My feet were carrying my blindly down the hall as my head spun. More than once I knocked into someone and had to tell them that I was just overwhelmed with being a Victor. I supposed that it was half-true. What the hell had just happened? I had basically sold the last amount of innocence I possessed to the Capitol. Even worse, that last innocence had been sold to Seneca Crane. For all intents and purposes I had become his sex slave. I was supposed to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. My mouth was burning from the kiss. Even though it wasn't by choice it felt like I was betraying Cato.
My body was completely numb as I thought about how much time I had left. Six months, maybe. After that I was sure that he would be tired of waiting. Maybe I would disappoint him. He would think that I would be some gifted girl in bed to find out that I was clumsy and unsure of myself. But I was sure that it wouldn't work. He would just wait for me to learn and get better. Just like with the kiss. I couldn't just pretend to be bad either. The thought of me being in bed with Seneca sent a shiver down my spine. Even though I wasn't in a relationship with Cato, it would be like I was being unfaithful to him.
My mind raced with thoughts of how I could buy myself out of the position that I had fallen into but I was only drawing blanks. Money would do nothing. Any other plan would get someone I loved killed. There was no solution. I had to do this to protect everyone. The doors of the elevator slid open and I was met face-to-face with Haymitch. He looked nervous and I nearly hurled. I wanted to tell him what had happened, but I couldn't. Cato was behind him and I nearly launched myself into his arms, but I couldn't do that either. They would know that something was wrong.
"Well, what was it about?" Haymitch asked.
"I don't know," I muttered.
"What did he say?"
"I don't know."
"Is everything okay?"
"Why are you being so quiet? Did he do anything to you?" Haymitch asked, as we retired into the living room.
All I knew was that I had to react a little bit better. I knew that Haymitch would be able to figure it out if I didn't force myself to stop thinking about it. Haymitch's questions sent thoughts soaring through my mind. I hadn't thought that the men would be that concerned with what had been said in the meeting. Cato stood in the back of the room with a worried look on his face. Guilt flashed on my face and I turned away from him before he could tell that something was wrong. I didn't want to tell him what had just happened.
"He did nothing. It was fine. All he wanted to do was give me a little scare," I lied quickly, turning out to the windows. "Oh, and he told me that he was no longer the Head Gamemaker. It's some guy named Pluto or something."
Haymitch blew out a puff of air and pushed his hair off of his face. "Plutarch," Haymitch said. I absentmindedly nodded.
"Yeah," I muttered.
"That's his name. We were actually friends for a little while," he continued lowly.
I whipped back around to Haymitch. He had been friends with the Head Gamemaker? But Haymitch hated everything to do with the Games. This was wrong, something wasn't right here. "What?" I asked dumbly.
"I can't believe that he took over the position of the Head Gamemaker. I thought that he hated the Games," my Mentor said lowly, clearly as confused as I was.
Clearly Haymitch didn't know his friends as well as he thought he did. But then again, most people weren't exactly what they claimed to be. "Evidently not. Doesn't matter," I snapped as I turned back to my group and walked up to them. "Once I'm out of this place I intend to never think about this fucking place again."
My meeting with Seneca Crane and President Snow had done nothing for my poor attitude towards anything to do with the Capitol. Thinking again about everything that had happened to me over the past few minutes, I pressed a hand against my mouth and wiped it off. Thankfully my motion went unnoticed. Cato moved towards me and I had to turn away from him for a moment. He had the ability to make me tell him the truth, even without saying anything. Once I was sure that my face betrayed no emotion I turned back to Cato and gave him a weak smile.
"Are you alright?" Cato asked with a raised eyebrow, clearly not believing that my meeting with Seneca had been that innocent.
"Ready to go home," I said.
"All he wanted was to threaten you?"
"Yeah. Mad about my stunt with the knives."
"It wasn't just you."
"No but I was the one that came up with the idea. They're just angry with me because I managed to make them look like a fool," I said irritably.
Cato brushed my hair off of my forehead and pressed a small kiss there. I smiled weakly at him. "Are you sure you're okay?" Cato asked curiously.
"Cato... I'm fine. I just want to go home," I said seriously. "I want to forget about the Games and the Capitol."
"That's a sweet sentiment, sweetheart," Brutus snapped.
Everyone turned back to look at him. "What, Brutus?" I hissed irritably.
"When you volunteered for the little girl I would have thought that you knew what was going to happen to you. You were either going to die in the arena or you would become a Victor. And assuming that you won, which you did, you knew that they were never going to leave you alone. The Games don't end when you step out of that arena," the Victor stated, walking slowly towards me.
"I know that."
"They follow you for the rest of your life. But there is one way to end the Games," he said.
Sickly I swallowed a lump in my throat. That was one way to get out of everything, I supposed. It was easy to get what Brutus was hinting at. He was trying to tell me that killing myself was the only escape that I really had from this place. And he wasn't wrong. It would have been an easy escape. I steeled my nerves and stood straighter, ready to get back at Brutus. But right when I opened my mouth I noticed that Cato was seething behind the older man.
