomach, to her waist, to her hips again. No... She hadn't done that... She wasn't about to do that. She hated Crane. That time he grabbed the band of the underwear that she was wearing.

Get off of my wife... He tried to force the words out of his throat, but it felt like his words were lumped in his throat. Crane released her head and gently pushed her to lean over the bed. Even he had never done that to her before. He had always wanted her to look at him. He wanted to see her. Look her in the eyes. As he slid them down her legs, she turned back to him and smiled. Once Crane had them down around her ankles, he turned her back to him and pulled her to step out of them.

"What a gorgeous creature you are," Crane said.

"Show me how gorgeous I am," she purred.

In a voice that even Cato had never heard. She would always laugh or edge in a teasing note. Never like that. Like the other girls from District 2... Crane grabbed Aspen's hands and she willingly placed them at his waist. She slowly took the button on his pants in between her fingers and popped it open, sliding the zipper down, and stepping back for him to remove his pants. He did so and gently threw them to the side. His underwear was the only thing that was now separating them.

Cato's stomach twisted into knots as he watched the screen. They weren't about to do that. They couldn't. She had only done that with him. Crane put an arm around her back and met her lips again. He brought a hand up to push her backwards. She lost her footing and they hit the bed as they collapsed onto it. Crane fell over her and pressed a lingering kiss against her throat. Just the way that he always did. Crane kissed the crook in between her neck and throat and dropped his hands to push her legs apart.

It was like watching the two of them together, back in the Capitol before the Games. But he could tell that it wasn't really Aspen. Her voice was too teasing and and cold. It wasn't her. He had never heard her like that before. Not even when he had been with her. Because they had always been loving. He just had to keep watching her. Watch her do something that was literally worse than all of the other torture that he had been through. Because that was his wife with a man that had tried to kill her.

He didn't understand how this was happening. He didn't understand when this had happened. It couldn't have happened. That was the only answer. Cato was forced to remain where he was, watching them as they wrapped around each other, just the way that she had been with him so many times before. Cato continuously jerked against the bonds, peeling off more skin and making himself bleed, trying so desperately not to watch. She didn't do that. There was no possible way that she could have done that.

But the cameras never stopped rolling. Nothing ever changed. He just kept watching. It was like they knew that he was watching them and they were deliberately elongating the process. So he just had to watch them together for what felt like days. His eyes were pried open by the doctors after he kept trying to squeeze them shut and the electrical shocks stopped working. So he just watched, his heart breaking more and more with each passing second, as they talked about how much she genuinely hated Cato.

Finally the screen changed. For a long time it had just been Aspen and Crane laying in bed together, talking and laughing, just the way that she had done with him so many times before. He hated having to see her like that with someone. Because he knew that it wasn't the truth. But there was something lingering in the back of his mind... The way that they were looking at each other... The way that she was laughing... It was the way that he had thought that she had only been with him.

Seeing the screen return to its blank state, Cato leaned back and let out a desperate breath. He had been praying for a long time that it would end. But his vision was fading in and out from having his eyes open so long. He spotted the screen fading back in and he let out a strangled breath. Because he was being brought back to his first time in the arena. But it wasn't a horrible memory. In some ways, it was. But in other ways, it was one of the happiest memories that he had.

He was in the cave with Aspen after the firestorm and the fight with the boy from District 9. It had been a horrible moment, the second that he had seen her laying in the grass with the blood all around her. But then he had realized that it wasn't her that was dead. She was just badly injured. That was the day he'd realized how much he loved her. This was something that would finally bring a happy memory. Cato was leaning over her leg and stitching up her thigh.

She had just woken up and they were chatting back and forth. He remembered her weak voice from remembering what she had done to the boy. They were teasing each other as he told her about the fact that she had pissed off the fireballs. Suddenly there was a terrible pain stabbing him in the pelvis. One of the pain simulators. It was just around the bottom of his intestines, right above somewhere very precious to him. Cato grunted in pain as Aspen smiled on screen and pressed a kiss against his lips.

"Smile for the cameras, love," Aspen whispered, leaning over him.

That was when he realized... She was stabbing him. Leaning over him to keep the knife out of sight of the cameras. "What are you doing?" Cato asked breathlessly. On the screen? A memory? What was it?

"Smile," Aspen prodded.

"Aspen..." Cato whispered desperately.

"Keep going," Aspen whispered, referring to their kiss. Cato was stunned. "Keep going or I keep moving it."

"Stop. What - What?" Cato breathed.

She hadn't done that... They had been together and she had been grateful for him saving her. "Don't be an idiot, Cato. People like you killed my parents. So I'm going to kill you. Smile for me, Cato. I do like your smile," she whispered in his ear.

Smile for her? What was she doing? He was in love with her. He knew that she was in love with him. Even back then, they had been completely in love. Already. She had never really hurt him. He had hurt her a number of times in the Games, something that had always bothered him, and he had been trying to make up to her since then. That was when he had realized that she was his redeeming quality. And she had kissed him. They had been happily together. She hadn't hurt him. She never did.

The scene on the screen shifted again. Or was it in his head? He still couldn't figure it out. Things were getting clearer, but these clear memories weren't memories that made sense. Now the screen was showing the two of them in the cave together towards the end of the Games. When they had their little bonding session. It brought back stirring memories and Cato growled deep in his throat. He was trying so desperately to thrash around to beat back the altered images of her. Because she hadn't done that...

There was no way that she could have done any of that. They were in love. Always had been. On the screen Aspen rolled him underneath her as she sat on his waist. Had she done that? Cato could barely remember. She bit down on his lip so roughly that he began to bleed. Even in the white room Cato could feel the pain. He hissed and tried to look away. But an electrical shock forced him to look straight back at her. Or whoever that was. Because it wasn't her...

Just seconds later he felt her nails piercing through the skin on his chest and stomach, spotting the little bloody prints on the screen. He was used to her piercing nails. He had felt them clawing down his back before. But that had always been in pleasure. Not this... pain. It was even more painful because it was her. He was moaning in pain - both on the screen and in real life - as her hands dug further and further underneath his skin. On the screen he was moaning into her mouth, which looked pleasurable.

The scene shifted again. Cato groaned, trying so desperately hard to look away. But he couldn't. Because they just kept forcing him to watch in horror at the woman who couldn't have really been Aspen. That time they were fighting the mutts off during the Death Match. He remembered it well, feeling her shaking against him. Aspen was panicked on the screen, standing back-to-back with him, before the scene shifted again. Slightly fuzzy. Aspen was now standing over him as her grin widened.

That wasn't real. They had run off together. Right? He watched as her blonde hair suddenly became a little fuzzier and puffed out around her throat. Suddenly she began to transform. Her nose elongated and her teeth became larger and sharper. She was transforming into the lion mutt right before his eyes. Cato screamed loudly on the screen and in real life as she bit down and tore the flesh straight out of his arm. Was she a mutt? No... He had been with her for a year. He would have noticed.

But it was becoming harder and harder to remember who she really was. Because he kept having to watch all of this. Cato was screaming bloody murder for hours. Because it never stopped. In every way she just continuously attempted to kill him. In the Games and after them. In all sorts of different ways. Laughing at him for thinking that she was actually in love with him. Calling him a fool and not in a joking manner. Staying with him physically, something even more torturous than the physical harming.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the images stopped appearing. Cato's head dropped back against the table as he stopped fighting. They were gone. And now tears were building in his eyes. What were they doing to him? He couldn't put two and two together. He knew that there was no way that she had done that. She wouldn't have done that. Because they were in love. She didn't do that... But where were his memories of her? His real memories? Like that night on the roof before the Games. That had happened. Hadn't it?

Suddenly he spotted the shadow of someone standing near him. He tried to jump away from the figure. Likely a doctor. But he was still bound to the table. That didn't matter. He wanted those doctors as far away as possible. Because they would only manage to continue hurting him. What the hell was happening? It was one of the doctors. What did they want now? But then he realized that it wasn't a doctor at all. It was Aspen... His wife... Looking happy and healthy. No lasting injuries from the arena.

"Hi," she chirped sweetly.

She was wearing a simple shirt and pair of jeans. She looked just as she had before the Quell. "Aspen..." Cato breathed out.

Was she really here? How? Why? She had to leave. "Long time no see," Aspen teased.

"You need to leave. They can't find you. Please leave," Cato begged.

No matter what he had just seen her do, that was still his wife. The love of his life. He needed her to be safe and that was far away from him. He could handle what they were doing to him. No matter how bad things became. The only thing that he couldn't tolerate was having her hurt. He couldn't listen to them do the same things to her that they had to him. He had seen her hurt enough and it was worse each time. That was the one thing that he couldn't handle.

"It's okay. They won't hurt me," she reassured him.

"They'll kill you. Aspen... Leave. Please," Cato begged.

"Hush. It's okay, Cato. I just wanted to see you," Aspen chirped.

Where had she even come from? That didn't matter. "What are they doing to me? What have they done to you?" Cato asked, remembering seeing her shifting forms into the wolf mutt that had torn out a chunk of his arm.

"They haven't done anything, Cato. They've just been showing you who I am," Aspen said, wiping off some sweat-soaked hair from his forehead. "You know who I am. Don't you?"

"Stop. Stop, please," Cato said, attempting to pull away from her.

"Just relax," Aspen whispered.

Cato started to thrash around as Aspen hooked her arms around the edge of the metal table. A second later she jumped up onto it. Cato cringed as she leaned up over him and sat over his waist. Cato cringed, remembering that the last time that he had seen her do just that, she had tried to kill him. She gently leaned down and pressed herself into him before leaning down and pressed a lingering kiss against his mouth. Cato tried to push her off. Something was wrong. That wasn't Aspen. She wasn't like this.

"Stop," Cato said, against her mouth.

Aspen's lips turned upwards into a smile. "You never fought back against me before," she breathed.

"This isn't you," Cato said.

She leaned up just long enough to undo her top few buttons. "Don't you want me?" Aspen asked, her voice holding a more teasing note than he had ever heard before.

"Always," Cato said, meaning every word. "But this isn't you. Get off of me. Get off!"

But she wouldn't. No matter how hard he tried to fight her off, she wouldn't. He couldn't have her like this right now. Not when he was in this state. Not when she was. Not when he couldn't figure out what was real and what wasn't. He couldn't have her when he couldn't even remember if she was in love with him. If she was really a mutt. She couldn't have been... He still remembered their agreement to come to the meadow together one day. That woman was so different than the one on top of him right now.

The Aspen that he knew would have snapped the restrains and taken him away from the Capitol without a second word. She wouldn't have even asked him if he was okay. She just would have moved. This Aspen was continuing to kiss him, trying so hard to get his resolve to crumble. Her hands started winding down his body to continue touching him. Her hands eventually wrapped around the paper cover that he was wearing to pry it off. Then her hands went to his bare skin to grip roughly at him.

Then her hands began to pull at his skin. Not just gently, like he was so used to, maybe leaving some red marks that disappeared by the morning. This time it was so rough that she started to rip it off in pieces. He tilted his head back, breaking off her kiss, before opened his mouth in a horrible scream. Something that didn't even sound human. Worse than the sounds that the Avoxes made. He was pleading with her to get off of him, to remember who he was, but she didn't release him and didn't move.

He was trying so hard to get her to loosen up her grip. She was the love of his life. She was what meant everything in the world to him. She was the one person that he was willing to give up everything for. She was his wife. So what was happening? Why was she with Seneca Crane? Why was she hurting him? Why was she doing all of this? What were they doing to him? This wasn't Aspen. It couldn't have been Aspen. But why was this the only way that he could remember her?

Eventually Cato lifted his head up, as Aspen was now simply sitting over him, to try and plead with her again. He could feel the blood coating him and the limp pieces of flesh hanging off of his skin. His vision was fuzzy. Maybe from blood loss? Or was it that strange sedative that they had been pumping through his veins? He couldn't figure it out. The only thing that he knew was that he desperately wanted to be back in the arena with her. Something that he had never thought that he would want.

But he missed that day in the jungle. Just before everything had gone to hell. The last time that he could remember her being... herself. But the moment that he lifted his head up, he realized that she wasn't at all who he thought that she was. She had changed appearances. Her eyes were glowing green. Her teeth were a few inches long and razor sharp. Her skin had been tinged a grayish-white and she had horrible scars all over her. And her sword-like nails were cutting him into pieces.

That was when it all started to make sense. Just her very appearance. Her chest was rumbling with cruel laughter. Laughter that didn't even sound like her. Because it wasn't her. It never had been. They had been doing something to him. The entire time. It wasn't Aspen who had been injured by the wolf mutt. It was him. And she had been the mutt who had torn him to pieces. Was she even a real person, or just something that the Capitol had made up during the first Games?

"What are you?" Cato asked breathlessly.

"I'm your wife, Cato," Aspen said, her voice deep and deadly.

"No... No... You aren't her," Cato said, breathing shallowly.

If Aspen ever had been real, this wasn't her. "Yes, I am. This is who I have always been. How you were stupid enough to buy that I ever loved you, I'll never know," she teased.

Just as she had since the screen had been placed in front of him. Something about her had changed. Because this wasn't really her. Maybe she never really had been Aspen Antaeus. Maybe all of his memories of her were fake. He couldn't figure it out. Aspen leaned forward and Cato let out a piercing scream. Because, just a moment later, her horrible teeth dug into his throat and tore it out. And that was only the beginning of the never-ending torture that he suffered at her hand.

Off on the other side of the room were the doctors. The doctors who had been working at Cato Hadley for a number of weeks. They had been watching him all day. They looked very interested to see what was happening. And they were. Because it had been a long time since the Capitol had used this procedure. They were watching Cato, as he was strapped to the table, screaming over pain that was only being simulated. They were watching his reactions, what he was seeing, on a monitor.

Hours after they had begun the procedure, President Snow entered the room. None of the other people in the room said anything. They simply allowed the President to stand and watch what was happening. He walked towards the edge of the one-way mirror and glanced in on the still screaming Cato. His voice was becoming hoarse as his sobs were now mostly dry. But he was still desperately thrashing against the restraints that were keeping him against the table.

"How is he?" President Snow finally asked.

"The venom is working. He is strong," the doctor said, earning an irritated glance from President Snow. "He still retains many unaltered memories of her. But he'll eventually lose those, too."

President Snow hummed. It would be a while before he was completely lost to her. "Good. His first interview with Caesar was just released to the Districts. Now that we know for a fact that Miss Antaeus is alive," President Snow said, remembering seeing her wandering District 12 on the security footage. "Soon enough we'll have to allow her to see what has become of her husband."

"He hasn't completely forgotten her," the doctor said.

"But he will?" President Snow asked.

"Soon enough. A few weeks from now and he'll have no memories of Aspen Antaeus that we haven't given him," the doctor said.

The corners of President Snow's mouth tilted upwards. "Good. Keep working at him," he ordered.

"Yes, sir."

It wouldn't be much longer. President Snow knew that. The games had just begun between himself and Miss Antaeus. And they were already destined to end soon enough. But only when the time was right. President Snow walked out of the room, feeling thrilled at the fact that Aspen Antaeus would be dead soon enough. No more empty promises. Because Cato Hadley, her own husband, would cause the ultimate betrayal. He would kill her himself.

Aspen's P.O.V.

Slowly I rocked back and forth against the wall. There was something almost hysterical in the way that I was feeling right now. Did I know what it was? No. I wished I did though. But this was a feeling that I had never experienced before. It wasn't happiness. It wasn't even elation. No. It was so much more than that. I had a feeling that I would never really know what it was. But it was wonderful. Better than I had experienced in a long time. Because Cato was alive. I knew for a fact that he was really alive.

My hands clasped over my mouth. I didn't want anyone to know where I was right now. I just wanted to be alone for a while. To think about what I knew now was the truth. A somewhat hysterical laugh escaped my mouth. It didn't stop for a long time. It just kept coming. Laugh after laugh after laugh. Because he was alive. He was actually still breathing. I couldn't want to have him touch me again. To sleep in the same bed with me again. I missed not having him sleep with me.

Think about what you know, Aspen. Play the game.

My name is Aspen Hadley. My husband's name is Cato Hadley. We were in the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games. We escaped together. We were also in the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games. I was rescued by District 13. Cato was taken by the Capitol. I thought that he was dead. But he is alive and well. And I will get him back.

Things had been very tense not having him around. I hadn't been sleeping much lately. Not unless I was in the Morphling haze. Which I hadn't been for a while, having wanted to see the ruins of District 12. I had to see it and that meant to get off of it. But that made the nightmares worse. He was always one of the few people that could bring me down from my episodes without needing any type of medicine or sedation. He was the only person that could manage within seconds.

He was always one of the people who could help me get back to myself. Because it wasn't just the Games. Everything that had happened to me had been affecting me in so many ways. Because it was constantly looking over my shoulder and having difficulty trusting people. For so many more reasons than just the fact that they hadn't saved Cato. It was everything. It wasn't just something that I could walk away from. But Cato made it so much easier.

It also helped that he was one of the few people that could see one of my episodes coming from a mile away. He knew when the triggers were about to come. He knew his own and sometimes I got the feeling that he knew mine even better than he knew his own. The smell of the flowers. The looks that I would get from people. That unsettled feeling. Those horrible dreams. How people would speak to me. He knew that, no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to turn it off. And he had never cared.

He was one of the few people that understood that my nightmares when I was asleep were constantly bleeding into my daily life. At times after just getting up I was unable to differentiate whether I was awake or asleep. Cato had always understood that, because he experienced it, too. They felt so real, I even experienced the physical pain in them. That was the worst part. Even hearing someone call my name, sometimes I would scream and start rocking back and forth. Cato had always understood to softly call my name.

That was the worst part. That no one understood that it wasn't just at night. The nightmares were horrible, but it was the fact that they didn't even fade during the waking hours. It was a bunch of nightmares during the day. I would lose my grip on where I was, particularly being in District 13, and I would get lost in the memory. It was like I wasn't even where I actually was. It felt so real, and the next thing I would wake up and have no idea how I got to where I was.

Having whatever it was that affected me was horrible. Because it only added to my feelings of loneliness. Because, for me, it was like being apart from everyone else, finding fault with everyone that I met and walking a constant tightrope between fight or flight. The overwhelming feeling of guilt was hard to live with, and no one could convince me otherwise. It was truly terrible. But there was always hope and always a light that never went out. And Cato had always been my light.

There wasn't even a vague chance in hell that they would stop when Cato came back. I knew that much. I wasn't fool enough to think that the nightmares would ever go away. In sleep or during my waking hours. They would likely never end. Not for the rest of my life. But I had prepared myself for that a long time ago. I had known that well before setting foot in the arena the first time around. But at least it would get a little better with him being back with me.

How much time had passed? I wasn't sure. Probably an extremely long time. All I knew was that there were only a number of people who knew this hiding spot. And I also knew that it was time for me to get moving. To get ready for tomorrow. Because that would be when my plan would be enacted. So finally I managed to get to my feet and go back to the apartment, knowing that no one would bother me for a while. They would let me process what I had just seen.

They didn't want me to think about what had just happened. But I couldn't just not think about it. I had to think about how to fix this. And it started with thinking about what I wanted to do about Cato. How to save him and how to end this war. Despite wanting to be alone for a while, the door did eventually open. I glanced up to tell my family that I was okay, more than okay, when I realized that it wasn't them. It was Cato's family. All of them. They must have been waiting for me to come here.

"Hey," I greeted.

The smile on Alana's face was almost heartbreaking. "Hello, sweetheart. How are you?" Alana asked, walking over and taking a seat on my cot.

"I think the better question is, how are you? Your son is alive," I commented.

"So is your husband," Damien pointed out.

It was enough to make me smile again. "I'm better than I have been in a long time. He's alive. He's out there," I said breathlessly. "We just have to get up and get him back. We can do it. I know that we can."

"Of course. We're going to get him back," Damien said happily. His smile faded a moment later though. "There's only one problem."

"What's that?" I asked.

There was no problem. Cato was alive. Problem solved. "Coin isn't happy with what Cato's said in the interview. She believes that he might have done a lot of damage," Damien explained.

In a way she was right. Cato had very likely done some damage tonight. Because he had just tried to convince everyone to end the war. But it would depend on the Districts. Those in the outer-lying Districts would likely understand that he was being forced into saying it. They would be able to tell by the way that he reacted to the questions about me. The Capitol people weren't fighting anyways. It was the inner Districts, who we already had such a weak hold on, who would pose the problem.

"Anyone with a brain knows that Snow is telling him to say it. He's in danger there. Everyone knows that. He's only saying what he has to say to survive," I explained.
"Everyone knows that. Unfortunately, Cato is the kind of person who can put on a good front for the cameras. The people have always liked him. And his request sounds very reasonable. The resistance is already shaky with some of the Districts still wanting to quell the fight. This might make things worse," Damien said.

"So we do something to keep the flame burning," I said determinedly.

"That's good," Damien said.

They all knew what they wanted me to do. And I knew that I was going to do it. "He looked healthy," Alana commented.

"They've actually been taking care of him. But they won't forever. Eventually they'll try another tactic to hurt me. We have to go and get him," I said, knowing that it was only so long before they hurt him.

"There's no guarantee that they will," Alana said sadly.

She genuinely believed that they weren't going to get him. Maybe they wouldn't. But they would. I was determined for that. "Oh, no. I know the perfect way to get him back," I said brightly.

"We're very glad to hear that," Alana said, her voice cracking.

I leaned over and grabbed her hands. "I'll get him back. I swear that I will," I said.

"We never doubted that," Carrie said.

"Sometimes I did. I thought that he was dead already," I said, not feeling quite as guilty about saying it now that I knew that he was alive. "But he's alive. I told them in my last meeting with them that if they could show me proof that he was alive, I would fight. They've given it to me. Likely for that exact reason."

"So...?" Carrie trailed off, waiting for me to say it.

"Time to get off my ass," I said.

"We knew it," Carrie said brightly.

She jumped forward and gave me a crushing hug. I laughed as I felt her begin shaking. She was going to get her brother back. They were getting their son back. I was getting my husband back. We were all going to get something back. Because we all loved each other. Because we all loved him. Because each one of us was willing to do whatever it took to get him back. I noticed that even Aidan looked happy with me. Finally I was doing something right for him.

"How are you all?" I finally asked.

"Better than we've been in a long time," Alana said.

"Yes. I understand that," I said.

"I can't believe that he's still alive," Skye breathed.

Glancing over to her, I noticed that she was crying. Or she had been, at least. "I'm so sorry, Skye. I know that you two have been friends since you were children," I said. She gave me a slow nod. "I'm sorry for everything that I've put you through. Him through."

The entire Hadley family had been through far too much since I had stumbled into their lives. "If you asked him, he would tell you that it would all be worth it. Just for a year with you," Skye said, making my eyes water slightly. "We love you, Aspen. You're family now. His and ours. It's all worth it for him."

"I just wish that he had never had to go through all of that," I mumbled.

"Of course. We wish that, too. But it'll be okay. We're going to get him back and everything is going to go back to normal," Skye said brightly, happier than I had heard her in a long time.

"Once the war is over, at least," Julie interrupted.

"Yeah. Once the war is over. We're going to get up and fight and fix everything," I said.

Julie grinned and came to sit on my other side. "Strong words for someone who couldn't even bring herself to get out of bed a few weeks ago," she said, in a way that wasn't harsh.

She was just as strong-willed as I was. I was used to the way that she spoke. "Well I have a reason to fight now. Not just for him. For what Snow has done all of these years. For what he did to my home. Leah..." I trailed off.

The entire family glanced down at the ground. "You're tough, Aspen. That's one of the reasons that Cato always loved you. We know that you can do it. We believe in you," Julie said.

"Thanks, Julie," I said.

"Get him back, alright?" Julie asked, gripping my arm.

"Whatever it takes," I said truthfully.

Even if it meant my own life, I would get Cato back. "You're going to get him back?" Aidan asked.

It was the first time that he had spoken to me in a while, when it didn't look like he was angry with me. "I'll go if they'll let me. Whenever they let me," I said determinedly. Coin wouldn't like me going, but I didn't care. I had to save my husband. "But I'm going to get him back, one way or another."

"Good. I want him back. I miss him," Aidan said.

"I know. I miss him, too," I said.

"So you're really going to fight?" Aidan asked.

"I'm really going to fight. Do whatever it is that they need me to do. But I have some demands first. Ones that will guarantee that everyone survives this. Except Snow, of course," I said, as a last minute thought.

Alana's voice distracted me from Aidan. "This is..."

She trailed off and I glanced over to see what she was looking at. She was sitting at the edge of my bed that had my bedside table and everything that my family had managed to bring. The pictures, the medicine, and the paper. Now Alana and the rest of the family was looking over them. Alana smiled at the picture of Cato and I at the first party with our first kiss before grabbing something. The pearl... She had the pearl in her hands as she slowly turned it over. It was one of the few things I got to keep.

"Yeah. From the arena. One of the few things that I managed to keep," I whispered.

"You kept it," Alana said, holding the pearl almost possessively.

She clearly missed Cato just as much as I did. Just in a different way. "He gave it to me. Just in case it was one of the few things that I would ever get from him, I had to keep it," I said weakly.

"We remember that night," Alana muttered.

Marley was sitting in Carrie's arms. She glanced at the pearl and smiled. "Pretty," Marley chirped.

"D - Do you want it?" I stuttered.

Thankfully the rest of the family sensed that I wasn't even close to being ready to give up the pearl. Julie stepped in and took the pearl. "No, Aspen. Keep it. Until he's back," Julie said softly.

"Soon. He's going to be back soon," Carrie consoled, putting her hand on my shoulder.

"I know," I said happily.

"You know that this means that we're going to fight?" Dean asked.

Now that caught me off guard. "What?" I asked.

"All of us," Dean said, motioning around to the rest of the family. "We're going to start fighting. The condition was that we got to go out into the field when the Mockingjay did. That was when Thirteen would really join the fight."

"Really?" I asked, surprised.

"Really. We'll be right out there with you," Dean said.

But something didn't sit quite right with me. The entire family couldn't be fighting in the war. It was too dangerous. Alana was strong but she was older by now. And apparently she had never been that marvelous with weapons. Damien was older too, he was slowing down these days. Carrie had her daughter to take care of. Marley and Aidan were too young to fight. That left Dean, Skye, and Julie, who I wasn't sure if they were ready to fight.

"Who?" I asked carefully.

"Me," Dean said.

"Us, too," Skye added.

"Both of you?" I asked, referring to her and Julie.

"Yes. We've been training since we've been here. When it's time to get out on the front lines, we're all going to be there," Julie said, motioning to the three of them.

As much as I loved that they were willing to fight, I didn't want them to get hurt. "It's - It's not safe," I stuttered.

"We know that it's not safe. And that's what happens in war. We're okay, Aspen. We know what we're risking. But this is about so much more than just you and Cato. This is about the Capitol and all of the horrible things that they've done. If we have to give our lives to see their reign end, we will," Dean said determinedly.

"Do me a favor? Enough people have died. Don't follow in their footsteps," I said.

Cato had already lost his sister. How would he manage to cope with even more of his family dead? "Not unless we have to. But if we need to, we will," Skye said.

It was the Academy training in her. "We believe in this. We believe in you," Julie said.

"And so does Cato. No matter what he's saying, he wants this fight because of what they've done to you. To both of you," Carrie said.

"Everyone here is ready for this fight. So is Cato," Damien said.

"You can do it, Aspen. We know that you can," Alana said.

It seemed that more and more people were believing in me all the time. "Thank you," I whispered.

"We don't say anything that we don't believe," Damien said.

"You know, I always thought that you didn't like me," I admitted.

It was a question that had always bothered me. I couldn't tell if Damien liked me or not. "We weren't sure what to think about you at first. But you've become family, Aspen. Cato loves you. Still loves you. Always will love you. We love you. We love Cato. We're with you. We always will be," Damien said faithfully.

So it turned out that he did like me. They all did. "And I love you all, too. It took a long time for me to realize that you're all family. You are my family. And I will protect you. Just the way that I will protect Cato," I said fiercely.

They all grinned. "You look happy," Carrie said.

"For the first time in a long time, I am happy," I said.

"We are, too," Alana said.

"We're going to be together again. All of us," Dean said.

"Yeah," I whispered.

The day that he got back here would be one of the happiest days of my entire life. At least, the day that he got to see District 13 for the first time. I knew that he would be extremely confused and probably a little nervous, but he would figure it out. We would figure the entire thing out. We would figure everything out. Together. That was the only thing that mattered. It was just that the two of us would be together again. That was the important thing.

We sat together and chatted back and forth for a long time before the door opened. I glanced over to see my family but again it wasn't my family. This time it was someone else even more surprising. This time it was Seneca Crane who came in. I was definitely surprised to see him. I hadn't seen him in a long time when it was just the two of us. In fact, the last time that we had been completely alone together was the night that I arrived in the Capitol for the Quell.

"Seneca," I greeted.

"Might I have a word?" Seneca asked, glancing at the rest of the Hadley family.

"Of course," I said, giving them a guilty look.

"We'll leave you two be," Alana said, taking the hint.

The entire family turned to leave. They were halfway to the door when I called them back. "Hang on! In the morning. I'm making my demands in the morning," I explained.

I could see the relief in their faces. "Good. That's good. We're glad to hear that," Damien said.

"Get a good night's sleep. We're going to have some long days ahead of us," Carrie advised.

"I think this might be the first night in a long time that I get a decent night's sleep," I said honestly.

Which was perfect. Maybe I would dream of Cato tonight. A nice dream. Where he was alive and healthy. Something that I hadn't dreamed about in a long time. The entire Hadley family smiled and hugged me as they said goodnight. Tomorrow I would finally be the Mockingjay and they would be able to fight alongside me. It was the first time in a long time that I couldn't stop smiling. Because he was alive. I was going to get my husband back. The doors slid shut and I was left alone with Seneca.

He took a seat on my bed, maintaining a good bit of distance. "I haven't seen you smile like that in a long time," Seneca finally said, breaking the silence.

"Let's face it. I haven't had a reason to smile like this in a long time," I said.

"That is true," Seneca said.

"Still like my smile, huh?"

"I've always liked your smile." Seneca and I stared at each other blankly for a moment before he reached over and grabbed my hand. For once I didn't pull away. "I genuinely am sorry, Aspen. For everything," Seneca muttered.

"I know that, Seneca. Honestly, I do know that," I responded.

"You do?" Seneca asked, surprised.

"Yes. And I know that you have a potential to be a good man. It was just the way that you were raised," I said honestly.

It was something that I honestly believed about most of the Capitol people. "In the back of my mind, I always knew that it was the wrong thing to do. I always knew that it wasn't fair to kill little children. But I knew that everyone worked to be a Gamemaker. And a Head Gamemaker. So that was what my goal was. To become the Head Gamemaker," Seneca explained.

So he did have some semblance of a conscience. Even when he was younger. "And you got what you wanted," I said slowly.

"After a while I became numb to it. The deaths and the crying. Everything. It became a game. As shameful as that is," Seneca admitted, his face turning a little red. He was bashful about it. "The Capitol doesn't look at them like children. They look at them like -"

"Toys," I interrupted. "I know."

"I have no way to justify what I've done. What they do. But they aren't all evil," Seneca said.

"They have the capability to change. I know that much."

"You do?"

"Yes."

"Why is that?"

It was a good question. How did I know that the Capitol people could change? Because every one of them that I knew loved the Games. But they had learned to love Cato and I more than the Games. Clio had told me that and I had seen it. They couldn't stand me being in the Games because they had thought that I had an unborn baby with me. We had some Capitol rebels here themselves. People who knew that the Capitol was wrong. Plutarch was here. But there was one reason above all others.

"Because you changed," I finally answered.

"Yes. I did," Seneca said slowly.

"Why did you change?" I asked curiously.

"I met you," Seneca said quickly. Exactly the same reason that Cato had changed. Apparently I had something in me that made people change. "I knew right off of the bat that something was different. I lost my mother right around the time that your first Games started. It was much harder than losing my father. Then I learned who you were. Someone who had lost both her mother and father to the Games. Someone who lost her parents before she could even remember them.

"And I thought about what a nightmare that would have been. I couldn't have imagined growing up without my parents at my sides. I remembered how much I loved them, even when we would fight. I always loved them. But there was nothing that I could do for you. The Games were on. They were mine. And so were you. The more I watched you, the more that I liked you. The more you interested me. You kept talking and kept doing things that showed me just what a horrible thing that the Games really were.

"Even throwing the knife at me fascinated me. Because I realized just how angry you were with me. I realized just how much I hated what I was doing to you. Because you were heartbreaking. Seeing how upset you were about everything. Seeing how much you were hurt by these Games. I didn't want to send anything after you. But I had to. Because Snow was already suspicious of me. He had spoken to me a number of times about you. He hated you and I knew that I needed to make it look like I did, too.

"So I had to make things harder for you during the Games. It was the only way to keep myself safe. To keep Snow from doing something to you himself. But I sent things that I genuinely believed that you could beat. I tried to keep you alive. And you stayed alive. But I remember seeing the horrible things that kept affecting you. I remember seeing you with Rue. That was when I knew that I couldn't keep hurting you. I wanted you alive. I wanted to help you."

My heart was racing quickly. "That was when Cato genuinely fell in love with me," I whispered.

"I think that he was in love with you long before that," Seneca said.

"Maybe. Maybe not," I said, shrugging. "But he's in love with me now."

"Yes. He is," Seneca said.

"And you, Seneca?" I asked.

"What about me?"

Now came another question that I needed to know the answer to. "You and I have been so strange for so long. We're not really friends. We're barely allies. But I trust you," I admitted, as much as it bothered me. "For whatever reason, even after everything that we have done to each other, I trust you."
"Good. I want you to trust me. We are friends, Aspen. Believe it or not. I feel guilty for so many things that I have done to you. For that night. I am truly sorry," Seneca said slowly.

"Are you?" I asked disbelievingly.

"Yes. It's why I'm here now. For you," Seneca said.

"Not for all of this?" I asked bitterly.

"For that, too. I've never really liked President Snow before. It just took you to show me what a true monster he was," Seneca explained.

"If I wasn't around, you would be dead," I commented.

"My life would have never been threatened in the first place," Seneca said, somewhere in between bitter and amused.

"Don't bet on that. Katniss and I aren't that different," I explained.

"Perhaps. I am genuinely sorry about that night. I never intend to touch you again," Seneca said, shifting another inch or so away from me.

"Why?" I asked curiously.

There was a time that he had wanted me so much that he was willing to do anything to be with me. "Because I saw how much I hurt you. Because I saw how much you genuinely do love Cato," Seneca said. His words didn't quite process. "You would be willing to do something like that for him."

"I would do anything for him," I said quickly.

"I believe that. You go to the end of the world for those you love," Seneca said.

"That is true."

"It's a good, albeit dangerous, personality trait to have."

We sat in silence for a moment before I turned to him. "What am I to you, Seneca?" I finally asked.

Seneca glanced back at me, the two of us locking eyes, neither one speaking. "What do you want me to be?" he finally managed to spit out.

What did I want him to be? Not a Gamemaker? Not even an ally. Those weren't real. "A friend. I would like for us to try and be friends. Really be friends. Not whatever we've been for so long," I said.

Seneca smiled weakly. "I would like for us to be friends, too," he said.

"Tell me something about you. Something that a friend would know," I said.

It was a game that I had played with Cato a number of times. "What do friends know?" Seneca asked.

What did I want to know? Nothing about the Games or about the war or about the Capitol. Something simple. Like my game. Start with the simple things and work my way up. "I don't know how old you are," I said.

"I'm thirty-four," Seneca said.

He was older than I had thought he was. "Old man, huh?" I teased. Seneca smiled and laughed softly, with a smile that didn't quite look like the old ones that he had given me. Like at the Training Center before the first Games. "I don't think I've ever heard you genuinely laugh like that. And I've never seen that smile."

"Perhaps you bring out a different side of me," Seneca said.

"Perhaps," I said, smiling bashfully. "Tell me something else."

"I'm allergic to shellfish," Seneca said.

There was another surprising revelation. "Really?" I asked.

"Really."

"I hated the oysters in the arena," I said, giving him a pointed glare. "They were awful. They're slimy and kind of slide down your throat."

"I saw you eating them once in the Capitol. You looked disgusted."

"I was."

"Now you tell me something," Seneca prompted.

"What do you want to know?" I asked.
"What's your favorite color?" Seneca asked.

The same thing that Cato and I had once asked each other. His was blue. "Green," I answered softly.

We smiled at each other as Seneca turned his gaze to the side. His eyes locked onto something that was sitting on the side table. "That was when everyone knew." Seneca was looking at the photograph of Cato and I locked in a kiss after the wildfire. "They knew that you two were really in love," Seneca said.

"That was the kiss that made me know. I knew that I really did love him. No matter how much I tried to deny it. Even though I never really knew love," I muttered the last part.

Seneca reached over and grabbed my hand. A gesture that had once terrified me but now was somewhat comforting. "Don't let Snow think that's the truth. You do know love. From everyone in District 12. From your family. From Cato's. And from a number of other people. Including your parents, believe it or not," Seneca said.

"Have you seen District 12?" I asked suddenly.

"No. Not yet. I'm very sorry about District 12. About your home. I wasn't aware that it would happen," Seneca said.

"But you knew that something would happen."

"I had a feeling. I warned as many people as I could."

"I know. And thank you for that."

A brief silence passed. When Seneca looked back at me, he had a strange look on his face. "The child was officially just a ruse, correct?" Seneca asked.

"Yes. Of course," I said.

"We are friends, Aspen. Correct?" Seneca asked.

"I think so," I said slowly. "Why?"

Of course it was just a ruse about the child. I would have thought that he had been one of the first people who had been told about the fake pregnancy. The two of us sat in another brief silence as I stared at Seneca, wondering what the hell he wanted to say. I didn't understand where that comment had come from. Something about the child... Was he going to ask me if I wanted to have a child? I never had before. Now the question was up in the air. Maybe after the war. Far in the future.

Seneca seemed to be waiting for me to say something. But I couldn't figure anything out. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to say to his comment. Even a few minutes later we were still sitting together in silence. Clearly I had to make the first move. After a while, the door opened and someone slipped in. I glanced up confusedly. Gale slid into the room and sat down beside me, his nose trickling with blood. He gave Seneca a nasty look.

"I'll be going," Seneca said, taking the hint. "Do you need a medical team?"

"I'm fine. Thanks," Gale said begrudgingly.

He would always hate Seneca for the Games. "I'll leave the two of you be. Goodbye, Aspen. Mr. Hawthorne," Seneca said, getting up and heading to the door.

"See you around, Seneca. Wait," I called back as he made it to the door. "What did you want to say?"

Seneca shook his head. "Another time, perhaps. Tomorrow will be your announcement, I suppose?" Seneca asked.

"Yes. Good guess," I teased.

"Then I'll see you tomorrow," Seneca said.

Once he was gone, I turned over to where Gale was now sitting, looking very peeved about something. "What happened?" I asked, spotting how bad the bloody nose was.

"I got in Boggs's way," Gale answered with a shrug. I used my sleeve to wipe his nose. "Watch it!"

"Quit whining," I snapped.

After everything that I had been through, I wasn't very sensitive to other people's pain when it wasn't life-threatening. But Gale was my best friend so I tried to be gentler. Patting, not wiping. He was still twitching slightly with each touch. I could tell that he was in a lot of pain. He must have gotten hit pretty hard by someone. I knew how that felt. I remembered when Cato had broken my nose. On accident, at least. But it had still hurt. Maybe one day I would pay him back for it.

"Don't be a bitch," Gale snapped.

"Too late. Stop whining," I barked. "It's not broken. You're just sore."
"Damn it," Gale hissed.

"Boggs was in there?" I asked.

"You didn't see him?" Gale asked. I shook my head. "He was right there. He was the one who tried to stop you." He pushed my hand away. "Quit! You'll bleed me to death."

"You're a pain in the ass. I'm trying to help you!" I shouted.

"You're not a healer," Gale said.

"Then I'll collect Prim and get her to give you a hand," I groaned.

"I'm fine. Knock it off," Gale said.

There was no way that I was just going to leave him alone. The blood was very heavy. He wouldn't bleed out but he would definitely start getting light-headed soon enough. He needed to get some food and water in him, and then he needed something to stem the blood. More than I could do. Then he needed to see if it needed to be reset. The trickle by now had turned to a steady stream. So I gave up on the first-aid attempts.

"You fought with Boggs?" I asked.

"No, just blocked the doorway when he tried to follow you. His elbow caught me in the nose," Gale said.

"You didn't have to do that," I said.

"I knew that you needed to be alone for a while. To process everything," Gale explained.

"Thanks for that."

"But apparently you weren't alone," Gale said, scowling at the door.

He still hated Seneca as much as he always had. Maybe even more now. "Cato's family came by first. I had to talk to them. They just found out that their son and brother is still alive," I said quickly, noting the way that Gale started scowling again. "And then Seneca came by to check on me."

"That's nice of him," Gale growled.

Sensing that I should change subjects, I leaned back on the bed and turned to him. "They'll probably punish you," I said.

"Already have." He held up his wrist. I stared at it uncomprehendingly. "Coin took back my communicuff," Gale explained.

I bit my lip, trying to remain serious. But it seemed so ridiculous. "I'm sorry, Soldier Gale Hawthorne," I said.

"Don't be, Soldier Aspen Antaeus." He grinned. So did I. He was one of the few people that could still manage it. "I felt like a jerk walking around with it anyway." We both started laughing. "I think it was quite a demotion."

"Very demeaning. You're just a normal person now. Just like me," I said.

"You're nowhere near normal," Gale said, making me laugh.

That was one of the few good things about Thirteen. Getting Gale back. With the pressure of my marriage and relocating to District 2 between Cato and me gone, we had managed to regain our friendship. He didn't push it any further - try to kiss me or talk about love. Either I had been too sick, or he was willing to give me space, or he had learned where my heart laid, or he knew that it was just too cruel with Cato in the hands of the Capitol. Whatever the case, I had someone to tell my secrets to again.

Of course there was Katniss. But she was very distraught about everything. Gale was stronger than the both of us. "We all saw those letters that you wrote," Gale said eventually, breaking the silence.

My face drained of color. I didn't know that they had read them. "I told you to read them after I was gone," I snapped.
"We knew that there was a good chance that we were going to have to leave after the end of the Games. So we read the letters beforehand," Gale said.

So that meant that he had read what I had told him. About how much I loved him and always would. About my torn heart. That must have been why he had been nicer to me lately. And Prim knew the truth about the wedding. But she also knew that I did love him. Ms. Everdeen... Oh, no... She knew that Cato and I had slept together. At least she hadn't said anything yet. She would eventually. And Katniss, she must have known about Seneca and I being together. Not good.

"Right. Well..." I trailed off awkwardly, spotting Gale's stare. "I'm not taking back what I said in my letter."

"Do you even remember what you wrote to me in the letter?" Gale asked.

"Vaguely," I muttered.

"You said that you weren't sure what you wanted to tell me. That there were lots of things that I wanted to hear you say. You said that you loved me and that you always would," Gale said.

"That's still true," I agreed.

"I know," Gale said, making me scowl at him. "And you said that you meant it every single time that you told me. You said it was the one thing that you had never lied to me about."

"That's also true," I said.

"Apparently I was the person who got you through the arena," Gale continued.

A small smile turned up on the corner of my lips. "I used to hear you speaking to me. I think it was a way of getting over being alone all the time. You were telling me that my traps wouldn't work because I was always so bad at camouflaging them," I said, giggling at the memory.

"Well that's definitely true," Gale said.

We both laughed as Gale looped an arm over my shoulder. "I managed alright, though," I finally muttered.

"Yeah. You did," Gale said.

"As for the rest of the letter?" I asked.

"Do you really want me to say it?" Gale asked.

Did I want to talk about it? No. I was never one for having conversations like that. I didn't like them. "No. But we'll have to talk about it at some point or another," I admitted.

Gale nodded slowly. "Not today. Not the day that you found out that your husband is still alive. You still wear your wedding ring," Gale said. I nodded, glancing down and spotting the shimmering diamond on my right ring finger. "You still have his around the necklace that he gave you."

His locket was sitting right on the bedside table with the ring looped around the chain. "I guess I do," I said. "What about the last part?"

Gale shook his head, breathing out a little laugh. "So you remember that part, at least?" Gale asked.

"Come on, Gale," I prodded.

The one thing that I did want to talk about was Gale and Katniss. They had been growing closer lately. "We'll talk about it later," Gale said, ignoring my wishes.

"Why not now?" I asked.

"You know why, Aspen," Gale said sharply.

Suddenly my teasing comments were gone. I didn't have anything to say back to that. Because I did know why. I knew exactly why. Because Gale needed to know what was happening between the two of us before he would ever finally be able to manage to move on. He would have to know what was going on between Cato and me before he could think about what was happening with Katniss. Because I was always his first choice. For a long time, I had been his only choice.

The thought broke my heart. I had almost forgotten about the way that Gale had thought about me. Because we had gone back to being such good friends. I would always love Cato. Especially now that I knew that he was alive. y husband was back. I didn't need to move on. Gale would never want to. Because Gale would always be standing there with me. No matter what. I kept breaking his heart over and over and over. I likely always would, as much as I genuinely hated the thought.

After a long silence, Gale spoke up again. "You know I saw Katniss's letter, too," he said.

Every thought that had been shooting through my head about Gale and Cato went out the window. My heart had practically stopped at his words. I couldn't believe that he had said that. I couldn't believe that Katniss had showed him. I was going to kill her. The point of the letters was just for their recipient to read them. Gale wasn't just giving me that look because he had been a Gamemaker. It was because he knew everything that had happened between the two of us.

"We're going to have to have a conversation about listening to directions," I said.

"Aspen -"

"Did you see the others?" I asked, thinking of what was in Ms. Everdeen's.

"No," Gale said. "Just the one you wrote Katniss."

A breath of relief escaped me. "Okay," I muttered.

"Just okay?" Gale asked.

"What else do you want me to say, Gale?"

"Are you joking? You're letting him walk around here? After everything that he's done to you?" Gale asked. I shrugged my shoulders. "You're speaking with him in private!"

"Believe it or not, Gale, I was aware that we were speaking in private," I said.

"Aspen," Gale warned.

"I told her not to tell anyone. Because I knew that it would hurt you all."

"It's only the two of us."

"Well I wanted it to only be the one of you."

"Well now I know, too. What are you doing even speaking to him?"

That was a very long explanation and I didn't have much of a good one for it. "Trying to get over it. Trying to accept his apology and realize that he's spent the last few months trying to make it up to me. Gale, you weren't there. You don't understand what's happening," I said, knowing that he wouldn't appreciate my apology.

"He attacked you, Aspen," Gale said.

"He knew what was coming. He was drunk. And he apologized for it. It's fine, Gale. It's over," I tried to insist.

"It's not okay to have him here," Gale warned.

"He's on our side now. I'm still not okay with what he did. I don't think I'll ever be completely okay with what he did," I said quickly. And I wouldn't. But maybe it was time to try and move on. "But it's over. And I genuinely believe that he'll spend the rest of his life trying to make that up to me."

Gale's eyes narrowed. "Then you're even more naive than I thought that you were," he barked.

"Thanks," I snapped.

"He kissed you? Brought you into his bed when you were engaged to Cato?" Gale growled.

"Yes. They don't learn what's right and wrong in the Capitol. There is nothing like that. Everything is right for them. But I believe that people can learn. They can change. They can become what you think that they can be. Obviously Plutarch did, at some point. There are other Capitol refugees here," I explained.

"You think that just because Cato changed, Crane can, too," Gale said.

"Snow threatening his death changed him. Seeing me... the way that I was that night changed him," I said.

He didn't need to know just how close I had been to having that taken from me. None of them did. "Gave him some semblance of a conscience?" Gale asked.

"Funny," I snapped. "He tipped me off that something would be happening that night in the arena. He gave me the tracker that got them to pick me up."

"I already knew that," Gale said.

"I was having a good day. A rare one. Can we just... be?" I asked desperately.

Gale was still one of my best friends. I didn't want to have to keep dealing with this. "I miss that day on the hill. Before the first Games," Gale said dreamily.

"Yeah. I do, too, sometimes," I muttered.

"Sometimes?" Gale asked.

"Gale," I warned.

He knew why I didn't always miss it. "Fine. Fine," Gale conceded.

"Come on, big guy. Wanna be my pillow like you used to?" I teased.

Gale scowled at me but eventually nodded. "What the hell? Sure," he said.

It was enough to make me smile. It had been a long time since he had let me do something like that. Gale leaned back on the bed to lay down. Just the way that we had when we were kids. I pushed myself onto his arm and rested against him. Cato was alive. That thought kept running through my head. He was alive and looking well. And we were going to get him back. It would be easy enough. I was going to be the Mockingjay and come back stronger than ever before.

Just a moment later the door opened. We both glanced up but didn't bother moving from our spots. Katniss had seen us like this a thousand times before. And she normally joined us. Katniss walked in and I raised my head long enough to smile at her. She looked happy to see us like that. I smiled softly as she seated herself next to me. A second later her head was on my stomach. Just the way as we had done a thousand times before. Curled up in bed together, old friends, as always.

"I know you showed him that letter," I told her.

"Oh," Katniss muttered.

"Yeah. Oh," I agreed.

"Aspen -"

"It's not a big deal," I cut her off. "It's no big deal. You did what you did. It's fine. You both saw the letter."

"We should talk about it," Katniss said.

That was the last thing that I wanted to talk about. "No. We can talk some other time about it. Not right now. Alright? I'm not in the mood to talk about it right now. I've had the first good day today that I've had in a long time," I reasoned.

Katniss let out a little breath but nodded anyways. "But we will talk about it," Katniss said determinedly.

"Sure. And next time, do what I say," I barked.

"Alright. Here. Picked this up on the way," Katniss said, tossing a gauze roll to Gale.

"Thanks," Gale said.

Another beat passed as Gale patched himself up. "Who are these people?" I asked.

"They're us. If we'd had nukes instead of a few lumps of coal," Gale answered.

"I like to think Twelve wouldn't have abandoned the rest of the rebels back in the Dark Days," I said.

"That's just because we like to think that everyone in District 12 is stronger," Katniss said.

"We might have. If it was that, surrender, or start a nuclear war. In a way, it's remarkable they survived at all," Gale said.

Maybe it was because I still had the ashes of my own District on my shoes, but for the first time, I gave the people of Thirteen something I had withheld from them: credit. Something that I really didn't want to admit. But they did deserve some credit. For staying alive against all odds. Their early years must have been terrible, huddled in the chambers beneath the ground after their city was bombed to dust. I knew because it was how I felt right now. But I couldn't even linger in the ashes of my District.

Population decimated, no possible ally to turn to for aid. Over the past seventy-five years, they had learned to be self-sufficient, turned their citizens into an army, and built a new society with no help from anyone. They would be even more powerful if that pox epidemic hadn't flattened their birthrate and made them so desperate for a new gene pool and breeders. Maybe they were militaristic, overly programmed, and somewhat lacking in a sense of humor. They were here. And willing to take on the Capitol.

"Still, it took them long enough to show up," I said.
"They could have done something," Katniss growled.

"It wasn't simple. They had to build up a rebel base in the Capitol, get some sort of underground organized in the Districts. Then they needed someone to set the whole thing in motion. They needed you," Gale said.

"They needed Cato, too, but they seem to have forgotten that," I snapped.

Gale's expression darkened. "Cato might have done a lot of damage tonight. Most of the rebels will dismiss what he said immediately, of course. But there are Districts where the resistance is shakier. The cease-fire's clearly President Snow's idea. But it seems so reasonable coming out of Cato's mouth," Gale explained.

"Now there's something that I bet that you never thought that you would say," I said, attempting a joke.

"No. It isn't," Gale said.

I was afraid of Gale's answer, but I asked anyway. "Why do you think he said it?"

"He might have been tortured. Or persuaded. My guess is he made some kind of deal to protect you. He'd put forth the idea of the cease-fire if Snow let him present you as a confused pregnant girl who had no idea what was going on when she was taken prisoner by the rebels. This way, if the Districts lose, there's still a chance of leniency for you. If you play it right." I must have still looked perplexed because Gale delivered the next line very slowly. "Aspen... he's still trying to keep you alive."

Idiot. Of course he is. How could I have thought that he wasn't still playing? "He's still playing the game," I muttered.

"As he always has been. Because he loves you," Katniss said.

"You think they'll keep him healthy?" I asked.

"I think that he doesn't care if they break each one of the bones in his body," Gale said.

"Gale," Katniss snapped.

"He'll do anything to keep you alive," Gale said.

To keep me alive? And then I understood completely. The Games were still on. We had left the arena, but since Cato and I weren't killed, his last wish to preserve my life still stood. His idea was to have me lie low, remain safe and imprisoned, while the war played out. Then neither side would really have cause to kill me. And Cato? If the rebels won, it would be disastrous for him. If the Capitol won, who knew? Maybe we would both be allowed to live - if I played it right - to watch the Games go on...

Images flashed through my mind: the spear piercing Rue's body in the arena, Peeta being torn to pieces by the muttations, Gale hanging senseless from the whipping post, the corpse-littered wasteland of my home. And for what? For what? As my blood turned hot, I remembered other things. My first glimpse of an uprising in District 8. The Victors locked hand in hand the night before the Quarter Quell. And how it was no accident, my shooting that arrow into the force field in the arena.

How badly I wanted it to lodge deep in the heart of my enemy. It would have been so easy. If I could have gotten my hands on an arrow before the Games. I could have gone to Snow the night of my wedding, hidden it under the large skirt, and sent it straight into his eye. I could have saved myself so much trouble. I would have been killed and Cato would have gotten his happy life. Just a second later I sprang up, upsetting a box of a hundred pencils sitting above the bed, sending them scattering around the floor.

"Aspen!" Katniss barked.

"What is it?" Gale asked.

"There can't be a cease-fire," I said determinedly. I leaned down, fumbling as I shoved the sticks of dark gray graphite back into the box. "We can't go back."

"I know," Gale said.

For everything that we had been through, each and every one of us, I couldn't let things go back... Prim being Reaped shot through my head. Rue begging for a volunteer. All of those dead kids. My final stand in the Death Match. My heartbreak at the Quarter Quell. The Victors banding together, giving their own lives, to save Cato and me. Me, mostly. Watching all of those people stand up to fight. Gale swept up a handful of pencils and tapped them on the floor into perfect alignment.

"Whatever reason Cato had for saying those things, he's wrong," I said.

"He's just saying what he has to so that he can stay alive long enough to protect you," Katniss said.

"It doesn't matter. He's wrong. Snow is wrong. He must have forced him," I said determinedly.

Katniss wrapped an arm over my shoulder. "Of course. Everyone knows that he wouldn't do anything to hurt you. And stopping the war would be one surefire way to hurt you," Katniss reasoned.

They were both right. Hurting Cato, stopping the war before it really got underway, and destroying District 12 were all things that President Snow had done to try and hurt me. And he had managed to hurt me. But I didn't care. Because I was going to stand up and end things with him. This war was going to get started and I wasn't going to stop until he was dead and Cato was back here. The stupid sticks wouldn't go in the box and I snapped several in my frustration.

"We know. Give it here. You're breaking them to bits," Gale said.

He pulled the box from my hands and refilled it with swift, concise motions. "He doesn't know what they did to Twelve. He doesn't know what they did to Two. He doesn't know about Leah. If he could have seen her body or what was on the ground -" I started.

"Aspen, I'm not arguing. If I could hit a button and kill every living soul working for the Capitol, I would do it. Without hesitation," Gale said. He slid the last pencil into the box and flipped the lid closed. "The question is, what are you going to do?"

It turned out the question that had been eating away at me had only ever had one possible answer. There was always one answer. The one that I had been bouncing back and forth between for so long. The one answer that I had never been able to truly put together. Because I had been too afraid to say it. Because I had felt too weak. But now I knew the truth. It was strong enough to do it. The whole thing just took Cato's ploy for me to recognize it.

What am I going to do?

If there was one thing that Cato had ever given me, it was the gift of strength. I had always been strong. I knew that much. Surviving starvation in District 12, managing myself all those years without parents, and volunteering for Prim. Living through the Games once and dealing with the aftermath. But Cato had given me true strength. It had just taken me this long to realize it. Because sometimes I had to get knocked down lower than I ever had, just to stand up taller than I ever was.

For so long I had known the one true reason that I was alive. They had made it obvious enough. I had known exactly what I was supposed to do. But I had just been so afraid. I had forgotten my strength. The strength that Cato had once given me. Now that he was back, so was my strength. I took a deep breath. My arms raised slightly - as if recalling the black-and-white wings Cinna gave me the night of the Interviews - then came to rest at my sides. Gale and Katniss were staring at me.

"What I should have done a long time ago. I'm going to be the Mockingjay."

Chapter Text

Buttercup's eyes reflected the faint glow of the safety light over the door as he laid in the crook of Prim's arm, back on the job, protecting her from the night. It was enough to make me smile. It had been a long time since I had seen something like that. She was such a sweet kid. Sometimes I forgot that she was still just a little kid. Right now she reminded me that she was. She was just thirteen years old. Just a little kid who was in way over her head. I knew exactly how she felt.

She was snuggled close to Ms. Everdeen. Katniss was sleeping at the foot of the bed. She looked like she was about to fall out of the bed but she was very still in her sleep. Not like me. Asleep, they looked just as they did the morning of the Reaping that landed me in my first Games. Prim sleeping close to her mother, Katniss the silent protector, and me, awake and alert, watching over them from afar. There were only two beds in our room. The Hadley's only had four, and their room was about the same size.

Theoretically I probably should have been sharing the bed with Katniss. It would have been easier than the three of them crushing into the one bed together. But it didn't work out that way. Instead I had a bed to myself because I was still recuperating from the lightning blast and 'miscarriage' and because no one could sleep with me anyway, what with the nightmares and the thrashing around. The only person who could sleep in the bed with me was in the Capitol right now.

After tossing and turning for hours, I finally accepted that it would be a wakeful night. As they usually were. The only reason that I had been sleeping so much as I had over the past few weeks was because of the Morphling that they were giving me. But I was finally completely off of it and I had never been so grateful. Everything was suddenly much clearer. Unfortunately it also meant that sleep was elusive. So under Buttercup's watchful eye, I tiptoed across the cold tiled floor to the dresser.

The middle drawer contained my government-issued clothes. Not very pretty. I dressed nicer back in District 12. Everyone wore the same gray pants and shirt, the shirt tucked in at the waist. Although there was also the nice little jumpsuit that we got. We had an option to wear either one. One of the only options that the people of District 13 seemed to get. Underneath the clothes, I kept the few items that I had on me when I was lifted from the arena. I had recently become too paranoid to leave them out.

Just in case someone decided to try and take them. My Mockingjay pin. Cato's token, the gold locket with photos of Ms. Everdeen, Prim, Katniss and Gale inside. His wedding ring looped in it. A silver parachute that held a spile for tapping trees, and the pearl Cato gave me a few hours before I blew out the force field. District 13 confiscated my tube of skin ointment for use in the hospital, and my bow and arrows because only guards had clearance to carry weapons. They were in safekeeping in the armory.

The two photographs that I had and the picture that Cato had drawn were the only things that were sitting out. Boggs had promised me that no one would touch them. I smiled weakly and placed my forefinger and middle finger against the picture of Cato and I in the cave after the wildfire. Even though it had happened well over a year ago it was a memory that I was sure would never fade. You know, I never had a redeeming quality until you.

Neither did I, Cato.

My fingers felt around for the parachute and I slid my fingers inside until they closed around the pearl. I sniffled softly as I dumped the spile back into the cabinet and went to sit back on my bed cross-legged. A few minutes later I found myself rubbing the smooth iridescent surface of the pearl back and forth against my lips. Why? I couldn't have said. For some reason, it was soothing. A cool kiss from the giver himself, since it had been so long since I had felt a real one.

Slowly I sank back into the bed and let out a few deep breaths. My hand gently splayed out to my side. For a moment I hesitated, wondering what I was doing. That was when I realized what I had been doing. I was searching for Cato. But he wasn't here. Not yet. I sighed and dropped down against the sheets, holding the pearl tightly. Eventually I drifted off into a restless sleep. At first it was a simple dream about Cato, as I had dreamed about so often since being brought to District 13.

But it hadn't stayed that way for too long. Like so many of my dreams, it very quickly turned to a nightmare. I had been wrapped in a hug with Cato when I had felt something damp pressing against my stomach. We had jumped apart when I had realized that his stomach had a gaping wound in it. Someone had stabbed him. And I was too late to stop it. The blood was already flowing and soaking my hands. It wasn't until the light left his eyes that I realized that I was the one who was holding the knife.

My mouth dropped open in a piercing scream. I had done it... I killed him... A moment later I launched myself up in bed, still screaming at the top of my lungs. As I tried to leap from the bed and sprint off, I realized that something was holding me down. It wasn't something, actually, it was someone. They were pressing me down into the bed, keeping me from running off. My eyes sprang open and I relaxed the moment that I realized that it was just Cato. We were alone in the small room.

"It's okay... It's just a dream... You're okay," Cato whispered.

His voice was low and comforting. The way that it always was after I woke up from one of my horrible nightmares. My skin was soaked with sweat and so were the sheets. Cato gently pulled me into his lap as I let out a few deep breaths, trying to calm myself down. He was alive. He was here with me. I hadn't done anything to him. He was healthy and alive. Cato pressed a small kiss against my forehead as he gently took his thumbs and ran them over my temples.

"I'm sorry. It's just a nightmare," I said softly.

"That's okay, I get them, too," Cato said.

Apparently he did. That was what everyone told me. But I never knew. Even after a year, I still never knew when he had a nightmare. He would take care of me when I had them, but I never knew how he was having one. It was like he said. He didn't thrash around. He didn't scream. Supposedly he did, but it was only when he was back home and unable to sleep with me near him. Mine were worse when he was gone, too.

"You should wake me up when you get them," I said.

"It's okay, Aspen. They're always about losing you. Once I wake up and see that you're here, I'm okay again," Cato said, gently running his hands over my arms.

It was very reminiscent of a conversation that we had been in before. "What was the first thing you thought about me?" I asked, after a few beats of silence.

"What?" Cato asked, looking surprised.

"Tell me. When you saw my first Reaping, what did you think about me?" I goaded.
"I thought that you were... interesting," Cato said. I snorted under my breath. That was one way to describe me. "There had never been a volunteer from District 12 before. Not that I could remember. You were strong and brave. Heartbroken, too. I wanted to know more about you."

"That so? Have you learned enough?" I asked.

"I could never learn enough about you. I want to know everything," he said.

Slowly I glanced around the room. We were in the middle of a war. The wrong time to get to know each other. "We don't have enough time," I muttered.

"Maybe not," Cato begrudgingly agreed.

"But there are plenty of things that you do know about me," I commented.

"That's true. You like the heat. You don't like the cold. But you do like the snow. You bite your lip when you're nervous. The last time that you cried before all of this was when you were six and you broke your arm. You love coffee and you only drink it black. You have to have all of your books and papers in line with each other. You love singing but hate doing it in public," Cato murmured.

My heart was fluttering slightly. It was one of those moments that I realized just how much Cato loved me. Because he knew all of those little things. He knew that I liked the warm weather from the Capitol but the snow made me smile. Because I loved playing in it. At least, I had when I was a little kid. It had always made me happy, especially when Gale and Katniss would come and play with me. And, as she got a little older, we would take Prim out with us. She had always loved it.

When we met, I had always bit my lip when I was nervous. It was a bad habit. Something that I had done since I was a little kid. My lip used to always be torn up. It was something that the Prep Team had been forced to work with when I had first gotten here. I'd grown out of the habit during the Games. If I had still done it then I would have completely bit apart my lip and permanently scarred it. Instead I had come to the habit of digging my nails into my palms, something that Cato would try to get me to stop.

My tears seemed to never stop these days. It seemed like I was always crying. Because now there was always something for me to cry about. Coffee was something that I definitely loved. But I didn't like the cream or sugar. It made it too sweet. Unrealistic. I liked the bitterness. Everything in my shelves was always in line with each other. It had always bothered me when things were out of place. Singing was always one of my favorite things to do. It always would be. But I would have never done it for the Capitol.

"Just in case I thought that you didn't really know me," I muttered.

"Your turn," Cato said.

My eyebrow quirked. "What's that?" I asked dumbly.

"What did you think when you saw me for the first time?" Cato asked.

A tiny snort came out of my mouth. "That I stood no chance. Not against you. I was looking you over and trying to figure you out. Weapon, strengths, and weaknesses," I said. It made me realize just how cold and calculating I was. I had always been the real Career. "Then I looked at you and I was immediately hooked."

A grin turned up on the corner of Cato's lips. "Oh?" he asked.

"I thought that you were very attractive," I admitted.

Now he was definitely grinning. We both laughed as Cato kissed me gently behind the ear. "Now I don't feel so bad for looking at you the way that I did," Cato said lowly.

"Cato!" I barked, embarrassed. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course," he said.

"How can you be so understanding about everything? Everything that I've put you through?" I asked.

"Because I love you. There's always one person in your life that you can't walk away from, even if you know that it would make things so much easier. You're mine," Cato admitted.

A tear formed in my eyes and I sniffed, blinking it back. "You should walk away. It would be so much easier," I muttered.

"Maybe. But when two people really care about each other, they always find a way to make it work. No matter how hard it is. We're not easy, Aspen. We never will be. But I wouldn't trade us for anything in the world," Cato said.

"I wouldn't either," I said, my voice breaking.

"I'm going to take you back home one day, Aspen," Cato promised.

"It's destroyed," I whispered, my voice becoming weaker.

"We'll rebuild it," Cato said.

He's too good for you. "That's not your home. District 2 is your home," I said weakly.

Cato shook his head and gently rolled us over, so that I was laying flat on his chest. "My home is wherever you are," Cato said, tucking a strand of hair behind my ears. "We'll go back. Live in that house in Victor's Village. Take Katniss, Prim, and your mother. Even that stupid cat."

Snorting under my breath, I pushed my head down into his shoulder. A moment later I glanced back up. "Buttercup. That's his name. You've never met him, have you?" I asked.

Cato shook his head. "No. Will you introduce me when we get back home?"

"Of course."

Although I had a feeling that he wouldn't want to meet Buttercup. But he was also better with animals than I was. He was better with everything than I was. Cato rolled us over again so that I was underneath him. He pressed his lips against mine as I wound my hands back around his neck. My heart was fluttering as his hand wound its way down my stomach to pull at the shirt that I was wearing, making my stomach twist with something in between anticipation and nerves. Like always.

But that was also the moment that I realized that it wasn't just anticipation and nerves. It was something so much more. It was the first time that I realized that I didn't have to just live in the now. It was the first time that I realized that there was no use in just living in the now. It was the first time that I thought that I might have been able to have a future. And Cato Hadley was my future. He was the only person that I could have ever thought about having a future with.

"Will you stay with me?" I asked, breaking the kiss.

"Of course. Yeah," Cato said. He moved onto my side and grabbed me around the waist. "Always."

His lips gently traced the word across my jugular. I shivered slightly as I pressed myself into his chest. Just as I had so many times before. And I let myself fall asleep to the sound of his heartbeat, just as I had so many times before. But a moment later I shot upright in bed, not screaming, just panting. Cato was gone. He was just a dream... Just a fragment of my imagination. But I still pressed a hand against my throat, still feeling the ghost of his touch.

"Aspen?" Prim whispered. My head jerked over towards her. She was awake, peering at me through the darkness. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Just a bad dream. Go back to sleep," I said.

My voice was very soft to make sure that I didn't wake up Ms. Everdeen and Katniss. I had woken them up enough recently. They were always getting woken up by the piercing screams and manic thrashing that would start in the middle of the night and be almost impossible to stop. My words right now were as soothing as I could make them. It was automatic. Shutting Prim and Ms. Everdeen out of things to shield them. Things were a little different with Katniss. She was older and stronger. She could take it.

But even she didn't hear about everything that had happened to me. Because I couldn't put that burden on anyone. Not even Gale or Cato. They didn't deserve that. Careful not to rouse Ms. Everdeen or Katniss, Prim eased herself from the bed, scooped up Buttercup, and sat beside me. I curled my feet up underneath my knees and smiled weakly at her. She touched the hand that had curled around the pearl. Now I realized that I had fallen asleep with it in my hands. Maybe that was why I'd had the dream.

"Aspen? Prim?" Katniss called.

Our voices and movements had likely woken her up. She had always been a light sleeper. "We're here," I whispered back.

If nothing else, at least we could keep Ms. Everdeen out of the conversation. And with Prim awake, I couldn't talk too much about what was happening. She was getting older, she was getting stronger, but I couldn't tell her everything that had happened. She was still too young and the whole thing was my burden to bear. My own faults. My own problems. Katniss jumped up from her own bed gently and slid into bed with Prim and me. She laid down at my hip and pulled Prim against her.

"Everyone's awake?" Katniss asked.

"Not for long," Prim said, referring to the fact that we had only been up for a few minutes. "Mom's asleep though."

"Come here, Cat," I said, pulling her closer.

The three of us used to always sleep like this. "You're cold," Prim commented.

Taking a spare blanket from the foot of the bed, she wrapped it around all four of us, enveloping me in her warmth and Buttercup's furry heat as well. Katniss laid against me and I smiled. It had been a long time since I had slept, almost completely content, with the two of them. Right now it was nice to even have Buttercup here. I noticed that the cat laid itself a little closer to me than normal. I couldn't figure out why. Maybe because he knew that I was hurting. Because he knew that I couldn't take more hurt.

The four of us rearranged ourselves in the bed together. I was up on the pillows with my feet tucked underneath myself. Katniss was on one side of me with her elbow propped up on my hip. Prim was curled into my other side with her head laid on my waist. Buttercup was in between the two of us, purring contentedly. For the first time in a long time, even before the first Games, I was comfortable in bed with someone other than Cato.

"Thanks, sweetie," I told Prim, pulling up the blanket a little tighter.

"You could tell us, you know. We're good at keeping secrets. Even from Mother," Prim said.

"She's right, you know," Katniss said.

So she was really gone, then. The little girl with the back of her shirt sticking out like a duck tail, the one who needed help reaching the dishes, and who begged to see the frosted cakes in the bakery window. Katniss and I exchanged a quick look. Prim was even braver than I was sometimes. Time and tragedy had forced her to grow too quickly, at least for my taste, into a young woman who stitched bleeding wounds and knew Ms. Everdeen could hear only so much. Where had my bug gone?

"I know. You two are good like that. At least, most of the time," I said, giving Katniss a pointed glare.

Now that one Prim must not have known about. She looked very confused. That was one thing that Prim couldn't know about. "Oh, stop," Katniss said, rolling her eyes. "What's on your mind?"

"Come on," Prim goaded.

"Tomorrow morning, I'm going to agree to be the Mockingjay," I told them.

My words were so sudden that it was obvious that I had surprised them. "Good, Aspen," Katniss whispered.

"Because you want to or because you feel forced into it?" Prim asked.

That one definitely got to me. She was much more intuitive than I thought that she was. So I laughed a little. Even Katniss laughed. After a beat, Prim laughed, too. The three of us had to be quiet to make sure that we didn't wake Ms. Everdeen up. She wouldn't have been happy to know that we were chatting about the Mockingjay. I had a feeling that she didn't want me to do it. Because she knew just how dangerous that position was. Even more dangerous than the Games themselves.

"Both, I guess. No, I want to. I have to, if it will help the rebels defeat Snow." I squeezed the pearl more tightly in my fist. "No one hates the Capitol more than me. It's just... Cato. I'm afraid if we do win, the rebels will execute him as a traitor. He's my husband. I can't stand that happening to him," I whispered desperately.

Losing him was my worst nightmare. I had him back now. He was right there, in the Capitol. Healthy. Alive. Maybe not totally happy and healthy, but he was alive, and that was all that mattered. Losing him now would have been something unbearable. Not when so much had already happened. Prim and Katniss exchanged a long look, likely both thinking it over. I had to guarantee his safety either way. He had it with the Capitol. Now I needed it with the rebels. To my surprise, Prim came up with an answer first.

"Aspen, I don't think you understand how important you are to the cause. Important people usually get what they want. If you want to keep Cato safe from the rebels, you can," Prim said.

"Prim is right. There’s got to be some way to keep Cato safe from the rebels," Katniss agreed.

"Am I important enough?" I asked.

They certainly seemed to think that I was. It was the only reason that they hadn't let me die when I had first come to Thirteen. "Of course you are. To them and to us," Prim said.

I brushed back her hair and smiled weakly. "I guess I'm important. They went to a lot of trouble to rescue me. They took me to Twelve," I said, remembering just how dangerous it had been.

"Exactly. Just demand it," Prim said.

"You mean... I could demand that they give Cato immunity? And they'd have to agree to it?" I asked.

Katniss and Prim exchanged another look before nodding again. "Just threaten what they can't have," Katniss advised. I stared at her blankly. "You changing your mind."

Of course. The one thing that they couldn't have was me telling them that I would be the Mockingjay, only to have them schedule all sorts of appearances and making speeches and rallying the Districts, only to back out of it. Especially if they made all of that public knowledge. It would make us all look terrible and halt the rebellion. Plus I was smart enough to know that they needed me. There could only be one Mockingjay and, unfortunately, that was me.

"I think you could demand almost anything and they'd have to agree to it." Prim wrinkled her brow. "Only how do you know they'll keep their word?" she questioned.

Suddenly I remembered all of the lies that Haymitch told Cato and me to get us to do what he wanted. What was to keep the rebels from reneging on the deal? A verbal promise behind closed doors, even a statement written on paper - those could easily evaporate after the war. Their existence or validity denied. Any witnesses in Command would be worthless. In fact, they'd probably be the ones writing out Cato's death warrant. I would need a much larger pool of witnesses. I would need everyone I could get.

"It will have to be public," I said. Buttercup gave a flick of his tail that I took as an agreement. "I'll make Coin announce it in front of the entire population of Thirteen."

"Perfect. And Cato's family will love that," Katniss said brightly.

They would be thrilled to hear that I was going to save him. He would be safe. "They will. They're already thrilled that he's alive. Keeping him safe from whatever Thirteen will do to him will be even better," I said happily.

At least somewhat happily. Prim smiled. "Oh, that's good. It's not a guarantee, but it will be much harder for them to back out of their promise," Prim said.

"I'll kill Coin myself if she backs out of it," I growled.

"I'll be right there with you," Katniss agreed.

My head turned to her in surprise. "I thought that you didn't like Cato?" I asked.

Katniss gave me a long look. "He's growing on me," she finally admitted.

"Is that so?" I asked.

"Yes. Because I've seen all that he does for you. And I've seen just how happy he makes you. I don't want to see him hurt. Because it'll hurt you," Katniss said softly.

The two of us stared at each other for a long time. I couldn't believe that she was really friendly with him now. I knew that she had been trying to get along with Cato for my well-being. I knew that she had been trying and I knew that Gale had been trying to do the same thing. I would always appreciate it. And I really appreciated knowing that they were going to stand by me with this. At least, Katniss would. I wasn't sure if I was going to tell Gale about it. I didn't know how he would react.

"Yes. That would hurt me a lot. More than anything," I finally said.

"Maybe we can all hang out together when he gets here," Prim said, making me smile.

There was the little kid in her. "He might need some time to readjust to everything, but I think that he'll manage. He'll be okay soon enough," I said.

He would just need some time to acclimate and get over whatever happened in the Capitol. "We'll all help him heal. That's what we're all here for. To heal each other. No matter how hard or how long it takes," Katniss said.

It made me smile. They were really willing to change everything. The way that they felt about Cato, the way that they felt about me, and how strong I we all were. We were going to figure this out. We were going to figure everything out. The two of them smiled at me as I grabbed them both and brought them into little hugs. My sisters. My best friends. I ended up feeling something that I hadn't felt in a long time. It was the kind of relief that followed an actual solution.

"I should wake you up more often, little duck," I teased Prim.

"I wish you would," Prim said. She leaned over and gave me a kiss.

"You suck, Cat," I teased.

Katniss set her typical glare on me; something that I hadn't seen in a long time. "Yeah. And you're an ass," Katniss snapped, making all three of us giggle.

"Try and sleep now, all right?" Prim asked.

Slowly I nodded at her. We all did. Katniss and Prim jumped back into bed with Ms. Everdeen, shifting very slowly to make sure that they weren't going to wake her up. I slowly slid back into bed, the pearl still clasped tightly in my hands. It was the first time in a long time that I hadn't had a nightmare. Because my worst nightmare had been proven false. Cato was alive. As my eyes slid closed and my hand tightened on the pearl, I had a pleasant dream for the first time in a long time.

That afternoon. That damned afternoon. The afternoon that he had drawn that picture. The one that showed the life in my eyes. The life that had only recently come back. The slight part in my mouth when I started thinking. The flyaway hairs from the braid that I would put my hair in. And that little crinkle in my eyelids when I smiled. Of course, he hadn't shown me that picture for a long time. I had been clueless about it until that day had almost been over.

We were sitting up on the roof together. The sun was starting to sink in the sky, letting me know that we must have been entering the back half of the afternoon. My hands were in my lap, twirling the blankets around. I was humming an old hymn that Mr. Everdeen had taught me under my breath, slowly tracing my hands up and down Cato's legs. He had a notepad propped up against my shoulders as he flicked his pencil back and forth. The picture was facing away from me so that I couldn't see what he was drawing.

"I didn't know that you liked to draw," I finally said, breaking the comfortable silence.

"I never really did before. It's something that I just started doing recently. I like it," Cato said.

"You're really good."

He had shown me a picture of the flower crown that he had done earlier. He hadn't shown me the one that he was working on now yet. "Been practicing recently," Cato said.

"Can I see?" I asked.

"No. Not until I'm done."

"That's not fair!" I barked.

Cato briefly looked up from his paper. "Why not?" he asked.

"Because I'm your wife."

"Not good enough."

"Excuse you!" I hissed, reaching back to slap him on the chest. He laughed under his breath. "I'm your wife, I deserve to know."

Cato briefly placed down the picture, making sure that I couldn't see it. "Yes. You are. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to show you. Not until I'm finished," he said, pressing a kiss on my forehead.

He picked up the picture again and went back to drawing. "Will you at least tell me what it is that you're doing?" I asked.

"When I'm done," Cato promised.

"Oh, you're such a jerk. I deserve to see what you're painting," I growled, smacking him.

"Drawing. Not painting," Cato muttered.

He was definitely in his zone. More so than I had ever seen before. Even more than when he was swinging his sword back and forth. "Whatever. Come on, Cato. Show me," I said, poking at his leg.

"I'll show you when I'm done. It's important that I finish it first," Cato said.

"You sound very intense about it," I teased.

The corners of Cato's lips quirked upwards. "Quiet," Cato snapped playfully.

"I thought that you liked hearing me talk?" I offered.

"I do. Just not right now," Cato said.

The two of us sat together for a while as I crossed one leg over the other, tightening the blanket around me slightly. "Do you like to draw?" I asked quietly.

He had never mentioned his habit of drawing to me before. I couldn't remember him ever saying anything about it. "Yes. It relaxes me. Something to keep my hands busy. I used to swing around a sword or twirl a knife. That would make me feel better. Then it changed. Now I like to draw," Cato said, almost absentmindedly.

"Peeta liked to draw and paint, too," I whispered. That was enough to draw Cato's attention. He glanced up from the paper to stare down at me. Suddenly I felt a little bashful. "That was how he got so good at camouflage. He would decorate the cakes in his bakery. They're really good. His brother Rye does them now."

"Was he good?" Cato asked, gently running his fingers down my arms.

"Extremely. His parents gave me some of his paintings. There's one of Katniss and me up on a hill, weapons at our sides, waiting for game," I said, my voice catching in my throat. "That's my favorite."

Some emotion shot through his eyes. "You have it?" he asked.

"Yeah. It's hanging up in my room," I said. "I hope that Katniss takes it -"

"You two can share it when you're back," Cato said.

"No -"

"Sing something," he interrupted.

That was when I knew that he wouldn't let me take the conversation any further. No more arguments. Not today. Not on one of the last peaceful days that we would ever have. This was the last peaceful day that I would have. He would get his chance to have more. It would take some time, and they might not ever be like they were now, but he would get there. Cato brushed the hair back behind my ears and I looked up at him, deciding to give into his wish for a song.

"What do you want to hear?" I asked.

"Anything," Cato said.

So I ran through the songs that I had heard all of my life. There were a number of songs that I knew. So many that I hadn't gotten the chance to sing in many years. There was one in particular that I had always liked. But it was one that I hadn't sang in a long time. It was one of the few that I had been taught by Mr. Everdeen. And I was the only person who he had taught it to. Because he had always wanted one thing to be between us. One thing that he had gotten to be my father for. So I took a deep breath and sang softly.

"Loo-li, loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay
Loo-li, loo-li, loo-li lai-lay

"Lay down your head and I'll sing you a lullaby
Back to the years of loo-li lai-lay
And I'll sing you to sleep and I'll sing you tomorrow
Bless you with love for the road that you go

"May you sail far to the far fields of fortune
With diamonds and pearls at your head and your feet
And may you need never to banish misfortune
May you find kindness in all that you meet

"May there always be angels to watch over you
To guide you each step of the way
To guard you and keep you safe from all harm
Loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay

"May you bring love and may you bring happiness
Be loved in return to the end of your days
Now fall off to sleep, I'm not meaning to keep you
I'll just sit for a while and sing loo-li, lai-lay

"May there always be angels to watch over you
To guide you each step of the way
To guard you and keep you safe from all harm
Loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay, loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay

"Loo-li, loo-li, loo-li, lai-lay
Loo-li, loo-li, loo-li lai-lay
Loo-li, loo-li, loo-li lai-lay
Loo-li, loo-li, loo-li lai-lay
Loo-li, lai-lay."

As my voice trailed off, Cato smiled down at me. I could see that his eyes were getting heavy. It had been designed as a lullaby. "That's pretty," Cato said softly.

And it always had been. "I used to sing it to Prim and Katniss to get them to go to sleep. It's been years since I've sang it. The last time was... the morning of Katniss's first Reaping," I said, remembering that horrible day. The scariest day that I had ever experienced, before the day that Prim was Reaped. "To put her back to sleep before she had to go."

"They need you," Cato said.

"Not anymore. Katniss is a big kid and even Prim... they've grown up," I muttered.

"Because you were there for them. You have to keep being there for them," Cato said.

"And what about you?" I asked shortly.

"What about me?" Cato asked.

"What if I need you to be here for me?" I asked.

Cato leaned down and pressed a small kiss against my mouth. "I'll always be there with you," Cato said, running his hands down my arms and smiling sadly at me.

In the morning, I jerked awake in bed and shot up, breathing out heavily. Katniss and Prim were staring at me. Ms. Everdeen smiled softly and pressed the sweaty hair back off of my face. The morning was here. I could hear the bells signaling a new day of work for the people in District 13. And for me... a new beginning, I supposed. Prim was sitting on the edge of the bed and poking me on the shoulder. Clearly I had been sleeping through the bells. I wasn't used to hearing them.

It took me a few moments too long to realize that they were waiting for me. They were wondering what the hell had happened. They knew that it was a bad dream but, like usual, they wouldn't dare ask me what it was about. So I just smiled weakly and stood up, getting changed for the day. That was enough to make them turn away. I had always known that the one thing that I had to do was convince them that it was just a bad dream and nothing more. There was nothing else bad happening.

They knew the truth by now, but they weren't going to call me out on it. Not today. I started running the brush through my hair and changing back into the standard District 13 uniform when I glanced back at the picture frame. I had almost forgotten that it was just a dream. For a moment I had been so confident that Cato would be in bed with me. Or in the next room over with the Hadley's. But I would just have to wait until he actually was with me. Which would hopefully be soon.

The four of us finished getting dressed before heading out into the main hallway. My hands were shaking slightly as I shook them out. I was nervous. What for? Maybe that they wouldn't accept my demand of saving Cato and the rest of the Victors. Not that I cared for Enobaria or Johanna or really even knew Annie. But she meant the world to Finnick and, to be fair, Johanna had risked her own life to save mine. As we walked into the main hall I held my hand under the scheduler and watched.

The moment that I turned my gaze downwards, I saw that 7:00 – Breakfast was directly followed by 7:30 - Command, which was fine since I might as well have started the ball rolling. That was good with me. I wanted to get this done and get the whole thing started. The sooner that I started performing as the Mockingjay was the sooner that they would rescue Cato. Or we could win the war and he would be safe. Either way, it would be over with soon enough. It just started with today.

At the dining hall, I flashed my schedule, which included some kind of ID number, in front of a sensor. As I slid my tray along the metal shelf before the vats of food, I saw that breakfast was its usual dependable self - a bowl of hot grain, a cup of milk, and a small scoop of fruit or vegetables. Today, mashed turnips. I groaned at the sight of it. Sometimes I really did miss the Capitol food. It was the one thing that I might have missed about the place. Other than Cinna, but that was too late.

All of the food came from Thirteen's underground farms. Apparently they were quite impressive. I hadn't seen them yet. I sat at the table assigned to the Everdeen's and Hawthorne's and some other refugees. Of course, it was assigned to the Antaeus's, too, but considering that I was the only one left - and that wasn't technically true - no one ever bothered saying it. Besides, the only title that they cared to give me was Mockingjay. I shoveled my food down, wishing for seconds, but there were never seconds here.

They had nutrition down to a science. You left with enough calories to take you to the next meal, no more, no less. Serving size was based on your age, height, body type, health, and amount of physical labor required by your schedule. The people from Twelve were already getting slightly larger portions than the natives of Thirteen in an effort to bring us up to weight. I guessed bony soldiers tired too quickly. It was working, though. In just a month, we were starting to look healthier, particularly the kids.

Katniss and Prim easily went through their food. I'd noticed that Prim was gaining some weight. Which was good, since she had lost some after the announcement of the Quell. Gale set his tray beside me and I tried not to stare at his turnips too pathetically, because I really wanted more. Despite the fact that they were gross, I was starving. I'd barely eaten lately. He was already too quick to slip me his food. Even though I turned my attention to neatly folding my napkin, a spoonful of turnips slopped into my bowl.

"You've got to stop that," I said. But since I was already scooping up the stuff, it wasn't too convincing. "Really. It's probably illegal or something."

"Share it, then," Gale said.

So I split the rest of the turnips between Katniss and Prim. "Thanks," Katniss said.

"Thank you," Prim chirped.

They had very strict rules about food. For instance, if you didn't finish something and wanted to save it for later, you couldn't take it from the dining hall. Apparently, in the early days, there was some incident of food hoarding. For a couple of people like Gale, Katniss, and me, who had been in charge of our families' food supply for years, it didn't sit well. We knew how to be hungry, but not how to be told how to handle what provisions we have. In some ways, District 13 was even more controlling than the Capitol.

"What can they do? They've already got my communicuff," Gale said.

"Which is quite the punishment," I teased.

"I could cry for myself," Gale said.

We both snorted into the tiny remains of our turnips. I giggled under my breath as I leaned over and stole the last little bit off of Gale's plate. He was snorting under his breath again. I leaned back in the seat slightly and laid my head on my hand. Everyone was giving me concerned looks, but no one said anything. Probably because they knew that I was in deep thought. Whatever was about to happen was important. The Mockingjay was finally going to play her part.

As I scraped my bowl clean, I had a sudden inspiration. The food here was repulsive. It was even worse than the food back in District 12. At least there we had to have food that was high in fat to keep us alive. We didn't eat much and they were small portions, but they were fatty and greasy. Here we had slightly larger portions but everything tasted like cardboard. But that was just because that was what they could grow. But if we could get something more...

"Hey, maybe I should make that a condition of being the Mockingjay," I said suddenly.

Gale and Katniss turned to look at me. "That I can feed you turnips?" Gale asked.

"No, you idiot," I barked.

"Well, what?" Gale asked sharply.

"That we can hunt," I suggested. That got his attention. Katniss's, too. She whipped around to look at me. "You and me and Katniss. We'd have to give everything to the kitchen. But still, we could..."

My voice trailed off. No one sitting near us needed to hear what I was about to say. Because that would have only made things even worse for us. They were already questioning where our allegiances lay. No one needed to know that we were interested in talking about what was really happening. I didn't have to finish my sentence because they knew. Katniss and Gale understood. We could be above ground. Out in the woods. We could be ourselves again.

"Do it. Now's the time. You could ask for the moon and they'd have to find some way to get it," Gale said.

"Oh, please. I'm so sick of being here," Katniss whined.

It was enough to make me smile again. The two of them needed to be out in the woods. I wanted to be out there so badly. I missed the days that we were out in the woods with no one to hear us. Or so we had thought. Apparently there were cameras out there the entire time. But that was in District 12. There likely weren't any in District 13. At least, not in the woods. It didn't matter. They likely wouldn't say yes. Gale didn't know that I was already asking for the moon by demanding they spare Cato's life.

That would be dangerous enough. They wouldn't like that much. That would have to be the last thing that I would say. Best to save the worst for last. Or something like that. But something else dawned on me. There were other people who likely couldn't wait to get out of the confines of District 13. A number of people hated feeling that they were being suffocated down here. Cato had always wanted me to take him out to the woods and teach him to hunt. I couldn't do that right now, but I could...

"I think I'm going to ask for Dean to come out, too," I said suddenly.

"Why?" Gale asked.

"Because Dean is my friend. He's been good to me over the past year," I said, feeling a little defensive.

"So the four of us?" Gale asked.

"No. I'm going to go out with you and Katniss. And one day I'll take Dean out," I said.

It would be a good chance for the two of us to get out and speak with each other. In private. With no one else listening to what we were talking about. And I wanted to chat with Dean out of the ear shot of the rest of District 13 and our families. And if there was anyone who might have known Cato better than me, it was Dean. The two of us could just... talk. Exchange stories. Bond over the one thing that we had lost and wanted so desperately to have back.

"You sure that's such a good idea?" Gale asked.

My eyebrow quirked. "Why would it be a bad idea?" I asked.

"Because of..." Gale started, eventually trailing off.

It was obvious enough where he was trying to go with the whole thing. "The District 2 bias that you can't seem to get over? Gale, relax," I said, rolling my eyes and downing some water. "Dean is a good guy. He's been a good friend to me for the past few weeks."

"He seems to be one of the nicer guys here that I've met," Gale admitted.

"See?" I asked, my voice adopting a sing-song note. "He's not that bad."

"Just..." Gale trailed off again.

He would never trust anyone from District 2. It was just in his nature. But I would try my damnedest to get Gale to tolerate Dean. "He doesn't blame me for what happened to Cato. He's not going to hurt me out there. And you know that I have a faster draw anyways," I said, rolling my eyes. "Knock it off, Gale."

"Leave her alone, Gale. I've been hanging around with Dean. He's nice," Katniss said.

"Thank you," I said.

"You should have one of us out there with you," Gale said.

Trying to lighten the mood slightly, I smiled and nudged Gale on the shoulder. "How about I take Seneca Crane out there with me?" I asked teasingly.

"Aspen," Gale warned.

Rolling my eyes, I nodded slowly. "Okay, fine. Sorry, I know it was a bad joke." Gale was still scowling at me. "Come on, Gale. Smile. Please?" I asked, poking softly at him.

"I'm working on it. I do miss my communicuff," Gale said, wistfully tapping his wrist.

"I'll work on getting it back for you, Soldier Gale Hawthorne," I teased.

"You sound pretentious as hell," Gale said.

Katniss and I both turned to him. I had never heard him use a word like before. "I thought that you slept through writing class?" I asked.

"That was you," Gale shot back.

We both laughed under our breath. "Right." I glanced up again and saw that some others were filling in the table just a few down from our own. "I'll be right back," I said.

"Okay," Gale said.

"Hurry up. We don't have much time," Katniss said.

They were right. I needed to be on time to make sure that Coin had no extra reason to say no to any of my demands. Being on time was very important to the people of District 13. In their own way, they reminded me very much of Effie. Someone that I was shocked to say that I missed. It would have been nice to see her again for just a moment. She had slowly been realizing just how awful everything to do with the Games were. She would have hated it here, but at least she would have been safe.

Slowly I got up from the table, dumping my food, and headed over to the table that had been reserved for the Hadley family and some of the District 2 refugees. There weren't many of them. Only five. They were the people hat the Hadley's had managed to bring with them, knowing how bad things would get in District 2 after the arena was destroyed. Most of the people from District 2 seemed to really hate it in District 13 and, in turn, really seemed to hate me. Not that I could have been surprised.

Taking in a deep breath, I placed myself a little closer to the Hadley's and away from the others. I had noticed that Skye and Julie were recently trying to help me appeal to them a little more. Three of the District 2 refugees immediately sprang up from the table and headed off. I placed myself sadly in between Dean and Alana. Two of the people who genuinely did seem to like me, as I technically was Dean's sister and Alana's daughter.

"Hi," I greeted, somewhat awkwardly.

"Hey. You making your demands?" Dean asked.

"Soon." I turned over my arm to show them. "Seven-thirty I go in to speak with them," I said.

"You ready?" Dean asked.

Snorting under my breath, I shook my head. "Sort of. I don't think that I'll ever really be ready," I admitted.

Being the Mockingjay was something terrifying. I could only hope that it would help. "Well you can make pretty much any demand that you want and they'll have to say yes," Carrie said.

It was reminiscent of what Prim had told me last night. "That's what I'm hoping for," I said.

"What are you asking for?" Skye asked curiously.

"I'm not a thousand percent sure. Immunity for Cato. That's one thing that I know that I'm going to ask for. Him and all of the other Victors," I said.

That was enough to get the entire family and the rest of the District 2 refugees to glance over at me. They were all clearly shocked that one of my demands would be to save the Victors. But that was the most important part. Saving them from the Capitol was one thing. Keeping them safe from trial after the end of the war would be something completely different. At least this would likely keep them from being killed even after the fighting would supposedly be over.

"That's wonderful," Damien said brightly.

It was the happiest that I had seen him probably ever. "My concern was that Cato might get in trouble for what he did. The rebels will definitely kill him if we win," I said, making the rest of the family cringe. "And the Capitol... I don't know what they'll do. So, to keep him safe, I'll have to get him a pardon."

"Will it work?" Alana asked.

"I'm not sure. But it's worth it to try," I said.

Hope... I just had to keep having some hope... "Do you know how to make it work?" Skye asked.

"I've got an idea. We'll see if it works out. It might be hard to get Coin to agree, but I think I can persuade her," I said slowly.

"That's a good idea," Julie said.

The family were all watching me closely, probably trying to gauge my reaction to the whole thing. "I'm also going to ask if Gale, Katniss, and I can go out hunting again," I said. That caught their attention. "Not far. Just a little bit. Just to get up above ground for a little while. It's suffocating under here."

"Sounds relaxing," Carrie admitted.

"It is. I miss the quiet, slow, hunters tread," I said.

"You miss the woods, then?" Julie asked.

"If there's one thing that I miss more than Cato, it's the woods. I really do miss them. A lot," I said. A moment later I spotted some of their gazes. "I mean, I can ask if any of you can come up with me. You don't have to, I just thought that -"

"No," Dean said, cutting me off. "It sounds like fun. Teach us how to hunt, huh?"

"If you want to learn," I said, smiling softly.

"I'd love that," Dean said.

Out of the corner of my eyes I noticed Skye and Julie exchange a look. "Can we come?" Skye asked.

One of my eyebrows quirked upwards. I hadn't thought that anyone in District 2 would even want to learn to hunt. "We never learned back in District 2. They teach you that you'll mostly be able to go with whatever you find at the Cornucopia and Sponsor packages," Julie explained. "It could be fun."

It definitely was fun. They would just have to lean to be patient. "You're more than welcome to come out with me. If I can get them to agree," I added as a last-minute thought.

"Awesome! I've always wanted to learn to use a bow and arrow," Skye said.

"You don't know how?" I asked.

"Vaguely. But they teach us that up-close is much more fun. Knives and swords," Skye explained. "I mean, I could probably hit the target."

"If it was still and standing ten feet away," Julie interrupted.

We all laughed at that one. "Well I suppose I'm a good teacher," I muttered.

"You're probably the best," Dean said.

"Thanks, Dean," I said.

"I don't think anyone's ever seen someone better with them," Damien admitted.

There were only two other people that might have been able to match me. "Well I'm pretty good, but so is Katniss. She would be a good teacher, too. Although I'm a better teacher. I'm stronger and I have better aim, but Katniss is faster. Gale is good, too, but I know that we're better," I explained.

"She might get a chance to be on that special team, too," Alana said.

"Special team?" I asked.

"It's a kind of special combat team that will be heading out to the Capitol once we unite the Districts. I'm not sure how close they're going to get to the action, but they'll be out there," Alana explained.

For a moment I feared for her safety, but she would never give up a chance to fight. "She would love that," I said honestly.

"Aspen?" Aidan called.

My gaze slowly turned over to him. "Yeah, Aidan?" I asked.

"Will you teach me? How to use the bow?" Aidan asked.

"I thought that you were a sword man?" I asked.

Cato had always told me that he liked swords, just like his older brothers. I hadn't thought that he would ever be a bowman. "They don't have swords here in District 13. But they do have some bows, I think. And I want to fight," Aidan explained.

Alana dropped her glass of water. "You're not old enough," she snapped.

Deciding to try and step in before things got too tense, I leaned in between them. "But if you want to come out with me one day, I'd be more than happy to teach you how to hunt. I think that you might like it," I offered.

"Was Cato good?" Aidan asked.

"He walked loudly but he had good aim," I explained, remembering hearing the leaves and twigs crunching underneath his feet. Not enough to disturb a Tribute, but definitely enough to disturb animals. "I could teach you? I think that you might be good at it. You're young enough that you can still learn the slow and soft hunters walk."

The smile that turned up on Aidan's face was one that I had never seen before. "I would love that. Thanks!" Aidan chirped.

Maybe there was a chance that the two of us could be friends one day. "Not a problem." I smiled and glanced up at the clocks. I just had a few more minutes. "I should go. Prepare for whatever I want to say," I muttered.

"Good luck, sweetheart. Let us know how it goes," Alana said, brushing the hair off of my forehead.

"Of course."

But the moment that I stood up, I realized that the two remaining District 2 refugees were watching me closely. Two boys whom I had never spoken to. My feet failed me as I plopped back into the chair. Say something, Aspen. But my words - like my legs - kept failing me. I had never been known to have the best public speaking talents. Nope. That was definitely something that Cato had. He was better at me than almost anything. And judging by the looks the two boys were giving me, they felt the same.

"Hey... I'm Aspen," I finally managed to get out.

Who the hell would they think that you were? Idiot. "We know," one of the boys said.
"There's not a person in here who doesn't know who you are," the second boy said.

"That's true, I suppose," I muttered dumbly. "You're friends of Cato's?"

That was no more intelligent. "Yes. Old friends from the neighborhood and the Academy. I'm Felix," the first boy introduced himself.

"Marcus," the second said.

They looked like just about every other District 2 citizen that I had ever seen before. Most of them seemed to have the whole blonde hair and blue eye thing going on. There were very few who didn't. They almost reminded me of the merchant sector. Felix and Marcus both had blonde hair and blue eyes. It if weren't for the fact that Felix was much paler than Marcus, I would have thought that they were brothers. They were both tall and muscular. Just like Cato. Academy trainees, I assumed.

"It's nice to meet you both. You got out of District 2?" I asked awkwardly.

The last thing that I needed was to make them hate me even more. "We were around when the martial law started. We were some of the few people who believed that the Capitol could change. We started helping Cato train again when the Quarter Quell was announced," Marcus explained.

A bitter smile appeared on my face. I had known that he was training for the Quell. "So you're here for the war?" I asked.

I hadn't thought that anyone from District 2 would want to put an end to the Games. "Yes. We're here because we know that things can be different," Felix said.

That was when it clicked. "You lost someone to the Games. Both of you," I said softly.

Some part of me had thought that I might have offended them. But they didn't seem bothered. "Of course. Almost everyone in District 2 has lost someone to the Games," Felix explained. I nodded blankly. Of course. They all trained together. Everyone would know those who died. "I lost my sister."

My stomach churned in knots. Prim and Katniss had almost known that feeling. "I'm sorry. How long?" I asked quietly.

"Four years ago," Felix said.

That would have been the Seventy-First Hunger Games. My stomach churned in knots again. I knew those Games well. I might have only been sixteen, but I wouldn't soon forget them. That was the year that Johanna Mason had won. She had played weak the entire time, only to come out as a vicious fighter. She had slaughtered the remaining Career Tributes, who had been caught completely off-guard. Felix's sister had been one of them.

"Well... if it makes you feel any better, I'm not overly fond of Johanna either," I said.

To my surprise, it was enough to earn a laugh from Felix. "I respected her strategy. She was a good fighter and clearly very smart. She earned her title. But that doesn't make her easier to stomach," Felix said.

"I have a feeling that a lot of people feel that way about me," I said.

"They do," Marcus said. My jaws set but I nodded anyways. "I lost my cousin. Three years ago."

So the Seventy-Second Hunger Games. The next year. I didn't remember much about them. We had been starving at the time as the Peacekeepers were all in District 12, cutting off our trips into the woods. So we had mostly slept through the Games until it was time for them to end and we would be allowed back into the woods. I remembered that it was in a hot, drought-plagued forest. Just like the Quell, water was scarce. Trees would catch fire from the heat, which threatened to set the entire arena on fire.

Dangerous wild animals prowled through the bushes, and mosquitoes provided infection and disease. Poisonous mutts, like frogs and snakes, were also introduced to endanger lives. Once the competition dwindled down to the final Tributes, the Gamemakers created a deadly hurricane which caused flooding, broken trees and mudslides, including the one which buried all of the remaining Tributes underneath it. I remembered watching the whole thing very uncomfortably, not enjoying the thought of suffocation.

Only the last two Tributes managed to dig themselves out before suffocation set in, and the hurricane ended when a Victor emerged from the resulting fight. If I remembered correctly, it was the girl from District 1. And that was just barely. She had just barely managed to kill the boy from District 5. Marcus's cousin was killed during one of the mudslides. I didn't want to say it, as he likely knew and it would have been cruel to say, but suffocation was a very painful way to go.

"For both of you. I'm genuinely sorry. I can honestly say that I know exactly how it feels to lose someone to the Games," I said softly.

Felix and Marcus nodded. "We know. That's why so many people sided with you in District 2." I raised a brow. People had sided with me in District 2. "Because we all knew exactly how it felt to lose someone. We were some of the few people that never laughed at Cato for falling in love with you," Felix admitted.

"We're here to help. And now that Cato is alive..." Marcus trailed off.

"You're willing to help even more," I filled in the blanks.

"Yes," Marcus confirmed.

Perhaps they were the only others of Cato's friends who might end up liking me. "Well I'm making my demands now. One of them is for Coin to stand up in front of District 13 and announce that Cato and the other Victors will be granted immunity. They're doing what they can to stay alive. There's nothing wrong with that," I said determinedly.

The entire family smiled. Even Felix and Marcus looked vaguely pleased. "He's protecting you, you know," Felix finally said.

"I know. It's what we do," I whispered.

We would always protect each other. "It's a good way to be. More than just love," Felix said.

"Thank you for everything that you've done for him," Marcus said.

The boys must have been either nineteen or twenty but they seemed to have aged years just in front of me. As I looked at them, I scowled slightly. There was nothing good that I had done for Cato. Everything that I had done had ended up hurting him. Falling in love with him had managed to hurt him more than anything else ever would. My voice lumped in my throat as I stared at the two men in front of me. I hadn't done anything good for him. Only provide some good company over the last year.

"The only thing that I've done is land him in the Capitol and get..." I started.

But my voice suddenly died in my throat. Because there was no way that I could say what I had been about to say. Because I was about to say that I had also successfully managed to get Leah killed. But there was no way that I could have said something like that. Not with Cato's family only sitting a few feet from me and listening in on my conversation. That wasn't something that I could do to them. But Alana and Carrie leaned forward, grabbing my hands and smiling weakly at me. They knew what I was thinking.

"You've done so much for him, Aspen. And he would do everything over again to keep you safe," Alana promised.

"I know. I hate that he does that," I muttered.

Alana smiled and ran her thumb over my finger. The finger that had my wedding ring on it. When I first got to Thirteen they tried to take it. Melt it down into a weapon or a bullet or something of the likes. But I fought back against them to keep it. It had taken Gale and Katniss to come into the room and fight back against the doctors to let me keep it. A whole meeting had been called to decide whether or not I would get to keep it. Many profanity-laced minutes later, Katniss had gotten them to let me keep it.

"I've always been proud of my son. From the day that he was born. The day that he went into the Games. I wasn't happy that he went but I was so proud that he was doing something worthwhile. I knew how much he loved the Games. But I was never as proud as I was the moment that I knew he had fallen in love," Alana said.

My head was spinning. It was almost sweet to hear. The day that she had been the proudest of her son was the day that she had known that he had fallen in love. With me, of course. There must have been something, some moment, that had been the only time that she had thought that he had fallen in love. He had mentioned before that he had brought girls around, but they were always gone soon enough. There must have been something different that she had seen in me.

"When was that?" I asked Alana. "If you don't mind me asking."

Alana smiled weakly. "I knew from the moment that I heard about the two of you chatting back and forth in training," Alana said.

Just because the two of us were chatting back and forth? "Did you?" I asked curiously.

"I knew that Cato wasn't fool enough to just speak with anyone. Flirtatiously or not. That was the way that the news channels were saying that you two were talking," Alana explained. I laughed under my breath. It had been sort of flirtatiously. "I knew that if he was speaking to you, you had caught his eye."

"Yeah... He admitted that he liked me even back then," I said.

"But I knew that he was in love with you when you were in the cave and he was helping you recover," Alana continued.

"The fire or the wolf?" I asked.

"The wolf." That surprised me. I hadn't even known my true feelings for him up until we were in the cave after the fire. "That look that he gave you when he saw how bad the injuries were. When the two of you were talking. About your birthday and the other things. But it was when you asked him to stay until the end. He agreed and you told him that he was nothing like you were expecting. That was when I knew that he was in love with you," Alana continued.

My heart was fluttering slightly. "I had a feeling right then, too. That was when I started to fall in love with him," I muttered.

"Am I still not what you expected?" Cato asked.

"Will you stay with me? Until the end?" I asked softly.

Cato looked shocked. "Of course," he muttered.

"Then you're still nothing like I expected you to be," I said softly, placing my hand against his cheek.

That day was as clear as ever. Despite the heavy infection and near-deadly repercussions, I still remembered every bit of it. I remembered looking him straight in the eyes after it. I remembered seeing that my words had triggered something in him. His face had hardened. It was the first time that I realized what he genuinely meant to me. Far more than just the person who was there to entertain me while I was bored during the Games.

"I'm not happy about what happened to my son, but I will always be happy that he found someone who genuinely loves him," Alana said, smiling at me.

"I'm going to get him back and I'll make sure that nothing happens to him," I promised.

"We thank you for that, Aspen," Damien said.

"It's my pleasure. Honestly," I said.

There was nothing that would have made me happier. "Can you get us into weapons training?" Felix asked suddenly, motioning between himself and Marcus.

"Excuse me?" I asked dumbly.

"We want to fight. Everyone here wants to fight. The Capitol has gotten away with so much. It took you, Aspen... It took you to show us how horrible these Games are," Felix said. I smiled weakly. At least I had shown people what a nightmare the Games really were. "Now we're ready to fight. We just need to convince Thirteen that we are."

"I'll put it on the list," I said, smiling softly.

"Thank you," Marcus said.

"Of course. I'll see you all in a little while," I said.

They would have to be the first people that I would speak to once everything was done with. They needed to know what was happening. They needed to know that I was going to save Cato. As I got up from my seat, I quickly said goodbye to everyone. Skye and Julie both gave me hugs, making me promise that I would try as hard as I could to get them into the fighting. And I had promised Dean and Aidan that I would do everything possible to get them to come hunting with me.

Felix and Marcus had given me quick hugs so that I could promise them that I would do everything possible to get them into weapons training. Damien had given me a hug and Alana a kiss on the cheek as I promised them that I would not leave until Cato was given immunity. Marley chirped a happy goodbye as I finally departed from the table, heading back over to my own. Katniss and Gale had been watching me closely the entire time.

"They okay?" Gale asked as I dropped back down into my seat.

"They're going to be fine," I said.

"Did you tell them?" Katniss asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Tell them what?" Gale asked.

The entire time I had been so determined to not say anything about what I was planning to Gale. Mostly because I didn't know how he would react. Because I knew, no matter what, he didn't really want Cato to be allowed out scot-free. But I didn't care. I had to save him. Should I at least have given him a heads up? Before I could decide whether or not to tell him, a bell signaled the end of our eating shift. The thought of facing Coin - and likely Plutarch - alone made me nervous.

"What are you two scheduled for?" I asked.

Gale checked his arm. "Nuclear History class."

Katniss checked her own. "Me, too."

"Where, by the way, your absence has been noted," Gale continued.

Despite the fact that we were over fourteen - which was when everyone finished schooling and started training for battle - we were newcomers to Thirteen. And that meant that we were being acclimated with some of the younger children. That meant classes. And right now classes with paper and pencil were the only ones that I could handle. My body's state of weakness after the Games and 'miscarriage' were keeping me out of any type of weapons or combat training.

Not that I had ever been ready enough to start working at any weapons. Until very recently I hadn't even wanted to get out of bed. I had supposedly been in classes since a week after first arriving in District 13, but I had refused to go. And for a long time they hadn't pushed me. They had left me alone. But recently I was supposed to be back in classes and getting prepared for the fight. But I had kept ignoring the schedule and refused to go to classes. They apparently weren't very happy with me.

"I have to go to Command. Come with me?" I asked.

"Both of us?" Katniss asked.

I rolled my eyes. "No. Buttercup." Katniss gave me a sharp glare. "Yes, both of you, idiot," I snapped.

"That was uncalled for," Katniss said.

"Come on," I barked.

"All right. But they might throw me out after yesterday," Gale said.

"Don't worry about it. I've got a way to keep you in there," I said.

My leverage as Mockingjay would likely go a long way with getting what I wanted. As we went to drop off our trays, Gale said, "You know, you better put Buttercup on your list of demands, too. I don't think the concept of useless pets is well known here."

"Oh, they'll find him a job. Tattoo it on his paw every morning," I said.

"Hopefully they cook him in the oatmeal next," Katniss growled.

"Oh, come on. Prim loves him," I argued.

"Prim loves everything," Katniss said.

"I'm putting him on the list, Cat," I barked.

In all honesty, I really didn't want to keep Buttercup. He had been a little nicer to me lately. I had a feeling that he felt bad for everything that had happened to me. He must have known. It was the only thing that I could think. But that didn't mean that I liked him. He was still ugly and a jerk. But... like I had said, Prim loved him. She had likely already lost Lady. I couldn't make her lose Buttercup, too. So I made a mental note to include him for Prim's sake.

By the time we got to Command, Coin, Plutarch, and all of their people had already assembled. I was right about Plutarch being there. I was immediately sickened. Someone must have let them know that I wanted to speak today. They were all staring at me in a way that they hadn't in a long time. Maybe I just looked different today. It didn't matter. They were going to agree to what I wanted or else this war would be over before it really got a chance to get started.

The sight of Gale and Katniss raised some eyebrows, but no one threw them out. I had a feeling that it was because they were trying to tiptoe around my feelings. They just wanted to make sure that I was going to manage myself here and not go back on whatever I was about to do. My mental notes had become too jumbled, from everything and everyone's promises, so I asked for a piece of paper and a pencil right off. More than I had ever asked before. More than I had spoken before my first meeting with Coin.

My apparent interest in the proceedings - the first that I had shown since I had been here - took them by surprise. Several looks were exchanged. Probably they had some extra-special lecture planned for me. Just as they usually were. Sometimes tense and serious, other times they were a little lighter and tried to play at my heartstrings. But instead, Coin personally handed me the supplies, and everyone waited in a tense silence while I sat at the table and scrawled out my list.

Buttercup. Hunting. Cato's immunity. Announced in public. This was it. Probably my only chance to bargain. It would definitely be my only time to bargain. I would have to spit out everything that I wanted now. Think. What else do you want? I felt him, standing at my shoulder. Gale, I added to the list. Katniss, a moment later. I didn't think that I could do it without them. Then I added Felix and Marcus for training. Skye, Julie, and Dean to be allowed to leave and go hunting with me.

There had to be something else that I was missing. I started to wrack through my brain and memories to think of what I wanted. No more Games? Duh. That much was obvious if we won. Blow the Capitol to smithereens? No. There were some good and clueless people there. That wasn't fair to them. Give the Districts more food and freedom? Another obvious one. The headache started to come on and my thoughts began to tangle. I shut my eyes and started to recite my list silently.

My name is Aspen Antaeus. I am twenty years old. My home is District 12. President Snow ordered my home to be destroyed after I did something very stupid. I was in the Hunger Games. Twice. I escaped. The Capitol hates me. Cato was taken prisoner. He is alive. He is a traitor but alive. I have to keep him alive... It is and always will be my dream.

My breathing slowed and the pounding dialed back. I stared back down at the list. It still seemed too small. I should have tried to think bigger, beyond our current situation where I was of the utmost importance, to the future where I might have been worth nothing. Shouldn't I have been asking for more? For my family? For the remainder of my people? They were already safe. Those who were here would already be safe. They would rebuild District 12 after the war. No need for me to write that.

So, what? What else did I want so badly? What else could I ask for? My skin itched with the ashes of the dead. All of those people whom I had lost over the years. I felt the sickening impact of the skull against my shoe. The feeling of my heart breaking at the sight of all of those people. Dead and burned and suffocated. Desperately trying to escape. Peeta's dead family. The scent of blood and roses stung my nose. The pencil moved across the page on its own. I opened my eyes and saw the wobbly letters.

I KILL SNOW.

Was it genuinely something that they could give me? I wasn't sure. It definitely wouldn't have been an easy request. If there was any request that I could have made that was even more severe than the one about letting Cato go unharmed, it was this one. No one could see my paper. If they had, I was sure that an argument would have already been set off. But I didn't care. For Mom, Dad, Rue, Peeta, Thresh, Finch, the Mellark's, Mr. Everdeen, Cinna, Mags, Wiress... If he was captured, I wanted the privilege.

Plutarch gave a discreet cough. "About done there?"

His voice startled me. I had been so busy thinking about all of the dead people from President Snow that I had almost forgotten that I was supposed to be requesting something. I let out a deep breath and nodded. I was done. Those were the only things that I could think that I wanted to do. I glanced up and noticed the clock. I had been sitting here, in silence, for almost twenty minutes. Finnick wasn't the only one with attention problems.

"Yeah," I said. My voice sounded hoarse, so I cleared my throat. "Nothing else today. There's only one thing that I need from you today."

"And that is?" Plutarch asked.

"This is not your meeting," Coin interrupted quickly.

"Well I'm commandeering it. I need to speak with you," I said darkly.

"Let the girl speak," Plutarch said.

Clearly he sensed where this was going. I nodded gratefully and looked around the room. Everyone was watching me with interest. It was the first and only time that I had been even moderately interested in what was going on. Slowly and with deliberate movements, I managed to get to my feet and stand at the head of the table. Directly across from Coin and Plutarch. I tried to muster up the most serious face that I could.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Yeah, so this is the deal. I'll be your Mockingjay," I said.

That delivered the exact response that I was expecting. I paused so that I could wait for them to make their sounds of relief, congratulate, and slap one another on the back. That was exactly what they were doing. I noticed that Brutus and Seneca were grinning at each other. Seneca looked very proud of me. Brutus was giving me the good old 'I-told-you-so' look. Coin stayed as impassive as ever, watching me, unimpressed with my announcement.

"But I have some conditions." Now everyone looked very curious. Seneca was grinning. Brutus rolled his eyes. I smoothed out the list and began. "My family gets to keep our cat," I said determinedly.

For a moment there was silence. No one quite understood what I was saying. Most people didn't even know that we had a cat hiding out in our room. I realized too late that I probably shouldn't have just been quiet and waited for the war to be over. That was stupid of me. But I figured that maybe they would just get over it. I didn't think that it would be that big of a deal, being my easiest request. It turned out that they didn't. Brutus's barking laughter was enough to bring everyone back to their senses.

My tiniest request set off an argument. The Capitol rebels saw it as a nonissue - of course, I could keep my pet – while those from Thirteen spelled out what extreme difficulties that presented. Finally it was worked out that we would be moved to the top level, which had the luxury of an eight-inch window above ground. Buttercup may come and go to do his business. He was expected to feed himself. If he missed curfew, he would be locked out. If he caused any security problems, he would be shot immediately.

That sounded okay to me. It wasn't the best deal that we could have been given, but at least they weren't going to demand that he be killed or that he be brought back to District 12. Prim would be happy enough. Besides, it wasn't so different from how he had been living since we had left District 12. Except for the shooting part. That would be the real danger. If he looked too thin, I could slip him a few entrails, provided my next request was allowed.

"I want to hunt. With Gale. And Katniss. Out in the woods," I said.

My words were much less confident that time around. I was stumbling over myself as I tried to speak. Nothing sounded very good. I sounded very tense about the entire thing. Probably because I was. For whatever reason, that request was one of the ones that made me more nervous. And it was for no reason. I really couldn't have argued if they were going to say no. It wasn't a life or death situation. But my second request gave everyone pause.

"We won't go far. We'll use our own bows. You can have the meat for the kitchen," Gale added.

They looked like they were thinking about it. I hurried on before they could say no. "It's just... I can't breathe shut up here like a... I would get better, faster, if... I could hunt," I explained dumbly.

Why was it that they wanted me as the Mockingjay? I couldn't speak well in public. I could barely speak well in private. If they wanted me to rally the Districts, it had better be from actions. There was no way that I could do something like giving speeches. I would have to be out there fighting. This would be a good way to brush up on my shooting skills. Plutarch began to explain the drawbacks to my request - the dangers, the extra security, the risk of injury - but Coin cut him off.

"No. Let them. Give them two hours a day, deducted from their training time. A quarter-mile radius. With communication units and tracker anklets. What's next?" Coin asked.

For a moment I was flabbergasted. I hadn't thought that she would be on my side. If nothing, I had really been expecting her to think that it wouldn't be a good idea. And it likely wouldn't. The Capitol would bomb the three of us into smithereens within seconds if they spotted us out in the woods. Maybe they didn't come out here. Thirteen was likely monitoring the sky for Capitol hovercrafts and they would be keeping an eye on us. Good enough for me. I skimmed my list again.

"I want Dean, Julie, and Skye to be able to come out, too. They want to learn and I want the three of them to come out there with me," I continued.

"Only two at a time," Coin said.

"What?" I asked.

"Only two people out with you at a time," Coin clarified.

There wasn't much more than I could ask for than that. At least they were letting us out. "Alright," I conceded.

"What else?" Plutarch asked.

Scanning down my list again, I found what else I wanted. "Allow Felix and Marcus to start weapons training. They want to fight. They're of age. It's time to trust them," I said.

"They can start with one hour a day. Next," Coin said.

Obviously she knew that something bigger was coming. These were small and relatively simple requests. "Gale. I'll need him with me to do this," I said.

"With you how? Off camera? By your side at all times? Do you want him presented as your new lover?" Coin asked.

There was no laughter in the room. Everyone was staring in between the two of us. None of them could say anything. There was nothing to say. No one, except for me. Gale managed to keep a steady look on his face. But my gaze wasn't on him. It was on Coin. She hadn't said that with any particular malice - quite the contrary, her words were very matter-of-fact. But my mouth still dropped open in shock. I couldn't believe that she had said that. That someone else had noticed our bond just by watching.

"Excuse you?" I hissed.

But there wasn't that much malice in my words. Because I was still floored from her words. "I think we should continue the current romance. A quick defection from Cato could cause the audience to lose sympathy for her. Especially since they think she's pregnant with his child," Plutarch said.

They were so determined that the whole thing really had been for the cameras. I was still wordless. "Agreed. So, on-screen, Gale can simply be portrayed as a fellow rebel. Is that all right?" Coin asked. I just stared at her. She repeated herself impatiently. "For Gale. Will that be sufficient?"

"We can always work him in as your cousin," Fulvia said.

"We're not cousins," Gale and I said together.

"Right, but we should probably keep that up for appearances' sake on camera. Off camera, he's all yours. Anything else?" Plutarch asked.

But I couldn't believe them. As per usual, my anger was going to get the better of me. "How dare you. All of you," I growled, momentarily forgetting about the task at hand.

"Pardon?" Coin asked.

My jaws were set together angrily. I couldn't believe that they had said something like that. I couldn't believe that people thought so lowly of me. To think that my husband, who I was so obviously so desperately in love with, would just be forgotten to Gale within moments? Absolutely not. I adored Gale, that much was true, but I wouldn't have just forgotten about Cato. Not now and likely not ever. They really must not have understood love. Or maybe they thought that they understood it too well.

"To think so easily that I would just cast Cato off? Gale is my best friend and has been my hunting partner for years. You honestly think that I would sell Cato out like that?" I asked nastily.

"I don't think that I really care what yours and Cato's relationship is. You're free to do whatever you would like behind closed doors," Coin said, not particularly unkindly.

But that didn't stop her words from bothering me. "It's nice to know how highly you think of the Mockingjay," I growled.

"I seem to recall that you saying that no one decent ever wins the Games," Coin said, still not unkindly.

My hands were shaking as a thin line of sweat broke out on my forehead. "Continue, Aspen. Please. This conversation is one to be had in private, between those involved. We are not involved," Seneca said, obviously sensing my discomfort.

Sending him a quick and grateful nod, I tried to focus back on the task at hand. But it wasn't easy. In fact, I was rattled by the turn in the conversation. The implications that I could so readily dispose of Cato, that I was in love with Gale, that the whole thing had been an act. My cheeks began to burn. The very notion that I was devoting any thought to who I wanted presented as my lover, given our current circumstances, was demeaning. How could they even be thinking about something like that?

Who even cared about who my lover was right now? The only thing that mattered was that I was planning on becoming the Mockingjay. I was going to be the Mockingjay and work at ending the war. And, in the meantime, in my private time, I could think about Cato. He hadn't been wiped out of my mind. Far from it. From the moment that I had met him, he had always been on my mind, one way or another. Gale, too. But there was something so much bigger than the three of us and our romance right now.

So I let my anger propel me into my greatest demand. "When the war is over, if we've won, Cato will be pardoned," I demanded.

Now that time there was no argument. In fact, there was only dead silence. Katniss, Brutus, and Seneca were smirking. Obviously they were all going to tell me that it was the right thing to do. But they didn't speak. Not yet. I had to let everyone process it first. On my other side, I felt Gale's body tense. I guessed that I really should have told him before, but I wasn't sure how he would respond. Not when it involved Cato. I had a bad feeling that our tense friendship was about to make its return.

"No form of punishment will be inflicted," I continued suddenly. A new thought occurred to me. "The same goes for the other captured Tributes, Johanna and Enobaria."

My voice faltered slightly when I said Enobaria's name. It was a bad idea. It made my argument a tiny bit weaker. Because everyone knew that Enobaria and I had some bad blood between us. Frankly, I really didn't care about Enobaria, the vicious District 2 Tribute. In fact, I disliked her, hated her even, but it seemed wrong to leave her out. Plus there was the issue that she was Brutus's friend - who had helped me - and she had originally helped Cato in the first Games. It was only fair.

"Annie, too," I added suddenly, a little softer that time.

"No," Coin said flatly.

"Enobaria tried to kill you," Plutarch said.

And I'm better than her. But I didn't dare say that out loud. "Doesn't mean I'll let someone kill her. They all get immunity," I said sharply.

"No," Coin repeated.

"Yes," I shot back. "It's not their fault you abandoned them in the arena. Who knows what the Capitol's doing to them? They’re doing and saying whatever they can to survive."

"Individuals don’t make demands in Thirteen. They'll be tried with other war criminals and treated as the tribunal sees fit. Thank you," Coin said.

"They'll be granted immunity!" I felt myself taking a step forward, wanting to slam Coin's head against the table, my voice full and resonant. "You will personally pledge this in front of the entire population of District Thirteen and the remainder of Twelve. Soon. Today. It will be recorded for future generations. You will hold yourself and your government responsible for their safety, or you'll find yourself another Mockingjay!"

My words were so loud that no one even dared to move. They hadn't heard me like this before. Not in person. The only time that they might have heard anything like that was on camera. I noticed that Seneca and Brutus were giving me slow nods. Plutarch gave me the same look that he had during my private training session. The others were staring blankly, looking in between being impressed and unnerved. My words hung in the air for a long moment. I sensed that no one was going to speak, so I continued.

"And you can't afford that. Because if you could have found another Mockingjay you would have done so by now. Obviously you need me. No immunity for the Victors, no Mockingjay," I said brashly, quieter, but with a deadly bite to my words.

"That's her!" I heard Fulvia hiss to Plutarch.

Plutarch turned to look at Coin. "Isn't that who I promised you?" Plutarch asked her, pointing to me.

"Right there. With the costume, gunfire in the background, just a hint of smoke," Fulvia continued.

"Yes, that's what we want," Plutarch said under his breath.

They were all chattering away so that they could talk about me but they weren't even considering that I was standing right here. It was something that had become very familiar to me. They were talking about me making stupid videos. Not being a real fighter. The one thing I might have been good at. I wanted to glare at them, but I felt that it would be a mistake to turn my attention from Coin. I could see her tallying the cost of my ultimatum, weighing it against my possible worth.

"What do you say, President? You could issue an official pardon, given the circumstances. The boy..." Plutarch trailed off.

"He's of age. They both are," Coin said sharply.

We were. That was the problem. We were adults, responsible for our own actions. That was the problem. If it had been Katniss, or someone of the likes, they would have been able to get out of it. Because she was just a kid. She could have been given a way out of it. But I was an adult. So was Cato. That was the big problem. What were we supposed to do? We couldn't play the clueless little kids right now. Not the way that we had done after the knives in the first Games.

"Honestly? Who cares?" Seneca asked, stepping forward. "They're barely of age. Just two years. Hardly that. You know that you can play it many ways. Cato Hadley is attempting to protect his wife in any way that he can. Easy enough. He's trying to protect her and their unborn baby. Aspen lost her parents before she can even remember them. They're under stress and sickly. From the Games. From their own minds. Cato's sister is dead. It's easy enough to play it off."

I gave him a grateful nod. He really was on my side here. "And the people do love him. If there's anyone who can sway District 2 to join the fight, it's him. Or Aspen, if we can eventually get out a message," Plutarch said.

The room was silent for a long time as everyone tried to process what I was saying. I wanted Cato to be free of any punishment. I knew that it wasn't the real problem here. The real problem was that I was essentially threatening and forcing Coin's hand. I had been around President Snow long enough to understand that it was a problem. Coin didn't want to have to bend to any demands. But it didn't matter. She was going to bend to mine. It was important. And she needed me to be the Mockingjay.

This whole thing must have been annoying for her. Having a barely twenty-year-old girl sitting and demanding that she let her husband off the hook for nearly sabotaging the war efforts. But I knew that he didn't mean that. He was only saying what he was saying to keep himself alive. And to keep me alive. Playing me off as the deranged and nervous pregnant girl. Easy enough. Now I just needed her to agree. It took a while, but everyone eventually started nodding their consent. It left only Coin to say yes.

She was glaring at me and I was glaring back at her. "All right," Coin finally said. "But you'd better perform."

"I'll perform when you've made the announcement," I countered.

The two of us were glaring at each other again. Obviously neither one of us liked or trusted the other one very much. But we weren't fools, no matter what anyone else thought. We both knew the truth. Neither one of us could get what we wanted without the other. So we would have to play friends. I would have to be the Mockingjay to end her war. She would have to allow Cato and the others to walk free to get me to be the Mockingjay.

"We need to move and quickly. Things have become stressed since the interview was released," Seneca said, trying to distract from the tense air around the table.

"Madam President, we're losing ground because the people are losing heart. This is worth the risk. She's worth the risk. Pardons, tribunals, power of the people, it can all be the bedrock of the new Panem. But in wartime I think even the noblest of causes can be bent a little bit. Right?" Plutarch asked.

It turned out that Plutarch was right about one thing. We had to start working together to make our new Panem. We couldn't just fall back on the way that we once were. The way that we were right now. We had to start getting along with each other. We had to have some leniency with each other. With people trying to save the ones that we loved. He was right that we had to bend this cause. To get everyone to work together. It would help to have Cato here.

"Call a national security assembly during Reflection today. I'll make the announcement then," Coin finally ordered. I had to push back a grin. "Is there anything left on your list, Aspen?"

Yes. And it's the one thing that I know for a fact that you aren't going to give me. Obviously this was one thing that she wasn't going to give me. But I couldn't just not try. I wanted to be the one person who was going to get to slaughter Snow. I had to at least try. So I let out a deep breath and came to stand a few inches closer to Coin. They were all watching me curiously. My paper was crumpled into a ball in my right fist. I flattened the sheet against the table and read the rickety letters.

"Just one more thing. I kill Snow," I said.

My voice was hard and devoid of emotion as I remembered every conversation that I had been in with the President. The dance before the first Games, at my home in Victor's Village, during the Victory Tour, and at my wedding. Each of those moments, Snow had threatened me. None of them had been particularly nice moments. We had never had a nice conversation. But I had promised him that he wouldn't like the game that I played. And I was right. For the first time ever, I saw the hint of a smile on Coin's lips.

"Right now there are Peacekeepers surrounding you." I began to look around but Snow only laughed. "Don't bother looking for them. You won't see them. They've all had their guns on you. This entire night. Fingers on the trigger. They were waiting on my command to shoot. I haven't decided if I'll give the signal or not. That all depends on you."

"On me?" I asked.

"Yes. If you're willing to play by the rules. Are you?" Snow asked.

Was I willing to play by the rules? Had I ever really been willing to play by the rules? That hadn't been in my nature before. But people could change. So was I willing to play by the rules?

Yes. But this time we're playing by my rules.

"When the time comes, I'll flip you for it," Coin said.

Now it was my turn to smile. The corners of my lips turned upwards. I still didn't love Coin. I doubted that I would ever love her or even get along with her. But right now I felt that I might understand her. She might have had as much of a claim on Snow's life as I did. Maybe even more. And maybe, to be fair, she was right. I certainly didn't have the sole claim against Snow's life. There were a number of people who had a claim on his life. And I was reasonably sure that I could count on her getting the job done.

"Fair enough," I finally said.

As much as I would have loved to be the one to plunge a knife through his stomach or put an arrow through his eyes, I knew that I might have to get over it and just play the role that I was assigned. To be the Mockingjay. To get the chance to fight and end the Hunger Games and the Capitol's reign once and for all should have been good enough for me. In some ways it was. Coin's eyes had flickered to her arm, the clock that she was wearing. She, too, had a schedule to adhere to. Busier than anyone else's.

"I'll leave her in your hands, then, Plutarch," Coin said.

For a while she looked back to stare at me. I gave her a long look. Neither one of us trusted the other, but we were going to have to learn to work together. We gave each other a short nod. She exited the room, followed by her team, and I finally let out a deep breath that I had been holding. I had thought that she would say no to at least one of my requests but she had said yes to them all. Now came making the Mockingjay work. Now we were left with only Plutarch, Fulvia, Katniss, Gale, and myself.

"Excellent. Excellent," Plutarch said, sinking down in the chair, elbows on the table, rubbing his eyes. "You know what I miss? More than anything? Coffee."

"Well you can get it once we win," I grumbled.

"I hear that you like coffee, too," Plutarch said.

"Yeah. I do," I muttered.

The gazes that I got from Katniss and Gale reminded me that they didn't know much about the way that I was in the Capitol. They sometimes forgot that I had gotten used to life there. Being rich. It had always fascinated them but they hadn't wanted to think about it. They rarely drank the coffee. It was too bitter for them. They both liked tea. But I liked the taste. And Cato, only Cato, knew that I took it without any of the fancy Capitol fixings; sugar, cream, or any flavor. Just black.

"I ask you, would it be so unthinkable to have something to wash down the gruel and turnips?" Plutarch grumbled.

Gale and Katniss exchanged a repulsed look. "To be fair, the turnips and rest of the food is pretty gross," I mumbled.

"It's better than starving," Gale snarled.

"Remember, they're from the Capitol. They're not used to eating like this. Hardly any food and the food that you do have is just for keeping you alive. Not tasting good," I said.

"Are you defending them?" Gale asked.

"To be fair, they got me out of the arena alive," I said.

"We didn't think it would be quite so rigid here," Fulvia explained - speaking before Gale could continue barking about the Capitol rebels - to us as she massages Plutarch's shoulders. "Not in the higher ranks."

Suddenly even I felt the need to defend District 13. "They barely have anything. They can't use the land. They can only use what they have underground. Everything that they can grow underground, which isn't much. This isn't the Capitol. This place is even nicer than District 12 was," I said.

"That's pathetic," Fulvia said.

"That's what happens when you're not from the Capitol," I said.

It was just like the way that Coin would speak to me. It wasn't particularly unkind. It was just the way that she was speaking. It was just the way that she was raised. The way that we all spoke to each other; a little guarded, sometimes tense, and never completely trusting. It was what had come from being separated for all of these years by the Capitol. It was hard for us to be together like this all at once, trying to fight on the same side. The Hunger Games had done that much to us.

"Or at least there'd be the option of a little side action. I mean, even Twelve had a black market, right?" Plutarch asked, distracting me from my thoughts.

"Yeah, the Hob. It's where we traded," Gale explained.

"There, you see?" Plutarch said. "And look how moral you three are! Virtually incorruptible." Plutarch sighed as Katniss, Gale, and I exchanged another look. Moral? Incorruptible? My how very far from the truth that was. "Oh, well, wars don't last forever. So, glad to have you on the team."

Obviously that comment was directed at me. Gale and Katniss had already been on the team. They were just some of the few people who they had all been trying to get join me. But I had pretty much been refusing up until right now. I watched as Plutarch reached a hand out to the side, where Fulvia was already extending a large sketchbook bound in black leather. I raised a brow. I had a feeling that I had seen it before. It looked vaguely familiar.

"You know in general what we're asking of you, Aspen. I'm aware you have mixed feelings about participating. I hope this will help," Plutarch said.

A moment later Plutarch slid the sketchbook across to me. Now I was sure that I had seen it before. Was it something that Snow had sent for me? Something that could kill me? It's just a notebook, damn it. Don't be such a baby. Maybe I was a little more on edge than I had thought that I was. For a moment, I looked at it suspiciously. Plutarch and Fulvia were waiting patiently. I almost refused to look. Then curiosity got the better of me. Plus Katniss and Gale didn't look too concerned about it.

So I opened the cover to find a picture of myself, standing straight and strong, in a black uniform. My hand shot over my mouth. I was now glad that I had opened the notebook. Only one person could have designed the outfit, at first glance utterly utilitarian, at second a work of art. The swoop of the helmet, the curve to the breastplate, the slight fullness of the sleeves that allowed the white folds under the arms to show. In his hands, I was again a Mockingjay.

"Cinna," I whispered.

"Yes. He made me promise not to show you this book until you'd decided to be the Mockingjay on your own. Believe me, I was very tempted. Go on. Flip through," Plutarch said.

Of course not. Cinna had always wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do. Never what anyone else was telling me to do. My hand still over my mouth, I turned the pages slowly, seeing each detail of the uniform. The carefully tailored layers of body armor, the hidden weapons in the boots and belt, and the special reinforcements over my heart. On the final page, under a sketch of my Mockingjay pin, Cinna had written, I'm still betting on you.

"Now I'm not allowed to bet. But if I could, I'd bet on you."

"Remember, I'm still betting on you, Girl on Fire."

"He... He was always betting on me..." I said, my voice cracking and eyes watering.

"He believed in you," Gale said, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder.

"When did he..." I trailed off. My voice failed me.

"Let's see. Well, after the Quarter Quell announcement. A few weeks before the Games maybe? There are not only the sketches. We have your uniforms. Oh, and Beetee's got something really special waiting for you down in the armory. I won't spoil it by hinting," Plutarch said.

"You're going to be the best-dressed rebel in history," Gale said with a smile.

"You'll look only slightly less pretentious," Katniss teased.

They were both smiling, but I couldn't force myself to put a smile on my face. Because for now I was remembering seeing Cinna, beaten and bloody and eventually dead, on that screen yesterday. He had died for something that he believed it. For someone that he believed in. Me. Suddenly, I realized that Gale and Katniss had been holding out on me. Like Cinna, in the end, they had wanted me to make this decision all by myself with no one's help.

"You knew. Both of you," I said, halfway accusatory.

"Of course we did," Gale said.

"But it was your choice. The entire time," Katniss said.

"You made the right one," Gale said.

For the first time, I felt that I might have honestly actually made the right choice. "Our plan is to launch an Airtime Assault. To make a series of what we call propos - which is short for 'propaganda spots' - featuring you, and broadcast them to the entire population of Panem," Plutarch explained fully.

"How? The Capitol has sole control of the broadcasts," Gale said.

"But we have Beetee. About ten years ago, he essentially redesigned the underground network that transmits all the programming. He thinks there's a reasonable chance it can be done. Of course, we'll need something to air. So, Aspen, the studio awaits your pleasure." Plutarch turned to his assistant. "Fulvia?"

"Plutarch and I have been talking about how on earth we can pull this off. We think that it might be best to build you, our rebel leader, from the outside... in. That is to say, let's find the most stunning Mockingjay look possible, and then work your personality up to deserving it!" Fulvia said brightly.

"Thanks," I muttered.

Just one more person telling me how completely not charming I was. Not that I didn't know that. I had known that the entire time. I had always known that I wasn't a very friendly person. Gale and Katniss had told me that enough times. And they weren't very friendly either. At least this time it wasn't about playing to a public eye. This time it was about playing a ruthless rebellion leader. At least I would get to play myself a little more than I usually did. But that didn't mean that I wouldn't be done up.

"You already have her uniform," Gale said.

"Yes, but is she scarred and bloody? Is she glowing with the fire of rebellion? Just how grimy can we make her without disgusting people? At any rate, she has to be something. I mean, obviously this," Fulvia moved in on me quickly, framing my face with her hands, "won't cut it."

Just like the rest of the Capitol people. They never really thought about everything that they wanted to say. They said what they meant and didn't bother thinking about what it meant to the person that they were speaking to. There was no hurt in me though. Maybe a little annoyance, as always, but I was so used to dealing with the Prep Team by now. I jerked my head back reflexively from her grasp but she was already busy gathering her things.

"Oh, thank you," I growled.

"So, with that in mind, we have another little surprise for you. Come, come," Fulvia said.

For a moment my feet were frozen. Fulvia did remind me very much of Effie in her own, strange, way. But Fulvia clearly didn't like me nearly as much as Effie did. And that was saying something, considering that Effie didn't always like me anyways. But I did miss her. I sincerely hoped that nothing terrible had happened to her since the end of the Quell. Fulvia gave us a wave, and Gale, Katniss, and I followed her and Plutarch out into the hall.

"So well intended, and yet so insulting," Gale whispered in my ear.

"Welcome to the Capitol," I whispered back.

"Do they always say things like that?" Katniss asked.

"Always," I said.

There was no way that they would ever change. Maybe if we decimated the Capitol and left it to be rebuilt, like District 12, but I didn't want anyone to experience what I had during my visit to my home. Besides, it really didn't matter. Because Fulvia's words had no effect on me. Instead I wrapped my arms tightly around the sketchbook and allowed myself to feel hopeful. Becoming the Mockingjay must have been the right decision. If Cinna had wanted it.