"Brutus, get the hell away from her," Cato growled.
Faster than I would have thought possible, Brutus whipped back to Cato. Nerves were bundling in my stomach. The two powerful men were having a little stand-off and I knew that it wouldn't end well. "Oh, we're growing a backbone are we?" Brutus asked.
"Brutus," Enobaria warned.
"What happened to the little Tribute who came to me for everything? The one who was always so angry that a little girl beat him," Brutus hissed at his former Tribute.
"Brutus," Enobaria tried again.
"Is that why you pretend to love her?" Brutus asked.
"Drop it!" Enobaria seethed.
I had to admit that his comment hurt a little bit. "So it makes you look less weak for losing to her? Maybe you never even loved her. Maybe you just wanted to look stronger. You didn't want to risk losing to her. Coward," Brutus sneered slowly.
Even though I should have seen it coming, it still shocked me when Cato lunged forward and caught Brutus by the top of his shirt. He forced the older man back into the wall and I gasped when he punched Brutus in the face. But Brutus didn't miss a beat. He still was a Victor. He immediately retaliated and swung at Cato, narrowly missing. Maybe it was the fact that Brutus was out of practice, but Cato had the upper hand in the fight and I saw the pain in Brutus's eyes. Despite the fact that I loved seeing the Victor in a weak state, I knew that something had to be done before Cato seriously hurt Brutus.
"Cato, stop!" I yelled.
He stopped hitting the older Victor, but he didn't back off. Cato leaned over his former Mentor. "Fuck you. I love her," Cato snarled.
"Do you now?"
"Of course. That's what makes me strong. I have someone here that cares for me," Cato told Brutus. I felt my face heat up. It was the wrong time to get girly, but it was nice to hear him say those things. "What do you have? Nothing."
"The knowledge that I didn't get myself into trouble during my Games," Brutus said, his gaze flickering to me for a moment.
Cato missed it but I didn't. My face drained of color. Did Brutus know? "The only reason that you act like this is because you're lonely. You know that no one gives a damn whether or not you die so you take it out on those who have something," Cato hissed.
If Cato's words had affected Brutus he did a damn good job at hiding it. Instead of getting angry, he merely smirked and leaned into Cato. "I say these things because I saw how determined you were to kill her," he snapped at Cato before turning his gaze to me. My stomach roiled for a moment at his stare but I forced myself to keep my ground. "Did he ever tell you that he asked me what plants and fruits were poisonous? He wanted to befriend you and kill you. Cowardly."
For a moment I felt a shooting pang through my heart. Cato had wanted to poison me? I looked over at the two men and I saw the reflection of Cato's face in Brutus's eyes. "Did you?" I asked curiously.
Cato looked hurt, like he didn't believe that he had ever said something like that. "Yes. I'm sorry," he said.
I shook my head and glared at Brutus. I didn't care. He was only saying it to rip Cato and I apart. "I don't care that he ever planned to do anything. He wanted to kill me. You don't think that I didn't know that? That's what I know and I don't care. He never went through with it. That's all that matters to me," I said.
"Then you're just as pathetic," Brutus said.
"He should do it, you know. He should kill you. No one would care," I hissed.
The air in the room was tense as the three of us stared at each other, no one really knowing where to go next. Cato still looked like he might rip Brutus's head off. Before anyone could get another word into the fight, Enobaria stepped forward and put her hand on Cato's shoulder, giving him a small tug.
"Get off of him, Cato," she said, but Cato continued to hang onto him. "You're right, no one that matters likes him. But the Capitol does. And if you kill him the only thing that will happen is they will take it out on you. Let him go. He isn't worth it."
We all watched as her words really sunk in. He eventually let the man go and I watched as the two stared at each other for a moment. Cato finally backed off of the older man and walked over to me, Enobaria following. Brutus took a moment before he straightened up and approached me. Cato began to approach the man again but I pushed him back. There was no need for another fight. Not when we were so close to being back home.
"Watch your back out there. They might like you, but I don't. One of these days I'll be sure that you never take another breath," Brutus warned me.
"I'll have an arrow through your throat before you make a move," I sneered.
"We'll see. Have a safe trip home, kiddo," he snapped at me before stalking off.
The room was silent for a moment before Haymitch moved into the center of the group. "He'll be on the train ride home. I doubt that he'll interact with the rest of us but do you two think that you can make it the rest of the way without killing each other?" Haymitch asked Cato and I angrily.
We both merely stared harshly at the ground. "I'll be nice if he will," I growled.
"I intend to deliver two Victors back to their homes. And besides that, I think that we need another three Victors with them."
I opened my mouth to argue with him that Brutus's words had been the reason for the fight and that it wasn't my fault but Effie's loud laugh filled the air before I got the chance. "Well children, that was exciting!" she chirped.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes. Very exciting," I muttered.