As we walked down the halls, I spotted the Hadley's walking towards what was sure to be their next assignment. "Oh," Alana started, spotting me, "Aspen -"

"We're busy! She can chat a little later," Plutarch called back.

"It worked!" I shouted, motioning for them to follow me for as long as they could. "I made the deal. Coin is going to announce during Reflection today that all of the Victors will be immune to trial. Dean, Skye, and Julie, you three are going to be able to come hunting with me. And Felix and Marcus, you're going to be allowed to start training!"

Plutarch was pulling on my shoulder. "Come on, now," he said.

"Well done, Aspen!" Carrie called.

"Good job," Damien said happily.

"We'll talk later," I said.

It was a good deal. I had managed to save their son, brother, and friend. At least, I had tried my absolute hardest, short of getting into the Capitol to get him back. That much would come later, once we could actually infiltrate the Capitol. Despite the fact that I was trying to speak to the Hadley's, everyone in my own little party grabbed my shoulders and arms and started pulling me with them. We would have to talk later. In the meantime we boarded an elevator, and Plutarch checked his notes.

"Let's see. It's Compartment Three-Nine-Oh-Eight," he said.

Those must have been in some of the higher-leveled hallways. I knew that there was no way that we were going somewhere that everyone else could go. Lots of District 13 was actually cut off from all of the lower-level civilians. Which were most of them. Only Coin's most-trusted held levels of power. I watched out of the corner of my eyes as Plutarch pressed a button marked thirty-nine, but nothing happened. For a moment I wondered if Plutarch had known Coin for a long time.

"You must have to key it," Fulvia said.

Plutarch pulled a key attached to a thin chain from under his shirt and inserted it into a slot that I hadn't noticed before. So Coin definitely trusted him. Maybe there was a chance that one day I could trust her, too. But I wasn't much for trusting anyone. Not these days, not before the Games, and likely not ever. I wasn't sure that I could trust someone who had watched the Games happen for seventy-five years and done nothing. The doors suddenly slid shut.

"Ah, there we are," Plutarch said.

We were in the same one that I had been in when Boggs had first brought me from the hospital to meet with Coin. The elevator descended ten, twenty, thirty-plus levels, farther down than I even knew District 13 went. It made me a little sick to think about how far underground we were. It opened on a wide white corridor lined with red doors, which looked almost decorative compared to the gray ones on the upper floors. Each was plainly marked with a number. 3901, 3902, 3903...

Now I was desperate to know where we were going. I had been kept out of the loop for long enough. As we stepped out, I glanced behind me to watch the elevator close and saw a metallic grate slide into place over the regular doors. When I turned, a guard had materialized from one of the rooms at the far end of the corridor. High security here. Something was being kept under lock and key. A door swung silently shut behind him as he strode toward us, looking tense and irritable.

Plutarch moved to meet him, raising a hand in greeting, and the rest of us followed behind him. Something felt very wrong down here. It was more than the reinforced elevator, or the claustrophobia of being so far underground, or the caustic smell of antiseptic. Maybe it was because this place reminded me of the Stockyard and Catacombs. One look at Gale and Katniss's face and I could tell that they sensed it as well. Obviously something was wrong, because they didn't know what those places looked like.

"Where are we going?" I asked suspiciously.

"To meet an old friend," Plutarch said plainly.

"The only friends that I have are right here," I said.

Of course there was also Finnick, who was in the hospital, and the Hadley's and my own family, who were towards the upper levels of Thirteen. "Don't bet on that," Plutarch said.

"Trust me, I learned a long time ago to not make bets," I muttered.

A small grin formed on their faces. "Good morning, we were just looking for -" Plutarch began.

"You have the wrong floor," the guard said abruptly.

"Really?" Plutarch double-checked his notes, looking very confused. "I've got Three-Nine-Oh-Eight written right here. I wonder if you could just give a call up to -"

"I'm afraid I have to ask you to leave now. Assignment discrepancies can be addressed at the Head Office," the guard said.

His voice alerted me to something else. It was tense and warning. It meant that something was here that he really didn't want us to see. That meant that there was a big problem. The door that Plutarch was talking about was right ahead of us. Compartment 3908. Just a few steps away. The door - in fact, all the doors - seemed incomplete. No knobs. They must have swung free on hinges like the one the guard appeared through. Or the sliding ones in the Capitol.

"Where is that again?" Fulvia asked.

"You'll find the Head Office on Level Seven," the guard said, extending his arms to corral us back to the elevator.

From behind door 3908 came a sound. Just a tiny whimper. Like something a cowed dog might make to avoid being struck, only all too human and familiar. I knew that sound. It was someone in pain. And that voice. There was something almost a little familiar about it. But the last time that I had heard it, it had been a whimper of excitement. I had never heard one of pain. My eyes met Gale's for just a moment, but it was long enough for two people who operated the way that we did.

Katniss placed a hand on my back and I knew that she was already in on it. It would help to have the two of us working together with Gale as the background. The distraction. Perfect partners, as always. I suddenly let Cinna's sketchbook fall at the guard's feet with a loud bang. Everyone jumped as I awkwardly laughed apologetically. A second after he leaned down to retrieve it, Gale leaned down, too, intentionally bumping heads with him.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Gale said with a light laugh, catching the guard's arms as if to steady himself, turning him slightly away from me.

"Move!" I hissed at Katniss.

That was our chance. Definitely our only chance as the guards wouldn't like that we were directly disobeying orders, something that didn't go over very well in District 13. But I couldn't be bothered with punishment right now. So Katniss and I darted around the distracted guard, pushed open the door marked 3908, and stumbled inside. That was where I found them. My hand immediately clasped over my mouth. There they were. Half-naked, bruised, and shackled to the wall. My Prep Team.

Chapter Text

The stink of unwashed bodies, stale urine, and infection broke through the cloud of antiseptic. For a moment I recoiled. The last time that I had smelled something like that, it had been after the first Games. The three figures were only just recognizable by their most striking fashion choices: Venia's gold facial tattoos. Flavius's orange corkscrew curls. Octavia's light evergreen skin, which now hung too loosely, as if her body were a slowly deflating balloon. Dehydration, I realized. Just like during my first Games.

It was easy enough to recognize the signs when I had become so familiar with them myself. But that wasn't my concern right now. My concern was just how horrified I was. I had never seen someone treated like this. At least, not in Thirteen. In the Capitol it happened, but it was hidden away. It happened in District 12, but only after Thread had taken over. My stomach lurched painfully at the sight of my stupid little pets. My ever-affectionate Prep Team. The people who had always adored me.

They had annoyed me a number of times over the past year, but they had never been genuinely cruel to me. And they were so stupid. How could someone have done something like that to such simpleminded creatures? On seeing me, Flavius and Octavia shrank back against the tiled walls like they were anticipating an attack, even though I had never hurt them. Unkind thoughts were my worst offense against them, and those I kept to myself, so why did they recoil? I would never have hurt them.

With a quick motion to Katniss, she went to helping them. Making sure that they were okay. They could barely look at her. The guard was ordering the two of us out, but by the shuffling that followed, I knew that Gale had somehow detained him. As always, he was helping me without question. For answers, I crossed to Venia, who was always the strongest. I crouched down and took her icy hands, which clutched onto mine like vises. I gently ran my thumb over her bruised knuckles.

"What happened, Venia? What are you doing here?" I asked.

"They took us. From the Capitol," she said hoarsely.

"They?" I asked.

"Aspen -" Venia sobbed.

Anything else that she was going to say died in her throat. "It's okay. It's going to be okay. I'll help you. All of you. You're going to be fine," I whispered, pushing back her hair.

"We just..." Venia tried.

She was still sobbing. Katniss was trying to calm down Flavius and Octavia in the meantime. "It's okay. We'll get you out of here and then you can explain, okay?" I said.

Plutarch entered behind me. "What on earth is going on?" he asked.

Like you don't know. "Who took you?" I pressed Venia.

"People," Venia said vaguely. "The night you broke out."

"People? Plutarch?" I asked.

"No," Venia said.

"Do you know who?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," Venia said.

She was still crying. She needed to get out of here and get some real food in her. They all looked bone thin. "Okay. Don't worry about anything. I'm going to get you out of here. I promise," I whispered.

"We thought it might be comforting for you to have your regular team," Plutarch said from behind me.

Immediately I released my grip on Venia and whirled around on Plutarch. "This is supposed to be comforting? This is worse than something that the Capitol could do!" I shouted loudly, my voice echoing around the room.

"We weren't aware of this," Plutarch said, maybe in a manner that he thought was comforting.

"You're torturing them," I hissed.

"Well they are here," Plutarch said awkwardly.

"This is worse than being there!" I shouted, waving to the Prep Team.

"Cinna requested it," Plutarch explained.

"Cinna requested this?" I snarled.

Absolutely not. He would have never done something like that. Cinna was a kind soul, no matter what was happening. And I knew that he felt the exact same way about the Prep Team that I did. Exasperated with their constant chatter and love of the Games, but still held some fondness for them and their love of us. If there was one thing that I knew, it was that Cinna would never have approved the abuse of these three, who he had always somehow managed with gentleness and patience. Even when I hadn't.

"Why are they being treated like criminals?" I asked sharply.

"I honestly don't know," Plutarch said.

There had to be someone who would know. That was when it dawned on me. Seneca had said that there was something that he wanted to talk to me about. Was there a chance that he had been referring to this? The awful treatment of my Prep Team. Plutarch seemed genuinely confused about their treatment and no one else had said anything about them. So maybe that was what he was trying to say yesterday.

"What the hell is this?" I barked at the guard. He shook his head. "I need to speak with Seneca Crane. Now!"

Gale finally entered the room. "Aspen, are you -?"

"Now," I cut him off, unsure of whether I was speaking to Plutarch or the guard. "He'll know what's going on."

"When you have time. Not right now. We're going to get this sorted," Plutarch said determinedly.

Whipping back around to him, I gave him a scrutinizing glare. Was there a chance that he really did know what was going on? For a while I just stared at him. But I realized that there was something in his voice that genuinely made me believe him, and the pallor on Fulvia's face confirmed it. He actually wasn't lying to me. He had no idea what was going on with the Prep Team. Plutarch turned to the guard, who had just appeared again in the doorway with Gale right behind him.

"I was only told they were being confined. Why are they being punished?" Plutarch asked.

"For stealing food. We had to restrain them after an altercation over some bread," the guard said.

"All of this for a damned piece of bread?" I snarled, remembering the time that I took a whipping for the younger girl.

"Stealing is punishable by -" Plutarch started.

"This is ridiculous!" I shouted, interrupting him. I turned around and faced Fulvia and Plutarch. "For people who claim to be so much better than the Capitol."

Venia's brows came together as if she was still trying to make sense of it. She was the only one who could manage herself right now. "No one would tell us anything. We were so hungry. It was just one slice she took," Venia said.

Octavia began to sob, muffling the sound in her ragged tunic. My stomach roiled in pain at the thought of my pathetic little Prep Team being hurt this badly after being 'rescued' for me. I thought of how, the first time that I survived the arena, Octavia sneaked me a roll under the table because she couldn't bear my hunger. It happened right after they were remaking me when I was starving and they wouldn't feed me until after the Closing Ceremony. I crawled across to her shaking form.

"It's okay, Octavia. You'll be okay," I whispered.

"Just stay calm. We're going to get them out of here," Plutarch advised me.

"Octavia?" I asked. She was whimpering and not speaking to me. I touched her and she flinched. "Octavia? It's going to be all right. I'll get you out of here, okay?"

"This seems extreme," Plutarch said.

"It's because they took a slice of bread?" Gale asked.

"There were repeated infractions leading up to that. They were warned. Still they took more bread." The guard paused a moment, as if puzzled by our density. "You can't take bread."

Irritably I took a step forward and motioned to the three chained up Capitol citizens. "This is a type of punishment for murder, not for stealing a slice of bread for people who aren't used to having so little to eat. Would a nice talking-to have been too little?" I asked harshly.

"It's against the rules," the guard argued.

"That doesn't make it okay," I hissed, looking back at the Prep Team. "Octavia... Please, look at me."

No matter how hard I tried, it was clear that Octavia was far too afraid to move. Which would definitely be a problem. More than once I tried to pry her hands away from her face, but I didn't want to scare or hurt her even more than she already had been. I couldn't get Octavia to uncover her face no matter what I did, but she eventually lifted it slightly. The shackles on her wrists shifted down a few inches, revealing raw sores beneath them.

"You're going to be okay," I whispered to them.

"Can you fix this?" Venia whimpered.

"No. But I know someone who can," I said determinedly.

"Mom?" Katniss asked.

"Yes. I'm bringing you to my mother." I wasn't really sure who I was talking to, but they needed to know that I wasn't going to leave them in here. Then I addressed the guard. "Unchain them," I growled.

The guard shook his head. "It's not authorized," he said.

"Unchain them! Now!" I yelled.

Obviously my words surprised him. Not just him. It surprised all of the people in the room. Katniss and Gale had never heard me use my authoritative voice, considering that I didn't use it that often. Fulvia and Plutarch were used to the depressed and practically catatonic version of me. The Prep Team flinched slightly. They were used to me trying to butter them up. It definitely broke the composure of the guard. Average citizens didn't address him this way. But I wasn't average.

"I have no release orders," the guard started. "And you have no authority to -"

"Mockingjay," I muttered to Plutarch.

"Do it on my authority. We came to collect these three anyway. They're needed for Special Defense. I'll take full responsibility," Plutarch explained.

"Thanks," I whispered.

The guard left the cell to make the call. He returned a moment later with a set of keys. The prep team had been forced into cramped body positions for so long that even once the shackles were removed, they had trouble walking. Gale, Plutarch, Katniss and I had to help them. Flavius's foot caught on a metal grate over a circular opening in the floor, and my stomach contracted when I thought of why a room would need a drain. The stains of human misery that must have been hosed off these white tiles.

"You'll be okay. I promise. It's going to be fine," I whispered to them.

They hadn't even done monstrous things like that to me back in the Capitol. They had done everything that they had in the Games, but nothing like this. The eight of us slowly made our way out of the room and back into the hallways. I was well aware that there were a number of people watching us as we walked, curious as to what had happened. But we didn't stop to chat just like they didn't stop to offer their help. Something that did actually surprise me. I would have thought that someone would offer.

Maybe it was because they recognized that the people Katniss, Gale, Plutarch, and I were carrying were from the Capitol. Maybe they couldn't be bothered to care because they didn't care about the people who they blamed for trapping them down here. Or maybe there was the awful chance that they were just as cruel as the people back in the Capitol were. Because none of them - not here or in the Capitol - could really be brought to care about the others.

As we continued walking through the halls, desperate to get back to the hospital and get Ms. Everdeen to help us with the Prep Team, I noticed that a number of people had stopped what they were doing to watch us curiously. But you couldn't offer us a damn hand, could you? That was when I spotted Cato's family rushing forward to see what had happened. They looked terrified at the sight of the Prep Team as they pushed through the crowd.

"Oh... That's your Prep Team, isn't it?" Alana asked.

"Yes," I said.

"What's happened?" Alana asked.

"They were chained up for stealing a piece of bread. They were brought here from the Capitol after the Games," I explained as simply as possible, continuing to walk.

"Are they okay?" Damien asked, looking at the three.

"I think so but I'm no doctor," I said.

"Come on. Let's get them help," Julie said, taking some of Flavius's weight from Plutarch.

"Where are you going?" Dean called.

"The hospital. My mother will know what to do," I shouted back.

"Okay. We'll help," Carrie said, pushing open the doors ahead of us.

"Aidan, take Marley back to the compartment. Okay?" Alana asked her son.

"Okay. Hope they're alright," Aidan told me.

"Thanks," I said.

The moment that he was off with his niece, our large group continued moving through the hallways. We were rushing past and practically trampling the people who were in our way. But I was desperate to get the Prep Team some help. I knew that they were in no danger of dying - they weren't that badly injured, more exhausted and hungry - but that didn't mean that I didn't want to help them. They weren't used to any type of pain, more than plucking their eyebrows.

Once we finally arrived in the hospital, I immediately found Ms. Everdeen, the only person who I trusted to care for them. It took her a minute to place the three, given their current condition, but already she wore a look of consternation. And I knew that it wasn't just a result of seeing abused bodies, because they were her daily fare in District 12, but the realization that this sort of thing went on in Thirteen as well.

Ms. Everdeen was welcomed into the hospital upon arrival, but she was viewed as more of a nurse than a doctor, despite her lifetime of healing. Mostly because she had no professional training. Still, no one interfered when she guided the trio into an examination room to assess their injuries. I planted myself on a bench in the hall outside the hospital entrance, waiting to hear her verdict. She would be able to read in their bodies the pain inflicted upon them.

Gale sat next to me and put an arm around my shoulder. "She'll fix them up," he consoled.

"I know. They're just not used to treatment like that," I muttered.

"They're going to be okay," Katniss said, placing a hand on my knee. "They just need some time."

Unable to bring myself to speak again, I gave a nod, wondering if he was thinking about his own brutal flogging back in District 12. Or maybe even mine. The two of us knew exactly what it felt like. We knew what it was like to be so brutally treated by the people whom you might have once called family. At least Thread hated everyone. I had been shocked when old Cray had hit me. Although that shouldn't have surprised me. I had stepped in for someone else, after all. I had forced his hand.

Cato's family took spots on either side of Katniss and Gale, who were placed at my sides. Skye and Julie sat down on the floor in front of us. It was the most people that I had seen in the hospital at once. Plutarch and Fulvia took the bench across from us but didn't offer any comments on the state of my Prep Team. If they had no knowledge of the mistreatment, then what did they make of this move on President Coin's part? I decided to help them out.

"I guess we've all been put on notice," I said.

"What? No. What do you mean?" Fulvia asked.

"Punishing my Prep Team is a warning. Not just to me. But to you, too. About who's really in control and what happens if she's not obeyed. If you had any delusions about having power, I'd let them go now. Apparently, a Capitol pedigree is no protection here. Maybe it's even a liability," I told them.

"There is no comparison between Plutarch, who masterminded the rebel breakout, and those three beauticians," Fulvia said icily, shooting me a spiteful look.

Carelessly I shrugged. "If you say so, Fulvia. But what would happen if you got on Coin's bad side? My Prep Team was kidnapped. They can at least hope to one day return to the Capitol. Gale, Katniss, and I can live in the woods. But you? Where would you two run?" I asked irritably.

"Perhaps we're a little more necessary to the war effort than you give us credit for," Plutarch said, unconcerned.

"Of course you are. The Tributes were necessary to the Games, too. Until they weren't. And then we were very disposable - right, Plutarch?" I asked.

That ended the conversation. Everyone simply sat in silence as we waited for news of what had happened to the Prep Team. My gaze stayed firmly locked on the ground. There was nothing that I wanted to deal with right now and no one that I wanted to listen to. I just had to make sure that they were okay. The people whom I had hated so much when I had first arrived at the Capitol were now under my protection. They were family, in their own strange way. A while later Ms. Everdeen found us.

"They'll be all right. No permanent physical injuries," she reported.

"Good. Splendid. How soon can they be put to work?" Plutarch asked.

"Put to work?" I repeated.

"Taking care of you," Plutarch explained.

"Pleasant," I growled.

"Probably tomorrow. You'll have to expect some emotional instability, after what they've been through. They were particularly ill prepared, coming from their life in the Capitol," Ms. Everdeen explained.

"Weren't we all?" Plutarch said.

"I don't recall seeing you chained up in one of the back rooms," I growled.

"That doesn't mean that I'm any more prepared to be here," Plutarch defended.

"Funny. I was about to say the same thing," I snapped back.

"Alright, enough," Katniss said, stepping between us.

Either because the Prep Team were incapacitated or I was too on edge, Plutarch released me from Mockingjay duties for the rest of the day. Gale, Katniss, the Hadley's, and I headed down to lunch, where we were served bean and onion stew, a thick slice of bread, and a cup of water. After Venia's story, the bread stuck in my throat, so I slid the rest of it onto Gale's tray. None of us spoke much during lunch, but when our bowls were clean, Gale pulled up his sleeve, revealing his schedule.

"I've got training next," Gale said.

When was the last time that I even checked my schedule? A long damn time. I tugged up my sleeve and held my arm next to his. "Me, too," I said.

That was when I remembered that training equaled hunting now. Katniss rolled up her sleeve and held it next to ours. "Me, three," she agreed.

"Let's go!" I chirped.

My eagerness to escape into the woods, if only for two hours, overrode my current concerns. An immersion into greenery and sunlight would surely help me sort out my thoughts. Of which there were a number. Once off the main corridors, Gale, Katniss, and I raced like schoolchildren for the armory. The last time that I had ran like this... for fun... I couldn't even remember. It was freeing. By the time we arrived, I was breathless and dizzy. A reminder that I wasn't fully recovered from the electrical blast.

The guards provided our old weapons, as well as knives and a burlap sack that was meant for a game bag. I tolerated having the tracker clamped to my ankle (which was bulky and heavy), tried to look as if I was listening when they explained how to use the handheld communicator. The only thing that stuck in my head was that it had a clock, and we must be back inside Thirteen by the designated hour or our hunting privileges would be revoked. That was one rule I thought that I would make an effort to abide.

"I'm going to come back out next hour," I said as we prepared to leave.

"Why?" Gale asked.

"Because I want to take Dean out and show him around," I said.

"And what about us?" Gale snapped.

"We're getting our own hour," Katniss interrupted, clearly trying to diffuse a fight before it could start. "Wait a second. What do you have after this?"

"I don't know. I'm not so good with watching my timing," I admitted.

"You really sure that you want to come out there with him?" Gale asked.

"Yes. I'm absolutely sure. I want to go out," I said.

"I'm pretty sure that she can have an arrow through his eyes in a heartbeat if he does anything to her," Katniss pointed out.

"Alright. Just be careful," Gale warned.

"Always am," I said, which wasn't at all true.

In reality, I was just about anything but careful. Katniss stepped forward and placed herself in between us. "It's fine. We'll come out again tomorrow and stay out for the full hour. Just the three of us. Right?" Katniss asked us both, obviously daring us to give her a different answer.

"Right," I agreed. Before we turned to leave, I moved back to one of the guards. "Excuse me? Can you send a message to Dean Hadley? Tell him to come here in an hour. We're going hunting."

"Of course," the guard said.

"Thank you," I called.

"Whose bow is he going to borrow?" Gale asked.

There came the major issue. "Well..." I trailed off, giving Gale a hopeful look.

He scowled at me. "Come on, Gale. Let him borrow it," Katniss goaded.

"What about yours?" Gale snapped at her.

Katniss rolled her eyes and motioned down to her wooden bow. "Mine is designed for someone my size." Katniss was bigger than me, but Dean was much bigger than her. "It won't work for someone Dean's size. Who is just about your size," she argued.

"Please, Gale? Come on. I won't let him hurt it," I said sweetly.

"Sure. Fine. Whatever," Gale growled.

"Thank you," I chirped.

He didn't look thrilled with letting Dean use his bow, but he didn't argue the subject any further. Without another word the three of us went outside into the large, fenced-in training area beside the woods. Guards opened the well-oiled gates without comment. We would have been hard-pressed to get past the fence on our own - thirty feet high and always buzzing with electricity, topped with razor-sharp curls of steel. We moved through the woods until the view of the fence had been obscured.

It was exhilarating to be back in the woods. A place that had originally been my solace, then been a place of nightmares, and was now once more my escape. It was strange how much my view on something as simple as the woods had changed in just a year. In a small clearing, we paused and dropped back our heads to bask in the sunlight. I turned in a circle slowly with Katniss next to me, our arms extended at our sides, revolving slowly so as not to set the world spinning.

Being out in the woods had never been so peaceful. So wonderful. Even with the damage that I saw here. The lack of rain I saw in Twelve had damaged the plants here as well, leaving some with brittle leaves, building a crunchy carpet under our feet. We took off our shoes to keep them from crunching. Mine didn't fit right anyway, since in the spirit of waste-not-want-not that rules Thirteen, I was issued a pair someone had outgrown. Apparently, one of us walks funny, because they were broken in all wrong.

We hunted, like in the old days. Silent, needing no words to communicate, because here in the woods we moved as three parts of one being. Anticipating each other's movements, watching each other's backs. How long had it been? Eight months? Nine? Since we had this freedom? It wasn't exactly the same, given all that had happened and the trackers on our ankles and the fact that I had to rest so often after that nasty electrocution. But it was about as close to happiness as I figured that I could currently get.

At least until Cato arrived. For now it wasn't half-bad. Hunting kept my mind off of what had happened with him. The animals here were not nearly suspicious enough. That extra moment it took to place our unfamiliar scent meant their death. It would be easy to train Dean in these woods. In an hour and a half, we had gotten a mixed dozen - rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys - and decided to spend the remaining time by a pond that must have been fed by an underground spring, since the water was cool and sweet.

When Gale offered to clean the game, I didn't object. It had never been my favorite part. Since we were no longer hunting, the three of us exchanged idle chitchat as we laid about. I stuck a few mint leaves on my tongue, closed my eyes, and leaned back against a rock, soaking in the sounds, letting the scorching afternoon sun burn my skin, almost at peace. Almost... If only Cato was here. Just like that day up on the roof. The peace only lasted until Gale's voice interrupted me.

"Aspen, why do you care so much about your Prep Team?" Gale asked.

"It was nice while it lasted," Katniss sighed.

The two of us were both leaning up against the rocks and basking in the sunlight. For a moment I wished that we were in the warmer air of the Capitol. Just for a moment, though. Deciding that I couldn't avoid his comment forever, I opened my eyes to see if he was joking. But it was Gale and I should have known that he was being completely serious. I knew because he was frowning down at the rabbit he was skinning.

"Why shouldn't I?" I asked.

"Hm. Let's see. Because they've spent the last year prettying you up for slaughter?" Gale suggested.

"They're really not that bad. They've been nice to me before and they really like Prim," Katniss defended.

Like me, she wasn't going to stand for someone as pathetic and clueless as the Prep Team to be hurt. "After they offered her up for slaughter?" Gale asked.

"They don't get it, Gale," I said, knowing that Prim's Reaping was still sensitive with Katniss.

"If I don't have a problem with them, you really shouldn't either," Katniss argued.

It was a good point. If there was anyone here who deserved to hate the Capitol just as much as I did, it was Katniss, whose sister had been the start to all of this. Not that I ever faulted Prim for it. She hadn't made me do everything that I had done in the Capitol. That had been my own fault. But, to be fair, it was her name being pulled that sent me into the Games in the first place.

"I remember them in the Capitol. They were so excited for the wedding. They didn't even think that you were going into the Games in two days," Gale argued.

"We're not the same kind of people. It's different for them," I said.

"You're defending them," Gale said disbelievingly.

"It's more complicated than that. I know them. They're not evil or cruel. They're not even smart. Hurting them, it's like hurting children. They don't see... I mean, they don't know..." I tried.

As usual, I got knotted up in my words. Words had never been my forte. As much as I tried to speak and make myself sound eloquent and not like I was the twenty-year-old fool that I was, it never worked. I always sounded like a teenager trying to be an adult. Something that I very clearly wasn't. Gale was scowling at me. Obviously he didn't like that I was defending them. Katniss seemed to understand my point.

"They don't know what, Aspen? That Tributes - who are the actual children involved here, not your trio of freaks - are forced to fight to the death?" Gale asked.

"Knock it off. They know about the kids," I snapped.

"Obviously they don't," Gale said. "Did they even care about R -"

Gale immediately stopped speaking. His voice dropped off so quickly that I would have found it comical had it been any other day. Had it been anything else that he was about to say. But I knew exactly what he was going to say. It was too late to take it back. I saw the guilt building in Gale's eyes. He could be a little on the cruel side at times but even Gale knew that, after all of this time, it still wasn't fair to drag Rue into an argument. But my eyes watered anyways, even though I knew that he hadn't meant it.

"They didn't know her. They didn't know about her," I said, my voice cracking.

"But they knew that the Games were about to happen," Gale said, his voice not as stern now.

"It's just like being in District 2. Everything depends on the place that you grew up. If you were from the Capitol you would have been raised on the Games," Katniss argued.

"Well I wasn't," Gale said.

"Well they are," I snapped.

"Cinna didn't like them," Gale reasoned.

"His parents were from the Districts," I said.

Both of their heads snapped over to me. "They were?" Katniss asked, surprised.

Had I never told them that story? I supposed that I hadn't. "Yeah. District 8. Textile workers. The Capitol brought them when they were twenty-one. They raised Cinna to know the truth about what happened in the Districts," I explained.

They were silent for a little while before Gale started to shake his head. "Doesn't make a difference. They should know the difference between right and wrong," Gale snapped.

"They don't. It's just the way that it is. They don't understand," I said.

"That you were going into that arena for people's amusement? Was that a big secret in the Capitol?" Gale asked.

"No. But they don't view it the way we do," I said. "They're raised on it and -"

"Are you actually defending them?" Gale interrupted.

The irritation was clear in both Gale's voice and actions. He slipped the skin from the rabbit in one quick move. It was the fastest that I had ever seen him move. He hated the Capitol more than anything. He couldn't stop for one second to think that they weren't all the monsters that everyone in District 13 thought that they were. They didn't understand that there were some good ones. But that was when I realized that it stung, because, in fact, I was, and it was ridiculous. I struggled to find a logical position.

"I guess I'm defending anyone who's treated like that for taking a slice of bread. Maybe it reminds me too much of what happened to you over a turkey! Or me, for that girl," I barked loudly.

If there were any animals around in the area, I had definitely just scared them off. Katniss was watching the two of us closely. She had always been there to diffuse our fights after my first go-round in the arena. She used to get involved in them, but now she tried to keep us from imploding on ourselves. As I thought back to our injuries, I realized that I hadn't seen that girl since I had arrived in District 13. She was likely killed in the bombing. I saved her and then I killed her.

As angry as I was with Gale about everything, I had to realize something. He was right. It did seem strange, my level of concern over the Prep Team. The people who had always driven me insane during my brief periods of time in the Capitol. I should have hated them and wanted to see them strung up. But they were so clueless about everything, and I genuinely believed that they did care about me, and they belonged to Cinna, and he was on my side, right?

"I'm not looking for a fight. But I don't think Coin was sending you some big message by punishing them for breaking the rules here. She probably thought you'd see it as a favor," Gale said.

"I somehow doubt that. She hates me," I said.

"True. But she still probably thought that she was helping you," Gale said, shrugging.

"Oh, yes. That was very helpful," I snapped.

Gale's head turned to look at me. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You actually care about them," Gale said slowly.

"Yes. I genuinely do. And I know that they care about me, too," I growled.

The two of us stared at each other for a few seconds. I knew that they cared about me. They had made it obvious. Perhaps they were a little off and showed their love in a strange way, being from the Capitol and so closely tied to the Games, but I genuinely believed that they - just like Cinna - had always cared for me in some way or another. Just like Effie did. Gale finally turned away and stuffed the rabbit in the sack before rising to his feet.

"We better get going if we want to make it back on time," Gale said.

"Fine," I growled.

The two of us glared at each other again. But Gale had always been the one who could get over arguments. I was the one who would stay angry with him until he offered an apology that I found suitable. Gale leaned down and offered Katniss a hand up. She easily bounced back to her feet as Gale turned back to me and gave me his hand. But I ignored his offer of a hand up and got to my feet unsteadily. That damned concussion and electrocution were still getting to me, even after almost a month.

"Well that was a good trip," Katniss said, letting out a breath.

"Almost reminds me of the good old days," I muttered.

"Fighting constantly? Yes. That seems very familiar," Katniss joked.

It was enough just to barely make the three of us smile at each other. But it didn't last very long. Just long enough for the three of us to ensure that the fight wouldn't get escalated anymore. Definitely not something that I needed right now. Not something that any of us needed with our friendship on such strained terms. None of us talked on the way back, but once we were inside the gate - as I pushed myself to keep walking even through the exhaustion - I thought of something else.

"During the Quarter Quell, Octavia and Flavius had to quit because they couldn't stop crying over me going back in. And Venia could barely say goodbye," I said.

"I'll try and keep that in mind as they... remake you," Gale growled.

"Do," I snapped.

"Hey," Katniss said, stepping in between the two of us and shoving us backwards. "Knock it off. Come on. Let's go show off the deliveries."

"Great," I muttered.

As we headed out, I had to follow Katniss and Gale. I didn't have a clue where the kitchen was, but they did. Clearly they had been before. We handed the meat over to Greasy Sae in the kitchen. She apparently liked District 13 well enough, as I spent a while speaking with her, even though she thought that the cooks were somewhat lacking in imagination. But a woman who came up with a palatable wild dog and rhubarb stew was bound to feel as if her hands were tied here.

"I'm gonna go out hunting with Dean," I said as we left.

"Here," Gale said, pushing his bow into my chest.

"Thanks," I said, watching him storm off.

Back to square one... I coughed gently as I slung his bow back over my shoulders, running the opposite way of my own. I had been forced to leave the arrows in the armory. "You want me to come out with you?" Katniss asked.

For a moment I thought about taking her up on it. But I eventually shook my head. "I think I need to be with him alone for a while. There are some things that the two of us need to say to each other," I said.

"Okay. Have fun out there."

"Thanks." As the two of us headed back out into the main hallway, I looked over at her. "Can you... I don't know. Talk to Gale?" I asked awkwardly.

These days it seemed that Gale would rather chat with Katniss. "I'll try and get him to see it the right way," she promised.

"Thank you. I'm sick of fighting with him."

"You two were doing so well for a while. What happened?"

"We found out that Cato is alive," I said blankly.

"Aspen..." Katniss trailed off.

"It's fine, Cat. It really is. Gale and I... After the first Games I should have known that the two of us would never be able to go back to that old friendship that we had," I said, remembering that one stupid action that had changed everything. That one damned kiss. "After he kissed me -"

"What?" Katniss interrupted loudly.

That was when I realized that I had never told her about that kiss. I had never told her about any of those kisses. "I forgot that I never told you that," I muttered.

"What are you talking about?" Katniss asked, her voice sounding strained.

"It was the reason that I was so torn throughout the Games. Kill Cato or be with him. If I was with him it was more than just the knowledge that I would have to kill him at the end of the Games and be heartbroken without him. There was guilt there," I tried to explain.

"Because of Gale?" Katniss asked.

"Yeah."

"Did you know about his crush?"

"Kind of. When he came to say goodbye to me we chatted back and forth. He was trying to comfort me. I was trying to reassure him that I would be fine. I told him about my concern that there were twenty-four of us and only one came out. He told me that it was going to be me. Then he kissed me. I was so stunned that I didn't kiss him back until the Peacekeepers pulled him out of the room. He told me that he loved me and..." I trailed off, feeling horrible about what had happened.

"And when you came back a month later you were in love with someone else," Katniss said, easily filling in the blanks.

"Yes."

"Now I get it. Now I get why the two of you have been so tense around each other. I didn't know about the kiss," Katniss said as the two of us stopped walking and lingered in an outcropping.

"I know. I figured that Gale didn't tell you," I said.

"Why didn't you tell me that?

"I don't know. I just... I felt guilty about it and the more people knew... the more that I would be concerned that something would happen between us... and..."

"Then you would have to choose between them."

"Yes. And I can't do that. I can't pick between them."

"I think you already have," Katniss pointed out.

She was right. I had already picked which one I wanted. But that didn't change the fact that I was afraid the other would leave me. "But I don't want to leave Gale behind. I just keep thinking that if I go on in my life with Cato, once we get him back, Gale won't want anything to do with me," I admitted.

"I don't think it matters who you choose in the end. He loves you. He'll want to be with you," Katniss said.

Rolling my eyes, I crossed my arms over my chest. "It just makes me feel so guilty. The entire thing. Even when I know that he's trying not to make me feel guilty," I said.

"He'll stand by you no matter who you pick in the end. It'll be easy for you. Don't worry about him," Katniss said.

We stood in silence for a few moments before I remembered one of the things that I wanted to speak with her about. "Why did you show Gale the letter that I wrote you?" I asked.

"I - I don't know," Katniss stuttered, looking very guilty. "I just needed to talk with someone about it and you weren't anywhere to be found. And I knew that it was too dangerous to talk about it in the Capitol."

"You were right about that," I said.

"Do you trust him?" Katniss asked, referring to Seneca.

"Yes. As much as I wish that I didn't, I do," I said honestly.

"What happened?" Katniss asked.

That horrible memory... "It - It was the night that Cato proposed to me. Seneca brought me back to his room. It was a close call. I didn't have anything on. He was just in his underclothes. I couldn't help it. I started to cry. He saw it. Told me to gather my wits. Said that he wanted a woman to want to be in his bed. So he had me leave. That was when they told him the truth of the rebellion. They knew even back then. He let me go the next day. He was drunk. That was when he attacked me. I got away," I said, trying to leave out the gruesome details.

"Yet you trust him?" Katniss asked disbelievingly.

"Somehow I do. I know that it doesn't make sense. I know that I shouldn't trust him. But for some reason I do. Because I know that he tried to get me to understand about the Games. He's the one person that has guaranteed that he would try and help get Cato back," I explained weakly.

"Do you ever think about what he did to you in the Games?" Katniss asked.

"All the time. That's why I don't completely trust them here," I said. Katniss raised her brow in confusion. "None of them helped."

"Gale says that they needed time to get everything together."

"I don't care. They could have done something."

"I agree."

"You're one of the few people who agree with me."

"Have you kissed him since?" Katniss asked.

"What?" I stuttered.

"Gale," she clarified. "Have you kissed him since?"

"Yes. Twice," I admitted.

"When?"

"The first time was that day when I went out into the woods with Gale. That day that we finally got to be with each other and be ourselves. I was about to suggest that I start taking over the snare run when he kissed me. It surprised me so much that I still didn't react in time. When he let go he told me that it was so I didn't think that the first one was on impulse."

Katniss snorted under her breath and I raised an eyebrow. "Never see those moments coming, do you?" she asked.

That was exactly what I had thought when he had kissed me right after the Games. And it wasn't just Gale. I hadn't seen them coming the first few times with Cato either. "Never. Not the kiss before I left for the Capitol. Not the kiss at Snow's party or the one before the Interviews. Not the one that Gale gave me that day. And not the last one either," I said.

"When was that?"

"After he was whipped. I went to kiss him on the cheek when he kissed me. I couldn't pull away or say anything to him. Not when he was like that."

We both sat in silence for a little while as Katniss nodded. I wasn't sure what she was going to think about the kiss. In the back of my mind I had always known that she had a little bit of a crush on Gale. I had even told Gale that in my final letter to him. I just didn't want her being upset with me that someone she had always loved was now interested in someone else. That would have made me feel awful. I didn't want to hurt her any more than I already had.

"So who's the better kisser?" Katniss asked suddenly.

"Cat!" I barked, startling her. Not just her, a number of the people standing around whipped back to see what was happening. "I don't think I've ever heard you say something like that."

"Sorry. It's been a long time since I've had a chance to say something like that," Katniss said.

"We used to always joke around like that. What happened?" I asked sadly.

"You won the Hunger Games," Katniss said.

"Survived," I corrected.

The two of us stood in silence for a few moments. "So who's better?" Katniss finally asked, nudging me gently.

Snorting under my breath, I shook my head. It would have made me feel bad, no matter who I said. "They're both so different. Gale's have always surprised me. I've never had the chance to really think about them. But they've been comforting. Because I'm used to having him around. Cato... There's something different in those. I'm in love with him, Cat. I really am. Kissing him is like being at home," I said sweetly.

Katniss smiled. "You two are sweet together."

"Thanks."

"When you were dancing on your wedding night, with Finnick, I think it was, I saw him watching you. There was this smile on his face. One that I had never seen before," Katniss said. I smiled softly. I wished that I could have seen that gaze. "It reminded me of the way that..."

"Your father used to look at your mother," I said, filling in the blanks.

"Yours, too," Katniss said, once more reminding me that her parents were mine, too. No matter who my birth parents were. "Yes."

"That's one of the things that I really miss," I said after a few beats of silence. Katniss turned to me confusedly. "Just having him around. Holding my hand. Comforting me after a nightmare. The kisses. The laughter. Just knowing that he's close."

"He would comfort you after the nightmares?" Katniss asked curiously.

"Yeah. He was one of the few people that used to be able to calm me down. Reassure me that it was just a nightmare. He would just let me cry or complain or say nothing and just ignore him," I explained.

Katniss smiled, placing a hand on my shoulder. She knew just how much Cato meant to me. "That's sweet. I guess he would understand. I would try to comfort you but I never knew how," Katniss admitted.

"He understood but I never knew when he was having a nightmare."

"He didn't thrash or scream?"

"No," I said. Somehow I was annoyed that I never knew when Cato had his nightmares. It made me feel like he had always known me so much better than I knew him. Which might have been true. "He said that he would just come to, paralyzed with fear. But apparently his nightmares were usually about losing me. When he saw that I was with him, he would calm down and go back to sleep."

Katniss smiled again. "That's really sweet. He must hate this," Katniss said. I raised a brow, unsure of what she meant. "Not knowing if you're okay."

"Just the way that I've been hating it. But he's alive and he'll be back here soon enough," I said hopefully.

"I didn't realize that the two of you would sleep in the same bed," Katniss said slowly.

That's right. I never told her that we had slept together. "Yeah. We slept together during the Games and it was impossible to stop once we were back in the Capitol. That first night back, when the two of us were alone, I grabbed him and asked him to stay with me. We just never changed after that," I said, knowing that she would understand.

And she did. "It's sweet. Someone to protect you."

"We protect each other. Just the way that I do with you."

"That's true."

"I would always fall asleep on his chest. His arm around my waist and the other lingering on my hip. I did it so that I could press my head against his chest. Listen to his heartbeat as I fell asleep."

"Reminding you that he was alive," Katniss said, filling in the blanks.

"Exactly," I confirmed.

"Must have been hard to come back home and not have him sleeping next to you."

That first night when I had been back home hadn't been too bad. We hadn't even slept in the bedrooms. Ms. Everdeen was on the plush chair as Katniss, Prim, and I all slept on the couch. Prim was sleeping in my lap and I was in Katniss's. There had been one nightmare but it hadn't been that bad. It was the next night - when I had finally slept in my own bedroom - that I had woken up in the middle of the night, thrashing and screaming in horror, sending the three women sprinting into my room in a panic.

"It was. I would wake up, panicked because he wasn't next to me," I said, remembering all sorts of horrible nightmares that I had faced over the last year.

"I'm sorry, Aspen. We're going to get him back as soon as we can," Katniss promised.

"I know."

"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

Even if I had said no, she would have asked the question anyways. "That night of the wedding... Back when you were in the Capitol before the Quell. I heard all of the passing comments when we were saying goodbye," Katniss said.

My head started to spin, but this time it wasn't from the concussion. "Are you trying to ask me if I've slept with Cato?" I asked dumbly.

"Uh, yeah. I am," Katniss said awkwardly.

The two of us stared at each other for a few seconds. All of a sudden we both burst into a hysterical fit of laughter. I leaned forward and fell into Katniss's arms, the two of us still unable to stop laughing. For a long damn time. It was the first time in months that the two of us had laughed and gossiped together. We hardly ever did anything like that. I could barely remember the last time that we did. We had been allies in this for so long that we had forgotten what it was like to be sisters and best friends.

When we finally managed to calm down, I still couldn't quite breathe properly. "Come on. Tell me," Katniss prodded, poking me in the stomach.

"Yeah. I have," I muttered, turning bright red.

Katniss's face turned up into a maniacal smile. "That's everything? Tell me more!" she goaded. I snorted again. It was like we were kids again, discussing the gross boys in our classes. "Come on. Was it after the Games?"

"No!" I shouted, affronted. It hadn't been that soon. "No. I couldn't do it yet. Despite all of the teasing that went back and forth between the two of us, we never did more than some kissing and misplaced clothes. The entire time. Even on the Victory Tour. We would sleep together but that was for comfort. Because the Victory Tour was so hard. We just tried to get through it together. From time to time I would know that I wanted it but I never said anything. It was the night that we were in the Capitol. That was when it happened."

Katniss's brows knitted together in confusion. "I thought that was the night that Seneca Crane..." she trailed off, unwilling to repeat what had happened.

"Yes. That was it. It was that day. He brought me to his apartment and that was when everything happened. When I got back to the penthouse I cleaned up and saw that Cato was still there. He had been waiting for me the entire time. I realized that I had been given another day and I wanted it. It was something that I wanted that I could actually have. So I asked him to do it. For a minute he offered to wait," I said.

"Really?" Katniss asked, surprised.

"Yeah. He told me that we didn't have to just because we were getting married." She smiled, clearly glad that he could be a gentleman when he wanted to. "But I wanted it. Before Seneca could take it what I thought would be the next night," I explained.

"So you did it so that it would be Cato's, at least, and not Seneca's."

"No! That wasn't the whole reason. It was more than that. I really did want it. I had wanted it the entire time that we were on the Victory Tour. It was just something that I wanted. It was one of the few things that I got."

"So it was that night?"

"Yeah. Right after what happened with Seneca."

"Well... How was it?" Katniss asked awkwardly.

"Do you honestly want to know?" I asked.

"I'm curious," Katniss admitted.

"It's not like you would think that it is. I mean it's romantic, but it's not in a traditional sense. There's definitely something about it that's not very romantic. More... intimate, I guess. There's something about being with someone, without anything separating you, which makes you completely vulnerable. You're totally at this other person's mercy. But if you trust them, that's what makes it good. I mean, it's a little painful at first. I bled a little bit when we first did it. But after a little while I started feeling better.

"It's weird though. I kind of laid there for a while. Didn't really do anything. Actually I didn't do anything at all. I just kind of let him take the lead, since he had done it before. I was so embarrassed afterwards. I just buried my head in Cato's shoulder and whined. He was laughing. Not at me. At the fact that I was embarrassed. But he told me that I hadn't done anything wrong. He was saying that it was perfect. The only thing that mattered was that we were together.

"Which was really sweet. But at first I was really embarrassed because I had never been with anyone and I knew that he had. He told me that it was kind of like the first time that he had been with anyone. Because he had never attached feelings to the act. Not before me. It just took some time for things to change between us. For me to kind of react a little bit better to being with him. You know, it was weird, but with time it kind of became fun," I explained as best I could.

"So it's fun?" Katniss asked.

"Yeah. In some ways, it is. But I wouldn't recommend doing it with anyone you don't know," I said.

"I wasn't even planning on doing it with anyone that I did know."

"Not even someone like Gale?" I asked teasingly.

"Aspen!" Katniss shouted, horrified.

Her face was bright red. "Come on, you like him. Everyone knows that you like him. You might not know it, but I do. Just give him a chance," I begged.

"It's the wrong time to be thinking about boys," Katniss said.

"It's never the right time," I pointed out.

"He's hung up on you," Katniss said.

To my surprise, she didn't sound bitter. But Katniss had always been that way. She didn't care for guys. And there was still a part of her that was hung up on Peeta. "He won't always be," I said, referring back to Gale.

"Stop. What about... kids?" Katniss asked slowly.

For a moment I hesitated, unsure of what she was talking about. But then I realized what she meant. "Honestly I didn't think about it at the time. Which was stupid, I know," I said quickly, when I saw the look that she was giving me. "But Cato promised me that he knew what he was doing and it's been over seven months. I think I'm okay."

"Was that the only time?" Katniss asked.

"Of course not," I snorted, earning a snort from Katniss. "It happened a number of times leading up to the Quell."

"But the pregnancy ruse was just that, right?" Katniss asked.

"Of course. I didn't want to have a kid and Cato knew that. Not for a long time. If ever."

"You would make a good mother."

"Thanks. So would you."

"I can't believe that you didn't tell me," Katniss said, scowling.

Rolling my eyes at her, I threw an arm over her shoulder and pulled her into me. "Well in the future I will tell you every single time that it happens. And I will tell you in excruciating detail about every moment of the entire ordeal," I said playfully.

"Oh I can pass on that. I can't believe that the two of you slept together and you didn't tell me!" Katniss barked, pulling out of my hold and whopping me on the arm.

"Honestly I figured that you would have known," I said.

"Well I definitely didn't figure it out."

"You're kind of stupid for not figuring it out."

We stared at each other again before cracking up. It was the way that we used to be. I missed being like this with her. Katniss shoved me off to the side and I giggled again. Katniss opened her arms and I walked right into her, giving her a tight hug. It was the first time that either one of us showed any affection for the other that didn't feel like it was required to keep our friendship from unraveling. This was the one thing that felt helpful and real. Detached from the rebellion.

"Come on. Let's go back," I said, pulling out of the hug.

"Alright."

Together the two of us walked back to the compartment, her arms draped over my shoulder. Some people were staring at us, clearly confused at our affection. But we didn't stop to speak with anyone. Exhausted from hunting and my lack of sleep from the night before, we quickly went back to our compartment to find it stripped bare. I stopped in the doorway and stared blankly, only to remember that we had been moved because of Buttercup. So we made our way up to the top floor to find Compartment E.

"Almost forgot about the new compartment," I said dumbly.

"Me, too."

"By the way, don't you dare tell Gale," I snapped as we walked.

"Of course not," Katniss said, affronted. "Does anyone else know?"

"Mom knows."

"How does she know?"

"That was what was in her letter."

"And you didn't tell me?" Katniss barked.

"Sorry, Cat," I said, wrapping her back in another hug. Thinking back on it, I probably should have told her. It would have been someone to talk things out with. "But at least I told you now. And I told you more about it than I've told anyone else."

"Oh, I'm honored," Katniss snapped.

The next chance that I got to sleep with Cato, I was going to sleep with him and tell her everything. We arrived at our new home and I glanced inside. It looked exactly like Compartment 307, except for the window - two feet wide, eight inches high - centered at the top of the outside wall. There was a heavy metal plate that fastened over it, but right now it was propped open, and a certain cat was nowhere to be seen. I stretched out on my bed, and a shaft of afternoon sunlight played on my face.

But just a moment later I sat back upright. "You sleep for a while. I'm gonna go out with Dean. And there's something that I need to tell Seneca," I said, remembering the treatment of the Prep Team.

"Okay. See you later?" Katniss asked, sitting upright.

"I'll be back before Reflection and the assembly," I said.

"Careful out there."

"Always."

As Katniss dropped back onto the bed, she closed her eyes and her breathing almost immediately evened out. She had looked tired during our hunt. She wasn't used to hunting anymore. It had been far too long. I slipped out of the compartment quietly to head into the upper levels of District 13. I needed to go speak with Seneca before I did anything else with Dean. There was something important that I had to say and he had to know if we were really going to be allies.

On my way to find Seneca - who I assumed would be near Plutarch or the War Room - I passed numerous members of District 13. Many of them were murmuring about me. Some were questioning where I was supposed to be. I ignored them. Some seemed to be happy that I had agreed to be the Mockingjay. That rumor was already spreading. But they wouldn't be happy with me once Coin made her announcement. I rounded another corner and luckily spotted Seneca speaking with some other Capitol rebels.

"Seneca. May I have a word?" I asked, walking up and interrupting their conversation.

"Of course. Pardon me," Seneca said, dismissing himself from his friends and heading off into the corner of the room with me. "What can I help you with?"

"Did you know?" I asked sharply.

"About?" Seneca asked.

"My Prep Team!"

"Ah... I was made aware that they were rescued but I haven't seen them since arriving here. Have you found them?"

"Yes. Chained to a wall, beaten, starved, and humiliated," I sneered. Seneca gave a very surprised look. Maybe he hadn't been told either. "All because they took a piece of bread because they aren't used to eating like this."

"Well none of us are used to eating like this," Seneca said. "Are you sure that -?"

"That they were being treated like animals?" I interrupted irritably. "Yes. I'm sure. They can be horrible people at times. I know that. But I won't stand to have someone treated the way that I was. Especially not people like that. Barely as intelligent as children."

"I wasn't aware that they were being treated as such. Have they been removed?"

"Yes. They're healing in the hospital ward. Tomorrow I think that I'm going to start undergoing the process to become their Mockingjay."

"I think that they'll be okay. They just need an adjustment period."

"They'll never be used to this place."

"I don't think that you will be either," Seneca pointed out.

"No. Probably not. I just - I can't believe that they did that to them!" I shouted, annoyed with myself for caring so much about them and with Thirteen for treating them the way that they did. "To the foolish little Prep Team! It was Coin's warning to me."

"That's probably true. She believes that we're taking too big of a risk with you," Seneca said.

"And you?" I asked.

"I believe that you're the only person who can do this. I believe that my faith in you is not misplaced."

"Thank you."

"This means that you'll now have to do everything that they tell you to do."

It would just be another moment that I would be forced to be someone's doll. At least this time I was doing something important. "Apparently. That was the deal. I would do whatever they needed me to do and they would keep the Victors safe. As long as I do what they want, they'll do what I want. Do you think that they'll stick to their word?" I asked carefully.

"Yes. Especially if made in front of a large audience. They can't just go back on their words," Seneca said.

"That's what I'm hoping for," I muttered.

Seneca placed his arm on my shoulder but retracted it almost immediately. "I'll take care of your Prep Team," he promised. I nodded my thanks. "I'm very sorry for what's happened to them. But I must say that I'm surprised that you're defending them."

He sounded just like Gale. Shocked that I was going to help them. "I don't care who they are. I know that they cared for me. And to watch something like that happen to them..." I said, cringing when I thought of their treatment. They really weren't that different here than they were in the Capitol. "They're not used to the horrors of life that I am. That we are."

"Not even with the Games?" Seneca asked.

"To them that's just entertainment. I try to remember that - if I had been raised in the Capitol - I would have been just like them," I said, hating the thought that I could be anything like them.

"Instead you became a symbol of the rebellion," Seneca said.

"Not something that I particularly wanted, but something that I know that I have to accept," I said.

It would never have been anything that I would have wanted. There were a number of things that I wanted. To keep Prim and Katniss safe from the Games. I had managed that much. I wanted my parents back. But that wasn't something that I could get. I had always wanted the Games to be gone. That was the one thing that I was managing. But I had never wanted to be the reason that they were gone. I wanted someone else to deal with it. But life never worked out the way that we wanted.

"Your parents would be proud of the young woman that you are becoming," Seneca said.

"I like to believe that. You - You never met them, did you?" I asked.

Seneca shook his head somewhat regretfully. But I was glad that he hadn't known them. "No. But I do remember their Games. I was fourteen when your father competed in his Games. I was sixteen when your mother competed," Seneca explained.

"So you remember their Games?" I asked slowly.

"Very well."

"Did you know me when I volunteered?" I asked curiously.

Seneca stared at me for a moment before shaking his head. "No. But I knew your name the moment that you said it. I remember being shocked when you said your name. I had long since forgotten about them," Seneca admitted.

"I'm glad to make people remember. I don't like the thought of them just being faceless Tributes," I said.

"They weren't," Seneca promised.

The two of us stared at each other for a moment. I didn't like conversations about my parents. They made me antsy. "I'm going to go back out hunting. Dean is in his training period right now and he asked me if I would take him," I said, trying to change the subject.

"Aren't you finished with your hour?" Seneca asked curiously.

"Yes. But, honestly, what are they going to do? Kill me?" I asked. Seneca snorted. For just a moment, I saw a real man. Not the Gamemaker I had once hated so much. "I'd like to see how that would go over."

"You're far too daring," Seneca said.

"That's probably exactly the reason that we're standing here right now," I pointed out.

To be honest, we both knew that it was the exact reason that we had gotten to this point. All because I was a little too daring. I had been daring when I had volunteered, when I had made my first little speech, and gotten to know Cato. I had been daring in the way that I had attacked the Gamemakers, spoken to Snow and Seneca all of those times, and risked my life throughout the Games. Not to mention the trick with the knives. And, of course, my destruction of the force field.

All of this because I had done far too many things that were too daring. "Enjoy your trip," Seneca finally said, probably unwilling to remember everything I had done to almost get him killed.

"Absolutely." I was about to walk off when I remembered something. One of the reasons that I had come to speak to him in the first place. "Seneca?" I called.

"Yes?"

"Was there something that you wanted to tell me?" I asked. He looked unclear on what I meant. "Yesterday. You were in my room and you were going to say something. Gale interrupted us."

"Perhaps another time," Seneca said, turning to leave.

"Wait," I said, running after him and grabbing his arm, pulling him back. "Come on. Just tell me."

"Are we friends?" Seneca asked.

"Yes. I think that we can finally say that we are friends," I said slowly.

"Then I can't be the one to tell you this," Seneca said.

How was that fair? "That doesn't make any sense. If we're friends, tell me," I goaded.

He had to tell me what he meant. I deserved that much. I deserved for people to start telling me the truth. "It's for that exact reason that I can't tell you. But perhaps you should speak with Haymitch," Seneca said.

"Is he even still alive?" I growled.

As much as I wanted to hate Haymitch - and I genuinely did, in my own way - I didn't want to hear that he was dead. Because he had done a lot for me over the past year. He had even helped out my parents. And he had kept one of his promises. He had kept his promise to Cato. I was just furious that he hadn't kept his promise to me. I had known him longer. I was the one that he was supposed to keep his promises to. I would always be angry about that.

"Last I heard. They're trying to take care of him," Seneca said.

Obviously he would still be detoxing from all of the alcohol. "I have nothing to say to Haymitch," I said irritably.

"Trust me when I say that it would be helpful to speak with him," Seneca said.

Maybe one day I would be able to force myself to go and see him. "So it's my secret, but for some reason, I'm the person who doesn't know it," I commented.

"You would think that you would be used to it," Seneca said.

"You would think. But I have a feeling that it will never be like that."

"I'm deeply sorry that this continues to happen to you," Seneca said slowly.

Shrugging my shoulders, I turned in a circle around him. "Maybe one day I'll get used to it. But I'm not sure that I can go and speak to Haymitch. I haven't seen him since that day on the hovercraft. I really don't want to see him and I highly doubt that he wants to see me," I said honestly.

"But this is important. This is something that you should speak to him about," Seneca promised.

"Why can't you tell me?" I asked.

"Because this is something that I wasn't supposed to be made privy to. They thought that I would tell you," Seneca explained.

"Their faith was misplaced," I said grumpily.

"Go find Haymitch and speak to him about it," Seneca said.

"Funny how it all works out," I said, realizing something. Seneca raised a perfectly-formed brow. "One of the people who I trusted least in the entire world has now become one of my most trusted confidantes. And one of the only people who I genuinely trusted in the world has now become someone that I wish that I had never trusted."

Seneca smiled guiltily and shook his head. "Haymitch wanted to get Cato out, too. Believe it or not, he cares for the boy. So does Brutus. Coin wanted Cato to come out of the arena." I snorted. That much I had already known. "But we picked you in the end. We knew that you wouldn't be happy with us," Seneca said.

"You were right," I said.

"But we were hoping that you would be able to move past it for the greater good."

"I'm barely twenty. There should be no greater good for me," I said sadly.

"I know. But that's the way that life works sometimes."

"Lucky me."

The two of us stood in silence for a few moments as I shifted awkwardly. Maybe I did need to speak with Haymitch. Maybe he could help. "You mentioned that you were going hunting?" Seneca asked suddenly.

"Yes. I should get going," I said, pointing away.

"Weren't you already out this morning?" Seneca asked.

"Yes. But I went out with Katniss and Gale. I want to go out with Dean for a little while," I said.

"Your hour isn't up?" Seneca asked.

There came the point of me always being terrible at following the rules. "Oh, it is. But I have a Weapons Management class after this and I really am not in the mood for sitting through classes. Dean has training. So I figured that I would go out again. I kind of have some good leverage for getting them to let me out again," I said pointedly.

"That's true. Have a good trip," Seneca said.

"Thanks." We were about to leave again when I thought about something. "You interested in ever learning?" I asked, obviously surprising him.

"As funny as it might sound, I've never picked up a weapon before," Seneca said.

"What better time to learn than during a war?" I teased.

Seneca gave me a grateful smile. "Perhaps. I'll see you during the assembly," Seneca said.

"See you later," I chirped.

Maybe it would be a good chance for the two of us to genuinely bond. We hadn't gotten that chance yet. I wanted to trust Seneca so badly, but I needed to know if I could. What better way to learn to trust someone than to take the time bonding with them? As I walked off, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where Dean would be right now. I just knew that he had training next, but it wasn't quite time for him to be there yet. So I meandered down a few hallways, all the while being unable to find him.

Eventually I made my way back down the hallway where I used to live and headed into the Hadley compartment. Most of them weren't there, not that I could be surprised. It was the middle of the day. Alana and Damien were at work. Skye and Julie were in their classes, probably with Gale. Aidan was in school like Prim. Only Marley and Carrie were in the compartment. Carrie was taking care of her. As I exchanged a few comments with her, Carrie let me know to check for Dean in the cafeteria.

She also made me promise not to take it easy on Dean when we were out there. I promised her that I wouldn't. I thanked her and promised that I really would watch out for him while we were out hunting. Not that we needed to. There was nothing that dangerous in these woods. I headed back out into the dining room and spotted Dean sitting at the Hadley's table by himself. I walked over and plopped down into the empty chair next to him.

"Dean," I greeted.

"Aspen. Hey. How are you?" Dean asked.

"I've finally gotten the chance to breathe some air for the first time since being here," I answered.

The corners of his lips turned upwards. It didn't take a genius to figure out what I meant. "You went hunting this morning, didn't you?" Dean asked, grinning.

"Yes. With Katniss and Gale. We had a good haul. More fresh meat than I'd be willing to bet that District 13 has seen in a long time," I said carelessly.

Dean gave a happy smile. "I'll be looking forward to that at dinner," he said.

Dinner was never a good meal in District 13. In fact, none of our meals were very good. Water and milk right now were the only things that we were allowed to drink. Usually dinner was some type of soup with whatever chopped up vegetables that they could find, which were almost always disgusting. Pea soup was also very popular, but it was unfortunately something that I despised. Potatoes, onions, and turnips all made regular appearances, but none of them tasted like the delicacies in the Capitol.

It was the one thing that I missed about the place. The good food. We could definitely use some fresh meat in District 13. "So what are you doing right now?" I asked, shattering the silence.

"Eating," Dean said carelessly.

We both laughed. "How about hunting?" I offered.

"You've already used your hour though, haven't you?" Dean asked.

"Sure. But you haven't. You're going to training," I pointed out.

"What about the time limit that you have?" Dean asked.

"There aren't too many good things about being the Mockingjay. It's kind of a pain in the ass. But I did find something worth it. I can pretty much say and do whatever I want and they have to bend to my will. Since this isn't anything too big I figure that they'll have to bend. Plus I thought that we could spend some time together," I said brightly.

Dean and Carrie had always been my favorite of the Hadley's anyways. It would be nice for us to spend some time together doing what I loved best. "I would love that. I'm finished here. Shall we?" Dean offered.

"Absolutely," I said, hopping to my feet.

"You know, I don't have a weapon," Dean pointed out.

"Gale said that he would let you borrow his bow. Just don't break it. I can't promise what he'll do to you if you break his precious bow," I said, handing over Gale's bow.

It wasn't nearly as nice as mine, but it wasn't totally useless. Dean took the bow and slowly ran a hand over the wooden limbs. It was old. One of the oldest bows that I knew of. His father had made it long before Gale was even born. At least Katniss and I's bows had been made after we were born. Mr. Everdeen had made ours. The one that I was currently using was mine from the Games. I hated what it reminded me of, but there was no doubt that it was the best of the three weapons.

"Oh, I understand about a man and his weapons. I used to use a broadsword and I would have killed someone if they damaged it," Dean said, staring down at the bow.

"That's what Cato used in the Games," I commented, unsure of why I had said it.

Of course Dean would have known what weapon his brother had used. He had watched him train with it growing up. "Yes. I got it from my father, Cato got it from me, and Aidan got it from Cato. Sword fighting runs with the men in the family. The women tend to like knives." To his credit, I was definitely fond of knives, too. I had just recently developed better aim with the bow. "We've never had an archer in the family before," Dean commented.

"First time for everything, I suppose," I said, turning my bow over in my hands.

"It's cool. I always liked watching archery," Dean said.

"Not big in District 2?" I asked.

Being easier to make shots with a bow, I would have thought that it was a popular weapon. "Not at all. You know, they would prefer the close-up action of a knife or sword fight," Dean explained.

"Yeah. I knew during my first private training session that I had to show off with the bow and arrows or else there was a good chance that they wouldn't put one in there," I said, remembering the advice that Gale had given me.

"You did well. To be honest, we were kind of glad that Glimmer cut you off for the bow. We knew that you would have been able to take out the Careers when you were stuck up in that tree with it," Dean said.

For a moment I hesitated. I had almost forgotten about that. He was right. The first few times that the Careers had cornered me - both knowing and unknowingly - I hadn't had the bow. I had been griping to myself about how easy it would have been to take them all out if I had the bow and arrows. I had known how easy it would have been. The problem with knives was that they had been too hard to make the strange angles with. But now... maybe it was a good thing that I hadn't had it.

The one thing that Glimmer had done right. She had cut me off for that damned bow. Little did she know that by cutting me off and keeping me from killing Cato, she had helped set all of this in motion. At least, that was what I told myself to keep me from thinking that all of this was my fault. I knew that it wasn't all my fault. There were so many other people who had helped this along. Some who knew exactly what they were doing and others who had no idea what they were doing.

"In retrospect, I guess I'm glad that I didn't have it, too," I said slowly.

"Shall we?" Dean asked.

"Sure. Let's get everything together," I said.

Together the two of us headed back up towards the top of District 13 and out into the opening, not far from the entry of the training grounds. It took some convincing for the guards to let me come out, but after some complaining for a few minutes and threats about taking back my promise about being the Mockingjay, they finally allowed to let me out. Not that they looked very happy about it. But Plutarch and Seneca agreed to just let me out and save the fight.

It was smart of them. Because they knew that I would fight tooth and nail to get them to let me go out there for another hour and cause a number of problems in the process. We sat together for a long while as the guards explained the rules to me again and Dean for the first time and we were refitted with the tracking devices. It was as annoying as it was the first time. As we made to leave, I promised to watch out for Dean, taking back my pack of arrows and handing him a new pack.

As we headed out of the training field, I pulled my bow off of my back and held it out. "Mine is a little easier to use. Do you want to give it a try?" I asked.

"No. Being from District 2, I like the challenge," Dean said.

We both smiled. I could appreciated that. "Okay. Shall we?" I asked.

"We shall."

For the second time that day, I walked out of the electrified fence and headed off into the woods. For a while I let Dean take the lead to go wherever he wanted. I figured that he could figure it out. But I saw that he did trace over his tracks a few times. He clearly wasn't a hunter as he couldn't tell where he was going and didn't know how to stay on a straight path. So I took over the lead and motioned for him to follow me. His footfalls were loud but the animals weren't suspicious enough to care.

It was obvious that we weren't going to scare them off. There had never been hunters out in these woods before. They didn't understand the danger of our little bits of noise. It was a refreshing change from the more difficult to hunt in woods of District 12. Which was likely now destroyed after the firebombs were dropped. Large bits of the woods had been destroyed along with half of the Meadow. I had spread Leah's ashes in the bits of the Meadow that weren't destroyed.

As the minutes ticked by and we went further and further out into the woods, I found myself getting a little more relaxed. I loved being out here. It almost made me forget about the rebellion, the Capitol, Cato, and the Mockingjay. Being out here reminded me of the days before the first Reaping that had sent me into the Games. It reminded me of the days before I knew what it was like to be painfully in love and before my friendship with Katniss and Gale had become so strained.

Trying to focus my mind on what was happening all around me and focusing just on the surrounding woods, I tried to go back to the way that I used to be. A hunter. And a damned good one. So I focused on the details. Dean had Gale's bow slung over his back as we walked. He didn't know how to use it - nocking the arrow, anchoring it, aiming, or firing. I was planning on waiting until we were a little deeper into the woods before showing him how.

On my order, Dean was silent as we walked through the woods. I had explained to him early on in our trek that even though the soft noises of our footfalls or breathing wouldn't alert them, the sound of our voices would. They would deem it as a predator coming to attack. And I was planning on trying to show him how to actually hunt an animal. My ears were tuned in for anything that I could hear. A change in the wood or crack of the branch.

Unlike Dean, I had my bow in my hand and an arrow already nocked. Just in case I heard or saw something. There was also always the chance that there could have been something dangerous in the woods. I had seen my fair share of wolves for one lifetime. As I stepped over a fallen tree, I heard Dean step on a twig. We both froze. The moment that the crack echoed through the wood, a bird flew out of the tree behind us.

It looked like it might have been something like a groosling. The thought only painfully reminded me of one of the people who I was doing all of this for. Rue. I acted faster than I had on that awful day. I heard the leaves fluttering as the bird shot off and I turned back on my heel, aiming over Dean's head. He ducked down, clearly realizing what I was planning on doing, and I fired. The bird fell out of the air a moment later and landed on the ground with a soft thump.

The bird landed about fifty feet away from us. The arrow was straight through the eye, wasting none of the meat. Just the way that Mr. Everdeen had once taught us. I noticed that Dean's jaw was practically hanging open. I smiled at him and walked over to the bird. I yanked the arrow out of the eye socket, cleaned it off with a piece of moss, slipped the arrow back into the sheath, and stuffed the bird into the game back. I hooked the game bag back around my waist and walked back to Dean.

"How did you do that? You didn't even see it," Dean said breathlessly.

"I heard it," I answered.

Dean laughed under his breath. It showed the difference between the two of us; a Career and a hunter. Careers were taught to use their eyes. When they saw something, they took the chance to attack. They saw the big picture. But I was a hunter. I relied on the little things. Those tiny sounds more than anything else. The ability to spot something - some minuscule detail - that tipped me off to the fact that something was wrong. I supposed that it made Cato and I a good team. We saw the details and big picture.