"It's time to go. Cato and Aspen, please go get your things and meet us back here. The train is downstairs and we need to get a move on if we want to have the both of you home when we had planned," she informed us.
We both stood awkwardly in the center of the living room for a moment as Effie watched us expectantly. I was pretty confident that she had forgotten the fact that we had nothing with us. Everything that we had been using while we were here had been supplied by the Capitol. The only thing that either one of us had brought was our tokens.
"Uh, Effie, you do realize that we came here with nothing, right? We were kind of ripped from our homes with nothing more than a three minute goodbye. We have nothing," I said angrily.
Everything that meant anything to me was hundreds of miles away in District 12. Cato must have felt the same way, only his things were in District 2. "Oh, well wonderful! Everyone ready to head out?" Effie asked in her usual chipper manner.
Without answering, Enobaria left the room, more than likely to go find whatever hole Brutus had slunk into. Haymitch scoffed and walked away, stopping in front of the elevator. "Absolutely," Cato said.
This was it. I was going home. I hadn't died here. Everything had changed but I was still alive. I would see the people that meant the most to me. "You have no idea," I said softly.
As we walked over to the elevator I took one last look at the penthouse. I would be back here in about six months but I was hoping that those six months would be like an eternity. I didn't want to be the person that had to take care of Seneca Crane's needs. I could get used to being a Mentor but I didn't want to face the families of the children that I had killed. It was bad enough that later today I would be forced to meet Clove's family. And though I hadn't killed her, I was the reason that she was dead.
"I don't know, there might be a few things that I miss about here," Cato said with a small grin.
I thought back to my brief time in the Capitol and tried to remember things that I had actually enjoyed. There had been the showers. Unlike in District 12, the water was actually warm and these got you clean. Soaking in a tub of your own filth wasn't exactly practical. "The showers. Definitely the food," I added on, knowing that back in District 12 my friends were probably starving. But with me being the Victor, District 12 would be graced with food all year long. "Oh and the bed. You have no idea how uncomfortable the beds back in District 12 are. It's like sleeping on a rock. The arena ground was comfortable compared to them."
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Haymitch was giving me a fond smile. Maybe he had felt this way when he was headed home. "Well in Victor's Village it's like living in the Capitol full-time. Just less annoying," he said.
I laughed slightly at the put-out look on Effie's face. "I couldn't see how it could be more annoying," I said honestly.
"The beds are comfortable. You have all of the food you want and more. Oh, and we have actual showers. That's one thing I certainly don't miss about my childhood home. Plus all of the liquor you could ever want," Haymitch added with a dreamy sigh.
I laughed loudly and noticed that Cato had a bright smile on his face. "Now that I could get used to," he said.
Both Haymitch and I turned to him in shock. District 2 had all of those things, didn't they? "Don't you have those things?" I asked Cato.
"What? Even though the Capitol loves us, we still are one of the Districts," Cato said.
"Just wait until you see the Seam," I said.
"The poorest sector of District 12."
"Isn't the whole District poor?"
"If it means something to you, I'm excited to see it." Glancing up at Cato, I smiled. "But I was thinking something a little materialistic," he said, with a small grin.
My heart soared at his confession and I smiled. He grabbed my hand and I nearly laughed at how it completely engulfed my own. It just showed how much bigger he was than me. "You two are disgusting," Haymitch sighed as he hit the button to call the elevator.
I laughed and shook my head, turning to face my former Mentor. "Thanks, Haymitch," I said.
"There are reporters standing all around the train station. Ignore them. Say nothing to anyone until you are back on the train. Aspen," he added as a last thought.
I sighed loudly and smacked Cato as he laughed at me. "Oh, come on! Why do I always get the extra instructions?" I asked, scoffing when Haymitch gave me his look.
The look that said 'I'm right and don't argue with me.' "Do you not recall your first walk up?" Haymitch asked.
"With the cute little kid that made the Capitol melt?"
"When I told you not to speak. And how about the little outburst?"
"No one even noticed," I argued, remembering the cameraman talking about Gale.
"Just do what I say," Haymitch groaned.
I rolled my eyes but nodded anyways. I might as well agree since we weren't going anywhere until I did. "I get it. Say nothing and smile. Pretend like you're the good little robot that everyone wants you to be. Is there anything that I'm missing?" I asked sarcastically.
Haymitch sealed his mouth and I noticed that even Effie seemed to have nothing else to say. But I should have known that it wasn't over yet. "The ability to try and be charming?" Cato asked.
I slapped him again. Maybe he really wasn't on my side. "What was that for?" I asked sharply.
"Come on, you're about as charming as a cactus," he said.
Again I let out a little puff of air. I really wasn't that bad. Everyone else was just too happy. There was no way that I was that bad. I know that I didn't always have the best attitude but it wasn't that poor. Brutus and Enobaria appeared back from wherever they had gone and I rolled my eyes. Enobaria was nice enough but there was nothing that I had to say to Brutus. Cutting him off from my line of sight, Cinna stepped in front of me and I smiled at the man.
"Well, this is goodbye for now. I'll miss you, Aspen. You were the best Tribute that I could have asked for. And I'm proud to call you my friend. I'll see you in a few months," Cinna said.
Cinna was almost like the father that I had never had and I knew that I would miss him. "Goodbye, Cinna. I'll really miss having you around. You might be the one person that made it worth me coming here," I said, giving him a tight hug.
Cato scoffed from behind me and I turned back to him with a glare. "Thanks," Cato said.
"Don't you scoff. You tried to kill me," I said.
"But you're still alive," Cato said.
"That literally doesn't make it any better," I said, before turning to my Prep Team. "And you all too. Bye guys, thanks for putting up with my rotten attitude," I told them, earning sweet laughs.
They all gave me a hug, wishing me luck back home and telling me that they would miss me. There were lots of other words but they started to run together. Apparently I was a wonderful Tribute and with the new home I would be able to keep up my appearance of looking like a human being. My teeth ground together but I managed to not say anything else nasty. It would be good to leave here on nice terms with everyone, save Seneca Crane and President Snow.
We hopped into the elevator and I waved a final goodbye to my team before the doors shut. We were all whisked quickly downstairs and I watched as the doors slid open. Unlike when we had first been brought here, the cameras were everywhere. Even inside the building. They immediately blinded me and I let Haymitch guide me through the crowd. They were shouting both Cato and I's name but no other words stood out. Once we were finally out in the open I looked ahead and smiled when I saw the train. It looked exactly the same, but instead of leading me to my death, this time it was taking me home.
I sped up to reach the train as fast as possible but a small figure jumped out of the crowd and began to run over to me. "Hi, Aspen! Aspen!" the boy called.
I stopped as he ran in front of me. It was Gale, the little boy that had given me a rose when I had first gotten to the Capitol. I smiled at the little boy and bent down to his height. "Hello," I greeted.
"Do you remember me? I was the boy that you said had the same name as your best friend. I told everyone that they should Sponsor you," he told me excitedly.
I gave a small smile. "Of course. Gale. It's good to see you again," I said.
"I watched you in the Games. You were so awesome! The way that you drowned that guy or how you killed the wolf mutt! And then at the end when you got the girl! It was all so cool," he said in a rush.
My previous jolly spirit had dwindled down to almost nothing and I felt a wave of nausea hit me. The little boy couldn't have been older than ten. I couldn't believe that he said things like that. Our ten-year-old kids in District 12 were terrified of the Games. This little kind thought that everything that I had done was cool? It was awful. I was a monster that had killed people just because I wanted to live. I stood up quickly, nearly falling over at the sudden movement. I noticed that Haymitch had an arm on me.
"Uh, thank you," I told Gale, not knowing what else to say.
I felt Haymitch's arm wrap around me and I leaned onto him slightly. He was trying to pull me away from the kid but I felt like I was cemented to where I stood. "How did you do it?" Gale asked.
I made a little noise of confusion. "What?" I asked weakly.
He clearly couldn't tell that he was getting to me and I had no idea what to say. "I mean when you saw them dying, how did you know that you shouldn't let up on them? How did you know that you were killing them? What did it feel like when you killed the first girl in the Bloodbath? You looked so freaked out but then you killed the other guy! I was shocked that you had killed someone so fast," he said quickly.
My heart was pounding in my head and I could practically feel my blood pumping through my veins. All I could see was the blood pouring from their wounds and feel the boy from District 6's eyes breaking under my fingers. My breakfast was about to everywhere. I wasn't sure what was happening to me but I knew that it would happen at some point. I had seen it happen to Victors before and it was happening to me now. I just had to get out of here.
"We should leave. Thanks, kid," Haymitch said before knocking Gale out of the way. We were trying to get to the train but reporters were blocking the way. "Get out of our way, we have a schedule to keep. No more damn questions! I have a Victor to get back to her family."
"Haymitch," I said weakly.
"Keep it together for one more minute, we're almost there," Haymitch said.
There was no way that I wasn't going to throw up or pass out. Something miserable was about to happen. What was even happening to me? I couldn't tell. I nodded at Haymitch, my breathing beginning to shorten. My vision was fading in and out but I knew that by the muffle of the crowd we were on the train. I felt myself being thrown into a soft chair and I opened my eyes. Haymitch was standing in front of me with everyone else gathered around.
"Aspen, look at me. Calm down," Haymitch said softly.
My heart continued to pump rapidly and my breathing came in short gasps. I tried to keep calm but the panic was rising fast. "What the hell was that? Why wouldn't he stop talking?" I asked.
"Hey, look at me. You're fine," Cato said.
"I thought that he was a good kid," I said mostly to myself. I must have looked insane but everything in my brain felt like it was shutting down. "What the hell is this? Haymitch, I can't breathe."