"I remember you mentioning that from the first Games that you were in. You told Cato that was the problem with being deaf in one ear. You relied more on your ears than your eyes," Dean said.

Having that brief deafness - which was technically permanent - was horrible. "That's what hunting is about. You listen," I said.

"Alright. Teach me, master," Dean teased.

We both laughed as I shoved him away from me. "You stand still. That's the first thing about hunting. Moving around makes things worse. The animals can hear you. Feel the changes," I said. Dean nodded, remaining otherwise still. "We learn to become just like them. Hunters become the animals."

"Spoken like a true hunter," Dean said, smiling.

"Take your shoes off." Dean looked at me like I had lost my mind. "You walk too loudly right now." Dean nodded and slipped his boots off, tossing them into the game bag. "What we're doing right now it called still-hunting. You decide on a period of time to stand still; five minutes or so. You'll be forced to remain quiet and silent for a minimum amount of time, longer if necessary," I said, keeping him on my left side.

"Did you do this in Twelve?" Dean asked quietly.

The days that we had been forced to stand still for hours on end... "Yes. During the winter a lot. Everything was dead and crunched loudly. So we stood still and waited," I explained.

"You just learned all this?" Dean asked.

"With time. Katniss's father taught me. My parents left behind a book with some tricks," I said. I wished that I still had the book, but it had been lost in the rubble of the Everdeen's old home after the firebombing. "We learned things ourselves. We put it all together and became a perfect team."

"You three trust each other beyond anything I've ever seen before," Dean said, referring to Katniss, Gale, and I.

"We're family. We grew up together and protected each other. That's just how it goes," I muttered.

"You make a good team," Dean said.

"Thanks," I said softly.

Once upon a time we had been the best team that anyone could have imagined. And, in some ways, we still were. We knew exactly how to hunt together. We didn't need words. We just knew. We knew exactly how to work together. And we still had our moments of being best friends. But there were so many things that happened. The tenseness with Gale because of my marriage to Cato. My anger with Katniss for not telling me the truth. The fact that we were all hot-headed and tended to yell at each other...

"There's a different trick you use for deer," I said, desperate to change the subject.

"What's that?" Dean asked.

"Deer are easily alerted to human cadence," I said.

"What?" Dean asked dumbly.

"The noise that we make while we walk," I explained. Dean nodded in understanding. "The slow hunter's tread. You have to try taking quick steps in a short sprint for ten to twenty yards or so. Stop, and do it again. Keep your footfalls as light as possible; you would be surprised at how much you sound like a squirrel scrambling through the leaves."

"Clever," Dean said.

"Thank you. That was a trick that my parents left behind. I've only taken down three deer before and one barely counted," I said, remembering the poor baby that we had more put out of its misery than anything else. "Okay. Now for tracking. Remember when I blew up the Career supplies in my first Games?"

Dean snorted under his breath. "That's a hard one to forget," Dean said.

He wasn't bitter about it. They hadn't been bitter about it in a long time. "Pulling that hood up, I had a reason. Keep from leaving a blood trail," I explained. Dean nodded. "We're doing just that here. You find a blood trail and follow it. It'll likely lead you to an injured animal."

"Okay."

"We've lost many animals to this one. The instant drop. An animal that drops immediately is more likely to run off than one that doesn't go down but runs some distance and then falls. The animal that falls immediately might do so from shock, then recover and run. When an animal drops instantly, stay put and be prepared for a quick follow-up shot."

"That must have burned."

It was a mistake that I had made a number of times when I had first started hunting. "Oh, it did. I shot a deer once and it did just that. I tracked it all damn day. Lost it and had nothing. It was a very hungry weekend," I said bitterly.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Dean said.

"That's okay. Keep your eyes up. Animals will leave blood trails on leaves and trees, too. Not just the ground. When you shoot an animal, be aware if they're just playing dead. If you need to make another shot, go for the throat or eyes. No wasting meat with body shots," I said.

"You sound almost like one of the instructors in District 2," Dean commented.

"I'm not sure whether to thank you or slap you," I said seriously.

"A thanks would be appreciated," Dean said.

We both laughed. In the back of my mind I was sure that he held some fondness for the instructors back in District 2. They had probably felt like a part of the family for a long time. I wondered how they felt about everything right now. I reached down into my boot and pulled out what I had slipped in it before. Dean was watching me with curious eyes as I held out the piece of leather to him. He didn't take it, clearly not understanding what it was.

"Okay. This is an arm guard. It goes on the forearm of the arm that's holding the bow. Its purpose is to protect your arm if the string hits it. Trust me, it hurts," I promised.

"Okay."

All I could remember was the time that I was finally getting used to really firing my bow back when I was thirteen or so. I had been about to release my arrow to hit a knot in a tree about ten feet away when a crack of a branch had startled me and I let the string slip. It had burned straight across my forearm, leaving a nasty rash for days. I slowly laced it up Dean's arm and made sure to hook it around his fingers, tightening it to make sure that the string wouldn't catch on the eyelets.

"Just like that. Comfortable?" I asked, straightening it out.

"Yes."

"We'll practice with that tree," I said, pointing to a tree that was about fifteen feet away. "See that knot at about your throat height?"

"Yes."

"You're gonna aim for that."

"Okay."

"Stand perpendicular to the target," I ordered. Dean moved into position. I placed my hands on my stomach and rotated his body so that he was standing completely in line. "You're right-handed?"

"Yes."

"Stand with your left hip pointing toward the target. Keep the rest of your body vertical. Don't lean to one side or the other," I said, correcting a few bits of his stance. "Turn only your head towards the target." I forced his shoulders back into line. "Chest in and shoulders down, make sure not to hunch up your shoulders."

"Like that?" Dean asked, straightening out a little bit.

"Good. Now for the bow. Hold the bow with your left hand on the hand grip. Your life line should be perpendicular to the ground when you hold your bow. Your knuckles should be at an approximately forty-five degree angle." Dean placed his hands where I showed him. "Don't hold the bow with a death grip. It'll make the shot inaccurate. Be relaxed so that every movement will be smooth," I said, watching as his hand turned white.

"Okay. Like this?" he asked.

His grip slowly let up on the bow. "Yes. You need to load the arrow by fitting the notch in the end of the arrow onto the bow string. Do it before lifting your bow and without actually drawing the string." He did as told. "Lift the bow to shoulder height. The arm holding the bow needs to be straight and locked at the elbow. Put the odd color vane between the riser and the arm holding the bow," I continued to explain, manipulating his arms into the right stance.

"Good?" Dean asked.

"Good. Pull the bowstring back. Pull back far enough that your hand rests right under your jawbone. Touch your face around the corner of your mouth. That's your anchor point," I said, pushing his arm forward a bit. "Don't twist your torso to face the target. Don't be afraid of the string and touch it to your face. It won't hurt you."

I pushed his hand up against his face to make sure that the string was touching his mouth. "Okay," Dean said.

"Let the stronger muscles in your back do most of the work as you draw the bow as opposed to your arm muscles. And don't chicken wing by placing your elbow below the arrow. Keep it up and aligned with the arrow. Like this," I said, pushing his arm straight.

"Got it," Dean said.

"Take aim. You want to aim with your dominant eye while keeping your other eye closed. Your dominant eye is much more reliable for your aim to the target. I think it's your right one," I said after a beat.

"How can you tell?" Dean asked, surprised.

"Just by the way you look at things," I answered vaguely. Really it was because Cato's dominant eye was his right and that was usually genetic. "Relax your fingers off the string to loose. Don't jerk the string back, or the arrow won't fly straight. Keep your release as smooth and gentle as possible. When you've released, stay still until you hear the arrow hit the target."

"Okay," Dean said.

"Shoulder up. Press against your mouth. Slowly release," I instructed.

His movements were very slow and very deliberate. Which was a good thing, because I had to step in four or five times to make minor adjustments. I didn't want him to completely miss his first shot. I knew how awful that was. When Mr. Everdeen had taught me, I had completely missed my second shot by feet. The only reason that I had made my first was because Mr. Everdeen had kept his arm around me and made the shot half by himself.

Standing back a few inches from Dean - leaving him just enough room to try and make the shot properly - I watched as he fingers very slowly relaxed from the string. Just the way that I had shown him. He had dropped the bow slightly, so it wouldn't be totally accurate, but it looked close. I watched as he ultimately let the string go and watched as it snapped forward and the arrow flew off. Dean stayed in position as I turned towards the tree and grinned. Dean slowly lowered the bow to look at his shot.

It was just a few inches underneath the knot. "Not bad," I admitted.

Dean turned to me with a grateful smile. "You're a good teacher," Dean praised.

"Thank you."

"Your turn," Dean teased.

Laughing under my breath, I nodded. I probably should have seen that one coming. But I knew how to make my shot perfectly. I slipped an arrow out of the sheath, nocked the arrow, raised the bow, aimed quickly, pulling back the string to my anchor point, and fired. The arrow shot straight off of the bow and went right where I wanted it. The arrow went straight through the arrow that Dean had just shot and split the metal arrow down the middle. Just as I had done my first time around in private training.

It reminded me just of how the Hunger Games really affected me at every moment of my life. "You're a better shot than Cato ever could be," Dean commented, staring bewilderingly at the shot.

"Thanks. Years of practice," I said, walking over to the tree.

Taking the split arrow, I tossed it off to the side - now that it was completely useless - and placed the other one back in my sheath. "You're fast, too," Dean added.

"You have to be fast to be a hunter. With time you'll get better," I reassured him.

"Alright. I want to try without your help," Dean said hopefully.

"Go ahead," I said excitedly.

It was always fun to see just how well someone could do without your help. I had faith that Dean could do pretty well, considering just how good he was back in the Academy. Not that I had ever seen him fight or train before. But Cato had told me numerous stories of his training and I knew that Dean had almost been the one to volunteer for the Games when he was eighteen. That meant that he had to be good. Plus he was large and powerful. It showed how well-trained he had once been.

Taking a few steps back, I started to spin an arrow in my hand as I watched Dean. He grabbed another one of his own arrows, nocked it properly, set it against the bow and pulled back the string. He moved with slow and deliberate movements. His setup was good, clearly the way that someone trained would work, but he wouldn't make a center shot. It was his positioning that was wrong. He was too tense and slightly off-centered. When he finally fired, it barely clipped the edge of the tree.

"Don't feel bad. It takes time," I said softly.

"When did you start getting better?" Dean asked.

"When I was about thirteen or so. But that was years after I first started using the bow. I fired one for the first time when I was six," I said, remembering the shot.

"You're very good," Dean said.

"Thanks," I chirped brightly. "I'm hoping that they'll let me use it when the time comes that I go out in the field."

The bow and arrow was my weapon. So were knives. They always would be. I couldn't get used to the idea of a gun. "I can't imagine that they wouldn't. You're clearly a good shot," Dean said.

"Thank you."

"I'd like to see you try and teach Cato one day."

Snorting under my breath, I shook my head. He would take a lot of time. He was too trained with the sword. "I offered but we never got around to it. Maybe I'll get the chance when he comes back," I muttered.

"Well I'd love to see him infuriated about how much better the little girl from District 12 is than the big, bad, Career," Dean said, making us both laugh.

"He'll always be competitive about things like that," I said.

"It's the District 2 in him," Dean said, giving me a pointed smile.

"Alright. Come on. Let's see what you've got," I teased.

It was just the way that Dean was. Clove, Brutus, Enobaria, and all of the other people that I knew from District 2. Whether it was with weapons or fighting or simple bets, they always wanted to win and be right. They had the opportunity for love and fun in their lives. It wasn't the way that things were in District 12. We did everything to survive. There was no time for fun. There never would be. Not when we were starving to death and dying in the mines every day.

That was why we had always loved escaping to the woods. Because it felt like we were finally somewhere else. It felt like we could have forgotten everything that had happened between us. It was the one place that we could always be ourselves. And right now I felt like I could be myself. There were no worries. I was just having fun. We were both having fun. It felt like we were actually a real brother and sister pair right now, teasing and teaching each other.

We spent the remainder of our hour firing our bows. For the most part we were using the trees as target practice. Dean wouldn't actually be able to hunt until he had better aim, considering the fact that animals were moving targets. Dean clearly had very good aim but he simply didn't have the experience. I told him after multiple missed shots that he would get much better with time. He was better than average already, likely something that came from his days at the Academy.

Even Cato wasn't half-bad with the bow and arrow. I had seen him make enough shots to know that he was very good. I had come very close to receiving one of those shots. Dean wasn't nearly as good as Cato was, but I assumed that it was because he hadn't trained as hard and he really hadn't trained in a few years. Cato had been training constantly since he was a child. He had only taken a few months off after our first Games together. Dean hadn't trained in almost three years from what I had heard.

For a while I stopped firing and watched him. I sat back on one of the rocks to sunbathe and called out directions to him. I really didn't mean to, but I did laugh each time that he missed. He would turn back and scowl each time that I laughed. He really hated that I could make impressive trick shots - like firing in the middle of a back flip or sliding past on my knees to make a shot - and still never miss. He could have never dreamed of making them. We teased each other for a long time as I continuously showed him up.

The watch on my wrist was the one thing that I kept checking, just to ensure that we weren't going over our time limit. Eventually I had to turn back and warn Dean that it was almost time to head back to District 13. I made a brief promise that I would teach him how to properly hunt next time. This time had been more about learning to properly shoot. On our way back, with Dean now carrying our shoes, I managed to take out a few more animals that darted through our path.

"Damn you're fast," Dean said as I skewered a squirrel back against a tree.

"Gotta be faster than the animals," I said.

"Very good," Dean laughed.

"Here. Wanna see something cool?" I offered.

"Sure."

"Take this." I handed him over a reasonably large rock. He raised a brow at me. "Throw it at a higher branch on one of those trees," I said, motioning to one of the trees off in the distance.

"Okay," Dean said.

He took the rock from me and reared back. I had a new arrow nocked as I watched where he was planning on aiming. He tossed the rock as hard as he could at a tree that was a number of yards away. Just like what had happened with Gale over a year ago, a flock of birds flew out. I immediately took aim. So did Dean with his own bow. I fired one arrow and a second, managing to take the two birds down before the flock got too far away. Dean missed but came very close to hitting one.

"That is a cool trick," Dean said, helping me pick up the two birds.

I grabbed one as Dean took the other, putting them both in the game bag. "Believe it or not, Gale actually taught us that one. Katniss and me. Cato helped me out with it during the first Games," I said.

"I remember that," Dean commented.

"You were close," I said, searching for Dean's lost arrow.

"Thanks. Just gonna take some time."

"Absolutely. We'll come out the next time that I can."

"I look forward to it."

The two of us headed back towards the gates of District 13 when something else occurred to me. The new thing that was bothering me. "Can I ask you something?" I said suddenly.

"Sure," Dean said.

"Do you have any idea what Seneca Crane could be talking about when he says that there's something that I need to speak to Haymitch about?" I asked.

"That could be a large number of things unfortunately," Dean said after a moment's hesitation.

"Something that people wouldn't want me to know?" I clarified.

"That could also be a large number of things," Dean said.

We both snorted loudly. He was right about that. They never wanted to tell me the truth about what was happening. "That's very true. I guess one day I'll have to own up and get back in touch with Haymitch," I muttered irritably.

"Do me a favor," Dean said. I nodded blankly. "Give him a break. He did what he thought was the best for everyone."

"I know. It doesn't change the fact that I'm angry with him," I growled.

"I know, Aspen. We're all a little angry about things. But this is the wrong time to be angry with each other. We have to work together," Dean said softly.

As much as I hated that idea, I knew that he was right. We all had to work together if we wanted this rebellion to end and for us to win. That meant that I had to try and forgive Haymitch. Not necessarily forgive him, but try and learn to work with him. Realize that he did what was right for the rebellion. But it would take a lot of time. We might not ever be able to get back to where we had once been. Almost like a father and daughter. We were almost like strangers now.

The closer that we got back to District 13, I turned back and smiled at Dean. I might not have liked what he had said to me, but I knew that he was right. He wrapped an arm over my shoulder and pressed a kiss against my hair. I laughed as we arrived back to District 13 and headed inside. We had our trackers taken off and put our weapons back in storage in the armory. Just a moment later we turned and headed back into the main halls of District 13.

"You'll be at the assembly later?" I asked.

"Of course. I'll see you there?" Dean asked.

"Yes. But I might be hiding in the crowd," I said honestly.

"That's probably a good idea," Dean teased.

"See you soon."

The two of us smiled at each other as I brought him into a painful hug. It really was nice to be back with him, if even just for a little while. I had almost forgotten how much that I liked Dean. I was glad that Carrie had him in her life. I knew how she felt - falling in love with a Hadley man. I just wished that I had mine back. And I would. Soon enough. Dean and I departed from each other as he headed back to spend some time with his wife and daughter before the assembly later.

For a moment I thought about going to seek out Haymitch, but I really didn't know where he was and I didn't really want to have to deal with him quite yet. I wanted to be petty for a little while longer. So I headed off and went back to my new compartment. Just as I had left her, Katniss was curled up in her bed, fast asleep. I fell into my own and shut my eyes, staying quiet. I was back asleep in a matter of seconds. The next thing that I knew, Prim was waking Katniss and I up for 18:00 - Reflection.

That meant that it was time for the assembly. Time for me to officially become the Mockingjay and for me to become the new most hated person in District 13. As I threw a pillow at Katniss to wake her up, she almost fell out of the bed. Prim told us that they had been announcing the assembly since lunch. The entire population, except those needed for essential jobs, were required to attend. Which made me sick. Everyone there to hate me. I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and nodded.

"Okay. Let's go," I said.

As the three of us stood upright and headed out into the hallway, Katniss wrapped an arm around my waist. "Ready to be public enemy number one?" Katniss teased.

"I'm kind of used to it already," I said honestly.

"Well we love you," Prim said sweetly.

"And that's all that matters," I said, pressing a kiss into her hair.

We followed the directions to the Collective, a huge room that easily held the thousands who showed up. You could tell that it was built for a larger gathering, and perhaps it held one before the pox epidemic. Prim quietly pointed out the widespread fallout from that disaster - the pox scars on people's bodies, and the slightly disfigured children. All of these people here were about to hate me. Maybe they already had. The room had a towering ceiling that made me nervous. I wanted to be back in the woods.

"They've suffered a lot here," Prim said.

My face warped into a scowl. Not at Prim. Not at anything that she had said. She was still a child and a kind one at that. She loved everyone, even the people that she didn't have any reason to like. She didn't like to see anyone in pain. She didn't like to see anyone have any kind of suffering in their lives. But I wasn't that kind of person. I was vengeful and bordering on cruel. And after what I saw this morning, I was in no mood to feel sorry for Thirteen.

"No more than we did in Twelve," I said.

As we moved to our spots, I saw Ms. Everdeen lead in a group of mobile patients, still wearing their hospital nightgowns and robes. Finnick stood among them, looking dazed but gorgeous. In his hands he held a piece of thin rope, less than a foot in length, too short for even him to fashion into a usable noose. There was probably a reason for that. His fingers moved rapidly, automatically tying and unraveling various knots as he gazed about. Probably part of his therapy.

Breaking from Prim and Katniss for a moment, I crossed to him and said, "Hey, Finnick." He didn't seem to notice, so I nudged him to get his attention. "Finnick! How are you doing?"

"Aspen," he said, gripping my hand.

It was the most formal that I had ever seen him before. It was a little strange if I was completely honest. Even when I had never spoken to him before, he had never been formal and had always treated me like we were the best of friends. But the corners of his lips turned up in an almost-smile. He was relieved to see a familiar face, I figured. I moved forward and pulled Finnick into a gentle hug. He responded by gently placing a hand in the small of my back. If I was being honest, I really did miss him.

"You're speaking to me now," Finnick said gently, pulling away from me.

"No point in staying angry with each other," I said quickly. "What's with the rope?"

"Just something to do," Finnick said blankly.

"I understand. You know, I'm allowed to go hunting now. Would you like to come with me one day?" I offered.

Maybe getting out and doing something would be good for him. "Sure," Finnick said.

"It'll be fun," I goaded.

He had never seemed so out of it and careless. "Why are we meeting here?" Finnick asked suddenly.

"I told Coin I'd be her Mockingjay. But I made her promise to give the other Tributes immunity if the rebels won. In public, so there are plenty of witnesses," I said.

"Oh. Good. Because I worry about that with Annie. That she'll say something that could be construed as traitorous without knowing it," Finnick said.

My heart lodged in my throat. Annie. Uh-oh. Totally forgot her. Or did I? I had been so ecstatic and so panicked about ensuring to get Cato out of the Capitol's hands that I couldn't remember who else I had mentioned. I didn't even knew if Coin had understood what I had meant about her. I remembered mentioning Annie to Coin, but Annie wasn't a Tribute. She might have just nodded blankly. Did Coin even know about her? I was going to have to make sure that someone understood what I had meant.

"Don't worry, I took care of it," I told Finnick reassuringly.

Giving Finnick's hand a squeeze, I turned on my heel and marched straight up the stairs. Which turned out to be a very hard task with the concussion and lingering effects of the electrocution. I was almost embarrassed at how weak I was. But I managed to head straight for the podium at the front of the room. I had to pass by Cato's family, letting them know that I was on a mission and would see them soon. They wished me luck. Coin, who was glancing over her statement, raised her eyebrows at me.

"Did you add Annie Cresta to the immunity list?" I asked.

Coin frowned slightly. "Who's that?"

"She's Finnick Odair's..." What? I didn't really know what to call her. Even away from the Capitol's eyes, who was she? "She's Finnick's friend. From District 4. Another Victor. She was arrested and taken to the Capitol when the arena blew up."

"Oh, the mad girl. That's not really necessary. We don't make a habit of punishing anyone that frail," Coin said.

Immediately I started to bristle. What the hell was she talking about? They didn't punish anyone that frail. I thought of the scene that I walked in on this morning. Of Octavia huddled against the wall. Of Venia and Flavius barely being able to look at me. Of how Coin and I must have had vastly different definitions of frailty. Or perhaps it was all because they were from the Capitol. Maybe being from there automatically made you immune to being frail in Coin's eyes.

But I only said, "No? Then it shouldn't be a problem to add Annie."

"All right," Coin said, penciling in Annie's name. So she hadn't been on the list before... "Do you want to be up here with me for the announcement?" I shook my head. "I didn't think so. Better hurry and lose yourself in the crowd. I'm about to begin."

Nodding at her briefly, I turned and practically sprinted away. I didn't want to be right up in their sight. That would have been a terrible thing to do. I wanted to hide at the back of the Collective and make sure that I could run if there was a mob that was going to be planning on attacking me because I was demanding for Coin to save Cato. I made my way back to Finnick, Prim, and Katniss. They all placed their hands on me, keeping me calm for the announcement.

"Good afternoon," Coin started, silencing any conversations. "Thank you for interrupting your schedules. They have already been adjusted to compensate for the delay."

"I hardly ever see children around here," I whispered to Prim, spotting only a few around.

"Please, check in with your unit supervisors when you resume work," Coin continued.

"A lot of them were lost in an epidemic a few years ago. Coin lost her family, too. Daughter and a husband," Prim said.

"I didn't know that," I said, surprised.

Although I supposed it was why she was so nasty about everything. She was still mourning. "I have an announcement for the citizens of Thirteen, and our welcome guests from Twelve and Two. Aspen Antaeus has consented to be the face of our cause to help unite the districts against the Capitol," Coin said.

She was silent long enough for everyone to celebrate what she had just said. I tried to place a smile on my face. I had to pretend that things were okay. I had to pretend for a moment that I hadn't made a deal that would likely make people want to turn away from me again. There was a long period of applause and I noticed that people on all sides of me were sending me happy looks. I knew that they would only be happy with me for so much longer.

"In exchange, I have promised several concessions," Coin continued. "First, we'll assess all opportunities for the extraction of the Victors held hostage in the Capitol. Cato Hadley, Johanna Mason..."

There was a large noise of discontent from the crowd. Coin paused long enough for everyone to complain about why that was a terrible idea. And it might have been. There was a good chance that we could lose a number of soldiers attempting to extract just a few people. But those people - one of them, at least - meant the world to me. I had to know that Cato was alive. I needed him back here. But I was one of the only people who wanted him back. The crowd was not happy, just as I was expecting.

"... and Annie Cresta. Once freed, they will be granted full pardon for any and all crimes committed against the rebel cause."

The new noise of anger wasn't something that surprised me in even the slightest. I could have never said that District 13 weren't passionate about those things that they believed in. They definitely let me know just how much they hated me and what I had made them promise to keep Cato safe. There was an even louder sound of displeasure from the crowd. I slowly placed myself in between Katniss and Prim. I noticed Cato's family placing themselves around me.

Words were not something that were wasted in Thirteen. That was almost all that they said during the assembly. Other than the fact that it didn't matter what damage was done in the rebellion. The Victors would be pardoned. It was exactly what I was hoping for. In the rumbling of the crowd, I heard the dissent. I supposed that no one doubted that I would want to be the Mockingjay. So naming a price - one that spared possible enemies - angered them. I stood indifferent to the hostile looks thrown my way.

It wasn't like I wasn't used to looks like that before. I was more than used to them. They had been thrown my way since I had first arrived in the Capitol over a year ago. And they had been thrown all around District 12 before that. Coin allowed a few moments of unrest, and then continued in her brisk fashion. I watched her hair blankly for a moment. But just for a moment. Because now the words coming out of her mouth were news to me.

"But in return for this unprecedented request, Soldier Antaeus has promised to devote herself to our cause. It follows that any deviance from her mission, in either motive or deed, will be viewed as a break in this agreement. The immunity would be terminated and the fate of the four Victors determined by the law of District Thirteen. As would her own. Thank you for your attention. Please, resume your daily schedules," Coin finished.

Everyone started moving around to head back to their own jobs. A number of nasty looks were thrown my way. But Finnick, Prim, Katniss, and Cato's family stayed with me in the center of the Collective. Because we all knew what her words genuinely meant. In other words, if I stepped out of line, we were all dead.

Chapter Text

So it turned out that Coin was just another force to contend with. Not that I hadn't known that before, but now I knew the magnitude of how much she was genuinely willing to do to keep me working along with her plans. She was just another power player who had decided to use me as a piece in her games, although things never seemed to go according to plan. They never did and they likely never would. It wasn't like using my life as a gambling piece was something new.

It was something that I had always been used to. It was something that I would always be used to. Although now it seemed to be even more serious. First there were the Gamemakers last year, making me their star. Everything from the fire-ridden costumes that coined the name Girl on Fire, to the perfect score, to making me the most wanted and loved Tribute of those Games. Of course, it had all blown up in their faces when they had been forced to scramble to recover from those two stupid daggers.

It hadn't ended there. That had only been the beginning of people using me as a piece in their own games. Then it had been President Snow, trying to use me to put out the flames of rebellion, only to have my every move become inflammatory. Those speeches in the Districts that only angered the people. The engagement to Cato that seemed to bind us together and ignite the revolution. Cato's shocking revelation that I was pregnant and the way that I used it to my advantage in the arena.

Next, it was the rebels ensnaring me in the metal claw that lifted me from the arena. These people who had brought me here with the intent to have me work with them - without argument and without flaw. They had already designated me to be their Mockingjay, and then they had been forced to recover from the shock that I might not want the wings. They had been forced to bring me back from the verge of suicide, something that no one had been prepared to handle.

And now it was Coin, with her fistful of precious nukes and her well-oiled machine of a District, finding that it was even harder to groom a Mockingjay than to catch one. Mostly because I didn't want it. And I would not just roll over and die for her. I had already done that too much over the past year and a half. She must have seen it in my eyes, because she was the quickest to determine that I had an agenda of my own and was therefore not to be trusted. She had been the first to publicly brand me as a threat.

Clearly Katniss noticed it. The scathing glare from Coin up on the perch. The angered looks of the beaten-down residents of District 13. Katniss laid a hand on my arm and gently started pushing me away. She was probably right to have me get out of the area. I was public enemy number one right now, just the way that she had told me that I would be. Not that it shocked me. Now not only was I a threat, I was a liability and enemy to the cause with my requests.

"Leave. They're looking to you," Katniss whispered.

"See you guys later," I muttered.

There were a few goodbyes said to me, but no one said anything to make us even more easily noticed. It was a little difficult to slip through the crowd, as so many people were trying to stop me to ask why the hell I had requested something like that. I was very grateful when Damien and Dean walked up behind me, removing the rest of the crowd and allowing me slightly easier access out of the Collective. For a while I needed to be by myself and stew in my own thoughts, as I so often did.

Starting to wander through the lower levels of District 13, I realized that it wasn't just the people who were in the Collective. The announcement must have been broadcast everywhere. Because even the workers around the rest of the District were glaring at me. It was the wrong time for me to be lingering around here. I needed to get somewhere private. Especially after I had just essentially made the announcement that I was going to try and save the people who now looked to be Capitol loyalists.

So I turned and left the populated area. I wanted to be far away from here. Far away from the lingering and angry crowd of the Collective. It was going to be dinnertime soon. I knew that. It was just about twenty minutes until it was time for me to head back to the dining hall. But I really didn't want to sit in there with everyone else. I knew that no one wanted to see me right now. They were all angry with me. And, to be honest, I was angry at them too. How did they not understand that I needed to do this?

How could these people have not understood that I needed to go and save Cato? He was my husband, no matter what had happened. No matter how we had been forced into it. I had to save him. After a while I ended up heading straight back to our compartment. I assumed that it was the only safe place for me to be right now. I collapsed on the bed and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, taking a few deep breaths that I so desperately needed, attempting to find out what came next for me.

What did come next for me? Becoming the Mockingjay? Yes. That was about it. That was the next thing that I needed to do. But there was something that I needed even more. To get Cato back. That was the one thing that I really needed. But how much longer would it be before I could get him back? I hoped that it wouldn't be too long. I wanted him to be back with me. I missed him so desperately. Every piece of me missed hum more than I had ever thought was possible.

Just as I started thinking about being with Cato again, I realized something that I hadn't really thought about before. It was something that I had known would happen, but I hadn't thought about. I was going to have to ask Coin when she intended for the rescue mission for Cato and the other Victors would be. In the meantime, I would need to do everything that she wanted and be perfect as the Mockingjay. It was the only way to guarantee everyone's safety. My own included.

Cato's P.O.V.

The moment that he woke up, Cato cringed. A pain shot through his arms. The same spot that he had so often felt something stab him in. He couldn't have said what time or day it was. Time had lost all meaning in the terrible haze that he had been in. Waiting for the surely horrific torture that was to come, he opened his bleary eyes. He was very vague on what was happening. He didn't even know what his last truly real memory had been. Everything had started melding together.

He didn't know how long he had been wherever he was. He didn't even know where he was. Somewhere white. Painful. Small. He had no idea what was real and what wasn't. He wasn't even sure if this place was real. Everything was so hard to place in its correct spot. Real and not real. He couldn't tell anymore. He barely remembered being able to sleep. It was just a haze where memories were a little blurrier. He didn't even know when was the last time that he really gotten to sleep was.

The only thing that he could do to try and hang onto his sanity was remember Aspen. As frequently as he could. But it was almost impossible. It seemed that each time he tried to remember her, he started seeing some horrible thing that she did to him. He tried to blink away the images - telling himself that they weren't real - but it was almost impossible. He kept trying to remind himself that she is his wife and he loves her, but it's becoming harder and harder. He couldn't see himself with her, happy and in love, anymore.

Why not? He couldn't figure it out. As Cato rolled over, determined to remember her the way that he had always known her, he realized that he was in a bed. For once they had taken him off of the metal table. It was the only form of comfort that he had had in a long time. He groaned as the florescent lights flooded his eyes. But that was also the same moment that he realized that he wasn't in the bed by himself. Someone else was there. It was Aspen.

She was right in the bed next to him. Cato jerked slightly, startled to see her there. She hadn't been with him in... months? Weeks? Years? The Quarter Quell? Was that the last time that they had been together? He couldn't remember when it had really been the last time that he had seen her. And he couldn't really tell if she had loved or hated him when he had seen her last. Aspen's face spread into a small smile as she looked him over. Cato tensed up again, trying to force himself to relax.

She was just his wife. Everything that he had seen before was a lie. Everything that they had shown him wasn't real. She was his wife and loved him. But Cato couldn't stop from staring at her blankly for a moment, just waiting to see what she would do. What she might turn into. What horrible monster was he about to see? Real or not real? Who knew? But after a moment he realized that she wasn't a monster this time. It was her. It was really his wife. She was no monster. She was really his wife...

His entire body relaxed as he stared at her. She wasn't going to hurt him. She was really here and her normal self. Cato looked her over slowly before realizing that she wasn't wearing clothes. The sheet was thrown over her body. Just like that morning before the Quell. The sheet was tangled around her legs and waist, hiked up just over her chest. He almost managed to smile at her, but the pain radiating through his body was horrible. But seeing her the way that he loved her was worth it.

Just like everything that he had done for her before, it was worth it. She had always been worth it. Everything that had ever happened to him. Cato slowly leaned forward and pressed the hair back off of her forehead. It was tangled slightly and she giggled - a sound that he had always loved. She smiled softly and turned into the palm of his hand, placing a small kiss there. She was the love of his life. And she was finally back with him. He leaned forward and kissed her gently, so happy to be with her.

As he broke away from her, Cato started to look around. They were in an unfamiliar room. What had happened since the last time that he was really aware of himself? "Where are we?" Cato asked.

"Home," Aspen said sweetly.

"Where's home?" Cato asked.

Was home District 2? His own home. Maybe District 12? Her home. Either way, he had to make sure that they were safe. "With me," Aspen said, taking her hand and putting it on his stomach.

Cato smiled, gently running his hand over her soft skin. "Are we in the Capitol?" Cato asked quickly.

"You're with me," Aspen teased.

As much as he liked seeing the playful part of her personality again, he needed to make sure that they were okay. "Aspen... Where are we? Are we safe?" Cato asked desperately.

"You'll always be safe with me," Aspen whispered.

"I know," Cato said truthfully.

That was the way that they had always been. They protected each other. They always would. "I've missed your smile," Aspen said, running her hand along his chest.

Cato smiled and pressed a kiss into her clavicle. "I've missed yours, too. I've missed everything about you," Cato said truthfully. He couldn't even describe how wonderful it was to see her smile again. "How did you get here? How long have you been here?"

"So many questions," Aspen teased.

"Aspen... This is serious. Where are we?" Cato asked.

"I already told you. We're home, Cato," Aspen said.

But where was home? "Are we in District 2? District 12?" Cato asked.

They had to be somewhere safe. They couldn't linger in the Capitol. "District 12 is gone," Aspen said, as if it didn't bother her.

Cato's jaw almost dropped. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Her home was gone? She would have lost her mind if her home had been destroyed. As awful as District 12 could be at times, he knew that it meant the world to her. It was the only place that she had ever known. It was the place that her parents had grown up. It was the place that she was from. It couldn't have been gone? What could have even happened to it?

"I destroyed it," Aspen continued.

No... No... She wouldn't have done something like that. She couldn't have done something like that. That was something that the Capitol would have done. Not Aspen. "What are you talking about?" Cato asked slowly.

Aspen smiled brightly, her smile having lost the warmth it had before. "After the Games... After the Quell... When I shot that arrow up into the dome I started something. They dropped firebombs on District 12. Just like I wanted them to. It's gone. So is almost everyone else. All of those people who thought that they were my friends and family. Gone. Just like that," Aspen said coldly.

Cato's heart skipped a beat. What the hell did she mean? What was she talking about? That couldn't have happened. They hadn't done anything to District 12. Not that Cato knew. He hadn't been outside in a number of months. But he knew one thing. They hadn't destroyed it. They couldn't have done something like that. She hadn't done something like that. She loved her home. She would never let something like that happen to it. She would never let the people she loved die. She had always protected them.

"What -?" Cato breathed out.

"Peeta's family is dead, too," Aspen interrupted. Cato's stomach jolted painfully, and it wasn't from the torture this time. His family was dead? It was bad enough that he had died? His family deserved to live. "At least they're together."

Her voice held something of a laugh. Cruel. Something that he had never heard her sound like before. "You're lying," Cato whispered.

His wife wasn't cruel. She was loving. She loved everyone. "No... No, I've never lied to you, Cato. It's gone. All of it. Just ask everyone here," Aspen teased, sitting up in the bed.

Cato shook his head. "Those are your friends... your family... you couldn't have wanted them dead," he said slowly.

"But I did. Just like I want you dead," she said.

Aspen's hand reached over. Despite the teasing look in her eyes, she was as hard as stone right now. It wasn't the way that he had ever known her. She was sweet and kind and laughed at everything. She was a good woman. Not this creature. Not this thing that the Capitol kept dangling in his face. Cato's heart was pounding as Aspen laid her hand on his chest, pressing into the bruises that were littered there. Cato cringed and tried to roll away, but he was too weak.

She had been doing so well. She had been back to normal. Not that he could remember what normal was. There were only little bits and pieces of her that he could remember before he had come here. Everything was so different now. He kept seeing someone who had wanted him dead. Not his wife. Some Capitol muttation, maybe. But now she was back to that horrible creature that had him convinced that maybe Aspen had never really existed.

"Aspen - Stop - Not this again," Cato begged, trying to pull her hands away from him. But she was latched on. "I can't... keep doing this..."

Aspen smiled again, moving to sit over Cato's waist. "Keep doing what, Cato? You know who I am. You know what I've done. You know the type of person that I am. Don't you?" Aspen teased. Did he? He couldn't even remember who she was even more, as much as he wanted to. "Stop lying to yourself."

"You're my wife. This isn't you," Cato begged, placing his hands on her hips, trying to remove her.

"Yes, it is, Cato. You know that it is."

Cato's head pushed back into the pillows. He wanted her gone. He couldn't keep doing this. He couldn't keep trying to remember her one way - his loving wife - only to see this horrible monster. Someone who didn't love him. Someone who wanted him dead. Someone who was willing to destroy everything, just for the pleasure of watching people get hurt. He could barely remember the woman that he had once loved. This was the only thing that existed in his mind anymore, and he needed her gone.

"Why -?" Cato's voice cracked painfully. Aspen's head tilted, painfully teasing. "Why is this happening to you? Why can't I remember you the way that you were?" Cato asked weakly.

"This is the only way that I've ever been," Aspen smiled.

"No, it isn't," Cato said, no longer really convinced of that.

"It is. Don't you remember?" Aspen asked.

Of course he remembered her stabbing him, ripping out his own throat with her teeth, and transforming into that horrible wolf muttation to try and rip him limb from limb. He tried to blink back those memories. He tried to remember her the way that he had thought that she was. That night of their wedding. They had been married, hadn't they? But he couldn't remember it. Where were their nights staying up talking and laughing? Where was any memory of her where he genuinely loved her and she loved him?

"Don't do this," Cato muttered.

"You know that they started enforcing a martial law on District 2?" Cato's head snapped up. "After the Quell ended? I have to say, I wanted something a little more. Maybe like the firebombs in District 12. Now that was a show!" Aspen chirped, laughing cruelly. Cato cringed. "But you take what you can get in this life. Still... It's too bad that their aim wasn't quite right. I would have been rooting for the little one."

His head was spinning. This time it wasn't from the concussions that he had gotten from the endless hours of torture. It wasn't from the lack of food or water. It wasn't from anything like that. He knew exactly what it was from. Confusion. He didn't understand what she was saying. The Capitol loved District 2. They would have never done anything like that. A martial law. And aim? What was that supposed to mean? The little one... Who was the little one? A kid?

"What are you talking about?" Cato asked slowly.

Aspen's smile turned even more. Something that had once made his stomach flutter with excitement now made it clench with nerves. "Want to see your sister?" Aspen asked.

Leah? That was the only sister he had. Unless she was counting Carrie. "Excuse me?" Cato asked dumbly.

"Here's Leah," Aspen hissed.

How had Leah gotten here? It wasn't safe for her to be here. He had to get his little sister out of here. Keep her safe. Clearly Aspen wasn't going to be of help. Aspen jumped off of Cato's lap and leaned over the side of the bed. Cato stared curiously. She reached down for something and Cato jolted when Aspen pulled up a body. A corpse. With a bullet hole straight through the middle of the forehead. It was Leah. His seven-year-old sister. Cato shouted hoarsely, stumbling back and collapsing out of the bed.

His body was throbbing from the fall, but he didn't care. That was his sister. His dead sister. "Leah..." Cato whispered, his voice weaker than he had ever heard it. "Leah!"

Cato pulled himself back to his feet to shake Leah, but it was too late. She had clearly been dead for quite some time. But Cato couldn't stop. He needed her to be alive. That was his baby sister. The one person that he had sworn that he would always protect. But he hadn't. Because she was dead. Aspen had helped kill her. Her skin was a faint gray and her lips were icy blue. Her eyes were slightly reddened. She was dead... She was really dead. A tear slipped out of Cato's eyes as he leaned over his sister.

"She's gone, Cato," Aspen said softly, perched on the edge of the bed.

"Who did this?" Cato asked, his voice shaking.

He would kill whoever did this. "A Peacekeeper with terrible aim?" Aspen offered, cruelly teasing. "Your father, who didn't hold her quite the right way. You, for ever talking to me in the first place. President Snow, for placing the martial law. Me... My arrow."

"You..." Cato tried. Could she have really done it? Was there really none of Cato's wife left? "You wouldn't have done this."

Aspen laughed softly, brushing the hair off of Leah's forehead. Cato instantly slapped her hand away. She didn't seem bothered. "Sure I did. Because I don't care about you, Cato. Not you or your family," Aspen laughed.

"You... You hurt her... My sister..." Cato breathed slowly.

She had really done it. "Yes. And you're next," Aspen said brightly.

That time Cato couldn't stop himself. Damn the way that he was feeling. It didn't matter how his entire body was shaking from pain and how his head was spinning from the lack of food and water. It didn't matter that he had lost almost all of his muscle mass. All that mattered was that he got some revenge for what had happened to Leah. He might not have been able to save her, but he would be able to do something to the person who had ended her life.

As much as Cato so desperately wanted to love Aspen, as much as he wanted to remember her the way that he thought that he could remember her, it was all impossible. He couldn't remember that Aspen anyways. Maybe all of his memories really were fake. So Cato got up from his knees and immediately went to attack her. That wasn't his wife. It was something so much worse. So he launched himself towards her and tried to strangle her.

His hands were almost around her throat when she took out a throwing knife that he hadn't seen before. Instantly she reared back and thrust the knife out. It slashed straight through his forehead, opening up the skin there and causing it to sag down slightly. Blood instantly pooling into his eyes, Cato fell back. Pain was radiating through his forehead as he tried to manage to get back to his feet. Aspen was giving a bored look down to the knife, cleaning his blood off on Leah's shirt.

"Like brother like sister," Aspen sighed.

Cato managed to push himself up onto his hands. "How could you do this?" Cato asked weakly.

"Because I hate you. You will always be weak and pathetic. I can't believe that you ever thought that I would love you. Gale and Seneca Crane... They're the real men in my life. You're nothing," Aspen said.

This was really her. There hadn't ever been a real Aspen Antaeus. She was just a monster. Always had been. "I'll kill you," Cato warned, his teeth clenched together.

Aspen waved him off carelessly. "I'm sure. I'll be going now. But I'll leave her." She motioned back to Leah's rotting corpse. "Just in case you get bored. Someone to talk to, right? Since no one else wants to hear what you have to say. Goodnight, husband," Aspen teased, making to leave the white room.

"I'll kill you!" Cato yelled.

The blood was making it almost impossible to see her. But he felt her lap briefly fall over him. He felt his hands getting pulled back and heard some type of clicking. A binding. It was locked firmly around her wrists and Cato started to scream, desperately trying to fight back against them. He had to get up and kill her. He had to do it for Leah. He had to at least kill the thing that had killed her. It was the last thing that he could do for his sister.

But the bindings that she had placed on his wrists were a little too strong. He couldn't fight back against them. It didn't help that he was finding himself getting a little dizzy from the loss of blood. But it didn't matter. He was going to kill her. Because she did that to his little sister. His favorite person on the planet. His lovely little Leah. The one person that he could remember once loving Aspen. Calling her the pretty girl on the television. How could Aspen have done something like that to her?

It turned out that Aspen Antaeus genuinely was a monster. Not his wife. Never his wife. Never someone that he loved. She was the exact person that the Capitol had been trying to show him that she was. They had actually been trying to help remind him of what she truly was. He couldn't believe that they were telling him the truth about her. His wife was nothing more than another person who made him a piece in her games. It didn't matter what it took. He would kill her for what she had done.

Aspen's P.O.V.

How long had passed? I wasn't quite sure. There was a clock ticking away in the corner but I hadn't bothered looking at it. I liked just sitting here and getting lost in my own mind - trying not to think about what was coming for me. I was pawing at a few crackers that Prim had brought me earlier, just after Coin's announcement in the Collective. I found myself not very hungry, as I hadn't been so frequently, instead thinking about everything that Coin had said. I really should have seen that one coming.

In the back of my mind I knew that I had been a fool for ever hoping to believe that this place was better. I was right all along. Things were no different here than they were in the Capitol. I was still just a piece in someone's games. Just as I had always been. Things weren't going to change. They never would. Not with Thirteen, at least. Maybe Coin didn't want the Games the way that the Capitol had them, but I couldn't believe that things were going to get any better with Thirteen or Coin in control.

But I just had to work with Coin, because she was the only person who had the capability to help me save Cato. And Annie, who I needed to get out for Finnick. I guessed Johanna, too. After all, she had risked her own life to save mine. Not that she had wanted to. But it didn't matter. She was suffering in the Capitol and I couldn't just leave her there. We had almost bonded in the arena, after all. As for Enobaria, I couldn't really care less about what happened to her. But it was only fair to save her too.

Although I was going to hit her as hard as I humanly could whenever I saw her for the first time. For stabbing me. Suddenly my mind turned back to Coin. Was there a chance that she would actually kill me if I deviated from what she wanted me to do as the Mockingjay? Probably. Coin wanted what she wanted and nothing was going to stop her. I supposed that I couldn't say anything again that. I had felt the same way many times before. Suddenly a knock came at the door, interrupting my thoughts.

"Come in," I called. The door opened and Seneca Crane slowly strolled in, closing it behind him. I placed the crackers down on the bedside table. "Hey."

"You should eat those," Seneca said, motioning to the crackers.

"They taste like cardboard."

"Yes. The food here in Thirteen isn't the best."

"Must be even tougher, coming from the Capitol. At least I'm used to the food in District 12, which, honestly, wasn't much better than the food here."

"It's definitely a change. But it's a good one. I like it here better. Less stress," Seneca said.

"Seriously?"

"In a way."

"I think I'm just as stressed here as I was in the Capitol. In District 12. Just in a different way," I said.

"I understand that. You really should eat those. Sooner or later they're going to have you start your Mockingjay duties. I'm not sure what they will consist of, but you'll need to have your strength," Seneca said.

"To stand in front of a screen?" I asked blandly.

"You might get to see some action," Seneca said, grinning slightly.

"You're petitioning to get me out on the field," I put together.

"It's not going well, but I'm working on it."

"Thank you for trying."

"I didn't think you liked sitting here and waiting."

"You're right about that."

He was right. I didn't like sitting here and waiting for word on what to do. I didn't like the idea of being the Mockingjay and only standing in front of computer monitors, reciting rehearsed lines, while people fought and died for me out on the battlefields. I had started this, and now I was in hiding, like a coward. I wanted to leave and be out there with them. I wasn't a politician. I was a terrible speaker. The one thing that I was good at was being a fighter. I was more useful out there.

"How are you?" Seneca asked after a beat of silence.

"Somehow thrown for a loop again," I said, laughing under my breath.

Seneca smiled and nodded. He took a seat next to me on the bed, propping his legs up on the bed frame. "Yes. I imagined that President Coin's words would surprise you," Seneca said.

"Did you know?" I asked, raising my brows.

Seneca immediately shook his head. "No. But I had a feeling that she would say something like that," he admitted.

At least he hadn't known. I would have been a little upset if he had and hadn't even bothered to tell me. "I'm not sure if I was expecting it or not. I guess that I should have expected it," I muttered truthfully.

"She needs a scapegoat if this doesn't work out," Seneca said.

My eyebrows raised. I hadn't even thought about that. It wasn't necessarily about her keeping me in line with what she wanted. It was also about having someone to blame if we didn't win. Someone to blame so that District 13 could go back to living its solitary life. They were hoping that I would be executed and Coin could blame everything that she had done on a little girl with far too much power. I just had to keep remembering that. No one here wanted to help me. I was almost on my own.

"Who better than the person that started this all?" Seneca continued.

"I suppose that's a good point. If I work for my own wants and desires for one second - if it deviates from her own motivations for even a moment - I'm giving up my own life to her. Not that she doesn't already have it," I growled irritably.

Someone always seemed to have complete control of my life. "Just play to her rules for a while longer," Seneca consoled me quietly.

"Rules... Always playing to someone's rules," I laughed.

"Just for a little while longer. If you help us win the revolution, you'll be done," Seneca said. It felt like this would never be done with though. "I can talk to President Coin. Allow you to go -"

"Back to District 12?" I interrupted.

Seneca's face flushed with embarrassment. "I'm deeply sorry," he muttered.

Shrugging my shoulders, I leaned back against the headboard. "That's okay. I forget about it sometimes, too. I'm not sure where I would even go," I said slowly.

"You could always stay here." I scoffed at the thought of living in District 13. "Or in the Capitol. We can try and find you a place to be re-situated," Seneca offered."

That would have been even worse than living in District 13. That was the last place that I could imagine living. "No offense, Seneca, but after everything that's happened to me in the Capitol, I think the last thing that I want is to live there. Too many bad memories," I said slowly.

"I understand. Perhaps District 2."

That wouldn't be a terrible idea. But even that had its own problems. "I'm not sure that would work either. When Cato comes back, he's going to find out about what happened to Leah," I said, cringing at the thought of Cato finding out that his little sister was dead. "I don't think that he'll want to go back to the place that she died. Even if it is his home."

"That's understandable, too. I don't think that I'll want to go back to the Capitol once this is all over," Seneca admitted.

My eyebrows rose. "Really?"

"Yes. Too many bad memories there."

He must have been talking about the constant death threats that he had suffered from Snow over the past year. "Trust me when I say that I understand. Where will you go?" I asked curiously.

Seneca seemed to think on it for a while. "District 4, maybe," he finally said.

"Four?"

As far as I had been thinking, only Finnick and Annie would go back to District 4. "I've always thought that it was the prettiest of the Districts. All of the water. The ocean. It might be a nice place to be," Seneca said.

For a moment I thought back to the Victory Tour. We had just been in District 4 for a day, but it had been lovely. I remembered thinking that it was a nice place. All of the water surrounding it. The smell of the ocean when the breeze would blow, whipping your hair around you. The lovely sun constantly beating down. Being able to swim whenever you wanted. Having enough money to be comfortable but not overly-wealthy. Enough food to never be hungry but not opulence.

Yes. It seemed that District 4 could be a good place to build a life. "It could be a good place to live. I guess I'll just have to think about it," I said, for the first time, really thinking about my future.

I had always been so in the now - thinking that I would die any day - that I had never really thought about the future before. "You could even rebuild District 12," Seneca offered.

"Yeah... That kind of seems like the only place that I could ever live and even have some semblance of happiness," I muttered.

Happiness. When was the last time that I had felt that? There were lots of relatively recent memories that I had of some semblance of happiness. The day that I had found out that Cato was alive. Hunting with Gale, Katniss, and later Dean. The wedding back in the Capitol. That day on the rooftop garden before the Quell. A few moments during the Quell. But the last time that I had been genuinely happy? I couldn't even remember. Probably never. Not with the constant threat of starvation and the Hunger Games.

"I found something," Seneca said, probably trying to distract me.

I appreciated it. I didn't want to think about how genuinely unhappy my life had been. "Oh?" I asked curiously.

"I think you should have it," Seneca said.

He dug his hand down into the pocket of his jumpsuit before pulling out something that looked eerily like the video that Finnick had once handed me of my father's Death Match. My stomach immediately turned in knots. I wasn't so sure that I wanted to watch this. Not if it was my mother's. I could handle seeing my father die. It had been absolutely horrible and had torn me apart, but I had always pictured him as so strong. My mother had seemed so much more emotional. I wasn't sure that I could handle hers.

"What is this?" I asked, my voice cracking.

"Come with me," Seneca goaded.

"Okay."

But I really didn't want to go. I didn't want to see what it was. I didn't want to possibly watch my mother die. Her death could remain a secret to me. The only thing that I knew was what Mr. Everdeen had told me. She had died during the Death Match when she had been caught in an opening by the male from District 2. There had been a little bit of a fight but my mother had been easily outweighed by him. In the end, it hadn't been much of a fight. She simply hadn't been strong enough.

It had been mostly luck that I had been strong enough. And Cato. Cato had definitely helped. Seneca placed a hand on the small of my back and gently pushed me from the compartment. The gesture that had once terrified me and sent uncomfortable chills up my spine was now something that was a form of comfort. He was one of the few people that I now allowed to be so close to me. In fact, I trusted Seneca right now more than I trusted Haymitch. It just went to show how awful my judge of character was.

Of course, the same could be said for anyone who talked to me. I wasn't nearly as good as I liked to pretend to be sometimes. As we walked to the War Room, I noticed a number of people staring at me. Just like always. I knew that Seneca greatly unsettled a number of people in District 13, but they were slowly getting acclimated to having him around. Especially now that his beard had grown in at all parts. He was slowly starting to look more like someone from the Districts. He looked much better these days.

As a matter of fact, if things had gone differently and I had never ended up with Cato - and Gale had been out of the picture - I would have been attracted to him. But that would have been in another, nonexistent, life. As we walked into the War Room, Seneca ordered everyone out. I sat down at the table as Seneca popped the tape into the recording device. I stared at the screen curiously. Then an image formed. It was the Tribute Interview stage and Caesar Flickerman was in the center.

He looked like he always had, but he was wearing a bright pink suit. "What is this?" I asked, turning to Caesar.

"Watch," Seneca goaded.

"Ladies and gentleman," Caesar started, "please give a warm round of applause for Emilia Antaeus!"

My mother... This was her Tribute Interview. "Seneca -" I started.

"Watch. You should watch this," Seneca interrupted.

At the same time, a woman walked onto the stage. Not even a woman. An eighteen-year-old girl. My mother. Whom I was now two years older than. Two years older than she ever got to be. My heart twisted strangely in my chest as she walked onto the stage to a loud round of applause. Her Stylist didn't seem to have been too outlandish but they definitely didn't have the flare that Cinna had. Her dress was a simple black gown that hit the floor, swaying around her feet, with silver sparkles that made the light dance.

As she walked onto the stage, I noticed that she looked much more confident than I had at my own Interview. The first time around, at least. I had almost fallen. She was walking with a confident swagger in her step. I couldn't believe her. How had I come from that confident and smiling woman? She looked like she was having the time of her life. I had seen videos of my own Interview. I had been shaking, I'd been constantly looking to the audience for help, and I had been wobbling in my heels.

But not my mother. Perhaps I'd taken more of my personality and 'charms' from my father. My mother clearly hadn't had enough to eat. I could see the boniness in her body. But, like me, she had clearly made use of living off of the land. She had some muscle mass to her. Her hair was long and blonde - just like mine. She looked like she might have been a little bit taller than me and she definitely had brighter eyes. Hers were a brilliant blue. We did have the same nose. Right now we could have been sisters.

"Welcome, Emilia," Caesar greeted as my mother took his hand and her seat.

"Thank you, Caesar," my mother said sweetly.

"You look absolutely lovely tonight," Caesar said.

"Oh, thank you. I don't think that I've ever worn something quite this lovely. I owe it all to my wonderful Prep Team and Head Stylist. They've really taken everything that I was comfortable with into consideration," my mother said, moving the skirt of her dress around her legs.

It was the same thing that I had done with my flame dress. Caesar smiled, placing a hand over hers. "A charmer you are! Isn't that right? Isn't it?" Caesar asked. The entire crowd started to cheer loudly. Already working the crowd. "It's been an exciting past few days, hasn't it?"

My mother smiled. "They've been busy. But I'm used to busy days," she joked.

The audience laughed again. "Of course! Your lovely daughter, if I'm correct?" Caesar asked.

Did you ever imagine that in just seventeen years you would be speaking to me? "Yes. Aspen," my mother said fondly. Did you imagine that I would be there, mother?

Caesar shifted a bit and waited for the audience to cease their cooing. "Might I ask about your late husband?" he asked carefully.

At least he had been somewhat respectful for that question. "Of course," my mother said.

Not that she would have had much of a choice. "We here in the Capitol remember him well." I could see my mother swallow a lump in her throat. They killed him. They killed you, too. But they will not kill me. "But I do recall during his Death Match that one of the final things he said was that he loved your daughter, calling her Aspen. Was that his decision?" Caesar asked.

For a moment I was grateful for Caesar. Not that I had ever really hated him that much in the first place. The only reason that I didn't actually like him was because of the Games. But I knew that he had been raised on them. He likely would have been quite the good person had he been raised in the Districts. Of course, he likely hated me right now. For everything that I had done to ruin his caliber of life. But I remembered my father. He had looked right into the camera and told me he loved me.

"We talked about what to name our daughter before his Reaping. We had come down to a few final choices. Aspen was one of them. When he was Reaped, we didn't even think about what to name her. My concern was making sure that our final few moments were talking about her. Protecting her. Making a plan. Before he died... that was his final request, I assume. Naming her. So that's her name. Aspen... My Aspen..." my mother said.

Her voice became very weak. It cracked as she trailed off. Her eyes were becoming slightly misty. I wanted to reach through the television and grab her hand. But I couldn't. She was long since dead. Seneca seemed to sense my need. He grabbed my hand and allowed me to squeeze his own tightly. I had wondered if that had been his final request or if they had already named me. At least I knew now. My mother's eyes became slightly misty as Caesar laid a hand on her shoulder.

"It's a lovely name and the right choice. A good final request," Caesar whispered.

"Yes. It was," my mother said, her voice even quieter.

The entire audience was silent. You could have heard a pin drop. "Might I ask where Aspen is now?" Caesar asked.

"Being watched over by my childhood best friend and her husband. They're going to take care of her... just in case," my mother tried off.

Don't worry, mother, they took care of me. I put myself here. "I believe that I speak for everyone when I tell you that I sincerely hope that you get to see your daughter again," Caesar said.

The audience erupted into soft cheers. No, you don't. You were perfectly happy to watch her die. "Thank you. So do I," my mother said softly.

"When she watches this in a number of years, no matter what the outcome of the Games are, what would you like to tell her? In this moment, what does Emilia Antaeus want to say to Aspen Antaeus?" Caesar asked.

Maybe that was why Seneca had shown me this. Because my mother had always wanted me to see this. "That I will be proud of her... no matter what she does. There is nothing that she could do to ever make me love her any less. No matter what happens in the Games, I will always love her. No matter where I end up. She will do wonderful things with her life. I genuinely believe that. With her father's temper. My determination. She'll be strong. I know that she will. She's going to make me so proud one day.

"She already has. Being this young... she'll have already experienced so many things that no one her age should. Losing her father, maybe losing me; no one deserves that. But she'll manage herself. I've left her in the care of the people who I know best. They'll take care of her. And if things go wrong, one day - long from now - I'll see her again," my mother whispered.

Had I really made her proud? Was this something that she had thought would happen? Was this what she wanted from me? She probably would have liked me attempting to end the Hunger Games. That much I was sure of. But she likely hadn't liked this. Everything that I had done to make it this far. What about destroying District 12? Of course, it had been an accident. I hadn't actually done it. But she definitely wouldn't have liked that. I didn't, either.

"You are marvelously well-spoken, Emilia. And I wish you all of the luck in the world. We here in the Capitol are praying with you that you'll get to see Aspen again," Caesar said.

Maybe he was being honest about wanting her to have seen me. But it didn't matter. She hadn't. "Me too," my mother whispered.

"Are you ready for the Games?" Caesar asked.

My mother's face turned up into a smile as she blinked back her tears. "Well there's no turning back now," she joked.

There was a large bit of laughter from both Caesar and the audience. "No, there isn't. With an eight in training, it seems that you're ready to compete," Caesar said brightly.

Not bad, mother. "Oh, I think an eight is an understatement," my mother said slyly.

So that's where my big head comes from. Caesar and the rest of the audience started laughing as he clapped his hands together. "Ha-ha! Well done! Ladies and gentlemen, Emilia Antaeus!" Caesar called, pulling my mother to her feet and raising her arms - just as he had done with me seventeen years later. "Best of luck."

"Thank you," my mother said.

With that, she walked off the stage. Some of the last free moments of her life. Some of the last moments before she went into the arena that she died in. My stomach churned in knots as the screen faded and kicked the tape back out. Seneca finally released my hand. He walked over and took the tape, slipping it back into his pocket. The two of us stared at each other for a little while. It took me a few moments too long to realize that I was crying.

Seneca reached over and brushed the tears out of my eyes. It was a gesture that I normally wouldn't tolerate from anyone but Cato. But he wasn't here right now. And until he got here, I needed someone to be here for me. So I allowed him the moment before squeezing my eyes shut, trying to stop the flow of tears. I had cried so much lately for so many horrible things. To cry over hearing how much my mother had loved me - how much faith she had in me - seemed silly.

"Why show me that?" I asked, my voice wavering.

"You needed to see it. You needed to know that it isn't just us who believe in you. Your mother believed in you." She had at the time. But she had believed that I could grow up and marry a good guy. A coal miner from District 12. Not a vicious Career from District 2. "Right now, looking down on you, she believes in you," Seneca continued.

"She wasn't expecting that I would do all of this," I said, motioning around us.

"Maybe not, but if she were here, she would believe in you. Just the way that I do," Seneca said.

Normally I would have smiled, but right now I felt a little sick. Seneca placed a hand behind my back and started leading me from the War Room. I wanted to get out of District 13 for a while, but I knew that it was the wrong time. I couldn't get out at nighttime. They had already told me that it wasn't safe. And I wouldn't be able to get outside tomorrow either. That was when I would start my Mockingjay duties. Surely something that I would be terrible at.

"Why do you believe in me so much?" I asked Seneca.

"Because I'm from the Capitol," Seneca said. I raised my brows, unsure of what he was talking about. "We cling for something to believe in. President Snow, the Hunger Games, the Tributes, the new Victors... Now I need something new to believe in." Seneca placed a hand on my shoulder. "I found one. The Mockingjay."

A little scowl fell over my face. "It always comes back to the Mockingjay," I snarled.

Always the Mockingjay. Never Aspen. Not for a long time. Volunteer, Tribute, Victor, Mockingjay. It had been so long since I had just heard my own name. "Not just the Mockingjay. Aspen Antaeus. That's who I'm betting on," Seneca said.

A little jolt went through my stomach. It was the same thing that Cinna had said to me a number of times. "You spoke to Cinna before he died, didn't you?" I asked weakly.

"Many of us did. But, yes, I spoke to him shortly before he died," Seneca said.

I wished that I had gotten more of a chance to speak to him before he had died. It had all been so fast. I had been launched into the arena and had never even gotten a chance to say all of the many things that I had wanted to say. I had complimented the dress. I had told him what he meant to me. But he had stopped me - as had the counter for the launch time - before I could say everything on my mind. He had told me that I was his family, though. And I would keep trying to make him proud.

As I walked through the halls towards my own compartment again, I glanced up at the metal walls. "I hate this place," I groaned. "I keep wondering if I'm really just the Mockingjay to these people or if I'm something more. Do they even know my name? Do they even care?"

"To be completely honest, no," Seneca said. I nodded, appreciating the honesty. "I doubt that most of them care. But the way that I see it, there are a number of people who do care."

"Cato's family. My family," I muttered.

Just a few people. Far too few. "Haymitch, Finnick, Brutus, and me," Seneca continued.

"Brutus hates me. Finnick, probably. Haymitch is dead to me," I snarled.

There was no chance that I would ever forgive Haymitch. Not for what he had done to me. "You should really speak with Haymitch at some point. Aspen, the two of you were once extremely close to each other," Seneca goaded.

"Before he betrayed me. He sold me out. He landed Cato in the Capitol," I hissed.

He had helped make true everything that I had feared so greatly. "And he wasn't happy with himself for doing it. It wasn't easy for Haymitch to tell them to collect you first. To go back on his word. But you mean a great deal to him. He wouldn't have been able to leave you," Seneca reasoned.

"He should have told me to stay with Cato. He could have brought us back together," I said weakly.

"Yes, he should have. But he knew that the two of you would leave. Run away. We had to keep the two of you with people who knew what was happening. We had to have people around who could overpower you. Dig out the tracker," Seneca said.

"I know that. But I have to be angry with someone. Haymitch just seems like the easiest person to be angry with," I said.

"He's always been an easy person to be angry with. Aspen, these things happen during rebellions. People must forget their promises and start doing what is best for the cause," Seneca explained.

It was so cold. So cruel. Something that sounded just like what someone from the Capitol would say. But I knew that it wasn't it. I knew that it was just something that happened with war and rebellion. People started to forget their original promises. I had long since forgotten about my promise to only take a life if necessary. How many people had I killed? How many people had I gotten killed? I had married the man that I had sworn that I would kill. But I still wasn't doing what was right for the cause.

I was doing what was right for me. I likely always would. "Rebellion sucks," I said very childishly.

Thankfully Seneca didn't comment on it. He merely smiled, walking down the hallway towards my compartment with me. "Yes, it does. Rebellion has never been something that we loved, but it was time," Seneca said.

Shocking, coming from someone who had once been a Head Gamemaker. Someone who had once loved the Games so much. "Talk about something else. I'm sick of talking about the rebellion," I muttered.

But that was really all that we could talk about. It was all anyone ever talked about. "They're preparing you for Mockingjay duties tomorrow," Seneca commented.

"Yes. Remaking me, just the way that they did for the Games. Joy," I growled.

"You would think that you would be used to it," Seneca teased.

"I doubt that I would ever get used to being poked and prodded and made up for their amusement," I said.

"I hear you've never been cooperative with it."

Had he ever heard about the moment that Cato and I had met each other? I certainly hoped not. It was still a little embarrassing. But it was definitely funny when I thought back on it. I snorted under my breath, shaking my head when Seneca sent me a fond and slightly confused look. No one really needed to know that I had been so uncooperative that I had shouted when having my legs waxed, drawing Cato and his Stylist into the room. The beginning of our once-vile relationship.

"Never," I said, still repulsed by the idea of having my legs waxed again, at a time like this. "But I might have to learn to manage if it means that they're going to go into the Capitol and rescue Cato. I can't keep fighting them on everything." We were silent for a few moments. "When do you think that they'll do it?"

"As soon as they can. They can't risk you getting upset and taking back your Mockingjay duties," Seneca reasoned.

Was there even a way for me to back out of them? "It doesn't seem like I'll have the choice to go back on them now," I said, remembering Coin's words up on that stage.

"Why's that?" Seneca asked.

"You heard what Coin said. If I fail to falter in them..."

"I won't let her hurt you."

He pressed a hand against my forehead, brushing back the loose strands of hair that hung there. "Thank you," I whispered.

"You deserve a happy life," Seneca said slowly.

"I don't think happiness is in the cards for me," I said honestly. It looked like Seneca might have wanted to say something else to me, but he was cut off the moment that we walked back into my room. Someone was already there. "Gale."

He was perched on the edge of my bed, clearly having been waiting for me. "I wouldn't bet on that. Have a wonderful night, Aspen," Seneca said, giving me a quick hug. "Good to see you, Mr. Hawthorne."

"Goodnight, Seneca," I said.

"Night," Gale said blandly.

There was definitely no way that Gale was ever going to like Seneca. No matter how many times I told him that we had moved past what had happened during the Victory Tour. Seneca gave us both respectful nods before turning to leave the compartment. At least Seneca wasn't rude about it. And each time that Seneca and I were together, we found ourselves a little more at ease with each other. We were starting to trust each other more and more. I dropped onto the bed with Gale, who brought out a plate of food.

"Is this your dinner?" I asked curiously.

He would get into a ton of trouble if he was going to hand me a plate of his food. "No. It's yours." I raised a brow. That was against the rules, bringing someone their food. They had to get it themselves. "Katniss caused a distraction in the kitchen so that I could get an extra plate for you," Gale explained, making me snort. "We didn't think that you would want to eat out there tonight."

"You were both right. Thanks for this," I said, taking the less-than-appetizing looking food.

"Our pleasure," Gale said.

He let me eat in silence for a little while. It didn't take me long to eat the dinner. Today it was beef stew with potatoes, onions, and turnips. It was all rather disgusting. It tasted very mealy and didn't have much of an actual flavor. There was even some pea soup. Too bad that I didn't like peas. I wished that we had some bread or something of the likes, but they really didn't have any in District 13. It was one of those moments that I genuinely missed the Capitol. At least they had good food.

"What did Katniss do?" I finally asked.

"I'm not sure, but there was a lot of banging and crashing," Gale said.

We both laughed. I could imagine that Katniss had caused quite the scene. She was fast enough that she would be long gone before they could catch her. "You'll get in trouble for that," I said.

"It was worth it."

"Just think... you might never get that communicuff back," I teased, wrapping my hand around his wrist.

"A truly terrible punishment," Gale said.

Suddenly my thoughts were turned back to Katniss. I hoped that she hadn't gotten in trouble with District 13 for bringing me my dinner. "Where is Katniss?" I asked.

"She had to run and take the long way around. She should be here soon," Gale said.

"Okay."

But it wasn't just a few minutes that passed before Katniss showed up. In fact, it was a number of hours that had passed before Katniss managed to show up in the compartment again. I wished that she would have been here hours ago. She was now the one that was good for defusing the fights between Gale and myself. Just the way that it used to be me who diffused the fights between the two of them. Things had changed greatly since the first Games.

Especially now that I argued with Gale a lot more than I used to. Not that we had always been the nicest to each other. We used to constantly fight with each other. But it had always been little bickering and we would be over it the next day. It wasn't like that anymore. Now when we fought, they were pretty nasty arguments. We wouldn't talk for days and even when we did talk again, they were always very tense conversations, almost like we were walking on eggshells.

When Katniss finally managed to arrive back in the compartment, I noticed that she looked absolutely exhausted. Clearly she had been on the run for a while. It must have been harder than we had originally thought for her to get back here. She must have been running from security for the past few hours. At least it wasn't me. I was always winded these days. I could only hope that the remaining effects from the concussion and electrocution would be gone soon.

Katniss strode into the compartment and instantly dropped down onto the bed. I smiled weakly at her and tossed a pillow over for her to lay down on. As much as I wanted to laugh at her, I was now in a sour mood, just as I always seemed to be. Today it was from the way that my earlier conversation with Gale had gone. It had quickly turned very nasty after our few moments with a joking attitude. Katniss almost instantly took notice that Gale was no longer with me.

"Where's Gale?" Katniss asked.

"Gone," I answered dully.

Katniss scoffed and looked around the compartment. I saw her eyes roll. "Seriously?" she asked. I nodded at her. "What happened this time?"

"Nothing. We just don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things," I grumbled, not wanting to think about what had just happened.

"And here I thought that you two might have finally been working things out," Katniss muttered.

"We were. Until he opened his mouth," I growled.

"What did he say?"

As much as I loved Gale, he had always been a terrible person to try and have console you. That wasn't the kind of person he was. He said what he felt. "Doesn't matter. I'm sure he'll complain to you later about what I did or said to piss him off," I commented.

The three of us had always complained to each other when one of us had gotten on the other's nerves. Then they would help to get us talking again. It was a constant back-and-forth with us. "He'll get over it. He's not going to start complaining to me. He doesn't want to fight with you. Not right now. Not while you're the way that you are," Katniss said.

"The way that I am?" I asked sharply.

"Stressed. In pain," Katniss said, quickly rectifying her mistake.

Those were two feelings that I had been experiencing for quite some time. They were actually quite different these days. "Believe it or not, I'm not as stressed as I used to be. I mean, I still am. But things have calmed down a little bit. Especially now that I know that Cato is still alive," I said, running the chain with our wedding rings on it between my fingers.

"And you're going to get him back," Katniss said, placing a hand on my knee.

"Yeah," I muttered.

That was the one thing that I couldn't wait for. To have him back with me. Katniss smiled and stood from the bed. "You should go to bed. It's gonna be a long day tomorrow," she said.

"Okay. Where are Mom and Prim?" I asked, laying back.

I hadn't seen them since the announcement in the Collective, and it had been a number of hours. "Mom's in the hospital with Prim. They're taking care of your Prep Team. Making sure that they're going to be healthy enough to help you get yourself together tomorrow," Katniss explained.

"They coming back tonight?" I asked.

They had looked so awful earlier that I couldn't believe they would be able to get over it and come back to help me tomorrow. "Maybe," Katniss said.

"Are you staying?" I asked, tucking myself under my sheets.

"I'm gonna go hunt down Gale. See if I can get him to tell me what happened," Katniss said.

"And?" I asked.

There was no way that this one was my fault. This one was all on Gale. "And I'll reason with him. Honestly, you two are like little kids," Katniss said, rolling her eyes.

"Thanks, Cat," I called teasingly after her.

"Sure thing. Get some rest," she said, turning back to me with a smile.

"Night," I chirped.

"Goodnight."

The door to the compartment closed just a second later. I assumed that I would be alone for most of the night. Which was fine by me. I wanted to steam in my own fury for a little while. Gale could be a major pain in the ass. I really wanted to slap him sometimes. It was clear that we saw so many things on completely different sides. But we had been through so many different things. I had been through the Hunger Games. I had been in the Capitol. Gale never had.

It was the one thing that Cato and I shared that Gale and I never could. I laid down on the bed and closed my eyes, feeling the familiar headache forming at my temples. I was exhausted from the day, even though I really hadn't done that much. It was just the constant stress on my mind, wondering if Cato was alive and still doing alright. I needed to know if they were hurting him or if they were just using his presence to try and get to me. Either way, he was constantly on my mind, even as I went to sleep.

When the next morning dawned, I was only able to get out of bed when Katniss threw a pillow at me to wake me up. Prim and Ms. Everdeen were still gone, likely still in the hospital, taking care of the Prep Team. I quickly changed jumpsuits - not that there was anything different about this one - after hopping out of the shower. Not that I really had a reason to shower. They would likely get me all hosed down again before putting me into the Mockingjay armor for the first time.

Once I was ready for the day, not bothering to put up my hair, I nodded at Katniss that I was ready to go. Not that I was ready. I would never be ready to become the Mockingjay for real. I headed out into the dining hall with Katniss, Gale meeting up with us about halfway. He said hello - and Katniss responded - but I ignored him. As we walked in I noticed a strangely familiar sight. At one of the far tables sat Effie Trinket. My former Escort. I was too interested to see Effie to tell Gale to leave me alone for a while.

"Effie?" I asked.

Dashing over to the table, I carelessly dropped my tray. Effie turned back and smiled happily. "Oh! Well," Effie half-sobbed.

Never in my entire life had I thought that I would be so happy to see Effie Trinket. Gale and Katniss followed, staying just a few strides behind me. As I leaned down, I brought Effie into a lingering hug. It was a little strange to see her. She was slightly more tanned than I had thought that she was without her makeup. And her hair was hidden by some type of scarf. Maybe I would never know what the real color was. I smiled confusedly as we pulled apart and I sat in front of her. Gale and Katniss were behind me.

"I thought that you were still in the Capitol!" I cried, taking her hand in mine. Effie had a hand laid on my shoulder. "I thought that they had to leave you there when it was time to come to Thirteen. What are you doing here?"

"I'm a political refugee," Effie said.

"I'm so glad that you're alright," I said truthfully.

In all honesty, I had thought that Effie would be killed in the Capitol for her association with me. I was very grateful that she was here. "So am I," Effie said.

"I was worried about you. Plutarch rescued you?" I asked.

"Rescued, yes, that's what he calls it," Effie half-laughed. "You and I were both in the dark. Now I'm condemned to this life of jumpsuits."

"Well you still look good in the jumpsuit," I said.

She really did. I just wished that she would take off the makeup and let me see what her real hair looked like. "Thank you, my dear," Effie said fondly.

She finally released me and looked past at Gale and Katniss. Gale had never been too fond of her. He thought that she was a strange Capitol woman, which she was. Katniss had originally hated her, but had learned to have some fondness for her. Effie leaned over and hugged Katniss. She was clearly happy to see her, too. On the other hand, Gale didn't go for a hug, but he did take Effie's outstretched hand and hold it for a moment.

"It is wonderful to see you again," Effie told Gale and Katniss.

"We're happy you're okay," Katniss said.

Effie picked up her water cup. "Can you believe this place? I miss coffee." She slammed it back on the table. "I never knew any place could be so strict. I mean, I thought at least in the higher ranks there'd be some side action. I miss my wigs." Effie gently touched her head scarf, making me smile. "Luckily, I remembered that this was all the rage when I was coming up. You know, everything old can be made new again, like democracy," Effie said, her face falling slightly. "Which brings me to this."

At the same moment, she slid over a folder. The same black folder that they had given me yesterday. It was the same folder that Plutarch had given me yesterday. It was the folder that held all of Cinna's designs. I had only looked through it for a brief moment before the others had taken it back and we had started getting to work. I had really wanted to look through it for a while, though. I wanted to see what Cinna had really wanted for me. Not that he had wanted all of this. Maybe the ends. Not the means.

"Cinna," I whispered, opening the folder. "I didn't really get a chance to look through these."

"He made Plutarch promise not to show you this until you'd decided to be the Mockingjay on your own. He knew the risks, as we all do," Effie said reassuringly.

Instantly I started going through the pages. It almost made me smile. I could see the bits of Cinna in every drawing. His writing, his loops, his favorite colors. And mine. The Mockingjay emblem was on the inside of the front cover. On the first page were color choices, grey and blue and black, and a drawing of my back with what looked to be tactical, decorative, wings. There were even sketches of feathers. On the next page was me in my armor, holding a loaded and drawn bow.

The next page held an extremely detailed sketch of what I assumed was supposed to be my arm guard. It was much more impressive than any that I had used before. I hadn't even used one in either Hunger Games. There was another drawing of me with the detailed padding that would protect me from bullets and knives. On the last page - with a detailed drawing of the chest piece - my hand lingered over his note. The whole book must have taken months. For Cinna...

"He really did have faith in me," I whispered.

"Yes, he did. He believed in this revolution. He believed in you," Effie said.

"They're beautiful," I said softly.

"They have it. They have the Mockingjay outfit," Effie said. I nodded, having already known that. "There's not much of a Prep Team here in Thirteen, but we will make you the best-dressed rebel in history."

Did she not know that my Prep Team was here? Or was she referring to the fact that they were obviously traumatized by living here? It didn't matter. "Let's get to it," I said.

"Come along, dear," Effie said.

Something struck me a little funny about the way that she had said that I would be the best dressed rebel in history. Once a Capitol woman, always a Capitol woman. It didn't matter. I loved Effie in my own way. I was extremely glad that she was safe. Ignoring my breakfast - strangely eager to get to work - I pushed the plate back and stood from the table. Gale went straight to work (I made sure to ignore him) and Katniss left for training with a promise that she would check on me soon.

In the meantime, Effie and I headed off to get to work. A full day of poking and prodding at me, just the way that they had done to me before the first Hunger Games. We headed deep into the underground of District 13. It was a place that I had never been before. I assumed that it was where the entire process would be done to make me look like a proper Mockingjay. I was going to start looking a little bit more like the Capitol darling that I had once been so used to looking like.

We walked deep into some underground tunnel and into a gray room. I stared at it blankly. It looked like one of the rooms in the hospital. Instantly I stripped off my clothing, much to Effie's pleasure. I was just used to it. It turned out that my Prep Team wasn't coming to help me. Not yet, apparently. There were two unfamiliar faces - both of whom seemed to be Capitol refugees. I wasn't sure exactly who they were, but they were much quieter than my own Prep Team. They didn't speak to me. They just worked.

As they worked, Effie walked off to see what else was happening. I was sure that she was checking in with Plutarch and Fulvia about whether or not they were ready for me later. I had noticed that Effie wasn't overly fond of Fulvia. As the two strangers worked I found myself almost missing the constant chattering of my Prep Team. But I could tell that they weren't quite ready to face me just yet. Not that I could really blame them. I wouldn't have wanted to see me either if I was in their shoes.

"Remake her to Beauty Base Zero. We'll work from there," Fulvia had ordered first thing in the morning.

That was when I had noticed it on Effie's face. Her annoyance that someone else was dictating my every move. "You'll look lovely," Effie had reassured me.

"Thanks, Effie. Don't worry. I like you much more," I had whispered. And just like that, there had been some reemergence of the old Effie Trinket with her flashing smile.

Beauty Base Zero turned out to be what a person would look like if they stepped out of bed looking flawless but natural. It was what I imagined that I might have looked like had I been raised in one of the Career Districts. But even they hadn't looked that good upon arrival in the Capitol. Their beauty definition now meant that my nails were perfectly shaped but not polished. My hair was soft and shiny but not styled. My skin was finally smooth and clear again, but not painted. That had been the longest process.

Afterwards they had waxed the body hair and erased the dark circles under my eyes, but they didn't make any noticeable enhancements. That was something that I had appreciated. I supposed that Cinna had given the rebels the same instructions that he had the first day I arrived as a Tribute in the Capitol. Only that was different, since I was a contestant. As a rebel, I had thought that I would get to look more like myself. But it seemed that a televised rebel had her own standards to live up to.

That meant that I had to look like I had the first time that I had been shown off at the Tribute Parade. Effie crossed back into the room a few hours later to track the progress. Not that they had managed to make one. Right now it was all about finishing erasing the marks that had been left behind from my second trip into the arena. There were quite a number. Especially since I had been subjected to a few more brutalities in the Quell than I had in my first Games.

They had been forced to bring in another few Capitol refugees - and Effie - to help erase the scars that had been left behind. Those that had been left behind from the trees and bushes that I had run into. Some of the char marks from the electrocution. The horrible burn across my stomach. The bruises and stab wounds. Not to mention the burned and singed hair from the fire and the fog. It had to be completely redone to appear like it hadn't been half-burned off.

At least it was now back to length that it used to be. Just a few inches shorter. I was back in the bath when Effie returned to check on me again. I was slowly running my fingers through the thick layer of bubbles in my tub. Cleaning me up was just the preliminary step to determining my new look. With my previously acid-damaged hair, sunburned skin, and ugly scars, the new prep team would have to spend hours making me pretty only to then damage, burn, and scar me in a more attractive way.

"How's the Prep Team?" I asked Effie as she came back to my side.

"They're doing better," Effie said, placing herself on the edge of the tub. "Plutarch isn't quite sure that they're ready to work. We're using a few others to try and help you get ready."

"Not the Prep Team, then?" I asked.

"Not today. They need a few more days."

"Who will do it?"

"Plutarch says that they have a team that can make do. The two who were in here first."

"Okay."

They hadn't seemed overly-fond of me, but I supposed that most people weren't. At least there was someone here to help me. Not that I really cared what I looked like. But evidently the rest of Panem and the rebels would. Although I thought that I should look burned and wounded. It would make me look like a real warrior and fighter. It would make it look like I wasn't being pampered while people were out there, losing their lives for me. My idea had been quickly shot down.

Apparently I was too ugly to even consider that idea. Eventually I was led out of the bathtub. As Fulvia said, I looked at least human again. I was sat in a chair with a fabric draped over my chest as they started to make me up. The two people from the Capitol were back with me and standing at either side, wearing the same uniform I normally did. I closed my eyes at the sight of the makeup brushes and felt them moving heavily across my face. It was obvious enough that they had never done their own.

Suddenly Effie burst into the room. "Stop! What are you savages doing?" Effie howled. She snatched the makeup brushes from them. They stepped back as Effie grabbed my face. "This is the face of a revolution!" I tried speaking but Effie spoke over me. "Not some cave painting. Well scoot." The two workers left as Effie called after them, "Have you even ever met rouge?"

"Thank you," I called somewhat awkwardly after the two.

At least they had tried. I closed my eyes a moment later as Effie started to wipe off my makeup. "Don't worry, Aspen. We're going to make this work. For you, for me, and for Cinna. Once I fix this mess," Effie promised.

"Okay," I said, my voice cracking.

For Cinna, I would get over this. Effie started to bring out her own makeup before clearly getting frustrated with the level of work that I required. "This isn't working. Get the Prep Team! Tell them it's an emergency," Effie shouted.

There was a loud thunder of feet as people tried to get the Prep Team down into the room. Evidently I really needed that much work. I wasn't sure if I was offended or if I thought that it was funny. I was stuck in silence by myself as I waited for the Prep Team to arrive. They came in after almost twenty minutes, looking shaken and nervous, but a lot healthier. I smiled and got to my feet, going to hug them. They looked a little terrified of me, but returned the hugs anyways.

"How are you feeling?" I asked them.

"Ready to work," Venia said, sounding stronger than she had yesterday.

"Me too. I promise I won't be a whiner," I gently teased.

For the first time in a long time, I saw my entire Prep Team smile. It was something that was just the slightest bit reassuring to see. It was the same thing that Flavius had told me before my first Games. He had mentioned that it was the one thing that they couldn't stand. At the time it had filled me with fury. Now it was funny. They led me back over to the bathtub and started redoing what the two Capitol refugees had been working on before. Clearly they had done everything wrong.

After I rinsed the lather from my body, I turned to find Octavia waiting with a towel. She was so altered from the woman I knew in the Capitol, stripped of the gaudy clothing, the heavy makeup, the dyes and jewelry and knickknacks she adorned her hair with. I remembered how one day she showed up with bright pink tresses studded with blinking colored lights shaped like mice. She told me that she had several mice at home as pets.

The thought repulsed me at the time, since we considered mice vermin, unless cooked. Most of the animals that they used as pets in the Capitol were used for a meal in District 12. Except dogs. Although I had seen people get a little desperate from time to time. I wasn't sure that I would have ever been that desperate. But perhaps Octavia liked her mice because they were small, soft, and squeaky. Like her. It almost made me smile. As she patted me dry, I tried to become acquainted with the District 13 Octavia.

Her real hair turned out to be a nice auburn. Her face was ordinary but had an undeniable sweetness. She was younger than I thought. Maybe early twenties. Almost my age. It made me sick. Devoid of the three-inch decorative nails, her fingers appeared almost stubby, and they couldn't stop trembling. I wanted to tell her that it was okay, that I would see that Coin never hurt her again. But the multicolored bruises flowering under her green skin only reminded me of how impotent I was.

Flavius, too, appeared washed out without his purple lipstick and bright clothes. He had managed to get his orange ringlets back in some sort of order, though. It was Venia who was the least changed. Her aqua hair laid flat instead of in spikes and you could see the roots growing in gray. She was definitely older. However, the tattoos were always her most striking characteristic, and they were as golden and shocking as ever. She came and took the towel from Octavia's hands.

"Aspen is not going to hurt us. Aspen did not even know we were here. Things will be better now," Venia said quietly but firmly to Octavia.

"You're the only ones who can make me look human again, after all," I teased gently.

Anything to get them to stop looking at me like I was about to hit them. Octavia initially gave a slight nod but didn't dare look me in the eye. Although my comment eventually settled in. They all gave me small smiles. But I noticed that they still weren't looking me right in the eyes. Not that I could be surprised. But I had tried. It was just another of their comments that had once made me want to hate them. After they had prepared me for the Tribute Parade, Flavius had told me that I looked almost human.

"Very good," Effie said, walking back behind me.

"I don't like them hating me," I muttered.

"They don't hate you. They're just afraid. None of us hate you," Effie said determinedly.

"Doubtful," Katniss said, appearing from behind.

"I hate you. Why are you here?" I asked sharply.

"Food time. I'll feed you while they work," Katniss said.

"Thanks," I said.

Skipping breakfast had done me no favor. I was starving from having not eaten all day. Sitting around and being beautified was slightly more difficult than I had expected. Katniss did her job well, feeding me while the Prep Team worked. And she did a good job trying to get them to chat while they worked. Which was good, because it was no simple job getting me back to Beauty Base Zero, even with the elaborate arsenal of products, tools, and gadgets Plutarch had the foresight to bring from the Capitol.

My Prep Team was doing pretty well until they tried to address the spot on my arm where Johanna dug out the tracker. None of the medical team was focusing on looks when they patched up the gaping hole. Now I had a lumpy, jagged scar that rippled out over a space the size of an apple. Usually, my sleeve covered it, but the way that Cinna's Mockingjay costume was designed, the sleeves stopped just above the elbow. It would be seen by everyone if I was on camera the moment that I aimed my bow.

It was such a concern with the Prep Team that Fulvia and Plutarch were called in to discuss it. Katniss was immediately sent out since she came very close to exploding on them about how unimportant the scar was. Of course, I was about to react no better. I could have sworn, the sight of the scar triggered Fulvia's gag reflex. For someone who worked with a Gamemaker, she was awfully sensitive. But I guessed that she was used to seeing unpleasant things only on a screen.

Even Seneca had appeared to discuss the scar. "You would think with all of the injuries that you've seen in the Hunger Games, you would be used to seeing something like this," I commented.

"We're trying to make you pretty!" Fulvia cried.

"Yes, a scar that I received whilst fighting for my life really detracts from my beauty," I growled.

Fulvia's head whipped towards me. "What is that supposed to mean?" she asked.

"You might be a rebel, but you still radiate Capitol. Blind and ignorant to the real problems. Those people out there, fighting for me, will have far worse injuries than a scar on their arms. They'll be missing limbs and eyes and burned down to the bone. This is nothing," I snarled, making sure to shove the scar at her face.

She looked like she was turning slightly green as she looked away from my arm. "You're the symbol of the revolution. We're supposed to be making you look stronger than them. Bulletproof," Fulvia said.

"I don't want to be stronger than them. I want to be down there. With them," I snapped.

"You're perfectly useful right here. Down there is too dangerous," Fulvia argued.

Finally Seneca seemed to think that it was time to interrupt the conversation. "Aspen makes a point. There's no need to cover up the scar. It's almost unnoticeable," he said, pointing to my arm.

But that wasn't the truth either. "Seriously?" I asked him.

"Shut up," Seneca said, shoving my back.

"Everyone knows I have a scar here," I said sullenly.

"Knowing it and seeing it are two different things. It's positively repulsive. Plutarch and I will think of something during lunch," Fulvia said.

"It'll be fine. Maybe an armband or something," Plutarch said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

How could they possibly have said something like that? With a war raging, they were concerned about something like a little scar on my arm. It didn't even bother me. I doubted that it would bother the rebels. They would probably like it. For once I wouldn't look like the Capitol's perfect dress-up doll. But they were still from the Capitol and they were concerned about the way that I looked. Disgusted, I got dressed so that I could head to the dining hall. My Prep Team huddled in a little group by the door.

"Are they bringing your food here?" I asked.

"No. We're supposed to go to a dining hall," Venia said.

Wonderful... That meant that I would have to take them there to show them around. They obviously hadn't seen much of District 13 and clearly hadn't learned their way around the District quite yet. I sighed inwardly as I imagined walking into the dining hall, trailed by those three. I didn't dare sigh out loud. I knew that they felt bad enough right now. I supposed that it didn't really matter. People always stared at me anyway. This would just be more of the same.

"I'll show you where it is. Come on," I said.

The covert glances and quiet murmurs I usually evoked were nothing compared to the reaction brought on by the sight of my bizarre-looking Prep Team. They were even worse than the Capitol rebels. At least they didn't have too many physical alterations. They could manage to blend in. The Prep Team couldn't even begin to manage to blend in. And it didn't help that everyone knew who they were. The gaping mouths, the finger pointing, and the exclamations were awful.

"Just ignore them," I told my Prep Team.

Not that they really looked at me. They were embarrassed and probably still a little fearful of me. Maybe one day they would manage to get over it. With their eyes downcast, and with mechanical movements, they followed me through the food line, accepting bowls of grayish fish and okra stew and cups of water. It looked disgusting but it was something. At least they wouldn't be starving anymore. I assumed that they hadn't been eating much. I could see that they were losing weight.

We took the seats at my table, beside a group from the Seam. They showed a little more restraint than the people from Thirteen did, although it might have just been from embarrassment. No one really wanted to be sitting with them. Leevy, who was Katniss's - and mine, at one point - neighbor back in Twelve, gave a cautious hello to the preps, and Gale's mother, Hazelle, who must have known about their imprisonment, held up a spoonful of the stew.

"Don't worry. Tastes better than it looks," she said.

We were sitting together for about five minutes as the conversation awkwardly dwindled. No one really knew what to say with the Prep Team. But they were trying to talk to them. I appreciated the efforts. Suddenly the rest of the Hadley's came over. They weren't supposed to be over at my table - as it wasn't designated for them - but I appreciated them coming over. Obviously they were trying to help comfort the Prep Team. Even Felix and Marcus joined us, trying to get into the conversation.

"You did well with Aspen," Dean commended the Prep Team.

"Thank you," Octavia whispered.

"She's beautiful anyways," Venia said softly.

It might have been the nicest thing that she had ever said to me. "Thank you, Venia," I said.

"I like the braid that you did. Was that you, Flavius?" Alana asked.

"Yes," Flavius muttered.

"It's lovely," Carrie said.

"Thank you," Flavius whispered.

Everyone had been trying and it had worked reasonably well. They hadn't said anything terrible. But the Prep Team was obviously still incredibly uncomfortable and didn't know quite what to say. We tried to keep talking, but nothing really helped. It was finally Posy, Gale's sweet and adorable five-year-old sister, who helped the most. She scooted along the bench to Octavia and touched her skin with a tentative finger. Thankfully Octavia didn't shy away.

"You're green. Are you sick?" Posy asked.

"It's a fashion thing, Posy. Like wearing lipstick," I said.

"It's meant to be pretty," Octavia whispered, and I could see the tears threatening to spill over her lashes.

Posy considered that and said matter-of-factly, "I think you'd be pretty in any color."

The tiniest of smiles formed on Octavia's lips. "Thank you," she said.

"If you really want to impress Posy, you'll have to dye yourself bright pink," Gale said, thumping his tray down beside me. "That's her favorite color." Posy giggled and slid back down to her mother. I almost smiled. Gale nodded at Flavius's bowl. "I wouldn't let that get cold. It doesn't improve the consistency."

Everyone got down to eating after that. I was grateful for the food. Mostly because I really didn't want to talk to anyone else. Not the Prep Team. Not when I was now thinking about the Mockingjay duties and what was about to happen. And I really didn't want to talk to Gale. Even though I could tell that he wanted me to talk to him. The stew didn't taste bad, but there was a certain sliminess that was hard to get around. Like you had to swallow every bite three times before it really went down.

Gale, who wasn't usually much of a talker during meals, made an effort to keep the conversation going, asking about the makeover. Something that I knew he would never have asked about before. He didn't care. And he normally thought that they were just 'prettying me up for slaughter.' I knew that it was his attempt at smoothing things over. We argued last night after he suggested I had left Coin no choice but to counter my demand for the Victors' safety with one of her own.

"Aspen, she's running this District. She can't do it if it seems like she's caving in to your will."

"You mean she can't stand any dissent, even if it's fair," I'd countered.

"I mean you put her in a bad position. Making her give Cato and the others immunity when we don't even know what sort of damage they might cause," Gale had said.

"So I should've just gone with the program and let the other Tributes take their chances? Not that it matters, because that's what we're all doing anyway!"

That was when I had gotten to my feet, pulled him off of the bed with me, shoved him back outside of the compartment, and slammed the door in his face. I hadn't sat with him at breakfast - only to briefly say hello to Effie - and when Plutarch had sent him down to training this morning, I had let him go without a word. There was nothing that I wanted to speak to him about right now. I knew that he only spoke out of concern for me, but I really needed him to be on my side, not Coin's. How could he not know that?

Thankfully the lunch finally came to an end. It was one of the longest meals that I had ever had to endure. I was so grateful when it was finally time to leave. As everyone got back to their work and the Prep Team headed back to try and prepare the costume for my return to the bottom levels of District 13, I looked down at my schedule. After lunch, Gale, Katniss, and I were scheduled to go down to Special Defense to meet Beetee. I didn't want to be stuck with Gale right now, but I had to get over it.

As we rode the elevator downstairs, Gale finally said, "You're still angry."

"And you're still not sorry," I replied.

"I still stand by what I said. Do you want me to lie about it?" Gale asked.

"No, I want you to rethink it and come up with the right opinion," I told him.

There was a chance that it could have been taken as a joke, but it really wasn't. I meant everything that I had said. He was wrong about this one. I was the one in the right. Everything that I was going to do for District 13 and the rest of the Districts, and Coin couldn't do that one thing for me? Unfortunately my words just made him laugh. I knew that I would have to let it go. There was no point in trying to dictate what Gale thought. Which, if I was honest, was one reason I trusted him.

"Gale, stop laughing," Katniss said.

"What?" Gale asked, looking over at her and smiling. "It's funny."

"And you're not," I barked.

That silenced us all over again. Another day and another fight. I really wished that we could all start getting along again, but it was clear that we were just so different right now. They hadn't been through the Hunger Games. I had. I knew what it was like to take a life. They didn't. I had seen the Capitol and experienced its horror up-close. They hadn't. We were three very different people. The Special Defense level was situated almost as far down as the dungeons where we found the Prep Team.

It was one of the many places of District 13 that I had never seen before. I couldn't imagine how anyone walked around down here. I would have easily managed to get lost. Everything looked exactly the same. It was a beehive of rooms full of computers, labs, research equipment, and testing ranges. When we asked one of the guards for Beetee, we were directed through the never-ending maze until we reached an enormous plate-glass window.

Inside was the first beautiful thing I had seen in the District 13 compound: a replication of a meadow, filled with real trees and flowering plants, and alive with hummingbirds. Beetee sat motionless in a wheelchair at the center of the meadow, watching a spring-green bird hover in midair as it sipped nectar from a large orange blossom. His eyes followed the bird as it darted away, and he caught sight of us. He gave a friendly wave for us to join him inside.

"This is pretty," I said as we walked inside.

"Looks almost like the Meadow back home," Gale commented.

"It used to," I said sullenly. "Wonder why they built it here."

"Growing something, maybe," Katniss suggested.

"Those are all upstairs," I said.

All of the artificial plants and vegetation chambers were upstairs. I wasn't sure what this place was for. But it had to have had a use. District 13 didn't waste space. The air was cool and breathable, not humid and muggy as I had expected. From all sides came the whir of tiny wings, which I used to confuse with the sound of insects in our woods at home. It was almost like being back home, for just a moment. I had to wonder what sort of fluke allowed such a pleasing place to be built here.

This place had no happiness involved. I couldn't imagine why this place had been built. A place of comfort maybe? I doubted that Coin would have been okay with that. Everyone that she had here was for some use. Nothing was wasteful. Nothing was just for comfort. As we walked further into the room, I stared at Beetee. Beetee still had the pallor of someone in convalescence, but behind those ill-fitting glasses, his eyes were alight with excitement.

"Aren't they magnificent? Thirteen has been studying their aerodynamics here for years. Forward and backward flight, and speeds up to sixty miles per hour. If only I could build you wings like these, Aspen!" Beetee cried.

"Doubt I could manage them, Beetee," I laughed.

Definitely I would have flown right into the ground. "Here one second, gone the next. Can you bring a hummingbird down with an arrow?" Beetee asked.

"I've never tried. Not much meat on them," I answered.

"No. And you're not one to kill for sport," Beetee said.

No. I've already done that. Wasn't a fan. "No. I think I've proven that. I bet they'd be hard to shoot, though," I commented, trying not to think of the Games.

"You could snare them maybe," Gale said. His face took on that distant look it wore when he was working something out. "Take a net with a very fine mesh. Enclose an area and leave a mouth of a couple square feet. Bait the inside with nectar flowers. While they're feeding, snap the mouth shut. They'd fly away from the noise but only encounter the far side of the net."

"Would that work?" Beetee asked.

"I don't know. Just an idea. They might outsmart it," Gale said.

"They're fast and small. That would be the biggest problem," Katniss said.

"They might. But you're playing on their natural instincts to flee danger. Thinking like your prey... that's where you find their vulnerabilities," Beetee said.

That was something that Beetee would know about. I remembered something that I didn't like to think about. In preparation for the Quell, and in my childhood, I saw a tape where Beetee, who was still a boy, connected two wires that electrocuted a pack of kids who were hunting him. The convulsing bodies, the grotesque expressions. Beetee, in the moments that led up to his victory in those long-ago Hunger Games, watched the others die. Not his fault. Only self-defense. We were all acting only in self-defense...

Suddenly, I wanted to leave the hummingbird room before somebody started setting up a snare. "Beetee, Plutarch said you had something for me," I said.

"Right. I do. Your new bow," Beetee said.

"New one? What about the one from the Quell?" I asked.

"Katniss will be using that one. With a few modifications from me," Beetee said.

Despite everything that she hated about the Games, I knew that she was excited for that one. Her face broke out into a small smile. "Sweet," Katniss said excitably.

He pressed a hand control on the arm of the chair and wheeled out of the room. I was impressed with his wheelchair and the way that he handled it. I had never been that good with technology. Proof of which had been my first visit to the Capitol during my first Games. I would have slammed right into the wall or ridden off the walkway if I was using it. As we followed him through the twists and turns of Special Defense, he explained about the chair.

"I can walk a little now. It's just that I tire so quickly. It's easier for me to get around this way. How's Finnick doing?" Beetee asked.

"He's... He's having concentration problems," I answered. I didn't want to say he had a complete mental meltdown.

"Concentration problems, eh?" Beetee smiled grimly. "If you knew what Finnick's been through the last few years, you'd know how remarkable it is he's still with us at all." I didn't bother mentioning that I knew exactly what he had been through. I'd been there myself. "Tell him I've been working on a new trident for him, though, will you? Something to distract him a little."

Distraction seemed to be the last thing Finnick needed, but I promised to pass on the message. I noticed Katniss and Gale giving me looks - probably wondering what Beetee was talking about - but I didn't look back at them. I didn't want to admit that what had happened to me, evidently happened all the time. Four soldiers guarded the entrance to the hall marked Special Weaponry. Checking the schedules printed on our forearms was just a preliminary step.

There must have been something quite magnificent in there. Because we also had fingerprint, retinal, and DNA scans, and had to step through special metal detectors. Beetee had to leave his wheelchair outside, although they provided him with another once we were through security. I found the whole thing bizarre because I couldn't imagine anyone raised in District 13 being a threat the government would have to guard against. Had those precautions been put in place because of the recent influx of immigrants?

At the door of the armory, we encountered a second round of identification checks - as if my DNA might have changed in the time it took to walk twenty yards down the hallway - and were finally allowed to enter the weapons collection. Now I understood why they had so many guards and so many precautions to keep people from entering the room. Even I had to admit that the arsenal took my breath away. Row upon row of firearms, launchers, explosives, and armored vehicles.

"Of course, the Airborne Division is housed separately," Beetee told us.

"Of course," I said, as if that would be self-evident.

Most of the weapons in here I couldn't even begin to understand how to use. I had never seen that many guns. Just the ones that Peacekeepers used. There had never been battles before this. There had never been any reason to use weapons like this. I couldn't know where a simple bow and arrow could possibly find a place in all of that high-tech equipment, but then we came upon a wall of deadly archery weapons. Nothing that I had ever seen before.

The bow and arrow sets in the Capitol at the Training Center were nothing like the ones down here. Those were impressive, but not like this. I had played with a lot of the Capitol's weapons in training, particularly before the Quarter Quell, but none of them had been designed for military combat. They were more for show. Dangerous and evident. I focused my attention on a lethal-looking bow so loaded down with scopes and gadgetry, I was certain that I couldn't even lift it, let alone shoot it.

"Gale, maybe you'd like to try out a few of these," Beetee said.

"Seriously?" Gale asked.

"You'll be issued a gun eventually for battle, of course. But if you appear as part of Aspen's team in the propos, one of these would look a little showier. I thought you might like to find one that suits you," Beetee said.

"Yeah, I would," Gale said.

He looked quite excited. It almost made me smile. Almost. But I was still angry with him. Although I couldn't deny that it was nice that Gale was finally seeing something that might have made him a little more comfortable here in District 13. At least one of us could be comfortable. Gale's hands closed around the very bow that caught my attention a moment ago, and he hefted it onto his shoulder. He pointed it around the room, peering through the scope.

"That doesn't seem very fair to the deer," I said.

"Wouldn't be using it on deer, would I?" Gale answered.

"I'll be right back," Beetee said.

We watched him head off. I watched curiously to see what he was doing. I assumed that he was going to go and get the bow that I had used in the Quarter Quell for Katniss. I knew that she would love it. I had let her use it during our hunting trip the other day. But what about my new bow? I had to admit that I was excited about it. In the meantime, Gale was messing with his new bow. Beetee pressed a code into a panel, and a small doorway opened. I watched until he had disappeared and the door was shut.

"So, it'd be easy for you? Using that on people?" I asked.

"I didn't say that." Gale dropped the bow to his side. "But if I'd had a weapon that could've stopped what I saw happen in Twelve... if I'd had a weapon that could have kept you out of the arena... I'd have used it."

"Me, too," I admitted.

"I think we all would have," Katniss said.

We fell silent after that. For them, taking a life was speculative. It wasn't for me. I knew the truth. But I didn't know how to tell them about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never truly left you. How you would hear their screams and relive their last moments, time and time again. Especially when they were innocent. Especially when you were forced into it. I didn't want to tell them about the eyes that still appeared in my nightmares and the screams that echoed in my memory.

Shaking off the memories of all of the people who had died - all of those lives that I had taken - I tried to think about anything else. How about the weapon that's sure to help you kill even more people? Nope, that wasn't it either. But that was the only thing on my mind at the moment. A few minutes later, Beetee wheeled back in with a two tall, black rectangular cases awkwardly positioned between his footrest and his shoulder. He came to a halt and tilted it towards us.

"For you two. Katniss's is on top," Beetee said.

She slowly opened hers, revealing the black bow that I had used in the Quell. "It's amazing," Katniss said fondly.

"Treat it well. That thing saved my life," I said.

"Absolutely," Katniss said.

"Now yours, Aspen," Beetee said.

He tilted the other case towards me and I took it. It was just a tiny bit larger than the one that Katniss had just taken. I couldn't imagine that it would get much bigger. The one that I had used inside the arena was already almost too large for me. I wasn't that large of a person. I set the case flat on the floor and undid the latches along one side. The top opened on silent hinges. Inside the case, on a bed of crushed maroon velvet, laid a stunning black bow, somewhat similar to the one that Katniss now had.

"Oh," I whispered in admiration.

Slowly I lifted it carefully into the air to admire the exquisite balance, the elegant design, and the curve of the limbs that somehow suggested the wings of a bird extended in flight. Beetee must have worked with Cinna on it. It was a recurve bow, perfectly molded to my stance and height. There was something else, too. I had to hold very still to make sure that I wasn't imagining it. No, the bow was alive in my hands. I pressed it against my cheek and felt the slight hum travel through the bones of my face.

"What's it doing?" I asked.

"Saying hello," Beetee explained with a grin.

"Hello?" Katniss asked, speaking before I could.

"It heard your voice," Beetee said.

"It recognizes my voice?" I asked.

"Only your voice," Beetee explained. "You see, they wanted me to design a bow based purely on looks. As part of your costume, you know? But I kept thinking, what a waste. I mean, what if you do need it sometime? As more than a fashion accessory? So I left the outside simple, and left the inside to my imagination. Best explained in practice, though. Want to try those out?"

"Hell yeah, I do," I said excitedly.

"Katniss, I've taken the same liberties with Aspen's bow from the Quarter Quell. A little less flashy, but no less impressive," Beetee told her.

"Thank you," Katniss said happily.

So we went to practice. I knew that each of us were more excited to practice with the bows than we had been in a long time. This was one of the most fun times that I had had in a long time. A target range had already been prepared for us. It was extremely long and seemed to have stone walls. Enough to make sure that we couldn't destroy the area. It made me laugh. They had definitely taken enough precautions with me here. I had been known to destroy things from time to time.

The arrows that Beetee designed were no less remarkable than the bow. Between the two, all three of us could shoot with accuracy over one hundred yards. It was the furthest that we had ever been able to shoot. The variety of arrows - razor sharp, incendiary, explosive - turned the bow into a multipurpose weapon. Each one was recognizable by a distinctive colored shaft. I had the option of voice override at any time, but had no idea why I would use it.

To deactivate the bow's special properties, I needed only tell it, 'Good night.' Then it would go to sleep until the sound of my voice woke it again. Katniss and I stayed for a few extra minutes to play with the arrows. The incendiary arrows could easily melt targets made out of the strongest synthetic materials and burn through metal. The explosive arrows could trigger what appeared to be a small bomb, particularly if Katniss and I shot two to the same place at the same time. We both laughed at that.

For the first time in a while, I was in good spirits by the time I got back to the Prep Team, leaving Beetee, Gale, and Katniss behind. I wanted her with me, but she had her own training to attend to. I sat patiently through the rest of the paint job and donned my costume, which now included a bloody bandage over the scar on my arm to indicate I had been in recent combat. I thought that it was pathetic and cruel to the real fighters, but I lost the argument against it. Venia affixed my Mockingjay pin over my heart.

It stood out starkly against the all-black suit. The entire thing was incredible. My hair was in a fancier braid than it had been in a long time. It was very pretty and had delicately curled pieces falling out, like I had just gone for a run. My makeup was subtle but dark enough to tell that something had been done. The costume itself had all of the lines of a Mockingjay's body. The padding on the back was designed like Mockingjay wings but had a practical purpose. It was armor to protect a shot to my spine.

The entire costume reminded me that it was like I was going to be heading straight into war. People were really going to be trying to kill me. Far more than just twenty-three people. I took up my bow and the sheath of normal arrows that Beetee made, knowing they would never let me walk around with the loaded ones. Which was probably a good idea, since I didn't have the best temper in the world. I was also holding some weird pole, which would apparently simulate a Panem flag.

Then we were out on the sound stage, where I seemed to stand for hours while they adjusted makeup and lighting and smoke levels. I really wanted to be back out on the practice range. Eventually, the commands coming via intercom from the invisible people in the mysterious glassed-in booth became fewer and fewer. Fulvia and Plutarch spent more time studying and less time adjusting me. Finally, there was quiet on the set. For a full five minutes I was simply considered, feeling very awkward.

Then Plutarch said, "I think that does it."

Effie beckoned over to a monitor. They played back the last few minutes of taping and I watched the woman on the screen. Her body seemed larger in stature, more imposing than mine. Her face was smudged but sexy. Her brows were a deep blonde and drawn in an angle of defiance. Wisps of smoke - suggesting that she had either just been extinguished or was about to burst into flames - rose from her clothes. I didn't know who that person was. Effie walked over towards me.

"Cinna's final touch," she said, pinning a pure black Mockingjay pin on my shoulder strap. I smiled.

Finnick, who had been wandering around the set for a few hours, came up behind me and said with a hint of his old humor, "They'll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you."

"My thoughts, exactly," Effie chirped.

"I'm not so sure that's reassuring," I teased.

Everyone was so excited and so pleased with their work. It was rather impressive. I looked much better than I had in a number of weeks. Since before the Games had started. It was nearly time to break for dinner, but they insisted that we continued. Tomorrow we would focus on speeches and interviews and have me pretend to be in rebel battles - which I hated. Today they wanted just one slogan, just one line that they could work into a short propo to show to Coin.

"People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!"

That was the line. I could tell by the way that they presented it to me that they had spent months, maybe years, working it out and were really proud of it. That was the only reason that I didn't laugh at it. It seemed like a mouthful to me, though. And stiff. I couldn't imagine actually saying it in real life - unless I was using a Capitol accent and making fun of it. Like when Gale, Katniss, and I used to imitate Effie Trinket's 'May the odds be ever in your favor!'

But Fulvia was right in my face, describing a battle that I had just been in, and how my comrades-in-arms were all lying dead around me, and how, to rally the living, I must turn to the camera and shout out the line. But I couldn't imagine doing that. It was going to be mortifying. But it didn't matter. I was hustled back to my place by Effie, and the smoke machine kicked in. Blue lights were surrounding me up on the platform, but that was it. Nothing else for me to work with.

"Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Okay, let's bring up the setting," Plutarch said over the speakers.

Effie suddenly darted off of the set. I could see Plutarch, Fulvia, Finnick, and a few others watching from behind the glass booth. Funnily enough, I felt more on display right now than I ever had during the Hunger Games or my time in the Capitol. The lights all darkened and I could hear some electrical whirring. I knew that the images were coming up on their own computers. It must have looked impressive. I could see them all smiling at each other.

"Huh," Plutarch muttered. I tried to look behind me, but all I saw were the blue lights. I accidentally banged the pole on the ground and jumped slightly. "A little wind." The wind machines were turned on and I almost stumbled back. It felt strange. Artificial. "Okay, Aspen, we're gonna start you down on one knee."

"Okay," I said.

"And as you rise up, you're gonna hold your flag in the air and deliver your line." At the same time, I rose the pole into the air before lowering it again. "And remember you've just stormed the outskirts of the Capitol arm-in-arm with your brothers and sisters," Plutarch instructed.

The whole thing seemed strange and awkward to me, but I nodded anyways. "Okay," I muttered, getting down onto one knee.

Do it for Cato. "Whenever you're ready," Plutarch said.

Someone else called for quiet, the cameras started rolling, and I heard, "Action!"

Thankfully Plutarch was giving me a moment to regain myself, because the call of action made me jump slightly. At least in the Capitol I was allowed to say what I was thinking. Sort of. They had all come at least somewhat from my own mind. The premeditated line seemed to stiff to me that I knew I would look like a fool delivering it. But I was determined to try. So I rose to my feet and thrust the flagpole into the air. It didn't help that I stumbled slightly getting up.

"People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we..."

Instantly I knew that I sounded like a complete fool. My words were stiff and I was stumbling over myself. I wasn't looking into the camera and my feet were shuffling slightly. There were too many repeats of the word 'we' in the sentence. It was confusing. And it didn't sound like anything that anyone in reality would say or accept. People would hate me if I said that. Then I forgot the rest of the line and simply resorted to staring blankly into the camera. What the hell was it?

"Does she know the line?" Plutarch asked.

"I know. I know it. I got it. I'm sorry," I said quickly.

"Okay. Alright. Let's do it again," Plutarch said.

"She's warming up," Effie told Plutarch.

Slowly I got back down onto one knee again. "Alright. Okay," Plutarch said, not sounding at all convinced. I wasn't either. "With energy. Go."

Instantly I rose back to my feet again. "People of Panem, we fight! We dare to end this hunger for justice!" I shouted.

The moment that the words escaped my mouth, I knew that they came off as unnatural and awkward again. "You've just been in battle!" Plutarch shouted. I jumped slightly, having not expected that reaction. "I'm sorry. Excuse my outburst. You've just been in battle. Let's try it again. Whenever you're ready."

So once more I got back into position, hesitated a moment, and got back to my feet. "People of Panem, we fight! We dare to end this hunger for justice!" I shouted, mustering up as much anger as I could.

In the distance I could hear Effie give somewhat of a groan. I could see Plutarch's disappointed face. I knew that I had come off as awkward and unconvincing, yet again. I would keep doing it over and over again. Cato was the actor. Not me. No one yelled at me this time. Instead there was a dead silence on the set. It went on. And on. Finally there was an acerbic laughter that I was all too familiar with. Haymitch had entered the room and was slowly and teasingly clapping his hands together. I lowered the flagpole.

Haymitch managed to contain himself just long enough to say, "And that, my friends, is how a revolution dies."

Chapter Text

My heart dropped into my stomach. A moment later I felt it bubbling with fury. Not that Haymitch was laughing at me. There was a good chance that if Katniss or Gale were here, they would have been laughing too. Normally even I would have been laughing. But now it was no laughing matter. So I just stared at Haymitch, my eyes narrowing. I couldn't believe that he was here, now, of all times. Not even to say anything cruelly helpful - like he was so known to do. He was just to make me sound like a fool.

Haymitch looked back at the booth with a smirk before turning back and striding up to me. "Hello, Aspen," Haymitch drawled.

He was standing less than five feet away from me, just in front of where Effie was (who was watching us with concerned eyes). I knew that it was my invitation to say something. Scream, punch him, or start our typical sneering banter. But I just stared at him blankly. My words had died in my throat. What did I have to say to him? Nothing good. I was infuriated that he was here, standing in front of me, treating me like I had no reason to be angry with him. I had all of the reason in the world.

"Is this how you greet an old friend?" Haymitch continued, sensing that I wouldn't speak.

Haymitch pulled out something that looked like an old rag. "Maybe I don't recognize you sober," I sneered.

We weren't even close to being friends right now. Far from it. It wasn't the best insult - not nearly mean or conniving enough - but it was the only thing that I could think to say. Because the only other thing I wanted to do was attack him. So I merely stared angrily at him. He was such an asshole. I knew that Seneca had been telling me to get along with him again, but I couldn't. I couldn't force myself to be okay with him right now. As I glared at him, Haymitch blew his nose loudly into the rag.

"I guess it looks as bad as it feels," Haymitch said, on the verge of grinning.

That was where I drew the line. I could tell what that face was for. He was waiting for me to start the fight. He was waiting for me to start yelling at him - as I was so known to do - just so that he could turn the conversation around. Something that would likely end up being correct - as I hated to admit it, he so often was. No more of him making me look like the bad guy here. I had always been trying to do the right thing. He was the one who had messed it all up.

Without having anything else to say - and not wanting to have to see him any longer or hear him berate me for my poor choices - I decided to take matters into my own hand. I couldn't do anything worthwhile here anyways. So I angrily tossed down the metal pipe. It flew across the room and clattered loudly. There was a sudden eruption of noise from all around the room as the door to the booth opened and people came running out to try and regain control of the propo shoot.

But there was nothing that they could say that would stop me from leaving. I couldn't stand here and watch or listen to Haymitch any longer. So I turned and sprinted from the room. I was fast enough that no one was able to catch me. They merely shouted after me to come back, but I completely ignored them. I didn't want to have to talk to them. It helped that Seneca told the others to leave me be for a little while to regain my bearings.

As I walked out into the hallway I blew through the crowd. A few people jumped away from me, some shouted about my carrying a weapon, others tried to stop me, and a number tried to ask what had happened. But I ignored them all. As I walked I threw the bow over my shoulders, locking it against my sheath of fake arrows. I knew that I shouldn't have been holding it out in the open, but I didn't care. I just wanted to leave. But my fury did cause me to slam right into someone.

"Watch where you're f -" I seethed, before realizing that it was Alana and Carrie, with Marley in her mother's arms. I forced myself to calm down. "Sorry."

Neither women looked upset with me. "Bad day?" Carrie guessed.

"Honestly, when have I had a good one recently?" I asked.

They both ended up smiling. Marley was chirping happily at me so I reached over and grabbed her, setting her on my hip, allowing her to play with the braid that was hanging over my chest. I smiled and pushed the hair back off of her forehead. She looked a little confused at the sight of me, but also rather fascinated. Although I did have to stop her from trying to grab onto the arrows - despite the fact that they were fake, they could still end up hurting her.

"You look quite dangerous," Alana finally said.

"Yeah, I guess I look the part," I said carelessly.

"Want to talk about it?" Carrie offered.

"Evidently I can't act," I commented.

"Is that what they want you to do?" Alana asked confusedly.

"Yes. I had to stand in that stupid room. There's nothing in there but blue lights and a ton of people standing and staring at me. A pole that's supposed to simulate a flag. Nothing else. Just wind machines and one line that I have to recite. People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end this hunger for justice," I said, my voice rather deadened instead of awkward and clumsy like before. "That's it. That's all I have to say, and I can't even do that."

The two women exchanged a look with each other. Both looked rather confused. "Seriously? That's what they want you to say?" Carrie asked.

"Yes."

"That's so... stiff," Carrie said slowly.

"That's what I said, and I can't manage it. It's ridiculous," I groaned.

"Was it really that bad?" Alana asked.

I laughed humorlessly. It had definitely been worse than bad. "I saw Haymitch for the first time today," I said. The women exchanged another look. "He walked into the room after my third try, laughing and clapping. His exact words? That's how a revolution dies."

At least they didn't laugh. "Don't listen to Haymitch. He's grouchy and still irritable over being sober," Alana said.

"There are things far worse than Haymitch having to be sober," I snapped, before I could think better of my words. "Sorry. I didn't mean that."

"It's alright. We know that things are tense right now," Alana said, placing a hand on my shoulder.

Things had never been quite so tense in my life before. And I was used to tenseness. "I can't do this. I'm not an actor. I couldn't do it during the Games and I can't do it now," I groaned, remembering all of the times that Cato had been the one to speak for me. "I can't just stand up there and recite rehearsed lines. That's not who I am."

"Unfortunately that's what you promised Coin that you would do," Carrie said softly.

Obviously she was trying very hard not to annoy me. "I promised her that I would be the Mockingjay. I thought that I would... I don't know. Fight?" I offered, unsure of what I had ever really thought that being the Mockingjay would entail.

"I doubt they want to risk your life," Alana said.

"I'd rather do that than stand up there and sound like a fool," I muttered.

"It's safer for you here," Carrie insisted.

Although the scathing glares that I was getting from the District 13 citizens told me that it might not have been completely true. "Now I'm not so sure about that," I muttered.

"Aspen, may we speak?" Seneca asked, appearing from behind me.

He must have finally found me after I had darted from the room. "If you tell me how terrible my acting is or how I've just ruined the rebellion, I'm going to scream. And I might shoot you," I warned, reaching back and placing a hand on my bow.

"That wasn't what I was going to say," Seneca countered quickly.

"I was," Brutus said, appearing at my other side.

My jaws closed. I hadn't seen Brutus in a while and I had been perfectly happy with that. Despite the few moments that the two of us managed to get along, there were plenty more times that he annoyed me. I was sure that he was here right now to tell me what a miserable job I had done with the propo. He'd probably already managed to hear about it. I grit my teeth and handed Marley back to Carrie, sensing that I might attack Brutus at any given second.

"What are you even doing here?" I sneered.

Brutus smirked and walked in a slow circle around me. "You look like a rebel. You look like the Mockingjay," he said, coming back to stand in front of me. "But you sure as hell can't act like one."

"Here I thought that we might have been getting along for a little while there," I groaned.

Brutus scoffed. "I think not, Mockingjay. We'll figure something out tomorrow. There's no way that they can let that out," Brutus said, almost adopting a friendly attitude.

"Have you already seen it?" I asked.

"I think everyone's seen it," Brutus laughed.

There was a good chance that they would be playing it on a loop for everyone to laugh at. "Wonderful," I groaned.

Sensing that the tension in the air was too thick, Seneca placed a hand on my shoulder and gently pulled me back. "Might I have a word with Aspen?" Seneca asked.

"Please. Let's go," I said, grabbing his arm and pulling him along. "I'll talk to you two later."

Both Alana and Carrie smiled and nodded. "Take it easy, Aspen. Things are going to be okay. One bad performance doesn't mean that your time as the Mockingjay or the rebellion are over. They'll figure out something to do with it tomorrow," Alana said reassuringly.

"Thanks, Alana. Shall we?" I asked Seneca.

"Of course."

The two of us instantly moved off to get away from the others. Which was good, seeing as they were talking too much. I wanted to steam for a while. So Seneca and I walked out of the main gathering of District 13. I didn't want to talk to anyone, see their faces, or be out in public. There was a good chance that the rumor of how terribly I had done in my first officially sanctioned Mockingjay duty would spread quickly. I didn't want to have to face everyone after that came out.

"Where are we going?" I finally asked.

"Special Weapons Defense," Seneca explained.

"Why?"

"Because you're really not supposed to be carrying that around," Seneca said, motioning to the bow and arrow sheath that were thrown over my shoulder.

"Right," I said, remembering that I wasn't supposed to have them on me. "I get so used to having it with me."

"You can have it back tomorrow when we all go and talk about it. They're going to put you back in the Mockingjay suit, too."

"Well, I hate to say it, but I do kind of like the suit," I said, running my hands down the chest protector.

"Of course. Cinna designed it."

"I can tell." Every inch of the outfit screamed that it had been designed by Cinna. His personal touch was all over the place. It echoed through every inch of the outfit. "There are little pieces of him all over it. Not only that, but it fits exactly the kind of way that I wanted it. Covering up almost everything," I said.

"There's no need to make you attractive to anyone," Seneca said.

"Oh?" I asked curiously.

Suddenly I was thrown back to the time before either one of us had been on the same page. The time before I had really trusted him. I thought back to that man who had thought that I was gorgeous and constantly looked for some reason to be alone with him. Despite the fact that we were on much better terms now, it seemed strange that his words were coming from someone who had once thought that I was so attractive. And maybe still did.

"You're the Mockingjay. A warrior. Not to mention that you're married," Seneca said.

It was something close to a joke. I wanted to smile, but I couldn't force myself to. "It was just a sham put together by the Capitol," I muttered sadly.

"Does that change things between the two of you?"

"No."

Seneca gave me a once over as we headed down another hallway. "You look like you're thirty," Seneca said.

Will I even make it to thirty? "Do I?" I asked slowly.

Seneca smiled and nodded, motioning over the length of my body, not in a creepy manner. "The makeup. The costume. The hair. It makes you look far older than you really are. I think sometimes we all forget that you're barely twenty. Not long ago you were still a child," Seneca explained.

He was right. Two years ago I had been a dependent. It really hadn't been that long at all. But there was one truth. "I was never really a child," I muttered.

"That is true. Perhaps you'll at least get to be a young adult when this is all over."

"If I think my nightmares are bad now... I can't imagine what they'll all be like when this is over."

I wouldn't only have the fear of the Games and President Snow, but I would also have everything from the rebellion to dream about. "They might get better."

"Maybe," I said, although I greatly doubted that. "Can we go out to the range for a little while?"

"Certainly. I figured that you might want some time to exhaust a little frustration," Seneca said.

That must have been the real reason that he had brought me down here. Otherwise we would have gone to the armory. "You were right. As you normally are," I teased.

With the times changing, Seneca had turned into my new Haymitch. At least Seneca was nice and not a drunk. Seneca merely smiled as I headed over towards the shooting range that Beetee had me use earlier. I was glad to be out here again. I was annoyed and desperately wanted to shoot a few targets. It might make me feel just the slightest bit better, since I was such a terrible actress. To my surprise, Katniss was already standing there.

She was shooting with some of the regular arrows designed for target practice. "Cat," I called. She lowered the bow and placed her arrow back in the sheath. "I thought that you'd be in class or training."

Katniss turned back and gave me a bitter smile. "Heard about the propo," she said.

"Does everyone know about that already?" I groaned.

Katniss shook her head. "No. But Gale and I heard about it. They were telling us that apparently you struggled with it," Katniss said.

"Now that's putting it lightly," I laughed.

"If it makes you feel any better, I'm sure that I would have done even worse than you did."

The image of Katniss trying to say those lines put a smile on my face. "Oh, I know. But it doesn't help that I was terrible. It doesn't matter. We would have ended up here anyways," I muttered.

Katniss's brows furrowed. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"If you had been the one who had gone into the Games. We would have still ended up here, one way or another. I genuinely believe that. I told you, it would have happened the same way," I said, shooting a smile at Seneca. "We always would have wound up here. The two of us are far too similar."

"It's a good thing," Seneca said, smiling.

"Figured you might want some time out on the range," Katniss said, shrugging.

"Oh, yeah. I'm using the explosive ones," I said, grabbing one of Beetee's arrows.

Katniss grinned and pulled one out herself. "Sweet," she chirped.

Seneca was standing back a few steps and watching the two of us with a smile. "You know, I saw Haymitch today," I said for the sake of conversation.

"Did you?" Katniss asked.

Irritably shooting off a plain arrow, I watched as the arrow skewered a dummy through the throat. "I did. For a minute I thought about talking to him. Saying something. Not that I was really sure what I was supposed to say," I said. Then I looked back at Seneca. "I know that you told me that I was supposed to ask him about... whatever it was. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I'm just so angry with him."

"You've managed to forgive the rest of us," Katniss reasoned.

But it wasn't enough. Haymitch was... he was supposed to always be there for me. He was supposed to be on my side. "None of you really made me a promise. Not ones that I believed, at least," I corrected, when I saw the look on Katniss's face. "But I always believed Haymitch. I thought that he was on my side. His betrayal hurt the worst."

"Remember that he didn't want to do it," Seneca put in.

"I know," I growled, sending another arrow through the dummy's eye. "But I hate that he did."

"Are you going to talk to him?" Katniss asked, skewering a dummy through the heart.

"At some point. Whenever I figure out just what I want to say to him," I said, shooting an arrow into the center of the chest.

"What are you planning on saying to him?" Katniss asked, shooting the same dummy just slightly higher than her first one.

Seneca was watching the two of us, clearly impressed. "Right now, nothing. Right now all I want to do are throw a bunch of curses at him. I can't have a normal conversation with him right now. Not without letting everything out," I admitted.

"You'll have to deal with him tomorrow," Seneca said.

"He's hosting the meeting about my failures, I assume?" I growled.

Seneca smiled, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "It wasn't a failure. Just a misstep," he consoled.

Perhaps that made me feel just the slightest bit better about myself. "Thanks." I noticed that Seneca's gaze was turned towards my hand that was resting on the bow. "Wanna learn to shoot a bow?" I asked.

At my words, both Katniss and Seneca looked at me. Katniss raised a brow as Seneca smiled. "Sure. Might make you feel a little better if you get the chance to make me look like a fool," he said.

To my surprise, all three of us laughed. "Have you never shot one before?" Katniss asked.

"I've never held a weapon before," Seneca admitted.

Katniss laughed under her breath, taking her arrow off of the notch and setting it back on the counter. "Funny, coming from someone who was once Head Gamemaker for a tournament where kids are almost instantly killed if they don't have a weapon," she half-snarled and half-stated.

"Cat... Relax," I chided.

There was no need to be angry with each other anymore. Katniss waved me off. "I know, I know."

Seneca shook his head at me. "It's alright. I deserve it."

"Come on," I said, pulling him up to the counter.

"You can use this one," Katniss said, handing Seneca a bow that was almost identical to the one that she had.

"Is that the spare that I had from the arena?" I asked.

"Yeah. This is the one that Beetee didn't alter," Katniss explained.

It was probably the best that Seneca didn't learn on any of the altered bows. They were heavier and more complicated. Seneca nodded, looking at the bow almost awkwardly. "Okay," he muttered.

"Take it," I prodded.

The moment that he reached his arm out, I could tell that he wanted to take it back. He didn't want to use a weapon. He wasn't a fighter. But he pushed through anyways. So he grabbed the bow out of Katniss's hand and the two of us stepped back. I could tell that he was trying to mimic the way that he had seen us hold our bows so many times. But he was completely wrong on how to hold it. Katniss and I exchanged a glance before we starting laughing. Seneca turned back to us with a little glare.

"What?" Seneca snapped.

"You're holding it completely wrong," I pointed out.

Seneca placed the bow down on the counter again before scowling at me. "Well I've never held one before. How about some help?" he asked the two of us.

Both Katniss and I moved forward, exchanging a small smile with each other. "Okay. Legs positioned around shoulder width apart. Torso, hips, and entire body are turned perpendicular towards your intended target. Seat an arrow on the rest, nock it, and lift the bow," I instructed slowly.

When I had taught Dean, he had clearly understood me. Seneca turned back with a stupefied stare. "What?" he asked dumbly.

"Watch," Katniss goaded.

Standing at Seneca's side, I motioned for him to pay attention to her. Katniss placed the arrow at the notch and knocked it as I motioned Seneca to do the same. As Katniss placed the arrow on the rest, I helped Seneca to do the same. Although Dean clearly had some experience with weapons and hadn't been half-bad with preparations, it was clear that Seneca had no inclination for weapons. I had to rearrange his stance and grip on the arrow and bow three times before I was satisfied.

"Lift up so it's approximately shoulder height," I instructed, watching as Seneca lifted the bow. "Make sure your bow arm is straight and locked at the elbow. Don't clinch the bow with your grip. Let it rest against and push into the inside of your palm as you pull the string."

"Shoulders down," Katniss instructed, glancing over.

Placing a hand on his shoulders, I gently pushed them down into place. A moment later I rolled his arm so that his elbow was perpendicular to the ground. "Don't rotate your arm like that. The string will hit it and that hurts," I instructed.

"I'll say," Katniss muttered.

We had both been hit by the string before. While my scar had been taken away by the Capitol after my first Games, Katniss still had hers. "Only turn your head towards your target; the rest of your body should be perpendicular to the target. Pull the string about half-way through," I instructed.

Seneca pulled the string just a bit. Katniss and I had to pull his grip a little further back. He seemed afraid that the arrow would somehow magically fly off of the string. Katniss and I exchanged another funny look. I had never seen someone quite so afraid of a weapon. Even Prim - who hated everything to do with weaponry - could at least tolerate them. She might have been a healer, but I had seen her manage her way around knives. Although she used them to help heal, not hurt.

"You look so uncomfortable with it," Katniss commented.

"Honestly, I am," Seneca admitted.

"Pull the string all the way, until the string reaches the corner of your mouth. That's your anchor point. Right below the jawline. Don't use the muscles of your arms. Use your back muscles to do the majority of the work. They're significantly stronger," I said.

"Go on," Katniss instructed, when she saw that Seneca wasn't going to move.

I moved forward and pulled the string with him, gently placing it against the corner of his mouth for him. "Aim with your dominant eye. Keep the other one closed. Release the string by letting it slide out from your fingers. Don't jerk it or abruptly release it. Relax the fingers just enough to allow the string to slide out and accelerate the arrow," I continued.

"What happens if you jerk it?" Seneca asked, not moving from his stance.

"The arrow won't fly straight," Katniss explained.

"Remain motionless in position after you release the string until the arrow hits the target. It trains you not to jerk your body as soon as you release the string. Ready?" I asked.

"I suppose," Seneca sighed.

"Go ahead," I said.

Part of me wondered if he was doing this to make me feel a little less like a fool. I was terrible and looked like a fool when it came to public speaking. Seneca was useless and a fool when it came to using weapons. We both stepped back to allow Seneca to make the shot. He followed our orders - messing most of them up as a beginner would - with the normal arrow and slowly released it. I watched happily as it soared ahead of us and just barely clipped the edge of the arm of the target.

Both of us nodded our approval. Seneca looked shocked that he had even managed to hit the target. "Not a bad start," I admitted.

Seneca gently placed down his bow. "Years working for the Hunger Games and watching Tributes fight and die; that's the first time that I've ever picked up a weapon," he said slowly.

"That's the first time you've even picked up a weapon?" Katniss asked disbelievingly.

"Yes," Seneca said.

"Come on. Let's keep working," I interrupted, sensing a fight forming.

My fights with Gale were bad enough. I really didn't want to have to diffuse a fight between Katniss and Seneca. That could have gotten awkward quickly. So instead we all picked up our bows again and started to work with the arrows - only giving Seneca the razor-sharp ones. Katniss and I used the incendiary and explosive ones, laughing each time that we made a perfect shot. But we kept stopping to try and help out Seneca - who wasn't even a fraction as talented as either one of us.

To my surprise, he actually wasn't too bad with the bow and arrow. I would have put him at just a little worse than Glimmer had been - which was impressive, despite the fact that Glimmer wasn't good with them, she had still been a Career. He certainly couldn't hold a candle to either one of us. He likely never would be able to. But both Katniss and I were having a good time laughing at his misfortune. Even he was laughing. He was finally starting to look like he might have becoming a real rebel.

Seneca Crane had certainly come a long way from the Head Gamemaker I had met over a year ago. But I supposed that I was different too, no longer the unknown District 12 girl without parents. Trying to blink back those thoughts, I went back to shooting. I could tell that Seneca was definitely having more fun watching Katniss and I using them. We were both quite good with trick shots and normal ones. Today the two of us were working together, putting on quite the show for Seneca.

He had even made a few jokes about that being the reason that I had gotten a twelve - and letting Katniss know that he would have given her a good score too. "You two always have been fun to watch," Gale's voice suddenly called.

All three of us turned back. "Hey," I greeted.

Gale gave me a small smile before turning to Seneca. Here we go... "You learning or just here to watch?" Gale asked.

Well that was surprisingly civil. "Trying to learn. Two good teachers here," Seneca said, turning back to Katniss and I fondly.

I was more than a little surprised - and definitely happy - that Katniss gave him an almost-smile back. "Yeah, they are." Gale turned to me. "Can we talk?" he asked.

"Sure," I said.

Katniss moved forward and grabbed the bow and sheath of arrows from me. "I'll bring those back. I doubt that anyone wants to see you walking around with that. They don't really trust you," she explained.

"The feeling is mutual," I growled, handing them over.

Seneca smiled and handed Katniss his own weapons. "I have work to be doing anyways. Have a good night, Aspen. I'll see you at the strategy meeting tomorrow," Seneca said.

"Goodnight, Seneca. See you later, Cat," I called.

"Be nice," Katniss hissed, likely about my coming conversation with Gale.

Rolling my eyes, I shoved her off towards the door. I could manage a conversation with Gale for a few minutes. Not that I had offered any proof of that lately. Either way, Seneca and Katniss walked off together. I could tell that Katniss wasn't overly-fond of Seneca, but she was trying to get along with him for my sake. Gale, on the other hand, wouldn't budge. He hated him and likely always would. I turned to Gale curiously. We still hadn't really gotten over our fight from the other day.

"Wanna stay here or go somewhere?" I asked carefully.

"Not like we can go to the woods right now," Gale said, just as guarded.

"That would be nice."

By now I really did miss the woods. It was horrible being cooped up in here with everything thinking that I was either a traitor or a failure. "You're not happy with me about what I said the other day," Gale said, after a brief silence.

Turning to Gale, I nodded at him. He was right about that. I was still angry at Gale, and I would be until he apologized for what he had said to me that day. "I know that you don't mean it. Not the way that it came out. I know that you don't want something bad to happen to me. But, Gale, I need you on my side. Not Coin's," I said seriously.

This wasn't something that I could handle without Gale. I needed him and Katniss. "I'm not on Coin's side," Gale said, placing a hand on my shoulder. I almost smiled. "I'm on the side of the rebellion."

My half-smile immediately dropped. "So not mine?" I asked shortly.

Gale sighed, knowing that he had made another misstep. "I want the Games to end. I want the Capitol's reign to end," Gale said.

"So do I," I added.

"But you also want Cato back," Gale said.

There it was again. Why the hell was Gale being so nasty about Cato? He couldn't have really hated him that much. "You hate him that much that you would condemn him to die in the Capitol?" I snapped.

Instead of getting angry with me again like I had thought that he would, Gale's face fell, realizing what I thought that his words meant. "No. No, that's not what I meant. What I meant was that you're so determined to save him, that you might not always think about what's best for the rebellion. That's what Coin's trying to prevent," Gale explained.

"She's trying to dictate what happens. Just the way that the Capitol does," I snapped.

Gale shook his head. "No, she's not. She holds the reigns tight because she has to," Gale said.

Another fight on its way. Just as always. "This place isn't that different from the Capitol," I growled.

"Yes, it is."

"It isn't!"

"And how do you know?" Gale sneered.

My jaw almost dropped. How stupid could he have possibly been? Thinking that I didn't know about how this place was compared to the Capitol. I had spent almost two months in the Capitol and their arenas over the past year and a half. I knew far more about that place than Gale did. He had set foot there for two days. He had seen the bright and happy, celebratory side. I was the one who had seen the real nightmare that it was. The Games, the arena, and the constant political struggle. I had seen the torture.