"You have to, Aspen. Take slow and deep breaths," Haymitch said.
"What's happening to me?" I asked my Mentor, fighting back tears.
Though my vision was blurred with tears, I could barely see the figures of everyone in front of me. Haymitch was leaned in front of me and Cato was behind him. Off to my side was Brutus, who was staring at me, clearly enjoying the show. All I could think about was everything that had happened. The Games, the upcoming Victory Tour, and my eventual meeting with Seneca Crane. How would I make it through that? How would I do it without breaking down? Why was all of this happening to me?
"Oh, good, I was waiting for this to happen," Brutus chirped.
"Get out, Brutus," Haymitch snarled.
"I thought that she had already freaked out though. Damn, did I miss the first one?" Brutus asked.
"Get out!" Haymitch shouted.
At least he was trying to keep Brutus away from me. That would only make things harder on me. As I breathed heavily and panic set into my veins Brutus rolled his eyes and moved over towards me. He leaned in front of me and grabbed my arms. I tried to wrench away from him but he had a steel grip on me.
"Look, girl, you have to get it together," Brutus said.
"Leave me alone," I said desperately.
"They'll tear you apart if they see that the Games affected you like -"
"It's not the Games!"
It was so much more than the Games. It was this place and everyone in it. People just like Brutus. People who were always touching me without my consent. He wasn't going to touch me. He had no damn right to touch me. Not after everything that he had put me through. Without thinking, I reached out and slapped him roughly across the face.
"Get the hell away from me!" I screamed.
Everyone kept touching me. They were all trying to grab me and keep me rooted in my place. I jumped back off of the couch and nearly fell over myself. As I ran to get away from the group in front of me Cato grabbed my arm and pulled me back to him. A loud scream was echoing through the train and I had a feeling that it might have been me. I was brought back to the Tribute in training who had thrown me to the floor and warned me that he would kill me and my eyes went wide.
"Aspen, calm down," Cato warned.
"Chill out, come on."
"Get off of me!"
"Damn it. What do we do?" Cato asked Haymitch as I struggled to get away from him.
"Snap her out of it. She's got no idea who we are," Haymitch said.
"Aspen, stop! We are your friends. We aren't here to hurt you! You know us. You're on the way back home! We're on the train!" Cato yelled.
"Come on, I love you. Stop," Cato said desperately.
They were lying. They were trying to take me back into the arena. All of this. Everything with Seneca Crane and beforehand hadn't really happened. I had never really left. I was still in the arena right now. They had made me think that Cato had fallen in love with me and that we had won. But it wasn't real. I was still there and they were getting ready to admit to me that it was fake. Cato had played me the entire time, just the way that he had said that he would. Maybe I was still under the influence of the Tracker Jackers.
"Liar! Get off of me! I want to go home!" I screamed loudly, thrashing against him.
My struggles did nothing. Cato was still stronger than me and he wasn't about ready to let me go. "Aspen, stop!" Cato yelled loudly.
It did nothing. I had to get away. It didn't work well. Cato yelled for me to stop again before rearing his arm back and slapping me roughly across the cheek. Suddenly my head spun and I was knocked backwards. That was definitely harder than I was expecting. The blurry movements stopped after a moment and my vision went back to normal while the room was plunged into silence. I stared at Cato, who stared back at me in shock. What the hell was that? Damn, he hit hard. I felt bad for anyone that he had hit in the arena or in training.
"I'm sorry," Cato said softly.
He placed an arm around me and pulled me into him. The silence was interrupted by Brutus's loud laugh and I turned back to look at him. "Damn, boy. That's how you grow a backbone. Slap the shit out of her until she stops," Brutus said. I opened my mouth to yell at him. "Shut it, girl. I tried to help you but you didn't listen. You can't just freak out at a mention of the Games like that."
"It wasn't at the Games," I said.
"So what was it?" Brutus asked.
I stayed silent, knowing that I couldn't admit the truth. "Nothing," I whispered. "I don't know."
"Even when you get to District 2 in a few hours, that's what they are going to be talking about. The Games. They'll laugh at you if you do that out there," Brutus said.
I nodded. I hated to admit that he was right, but he was. They would think that I was a blubbering fool. "I know," I said.
Even though Brutus was right my anger was still sky high. I couldn't believe that after my little freak-out he was still treating me like the utter trash that he thought that I was. "You're alright," Cato said.
But I ignored him and looked at Brutus. "Do you think that I meant to freak out like that?" I hissed.
He arched an eyebrow. "No one means to," he said.
"I don't know what came over me. The little kid just started talking and I didn't know what came over me. I didn't think that something like that would happen. I thought that it was only the nightmares that would get to me."
"It's everything. You have to be prepared for anything," Haymitch said.
"I need to get out of here for a little while," I said softly, heading to the door out of the living room. "I'll be in the back car if anyone needs me."
No one said anything as the door hissed closed behind me and I sighed. I couldn't believe that I had already had a panic attack. It was common knowledge that they would happen to Victors but I had thought that it would be a long time before I would have one. I had thought that it would start with just dreams. That had been worse than I had thought that it would be. But I couldn't be surprised. I'd been through hell in the arena and now I was going through hell with Seneca Crane and President Snow.
On shaky knees I walked down the hallway and saw the room that had once been mine. The one that had been Peeta's across the hall. My heart gave a small pang and I walked past the doors, heading into the final car. The door hissed open and I stepped through. It wasn't much. Only a half circle room. The entire back of the train was a large window with a couch lining it. I sat down on the couch and watched the Capitol disappear from view. Shrinking down into the seat, I closed my eyes and imagined how close to home I really was.
As we exited the tunnel and the large dam that separated the Districts from the Capitol blocked it from view I actually smiled. And I took in a deep breath. It was the first free breath that I'd taken since the Reaping. Interrupting me from my thoughts, I heard the doors to the back car open and I sat up. Unsurprisingly Cato walked into the car and I watched as the doors slid closed behind him. Thankfully he was by himself. He sat down next to me and I sighed deeply. The two of us stared at each other for a moment and I gave Cato a weak smile.
"How are you feeling?" he asked guiltily.
He felt bad for the slap so I grabbed his hand and shook my head. I could have either hurt someone else or myself had I continued the way that I was acting. "Don't feel bad about the slap. It hurt but I needed it. Thank you," I said.
"Don't thank me for hurting you," Cato said.
"I needed it, Cato."
"Don't ever thank me for hurting you."
"It's okay. It was the one way to get me back to normal."
"How are you feeling?" Cato asked.
"I freaked out and thought that I might die right here on the train back home. How do you think that I'm doing?" I asked, with a half-laugh and half-scoff.
He nodded at me and sighed as he stood from the couch. I stood with him and leaned back against the glass. We had been driving through nothing but woods but I knew that we were getting close to District 2. Or maybe not. I wasn't quite sure how far away we were from District 2. The past few minutes I had seen breaks in the woods and I knew that we had already been traveling for about two hours. We had to at least be getting close to District 1.
"Point taken," Cato said.
"How far away are we from District 2?" I asked.
"Another two or three hours," he said.
Smiling at him, I pulled Cato onto the couch with me. "I want you to stay with me," I said.
"I am with you. Always," Cato said.
He leaned over and kissed me. For a moment we stayed together and I was almost reminded of my time with Seneca Crane. It made me cringe but I forced myself to remember that it was Cato. It was the man that I loved. So I let him push me back onto the couch and hover over me. He eventually rolled over me and flopped behind me. I laughed as he threw an arm over my shoulder and let it linger on my hip. The bone was still sticking out from the lack of food in the arena. But Cato ran a hand over me without letting it slip that it bothered him.
"These are the first truly free breaths that I've taken since the Reaping," I said.
"You're free now. We both are."
"You get to go home. Not that you ever doubted it."
My eyebrows rose. "When was that?" I asked.
Cato's hand trailed up my stomach slightly. "When I fell in love with a bratty girl from District 12," Cato said.
We both laughed as I reached back and slapped him over the head. He grinned and pressed his mouth into my neck. It sent shivers over my spine. But these were the good kinds. Not the kinds that Seneca Crane gave me. He pressed a few kisses against the back of my neck before releasing me, keeping his hands on my hips. It was sweet the way that he held me. Like there was nothing that would pry me away from him. If only he knew... We were silent for a moment longer but I knew that Cato wouldn't be able to hold it in much longer.
"What happened in that meeting with Seneca Crane?" Cato asked. I almost laughed. I knew that he would eventually ask. "You've been acting strange since you got back from it. What did they say to you?"
He gave me a long look and I smiled at him. I couldn't tell him the truth. I would have to lie to him and hope that he bought it. "I knew that you sucked at listening but I didn't know that you were that bad. Maybe you just need to get your ears checked?" I joked.
His face stayed stone cold. I had thought that humor might work. It normally did. "Tell me," Cato snapped.
"I already told you what they said," I tried, hoping that he would drop the issue.
Cato shook his head. I had known that it wasn't going to work but it was worth a shot. "No, you told us what you wanted us to think they said to you," he said, pushing me back against the couch.
My heart skipped a beat as his hands raised to caress the side of my face. It was unlike Cato, but then again his entire demeanor was unlike Cato. Maybe this really was the man that he was meant to be. Not the monster that they had created.
"I told you what they told me," I said.
"What did they really say to you?" he asked softly.
Guilt flooded me and I debated on telling Cato the truth. But there were cameras all over these trains. President Snow would know immediately and he would be sure to kill everyone that meant anything to me, and more than likely anyone that meant anything to Cato too. He had told me that he would. It broke my heart. That wouldn't even be it. They would do something to Cato to make him regret ever asking me. He would do something to all of District 12. I wanted nothing more than to admit to him everything that they had told me but I couldn't. I had to protect him.