Out of the two of us, I was the only one who earned the right to talk about the Capitol. "I've spent quite a bit of time in the Capitol, in case you forgot!" I shouted, my voice echoing off of the walls.

Gale clearly knew that he had hurt me. He tried to backpedal slightly. "But you haven't bothered looking around. Really getting to know Thirteen," Gale said.

That was the last thing that I wanted to do. Get to know Thirteen. "I have no interest in really getting to know Thirteen. I know enough. They didn't come to our aid when we needed it," I snarled.

"They couldn't -"

"Afford it?" I interrupted. "Yeah. So I've heard."

"Aspen -"

"Look, I'm sick of arguing with you," I interrupted again, unwilling to make this any worse than it already was. We had hated each other for long enough. "It seems like that's all that we've done for weeks. For today can we just not argue? I've got what's likely to be a pain in the ass day tomorrow of everyone telling me how useless I am. I don't need a fight to start off my terrible day."

Gale and I stared at each other for a moment. Finally he nodded. "Okay. No more fighting," Gale conceded.

The two of us walked over to the counter where the weapons were at and I watched as Gale ran his hands over the bow that he had picked out. "That was the bow that I was looking at earlier. The one that you picked up," I said, for the sake of conversation.

"It's cool," Gale said absentmindedly.

Another brief silence passed. "You know that's not designed to be used on animals," I finally said.

This time there was a much longer stretch of silence. As tough as Gale was, he had never taken a human life before. "I know," Gale finally said, not giving me an indication of whether to not he was okay with the thought.

"Are you going to be ready to use it?" I asked carefully.

That time there was no hesitation. "Yes and no. I know that I'm ready to end the rebellion and make the new world. Killing those mindless soldiers, the Peacekeepers, doesn't bother me," Gale said.

"They still follow you."

"What does?"

Gale had to know that killing someone didn't just leave you unaffected, even if you didn't care about them or if you hated them. "The people who you kill," I said.

"Not a Peacekeeper," Gale argued.

He had to understand what I meant. "Trust me, Gale. I've killed someone. Multiple someone's. They follow you. Whether or not you cared for them or hated them... The girl from District 9? The first human life that I took. I didn't even know her name. I didn't care about her. But do you have any idea how many times I've seen her in my nightmares? They never leave you," I argued.

No one that I had ever killed had left me. Each of them stayed with me in their own ways. And it wasn't even just them. There was also the problem of the few people that I hadn't killed. The ones who I had seen die in front of me or the ones who I felt guilty for. Glimmer, whom I had hated, whom I hadn't actually killed, still haunted my nightmares. The sight of her mutilated and mangled body from the venom of the Tracker Jackers. The memory of her mother's words to me about her funeral.

Perhaps there was a chance that Gale would never understand the truth behind my words. Not unless he ever got around to taking a life himself. But that was something that I wanted to protect him from. I didn't want him to have to do that. I didn't care how strong he pretended to be. Things like that disturbed everyone. Even Cato had nightmares about the arena. And I was no fool. The war would be just the same as the arena. Knowing the Capitol, it would be worse.

All of those things that came to mind, I so desperately wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him that infiltrating the Capitol would be like a giant Games. He would see the same things - if not worse - than I saw in my own Games. I wanted to tell him how many nightmares I had about the wolf mutts, how many times I felt the pain of the fire or poison fog, how many times I heard the screams from the Jabberjay's in my nightmares, and how, to this day, I still constantly found myself looking over my shoulders.

But I couldn't force the words out of my mouth, and Gale wouldn't have listened to them anyways. "It doesn't matter. I would kill every breathing soul in the Capitol if I could," Gale said.

As much as I hated them, I recognized something else. "There are innocent women and children there," I argued.

"Who will grow up to be just like the rest of them," Gale continued.

"But they have a chance. Cinna grew up in the Capitol," I reminded him.

Gale never wanted to insult Cinna in front of me, but I knew that he wanted me to see his position on this. "He was one in a million. Take out a million bad ones, maybe lose one good one," Gale said.

"If I didn't know any better, I would think that President Snow said that," I said coldly.

It was the same kind of thing that I had heard President Snow say so often. He was the person who had always said the coldest things. He was the one who had always made me think that he didn't have a heart. Gale, my Gale, was not that kind of person. I loved him and vice versa. He was the one who had taken care of me as a kid, he had helped me hunt, healed me when I was hurt, and had always protected me. I couldn't have ever thought that I could relate Gale to President Snow before this.

"I'm not saying it to be cruel," Gale said, sensing what I was thinking. "I'm just thinking like a soldier."

"Maybe you do deserve to have that communicuff back," I said harshly.

Because he was thinking just like a soldier. The same kind of soldier that the Peacekeepers were. Blind and thoughtless. Ignorant of human life. My words weren't meant as a joke. They were meant to be something rude, seeing as Gale and I had always teased them about being that big-headed. I wanted to tell Gale that he deserved to be another one of those mindless soldiers that Coin collected in Thirteen. But Gale began laughing. I rolled my eyes and moved to stalk off, determined to go to bed early.

It was probably a good idea anyways, seeing as I was exhausted and was likely going to have a long day tomorrow. "Hang on, Aspen," Gale said, running after me and catching my arm. "Come on. It was just funny."

"It's not a joke to me. None of this is a joke to me," I snapped.

Gale put on a face that was clearly supposed to be comforting. "I know. I know." The two of us walked off, me trying to stay a little bit ahead of him. "Where are you going?" Gale asked.

All I wanted to do was walk off and go straight back to the ruins of District 12, alone, so that I could sulk in my own misery and mistakes. "Heading back to the compartment. I was thinking about turning in early for the night. It's gonna be a long day tomorrow talking about my shortcomings," I said irritably.

"The only shortcoming you have is your height," Gale teased.

There it was. Another one of those little moments where I saw just a hint of our old friendship. I turned back to Gale with a scowl and whacked him in the stomach. "You're such an ass," I snarled.

"Got you to smile. It's been a long time since I got you to smile," Gale said.

"I'm sorry about that... before. I don't want to fight with you," I admitted.

"I don't want to fight with you either," Gale said.

The last thing that I wanted was to fight with one of the few people who was still around to listen and help me out. Most of the time, anyways. Gale wrapped an arm over my shoulder and leaned down to press a kiss into my hair. Something that he hadn't done in a while. I smiled slightly as the two of us walked back to my compartment. I was grateful to have him with me, despite our earlier argument. I could hear even more mutters than normal when I walked by.

It was likely people who were probably thinking that I had finally given up on Cato and gone with Gale, but I brushed them off as we walked into my compartment. "Home sweet home," I sighed.

"Maybe one day we'll get to go back to Twelve," Gale said.

We walked over to my bed and I plopped myself down on it. "I don't think you want to see what happened to Twelve. It's not pretty," I mumbled, well-aware that Gale had seen some of it.

"We could rebuild it," Gale suggested. I raised a brow. "You, me, and Katniss. Bring back the rest of the people who we managed to save."

"That's what Seneca suggested," I commented.

"Do you like that idea?"

Going back to the only home that I had ever known. The home that I had managed to destroy with a single arrow. But it was home, nonetheless. "It's the only place that I feel like could ever really be home," I admitted.

"Even over District 2?" Gale asked.

My gaze shot over to Gale, who was wandering about the room. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked snappily.

"I was being serious," Gale said softly, knowing that I had taken it the wrong way.

"So was I. District 2 doesn't mean anything to me." Gale gave me a very surprised look. "I've barely even spent any time in it. There are some people from District 2 who I love, but I don't want to live there. I've got no reason to want to live there. And I don't really want to live in the place where Leah was killed. I doubt Cato would either," I reasoned.

"You're planning on settling down somewhere with him after this?" Gale asked.

Of course we were back to that. Just as we always were. "I'm planning on trying to rebuild the world when this is over. My relationship status isn't going to be the first thing on my mind," I snapped harshly.

Just the way that it had annoyed me that Coin had insinuated that my relationship status was the first thing on my mind rather than the rebellion, it annoyed me that Gale thought that living with Cato would be the first thing on my mind after the world. It would definitely be near the top of the list, but it wouldn't be first. I would be more concerned about what was happening with the world as it tried to rebuild itself from scratch.

Gale gave me a very guilty look. "That didn't come out the way that I meant for it to," Gale muttered.

"Obviously," I growled. But a moment later I realized that I shouldn't have said it like that. "Sorry, sorry."

"It's okay." The two of us stared at each other for a moment. "Maybe I should just go," Gale said.

"No!" I cried quickly. Gale turned back, obviously surprised that I had snapped that fast. "No. Stay for a little while, yeah?"

"You really want me to?"

"Yes. We can't keep being angry at each other forever. Stay with me for a little while. Like when we were kids."

There was no use in constantly fighting. We didn't have many people on our side. We needed each other right now, more than ever. "If I recall correctly, when we were kids you used to take up the entire bed. You kicked me out of my own bed a few times because you were rolling around," Gale teased.

"You were on my side," I argued.

"It was my bed!" Gale barked.

We both laughed as he finally crawled into bed with me. I could remember that day perfectly well. Gale had always complained that I was the biggest bed hog. Which I was. I remembered flailing around with nightmares - and simply from being a restless sleeper - and accidentally kicking Gale out of the bed. When I woke up in the morning, he was sleeping on the floor. When I had asked what had happened, he had merely told me that he didn't want to wake me up. Gale had always been a wonderful man.

In fact, Cato had even said the same thing. Apparently I did roll around in my sleep a lot. But they had rarely been from nightmares. I didn't have nearly as many nightmares when I was with him. Mostly because he made me feel just the slightest bit safer. Just as Gale did. But I could remember waking up a few mornings with Cato and spotting bruises on him. He had told me that it was fine, I just kicked a lot in my sleep. But he hadn't minded, just the way that Gale didn't.

Two wonderful men, each with their own reasons for me to love them. Make up your damn mind. You love Cato. Tell Gale. I couldn't. Not with the fear that he wouldn't love me anymore. Weakling. Gale pulled himself next to me and threw the sheets up around us a moment later. I yanked myself up to his chest and laid my head in the crook of his shoulder and arm. Just the way that I did with Cato. I was sure that there wasn't anything romantic between the two of us, but I was comfortable being here.

Somewhere at Gale's side had always been a place of comfort for me. He was strong and comforting. He always had been. But it didn't stop me from feeling the slightest bit guilty for being here with Gale while Cato was... doing what? Having what happen to him? I couldn't be sure, but I was positive that it was nothing good. Not with the Capitol. But I tried not to think about that. I would have him back soon enough and he would officially join the rebellion. In the meantime, I had to hang onto my sanity.

For a while, Gale and I laid together and chatted back and forth quietly. I wasn't sure where the rest of my family was, but they must have been busy doing something, as they never returned. I was actually impressed that the two of us managed to make it an entire hour without getting into a fight, which we seemed to be doing so much recently. Eventually my eyes started to droop shut and I finally managed to fall asleep. Before I did, I noticed that Gale was running his hands gently through my hair, just as Cato did.

When I managed to open my eyes again, I was still lying in bed. But it felt strange. Like it was the middle of the night. It was hard to tell with only a tiny window that was mostly covered. I slowly peeled my eyes open and glanced over, curious as to what time it was and what had happened. But I was immediately met with bare skin. I was sleeping on Cato's chest. He was already awake, his fingers slowly tracing patterns into my bare shoulders. He finally noticed that I was awake and smiled down at me.

"Morning. Morning? Afternoon?" I asked dumbly, unsure of what time it was.

"I'm not sure. I don't think it really matters," Cato said.

Something felt a tiny bit off-putting. Like something was bound to go wrong. Like we were missing something. "We should get up," I said, not bothering to move and get up.

"Are you ready to get up?" Cato asked teasingly.

"No. I'd much rather lay in bed for the rest of the day," I said.

"Let's do that," Cato whispered.

So we would. We never got to do that. With the exception of the day up on the roof before the Quell, this was the only time that we had ever gotten to just lay around lazily. I smiled softly as Cato reached up and wrapped a hand in my slightly-tangled hair. I giggled under my breath as Cato's spare arm wrapped around my waist and he pulled me up against his chest. It was wonderful to just be able to touch him. Be with him. It felt like it had been so long. As I moved slightly, the sheet moved down from my back.

"That's a sight I like to see," Cato teased, looking over my shoulder.

"You can always see more. Just ask," I shot back.

"Can I see more?" Cato asked.

"No," I said shortly.

We both laughed. "You're such a brat."

"Yes, I am. But I'm your brat."

"And I wouldn't have it any other way."

Pressing a kiss down into Cato's chest, I sighed and ran a finger over him. "I've missed you," I whispered.

"I'm right here. I'll always be right here," Cato said, pressing a kiss into my hair.

We laid in silence for another brief moment. Cato's hands gently ran over my body, making goosebumps rise on my skin. "Where do you want to live?" I finally asked, breaking the silence. Cato hummed questioningly at me. "When this is all over. When we're done with the rebellion and the dust settles, I assume that we're going to live together."

For a moment I felt stupid. Maybe he didn't want to live together. "Yes, married couples tend to do that," Cato teased.

At least I didn't have that to worry about. "Where do you want to settle down?" I repeated.

Cato sat in silence for a while. "What about if we rebuilt District 12?" he finally offered.

"Just the two of us?"

It would have taken years. We might have never been able to finish it. "I'll spend the rest of my life doing it, if that's what you want to do," Cato said.

"You're too good for me," I muttered.

"You used to think that it was the other way around," Cato pointed out.

He was completely right. Once upon a time I had thought that I was the better person. I had been sure of it. Cato had just been a cruel Career. I had hated him and believed that he had only wanted to kill everyone in sight. Including me. But he had hesitated. He had taken Ethan when he had offered a skill. He had tried to save me repeatedly. What had I done? Killed everyone at first sight. Thought about killing my friend, Finnick. Cato had stepped in to stop me. He was - and always would be - the better one.

"You're right about that. I used to think that I was the better one. Kinder, happier, a sense of right and wrong. I've discovered lately that I was wrong. You're the better one. You always were. I just tried to deny it," I admitted.

Cato frowned and shook his head. "That's not the truth. You always have been and always will be the better half," Cato said.

"Everything that I've done... I had to have broken your heart at least once," I muttered.

It was a truth that I didn't like to admit. But it was the truth. I had to have broken his heart. Telling him that he was exactly what I had expected. Dropping those Tracker Jackers. Kissing Gale and being unable to stop it. Still - despite everything - having some unrequited feelings for Gale. How could I have done that? Cato didn't know for a fact, but he must have suspected something was there between us. When he had been in the Capitol... Had I broken his heart, thinking that I had abandoned him?

Cato finally nodded. "Yes. I've never felt a strain on my heart as much as I did when I was around you." My heart fell. "But it was all worth it. I would take all of the heartache in the world just to get to live my life with you," he whispered.

A few minutes passed that I just stared at Cato. It was times like this that I couldn't believe who he was. I couldn't believe that he was the same vile Career I had once met. There had always been a world of differences between the two of us. We had always been like two opposite poles in nature and temperament. And yet, we were perfect for each other. We belonged together. I knew that. We made each other complete in a way that nobody else could. We were contentment in our false, paradisiacal, place.

Disaster would always rage around us, but when it was just the two of us, we would always be able to tune everything else out. "Do you think we'll be happy when this is all over?" I finally asked.

"I'm already happy," Cato said.

"With all of this?" I asked, motioning around us.

This was definitely not a happy time. It was one of the unhappiest times that I had ever been through. "Yes. It doesn't matter what happens here or on the war front. The only thing that matters is that I'm with you. I'm happy when I'm with you. Always have been. Always will be," Cato muttered, his fingers digging slightly at the skin on my back.

"You're too good for me."

"Maybe, but I don't want anyone else."

"Me either."

"You're sure?"

My heart dropped into my stomach. Did he really know about Gale? And, for some strange reason, even Seneca's face briefly flashed through my mind. "What?" I asked blankly.

Cato grinned teasingly at me and I realized that it had just been a joke. "You seem to be pretty desirable." He was right about that. I had seen enough men that wanted to see far too much of me. "You're sure that there's no one else you'd rather be with?" Cato asked playfully.

For once, there was no doubt in my mind. "Positive. You're the only one that I want," I said determinedly.

Cato smiled. "Good. Go to sleep. I've got you. Always," he whispered.

Smiling slightly, I pressed a small kiss against his chest and laid down again. I loved him so much that it was painful. Sometimes I even forgot about how much I loved him. After a few moments of resting on him, I could feel myself starting to doze off again. It was a long and stressful day. But I would always feel better as long as he was with me. His fingers were slowly running through my hair and his lips against my temple. His fingers, gently splayed across my back, quickly put me to sleep.

When I woke up again, I instantly sat up to see where Cato was. But he wasn't there anymore. He was gone. Immediately I felt that horrible pang of loss again. Just the way that I had in the Quarter Quell - after we had spent that night together, when I had woken up, he was on the other side of the beach. A happiness that was associated with Cato that was taken away the moment that I realized what reality actually was. For just those brief moments, I had really thought that he was here.

Just as I should have known, Cato wasn't here. He was still captured in the Capitol. Coin hadn't arranged the rescue mission. I still feared for his life in the Capitol. What if they killed him? Could my heart take any more breaking? I had already given him my heart a long time ago. If he died, would he manage to take it with him? Would I spend the rest of forever with a hole inside of me that couldn't be filled? I could love him as much as I wanted to... But I could never love someone as much as I could miss them.

That was the lesson that I had learned with Cato gone. He was gone, and I missed him more than I had ever thought that I could love him. If I got him back, I would have to remember that. I would have to love him more than I had ever thought was possible. I let out a soft breath and fully woke up. I glanced around the room to see that the sun was slightly streaming into the room and everyone was here. Katniss and Ms. Everdeen were still asleep. But Prim was walking out of the bathroom.

She noticed that I was awake and grabbed my hairbrush off of the counter, tossing it to me. "Good morning," Prim said softly, seating herself on the edge of my bed.

"Morning. Thanks for that," I said, running the brush through my hair.

"You're welcome," Prim said.

Glancing around the room, I realized that there was one person missing. "Where's Gale?" I asked Prim.

Had he left in the middle of the night? I knew that I hadn't asked him to leave. "He was sleeping in the bed with you when we came in. He got up and promised that he would see you in the morning. We offered him to stay but he said that he didn't want to intrude," Prim explained.

"Oh... He should know that he's never intruding," I muttered.

"That's what we said." Prim obviously noticed that someone was wrong as I curled into myself on the bed. "Are you okay?" Prim finally asked, sitting pressed up against me.

"Yeah."

Keeping my problems to myself again. "Mockingjay duties didn't go well yesterday?" Prim asked.

"That obvious?"

"You never were very good in front of the camera."

Her blunt answer made me snort. She was right, but she was so different from the Prim that I had saved from the Reaping a year and a half ago. It reminded me that she had grown up in that time. She had been forced to grow up. Despite the fact that I had saved her, she had learned that it was time for her to grow up. Not necessarily to be a fighter, but to be strong in her own way. From time to time I realized that she was even stronger than I was.

"Thanks," I said blandly.

"I'm sorry," Prim said quickly.

It took me a moment to realize that I shouldn't have said it that way. "It's okay. You're right," I said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I was useless out there. It was completely pathetic. I couldn't say the lines correctly and I couldn't manage to make myself look good for even just a second. I failed."

"It's just one day. It's the first day. There might be a learning curve. Give it a few weeks," Prim said.

Was she really only thirteen? She seemed thirty half of the time. "Thanks, sweetie. I'm hoping that it gets easier. I just can't... recite lines. It doesn't come to me," I complained.

Prim thought about it for a moment. "Maybe ask if you can write your lines," she suggested.

There was something that I would have never thought of. "That's not a bad idea. I just hate the idea that someone's out there fighting and dying for something that I started and I'm here, being treated well, taken care of, and constantly being pampered. It makes me feel like a fraud. I would rather be out there where the real fighting is," I said.

"You can't go out there?"

"No. Coin thinks it's too dangerous and puts me at too much of a risk."

"She's not wrong about that. Every gun that Capitol has would be trained on you within seconds." My head whipped around to Prim quickly. "Sorry," she muttered.

Shaking my head at her, I laid a hand on her knee. "No. You're right," I said.

Prim and I sat in silence for a moment. "Something else has you bothered," Prim reasoned.

"You heard what Coin said about my Mockingjay duties. If I failed in them or deviated... I know that this wasn't on purpose - I just can't act. She should know that. But there's a problem. Honestly I'm nervous that my shortcomings being the Mockingjay are going to make Coin go back on her word to save Cato," I said, stumbling over my words stupidly.

No matter what they did to me, I would never be an actor. "She won't do that," Prim said. I raised a brow confusedly. "She doesn't have the reason to do it. One bad acting job isn't good enough to condemn you or Cato."

"I just wish he was here. Things would be so much easier. I wouldn't be so worried about my every move," I mumbled.

"Don't get nervous. Just keep doing whatever it is that Coin wants you to do. That'll help," Prim said.

"That's true."

"Don't panic and don't say anything out of line to her."

Smiling at the girl who was my younger sister, no matter that we weren't actually related, I shook my head. "You would have been a much better Mockingjay," I admitted.

Prim gave me another small smile. "I doubt that," she said.

"I don't."

We both smiled at each other. A moment later I heard stirring on the other end of the room. Katniss and Ms. Everdeen were peeling themselves out of bed. "Morning," Katniss said, glancing over at us.

"Hey, Cat," I said.

"Good morning, girls," Ms. Everdeen said.

"Morning," we all chirped.

Stall for just a little while longer. I really didn't want to have to listen to my shortcomings. "You ready to go?" Katniss finally asked, shattering the somewhat-tense silence.

"See how pathetic I am?" I offered. The other three smiled bitterly. "Yeah. Let's do it. We'll see you two later."

"Good luck," Prim said.

"I'm sure it wasn't that bad," Ms. Everdeen consoled.

In the back of my mind, I knew that they both knew just how terrible it had been. But they weren't going to say anything about it. Not when they knew how upset I was about everything. They knew that I was hurting over just how stupid I had been. Just how terribly I had failed. So Katniss and I walked out to have breakfast before the meeting. It was written second on my schedule for the day. The rest was clear. They must have been planning on having a long talk about how useless I was.

As for now, I was starving and slightly panicked. Starving because I really hadn't eaten much yesterday and I had gone to bed without dinner. Panicked because I was about to find out what Coin thought about her Mockingjay's first performance. It took a little while, but Gale and the others eventually joined us. Cato's family and his friends were over at their table. They were all smiling at me and giving me reassuring looks, but I merely shook my head and looked away. I had failed them, too.

Right after I was done eating, I was taken by Flavius, Venia, and Octavia to redo some of the process from yesterday. The makeup was still on me from the night before, but I would have to have the braid redone and put the Mockingjay costume back on. They very quickly worked my hair into the same braid that it had been in and helped me slip the Mockingjay costume back into place. The only thing that they didn't give me was the actual weapon. That was probably a better idea.

Once they had finished redoing my look and having me appear back as their Mockingjay, I was walked back towards the War Room. On the way there, Effie and Seneca met up with us. Even Brutus was there. To my surprise, they all stayed silent. They must have known just how terrible this was going to be. As we walked in, I dropped into a chair at the corner of the large table and felt my face heat up. Instead of being embarrassed about yesterday, now I was angry again.

Instantly I was chastised by Plutarch for my reaction yesterday. But I tuned him out during the first half of the conversation. The shock of hearing Haymitch's voice yesterday, of learning that he was not only functional but had some measure of control over my life again, enraged me. I had deserved to leave the studio directly and refuse to acknowledge his comments from the booth today. Anyone else's I could take. Just not his. Even so, I knew immediately that he was right about my performance.

It ended up taking the whole of the morning for him to convince the others of my limitations. That I couldn't pull it off. I couldn't stand in a television studio wearing a costume and makeup in a cloud of fake smoke and rally the Districts to victory. Even with the amazing Prep Team or good lines, I couldn't have done it. It was amazing, really, how long I had survived the cameras. The credit for that, of course, went almost completely to Cato. Alone, I couldn't be the Mockingjay.

That was much of Haymitch's initial argument towards my lack of ability to not be the Mockingjay. At least, this version of the Mockingjay. Haymitch consistently argued that it was Cato who had ever made me so wonderful during the Games. He had been the one that had made me so desirable. As much as I hated Haymitch, he was right. From that first kiss at Snow's party two days before the Games to the way that he spoke about me in the Interviews to his constant visits during the Games.

Anything that I had said or done had been based off of something that Cato had said or done. That was Haymitch's next argument. Once more, he was right. Cato was the one that had managed to speak so highly about me during his return to District 2 after the Games and during the Victory Tour. I was the moron who could barely get more than five words out at a time and get people killed for my own stupid - but stirring - words. Cato was the one with the sweet words and actions during the Quarter Quell.

The pregnancy ruse that had sparked accusations of cruelty even in the Capitol had been all because of Cato. It was all because of him. He was the one who had fought to protect me so hard during the Quell. Sometimes even harder than I had fought to protect him, despite my initial motivations. He was the one who had inspired me to act so harshly. I was always the one who made the stupid and brash moves while he was able to turn them around and make me look like I was simply strong-willed.

Everyone listened as we gathered around the huge table in Command. Coin and her people. Plutarch, Fulvia, Effie, and my Prep Team. A group from Twelve that included Haymitch and Gale, but also a few others I couldn't explain, like Leevy and Greasy Sae. All of Cato's family were there, as were Marcus and Felix. At the last minute, Finnick wheeled Beetee in, accompanied by Dalton, the cattle expert from Ten. I supposed that Coin had assembled this strange assortment of people as witnesses to my failure.

However, it was Haymitch who welcomed everyone, and by his words I understood that they had come at his personal invitation. This was the first time that we had been in a room together - sitting so close - since I clawed him. I avoided looking at him directly, but I caught a glimpse of his reflection in one of the shiny control consoles along the wall. He looked slightly yellow and had lost a lot of weight, giving him a shrunken appearance. For a second, I was afraid he was dying. I had to remind myself that I didn't care.

It was very tough. For so long, Haymitch had been my friend and confidant. Seneca wanted me to talk to him, but I couldn't. Not now. Not with how furious I was. Brutus sat on the other side of Haymitch, for once looking serious. The marks from when I had clawed Haymitch were still there. I couldn't help but to be a little happy to see that. I hoped that they were a constant reminder that I hated him and that he had failed me. I never wanted him to get over what he had done to me.

Once Haymitch had finished his opening comments, he showed the footage that we had just shot. I seemed to have reached some new low under Plutarch and Fulvia's guidance. Both my voice and body had a jerky, disjointed quality, like a puppet being manipulated by unseen forces. The actual video was impressive. The cheering crowd, burning ruins, flowing Mockingjay flag, and hovercrafts flying over my head. But I was focused on my performance, which was ten kinds of terrible.

"All right," Haymitch said when it was over. I slunk down into my chair, my face burning with embarrassment. Seneca placed a reassuring hand on my knee. "Would anyone like to argue that this is of use to us in winning the war?" No one did. "That saves time. So, let's all be quiet for a minute. Uh... Madam President, indulge me for a moment, if you would." Coin nodded her consent. "I want everyone to think of one incident where Aspen Antaeus genuinely moved you."

"What's he doing?" I whispered to Seneca.

"Quiet," Seneca warned as Haymitch sent me a scowl that I ignored.

"Not where you were jealous of her hairstyle, or her dress went up in flames or she made a halfway decent shot with an arrow or tossed a knife impressively. Not where Cato was making you like her. I want to hear one moment where she made you feel something real," Haymitch continued.

Literally never. I'm useless. Quiet stretched out and I was beginning to think that it would never end, when Leevy spoke up. "When she volunteered to take Prim's place at the Reaping. Because I'm sure she thought she was going to die."

That was actually a good moment. It had been a moment of sheer panic in my mind. A moment when I had refused to let her die, no matter what was going to happen to me. Bet you didn't think this would happen, idiot. Haymitch actually looked reasonably impressed. A moment later he pushed the chair out and got to his feet. He turned and headed over to the screen that had just shown my abysmal performance. He waved his hand over the screen and cleared some type of writing off of it.

"I hope that wasn't important," Haymitch said, almost teasingly. Coin scowled but stayed silent. "Uh... okay." He took out a pen and started to write on the screen. "Good. Excellent example. Volunteered for best friend's sister at Reaping." Haymitch looked around the table. "Somebody else."

This time an answer came much faster. "When she pushed me back in line and wouldn't let me volunteer. She felt that her family was already destroyed. She couldn't let the same thing happen to mine," Katniss said softly.

Haymitch nodded again. "That's right. One of your only good speeches," Haymitch said, not looking at me. I scowled again. "Go on."

I was very surprised that the next speaker was Boggs, who I thought of as a muscular robot that did Coin's bidding. "When she sang the song. While the little girl died."

My stomach jolted painfully. Seneca handed me a small cup of water and I downed it, hiding my face. I never liked people looking at me when they mentioned Rue. She was and always would be a sore spot. Somewhere in my head an image surfaced of Boggs with a young boy perched up on his hip. In the dining hall, I thought. Maybe he wasn't a robot after all. He had a child. I might not have been a mother, but we could both understand protecting a child like they were your own.

"Who didn't get choked up at that, right?" Haymitch said rhetorically, writing it down. Once he was done, Haymitch looked over at Effie, almost as if noticing her for the first time. "You know, I like you better, Effie, without all that makeup."

"Well, I like you better sober," Effie shot back, almost surprising me.

"I cried when she stayed awake all night and kissed Cato on the thigh before the feast!" Octavia blurted out.

Then she covered her mouth, like she was sure that was a bad mistake. But Haymitch only nodded. "Oh, yeah. Manipulated Cato to try and help save his life. Very nice," Haymitch said, a somewhat teasing note in his voice.

The moments began to come thick and fast and in no particular order. When I took Rue on as an ally. Extended my hand to Chaff on Interview night. Tried to carry Mags away from the poison fog. Shoved Cato ahead of me. Forced Finnick away during the fire. Tried to save the man from District Five from the Beast. Begged Cato not to leave me alone at the end of the first Games. Telling Cato that he wasn't what I had expected. Spoke to the little boy Gale on the platform.

Pulling Cato away from the knife of the girl from District 3 in the first Games. Stepped in when Gale was getting whipped. My words for Rue and Thresh during the Victory Tour. Cried during the Reaping for the Quell. My words to Cato at the Cornucopia before the Career attack in the Quell. My impromptu words to Cato at our wedding. Again and again when I held out the daggers that meant different things to different people. Love for Cato. Refusal to give in under impossible odds. Defiance of the Capitol's inhumanity.

Haymitch tapped against the screen. "So, the question is, what do all of these have in common?"

"They were Aspen's. No one told her what to do or say," Gale said quietly.

"Unscripted, yes!" Beetee chirped. He reached over and patted my hand. "So we should just leave you alone, right?"

People laughed. I even smiled a little. That much I hadn't been expecting. But Beetee had been one of the people that hadn't constantly been insulting me. He was one of the few people that just felt that I hadn't found my niche yet. But I understood what he meant. He was trying to tell them that we couldn't put me up on stage saying scripted words. They would have to come from me. We had to do something that would make me give a real reaction. Of course, that could be dangerous and hard to find.

"Well, that's all very nice but not very helpful," Fulvia said peevishly. "Unfortunately, her opportunities for being wonderful are rather limited here in Thirteen."

That's nice. "Fulvia is right. The opportunities for spontaneity are obviously lacking below ground. So what you're suggesting is we toss her into combat?" Plutarch asked.

"I can't sanction putting an untrained civilian in battle just for effect. This is not the Capitol," Coin said.

"That is exactly what I'm suggesting. Put her in the field," Haymitch said.

"No, we can't protect her," Coin argued.

Putting me into battle... That was exactly what I wanted. "I don't need protection," I said determinedly.

Of course, they just ignored me. "Quiet. Let them fight it out," Seneca told me.

Despite this being my life, I knew that they were going to argue without taking into consideration what I wanted. "It has to come from her. That's what people respond to. You want a symbol for the revolution, she cannot be coached into it. Trust me, I know," Haymitch said.

"Thanks," I growled.

Seneca stomped roughly on my foot and I groaned, leaning over. "So basically unless you're suggesting we toss her into the middle of combat -" Fulvia started.

"Like I said, that's exactly what I'm suggesting," Haymitch repeated, sounding even more frustrated this time. "Put her out in the field and just keep the cameras rolling."

"But people think she's pregnant," Gale pointed out.

"We'll do just like we did here in Thirteen. We'll spread the word that she lost the baby from the electrical shock in the arena. Very sad. Very unfortunate," Plutarch offered.

Of course. I remembered when I first got to Thirteen. People used to pass by the hospital wing just to stare at me like an animal on display. They would often times look at my stomach. To see if it was swollen, maybe. To see if they could actually see any evidence of a miscarriage. Thankfully the doctors finally had put me in seclusion and no one had ever said a word about it afterwards. Any time that the pregnancy was mentioned now was during War Room discussions, which was fine by me.

But now they were planning on using it again. To manipulate emotions and to make sense of putting me out in the battlefield. The idea of sending me into combat was definitely controversial. There was a very long argument about it, which, of course, I still wasn't a part of. But Haymitch had a pretty tight case. There was no reason not to put me in the field, especially if I couldn't do anything here. If I performed well only in real-life circumstances, then into them I should go.

"Every time we coach her or give her lines, the best we can hope for is okay. It has to come from her. That's what people are responding to," Haymitch argued.

"Even if we're careful, we can't guarantee her safety," Boggs argued. "She'll be a target for every -"

"I want to go. I'm no help to the rebels here," I broke in.

"And if you're killed?" Coin asked.

There was a brief silence. "Make sure you get it on camera. You can use that, anyway," I answered.

My eyes were firmly locked on Coin's. I had a feeling that she wasn't sure whether or not I was joking. I was, on hundred percent, not joking. Plutarch chuckled, knowing that I meant exactly what I had said. The rest of the people in the room eventually smiled at me. They all knew that me being out in the front lines was the only way that I could really be the Mockingjay. Not with words. With actions. I wanted to do something more, be closer to the Capitol or in it, but right now I would just have to deal with this.

"Fine," Coin finally conceded. "But let's take it one step at a time. Find the least dangerous situation that can evoke some spontaneity in you."

Least dangerous. That was likely to be one of the outlying Districts. Not that I really knew what was dangerous and what wasn't. I merely watched as she stood from her chair. My gaze turned to the maps and screens that were showing the progress of the war. I couldn't make heads or tails of them, but obviously Coin could. She walked all around Command, studying the illuminated District maps that showed the ongoing troop positions in the war.

"Take her into Eight this afternoon," Coin finally said. Eight... I could work with Eight. "There was heavy bombing this morning, but the raid seems to have run its course. I want her armed with a squad of bodyguards. Camera crew on the ground. Haymitch, you'll be airborne and in contact with her. Let's see what happens there. Does anyone have any other comments?"

"Wash her face," Dalton said immediately. Everyone - including me - turned to him. "She's still a girl and you made her look thirty-five. Feels wrong. Like something the Capitol would do."

Nodding my thanks at him, he nodded back. I had a feeling that he didn't like me too much - which was no shock - but I did appreciate what he had said. I would feel like a fool going into District 8, looking like this. As Coin adjourned the meeting, telling everyone to prepare for the mission, Haymitch asked her if he could speak to me privately. Cato's family smiled at me as they left. Seneca gave me a slow nod. The others left except for Gale and Katniss, who lingered uncertainly by my side.

But I couldn't speak to him. Not right now. "I have nothing to say to you, Haymitch," I growled.

"Should we -?" Gale started.

"It's okay," I told Gale and Katniss, and they went.

For a moment I had thought that I might be able to speak with Haymitch. For a moment I thought that I might have been able to say something to him. Confront him. But I couldn't. I didn't want to speak to Haymitch. I just wanted to get ready for the mission to Eight. So I jumped up and made to leave the room. Haymitch instantly followed as we left Command. Besides our thundering footsteps, there was just the hum of the instruments and the purr of the ventilation system. I stomped right down the stairs.

"Aspen -"

"You made your point, Haymitch," I snapped, remembering his laughter and cruel words from yesterday.

But he didn't give up easily. He never had. We hit the landing, Haymitch just behind me, and I kept walking. "Not to you, I didn't," Haymitch snapped. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back to look at him. I merely scowled at him, the two of us standing off in a silent battle. "So, go ahead. Just say it."

"Say what?" I hissed.

"We're gonna have to work together. So you might as well get this off your chest," Haymitch goaded.

I thought of the snarling, cruel exchange back on the hovercraft. The bitterness that followed. But all I said was, "You promised me you would save Cato."

"I know," he replied.

There was a sense of incompleteness. And not because he hadn't apologized. I really wanted one. Actually, more than anything else, I wanted him to admit what he had done. But most of all, it was because we were a team. Inside and outside of the arena. Once upon a time, we had almost been family. We had a deal to keep Cato safe. A drunken, unrealistic deal made in the dark of night, but a deal just the same. And in my heart of hearts, I knew that we both had failed. Not just him.

"Now you say it," I told him.

"I can't believe you let him out of your sight that night," Haymitch said.

In the back of my mind, I knew that he would say it, but that didn't make it hurt any less. "No. No. You don't get to blame this one on me!" I snarled. I tried to sound harsh, but my voice cracked and tears rose to my eyes. "I have been blamed for everything that has happened over the past year and a half. You don't get to blame me for this. You were right there! You caved on it! You let me leave him, knowing what was about to happen."

"I know," Haymitch admitted.

"If one damn person had told me what was happening, if one person had told me what was going on, I would have never let him leave my sight. But you didn't. And we landed ourselves in this mess," I continued.

"I thought that it might be okay," Haymitch said, some guilt seeping into his words.

"You clearly didn't think at all! Haymitch, if you had told me the truth, I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have let him go. We would have been together. I would have pressed the button that Seneca had given me. We could have been brought here together. And maybe I wouldn't be having such a hard time stepping into the role that you designated for me," I said, clearly blaming him.

"It was too -"

"Don't tell me that it was too dangerous!" I interrupted, my voice bouncing off of the steel walls. "You lied to me. Just admit that you lied to me."

There was a long stretch of silence between the two of us where we just stared at each other. I said nothing and he said nothing. We just stared. I didn't want to say anything to him. The ball was in his court. It was his job to say something now. It was his job to admit that he had made a mistake. That he had never intended to save Cato. I just wanted to hear him say it. I needed to hear it. My chest was rising and falling quickly as my hands started to shake.

"I lied to you," Haymitch finally said.

"Thank you. For finally saying it," I whispered, trying so desperately to keep my voice from cracking.

Haymitch looked extremely guilty. But I knew that he wouldn't say that he was sorry. "But I would have done it a thousand times over to make sure that we ended up here," Haymitch admitted.

Of course he would have. I nodded slowly. That was it. "I play it over and over in my head. What I could have done to keep him by my side without breaking the alliance. But nothing comes to me," I said.

"I saw it when we were there. You didn't have a choice. And even if I could've made Plutarch stay and rescue him that night, the whole hovercraft would've gone down. We barely got out as it was," Haymitch said.

He didn't even think to save Cato. He didn't even think to go back and at least try and keep his words to me. He hadn't dared to try and keep his promise to me. There was never any intention to save Cato. Not even me. Just the Mockingjay. The thought only made my blood boil in my chest. Furious and heartbroken all at once, I finally met Haymitch's eyes. Seam eyes. Gray and deep and ringed with the circles of sleepless nights. We both had misty eyes, but neither one of us mentioned it.

"I didn't want to get out. I wanted him to get out," I said, my voice shaking.

"You think that I was planning on letting you die?" Haymitch asked harshly.

"I asked you to!" I shouted; a tear fell that was immediately wiped away.

Haymitch moved forward, making a pained face when I instantly took a step back. "I made your mother a promise eighteen years ago. I made her a promise that I would protect you," Haymitch said.

"A damn fine job you've done of that," I snarled.

"You're still alive, aren't you?" Haymitch hissed, readopting his normal attitude.

"Surviving," I corrected.

There was another brief stare-down. We both had managed to calm down, but neither one of us were happy. "Now you've got to stop moping around. You think I want to be here? I want a bottle so bad I'm ready to distill my own turnips. But I'm here, and you know why?" Haymitch asked harshly, but not unkindly.

In the back of my mind, I already knew why. I knew exactly what he had meant. I knew that it was because there was still something that we could do about this. There was something that I could do about this. It all started with me trying to buck up and get my act together. I hated that he was right. Haymitch had always known what to say to me. He had always known what to say to get me up and start acting the way that I should. He was never nice about it, but that was what I needed.

"Because Cato's still alive. He's not dead yet, and neither are we," Haymitch said.

He was right. I still had something to fight for. Haymitch moved forward and laid a hand on my shoulder. This time I didn't back away. "We're still in the game," I said.

I tried to say it with optimism, but my voice cracked. "Still in. And I'm still your Mentor." Haymitch pointed his marker at me. "When you're on the ground, remember I'm airborne. I'll have the better view, so do what I tell you," Haymitch said.

"We'll see," I answered.

"Aspen," Haymitch warned.

"Okay. Okay." Anything to get him to stop complaining at me. I was about to turn and leave to prepare for the mission when I remembered my conversation with Seneca. "Seneca said that there was something I should ask you," I said slowly.

Determined to know what this was all about, I watched Haymitch's reactions to my words very closely. He gave the exact reaction that I was fearing. One that told me that this was another very large secret that he was harboring from me. His face paled even more than it ever had. If possible, he looked even worse than he did when I had first seen him. Clearly what he was hiding from me wasn't something good. Haymitch also looked a little annoyed. He merely stared at me for a moment before shaking his head.

"One step at a time, alright?" Haymitch offered.

Whatever this secret was, it would put us back to square one. So I nodded, knowing that we had made some progress. "Okay," I conceded.

The two of us stared at each other before I turned and walked off, without bothering to say goodbye. I returned to the Remake Room silently and watched the streaks of makeup disappear down the drain as I scrubbed my face clean. The only thing that I was thinking about was the secret that Haymitch was hiding from me. The secret that obviously a few people knew. It must have been about me, but no one was actually going to tell me. Likely because it would upset me.

As much as I wanted to think about it, I knew that I had to think about the mission to District 8. That was what mattered right now. Not another secret that was destined to only upset me. Once the water started running clear again, I glanced up at myself. The person in the mirror looked ragged, with her slightly uneven skin and tired eyes, but she looked a lot more like me. I ripped the armband off, revealing the ugly scar from the tracker. There. That looked like me, too.

There were numerous kinds of armor that Cinna had designed. Some were just tactical that would help me carry supplies and weapons. Others were made only for the camera. They would look impressive but weren't designed to take any real hits. That was the armor that I was in yesterday. The chest plate was hard enough to stop a bullet, but it would still hurt like hell if I was actually hit. The armor today was clearly what had been meant to be worn into a real war.

Since I was going to be in a combat zone, Beetee helped me into the armor that Cinna designed. A helmet of some interwoven metal that fit close to my head. The material was supple, like fabric, and could be drawn back like a hood in case I didn't want it up full-time. I kept it down to pull my braid out. There was a vest to reinforce the protection over my vital organs. A small white earpiece that attached to my collar by a wire. Beetee secured a mask to my belt that I didn't have to wear unless there was a gas attack.

"If you see anyone dropping for reasons you can't explain, put it on immediately," Beetee explained.

"Okay."

This armor was definitely no less impressive than the first set. But it looked even more dangerous. I looked like a real soldier. Fancy and strong, but a soldier. Definitely a Mockingjay. Without the makeup, I looked like that girl who had killed the wolf muttation, stood up against the Careers, and threatened my own life. But I was stronger now. More determined. Finally, Beetee handed me the bow and he strapped a sheath divided into three cylinders of arrows to my back.

"Just remember: Right side, fire. Left side, explosive. Center, regular. You shouldn't need them, but better safe than sorry," Beetee explained.

"Great," I said.

The two of us stood together to ensure that everything on my costume was correct. Clearly he wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to be hurt out there, just in case something went wrong. I knew that it would. I was destined to be hurt out there. It would only be so long before the Capitol found out that I had stepped out of my safe place. Boggs eventually showed up to escort me down to the Airborne Division. Just as the elevator arrived, Finnick appeared in a state of agitation.

"Aspen!" Finnick cried.

"Hey, Finnick. You okay?" I asked slowly.

"They won't let me go! I told them I'm fine, but they won't even let me ride in the hovercraft!" Finnick said irritably.

Maybe they should have just let him ride in the hovercraft... Just to avoid the argument... But then I really took in Finnick's appearance for the first time since that day in the hovercraft - his bare legs showing between his hospital gown and slippers, his tangle of hair, the half-knotted rope twisted around his fingers, the wild look in his eyes - and knew that any plea on my part would be useless. Even I didn't think that it was a good idea to bring him.

"Umm... It might not be a good idea to have you on the war front for a while. Just a few more days. Maybe during the next trip?" I offered, trying to comfort him.

"But I'm really fine!" Finnick insisted.

Just like me, he clearly wanted to do something to not constantly think of Annie, the way that I so often thought of Cato. So I smacked my hand on my forehead and said, "Oh, I forgot. It's this stupid concussion. I was supposed to tell you to report to Beetee in Special Weaponry. He's designed a new trident for you."

At the word trident, it was as if the old Finnick surfaced. "Really? What's it do?"

"I don't know. But if it's anything like my bow and arrows, you're going to love it. You'll need to train with it, though," I said.

"Right. Of course. I guess I better get down there," Finnick said.

"Finnick? Maybe some pants?" I suggested.

There was no way that they were going to let him down there in a hospital gown. They barely wanted me there in my Mockingjay suit. Finnick looked down at his legs as if noticing his outfit for the first time. Then he whipped off his hospital gown, leaving him in just his underwear. I snorted loudly. To Finnick's credit, he definitely had something to be proud of. Just like Cato, his body was riddled with muscle. But Finnick also glowed with the natural tan of District 4.

"Why? Do you find this," Finnick struck a ridiculously provocative pose, "distracting?"

For the first time in a long time, I let myself loose in public. I couldn't help laughing because it was funny, and it was extra funny because it made Boggs look so uncomfortable. They really didn't like any type of nudity or affection in Thirteen. I was even happier because Finnick actually sounded like the guy that I met so long ago, just when I had arrived to the Capitol for my first Games. It would have been interesting if we had known back then where we would end up.

"I'm only human, Odair." I got in before the elevator doors closed. "Finnick, you're looking better," I called seriously.

"So are you. Not that it's very hard. You've always been so ugly," Finnick said.

There he is. Just like me, Finnick was slowly coming back to himself. "Ah, I've missed you," I said.

"Be careful out there," Finnick said, standing at the edge of the elevator.

"I'm not hugging you until you put your pants on," I said seriously.

Finnick almost smiled. "Don't die out there."

"Don't worry, I see to be a little hard to kill."

We smiled at each other. For the first time in a long time, I had some faith that we could all get back to normal once this was over. It was possible. I honestly believed that. Finnick turned back and walked off with a small smile. I couldn't help but to smile back. He looked so much happier these days. I knew that he wouldn't be completely happy until he could get Annie back, though. I knew how he felt. I wouldn't be completely okay until I could get Cato back.

"Sorry about him," I told Boggs.

"Don't be. I thought you... handled that well. Better than my having to arrest him, anyway," Boggs said.

"Yeah," I said.

Besides the first time that I had seen him in the old hospital room, I had never really looked at Boggs before. But even that had just been brief. So I snuck a sidelong glance at him. He was probably in his mid-forties, with close-cropped gray hair and blue eyes. Incredible posture. He had spoken out twice today in ways that made me think he would rather be friends than enemies. Maybe I should have given him a chance. But he just seemed so in step with Coin...

Could I trust someone that I thought was just like Coin? No. Because I didn't trust her. I would never trust her. But Boggs seemed to be the tinniest bit fond of me. He seemed to want to protect me. I supposed that today would show me just how much my life meant to him. There was suddenly a series of loud clicks. I glanced up instantly. Was the elevator about to collapse? That would have been an interesting end to the Mockingjay. The elevator came to a slight pause and then began to move laterally to the left.

"It goes sideways?" I asked.

"Yes. There's a whole network of elevator paths under Thirteen. This one lies just above the transport spoke to the fifth airlift platform. It's taking us to the Hangar," Boggs answered.

The Hangar. The dungeons. Special Defense. The Collective. Somewhere food is grown. Power generated. Air and water purified. All of the places that everyone lived. The mess hall. The War Room. The Remake Room. The hospital wing. All of those places that interconnected with each other. The outdoor training areas and fences that led to the woods that surrounded District 13.

"Thirteen is even larger than I thought," I said.

"Can't take credit for much of it. We basically inherited the place. It's been all we can do to keep it running," Boggs said.

Inherited the place? What was that supposed to mean? I assumed that he meant that this was the place where Thirteen had once only done their graphite mining. That made sense to me. This was only a fraction of what Thirteen had once been. Still, for a place that was all underground, it was enormous. The clicks resumed. We dropped down again briefly - just a couple of levels - and the doors opened up on the Hangar. It was the first time that I had seen it.

"Oh," I let out involuntarily at the sight of the fleet. Row after row of different kinds of hovercraft. "Did you inherit these, too?"

"Some we manufactured. Some were part of the Capitol's air force. They've been updated, of course," Boggs said.

I felt that twinge of hatred against Thirteen again. "So, you had all this, and you left the rest of the Districts defenseless against the Capitol," I commented.

"It's not that simple," Boggs shot back. "We were in no position to launch a counterattack until recently. We could barely stay alive. After we'd overthrown and executed the Capitol's people, only a handful of us even knew how to pilot. We could've nuked them with missiles, yes. But there's always the larger question: If we engage in that type of war with the Capitol, would there be any human life left?"

"That sounds like what Cato said. And you all called him a traitor," I countered.

"Because he called for a cease-fire. You'll notice neither side has launched nuclear weapons. We're working it out the old-fashioned way," Boggs said.

"Yes. That would be unfair, wouldn't it?" I asked grouchily, referring to the nuclear weapons.

"We're trying to hold some semblance of humanity. Fairness," Boggs said.

"Like the Games? Those weren't too fair either or humane, in case I recall correctly," I said.

For a moment, Boggs stared at me. He didn't dare say anything back, because, of course, I was the person that knew them. "Over here, Soldier Antaeus," Boggs finally said.

It was another one of those moments where I had clearly surprised him. He merely stared at me inquisitively, as if trying to read my mind. He then indicated one of the smaller hovercraft. I mounted the stairs and found it packed with the television crew and equipment. Everyone else was dressed in Thirteen's dark gray military jumpsuits, even Haymitch, although he seemed unhappy about the snugness of his collar. I felt very awkward about my costume, which now felt a little silly.

It felt like I was still just trying to play dress-up during the war. But I didn't have much time to concern myself with what I was wearing. At that moment, Fulvia Cardew hustled over and made a sound of frustration when she saw my clean face. At least Finnick's comments about me being ugly were jokes. Effie and the Prep Team might have made some rude comments, but they genuinely liked me. Fulvia merely thought that I was ugly and didn't like me.

"All that work, down the drain. I'm not blaming you, Aspen. It's just that very few people are born with camera-ready faces. Like him." She snagged Gale, who was in a conversation with Plutarch, and spun him toward us. "Isn't he handsome?"

The uniforms made anyone that could fill them out look good. They were clearly made for men, as all of the women looked terrible in them. It was evidence enough by the way that Katniss had already shooed away Fulvia when they had tried to make her up. She only looked a little less tired than I did. Gale had always had a natural attractiveness to him. He did look striking in the uniform, I guessed. But the question just embarrassed us both, given our history.

I was still trying to think of a witty comeback, when Boggs said brusquely, "Well, don't expect us to be too impressed. We just saw Finnick Odair in his underwear."

Everyone's heads whipped towards him. But I was the only person who laughed. Everyone else was clearly trying to figure out what was happening with Boggs. Whether or not we could really trust him. Trusting him was one thing, but I decided to go ahead and like Boggs. The next part would come later. Gale and Katniss gave me a strange look, but I shrugged my shoulders. They pushed away from Fulvia and came to stand at my sides.

"At least we can be ugly together," I teased Katniss.

"You're both prettier than her," Gale said seriously.

"She's got a crush on you," I told him.

"I'll pass. I've got better things to do."

"You two ready?" Katniss asked.

Talking about crushes and relationships weren't that important right now. Like Gale had said, we had better things to do. "More than I've been in a long time. I want to see what the war front looks like," I said seriously.

"It might not be a pretty picture," Gale warned.

"I'd be surprised if it was," I said.

As the three of us stood together, waiting for takeoff, I glanced up to look around. That was when I saw a few faces that I hadn't been expecting to see. Even though I should have. They had warned me that they would be coming along. But that was weeks ago and I had almost forgotten. It was Dean, Skye, and Julie. I really did forget that I had requested them to be on the team with me. I found myself terribly nervous for them now. The Hadley's had already lost enough.

"I'll be right back," I said, looking to the other trio.

Katniss and Gale followed my gaze. "You knew that they would be on the team, right?" Katniss asked.

"Yeah. I just forgot."

"Hurry up. They're talking to us soon," Gale said.

"Alright." I walked past the other two and strode up behind the three. "You're coming?" I asked.

Julie, Skye, and Dean turned to her. "We're coming. It was part of our deal. The three of us excelled at the training periods. We requested to be on your team anyways," Dean explained.

"What about Felix and Marcus?" I asked.

They were from District 2. I had thought that they would be good enough to be here. "Not yet. Coin claimed that they're not sharpshooters just yet," Julie said.

I had a feeling that it was more because she didn't trust them. "Although she is happy that we're going. We figure that half of the reason that she's bringing us along is because she wants District 2 to see that some of us are fighting with the rebels," Skye said.

"I hate to say it, but that makes sense," I said.

The three smiled. "You nervous?" Dean asked.

"To see the war front? Yes and no. I've wanted to see it for so long, but now... I don't want to see what these people are suffering because of me."

"Everyone knows that it's worth it," Skye comforted me.

"Are you all coming down with us?" I asked.

There were a number of people here who would be staying on the hovercraft. "Yes. We've got our weapons and we're ready to go," Julie said.

They were all holding guns. "Although they say that this will be noncombatant today," Skye added.

"What do you say?" I asked curiously.

"We say that the moment the Capitol realizes that you're in District 8, they're going to have every gun pointed at you," Dean said.

He didn't look guilty for saying it. We all knew that he was right. Not only was I putting myself in danger, I was also putting the people of District 8 in danger. "Yes, I was thinking the same thing. But I'm not afraid. I'm used to it already. The only thing that I was afraid of was failing my Mockingjay duties and having Coin go back on her word to save Cato," I admitted.

"I doubt she'd do that," Julie said.

"She won't do it unless you either die or start working against her," Skye added.

"You guys ready to see this?" I asked, trying to change the subject.

"I think the real question is whether or not you're ready to see it," Dean said.

I knew what he meant. He thought that whatever I saw, I would blame myself for. He was right. "It can't be worse than District 12. This is something that I need to see," I said honestly.

"We've got your back in there," Julie said, patting me on the back.

"Your safety is the priority," Skye added.

"As always," Dean said.

"Thanks for this. Keep yourselves safe, alright? We've all lost enough," I muttered.

"That goes for you too," Skye said.

"Listen to Haymitch. If he says to get down, get down," Dean warned.

"You sound just like him," I teased.

We all laughed as I walked off. It was time to prepare for the mission. There was a warning of the upcoming takeoff and I strapped myself into a seat between Gale and Katniss, facing off with Haymitch and Plutarch. We glided through a maze of tunnels that opened out onto a platform. Some sort of elevator device lifted the craft slowly up through the levels. All at once we were outside in a large field surrounded by woods, then we rose off the platform and became wrapped in clouds.

The hovercraft was just slightly larger than the one that was used to take Tributes into the arena. Mostly because we needed more people to come along with us today. Now that the flurry of activity leading up to this mission was over, I realized that I had no idea what I was facing on this trip to District 8. Not quite what had happened in District 12, but it would be its own nightmare. In fact, I knew very little about the actual state of the war. Or what it would take to win it. Or what would happen if we did.

Knowing that I wanted to know what was happening with the war, Plutarch leaned forward to explain it to me. I knew that it was a complicated mess of webs right now, so he tried to lay it out in simple terms for me. Which I appreciated, since my head still would get fuzzy whenever I tried to think too hard about anything. First of all, every District was currently at war with the Capitol except Two, which had always had a favored relationship with our enemies despite its participation in the Hunger Games.

Just like Cato had once said, they were the least likely to join any rebellion. They got more food and better living conditions. I had seen it myself and Cato had told me. After the Dark Days and the supposed destruction of Thirteen, District 2 became the Capitol's new center of defense, although it was publicly presented as the home of the nation's stone quarries, in the same way that Thirteen was known for graphite mining. District 2 not only manufactured weaponry, it trained and even supplied Peacekeepers.

"You mean... some of the Peacekeepers are born in Two? I thought they all came from the Capitol," I said dumbly.

Did Cato know that? Probably not. Plutarch nodded. That explained why I hadn't recognized where Thread's accent had been from. It was District 2, muddled with the Capitol's. "That's what you're supposed to think. And some do come from the Capitol. But its population could never sustain a force that size. Then there's the problem of recruiting Capitol-raised citizens for a dull life of deprivation in the Districts. A twenty-year commitment to the Peacekeepers, no marriage, no children allowed.

"Some buy into it for the honor of the thing, others take it on as an alternative to punishment. For instance, join the Peacekeepers and your debts are forgiven. Many people are swamped in debt in the Capitol, but not all of them are fit for military duty. So District Two is where we turn for additional troops. It's a way for their people to escape poverty and a life in the quarries. They're raised with a warrior mind-set. You've seen how eager their children are to volunteer to be Tributes," Plutarch explained carefully.

Cato and Clove. Brutus and Enobaria. I had seen their eagerness and their blood lust, too. "Yes. I have. Up close," I said, remembering their threats, but also the kindness that they could display. "But all the other Districts are on our side?"

"Yes. Our goal is to take over the Districts one by one, ending with District Two, thus cutting off the Capitol's supply chain. Then, once it's weakened, we invade the Capitol itself. That will be a whole other type of challenge. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Plutarch explained.

"Let's bring up one thing. How do we get District 2 on our side?" Dean asked.

The discomfort was clear on his face, as it was on Skye's and Julie's. Of course. That was their home. They didn't want to see it attacked or destroyed. "Eventually we'll likely have to go there. They won't be convinced by words or propaganda speeches. They need to see action. That's the way that they are," Plutarch said.

"We can do that when the time comes," I said.

"How welcoming are they going to be for Aspen?" Skye asked.

"You tell us,” Katniss said, drawing attention to herself. "Does the District like her?"

Did they like me? Cato had said that some did and some didn't. "Honestly, it's mixed. Some people like her, some hate her. But a lot of them think that she abandoned Cato in the Quell," Julie explained.

My jaw set. "Hear that, Plutarch?" I hissed.

"Listen to them, Aspen," Seneca said, standing at my side.

"It's going to take them a lot to get on our side," Skye reasoned.

"Unless they're forced. Eventually they'll realize that they're outgunned," Gale put in.

It didn't take a genius to figure out what he meant. "You mean to start a fight," I said.

"If we need to," Gale replied.

The two of us stared at each other for a moment. "Enough people are dying. We all need to be fighting against the Capitol, not against each other. We're just going to lose more people who we can't afford to lose," I said determinedly.

"So what do you suggest?" Gale asked.

Stop killing each other. Kill Snow and move on with life. "Bring the Hadley's with us when we go. If you're okay with that, of course," I said quickly. All three nodded. "That's their home. Take Felix and Marcus and the other refugees back. They might not listen to me, but there's a chance that they'll listen to their own. And... if you can convince her... get Coin to rescue Cato before we go."

"That would involve moving on the Capitol," Plutarch pointed out.

"I know but... you've always said that he's the one who's better with words. Who better to get them to join?" I offered.

There was a long stretch of silence. It was a good idea, but also dangerous. "That's not a bad idea, Plutarch," Seneca finally said. "If nothing else - if we're unable to rescue Cato Hadley by that time - we can form a rescue mission and present it to the people of District 2. They'll be much happier knowing that we haven't abandoned him."

"Are there any rebel forces in Two?" I asked.

"Yes, but there are many loyalists. They're not easy to fight back against," Plutarch said.

"Right now District 2 isn't our main worry," Seneca cut in.

"I think we've got a lot of worries," I mumbled.

"If we win, who would be in charge of the government?" Gale asked.

"Everyone," Plutarch told him. "We're going to form a republic where the people of each District and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don't look so suspicious; it's worked before."

"In books," Haymitch muttered.

"In history books. And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too," Plutarch said.

I'd heard the idea before. "A democracy," I said.

Everyone whipped around to look at me. "You read," Plutarch commented.

That was one of the few times that I hadn't slept through the mandatory history lessons. "I paid attention in a few history classes. I remember the term. I remember thinking that it would have been a better idea than what we have," I said slowly.

"Which is?" Plutarch asked, obviously testing me.

"A dictatorship," I said.

As much as I walked to believe that it was a good idea, I just couldn't. Frankly, our ancestors didn't seem much to brag about. I mean, we could have just looked at the state that they had left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn't care about what would happen to the people who came after them. They just died off, concerned with their own lives. But the republic idea sounded like an improvement over our current government.

"What happens if we lose?" I asked.

"If we lose?" Plutarch looked out at the clouds, and an ironic smile twisted his lips. "Then I would expect next year's Hunger Games to be quite unforgettable."

Uncomfortable looks were exchanged. I would definitely be back in the arena. Or, to make matters even worse, it wouldn't be me. Instead it would be Prim and Gale. Two of Rue's siblings. Aidan and Marley, no matter how old they were. Sparrow, if he managed to survive the war. Everyone who meant something to me. I was sure that they would manage to find someone from each District. Or maybe they would just take twelve District 2 rebels, and twelve District 12 rebels, and kill them. After killing me, of course.

"That reminds me." Plutarch took a vial from his vest, shook a few deep violet pills into his hand, and held them out to us. "We named them Nightlock in your honor, Aspen," Plutarch said.

"Why my honor?" I asked confusedly.

"You clearly recognized them more than once. You saved Cato's life from them. Quite the moving moment. You knew when the girl from Five had killed herself with them," Plutarch explained. It still didn't make sense to me. "You -"

"He means that dagger didn't sound quite as good," Haymitch interrupted.

As angry as I was with Haymitch - as angry as I likely always would be with him - the comment made me laugh. I wished that I could take back my laughter, but it was too late. So I merely looked away and smiled. Because there was something funny about it. It was a hint of the old Haymitch. But I was still determined to stay angry with him. I would be angry with him for a long time. Maybe forever. It would be until we got Cato back, at least.

"The rebels can't afford for any of us to be captured now. But I promise, it will be completely painless," Plutarch said.

"It's like you've never met us. Pain is a part of our lives," I commented.

Despite the truth behind my words, everyone ignored me. But it dawned on me, what this little pill was. I took a hold of a capsule, unsure of where to put it. Plutarch tapped a spot on my shoulder at the front of my left sleeve. I examined it and found a tiny pocket that both secured and concealed the pill. Even if my hands were tied, I could lean my head forward and bite it free. Cinna, it seemed, had thought of everything.

Chapter Text

Districts Eight and Thirteen were about two hours apart by hovercraft. The train took a little over three days to get from District 12 to District 8. It felt strange to know that we would be getting there quite so quickly today. It felt strange that I would really see the war in a matter of hours. District 12 had just been a wasteland. All I had seen was all of the destruction that had been left behind by the firebombs. But District 8 was going to be a full-blown war zone.

As conversations were exchanged about strategy and the upcoming visit to District 8, I sat quietly in my place in the hovercraft. We hadn't taken off quite yet, but I was sure that it would only be a matter of time. Gale and Katniss were on either of my sides and I was grateful that they were so close. I needed them. In the meantime, I could hear people chattering away in the earpiece. I was sure that Haymitch and Seneca would be ready to tell me not to do anything stupid the moment that we landed.

Across from us and down a few people were Dean, Skye, and Julie. Dean was in between the two girls, chatting away softly with them. They looked surprisingly relaxed for what was about to happen. I was very nervous. Not necessarily for what we were going to see - although that was a part of it - but to have the three of them with me. I didn't want something terrible to happen to them. Especially not after what happened with Leah during their escape from Two.

As I glanced at them, I noticed that they all had something that reminded me of the arena tokens. Theirs reminded me much of the one that Cato had brought with him. Dean had a locket with a picture on the inside. Marley was on one side and Carrie was on the other. Skye had a locket with a picture of her Victor sister and the rest of her family. Julie had a locket too, and on the inside it looked like a picture of all of her friends. Skye and Cato were the only two I recognized in it.

The whole thing made me smile. Everyone had something that they loved. Just like Cato. Just like me. Just like the rest of us. We all had someone that we were doing this for. There was always going to be someone worth fighting for. I let out a deep breath as I dropped back into my seat. I wanted my wedding ring with me, but I had known that it wasn't a good idea. I could have lost it or I could have broken it. So it was sitting on the bedside table, waiting for my return.

Would the people in District 8 notice? Probably not. They would be more concerned with the fact that I was alive. What about the people in District 2? I wanted to know what had happened to them. Were they still alive, since they apparently weren't fighting? I wasn't sure. I wanted to go see what was happening in the District, but I was positive that it would be extremely dangerous for me to be there. If any District was likely to attack and kill me, it would be District 2, despite the few there who would like to see me.

There was nothing that I could do for District 2. Not unless they decided to ask me to come and see what was happening. And I really doubted that they wanted me there. Not after what had happened to District 12. I leaned back in my seat on the hovercraft, trying to repress the urge to tuck my knees up to my chest. I couldn't look like a weak and frightened little girl. I had to be brave right now. Suddenly Plutarch got to his feet as a few new people entered the hovercraft.

"Quick introductions, Aspen," Plutarch said. I got to my feet as well to say hello to the new additions. "These people have come a long way to support the cause. This is Cressida. In my opinion one of the best up-and-coming directors in the Capitol."

"Until I up and left," Cressida told Plutarch before turning to me. "Hey."

"Hey," I greeted dumbly.

Was that really the best that I could do? Probably not. I stared at Cressida for a long time. Capitol born, obviously, just as Plutarch had said. She had a few piercings and bright blue eyes, but other than that, her face was relatively normal. It was her hair that proved her as Capitol-born. She had one half of her head shaved. The rest of her blonde hair was pulled over onto the other side of her head with a braid running back the length of the shaved portion.

She had vine tattoos all the way over the shaved part of her skull that went down to underneath the black uniform that District 13 soldiers wore. She had a gun tucked into her belt, but otherwise she was unarmed. Instead she was carrying something tiny that I assumed was the camera. The longer I looked at her, the more that I realized that she looked very familiar to me. I knew that all of the people in the Capitol looked familiar - since it was so easy to remember their strangeness - but she looked extremely familiar.

"I've seen you before," I finally commented.

Cressida smiled slightly. "Yeah. You have," she said.

"Were you a photographer during the Games?" I asked.

Cressida nodded. So that was where I had seen her. "Used to be. I worked for the Games when it was time. I was there during your first Games," Cressida explained.

Now that she mentioned it, I realized that I had seen her a number of times. When I thought about it, I realized that I had actually run into Cressida a number of times before my first Games. She was there on the platform when I had arrived in the Capitol. She had been standing next to the man that had announced that I had been caught kissing Gale at the goodbyes. She had rolled her eyes at him - seemingly very disinterested - but she had become quite interested when she'd seen my exchange with Gale.

That wasn't the only time that I had seen her. She had been there after the Tribute Parade. She was one of the people that was standing closest to Cato and I when we had had our first public conversation. I remembered how interested she had looked at our chat. She had occasionally been outside of the training room, watching and waiting for us. She had even been there during the party. I remembered her eyes being almost solely focused on me. And at the Interviews, standing backstage, watching me.

She had even been there after the Games, at the Closing Ceremonies. I remembered her looking so interested at the sight of me. But they all had been. Had she been wondering at the time, just how things would change? Had she thought that this was what would happen? Cressida had seemed so insignificant at the time - as I likely had to her too - but now I realized just how often she was around. And apparently how significant she would be in my life... in the rebellion.

The people who were standing behind her were the ones that I was assuming were the rest of Cressida's team. Especially since they were standing so close to her. Some of them were carrying cameras - all were armed. I didn't remember them, but I was sure that they had been around whenever Cressida was. That was when something else dawned on me. I hadn't seen her during the Quarter Quell. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't remember her being in the Capitol a few months ago.

"Did you work for the Quell?" I asked curiously.

Cressida shook her head. "No. We were already on our way to Thirteen," Cressida said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I saw what you did. I knew what was going to happen," Cressida said. Did that mean that she had hated the Capitol, or had she left because she didn't want to get caught in the crossfire? "We made the conscious decision to leave the Capitol."

"You knew that I would eventually end up in Thirteen," I commented.

Cressida nodded slowly. "I knew that you'd end up somewhere. I wanted to be the one to catch it," Cressida said, tapping the edge of her camera.

"Right," I said, unsure if I really trusted her.

There was no doubt in my mind that she wasn't going to hurt me, but did she really care about this rebellion? Or was she doing it to further her own agenda? Not that I could really blame her. She was doing whatever she could to help herself. I understood that. I had originally been planning to do whatever it took to get myself out of the Games the first time around. So I merely hung around and nodded slowly at Cressida. She seemed nice enough, but I would just have to wait and see.

Sensing the somewhat awkward air, Plutarch stepped forward and motioned in between the two of us. "Let's see what you can do. Alright. Be careful," Plutarch said.