"They just wanted to scare me. They wanted me to know that I was going to pay for what I did in the arena," I explained weakly to him.
The anger flashed through Cato faster than I had expected. He pulled his hands back and slammed them against the couch, keeping my head in between his fists. "Do not lie to me," he snarled.
Despite having been in much scarier situations I squeaked in fear at his sudden outburst and sank into the couch. His chest was flat against my own and I shook slightly. Though I had seen Cato angry before I had never seen him so angry at me. With the exception of the Tracker Jackers, but I had been so out of it that I had barely noticed how angry he was. My heart was beating rapidly as fury radiated through him. When I realized that he wouldn't move until I gave him an answer tears began to rise in my eyes. I couldn't tell him. It would either crush him or it would kill him.
"I - I can't tell you," I said softly.
"I just can't."
"Let me help you with it," Cato said.
"You can't help me with this," I whispered.
"Let me try."
But I shook my head and Cato pulled away from me. He headed to the door and panic began to rise in me. He couldn't leave. Not when this hadn't been my fault. "Cato, wait!" I yelled, grabbing his arm and pulling him back to me.
"Tell me the truth," he snapped.
"They'll kill you if I tell you what they told me," I said desperately.
His eyes flashed. "Aspen..." he said softly.
"It isn't dangerous. I promise, I'm fine. They just want me to know how serious they are about what I did. Please don't worry about it. It might have been nothing. I think that it was just a scare tactic," I said, knowing that they were being completely truthful about it.
"Are you sure?" Cato asked.
"Yes. Or maybe they knew that this would happen. You would fight me on wanting to know what happened and it would tear us apart," I admitted, fighting back the tears that were threatening to fall.
He stared at me for a moment and I watched as the anger dissipated from his eyes. It was almost heartbreaking, the way that he was looking at me. He knew how much this hurt me. He knew that this was killing me. And it was. The knowledge that I would only be my own for so much longer before I belonged to Seneca Crane. But there was nothing that he could do for me other than to offer his comfort. He couldn't even fully do that. He didn't even know what it was for.
"Come here," Cato said and I fell into his arms. He held me for a moment before pushing me back and staring me in the eyes. "It doesn't matter what they try to do to us. I think we survived the worst thing that they could have done to us. From here on out, it's easy. As long as we stick together."
But it was wrong. Everything was wrong. I knew that he was trying to make things seem better but it meant nothing for now. I scoffed at him and shook my head. We wouldn't be together. Not really. Not now and not ever. After this we would really only see each other for a few weeks every year. And maybe not even every year. I would be in the Capitol every year with Haymitch, but District 2 had plenty of Victors. Cato wouldn't be summoned every year. I would.
"You say as we head to two totally different Districts," I finally told him.
Once more he grabbed me and pulled me into him. "That doesn't matter. We'll write and we'll see each other in a few months," he said.
I nodded. I didn't really believe him but that gave me no right to destroy his hoped. "Come with me," I said.
"Where are we going?"
"I like the sound of that," Cato said.
Turning back I saw that he was waggling his eyebrows. I rolled my eyes and tugged him down the hallway. There was some chatter in the main living room and I walked past them. I would be on the train for another day and I wasn't really in the mood to see them right now. Right now I just wanted to be with Cato. He laughed at me as we slipped into my bedroom. Effie would know that we were in here when she couldn't find us anywhere else.
Cato walked over to the bed with me. I plopped down and Cato launched himself over me, making me giggle. "I can't believe that I still won't be back until tomorrow," I groaned.
"Tomorrow morning," Cato said.
"Still... At least you get to go back tonight."
"Who's going to keep you company tonight?"
My mind flashed to Seneca Crane and I nervously smiled. "I'll find someone," I teased.
"No one will be as good as me," Cato said cockily.
"I'm sure," I said, giggling softly.
Cato pushed me back into the sheets and I grinned as his hands traveled up over my hips and flitted to around my back. He grabbed me tightly and pressed a lingering kiss against my mouth. I smiled and hooked my arms around the back of his neck. The kiss became heated as Cato bunched up my shirt and I tilted my head back. My mouth gently opened and I noticed that he was very slow and deliberate with his movements. It took me a moment to realize that he was trying not to push me.
Breaking apart for a moment, I smiled at him. "Look at that. You do have some restraint," I teased.
"Don't bet on it. It's very hard."
"You're a pig."
"It was a compliment to you," he said, pushing my hair back off of my forehead.
"I'm not that pretty."
"You're beautiful," he muttered, against my neck.
Laughing softly again, Cato grabbed me and pulled me up to the top of the bed. I squeaked out a laugh as Cato pressed a lingering kiss against my mouth. Our bodies wound together as a few articles of clothing became misplaced. It wasn't long before our shirts ended up on other ends of the room and Cato's pants somehow managed to squirm off. But I knew that I wasn't ready yet and so did he. So he eventually just settled for keeping his hands on my face and keeping us pressed together.