Careful? Wasn't there supposed to be no danger on this mission? Of course, there would likely always be some danger. But that still made me nervous. What if I accidentally got these people bombed or killed because Snow somehow spotted me down on the ground? Those weren't thoughts that I could have right now. I just had to calm down. Plutarch gave me the gentle squeeze of the shoulder before turning and leaving the hovercraft. Probably best that he kept an eye on us from above.

"This is my assistant, Messalla," Cressida finally said, breaking the silence again.

My gaze slowly turned towards one of the men that was standing with her. He was the one that was standing the closest to Cressida. Instantly when I looked at him, I realized just how much he clearly meant to her. Not romantic... but friendly. Perhaps like the way that Peeta had once meant to me. Messalla was probably just a few years older than me, much like Cressida. These people - so close to my own age - had at least gotten up the guts to leave their home and support me. A girl younger than them.

Messalla turned to me and gave something that was like a half-smile. So he definitely wasn't a smiley person. Neither was I. We would get along just fine. "It's an honor to meet you," Messalla said.

A small scoff escaped me. "Honor?" I repeated.

"You mean a lot to everyone who left the Capitol for Thirteen," Messalla explained.

Maybe I was wrong about Cressida. Maybe she had left because she had really, genuinely, believed in me. "Well... I hope I can do something for you," I said awkwardly.

There were enough people that I had let down. "I'm sure you will," Messalla said.

"And your cameramen over there, Castor," Cressida continued.

My gaze turned to the next man. He was definitely someone that I would have normally been attracted to. He even somewhat resembled Cato, as a matter of fact. I smiled very slightly at him. Castor was a relatively burly man with sandy hair, a reddish beard, blue eyes, and close-bitten nails. He almost reminded me of Finnick. A cross between Finnick and Cato. That was proper. He was very tall, had nicely cropped hair, and a freshly shaved beard. I would have thought that he was a Career, not from the Capitol.

"Hello," Castor said, reaching out to shake my hand.

"Nice to meet you," I said.

Cressida motioned to the man standing next to him. "And Pollux," she introduced.

My gaze fell over to him. I noticed that he sent a quick look at Castor. I realized relatively quickly that he must have been related to Pollux. Perhaps brothers. They looked a little bit alike. Pollux gave me a quick nod, almost surprising me. The rest of the team had at least been nice enough for words. Maybe Pollux didn't like me that much. Maybe he had been dragged along by Castor and the others. I supposed that it didn't matter as I nodded back at him.

"Let's get locked in," Boggs said, walking up to us.

So we all went to our seats. Katniss scooted one more chair over to sit with Gale as I took the one next to her. I assumed that she thoughts that I should be closer to the new television crew. Since technically, they were mine. It was like the Prep Team. I didn't know how to handle them, so it was likely that they were going to have to teach me exactly how to stand in front of a camera. Just the way that the Prep Team had taught me how to act properly. As we prepared to take off, I turned to Pollux, who was next to me.

"You're all from the Capitol, then? Plutarch got you out?" I asked, over the roar of the engine.

Sitting with my bow draped across my lap, I shifted awkwardly as Pollux stared at me. That was when I realized that he, too, had a Mockingjay pinned to his heart. They all did. Even Cressida, Castor, and Messalla. Gale and Katniss didn't have them, but everyone knew that they were on my side. Neither did Dean. Skye, or Julie, but again, they were also on my side. It was the people from the Capitol that would be a surprise.

"Don't expect much chitchat from him. He's an Avox," Cressida said, drawing my attention to her. My stomach churned in knots. What had he done? Did he know Clio, Lavinia, or Darius? "Capitol cut his tongue out years ago. And, no, it wasn't any sort of rescue, if that's what you mean. It's like I said... We all fled on our own. For this. For you."

Again I started to feel a little sick. All of these people doing all of these things for me. For something that I hadn't wanted. I didn't have much time to ponder what had happened that had caused Pollux to lose his tongue. Since he couldn't speak, he must have learned sign language to communicate. He was signing something to Castor as Cressida spoke. Once he was done, Castor signed something back to him very quickly. I noticed their gazes briefly turn towards me.

Blushing slightly, I turned the other way, back towards Cressida. "What did he sign?" I asked softly.

Cressida smirked. "He said you're beautiful," Cressida told me.

The blush on my face only grew tenfold. Did he really think that I was still beautiful? I supposed that I wasn't that ugly. Actually I knew that I wasn't ugly at all. There was the issue of some uneven skin and burns, but those were thanks to the Capitol. The bags under my eyes were horrible, but those could be looked past and maybe one day they would be gone. I didn't need to ask what Castor had signed. He had agreed with Pollux by signing yes. I knew that one.

"How do I say thank you?" I asked Cressida. Or Castor. Whoever wanted to answer me.

"Like this," Castor said, demonstrating.

It was very simple. I merely placed my hand, palm facing my face, at my chin and moved it down. Pollux smiled gratefully. Maybe I could learn sign language. At least I would be able to communicate between my television team without constantly having to ask someone to translate for me whenever Pollux wanted to say something. And if I ever got the chance to see Clio, Darius, or Lavinia again... I tried to blink back thoughts of them and instead play with the string on my bow.

A big point of the flight was also ignoring the looks that I kept getting from the new team. I knew that they weren't doing it to be rude or uncomfortable. But they had left their homes for me. They had risked their lives for me. Up until now, I had probably just been a mostly abstract thought for them. I guessed that they had every right to look at me. Honestly, I should have been used to it anyways. People had been constantly staring at me for the last year and a half.

Ultimately I glanced over at Dean, Skye, and Julie. They had been almost silent since we had left District 13. "You guys okay?" I called out.

"We're ready. What about you?" Dean asked.

Don't look like a weakling in front of the people who gave up their entire lives for you. "Yes and no. I want to see what's happening out there in the war," I said, earning smiles and nods from the rest of my television team. "But... I don't want to see it at the same time. Because I'll know that it's my fault."

"It's not your fault," Katniss said, placing a hand on my knee.

"It's always going to feel like it," I said.

Everything that had happened was because I couldn't keep my damn mouth shut. "So that means that it's my fault; Prim's and Effie's, too," Katniss said. I raised a brow. "There are so many people that you can blame for this."

How many people could I blame for this? I supposed that I could blame a number of people for what had happened. I could blame everyone who had ever created the Games. I could blame our ancestors who had started the first uprising. I could blame the people who had left the world in this ruin. I could have blamed Mr. and Ms. Everdeen for ever having children. I could blame my parents for giving birth to me. I could blame Prim for her name being pulled. I could blame Katniss for my desire to protect her.

There was a never-ending list of people to put the blame on. But most of it would always fall on me. "But there's only one person who the blame really belongs to," Skye interrupted.

"That's Snow," Julie continued.

"No one else," Dean said.

There was a brief moment of silence. "They're right, Aspen," Gale said.

"I know... But I just - I don't - I don't know," I stuttered, my voice dropping off.

Where had I been planning on taking that conversation? I wasn't quite sure. Did I want to sit here and be a big baby about things that I couldn't change? No. There weren't really many people that I could complain to. Gale would be a soldier about it. He wouldn't let me complain. Not after everything. Not to Ms. Everdeen or Prim. I shielded them. Not to the television crew. I didn't know them. Not to the Hadley's. They had enough on their minds. Not anyone in Thirteen. It only left Seneca and Katniss, but even them...

"I've watched you since that first time in the arena," Cressida said, breaking my train of thought. "I've watched you during the preparations for them. You're the type of person who builds up nerves. You become terrified when you work yourself up. But when you're there, when you see things for yourself, you know exactly what to say and what to do. That'll happen today."

My gaze turned to her. Surprising words for someone who really didn't know me that well. "Thank you for the faith," I said slowly.

"It's not misplaced. We all believe in you," Messalla said.

"That's one of us," I said.

To my surprise, they all smiled. "I have something that you might want to see," Cressida said.

"Okay," I said.

She was pulling her camera back out. What could they have possibly shot that they thought that I wanted to see? My pathetic acting? Cressida unlatched herself from her seat and walked over to kneel down in front of me. I leaned forward and moved my bow out of my lap to give her some room to come closer. Katniss and Gale shifted off to the side to allow her a little bit of room. She was currently fiddling with the camera as I glanced at the back of the case.

It was so much smaller than a lot of the ones that I had seen in the Capitol. It was clearly one that was made to be used when we were running around. Lightweight and small. When she opened the screen at the side of the camera, I looked down at it. There was a video of something or another. All of us were staring at each other confusedly. What was this supposed to be? Clearly no one else knew. Cressida hit the freeze button as an image appeared, before the video could play.

Cressida looked over at me and took a deep breath. "I was standing at the loading bay to take some videos and pictures before the start of the Games," she explained.

"Okay," I said.

"This is one of the ones that I took," Cressida continued.

Was it of Haymitch and me? I remembered that day well enough. It definitely stood out in my mind. Finally she hit play and the video began to play. I stared at it confusedly for another moment before it finally registered what it was that I was looking at. The image that formed made me slap a hand over my mouth. Everyone's head snapped to me. Katniss's hand instantly came to rest on my knee. It was the morning of my first Games. Brutus and Cato were heading to the hovercraft. Cato was in the Tribute outfit.

"You know what to do, kid," Brutus said over the video.

"I'm ready," Cato said determinedly.

Even before getting on the hovercraft he looked excited. "Take a deep breath. Last minute advice," Brutus ordered. Cato nodded. "Keep a level head in there. You'd be shocked how many Careers die because they overreact to something or get angry. No revenge for anything. If you do, take a long time to think about it."

That must have been something that Brutus had ignored. I could remember Cato almost always instantly reacting after something had happened. Running after the girl from District 3 had almost killed him. Going for the boy from District 6 first. Hurting Peeta after he had betrayed the Careers. Vying to hunt me down after I had dropped the Tracker Jackers. Trying to kill Thresh after he had killed Clove. There had been so many other times too. Probably many that I hadn't even seen.

"Move fast. You've got a few people who are faster than you who can beat you to the Cornucopia," Brutus continued.

"I know. It's only the girl from Five. She'll head away," Cato said.

"Remember Johanna Mason?" It was the same thing that I had been thinking at the time. It was why I had always been weary of Finch. "Be weary of everyone. Your girlfriend's fast, too," Brutus continued.

Did he mean me? Had he already known? The shock registered in Cato's eyes. "Twelve?" Cato asked.

"Yes, Twelve. The one you keep coming after," Brutus said nastily. "If she beats you there, she's a good shot."

"She won't hit me," Cato said confidently.

No... I would do something much worse. "That's what you think. Cato. You stay away from her. Nothing good's there. Only one of you makes it out of this," Brutus warned.

There was something almost pained in Cato's eyes. He had mentioned to me before that he had already been falling for me before even setting foot in the arena. That night up on the roof... Brutus must have been concerned about the same thing that Haymitch had been concerned about. Of course. We hadn't exactly made it very secretive that we, in some strange way, cared about each other even before the Games. But Cato had been a Career. He was supposed to get over his crush on me.

"I know. I'll kill her," Cato finally said, almost hesitantly.

"Where were you last night?" Brutus asked sharply.

"Went for a walk," Cato said carelessly.

"Up to the roof? Right outside of the District 12 penthouse?" Brutus asked.

Knowing that he had been caught, Cato shifted on his feet slightly. "I'll kill her, alright?" Cato said snappily.

"Don't let her play you. Get out there and come back. This girl doesn't mean anything. Understood?" Brutus asked, placing a hand on Cato's shoulder.

There was a brief hesitation between the men. "Understood," Cato finally said.

Suddenly the screen faded as the scene came to an end. That must have been the end of what Cressida had filmed. I was surprised that I had never seen it on a gossip show or something like that. But it dawned on me almost immediately why I hadn't seen it before. Because Cressida had kept it to herself. When I had started acting the way that I did - when everything had happened - she must have kept it with the intent to show me herself one day. Only me. No one else. Not those leeches.

The entire thing was almost funny. The corners of my lips tilted upwards. I knew that everyone was watching me, despite trying to look like they weren't eavesdropping. Brutus had given Cato almost the exact same advice that Haymitch had given me. Maybe they were trying to work together. To stay away from me, just the way that Haymitch had warned me to stay away from Cato. I nodded gratefully at Cressida as she closed the camera. Even back then, Cato hadn't wanted to kill me.

"I thought that you might want to see that one day," Cressida said.

"Thank you," I muttered.

It was funny to see him like that. He was so young. So dumb. "You're welcome. Security footage saw the two of you up on the roof that night," Cressida continued. My heart lodged in my throat. They'd heard us that night? "Couldn't catch your voices, but I'm sure that Brutus knew that you were up there."

At least they couldn't hear us. I didn't want anyone hearing me that night. "Probably. He never liked me," I said.

"He still doesn't like you," Julie said, referring to Brutus.

"The feeling is mutual," I muttered.

"I don't know. The two of you seem to be on slightly better terms these days," Dean said.

Well we hadn't tried to kill each other recently. That was an improvement from before. "That's mostly because we both hate it in Thirteen and we both miss Cato," I said.

"We all hate it in Thirteen," Gale pointed out.

"We'll be out soon enough," Katniss added.

"Hopefully," I muttered.

But that was the question. How long would this war go on? And could we all go back to normal once it was over? Could we just return to our everyday life like nothing had ever happened? We would just take the Hunger Games out of our year. We could just go back to normal. Maybe the Capitol would help us out afterwards. They would give us more money and food to help us out. We could all be equal... But that was only if we won. It could be much worse if we lost.

"You alright?" Gale asked, breaking my thoughts.

"I'll manage. This is what I wanted, to be out and on the battlefield. But now that I'm heading out there... I'm not so sure that I'm ready to see it," I said honestly.

"They'll be happy to see you. The people believe in you. You don't have to do anything but speak," Gale said.

"When have you ever known me to be a good speaker?" I asked. Gale laughed, along with Katniss and Julie. But the air turned from happy to somber in a matter of moments. "Say what? Tell them that I'm sorry that I caused this? Tell them that I'm sorry that I've ruined their lives?"

"Tell them that you're fighting for them," Gale offered.

That was about all that I could say to the people right now. "You two will stay with me while we're in there, right?" I asked Katniss and Gale.

Katniss grabbed onto my knee. "We won't leave," she promised.

Gale's hand fell on my shoulder. "We're going to be right there."

The two of them being with me was exactly what I needed. They had always provided me the strength to do something whenever I couldn't force myself to do it. We continued on our flight to District 8 as I chatted back and forth with the new team. Cressida was nicer than I had originally pegged her for. She actually liked to laugh and had a good, albeit teasing, sense of humor. I had a feeling that Cato would like her whenever we got him back from the Capitol.

Then there were the others. The other members of the team. Messalla had a deep and smooth voice. I liked listening to him talk. Like the others, he was rather funny. It surprised me from people who were born in the Capitol. Castor promised to spend some time teaching me sign language so that I could speak freely with Pollux. I had thanked him and promised Pollux that we would be able to talk soon enough. Katniss and Gale seemed to have their reservations for the new additions - but so did I, on some level.

It was nice being able to talk to them and momentarily forget about District 8 and what we were going to find there. Now that we were approaching, I found myself very nervous to see what was happening in a place where the war was actually being fought. The hovercraft gave a small jolt and I looked up. We must have been getting close. It was proven the moment that I heard a voice at the front of the hovercraft shouting to prepare for descent into Eight.

We were finally here. Almost. Apparently we had to take a slightly circuitous route to avoid any potential bombers from seeing us. Eventually we started the final approach to District 8. We would be able to land in a matter of minutes. The hovercraft started making a quick, spiral descent onto a wide road on the outskirts of Eight. The central bombing was happening in the City Center apparently. Almost immediately, the door opened, the stairs slid into place, and we were spit out onto the asphalt.

First we were all ordered not to get off of the hovercraft. Boggs wanted us to assemble together first. "This has gotta be fast. In and out," Boggs instructed.

Everyone nodded at him. No one wanted to linger here anyways. Not knowing what we were likely to find in the lower middle class District. But we all got off of the hovercraft anyways. The moment the last person disembarked, the equipment retracted. Then the craft lifted off and vanished. It would likely be able to land without issue when it was time to leave. By either emergency or just simply when the time came to leave. Disembarking the hovercraft, I noticed that I was left in the middle of everyone.

Now I was left with a bodyguard made up of Gale, Katniss, Skye, Julie, Dean, Boggs, and two other soldiers. Plus we still had the television crew with us. The pair of burly Capitol cameramen with heavy mobile cameras encasing their bodies like insect shells was enough to make me laugh. I had just noticed that they looked like insects. On closer inspection, I realized that Cressida's tattooed vines were green, and Messalla had his tongue pierced, too. He wore a stud with a silver ball the size of a marble.

"Move out," Boggs called.

Boggs hustled us off the road toward a row of warehouses as a second hovercraft came in for a landing. That one looked to be bringing crates of medical supplies and a crew of six medics - I could tell by their distinctive white outfits. We all followed Boggs down an alley that ran between two dull gray warehouses. Only the occasional access ladder to the roof interrupted the scarred metal walls. When we emerged onto the street, it was like we had entered another world.

It looked just like District 12 had looked after the Capitol had dropped firebombs on it. I could only assume that they had dropped the same things on District 8. I was instantly horrified by the sight of the place. There must have been hundreds dead already. This was the City Center. It had likely had the highest population during the bombing. A population bomb. Dropping a bomb on what was likely a place to have the most severe impact. Take out as many rebels as possible and warn the rest to stop fighting.

The wounded from this morning's bombing were being brought in. On homemade stretchers, in wheelbarrows, on carts, slung across shoulders, and clenched tight in arms. Bleeding, limbless, unconscious. Propelled by desperate people to a warehouse with a sloppily painted H above the doorway. It was a scene from my old kitchen, where Ms. Everdeen treated the dying, multiplied by ten, by fifty, by a hundred. I had expected bombed-out buildings and instead found myself confronted with broken human bodies.

Suddenly I remembered Cato's wounded leg from the Quell. I almost stumbled back and collapsed. But I forced myself to keep walking. I couldn't be a coward right now. But his horrible leg. I kept seeing his scared and eaten-away leg from the poison fog. How it had been half-eaten by the end of the Games. I had never been able to deal with other people's pain. I couldn't even look at my own wounds after both times I had been burned. I couldn't act like a weeping fool here. I had to be the symbol of a rebellion.

That was when I realized what was happening right now. This was the wrong place for me to be. I wanted to be shooting arrows, proving that I was still useful even after what had happened to me in the Quell, rather than standing here and observing the damage. This wasn't the place that I could be strong. This was the place where I was going to fall apart. This couldn't really have been where they were planning on filming me? I turned to Boggs.

"This won't work. I won't be good here," I told Boggs.

My legs were locking up and I felt my spine straightening out. I knew what was happening. I was panicking; the beginnings of a panic attack were settling into my stomach. I had been through this enough times to know what was happening. My hand reached out for Cato, who I always went to during panic attacks, but he wasn't here. But someone else was. Boggs must have seen the panic in my eyes, because he stopped for a moment and placed his hands on my shoulders.

"You will. Just let them see you. That will do more for them than any doctor in the world could," Boggs said.

"I'm - I'm - This isn't -"

"We're right here," Gale said, coming to stand at my side. "You're fine."

"Come on," Katniss whispered.

They were at my sides with Boggs in front of me. I appreciated them being with me right now. I was positive that - unlike District 12 - this wasn't something I could do on my own. Although Katniss was trying to get me to walk, she didn't look any happier about this than I was. Neither one of us had ever been good with wounds. This had almost been her in my place. This was the one spot where we would have been even, no matter who had gone into the Games. Neither one of us would have been okay with this.

A woman directing the incoming patients caught sight of us, did a sort of double take, and then strode over. Her dark brown eyes were puffy with fatigue and she smelled of metal and sweat. A bandage around her throat needed changing about three days ago. The strap of the automatic weapon slung across her back dug into her neck and she shifted her shoulder to reposition it. With a jerk of her thumb, she ordered the medics into the warehouse. They complied without question.

She must have been the leader of the rebellion here. I could assume just by the sight of her that she hadn't been the mayor before the bombings here. She had dark skin - much like Rue and Thresh - and I cringed slightly at the sight of her. There was a bandana wrapped around her head that went over the wrapping around her throat. She wore a deep purple tank top and a pair of khaki pants. Unfortunately she looked like she hadn't had a full meal in a while.

"Aspen, this is Commander Paylor of Eight. Commander, Soldier Aspen Antaeus," Boggs said.

That woman was a commander? She looked far too young to be a commander. Early thirties, if even that much. But there was an authoritative tone to her voice that made you feel as though her appointment wasn't arbitrary. She already put off a much tougher air than I did. Beside her, in my spanking-new outfit, scrubbed and shiny, I felt like a recently hatched chick, untested and only just learning how to navigate the world, despite the fact that I had lived through the Hunger Games twice.

"Yeah, I know who she is. You're alive, then. We weren't sure," Paylor said.

For a moment I just stared at her. She stared right back at me. It was obvious enough that neither one of us really knew what we were supposed to say. It was obvious enough that Paylor didn't like me. And I couldn't blame her. Not from the vast difference between the two of us. Here I was, standing in armor that must have cost more than the District we were in, while she was using a dirty rag as a bandage. Was I wrong or was there a note of accusation in her voice?

"I'm still not sure myself," I answered.

"Been in recovery." Boggs tapped his head. "Bad concussion." He lowered his voice for a moment. "Miscarriage."

Paylor's eyebrows quirked. "That so?" she asked.

The direction was pointed at me. "Yes," I said, trying to force a heartbroken look on my face.

It was a good thing that my voice cracked halfway through the word. Paylor's face fell just ever-so-slightly. I felt terrible for lying, but I couldn't give up the act. "Sorry to hear that," Paylor said.

"It's okay. I didn't just much of a chance to even get used to the thought of having a child," I said.

"She insisted on coming by to see your wounded," Boggs said.

"Well, we've got plenty of those," Paylor said.

"You think this is a good idea? Assembling your wounded like this?" Gale asked, frowning at the hospital.

My gaze turned back over towards it. A large building. A few stories high. Something that was likely a warehouse for all of the textiles that District 8 used to supply. Maybe the textile mill that Bonnie and Twill had once escaped from. What would they think if they could see this place now? But as for assembling the wounded in one place, I didn't think that it was wise. Any sort of contagious disease would spread through the place like wildfire.

"I think it's slightly better than leaving them to die," Paylor said.

"That's not what I meant," Gale told her.

"Well, currently that's my other option. But if you come up with a third and get Coin to back it, I'm all ears." Paylor waved me toward the door. "Come on in, Mockingjay. And by all means, bring your friends," Paylor called.

The tone in her voice told me that it might not have been me that she hated. It was just the situation. She was tired and clearly a little heartbroken at the sight of the war. They definitely lost a large amount of people during the raid this morning. I knew what Gale had meant though. Not to leave these people to die, but maybe to try and spread them out a little more. Although that would leave some of them a little more susceptible to an attack if they were more spread out.

Immediately though I realized that the people did like me. The people in the Capitol had once loved me. Now the people in the Districts loved me because I was trying to stand up for their rights. But it was the people like Paylor, the commanders and high-ups of the rebellion, who didn't like me. They hated me. They were thinking just what I feared. They thought that I was hiding out and only coming out when it worked for me, where I could be safe. Which was essentially what they had been forcing me to do.

It was that which made me feel even worse about everything. I had been hiding in District 13 for weeks since the end of the Quarter Quell. Not that it had always been my choice, but I had still been hiding there. I should have been out here with these people. Maybe dead, but I should have been out here. After all, I was the person who had started this whole thing. My stupid actions and that one damned arrow. I shouldn't have been hidden away and being pampered like I was being in District 13.

Just before we walked off, I glanced back at the freak show that was my crew, steeled myself, and followed her into the hospital. Not a place that I wanted to be, but a place that I knew I would have to see. The rest of the Districts needed to see this. To know that they weren't the only ones who were suffering. Some sort of heavy, industrial curtain hung the length of the building, forming a sizable corridor. Corpses laid side by side, curtains brushing their heads, white cloths concealing their faces.

"We've got a mass grave started a few blocks west of here, but I can't spare the manpower to move them yet. Hospital's past that curtain. Any hope you can give them, it's worth it. The Capitol's done everything they can to break us," Paylor said.

Was this place really that big? I hoped that we might find only ten or fifteen people seriously injured. Maybe fifty, at most. But I had a feeling that it was going to be a much larger number. There were already at least thirty bodies that I had walked past. And a mass grave... How many people could possibly have been in there? How many people were going to be placed in that mass grave? Paylor found a slit in the curtain and opened it wide. I looked away before looking in there.

My fingers wrapped around Gale and Katniss's wrists. "Do not leave my side," I said under my breath.

"I'm right here," Gale answered quietly.

"We're right here. You'll be okay," Katniss whispered.

No one wanted to speak that loudly. No one wanted to be the ones who were suffering. We weren't the ones who were suffering. Not right now. They were the ones who were suffering. As I glanced at Katniss's face, I could tell that she might have been even less happy about this than I was. She was even worse with the sick and injured than I was. Probably because they reminded her of her father. If there was anyone who hated this more than me, it was Katniss. But she would be strong for me.

"What do I do?" I asked softly.

"Just walk," Katniss ordered.

"Show them you're alive," Gale said.

"It's going to be okay. They just want to see you," Dean said.

"This is..."

My voice was stuck in my throat. How was I supposed to speak to them? "It's horrible, we know. But go talk to them. Just show them that you're still alive and ready to fight," Skye whispered, pressing a hand on my back.

"Come on. We're right here," Julie said softly.

There was only one more, thin, curtain separating us from the area where the wounded and dying would be. Were they all alive in there? Were they dying? Was I going to have to watch even more people die in front of me? I supposed that it didn't matter. It would be horrible, no matter what. Paylor pulled open the last curtain to show me the inside of the hospital. The entire place was full of sick and wounded and dying people. I didn't turn, but I leaned back slightly to Cressida.

"Don't film me in there. I can't help them," I whispered weakly.

"Just let them see your face," Cressida said. She grabbed onto my arm. "Huh?"

What if I threw up all over them? That was definitely very likely. But I couldn't. I had to force myself to keep walking and get to meet this people. It was the smallest thing that I could do. This was something that I had to do. So I slowly nodded my head at her, not that I was sure if she was watching me or not. But her camera was on. She would see this. So I steeled my face again. If they were going to take a video of me in here that would be broadcasted to the Districts, I couldn't look weak.

Very slowly and fearfully, I stepped through the curtain. Instantly all of my senses were assaulted. My first impulse was to cover my nose to block out the stench of soiled linen, putrefying flesh, and vomit, all ripening in the heat of the warehouse. But that wasn't something that I could do. How heartless would I look if I did something like that? These people were fighting for me. I could at least look strong for them for this one day. I had seen worse. I would still see worse. This was nothing.

They had propped open skylights that crisscrossed the high metal roof, but any air that was managing to get in couldn't make a dent in the fog below. The thin shafts of sunlight provided the only illumination, and as my eyes adjusted, I could make out row upon row of wounded, in cots, on pallets, and on the floor because there were so many to claim the space. The drone of black flies, the moaning of people in pain, and the sobs of their attending loved ones had combined into a wrenching chorus.

There had to be at least three hundred people in here. We had no real hospitals in the Districts. We died at home, which at the moment seemed a far desirable alternative to what laid in front of me. This was a miserable place to have to live out your final moments. Then I remembered that many of these people probably lost their homes in the bombings. Thanks to me. As I walked into the hospital, Cressida started motioning for the camera crew and the rest of my team to follow me at a slight distance.

Sweat began to run down my back and fill my palms. I breathed through my mouth in an attempt to diminish the smell. Black spots swam across my field of vision, and I thought that there was a really good chance that I could faint. In fact, I was sure that I was about to faint. But then I caught sight of Paylor, who was watching me so closely, her eyes glued to my body, waiting to see what I was made out of, and if any of them had been right to think that they could count on me.

Yes. That was my answer. They were the ones who could count on me. Everyone could count on me. Right now more than ever. So I let go of Gale and Katniss and forced myself to move deeper into the warehouse, to walk into the narrow strip between two rows of beds. They would realize who I was soon enough. It might take some time, but they would eventually spot me. Armor, bow and arrows, Mockingjay pin, and the braid. I would have been very hard to mistake for someone else.

People were running back and forth everywhere. It was clear enough to see that the entire hospital was in a panic. Sounds were echoing from every corner. Bouncing off of the steel walls. Screams for dying loved ones. Shouted orders. Pleading with others for help. Thanking the uninjured who were walking around with the bits of food and blankets that they could spare. That must have been it. Far too little for what they really needed.

As I walked past three children, my gut wrenched again. Little kids, one too young to have even been entered in the Games, the other two around Katniss's age or maybe a little younger. One was clutching her arm. It looked like she had been either shot or gotten a chunk of shrapnel caught in the bone. Another had a man pressing down on their arm. Did they have to amputate it? The last had a woman covering his bloody ear with a bandage. Was he deaf from a blast? I knew how that felt.

On the other side of the stretchers was a man with a bloody gash in his throat, clearly making it hard to breathe. I cringed and looked away again. I was still forcing my feet to continue on, as much as I wanted to stop and run away. Looking at all of these people was horrible. Everything that they had suffered for something that I had started. Heads were slowly starting to turn up to look at me. People were finally catching on to who I was. The chatter was slowly quieting. People were rising to their feet.

All desperate to catch a glimpse of the woman that they had thought to be dead. "Aspen?" a voice croaked out from my left, breaking apart from the general din. "Aspen?"

A hand reached out for me out of the haze. Without even bothering to look at who it was, I clung to it for support. Attached to the hand was a young woman with an injured leg. Maybe a few years younger than me. Blood had now seeped through the heavy bandages, which were crawling with flies. Infection. Painful. I knew that much. Her face reflected her pain, just as mine once had, but something else, too, something that seemed completely incongruous with her situation.

"Hi," I whispered weakly.

"Is it really you?" she asked.

"Yeah, it's me," I got out.

My voice cracked painfully. It reminded me of the way that my voice sounded after I had managed to escape the firestorm during my first Games. It sounded like I had just been trapped in the same bombings that they had. That was when it clicked. The look on her face that I had been confused about earlier. Joy. That was the very surprising expression on her face. At the sound of my voice, the look brightened and erased the suffering momentarily.

"You're alive! We didn't know. People said you were, but we didn't know!" she said excitedly.

"I got pretty banged up. But I got better. Just like you will," I said.

"I've got to tell my brother!" she cried.

"Let me help you," I said.

Whatever had hit her must have hurt. The woman struggled to sit up even with my help and called to someone a few beds down. "Eddy! Eddy! She's here! It's Aspen Hadley!"

There was another painful jolt in my stomach when I realized what had just happened. Despite everything, despite their hatred of the Career Districts, they were calling me by my married name. They didn't know that the wedding that the Capitol had thrown before the Quell had been a sham to get our families into the Capitol to tell them about the plan to evacuate us. They didn't know how much I had been used as a puppet, even when it had seemed like I was in charge.

The person that she was yelling to turned to us. It was a boy, probably about twelve years old. Too young for this, just like Rue had been. Bandages obscured half of his face. The side of his mouth that I could see opened as if to utter an exclamation. I ran to him, letting go of the girl, and pushed his damp brown curls back from his forehead. Murmured a greeting. He couldn't speak, but his one good eye fixed on me with such intensity, as if he was trying to memorize every detail of my face.

Those people who were close by were watching what was happening. Those back in the far corners of the hospital still hadn't noticed what was happening. There were too many of them who were focused on the other things that were happening. The things that were happening with their own families. People who were begging each other to stay with them. Everyone was tending to the wounded. Those faces of pain and horror were terrible. All of these people... they weren't even soldiers.

They were just normal people, fighting for me. Each and every one of them. I pressed a small kiss to Eddy's forehead, trying to be careful and not hurt him, before gently letting go of him and walking off. There were other people who needed to see me. There were other people who I needed to speak to. Despite trying to remain strong, I felt myself becoming overly-emotional when I saw just how bad this really was. The hospital took about another ten seconds before fully falling silent. They all knew who I was.

"Aspen... Antaeus?" a young woman called, shattering the tense silence. I whirled around to look at her. She had a bloody forehead that was covered with a bandana. She was looking at me like I wasn't even real. "What are you doing here?"

"I came... I came to see you," I stuttered.

"What about the baby?" an older woman a few feet down asked.

I turned to her and forced out the lie. "I lost it," I said, my voice cracking painfully.

Lying to them was terrible. Telling them the truth would have been worse. "Are you fighting, Aspen?" a young man's voice asked. I turned towards a young boy with a gun slung over his back. "Are you here to fight with us?"

My head very slowly nodded. "I am. I will," I said.

All of this was my fault. I was the person who had started all of this, be damned what anyone else said. Their lives had turned into this because of me. And I would help them end it, no matter what the cost. No one would ever die to the Hunger Games again. The boy nodded, placing three fingers against his lips and giving me the same three-fingered salute that was almost as synonymous to me as was the Mockingjay. Within seconds, so had the rest of the hospital. Tears building in my eyes, I looked at them all.

Just behind me, Cressida was whispering to Pollux, "Tighter. Tighter, tighter."

Every single person sitting on the beds and standing up were giving me the three-fingered salute. The one that I hadn't earned. But the one that I would accept. This was what had happened to me. This was what I would have to live with. My tears were threatening to fall. But it wasn't from weakness this time. It was from the overwhelming sense of hope that I felt around these people. The way that it was reciprocated from them. I heard my name rippling through the hot air, spreading out into the hospital.

"Aspen! Aspen Antaeus! Aspen Hadley!"

The sounds of pain and grief began to recede, the silence from the salute having been broken, to be replaced by words of anticipation. From all sides, voices beckoned me. It was impossible to see them all. There were so many people here who wanted to see me. I began to move around, clasping the hands that were extended to me, touching the sound parts of those unable to move their limbs, saying hello, how are you, and good to meet you. To each and every person.

Enough to keep me in there for hours. Everything that I was saying was nothing of importance and there were no amazing words of inspiration. But it didn't matter. Boggs was right. It was the sight of me, alive, that was the inspiration. It was what I had to do. Just be here for them. I tried to spend as much time as I could talking to each person, but new hands would grab onto me and pull me over to them. None of them stopped me from leaving. They simply listened and touched me until they no longer could.

Having people touch me was not one of my favorite things in the world. In fact, not long ago I had hated anyone outside of my family touching me. But not right now. These people had suffered enough. If that was what they wanted to do, touch me for just a moment, they were more than welcome to touch me. Because they deserved that much. I brushed back their hair from their foreheads, tried to help wash away dirt and blood, and promise them that things would get better.

Hungry fingers devoured me, wanting to feel my flesh. As a stricken man clutched my face between his hands, I sent a silent thank-you to Dalton for suggesting that I wash off the makeup. How ridiculous, how perverse I would feel presenting that painted Capitol mask to these people. It would have ensured that Paylor hated me and shown the people of District 8 that I was still the Capitol's puppet. The damage, the fatigue, and the imperfections. That was how they recognized me, why I belonged to them.

Despite his controversial interview with Caesar, many asked about Cato. Despite him having been from a Career District - Two, which had always been the most hated - people had slowly started liking him. They had seen him turning a man who could have come from any of the other Districts. They had seen him turn into someone who would do anything for love. They saw the same man that I did. Almost everyone assured me that they knew that he was speaking under duress.

That was what I appreciated. They knew that he wasn't still a slave to the Capitol. Not now. Maybe they could help me sway District 2 onto our side when the time came. I did my best to sound positive about our future, but people were truly devastated when they learned that I had lost the baby. I wanted to come clean and tell one weeping woman that it was all a hoax, a move in the game, but to present Cato as a liar now would not help his image. Or mine. Or the cause.

So I had to go with it. People asked everything about the baby. They promised me that I would have made a good mother. They promised that once I had Cato back with me - when the war was over - we would get to try again. Each person who cried for my loss and told me stories of their own got me just a little bit closer to telling them the truth about what had really happened. But I couldn't. Telling them that I had never been pregnant would be worse. So I kept silent and thanked them for the condolences.

The more people that I spoke to, the more that I began to fully understand the lengths to which people had gone to protect me. Far more than just the people that had come with me to the Capitol. I understood what I meant to the rebels. My ongoing struggle against the Capitol, which had so often felt like a solitary journey, had not been undertaken alone. I had had thousands upon thousands of people from the Districts at my side. I was their Mockingjay long before I accepted the role.

"Aspen?" a young girl's voice came.

"Hi," I whispered

Kneeling down at her side, I saw that half of her face had been badly burned. My voice lodged in my throat, but I refused to move. Not like I had left the boy from District 9 that day in the Games. The boy whose name I still didn't know. The boy whose life I had taken so horribly. I would not do the same thing to the little girl. I would stay with her. If she died. If she lived. She would see me for as long as she could. Tears rolled down her face as I grabbed her hand, bringing it against my rapidly beating heart.

An older woman who was kneeling at her side spoke up. "This is my daughter. Velvet. She was - She was burned during a raid," the woman said, her voice breaking.

"It's okay... You're going to be okay. You're all going to be okay," I whispered.

"Will you sing to me? Like you sang to Rue?" Velvet asked.

Rue... What would you think if you could see all of this? "Y - Yes," I said.

My entire body gave a soft jolt. Everyone - even the people who couldn't walk - were insisting that others brought them forward. The hospital had once more fallen completely silent. They had all heard me sing before. To Rue at the time. To comfort her in death. Now to them. To comfort them in war. For a moment I tried to find a good song. Not Deep in the Meadow. A different one. Finally I settled on a song that Mr. Everdeen had taught me before he had died. I had never sang it to anyone but him.

"It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet word

And then that word grew louder and louder
'Til it was a battle cry
I'll come back
When you call me
No need to say goodbye

Just because everything's changing
Doesn't mean it's never been this way before
All you can do is try to know who your friends are
As you head off to the war

Pick a star on the dark horizon
And follow the light
You'll come back when it's over
No need to say goodbye

You'll come back when it's over
No need to say goodbye

Now we're back to the beginning
It's just a feeling and no one knows yet
But just because they can't feel it too
Doesn't mean that you have to forget

Let your memories grow stronger and stronger
'Til they're before your eyes
You'll come back
When they call you
No need to say goodbye

You'll come back
When they call you
No need to say goodbye."

It was a rather sweet and upbeat tune. I needed to sing something that wasn't going to make me burst into tears. But it did anyways. Because that was the song that I used to think of after he had died. It was the one that had always reminded me that he wasn't gone forever. He would be back. Just like the rest of their loved ones would be back. Just like Peeta came back to visit me sometimes. We would all get to see our loved ones again. In time, we would. Each and every one of us would come back from this.

By the time that my tune finished, the entire hospital was in tears. So was Velvet. The unburned side of her face pressed into the chest armor. My arm wrapped around her shoulders. A lumped formed in my stomach and throat. I was very glad that - despite the tears - my voice didn't crack on the song. Velvet was still sobbing softly as I tightened my grip on her slightly. I pushed her face back into her hair. Her mother thanked me - commenting that I would have made a good mother - as I stood back up.

Her mother had been forced to pull her away from me. She didn't want to let go of me. I didn't really want to let go of her either. I would have held onto her forever if I could. But I had to keep moving. So I continued slowly maneuvering through the close crowds of the hospital. I was almost to the other end when I spotted someone out of the corner of my eyes that I knew. There was a man and a woman. They were just a little older. They were also with a little girl. They were watching me very closely.

That was when I realized where I knew them from. They were Jason's family. My feet instantly carried me over towards them. "I'm so sorry," I whispered, coming to stand in front of them.

The family stood in front of me. Once more, the hospital had gone silent. No one knew how the family would react to seeing me again. Not when the last time that I had seen them had been on the Victory Tour. After I had attempted to rip out their son's vocal chords. After Cato had jammed a sword through his stomach to save my life. Were they any happier with me? Were they even angrier? I couldn't tell. I just saw that my guards were suddenly standing a little closer.

Clearly Jason's family noticed too. I raised a hand to get them to back away. This was between the four of us. Not them. Jason's mother was limping badly. It looked like she might have had a broken leg. Jason's father had a few bandages on his neck and chest. It looked like he had gotten hit by a flying object. Jason's sister was relatively healthy-looking. But she definitely looked like she hadn't had a meal in the past few weeks. Months. Ever. It would change. I was positive that it would change.

"You didn't kill him," Jason's mother said tearfully. She walked up and grabbed my hands. I let her, tightening my grip around her fingers. "Neither did Cato. Snow killed him."

I found myself slowly nodding. "Will you end this?" Jason's father asked.

"I won't stop until it's over," I said honestly.

"Thank you," Jason's mother sobbed.

She let up on her grip slightly. I let our hands fall apart as I turned back to leave. Before I could, Jason's sister reached up and grabbed onto my arm. "My brother was a good man," she whispered.

"I believe that," I told her.

"Remember that. Please," his sister begged.

"I will," I said.

We were all good children. Children... turned into weapons and pawns of the Capitol. Not a single one of us had been bad people. We were all good people who had been forced back into a corner. None of us had really wanted to do what we had been forced to do. It was now that I was finally realizing it. Even the Careers. The people that I had once hated. Even they hadn't really wanted to do what they had done. Cato had been proof enough of that.

Tears building in my eyes - memories of those kids and the Games resurfacing - I continued on my way through the hospital. Now I was slowly heading back towards the front. I was almost grateful to be gone. I wasn't sure how much longer I would manage in here anyways. I knew that from time to time a tear would slip out. It didn't matter. Someone new was always there to wipe it away and reassure me that they had the upmost faith in my ability. More faith than I did.

A new sensation began to germinate inside me as I walked back. But it took until I was standing up on a table, waving my final goodbyes to the hoarse chanting of my name, to define it. Power. I had a kind of power that I never knew I possessed. Snow knew it, as soon as I held out those knives. Plutarch knew when he rescued me from the arena. And Coin knew now. So much so that she must publicly remind her people that I was not the one in control.

But I was. There would be no more of me being everyone's puppet. I would do whatever they wanted me to do publicly. But no more of someone else pulling the string. The games might have finally shifted in my favor. These people were willing to follow one person. Me. They wouldn't condemn me for doing anything possible to save Cato. They wouldn't condemn me for doing whatever it took to be the one to ensure that Snow never took another breath. Not even if meant burning the Capitol to the ground.

A ferocity that I hadn't felt in a long time was burning through my core as I hopped down from the table and made my way back outside. My hands were shaking and my legs were burning with the desire to sprint ten miles, but I managed to restrain myself. Although when we were outside again, I leaned against the warehouse, catching my breath, accepting the canteen of water from Boggs. No matter how motivated I was, that had been emotionally and mentally taxing.

"You did great," Boggs said.

Was that supposed to be great? There really wasn't that much that I had done. I had managed to say a few nice words to the people. They had mostly led the conversations. I had showed them that I wasn't really dead and that I was able to move. I had even sang them a nice little song. But that was about it. Well, I didn't faint or throw up or run out screaming. So that was a plus. Mostly, I just rode the wave of emotion rolling through the place.

"We got some nice stuff in there. That song was beautiful," Cressida said.

"Thank you," I said.

"What song was that?" Katniss asked.

"Dad taught me," I explained.

"When?" Katniss asked curiously.

She must have been a little upset that he had never taught it to her. "When you were little. Too young to come out into the woods," I said, hoping that she wasn't hurt by it.

"It was beautiful. They loved it," Dean said.

"Which one was he?" Gale asked, coming to my side.

"What?" I asked blankly.

"The one whose parents you apologized to," Gale clarified.

Tribute. He meant Tribute. "Jason. The one who... The one who told me that he would bring my carcass to Cato, or give it to Prim to mount me over her bed," I said, shivering at the memory.

"Why would you apologize?" Gale asked.

My head snapped over to him. "Because I helped kill their son," I snapped.

"He hurt you," Gale reasoned.

And I ripped out his vocal chords for it. I think that we're even. "So?" I asked sharply. Gale just stared at me. "We all tried to hurt each other. We all turned into people who we aren't."

To my surprise, Gale backed down. "Sorry," he muttered.

"I know," I whispered.

Having never been in the arena, he would never know just how insane it made you. How desperate it made you. The things that it made you do. I looked at one of my insect cameramen, perspiration pouring from under his equipment. It was definitely hot out here. With all of the equipment on them now, I couldn't tell which one was Pollux and which one was Castor. Off to my other side, Messalla was scribbling notes. I had forgotten they were even filming me just a few seconds in.

"I didn't do much, really. For the cameras," I said, breaking the tense silence.

"You have to give yourself some credit for what you've done in the past," Boggs said.

That's a good joke. What I've done in the past? What had I done? Nothing good. That wasn't me. I was always doing something moronic. Getting Leah killed with the martial law in District 2, causing the District 12 firebombs, and the destruction happening all over the Districts. It was bad enough in just the little bit of District 8 that I had seen. All of those dead fighting for me, going all the way back to the Victory Tour. The trail of destruction in my wake - my knees weakened and I slid down to a sitting position.

"That's a mixed bag," I finally said.

"Well, you're not perfect by a long shot. But times being what they are, you'll have to do," Boggs said.

He was honest. Just like Gale. Maybe that was why I was liking him. Gale squatted down beside me, shaking his head. "I can't believe you let all those people touch you. I kept expecting you to make a break for the door," he said.

"Shut up," I said with a laugh.

Katniss walked up to the two of us and gave us her hands. We were likely getting evacuated soon. No need to linger in a war zone. "Your mother's going to be very proud when she sees the footage," Gale said.

"My mother won't even notice me. She'll be too appalled by the conditions in there." I turned to Boggs and asked, "Is it like this in every District?"

"Yes. Most are under attack. We're trying to get in aid wherever we can, but it's not enough," Boggs said.

"Will this play in the Districts?" Gale asked.

"It'll be tattooed on their eyes," Cressida said.

So Thirteen knew about all of this... They would see it soon, even if they didn't really know about it. "Why doesn't Thirteen take some of the worse off?" I asked Boggs.

"Too crowded as is," he said shortly.

There was something hesitant in his eyes that told me that he wasn't telling me the entire story. There had to be something more than that. Before I got the chance to say anything more - and before Boggs got a chance to defend his point of view - he stopped a minute, distracted by something in his earpiece. The rest of us stopped with him. I realized that I hadn't heard Haymitch's voice once, and fiddled with mine, wondering if it was broken. There was no way that he would have left me alone this long.

"We're to get to the airstrip. Immediately," Boggs said, pulling me forward with one hand. "There's a problem."

"What kind of problem?" Gale asked.

"Incoming bombers from the north. We need to find cover now," Boggs said.

Bombers? Hadn't they thought that this was going to be a relatively peaceful visit since there had already been an attack today? Why weren't they focused on the other Districts right now? That was when it hit me. The attack hadn't been premeditated. There was no way. I refused to believe it. I had to have been spotted. Snow was sending them after me. Boggs reached behind my neck and yanked Cinna's helmet up onto my head.

"Let's move!" Boggs yelled.

"There's a bunker in there," Paylor said.

My stomach felt like someone had dropped a ton of lead in it. The bombers were coming here for another round. This time it was all because I had brought them of. Whoever died today was on me. Instantly heading off in the direction that Paylor was pointing, I allowed my feet to drag me away from the sound of the engines. They would be approaching fast. Paylor was the only person to lead us out of the open air as a loud alarm began to blare. A warning to prepare for the bombs.

Paylor and I led the team into a building with a large chunk blown out of it. "Straight ahead and down the stairs," Paylor called.

Unsure of what exactly was going on, I took off running along the front of the warehouse, heading for the alley that led to the airstrip. But I didn't sense any immediate threat. The sky was an empty, cloudless blue. The street was clear except for the people hauling the wounded to the hospital. There was no enemy and the alarm had briefly stopped. Then even louder sirens began to wail. Within seconds, a low-flying V-shaped formation of Capitol hoverplanes appeared above us, and the bombs began to fall.

That was what the new sirens were for. A severe emergency alarm. I had no time to ponder it. I was blown off my feet, into the front wall of the warehouse. There was a searing pain just above the back of my right knee. Something had struck my back as well, but didn't seem to have penetrated my vest. Shrapnel. Probably. There was a good chance that a bullet had ricocheted and struck me. I had been hurt before. I could push past this. Especially right now. This was not where I was going to die.

Not before I killed Snow. We were too our in the open here. I had to get up and try to move into somewhere a little more covered. But the bomb had destroyed the far corner of the building that we were trying to get into. I tried to get up, but Boggs pushed me back down, shielding my body with his own. Everyone was going to do everything that they could to protect the Mockingjay. The ground rippled under me as bomb after bomb dropped from the planes and detonated.

How many more people were dying right now? Were any of my friends dead? I wanted to scream for them, but I couldn't force the words out of my throat. And what if the Capitol heard? They would come back just for them, knowing what their deaths would do to me. What about Skye, Dean, and Julie? I couldn't let Carrie lose her husband and Marley her father. No more Hadley deaths. But I couldn't move, and even if I could, Boggs would have never let me up.

Flames and dirt were spraying up all around us, many coming very close to hitting us. It reminded me of the firestorm from my first trip into the arena. Everything was coming so close. The bombs were so close to hitting us. I could feel the heat from them and my head was throbbing with the concussions of the blasts. When were they going to stop? When the hell was the wave of bombs going to stop so that we could get up and run off? Somewhere reasonably safe. Safer than in the empty alley.

It was a horrifying sensation being pinned against the wall as the bombs rained down around us. What was that expression that Mr. Everdeen had used for easy kills? Like shooting fish in a barrel. We were the fish, the street was the barrel. There was nothing that I could do until the bombs subsided. My heart was pounding in my chest as I thought about how I could get away from where we were. But there was nothing. It was better to pretend to be a corpse. They wouldn't target us if we looked like them.

"Aspen!" I was startled by Haymitch's voice in my ear.

"What? Yes, what? I'm here!" I answered.

"Listen to me. We can't land during the bombing, but it's imperative you're not spotted," Haymitch said.

"So they don't know I'm here?" I asked.

"Intelligence thinks no. That this raid was already scheduled," Haymitch said.

There was no way. They had to have known that I was here. This was too targeted. The timing perfectly right. Those bombs dropped just inches from where we had been standing. They had to have known that I was here. There were cameras everywhere after all. I had assumed, as usual, that it was my presence that brought on punishment. Now Plutarch's voice was coming up, calm but forceful. The voice of a Head Gamemaker who was used to calling the shots under pressure.

"There's a light blue warehouse three down from you. It has a bunker in the far north corner. Can you get there?" Plutarch asked.

"We'll do our best," Boggs said.

"Aspen, stay low. Move quickly. Do not stray from your guard," Seneca ordered in my ear.

Another voice of a Head Gamemaker who knew how to make decisions in the heat of the moment. I had ensured that one. There they all were. Ordering me around just like it was the good old days. But at least this time it was to keep me alive. Plutarch and Seneca must have been in everyone's ear, because my bodyguards and crew were getting up. My head was still spinning slightly but my eyes instinctively searched for Gale, Katniss, Skye, Julie, and Dean.

The ground was still shaking slightly from the impacts of the bombs. But the first wave had clearly passed by now. We had enough time to get to somewhere that was relatively safe. To my complete pleasure, it looked like no one had been hurt in the bombing. Not severely, anyways. It looked like I might have actually been the only one who was hit. Of course. Gale was on his feet, helping Katniss to hers, apparently both unharmed. Dean was helping Skye and Julie back to their feet.

"You've got maybe forty-five seconds to the next wave," Plutarch said.

So I was right. The first wave had already passed. It meant that we had to move before the next wave came through. I had a feeling that those wouldn't miss if we were still out in the open. I gave a grunt of pain as my right leg took the weight of my body, but I kept moving. I had dealt with this kind of pain before. Like after the poison fog. I could manage running from bombs with only a little bullet wound or something like that. There was no time to examine the injury. Better not to look now, anyway.

Fortunately, I had on shoes that Cinna designed. They gripped the asphalt on contact and sprang free of it on release. I was even faster than usual, despite the injury. I'd have been hopeless in that ill-fitting pair that Thirteen had assigned to me. Boggs had the lead, but no one else passed me on Seneca's order. Instead they matched my pace, protecting my sides and my back. I forced myself into a sprint as the seconds ticked away. We passed the second gray warehouse and ran along a dirt brown building.

It was only so long before the bombs started to rain again. Forty-five seconds. I was counting down in my head but that only made things worse. So I sped up slightly. I was moving faster than I had initially thought that I could. Clearly I had surprised the others. I feared having Katniss and Gale protecting me - as I wanted to be the ones to protect them - but I couldn't fight this one. They were going to give their own lives to protect mine. No matter what.

Up ahead, I saw a faded blue facade. Home of the bunker. We had just reached another alley, needed only to cross it to arrive at the door, when the next wave of bombs began. Just mere seconds before I reached the forty-five second mark in my head. I instinctively dived into the alley and rolled toward the blue wall. This time it was Gale who threw himself over me to provide one more layer of protection from the bombing. I wanted him off. Not protecting me. Protecting himself.

It was worse this time with Gale on me. Boggs was nice, but I didn't care that much if a bomb fell on him. It was Gale that I cared about. Who I loved. Who meant so much to me. His body was locked tensely over mine. His torso positioned over my neck and head, protecting my vital spots. His arms were locked around my waist, keeping me from shifting with the blasts. My entire body was trembling as more and more bombs fell. It seemed to go on longer this time, but we were farther away.

They had attacked the same spot that we were at just moments beforehand. By the time that it had ended, I shifted onto my side and found myself looking directly into Gale's eyes. For an instant the world receded and there was just his flushed face, his pulse visible at his temple, his lips slightly parted as he tried to catch his breath. He's still alive... My gaze turned to the side to ensure that the others were still alive, which they were. Boggs was protecting Katniss as Dean was protecting Skye and Julie.

"You all right?" Gale asked, his words nearly drowned out by an explosion.

"Yeah. I don't think they've seen me. I mean, they're not following us," I answered.

"No, they've targeted something else," Gale said.

"I know, but there's nothing back there but -"

My stomach started to churn as I realized what was happening right now. They weren't just attacking random spots throughout the City Center as I had originally thought. Not just because they realized that most of the people were there. They knew where everyone was hiding out. They knew where most of the weakest people would be gathered. All together. All unable to evacuate or fight back against the raid. The realization hit us at the same time.

"The hospital," I whispered desperately.

Instantly, Gale was up and shouting to the others. "They're targeting the hospital!" Gale yelled.

"Not your problem. Get to the bunker," Plutarch said firmly.

"But there's nothing there but the wounded!" I said.

"Aspen." I heard the warning note in Haymitch's voice and knew what was coming. "Don't you even think about -!"

As per usual, Haymitch was going to give some type of advice that would probably save my life while I did something that would likely get me killed. But this was something that I had to do. I couldn't get all of those people killed. Not all of those people who were going to die if we weren't fast enough. Not Jason's family, Velvet, Eddy, his sisters, and all the rest of them. I yanked the earpiece free and let it hang from its wire. With that distraction gone, I heard another sound.

This time it was something even worse. It sounded like there were people actually fighting back. I could hear gunfire that sounded like it was fighting back against the bombing. I sprinted away from the rest of the team - all of whom followed me - and into the building. No one sounded happy with me but I didn't care. I was about to head towards where Paylor was pointing us when I heard even more gunfire. They were close. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned towards it, sprinting off.

"Aspen!" Gale yelled. We were in some type of factory so I was winding in and out of all of the rows of textile production machinery. "Aspen!"

"Aspen, get back here!" Katniss screamed.

"Antaeus! Antaeus!" Boggs howled.

No matter how much they wanted me to stop, I didn't care. I had to see what was happening. I had to help stop this before it started. Before it got worse. Machine gun fire was coming from the roof of the dirt brown warehouse across the alley. Someone was returning fire. The rebels, I supposed. Before anyone could stop me, I made a dash for an access ladder that was across the street. I had to wait for them to stop firing before running for it. But I could make it. Climbing. One of the things I did best.

"Don't stop!" I heard Gale say behind me.

At least there was someone following me. Someone else was going to get in trouble for this. Gale and Katniss were both running after me, as I should have expected earlier. Not far from them, I could hear even more shuffling. Maybe there was a chance that someone else had tried to run after me. Then there was the sound of Gale's boot on someone's face. If it belonged to Boggs, Gale was going to pay for it dearly later on. But it was too late. Right now it was all about the fight.

My feet kept getting caught up on everything that had been toppled over during the bombings, but I refused to stop. I had to keep moving. I could get to the shooters within a matter of seconds if I could find a break. Finally I found a hole that had been blasted in the side of the wall by an earlier bombing. I dropped behind the side of the stone wall that remained and watched as soldiers crossed in front of me. Two soldiers were hiding behind a truck, exchanging fire with the bombers.

"Gale, back away from the wall!" Boggs shouted.

That was when it dawned on me. Not only could we see the shooters, so could the Capitol bombers. It happened just as Katniss and Gale arrived at my sides. Dean, Skye, and Julie were just behind us. Boggs was still trying to approach us. But it was too late. I heard the massive roar of a bomber engine before spotting the shadow of it on a tank across the street from us. Suddenly there was a massive explosion just feet away - outside of the building - as we were all thrown back.

We all hit the floor on our sides. Katniss was turned towards me with her arms thrown over my head. Gale had an arm wrapped around my midsection to keep me against him. The moment that he recovered - which was just before Katniss or I could manage to recover - Gale weakly stumbled to his hands and knees and covered the two of us with himself. Even now, he was going to refuse to let something happen to us. Even if it meant giving his own life.

The air was dusty with dirt and rocks and smoke blowing everywhere. It was hard to see but I could spot Julie, Skye, and Dean - who were a little ways back from the blast - running over to check if we were alright. My ears were badly ringing, just the way that they did after I blew up the Career supplies during the first Games. Eventually the Capitol ear recovered some sense of hearing as Gale peeled himself off of us, allowing us to slowly get back to our feet. At least, if another explosion didn't happen.

"You okay?" Gale asked, his voice slightly muffled.

"Come on! Come on! We gotta go. Now," Dean yelled.

I was still a little dazed, down on my hands and knees. "Gimme, Aspen. I got her," Skye said.

My head was spinning. The concussion certainly wasn't helping with all of the bangs and explosions from the gunfire and bombs. It was never going to go away at this rate. I managed to pull myself to my feet with Skye and Gale's help, leaving Dean and Julie to help Katniss to her feet. I shook off their extra offers of help. I could manage. Boggs was approaching us again, his voice slightly muffled. But it was something else that alerted me to another problem. A frighteningly large cracking noise.

What the hell was that? "Move!" Boggs shouted.

We all turned back just in time to see that it was a pillar from one of the textile factories - towering at least a hundred feet in the air - that had been cracked down the middle. As it crashed through the building towards us, Gale grabbed onto me and Katniss, shoving the two of us just behind Dean, Skye, and Julie. We managed to outrun the collapsing pillar by just a few feet, only glancing back for a moment to see that it had cut off the others from reaching us.

My feet were still propelling me forward as I ran to the next opening in the building to watch the other firebombers fly around the building. We hesitated for just a moment to see what was happening. I was the first one to peek my head out, followed by Katniss, and then by Gale. I hung around the corner, just in case another fleet was coming. The other three were on the other side of the wall. As I looked up into the sky, I saw two more bombers heading off into the distance.

"They're going after something to the south," Dean shouted.

Gale and I exchanged a glance. "We were right. It's towards the hospital." Just as I said it, two more bombers flew past us. I moved carefully to the other side of the wall with the others. "They're circling back around. Come on!" I called.

Without giving them a chance to say anything back to me, I darted out into the open. Someone was sure to spot me - as my Mockingjay costume was pretty easy to differentiate from the other soldiers - but I didn't care. I knew that Haymitch and Seneca and everyone else back in District 13 were going to be furious with me for what I had done. But right now I really didn't care. Like they had said, I was hotheaded. I reacted to things, not people. Like right now.

This was something that I had to do. I had to save those people back in the hospital. The ones who believed in me. So I sprinted off towards the building just across the street from where we were. Gunfire was being exchanged loudly as I sprinted for my life across the rubble and towards the outdoor stairwell in the other building. Dean, Skye, and Julie were running just behind us. Even with the searing pain in my leg, I pushed past it and jumped three stairs in my plight towards the roof.

The roof access was almost six floors up and my leg was throbbing, screaming for me to stop by the time that we turned over the last landing and emerged on the roof. The moment that we hit the landing for the roof a bomber flew low over us. The gunfire really wasn't doing that much to them. I heard the bullet ricocheting from the guns mounted underneath the bombers hitting the metal railing for the staircase just inches in front of where I was standing.

Fearing getting hit again, I ducked down behind some sandbags that were exploding from the bullet hits. Gale, Katniss, and the others were all ducked down behind us. Gale's hands were at the tops of my thighs. I knew that he was just trying to urge me forward. So I stood back upright and ran past the body of a soldier who had been hit by the gunfire. They were already dead. No help would be of any use to them. As I straightened up, I followed the bomber with my eyes to see what was happening.

It was way too far away for me to make an accurate shot from here. No one could. But I realized that it was circling around where the hospital was. It had clearly just dropped one from the black smoke that was billowing from the top of the building. It wasn't the hospital. At least, I didn't think that it was. I was pretty sure that it was the warehouse that we had hidden behind when the first wave had struck. Good thing that we weren't still there.

Fearing the worst, I crossed to the other side of the roof, the others tailing me closely. I was watching the bomber fly off, hoping it would come close enough so that I could make a shot. But to my surprise, just as we were heading out from behind what had once been a window of an upper floor, another bomber flew straight above us, firing down at the rooftop mere inches from where we were standing. I just barely managed to step back and knock Katniss and Gale away from the bullets as it flew overhead.

We were all down, crouched into fetal position, waiting for the air to clear. Dirt and dust and small rocks were raining down on us as the hovercraft flew out of firing range. Had they still not spotted me? Or were they more concerned with everything else? Breathing heavily, holding onto Katniss and Gale for dear life, I heard another loud crack. I raised my head out of Gale's shoulder to see another large explosion going off in the distance.

"That's the hospital. They're targeting the hospital," I said, horrified.

Getting to my feet, I went back to my previous plan. Make it as high up onto the roof as I could and try to make a shot from there. I headed off towards a service ladder that would let us out on the last remaining bit of the real roof. It looked like the rebels had made a pitch up there anyways. Ignoring the searing pain that was shooting through my shin, I made the climb as quickly and safely as possible. I made the roof after almost fifteen seconds and dragged myself onto the tar.

Hesitating long enough, I leaned down to help pull Gale and Katniss up beside me. Dean managed to get up without anyone's help, motioning for the three of us to head off while he helped Skye and Julie up onto the roof. Once we were all back on our feet, we then took off for the row of machine gun nests on the street side of the warehouse. Each looked to be manned by a few rebels. We skidded into a nest with a pair of soldiers, hunching down behind the barrier.

"Boggs know you're up here?"

To my left I spotted Paylor behind one of the guns, looking at us quizzically. So that was where she had gotten off to. I had noticed that she was gone back when we had still been inside of the warehouse with the others. I had thought that she'd went to save herself. Maybe I liked Paylor a little more than I had originally thought that I did. But what could I say to her about what we had done? I tried to be evasive without flat-out lying.

"He knows where we are, all right," I said.

Paylor laughed. "I bet he does. You been trained in these?" She slapped the stock of her gun.

"I have. In Thirteen. But I'd rather use my own weapons," Gale said.

"Yes, we've got our bows." I held mine up, then realized how decorative it must have seemed. So did Katniss's and Gale's. "It's more deadly than it looks," I promised.

I had ended up taking a few people's lives with the one that Katniss was using, after all. "It would have to be. What about you three?" Paylor asked Dean, Skye, and Julie.

"We're good," Dean said.

"All right. We expect at least three more waves. They have to drop their sight shields before they release the bombs. That's our chance. Stay low!" Paylor called.

Everything that I was used to shooting was much slower than one of the Capitol hoverplanes. They were damned fast. I would have to learn to compensate for that. It also didn't help that they were pretty high in the air. Much higher than most birds would fly. Plus I was used to killing something with... skin. I knew where the vital spots on humans and animals were. But as for planes... Maybe the underbelly of it. The cockpit. The wings. I positioned myself to shoot from one knee.

"Better start with fire," Gale said.

He was right about that. Katniss came down onto her knee at my side. Gale took the other side. Dean, Skye, and Julie were back a little further into the nest with their rifles propped up on the edge of the building. I nodded at Gale and pulled an arrow from my right sheath. So did they. If we missed our targets, the incendiary arrows would land somewhere - probably the warehouses across the street. A fire could be put out, but the damage an explosive could do may have been irreparable.

We were much better off with using the flames. Although I wasn't sure how well that form of shooting would do. The explosive arrows would work a little bit better, but we couldn't risk accidentally blowing up the hospital. If it was already standing, we had to defend it. Suddenly, the hoverplanes appeared in the sky, two blocks down, maybe a hundred yards above us. Much further than most birds that I had ever shot before. There were seven small bombers in a V formation.

"Geese!" I yelled at Gale and Katniss.

The others were staring at us like we had lost our minds. Not that it really mattered. Right now all that mattered was taking down the bombers. We could take them all out if we were fast enough. It was a call that I knew that Gale and Katniss would already know. They would know exactly what I meant. During migration season, when we hunted fowl, we had developed a system of dividing the birds so that we didn't both target the same ones.

It was easy enough with three people. I would take the far side of the V, Gale would take the near, and Katniss would take the front bird, working back and alternating shots. There was no time for further discussion. I estimated the lead time on the hoverplanes and hesitated to see just how fast they were really going. I pulled back the arrow into the string and watched, my arrowhead slowly moving upwards to follow the planes.

Katniss let her arrow go, just barely clipping the wing of the second plane on the right side. It went down slowly and awkwardly. At least it went down. She had underestimated how fast they were. Taking a few deep breaths, I let my arrow fly. I managed to catch the inside wing of one, causing it to burst into flames instantly. Gale just missed the point plane. A fire bloomed on an empty warehouse roof across from us where his arrow hit. He swore under his breath.

The hoverplane that I managed to hit swerved out of formation, but still released its bombs. Both of the planes that Katniss and I shot down reappeared in the sky. They were flying slowly and awkwardly. There was a good chance that they wouldn't fly for much longer, but they would for a little while. Long enough to drop another wave. The plane that I hit didn't disappear. Neither did the other one that I assumed was hit by gunfire. The damage must have prevented the sight shield from reactivating.

"Good shot," Gale said.

"I wasn't even aiming for that one," I muttered. I had set my sights on the plane in front of it at the point of the formation. "They're faster than we think."

"Positions!" Paylor shouted.

How the hell had that happened? I had thought that the planes were supposed to come in waves almost a minute apart? Had a minute already passed? Maybe it was because time seemed to slow down in the middle of a battle. Or maybe it was because I had spent a long time trying to track the hoverplanes. Not that it had really worked out that well. While I was pondering what was happening, the next wave of hoverplanes was appearing already.

"Fire's no good," Gale said.

Once more, he was right. I just had to pray that I wasn't going to miss. Hitting one of the buildings would likely cause an even bigger problem than the bombs. Plus it would have come from me. I nodded at Gale and we both loaded explosive-tipped arrows, Katniss following a second later. The good thing was that those warehouses across the way looked deserted anyway. As the planes swept silently in, the engines still quiet, I made another stupid decision.

"I'm standing!" I shouted to Gale and Katniss.

Without letting them get the chance to argue against it, I rose to my feet. That was the position that I got the best accuracy from. Katniss and Gale followed to their feet a moment later. We were the only ones who were standing. I lead earlier and moved my arrow up into the sky. Higher and sooner. That was when I needed to fire. So I pulled back the arrow on the string and released it. Thankfully I scored a direct hit on the point plane, blasting a hole in its belly. I grinned proudly. Finally. A direct hit.

At least the few weeks without practice hadn't really affected me. Gale blew the tail off a second. It flipped over itself and crashed into the street, setting off a series of explosions as its cargo went off. A moment later, Katniss blasted off the right wing of another one of the bombers. All three of us grinned at each other. We were the only ones to really manage to take down the hoverplanes so far. It was mostly because the bombs in the arrowheads were the only things that really worked against them.

Without warning, a third V formation unveiled itself. We got no chance to really rearrange ourselves. It was fire on instinct or miss the wave. That time, Gale squarely hit the point plane. Katniss took the wing off the second bomber, causing it to spin into the one behind it. Together they collided into the roof of the warehouse across from the hospital. A fourth went down from gunfire. My arrow managed to split off the cockpit of the fifth, taking it down instantly, skidding into the street, erupting into flames.

Some bombs went off, but they weren't quite as bad as they would have been if they were dropped. Turning to the side, I saw that two more bombers managed to break away. The ones that we hadn't taken down. They were splitting off and coming back around from behind us. Probably trying to take our shooters - including me - out. They were heading right towards us. I immediately ripped an explosive arrow out of my sheath, Katniss and Gale following suit, heading to the other side of the roof with me.

The others were firing at the wings as the three of us make an attempt for the cockpits. As they approached, making a full circle around the building and heading back to us, everyone began firing. On our side and theirs. The bombers were firing straight at us. Katniss, Gale, and me. The bullets were shattering into the ground in front of where we were standing, getting closer and closer. I finally released just as the bullets were hitting the wall in front of us, offering only some protection.

My arrow connected with the rightmost bomber cockpit, hitting dead center. It went down in a swirling pattern, taking the other down with it. Even though we had taken them down, there was a problem. They went straight towards the street with the hospital on it. I could see that it had already been hit. I just hoped that the people had gotten out. The bomber that I hit spun right into a warehouse, erupting in flames. The other clipped a pillar, which fell the opposite way of the warehouse that was now on fire.

"All right, that's it," Paylor said.

Did that really mean that it was over? We had finally hit the last of the waves? Four or so waves had passed during the time that we had been in District 8. How long had it been since the first bombing had started? Not even five minutes or so. That was how fast that it had ended. That was how fast so many lives had been claimed. Flames and heavy black smoke from the wreckage obscured our view, but I already knew what had happened.

"Did they hit the hospital?" I asked.

"Must have," Paylor said grimly.

No... They couldn't all be dead. I reached over and grabbed onto Katniss and Gale's shoulders, pulling them with me. I had to see it. I had to make sure that they were okay. As I hurried toward the ladders at the far end of the warehouse, the sight of Messalla and one of the insects emerging from behind an air duct surprised me. I would have thought that they would still be hunkered down in the alley. They might have had weapons, but they were a television crew. But maybe they were a little more.

"They're growing on me," Gale said.

Normally I would have smiled. But something else preoccupied my thoughts. So I scrambled down a ladder, ignoring the pain in my shins telling me to stop moving. When my feet finally hit the ground, I found a bodyguard, Cressida, and the other insect waiting. I expected resistance, someone shouting at me for what I had done, but Cressida just waved me toward the hospital. Which was exactly where everyone had been planning on me running off to.

Cressida was yelling, "I don't care, Plutarch! Just give me five more minutes!"

In the back of my mind, I knew what was happening. She wanted me to see the destruction of what I could assume she already knew had been left in the wake of the hospital. She was probably trying to get a reaction out of me. But I couldn't care right now. I just had to see them. Velvet, Eddy, and Jason's family. All of those people. They couldn't all be dead. Not one to question a free pass for something that I needed to do, I took off into the street at full speed.

"Oh, no," I whispered as I caught sight of the hospital.

Actually, it was what used to be the hospital. I moved past the wounded, past the burning plane wrecks, fixated on the disaster ahead of me. People screaming, running about frantically, but unable to help. The bombs had collapsed the hospital roof and set the building on fire, effectively trapping the patients within. A group of rescuers had assembled, trying to clear a path to the inside. But I already knew what they would find. If the crushing debris and the flames didn't get them, the smoke did.

Having already lived through two firestorms in both of the Games, I knew what was happening. I knew the pain that they were going through. And I couldn't let someone die like that. I could push through there. I could get to them. Even if I could only help one person, I had to do something. Gale and Katniss were at my shoulders. The fact that they did nothing only confirmed my suspicions. Miners didn't abandon an accident until it was hopeless. Katniss was already crying, trying to fight to get to them.

She, like me, was still trying to get to them, no matter what. "Help them! Help them! Get them out!" I cried loudly.

As everyone stood around, watching the burning remains of the hospital, I wound in and out with Katniss to get to them. The two of us nodded at each other. We had to help. I jumped over burning pieces of debris and was just yards away when Gale's arm latched around my waist. He had one cementing Katniss in her place and the other around me, keeping us from getting any closer to the hospital. Cressida was shooting footage as I watched the hospital burn in horror. I couldn't do anything...

They had attacked them... Innocent people... "Come on, Aspen. Haymitch says they can get a hovercraft in for us now," Gale was telling me.

It wasn't just me. It didn't seem that Katniss could make herself move either. The two of us just stared at the burning hospital. They had done this. They had really killed all of these innocent people. Why the hell had they done that? Tears were rushing to my eyes. There were hundreds of people in there who were now dead. Because of me. I refused to believe what they had said. This attack had to have been ordered when those in the Capitol had seen me here. It had to have happened that way.

"Why would they do that? Why would they target people who were already dying?" I asked him.

"Scare others off. Prevent the wounded from seeking help. Those people you met, they were expendable. To Snow, anyway. If the Capitol wins, what will it do with a bunch of damaged slaves?" Gale suggested.

In the back of my mind, I remembered all of those years in the woods, listening to Gale rant against the Capitol. Me, never paying close attention. Wondering why he even bothered to dissect its motives. Why thinking like our enemy would ever matter. Clearly, it could have mattered today. When Gale questioned the existence of the hospital, he was not thinking of disease, but this. Because he never underestimated the cruelty of those we faced.

He was right. As he so usually was. They had done this all to hurt me. To inflict maximum damage with minimal causalities on their side. They had done this, knowing that I would see it. They knew that I would be watching. They knew that I would be standing only feet away from the hospital when it happened. I slowly turned my back to the hospital and found Cressida still right there, flanked by the insects, standing a couple of yards in front of me. Her manner was unrattled. Cool even.

"Aspen. President Snow just had them air the bombing live. Then he made an appearance to say that this was his way of sending a message to the rebels. What about you? Would you like to tell the rebels anything?" Cressida prompted.

Was there something that I wanted to tell them? There were so many things that I wanted to tell them that I couldn't even think about it right now. All of my thoughts were jumbled together right now. I was still too busy seeing what had happened right in front of me. I just stared at the burning hospital for a long time. Was there a chance that this had actually been a previously scheduled air strike? It could have been. Everyone seemed to think that it had been.

But I knew that the Capitol spared no cruelty. Especially when I came into the picture. They would always be as cruel as possible when it came to me and hurting me. This attack hadn't been previously scheduled, no matter what anyone had said. They knew that I was here. Someone had to have seen it on security footage. They knew that I was in District 8 and they destroyed the hospital because of it. Right in front of me. Like Gale said, eliminate faulty workers and hurt me in the process. Win-win for them.

Then another thought occurred to me. Why hadn't they blown up the hospital while I had been inside of it? They could have killed me. That was when I realized something else. Snow never wanted me to just be hurt instantly. He wanted to drag it out. He wanted to drag my misery out. There was a reason that they had waited so long to destroy the hospital. They waited so that I would get out of sight of the hospital so that they would only murder the innocents in there.

They did it so that they could show everyone what would happen if they ever brought me in. Sheltered me. Fought for me. What any association with me would cause for them. Also just to hurt me. Just to give me another thing to feel so horribly guilty about. I started trembling with a mixture of fear, anger, and heartbreak. They were purposely showing everyone else that I would be unharmed, but anyone that dared ally themselves with me would die. In the most painful way possible.

The worst part was that these people hadn't been expecting to have to defend themselves. Not at the time of the attack. Those weren't people who had been able to defend themselves. They had all been injured. Badly. It showed that not even the soldiers who allied themselves with me would be killed. It was everyone. Even the kids who were too young to fight. To even be in the Games. Anyone who showed faith in me would be killed. I remembered Snow's haunting words from his broadcast.

The criminals that kneel before you use symbols for the purpose of sedition. Which is why all images of The Mockingjay are now forbidden. Possessing them will be considered treason. Punishable by death. Justice shall be served swiftly. Order shall be restored. To those who ignore the warnings of history, prepare to pay the ultimate price.

Yes. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do right now. It was something that Snow had been forced to show me. He wanted me to play the game. He would draw the game out in the worst way possible. He would show me what the ultimate price was. Time and time again until this was finally over. Horror and agony over what had happened to the hospital had turned into an anger and unstoppable rage. So I straightened up. What did I want to say?

"Yes," I whispered.

Despite the previous deafening roar of flames and bullets, it now seemed almost silent in the area. It seemed like the entire world had done silent to listen to what I had to say. What did I want to say? Something that would burn Snow to the core. Something that would let him know that he hadn't destroyed me. Not yet. Not ever. The red blinking light on one of the cameras caught my eye. I knew that I was being recorded. This would eventually get to Snow.

"Yes," I said more forcefully.

Everyone was drawing away from me - Gale, Katniss, Dean, Julie, Skye, Cressida, the insects - giving me the stage. I could see that Katniss was still crying. Gale had an arm wrapped around her shoulder to keep her from bolting towards the burning hospital. Even as everyone else backed away, I forced myself to stay alone in the broken street. It wasn't as hard as it normally was to stay in the spotlight. Not with words bubbling up in my throat. I stayed focused on the red light.

Cressida pointed me to the camera on one of the insect's helmets. "I want the rebels to know that I am alive. That I'm right here in District Eight, where the Capitol just bombed a hospital full of unarmed men, women, and children! There will be no survivors!"

My voice was cracking on the last few words. I didn't bother to stop it. The people would understand how I was feeling right now. It would make everything sound more realistic. Just like the not-so-pretty rendition of Deep in the Meadow that I had done for Rue when she died. This would feel real. Not staged. The shock that I had been feeling of the deaths of all of those people who had been rooting for me began to give way to fury.

"If you think for one second that the Capitol will ever treat us fairly if there's a cease-fire, you are lying yourself! Because you know who they are and what they do!"

Tears were lingering on the edge of my eyelids. They would fall at any second. But I couldn't care about that right now. Snow had to know that I wasn't gone yet. I wasn't even close to being done. And the people had to know that this wasn't going to get better. The only way for this to get better was for us to win. We had to win. My hands went out to the sides automatically, as if to indicate the whole horror of the scene around me.

"This is who they are! This is what they do! And we must fight back!"

My hand was motioning back towards the destroyed hospital. They had to see what had happened. They had to see what was going to keep happening, no matter what. I was picturing all of those starving children on Ms. Everdeen's table. The whippings that Rue mentioned. My own starvation. The desperation in the eyes of the children at the Reaping every year. The Hunger Games and reign of the Capitol was over. I would never see those again. I was moving in toward the camera now, carried forward by my rage.

"President Snow says he's sending us a message? Well, I have a message for President Snow." I looked directly into the camera, sending him a subliminal message. It's just you and me. This is for you. "You can torture us and bomb us and burn our Districts to the ground, but do you see that?"

A moment later I turned to the other insect. His camera was right in my face, only a few inches separating the two of us. My hand went backwards for him to follow. He instantly realized what I was doing as his camera followed. Just a moment later the lens of the camera focused on one of the planes burning on the roof of the warehouse across from us. The Capitol seal on a wing - charred by my explosive arrow - glowed clearly through the flames.

"Fire is catching!"

My voice was so loud that it was painful to crack. The smoke and flames were filling my lungs. But I refused to stop. Snow needed to know just how serious I was. The rest of the people needed to know that I was on their side. Now and forever. I was shouting now, determined that he would not miss a word.

"And if we burn, you burn with us!"

My last few words were more of a snarl than anything else. Afterwards my last words hung in the air. I felt suspended in time. Held aloft in a cloud of heat that generated not from my surroundings, but from my own being. But the despair of what I was feeling took over. I turned back to the burning hospital, cameras still focused on me, dropping to my knees and allowing myself the moment to cry. My gaze locked on the hospital, I continued to watch it slowly burn, leaving nothing remaining.

"Cut!"

Cressida's voice snapped me back to reality and extinguished me. Although I was still in reality. This part wasn't going away. It wasn't ever going to go away. Hundreds of lives had been lost today. All so that I could give a damn speech. Cressida and her team were good people, but their Capitol personalities were showing. For them, this had been my test as an actor. For me, this was a moment of shock. Enough to wake me up to what I would truly need to do to end this war. Cressida gave me a nod of approval.

"That's a wrap."

Chapter Text

My entire body was numb. My mind even felt a little numb. Not just from the concussion. Boggs suddenly appeared at my side. I didn't even bother looking up at him. He got a firm lock on my arm, but I wasn't planning on running now. I didn't even think that I could manage getting to my feet. I looked over at the hospital - just in time to see the rest of the structure give way - and any remaining fight went out of me. All those people, the hundreds of wounded, the relatives, the medics from Thirteen, were no more.

All of those people who had loved and cared for me were dead. In the worst way possible. I knew what it felt like to have bones break as I was crushed. I knew what it was like to feel like your insides were being cooked. I was well-aware of what a burn felt like. My heart was slowly breaking at the sight of it all. All of those people who had spoken to me were now dead. There was no chance of survivors from that mess. Not now. Our only hope was that the propo would help the fight in the other Districts.

My words would start a fight. I was sure that they would. People would be horribly amazed at what the Capitol had done to Eight. I was sure that they would start fighting back, if they weren't already. I turned back to Boggs, my body slightly sore from all of the falls that I'd taken, and saw the swelling on his face left by Gale's boot. It had definitely been Boggs that Gale had kicked. I was no expert, but I was pretty sure that his nose was broken. His voice was more resigned than angry, though.

"Back to the landing strip."

Obviously he didn't like what had happened either. I had seen the stunned look on his face when I had been saying my words and when he had seen the wreckage. I obediently took a step forward and winced as I became aware of the pain behind my right knee. The adrenaline rush that overrode the sensation had passed and my body parts joined in a chorus of complaints. I was banged up and bloody and someone seemed to be hammering on my left temple from inside my skull.

Maybe the injuries weren't terrible - although I had a feeling that the one in my shin was actually a bad one - but something was definitely weighing down on me. Maybe it was the sight of the hospital now as a pile of rubble. Now that I saw just how bad things really were. My shin was throbbing as I tried to walk away from the hospital. My steps were almost impossible. I just couldn't manage to make myself walk off.

What had happened to me during the fight? I couldn't remember. I did remember getting injured during the initial blast and ignoring it. There was something lodged in the back of my shin. I could feel it moving around with each step that I took. My back was a little sore from what was likely a bullet wound - but the bullet hadn't pierced the vest. There was also a horrible spinning in my head. Maybe the concussion was getting worse again or maybe it was just from the exhaustion or overwhelming moments of panic.

My knees started to buckle slightly again. I wasn't sure that I could keep walking. Whether it was from the injuries or exhaustion, I wasn't quite sure. Boggs quickly examined my face, then scooped me up and jogged for the runway. I was glad that he had me in his arms and was strong enough to carry me. The others were jogging behind us. Halfway there, I puked on his bulletproof vest. It was hard to tell because he was short of breath, but I thought that he sighed.

There went the impression I made from the propo. "Sorry," I muttered.

"It's okay. Put this on your forehead," Boggs said.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw him reach down and grab something. I raised a brow when he handed me a small rag. For a moment I just stared at it, so he placed the rag down against my forehead. I hissed in pain slightly, realizing that there was blood there. It turned out that the side of my temple was cut open. Something had injured me. It was probably a piece of flying rock from one of the blasts. I tried to keep the rag there to mop up the excess blood.

Had I been bleeding for a long time? Was that why I felt so strange? Blood loss. I wasn't sure. I hadn't even felt whenever my temple had been sliced open. Although it just added to my injuries, I was sure that it would end up looking quite good in the propo. Proof that I was actually fighting back in this war. I wouldn't be made up. I would be dusty and dirty and bloody from the battle. I would look like a real soldier. Not the made-up one that Fulvia had originally wanted.

Finally Boggs stopped jogging and I instantly felt much better without the constant jostling. I was sure that I would be sick again at some point though. A small hovercraft, different from the one that transported us here, was waiting on the runway. The second that my entire team was on board, we took off. Likely before there could be another attack in Eight that we would be stuck in. There were no comfy seats and windows this time. We seemed to be in some sort of cargo craft.

It made sense. This was essentially an emergency evacuation. They would want me back in District 13, where it was safe and I wouldn't be injured any further. Boggs instantly started doing emergency first aid on people to hold them until we got back to Thirteen. I wanted to take off my vest, since I got a fair amount of vomit on it as well and it was slightly tight on my chest, but it was too cold to think about it. Instead I laid on the floor with my head in Gale's lap.

"You'll be alright," Gale said, running his fingers through my hair.

"Thanks for... for protecting me," I wheezed.

"Always, Aspen," Gale whispered.

"Hey, you're alright," Skye said, leaning over and pressing a hand against my arm. The uninjured one, which I really appreciated. Skye then looked at Boggs. "What's wrong with her?"

"Couple of things. Exhaustion. Blood loss. Concussion. Shock," Boggs said.

Definitely shock. That was all that I felt right now. "She'll be alright?" Julie asked.

"She'll be fine. She just needs rest," Boggs promised.

That was definitely something that I needed. It was just something that I could never get. Rest didn't seem to be something that I could get that easily. In the meantime, I could tell that everyone was kneeling down at my sides. Katniss looked like she got hit in the thigh and arm. I reached over to try and wrap a hand around her wrist. She had been injured. I didn't want her to be injured. Too many people had been injured because of me. She couldn't be on that list.

"You're hurt," I mumbled.

"I'm fine. You're hurt, but we're gonna take care of you," Katniss promised.

Judging by the sound of her voice, I could tell that Katniss was getting a little bit woozy too. The look of her wounds told me that she must have lost a lot of blood during the attack too. I assumed that she, like me, was probably suffering from shock of what had happened. It anyone else was really hurt by what had happened other than me, it would be Katniss. She didn't like watching people get hurt either. The two of us were both having a terrible time with this.

"Come on. Both of you, lay down. You don't look too good," Gale warned Katniss.

She didn't look good at all. She looked sick and like she was about to pass out. "Cat? Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm fine," Katniss consoled me. "Are you?"

"I'll be okay," I muttered.

"Aspen... I'm sorry... We didn't know what was going to happen," Katniss muttered.

I couldn't figure out why she felt that it was her fault and she had to apologize. Of course, she, like me, always felt guilty about things that were out of her control. "I know. The hospital - How - How many people were in it?" I stuttered.

"It doesn't matter," Boggs said, instantly alerting me to the fact that there had been a lot of people in that hospital. "They're going to pick up and move on. Just get some rest."

"Hey... It's okay. You did well out there," Gale said, brushing my hair back.

"They were attacked," I muttered.

"That attack was premeditated. It's not your fault," Dean said.

At least he didn't look injured. "They knew that I was there. They waited until I left to start dropping the bombs to show them what would happen to them if they allied with me," I said.

"They didn't, Aspen. They didn't know that you were there," Julie said, cradling her foot.

"We'd have a bomber after us right now if they knew that you were in it. The sky's clear right now," Skye pointed out.

She was right about that. But... they had to have known that I was here. "Does anyone have water?" I asked.

Gale reached down and pulled out a canteen of water. "Here. Take as much as you need. Slow sips," Gale warned.

"Thanks." I tilted the canteen back and took a long drink of water, against Gale's advice, drinking until I had almost drained the entire thing. "I'm gonna be sick," I muttered.

"Close your eyes. We'll be there soon," Gale said.

"They - They..."

My thought was never finished. I didn't instantly pass out. I was just unable to speak any longer. I was unable to keep talking. I didn't know what to say or how to say it. My head was spinning rapidly and the ceiling of the hovercraft seemed to have been undulating. I could feel myself getting extremely exhausted as the moments passed. The adrenaline had completely left my system. The last thing that I remembered was Boggs spreading a couple of burlap sacks over me.

Things were very fuzzy in my mind when my eyes slowly pried themselves open. I wasn't quite sure what had happened to me. All I knew was that I still felt like I was going to be sick. I wasn't sure where I was at first. Nothing looked familiar. Then I realized where I was and why my head was spinning. I was high up in a tree. Confused as to how I got up there and where I was, I stood from my crouched position and hopped down. I hit the grass just moments before someone appeared from around the corner.

"How are you feeling?"

My head was spinning even more right now. Because I knew exactly who was standing in front of me. One of my best friends in the world and the most important people to me. I just wished that he was still really here. Not around to only appear when I had been injured and needed so desperately for someone to speak to me. Peeta was standing just a few feet away from me. I so desperately wanted to go and hug him, but I was still unsure if I could walk without falling.

"Terrible. I got shot," I finally said.

"You didn't get shot. You caught a bit of shrapnel in the back of the calf. You'll be fine. You've had worse," Peeta said.

"I suppose."

"You look good."

"No, I don't. But thank you anyways."

"You're welcome. You do look good. You look like a soldier. You've actually been shot and you have a bloody head. It'll look good in those propos."

"Once they get over the fact that a hospital full of innocent people was blown up."

Peeta shook his head and started circling me. "Those people were fighting for you. It's okay. You made the Capitol look like the villains. They'll know that the Capitol was at fault for what happened," Peeta said.

"But they were still killed because of me," I growled.

"They were killed because the Capitol has no limits to its cruelty. You know that."

"I guess I do know that."

"You're going to be okay, Aspen."

"I used to tell myself that all the time. But now I'm not so sure."

"I promise that you're going to be okay," Peeta said.

"What about after all this? What happens then?" I asked.

"You forget. You try and move on."

Forgetting everything that had happened... That went back to the day that I was born. I wanted to forget all of that. "I don't want to forget everything. I don't want to forget you," I said honestly.

There were others that I wanted to remember. Rue, Wiress, Finch, Thresh, and Cecilia. Many others. "Seems to me like you're not forgetting me anytime soon," Peeta said teasingly.

"No. I suppose that's true. You stick with me. Usually in the worst of times."

"You're trying to cope with what's happened. You imagine me whenever you can't handle what's happening in your life. I take you back to a simpler time."

"Making sure my family wouldn't starve," I said slowly.

Peeta smiled. "Yes."

"I never thanked you for that."

"I always knew."

"But I should have said something a long time ago. I should have told you that you were the reason that I lived through that winter. The reason that I made it here. Started all of this," I said, waving around us.

Peeta shook his head, taking my hand and having me walk with him. "This was always going to happen," Peeta said.

"Johanna said that once," I reasoned.

"She was right. We were always going to end up here. Aspen, this might be a nightmare right now, but you're going to save thousands of families from losing their children to the Hunger Games."

"Instead they'll lose their children to the rebellion," I said gloomily.

"Better a good cause than something worthless," Peeta said.

My head snapped over to him. He was right about that. He had always been right. I knew that people were dying for something good. But that didn't change the fact that I didn't want anyone to die. But he was saying the truth. These people were dying for something that was worth it. It just didn't change the guilt that I carried with me. I shifted awkwardly in the middle of the woods before noticing that I wasn't wearing the Mockingjay costume. I was back in my original Tribute outfit.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"You know where we are," Peeta said.

Of course. We were back in the original arena. "I hate this place," I growled.

"So do I," Peeta said.

There was no way that he actually ended up here. "This is where you're resting?" I asked.

"No. I thought you needed to see it again."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Say that this war never started... Say that the Hunger Games continued," Peeta said. I nodded blankly at him. "Not counting the Third Quarter Quell, think about the next few years. If the Hundredth Hunger Games still only had twenty-four Tributes, if every subsequent year only had one Victor, it would be another five hundred and seventy-five dead kids. For nothing."

"Thousands are dying now," I pointed out.

"For something important. To ensure that no one else ever dies somewhere like this again."

"I don't want anyone else to die at all. Except for maybe Snow."

"Still determined to get to him?"

"Yes."

"Be careful out there, Aspen. You're very reckless," Peeta said, not completely unkindly.

"You know what, I am reckless," I admitted.

"It was one of the things that I always liked about you. I think that it's one of the reasons that Cato was so attracted to you in the first place."

"That sounds about right." The two of us stared at each other for a moment. "I miss you."

"I miss you too, Aspen. But I'll see you again one day."

"Yes. You will."

That would be a good day. I wanted to see Peeta again. Not in a stress-induced hallucination. "Not for a long time, okay?" Peeta added.

"I'll try my hardest. But people don't seem to like me too much."

"But you are very hard to kill."

"So it seems." No matter how hard people tried, I never died. Even when I wanted to. "What am I going to do, Peeta?"

"You're going to fight. You're going to be the Mockingjay. You're going to win this war and move forward with your life. Then you get to settle down. With Cato. Go and live somewhere. Forget about the rest of the world. Get to have the family that you've never had," Peeta said.

"I'm going to try," I whispered.

A family... An actual life... It seemed almost impossible. "You'll succeed." Peeta glanced up and smiled. "I think it's time for you to go back now. They need you," Peeta said.

"They need me too much."

"Unfortunately. I'll come back and visit soon."

"I wish you could always be here," I said sadly.

"I am. Right here."

Peeta moved in towards me just slightly closer. He extended his hand and patted me very softly over the heart. I wasn't in pain like I had been before. I smiled softly at the sight of him. At the feel of him again. The world began to spin very slightly as Peeta finally released me. Then it got faster. It felt just like the spinning Cornucopia from back in the Quarter Quell. Clearly the head trauma was really affecting me from the constant impacts of the bombings earlier.

When I really woke up - not in the arena or with Peeta at my side - I was warm and patched up in my old bed in the hospital. Of course I had somehow ended up here. I seemed to always be here. They might as well have given me my own wing. As I glanced around I realized that Peeta really wasn't here. They had taken care of me the moment that we had gotten back to Thirteen. Peeta had only been a dream. Ms. Everdeen was there, checking my vital signs. She didn't even look at me.

"How do you feel?" Ms. Everdeen asked.

"A little beat-up, but all right," I said.

"No one even told us you were going until you were gone."

Had I really not told anyone? I tried to think back to... yesterday, I was guessing. Of course. I hadn't even thought to say anything to my family. Katniss and I had just left. Without saying anything... To Prim or Ms. Everdeen. I hadn't said anything to Cato's family either and I was relatively sure that Dean, Skye, and Julie hadn't said anything. I felt a pang of guilt. When your family has had to send you off twice to the Hunger Games, that really wasn't the kind of detail you should overlook.

"I'm sorry. They weren't expecting the attack. I was just supposed to be visiting the patients," I explained. "Next time, I'll have them clear it with you."

"Aspen, no one clears anything with me," Ms. Everdeen said.

My stomach lurched painfully again. She was right. When had I ever cleared anything with her? Not the day that I had moved into the little shack that had once been my parents'. Not anything that had happened since going into the Games. Not my engagement or wedding in the Capitol. Not that those were really my choice. But it didn't matter. What she had said was completely true. I was particularly the case. I never cleared things with her. No one did. Not since Mr. Everdeen died. Why pretend?

"Well, I'll have them... notify you anyway," I said awkwardly. One of these days I would have to speak to her about what had happened after Mr. Everdeen's death. "How's Katniss?"

"She's fine. She was cleared to leave earlier," Ms. Everdeen said.

"What happened to her?" I asked.

"Piece of shrapnel in her arm and thigh. She's a little sore but she's fine."

It was her doctor's voice. She was cold, but it was just because Katniss was healthy. "Anyone else hurt?" I asked.

"Skye was cut up in the face by a few rocks during one of the explosions and Julie broke a toe during a fall. They'll both be okay."

That was a slightly larger injury than I had been expecting. "What about Julie's foot?"

"She'll be able to walk on it faster than you think."

"As for Dean?"

"He's fine. Tired, but fine."

At least someone had gotten out of this thing without being injured. "Good," I muttered dumbly. "Sorry we didn't tell you. I didn't think about it."

"It's okay, Aspen. I'm just glad that the two of you are okay," Ms. Everdeen said.

"We are too."

We were deeply glad that we were okay. Things could have been very bad if someone had been seriously injured or killed. On the bedside table was a piece of shrapnel they removed from my leg. My head was patched up from whatever had sliced it open. The doctors were more concerned with the damage that my brain might have suffered from the explosions, since my concussion hadn't fully healed to begin with. But I didn't have double vision or anything and I could think clearly enough.

Not that I really wanted to be thinking right now. Every time I started thinking, I would make myself upset about everything that I had been through. It turned out that I was right about having not been awake since yesterday. I had slept right through the late afternoon and night, and I was starving now that I was awake. But my breakfast was disappointingly small. Just a few cubes of bread soaking in warm milk. It reminded me of food for a prisoner. Which, in my own way, I was.

It took a long time for me to be released from the hospital. It didn't really bother me. I knew that they would want to talk about what had happened in Eight once I was released, and I didn't want to face that. So I spoke to the doctors and only complained minimally when they poked and prodded me. They kept asking me about what was happening and how I was feeling. They had me play their old game again, which was fine, since I was actually feeling a tiny bit better. About Cato. Not what happened in Eight.

Unfortunately I could only delay the inevitable for so long. I had been called down to an early morning meeting at Command. I started to get up and then realized that they planned to roll my hospital bed directly there. I wanted to walk, but that was out, so I negotiated my way into a wheelchair. I was not getting wheeled in there. I felt fine, really. Except for my head, and my leg, and the soreness from the bruises, and the nausea that hit a couple minutes after I ate. Maybe the wheelchair was a good idea.

It didn't stop me from insisting a few times that I could walk. Although once I fell - hurting my tailbone in the process - I finally conceded to the wheelchair. I had been called to the Collective before the meeting in Command. I was a little embarrassed to have to be wheeled in after such an 'impressive' performance in District 8, but I figured that falling on my ass again would be even more embarrassing. I would just keep my injured leg turned towards the people who were staring.

Of course, that was everyone, as it usually was. Now they were even more interested in what was happening with me. They all knew that the first real propo had been filmed. I knew that Coin was planning on showing all of the footage that they took back in Eight to the people of Thirteen. It had to have been before they had done any editing to it. They hadn't had time. Did they? It had to have just been something to show the people so that they knew that I was really doing something out there.

The man who had been pushing my wheelchair moved me up to the same perch that I normally stood on whenever Coin made some big announcement - with the exception of when I had asked for Cato's immunity. I watched in stone silence as the people of Thirteen filled into every empty space of the Collective. Coin quickly joined me with some others. The crowd down below almost immediately quieted to see why they had all been called to gather here.

At first Coin made some introductory remarks. Like usual, she was never one to waste words. She talked about how I had been sent to District 8 to rally the troops so that they could start making propos. She then continued with how the attack went awry, telling the lie that Boggs must have fed her about how we hadn't run off. I simply listened, never faltering in my face, even when she told a lie. I assumed that she either didn't know or didn't want to tell them the truth of what had really happened.

After all, she wouldn't care how Boggs had broken his nose. He didn't have to tell her that Gale had done it. Finally the footage was played. It started with the moment that I saw the burning hospital. Cressida's voice had been edited out. But I could see myself running to it, Gale catching me around the waist, keeping me back from it. Then Cressida asked what I was seeing. The cameras panned back to show only me. The crowd was deathly silent as they waited for me to start speaking.

Even now I could feel the anticipation burning in the air. None of them had seen it. But they did want to see what their Mockingjay could really do. Instantly my words started to play. I could hear the hisses of discontent as I explained what had happened. I could hear the waver in my voice as I commented that there would be no survivors. I got to my feet and watched the screen wearily. The doctor was standing with the wheelchair close behind me, but I had no intention of falling.

"Because you know who they are and what they do! This is who they are! This is what they do! And we must fight back!" I shouted on the screen.

Instantly I looked away. Looking at myself onscreen had never been something that I liked. Not even after the Games with Cato, when they had played the recap. What was really interesting was seeing myself the way that I was. I had seen myself react harshly and without thinking before. After Rue's death, when Prim was Reaped, before the Death Match, both of my individual training routines, and a few other times. But I had never been quite that angry or severe before. It almost scared me.

"You can torture us and bomb us and burn our Districts to the ground," I continued.

"Plutarch and Seneca's faith in you wasn't misplaced," Coin said, standing at my shoulder.

I looked over at her. "Thank you."

"I can see why they're so fond of you," Coin continued.

What the hell was that supposed to mean? It had to mean something. But what? Coin was still watching me closely, so I just nodded blankly, unsure if I was really supposed to say anything else back to her. I certainly couldn't think or anything else that I should say. It was another one of her hints to me that made me think that maybe there was a chance that Coin knew about my past with Seneca. So I merely looked back at the screen and tried not to make a face.

"But do you see that? Fire is catching," I continued on the screen.

"Come up with me for the beginning," Coin said.

That would be wonderful. Standing up there so that the rest of the District could see me. They would know that I was uncomfortable with all of the attention the moment that they saw me. And I didn't want that. I was supposed to be the strong Mockingjay that they had designated me as. The footage was still rolling in the background as we walked up towards the stand that Coin would make her announcements on. The doctor from the hospital was still following me closely with the wheelchair.

"And if we burn, you burn with us!" I shouted on the screen.

On the screen it cut to my final shot on the hovercraft that was heading straight to the hospital. Not that it mattered. It was still too late. I hadn't realized that anyone had been standing that close to see my shot. At the end of the propo, when the hovercraft burst into flames, the emblem of a burning Mockingjay took over with the words 'Join The Mockingjay' across it. The four-note whistle Rue taught me back in the first Games sounded before the words 'Join The Fight' flashed across.

There was a loud drum-like beat with the video as it finally came to an end. The audience almost immediately burst into applause like I had never heard before. Even more than every other applause that I had heard them give combined. It was very strange but somewhat encouraging. Although I did find myself nervous as I stood at Coin's side. I was very woozy from what had happened, but I knew that I had to push through it. I had to be around when Coin addressed everyone else.

"There is no progress without compromise; no victory without sacrifice. But I stand here with the Mockingjay to announce that our moment has arrived," Coin announced.

As the 'Join the Fight' logo was still smeared across the screens with the burning Mockingjay in the background, Coin reached over and grabbed my hand. I was almost surprised when she did the same thing that Caesar Flickerman had once done. She grabbed my hair and raised it into the air. Of course, Peeta had once done it too. It only helped confuse my feelings about Coin. Once Coin released my hand, I turned back and headed to stand with my propo team again, placing myself next to Finnick.

"Beetee has increased our use of the airwaves tenfold. We will broadcast this message to all the Districts tonight. The Mockingjay's words inspiring everyone to join the rebellion. Together we will become an alliance to be reckoned with," Coin continued.

To my right, Prim, Katniss, and Ms. Everdeen were watching Coin closely. None of them seemed to even be blinking. Not that I could have been surprised. They hadn't seen this yet. Boggs, Beetee, and Gale were across the platform from us. They were all watching with soldier's stances. It was almost strange to see Gale that way. I wished that we could be back that day of the Reaping that had sent me into the first Games. Laughing and having as much fun as we could possibly have.

"Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!" the crowd chanted.

It was the happiest that I had ever seen anyone in District 13, which wasn't a very happy place. I was instantly uncomfortable with all of the applause and cheers for me. Because I didn't deserve them. My words had been thought out and would definitely end up making an impact somewhere. We had gotten some really good footage to show to the Districts too. But how many people had ended up losing their lives to make that happen?

"You don't like hearing a fight song at a funeral, huh?" Finnick asked, leaning over.

"Good analogy," I said lowly.

"The more people on our side, the closer we are to Cato and Annie," Finnick pointed out.

"Yeah," I said blankly, looking back out into the crowd.

"You okay?" Finnick asked.

"Not overly-fond of what happened out there."

"Looked bad."

"It was."

"You gave them hope."

"Before I killed them," I said hopelessly.

Finnick laid a hand on my shoulder. "It wasn't you. It was a premeditated strike. And even if it wasn't... you can't do that to yourself. You can't take the weight of all of these people on your shoulders," Finnick said.

"Well I have the weight of the rebellion on them. Why should this be any different?" I asked.

Finnick and I stared at each other for a moment before his wrist started beeping. He turned over his communicuff and nodded at me. "Come on. They want to see us in Command. They're showing the finished product," Finnick said.

"This isn't the finished product?" I asked, pointing to the screen.

"It's the shortened one. There's another - more impressive - one that'll air through the Districts first. Messalla is finishing up on it now," Finnick explained.

"Okay. Let's go."

Patting Prim on the shoulder and smiling at Ms. Everdeen, Finnick and I headed off with everyone else. As much as I would have loved to prove myself and walk to Command, I was ordered by the doctor to use the wheelchair. I felt rather stupid being wheeled around, but I knew that arguing with them wouldn't work. I was lucky that I was in the wheelchair and not the bed. So I just let Finnick walk at my side and tried to ignore the smiles that were being sent my way. Because of what I did. For those dead people...

In the back of my mind, I couldn't help but to wonder what Cato would think of the propo film if he ever got the chance to see it. He would, at least, when he got to Thirteen. But I wanted to know if he would be proud of me? He had always known that I was strong. He had always known that I was brave. He would likely be impressed and think that it was amazing of me to do what I had done. And he would know just what to say to console me about the hospital.

For right now, I just had to wait patiently for Cato's rescue and go about my own business as the Mockingjay. Right now, we were heading towards Command. I wasn't really sure what they wanted me there for. Coin had already shown the footage to everyone and it had gone over swimmingly. Now I just wanted to go back to bed. I wasn't really interested in what people thought about me or my performance. I just wanted to go to bed and take a nap. Maybe for the next year.

As they wheeled me down the hallways, I began to get uneasy about what I would face. Gale, Katniss, and I directly disobeyed orders yesterday, and Boggs had the injury to prove it. So did Dean, Skye, and Julie, now that I thought about it. They had followed us, after all. Surely, there would be repercussions, but would they go so far as Coin annulling our agreement for the Victors' immunity? Had I stripped Cato of what little protection I could give him?

My stomach was suddenly threatening to empty the remains of the tiny breakfast from the morning. I was going to be sick. I was sure of it. How could I have been so thoughtless with my actions yesterday? I had been in the zone. That was why. I had reverted to my age-old react before I got the chance to realize what I was doing routine. But had I essentially doomed Cato for just a moment of heroism? Maybe the cubes of bread in milk was a good idea, after all.

When I got to Command, the only ones who had arrived were Cressida, Messalla, and the insects. Messalla beamed and said, "There's our little star!"

The others were smiling so genuinely that I couldn't help but smile in return. "Thanks," I said softly.

The people whom I'd thought were just Capitol citizens pretending to be rebels had impressed me in Eight, following me onto the roof during the bombing, making Plutarch back off so they could get the footage they wanted. They more than did their work, they took pride in it. Like Cinna. They were right to be happy. They were the only reason that people even knew what had happened. I had a strange thought that if we were in the arena together, I would pick them as allies. Cressida, Messalla, Pollux, and Castor.

"I have to stop calling you 'the insects,'" I blurted out to the cameramen. They were back in their domed cameras. "Which one of you is which? I can't tell when you're like that."

Immediately feeling very rude for what I had said, I launched into the explanation of how I did know their names, but their suits suggested the shelled creatures. The comparison didn't seem to bother them. They actually thought that it was rather funny. I also commented about how I couldn't tell which one of them were which whenever they were with their cameras, so I referred to them as a collective unit. Standing side-by-side without the cameras, I noticed how strongly they resembled each other.

Same sandy hair, red beards, and blue eyes. They looked just alike. I had a feeling that Castor was slightly older. As I walked around them, I noticed that Castor had close-bitten nails. It was a little hard for me to not look over Pollux and see the Avox in him. It was the position of his lips and the extra effort he took to swallow - I would have known if they hadn't told me that he was an Avox. I so desperately wanted to know what he had done, but I knew that was far too rude to say.

They had cut out his tongue and he would never speak again. That was why he had been signing yesterday. The thing that I had been so determined to learn. I still wanted to learn so that we could talk to each other and not through someone else. I wanted to know if Pollux knew Darius, Clio, or Lavinia, but I knew that it would have been wrong of me to ask. But I really did want to know. At least I no longer had to wonder what made him risk everything to help bring down the Capitol.

We were sitting together at the table for a few minutes when Seneca entered the room. More and more people were slowly flooding the room, but Seneca was the first one to take a seat beside me. It was something that I appreciated. I noticed that a few people were sending the two of us long looks. They would always be surprised that I could get along with Seneca after everything that he had done to me. If only they knew the entire truth... But now I actually enjoyed having Seneca with me.

"What's happening now?" I asked, knowing that he would know.

"We'll be observing your footage," Seneca explained.

"Didn't we already watch this?" I groaned.

"They want to discuss it away from the rest of the people."

"Haven't I done enough for them?"

"Quiet," Seneca hissed. "How's the leg?"

"Fine," I lied, despite the constant throbbing that was going through the back of my calf. "They keep putting me in the wheelchair."

I had refused to sit in it for the meeting. Instead I was sitting at a chair with the wheelchair behind me. "They're concerned about the concussion. All of those explosions that you faced in Eight didn't help," Seneca explained.

"Well I'm alive. I suppose that I don't have much to complain about," I muttered.

"I'm sorry about the hospital," Seneca said.

"Was it premeditated?" I asked suddenly.

I had to know. I had to know if they had planned it. "What?" Seneca asked.

Swallowing a lump in my throat, I tried to force out the words. "The attack on the hospital. Was it premeditated? Or did they attack it because I was there?" I asked slowly.

Seneca let out a slow breath before placing a hand on my knee, not putting too much pressure on it. "We still believe that they were intending to attack the hospital again. However it's a great coincidence that the attack would happen just after you set foot in District 8 and the hovercrafts had evacuated, unable to safely retrieve you," Seneca reasoned.

"I thought so."

"We didn't know that they were planning that."

"I believe you. Was it worth it?"

"That might be an answer that you don't want to hear. Remember, Aspen, I was a Head Gamemaker. I think of the greater picture, not the individual wins and losses. For me, this was a win," Seneca explained.

That was it. That was when I saw just who Seneca Crane really was. He was a good man. I genuinely believed that. The only problem was that he was still a Gamemaker and still from the Capitol. He would never really care about the little losses like the hospital. And that was what it was. Those were all injured people. They weren't fighters or useful with their injuries. As much as I liked Seneca these days, I still had to remember just how different the two of us were.

"Thank you for telling me the truth," I finally said.

"You're welcome," Seneca said softly.

As the room filled with others, I braced myself for a less congenial reception. But the only people who registered any kind of negativity were Haymitch, who was always out of sorts, and a sour-faced Fulvia Cardew. Boggs wore a flesh-colored plastic mask from his upper lip to his brow - I was right about the broken nose - so his expression was hard to read. Coin and Gale were in the midst of some exchange that seemed positively chummy.

Most of the people in the building seemed very happy to see us. All of Cato's family were seated at the table across from me. Even Carrie was here today, which was odd, considering she usually wasn't present at our meetings. But I quickly realized why. Dean must have taken a hard fall at some point. It looked like he was limping and Carrie had been helping him here. Damien and Alana were seated next to each other. Skye looked pretty banged up and Julie seemed to be cradling her foot.

As usual, Aidan and Marley weren't present. I had a feeling that someone was taking care of them. Even Felix and Marcus were here. I smiled at them as they sat with the Hadley's. Finnick was two down from me and I glanced past him to see someone else who was only present about half of the time. Brutus was actually here. I knew that he regularly worked with the rebels but he normally avoided the meetings. He didn't like talking things out, unless it was to continuously insult me.

When Gale slid into the open seat on my other side, I said, "Making new friends?"

His eyes flickered to the president and back. "Well, one of us has to be accessible."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked sharply.

"You know exactly what I mean," Gale said slowly.

"I guess so," I growled, rolling my eyes.

A moment later, Katniss dropped onto our other side. She didn't speak at first. She simply sidled into the chair and rolled her wrists. I could see that she was tired. She had dark bruises underneath her eyes. She must have been having nightmares about the hospital burning down - just the way that I had. I looked at her and gave a weak smile. She grinned weakly back at me before looking down at the table and not saying another word. Not to me or Gale.

Gale touched my temple gently. "How do you feel?"

Twitching slightly, Gale instantly released me. Whatever he had done when he had touched me, it had caused some issue. Now my head was spinning and I was sure that I was going to be sick all over again. They must have served stewed garlic and squash for the breakfast vegetable. The more people who gathered, the stronger the fumes were. It was horrible. At least Boggs was on the other end of the room today. My stomach turned and the lights suddenly seemed too bright.

"Kind of rocky. How are you?" I asked.

"Fine. They dug out a couple of pieces of shrapnel. No big deal," Gale said.

"Me too," I said, about the shrapnel.

"I know. I visited you," Gale said.

"You didn't have to."

But Gale would have always come to check on me. Just the way that I would have checked on Gale if it had happened to him. "I know. Just wanted to see how you were," Gale said.

"Thank you," I said softly.

"You okay?" Gale asked.

"I don't like watching the footage," I said.

"Why? You did wonderfully," Gale said.

My jaws tightened slightly. "Because I see the bodies of five hundred people burning behind me. That's what it took to bring that out of me. I don't know if it's worth it," I said slowly.

"If it helps us win the war?" Gale asked.

"That's not the way that I wanted to win," I said.

"It's war, Aspen. There's no room for chivalry."

"I know. I was in the Hunger Games. Remember?"

The two of us stared at each other for a moment. Gale looked like he was about ready to yell at me. Instead, he just said, "Trust me, I've never forgotten."

We stared at each other until Coin called the meeting to order. "Our Airtime Assault has officially launched. For any of you who missed yesterday's twenty-hundred broadcast of our first propo - or the seventeen reruns Beetee has managed to air since - we will begin by replaying it," Coin said.

Replaying it? They had already managed to run it through the Districts? I had thought that they just finished it. I didn't think that they had managed to send it out to the Districts yet. It turned out that they had managed to get usable footage, place it in more than one propo film, and they had already managed to air it repeatedly after slapping multiple ones together. My palms grew moist in anticipation of seeing myself once again on television.

"Didn't we just watch it?" I asked.

Coin's head turned towards me slowly. "That is a shortened version. We're showing the full version," Coin explained.

"Oh... Okay," I muttered dumbly.

It really wasn't something that I wanted to see again. What if they were using a different piece of my performance for this propo? What if I was still awful? What if I was as stiff and pointless as I was in the studio and they had just given up on getting anything better? I knew that the other one they had shot was good, but I definitely doubted my own abilities as a speaker. Individual screens slid up from the table, the lights dimmed slightly, and a hush fell over the room.

At first, my screen was black. I stared at it blankly. Then a tiny spark flickered in the center. It blossomed, spread, silently eating up the blackness until the entire frame was ablaze with a fire so real and intense, I imagined that I felt the heat emanating from it. It reminded me of the way that Cinna had made my Quarter Quell Tribute Parade costume. The image of my Mockingjay pin emerged, glowing red-gold. The deep, resonant voice that haunted my dreams began to speak.

Claudius Templesmith, the official announcer of the Hunger Games, said, "Aspen Antaeus, the girl who was on fire, burns on."

My head snapped even closer towards the screen. It was Claudius Templesmith. He had always seemed like such a Capitol man. There was no way that he was on our side. Was he? He had always seemed to love the Games so much. He had to have been angry about all of this. There was no way that he was working for the rebels. Was there? Suddenly I was distracted, because there I was, replacing the Mockingjay, standing before the real flames and smoke of District 8.

"I want the rebels to know that I am alive. That I'm right here in District Eight, where the Capitol just bombed a hospital full of unarmed men, women, and children! There will be no survivors!"

They hadn't done anything to my voice, which I was somewhat happy about. My voice had been wavering and choking slightly from the smoke, but my words were easy enough to understand. It helped show that I was really there. Really hurting, along with the rest of District 8. The screen cut to the hospital collapsing in on itself, the desperation of the onlookers, my dash to help them with Gale catching me around the waist, as I continued in voice-over.

"If you think for one second that the Capitol will ever treat us fairly if there's a cease-fire, you are lying yourself! Because you know who they are and what they do!"

This was already much more impressive than the one that they had shown back in the Collective. This was something that might really encourage the fighting in the Districts who still weren't one hundred percent onboard with the whole rebellion thing. Maybe this would even convince the people in the Capitol. That was what I really wanted. The cameras were back to me now, with my hands lifting up to indicate the outrage around me.

"This is who they are! This is what they do! And we must fight back!"

Now came a truly fantastic montage of the battle. I really hadn't even noticed that they were filming during it. The initial bombs falling were first. I could see myself being covered before jumping up and moving on. Sprinting through the building. Barely missing the outdoor bomb and later the falling tower. I noticed that they cut out the portion where we made it clear that Gale, Katniss, Dean, Julie, and Skye had followed my movement to blatantly disregard orders and head up to the roof.

More than once, I saw us being blown to the ground. Even up on the roof when I had stopped us twice for getting into the firing range of the Capitol hoverplanes. At one point, there was a close-up of my wound, which looked good and bloody - scaling the roof, diving into the nests, and then some amazing shots of the rebels, Gale, Katniss, Julie, Skye, Dean, and mostly me, me, me knocking those planes out of the sky. The best one came at the very end, the last shot that I had made.

My arrow went straight up towards the sky. The music was playing heavily in the background, dramatic and increasing in pitch and volume. The bullets were coming closer to where Gale, Katniss, and I were standing. My arrow tipped upwards before I released it. The bullets were mere inches from my feet when I hit it. With a small explosion, the cameras followed the planes being knocked out of the sky - smashing into another pillar and an abandoned warehouse. Smash-cut back to me moving in on the camera.

"President Snow says he's sending us a message? Well, I have a message for President Snow. You can torture us and bomb us and burn our Districts to the ground, but do you see that?"

Now the cameras moved again. No more of my face, which I was happier about. But I did realize that we could see my wounds. Blood was running down the side of my head, mixing into my hair. It looked much better. We were now back with the camera, tracking to the planes burning on the roof of the warehouse. Tight in on the Capitol seal on a wing, which melted back into the image of my face, shouting at the president.

"Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!"

Flames engulfed the screen again. They mixed in on the flames with the Capitol hoverplane. I was glad that they didn't use the flames from the hospital. That was the last thing that I wanted them to use. The horror of what had happened to the hospital after the initial wave of bombs. Superimposed on the now burning black background, in black, solid letters were the words:

IF WE BURN
YOU BURN WITH US.

The music that was playing in the background hit a crescendo. It stayed that way for a few moments before the music finished its flourish. I knew that my face was slightly reddened from what I was seeing. It was one of the most impressive things that I had ever seen, and it wasn't even over yet. The words that had been on the screen caught fire and the whole screen burned to blackness before the propo clip finally ended.

There was a moment of silent relish, at which point I almost thought that I would get yelled at for a terrible performance, but then there was a round of applause followed by demands to see it again. Coin indulgently hit the replay button, and this time, since I knew what would happen, I tried to pretend that I was watching this on my television at home in the Seam. An anti-Capitol statement. There had never been anything like it on television. Not in my lifetime, anyway.

My stomach was churning in knots. I couldn't believe that the first time that there had ever been a statement like this made on national television, I was the star. All I had wanted was to go into the Hunger Games, win them, and become a mediocre Victor. Someone that had been good enough to win, but boring enough to never want to bother again. But that wasn't what had happened. I had merely lit a spark and ignited it with each one of my movements, even the ones that had been meant to quell it.

So many accidents that had happened because of me. All of this, because of me. As I stared at the screen, I tried to see that it was me on the screen. But I couldn't believe it. It didn't look like me. Either way, I was sure that nothing like this had ever been played before. Likely not even during the First Rebellion. It made me just the slightest bit hopeful that we might actually be able to win this war. Maybe in time, we would really be able to abolish the Hunger Games.

As the video continued to play, I looked around the table. They ended up playing the propo at least three times. It didn't bother me. At least I didn't have to speak while they played it. It just seemed that everyone was thrilled to see that I wasn't completely useless. I was also happy to see that I wasn't completely useless. Maybe I was in the studio, but not out there. I could work out there. It was an absolute nightmare, what had happened in District 8, but I knew that we had gotten vital footage.

My gaze slowly turned towards the other direction to see who might have looked a little upset. Not surprisingly at all, it was Katniss. She looked greatly disturbed by the footage. She was the only one. I glanced over and nodded at her. We had done the right thing. We both knew that. It might have been a nightmare being there, but it was the right thing to do. Katniss reached past Gale and grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly. We would be okay. We both would.

The moment that I let go of Katniss's hand, I looked at everyone else. Gale was smiling. He looked over at me and nudged my shoulder. He was proud. I could tell. Cato's family also looked thrilled. Not at my injury, but at my performance. Although I realized that I had never said goodbye to them either. I didn't think to say goodbye to anyone. At least they looked extremely proud. Like they would have of their own child. Seneca turned towards me and nodded slowly, a small smile gracing his face.

By the time the screen burned to black a fifth time, I needed to know more. "Did it play all over Panem? Did they see it in the Capitol?" I asked.

"Not in the Capitol. We couldn't override their system, although Beetee's working on it. But in all the Districts. We even got it on in Two, which may be more valuable than the Capitol at this point in the game," Plutarch explained.

All of the Hadley's were nodding blankly. "That's good. Anything for them to realize that I'm trying to help them," I said.

"I'm working with Lyme -" Brutus started.

"The Victor?" I interrupted.

Brutus's head snapped over towards me. "Who else? Yes, the Victor," Brutus snapped. I rolled my eyes. "She's the lead of the rebel forces in District Two. I'm trying to work with her to enlarge the rebel forces out there."

"What about...?"

My voice dropped when I trailed off, realizing that I didn't know Skye's sister's name. I turned to look at her and realized with a jolt of horror that Skye was shaking her head. "No."

It wasn't the time to push her. So I tried to change the subject. "Is Claudius Templesmith with us?" I asked.

That gave Plutarch a good laugh. "Only his voice. But that's ours for the taking. We didn't even have to do any special editing. He said that actual line in your first Games," Plutarch said.

"When?" I asked curiously.

"When you survived the firestorm," Plutarch said.

"Did you send that after me?" I snapped.

"Is that really important right now?" Plutarch asked.

That was reasonably enough to tell me that Plutarch was the one who had sent the firestorm after me. It hadn't been Seneca. Plutarch had already been on the side of the rebels. Seneca had still been loyal to the Capitol. Of course, it made complete sense. Plutarch was a Head Gamemaker. He always had been. He had already known what would happen. Always playing three steps ahead of everyone else. Plutarch then slapped his hand on the table.

"What say we give another round of applause to Cressida, her amazing team, and, of course, our on-camera talent!" Plutarch cried, interrupting my train of thought.

Everyone burst out into a thunderous round of applause. I was clapping, too, until I realized that I was the on-camera talent and maybe it was obnoxious that I was applauding for myself, but no one was paying attention. Either way, I almost instantly stopped clapping. I couldn't help but to notice the strain on Fulvia's face, though. I thought about how hard it must have been for her, watching Haymitch's idea succeed under Cressida's direction, when Fulvia's studio approach was such a flop.

But they should have known. Anyone who knew me, knew that I wasn't good in front of cameras. Cato was the person who had made me look so impressive in front of the cameras. I was only good by myself when I ended up forgetting that cameras were there and what I was supposed to be doing. That was when I managed to make myself a little more impressive. The applause was still going when Coin seemed to have reached the end of her tolerance for self-congratulation.

"Yes, well deserved. The result is more than we had hoped for. But I do have to question the wide margin of risk that you were willing to operate within. I know the raid was unforeseen. However, given the circumstances, I think we should discuss the decision to send Aspen into actual combat," Coin said.

The decision? To send me into combat? My jaws flapped for a moment before I managed to stop myself. That would have been a terrible thing to say. She didn't know about what had happened out there. Not really. Boggs must have been keeping our secret. It would have been easy enough to just say that he took a nasty fall and broke his nose. Still, she didn't know that I flagrantly disregarded orders, ripped out my earpiece, and gave my bodyguards the slip? What else were they keeping from her?

"It was a tough call," Plutarch said, furrowing his brow. "But the general consensus was that we weren't going to get anything worth using if we locked her in a bunker somewhere every time a gun went off."

"And you're all right with that?" Coin asked.

Alright with being put in combat? I would have loved that, but, like usual, it wasn't my choice. It was never my choice. Everyone just determined what I was going to do and then let me know about it. I was used to it by now. It had been well over a year. Most of my life had been just like that. The table was oddly silent though. Maybe they hadn't come to a consensus about putting me in battle. But when Gale had to kick me under the table, I realized that she was actually talking to me.

"Oh! Yeah, I'm completely all right with that. It felt good. Doing something for a change," I said determinedly.

"Well, let's be just a little more judicious with her exposure. Especially now that the Capitol knows what she can do," Coin said.

There was a rumble of assent from around the table. I sat awkwardly back in my seat. I would have thought that I was used to it by now. I should have been used to all of the attention. But it wasn't something that I could get used to. I hated it. So I pulled at a few threads on the jumpsuit that I was wearing as people started chattering back and forth. Talking about me, what to do with me, how to best use me. But never involving me in the conversation.

"Didn't they already know?" I finally asked Seneca, referring to Coin's earlier statement.

Seneca shook his head. "A few misplaced arrows and knives are nothing compared to this. Not just the explosive arrows that Beetee designed. Your words. They know what their actions will inspire," he explained.

"Right," I said dumbly.

My thoughts were still on what had happened before. The fact that no one had ratted out Gale, Katniss, and me. Even Dean, Skye, and Julie's choices had been kept secret. It was probably a good thing. We would have been in a ton of trouble. But no one looked upset by the fact that we had ignored our warnings. Not Plutarch, whose authority we ignored. Not Boggs with his broken nose. Not the insects we led into fire. Not Haymitch - no, wait a minute.

Haymitch was giving me a deadly smile and saying sweetly, "Yeah, we wouldn't want to lose our little Mockingjay when she's finally begun to sing."

The look on his face was the same look that he had given me so many times before. The same look that I knew that he had given me when I had rushed into the Cornucopia, saved Cato in the Bloodbath, taken on Rue as an ally, managed to trap myself in a tree underneath the Careers, and so many other times. Yes, he wasn't happy with me at all. I made a note to myself not to end up alone in a room with him, because he was clearly having vengeful thoughts over that stupid earpiece.

"So, what else do you have planned?" Coin asked.

Plutarch nodded to Cressida, who consulted a clipboard. "We have some terrific footage of Aspen at the hospital in Eight. There should be another propo in that with the theme 'Because you know who they are and what they do.' We'll focus on Aspen interacting with the patients, particularly the children, the bombing of the hospital, and the wreckage. That song that you sang, too. That can probably play over the top of the interactions.

"Messalla's cutting that together. We're also thinking about a Mockingjay piece. Highlight some of Aspen's best moments inter-cut with scenes of rebel uprisings and war footage. Good thing is, I caught a lot of her interactions in the Capitol the first time around. Things that the rest of the cameras never saw. It'll help remind them of just the simple girl from District 12. We call that one 'Fire is catching.' And then Fulvia came up with a really brilliant idea."

My stomach was roiling around. What had Cressida managed to capture the first time that I was in the Capitol? Things that I had talked about to Cato? A discussion between Peeta and me? My stupid individual training routine? I would be curious to see what was going to be in that propo. What, exactly, it was that Cressida had managed to capture. Fulvia's mouthful-of-sour-grapes expression was startled right off her face by Cressida's mention, but she recovered.

"Well, I don't know how brilliant it is, but I was thinking we could do a series of propos called We Remember. In each one, we would feature one of the dead Tributes. Little Rue from Eleven or old Mags from Four. Aspen's friend, Peeta. The idea being that we could target each District with a very personal piece," Fulvia explained.

No one had told me about that one. I was glad that they didn't. A sound must have escaped from my throat, because Gale reached over and grabbed my hand. Hearing their names, knowing that they would have a tribute to themselves, was like a punch in the stomach. I wanted them to be remembered and loved, but it was strange to know that they were going to be used as causes for the rebellion. At least they could be of some use, even after their deaths.

Who did I even know that they could use? Glimmer? Yeah, right. She hated me. Not Marvel or Clove or Coral. They were Careers. Thresh, likely enough. Finch, too. They were my friends. People who had hated the Games and refused to play them on anyone's terms but their own. Maybe Wiress from the Quell. The Morphlings, who had risked their lives to save me and Cato. Maybe all of the Tributes who had risked their lives to save ours.

"A tribute to your Tributes, as it were," Plutarch said, interrupting my train of thought.

"That is brilliant, Fulvia. It's the perfect way to remind people why they're fighting," I said sincerely.

"I think it could work. I thought we might use Finnick to intro and narrate the spots. If there was interest in them," Fulvia said.

That was a good idea. Finnick knew most of them, anyways. "Frankly, I don't see how we could have too many We Remember propos. Can you start producing them today?" Coin asked.

"Of course," Fulvia said, obviously mollified by the response to her idea.

It was the first time that I had really felt that I might have liked Fulvia. Beforehand she had reminded me of an even worse version of Effie, whom I actually liked. Cressida had managed to smooth everything over in the creative department with her gesture. Praised Fulvia for what was, in fact, a really good idea, and cleared the way to continue her own on-air depiction of the Mockingjay. Everyone was suddenly feeling much better and no one was fighting. Of course, Haymitch would likely soon change that with me.

What was really interesting was that Plutarch seemed to have no need to share in the credit. All he wanted was for the Airtime Assault to work. I remembered that Plutarch was a Head Gamemaker, not a member of the crew. Not a piece in the Games. Just like Seneca had been. They would never take credit. Therefore, their worth was not defined by a single element, but by the overall success of the production. If we won the war, that was when Plutarch will take his bow. And expect his reward.

The president sent everyone off to get to work, so Gale and Katniss wheeled me back to the hospital. We laughed a little about the cover-up. Gale said that no one wanted to look bad by admitting they couldn't control us. Katniss said that Boggs likely didn't want to admit that Gale could break his nose. I was kinder, saying they probably didn't want to jeopardize the chance of taking us out again now that they had gotten some decent footage. They were all probably true.

After chatting with them for a little while about what had happened, I realized that it was for the best that we hadn't told anyone the truth of what had happened in Eight. It was a good choice. Coin would have realized that I was fighting for myself, for what I needed. That would have been breaching my contract with Coin. Leaving my fate - and more importantly, Cato's - to Thirteen. Gale and Katniss eventually had to go meet Beetee down in Special Weaponry, so I dozed off.

Just as I was so used to, I was back in my same hospital bed. Likely going to have a nightmare again, as I so usually did. But, to my surprise, I didn't have a nightmare. Instead I managed to sleep through at least a few hours before finally waking up again. Seneca was standing right over the bed. It looked like he had recently walked into the room. I jumped slightly and placed a hand over my chest. I was a little irritable that he didn't even both to say anything to me.

"Say something next time. You scared me," I growled.

"I'm sorry," Seneca said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "I think there's something you should see."

"Okay," I said.

"Cato's family would like to speak with you afterwards," Seneca said.

"It looked like they did earlier. Dean, Skye, and Julie are okay?" I asked.

I had seen them in the meeting, but I wasn't sure exactly how mentally fit they were from what had happened in Eight. "They're fine. A little banged up and tired, but otherwise healthy," Seneca said.

"Good. Is Haymitch angry about the headpiece?"

"Yes."

"I figured."

There was no way that I was getting out of being yelled at for that. "That was a foolish thing that you did. Taking the earpiece out. You could have been hurt. We warned you not to," Seneca said. For some reason, I actually felt a little badly for not listening to him. Maybe because I knew how much he was trying to help me. "But you did anyways. Just as you so often did. I am very glad to say that I was wrong. You were right to do what you did."

A small smile tilted up on the corners of my lips. Finally someone else was in the wrong. "Thank you, Seneca," I said slowly.

"You did wonderfully out there," Seneca said.

"I needed to see it. I needed to see just what I meant to these people."

"You mean the world to them. To all of us. As much more than the Mockingjay."

"That hospital -"

"Stop blaming yourself for it. It would have been destroyed soon enough. It was going to happen regardless. At least we made something good out of it," Seneca said truthfully.

"You're right. As you so often are. Stop being right," I snapped.

Seneca grinned softly. "I'll try my hardest."

As we strode down the hallway, I turned to look at Seneca. "Where are we going?" I asked.

"My compartment," Seneca answered nonchalantly.

"Oh?" I asked teasingly.

"Don't get excited," Seneca shot back.

His voice was so nonchalant that it almost surprised me. Actually, all of his words surprised me. My head shot towards him as the two of us hesitated in the hallway. The two of us stared at each other blankly for a moment. Seneca's face quickly turned into one of horror. It was obvious that he was terrified by what he had said to me, given our past together. Given those kisses and nights together that had always turned me into a complete blubbering mess.

The last time that Seneca and I had been in a bedroom together, things hadn't ended well. Things were different now. It wouldn't happen. Not anymore. This time I really didn't think that it was that insulting and I knew that it hadn't been meant like that. It was almost relieving. I liked hearing him tease me. It made me think that he was a real person. Plus, for whatever reason, I had gotten over what happened those nights. So I merely laughed. Seneca looked very concerned for a moment before laughing himself.

"I'm surprised that you laughed," Seneca said, once we had both calmed down.

"Something funny about it, I suppose. I've gotten over that night," I said honestly.

"I'm very glad to hear that. It's something that I'll always feel guilty about," Seneca said.

"Maybe it's good that you carry around some guilt. That you weren't able to just forget about it. Shows that you're human, you have some remorse. But I forgive you, Seneca," I said, grabbing his hand.

Seneca smiled, giving my hand a tight squeeze. "Good. I'm on your side."

"I know."

It was nice to know that someone was on my side. We walked into Seneca's compartment a moment later and the door slid closed behind me. I looked around, quickly realizing that it looked nothing like the one in the Capitol. There were no colors in here. It was all grey and white. He only seemed to have a few personal things with him. It was also slightly larger than the compartment that I was in now, but this one had no windows. It must have been reserved for higher-ups.

"It's nicer than mine," I commented.

"Is it?" Seneca asked curiously.

"Yeah."

"It's quite small."

Snorting under my breath, I shook my head and stepped into the room. "Compared to your old apartment in the Capitol? Yes. This is small. But it's larger than the one Katniss, Prim, Ms. Everdeen, and I live in," I said.

"They'd probably give you a bigger one if you asked," Seneca reasoned.

"No need. I'm in the hospital more often anyways."

Seneca smiled. "We'll have to work on that."

"Good luck." The two of us snorted at each other. "What did you want to show me?" I asked curiously.

Seneca pulled something out of his pocket that I stared at. What was that supposed to be? "This was captured on security footage from District Seven just a few hours ago," Seneca explained.

"Seven?" I asked dumbly.

"Watch."

After what had happened in District 8, I wasn't so sure that I wanted to see what had happened in District 7. I didn't want to see more death. Seneca pushed me towards the television as I stepped back and perched myself on the edge of Seneca's bed to watch what had happened. It had been... maybe half a day since they put out the footage that Messalla had done. It had been about two days since the first one was released. What could have happened in such a short span of time?

The screen popped up and I raised a brow. I had only seen District 7 once before. This clearly wasn't anywhere near the Town Square that I had seen during the Victory Tour. There was a group of almost fifty lumberjacks heading out towards the forest with axes slung over their shoulders. I assumed that they were heading to cut down the trees. They were being escorted by at least twenty Peacekeepers, and the logs of wood on their sides were being defended by even more, armed, Peacekeepers.

Things were really that bad that they needed all of those Peacekeepers just for some simple lumberjacks. They were all being kept apart from each other, likely to ensure that no one was speaking to each other. All of the Peacekeepers - who were following the lumberjacks - had their guns pointed to the people's backs. How could they have possibly fought back against them? They were outnumbered and literally outgunned. As I looked over at Seneca, he motioned for me to look back at the screen.

"By order of President Snow daily production quotas have been increased. All work shifts will be extended by an extra two hours. Failure to meet these quotas will not be tolerated," a voice on a speaker called out.

The screen went dark for just a moment and I raised a brow. What was that supposed to have shown me? That things were bad in the other Districts? I knew that. But the screen lit up again and I nodded. The men and women were now walking through the woods, the Peacekeepers still following closely behind them. I still didn't understand why Seneca wanted me to see this, but I decided to humor him and keep watching quietly.

"By order of President Snow daily production quotas have been increased," the voice repeated.

They were walking in silence for a few moments as my hands wrung together. I was getting nervous now. Something was going to happen. I knew it. That was when it happened. I saw a dark-skinned man glance up slightly, his eyes locking on something in the distance. I moved in closer to the screen to see what it was. A Mockingjay... My Mockingjay was carved into a tree that they were all walking past. Who the hell had managed to put that there? I guessed that wasn't too important.

Suddenly that same man let out the three-note whistle that Rue had taught me in the arena. I didn't get a chance to be slightly hurt by the sound of it. Without warning the lumberjacks started sprinting forward, screaming at the tops of their lungs. I gasped softly, placing a hand over my mouth. The Peacekeepers stopped walking, getting down into shooting positions, firing round after round. I cringed as I watched men and women collapse to the ground, most of them dead.

But most of them managed to get away. I couldn't understand what they were doing at first, but then I saw it. They were scaling the trees just the way that I had done. As the surviving lumberjacks made their way into the trees, the Peacekeepers stopped below them, firing upwards. A few more fell before they vanished and the Peacekeepers stopped firing, watching the trees closely. There were still some firing in the distance, but it was otherwise eerily silent.

Then it came. A voice from far off. "If we burn, you burn with us!"

It was a lumberjack hiding up in the trees. Repeating the same words that I had said in the propo. I had actually managed to convince them to fight back. Right as he finished shouting, a number of mines exploded. I jumped slightly, startled by what had happened, as the lumberjacks started to cheer. They were all smiling and laughing, giving each other thumbs up. There wasn't a single Peacekeeper left alive after the mines had all exploded. It was a small victory, but one nonetheless.

The screen went silent after a few seconds of the lumberjacks cheering. As Seneca turned the television off, I leaned down onto my hands and knees. That had really happened. They were really fighting back like that. I was astounded. They had actually managed to win a small fight. I stayed silent for a long time after watching the video, trying to make sense of everything that had happened. A lot of people had died for that one small victory. To take out the hoard of Peacekeepers.

But they thought that it was worth it. And maybe it was. Maybe there was a chance that it had all been worth it. Because at least now they were all able to fight freely. They didn't have nearly the number of Peacekeepers in the area anymore. They could kill the rest of them. For the first time I really realized that this whole war wasn't just for me. It was for all of us. Those four million people who had been beaten down for the past seventy-five years and long before that.

Even though I had just seen it, I still couldn't believe that my words had really managed to force people to do something. At least, I had inspired them to do something. People who were repeating my words to the people that they were fighting against. I almost asked Seneca to play it again, I was so surprised at the turn of events in District 7. It was fascinating to see how hard they were fighting for me and what they believed in. I was almost pleased. Maybe not pleased... impressed.

Their deaths would likely still haunt me - as they always did - but I found myself nodding along, impressed by their actions. They had been far braver than I could have ever credited them with. I knew that fighting back would mean their deaths. We wouldn't ever have a win without suffering some losses. But they didn't care. They were determined to make things better. Just like I was. As I continued nodding at the screen, I found myself almost smiling.

"They're fighting back even harder now," I commented.

"Because of you. Coin thought that it would be pointless to show you this footage. But I knew that you needed to see it. You need to see just what you do for the people," Seneca said, placing a hand on my shoulder.

"Thank you. You're right. I needed to see this," I said, looking at him. "These people really do have faith in me. Even better, they have faith in each other."

"All because of you. They're finally able to stand up for themselves."

"Are those all of the Peacekeepers in Seven