But eventually I yawned and Cato smiled at me. Instead of leaving to let me sleep, he threw the blankets over me, laid on his back, and let me sleep against him. His arm wound protectively around my waist and I gently splayed my hand over his chest. He pressed a soft kiss against my forehead and I rolled into him a little more, pressing a kiss against his chest. Even though I was looking at his stomach I knew that he was smiling. It didn't take me too long to fall asleep to the sound of his heartbeat.
Surprisingly enough I didn't have any nightmares. When Cato gently shook me awake I glanced up and saw that he was wearing a bright smile. "Take a look. We're here. This is my home," he said fondly.
He was looking out the window. I turned to look out the window too. He was right. We were passing over District 2. In a few minutes we would be pulling into the station. It was exactly like I had expected. Everything was stone and there were fire pyres all over the place. Large two's were stamped on every building and I could see the huge Victor's Village that stood proud in the front of the District. It was nothing like our decrepit one. Just behind it was a huge beige building with large lettering, reading Academy. That was where Cato had trained for the last month.
There was a new brightness in his eyes. It was heartwarming to see. "Cato?" I called softly.
"Home," was all that he could get out.
Even from here I could see that he was getting choked up by looking at his old home. I sat up on my knees and smiled as his eyes scanned over the District. He pulled me into his side as the train began to slow. We would be there within minutes. I leaned over and pressed a kiss against Cato's shoulder and his grip on me tightened.
"Welcome home," I said.
"Being there... It was like being dead. Going back home I would have felt dead anyways. I was as good as dead. Sure I would bring honor to my District but it wasn't worth it. None of it was worth it."
"You're back home. It's over."
"You want to know why I really love you?" Cato asked.
My stomach flipped a little bit and I nodded at him. "Yeah."
"Because for the first time in a long time I don't feel dead. I didn't feel like a Tribute when I was around you. I didn't feel like a future Victor. I still don't. I just feel like Cato Hadley. And that's not something that I've felt for a long time," Cato said.
Slowly I leaned forward and pressed a lingering kiss against his mouth. "I understand. For a long time I was just the girl who lost her parents to the Games. But now I'm not. I'm not even a Victor. I'm Aspen Antaeus. I want to just be her," I said.
"You are. And you're more. See that big white building back there?" Cato asked.
"Yeah," I said.
It had no name but I was sure that it was something important. "My home is right behind it. Well, I guess my old home is right behind it," Cato said.
"One day I would like to see it," I said.
"I'll bring you there one day. Clove lived a few streets down from me."
My breath hitched in my throat and I sighed. Part of me wanted to say that I was sorry but I really wasn't. She had brought up Rue, she had said awful things about Cato to me, and she had attempted to kill me. But I would have to put that aside. I would have to meet her family soon. It was part of being a Victor. Offer your condolences to the families of the fallen Tributes. The door to my bedroom slid open and a bright-eyed Effie stepped into the room.
"We're here!" she announced. I rolled my eyes. That much we had figured. "Come on, kids. Let's go say hello to the residents of District 2! And... get dressed."
She was eyeing the way that we were slightly disrobed. I chuckled and got up, changing back into my clothes. "Sorry, Effie," I muttered.
"Hurry now. Cato, are you ready to go back home and see your family again?" she asked, as we walked out of the car.
As we walked down the hallway back into the main car I listened outside. Shouts were heard all throughout the station that I assumed we had just pulled into and I took a breath. We were actually here. In just about twelve hours we would be back home. My home. But for now I had to relax. It wasn't that bad. I had already freaked out once today. I couldn't afford to do it again.
"You have no idea," Cato said with a large grin. It made me happy to see how excited he was to see his family. "Ready to meet my family?"
"Uh... Sure," I muttered.
"I promise they don't bite," he joked.
I laughed lightly and shoved him as we stepped into the main car. Brutus and Enobaria were both looking at the doors, seemingly ready to burst through them. They must have been ready to go home and get away from the Capitol for a while. Haymitch was standing and giving me a once over, probably thinking I was still hung up from my issue in the Capitol.
"If they're related to you in any way, I'm not so sure that I can trust them," I joked.
"You'll be fine. They'll love you."
"Sure they will."
"We kind of looked a little intimate on screen. Are you sure that your mother will want to see me?" I asked him seriously.
I was a tiny bit worried about what his mother would think of me. I wasn't so sure that I would want to look Ms. Everdeen in the eyes once I got back to District 12. "You're such a woman," Cato scoffed.
Together we were pushed to the doors. "Well spotted," I snapped.
The Peacekeeper on the train stood by the controls and I watched as his hand hovered over the button to open the doors. "Come on, they won't hit you. Well... I don't think that they'll hit you. You did try to kill me though," he said.
I laughed again. "And who was it that started it?" I asked.
He was trying to calm my nerves and I appreciated it. "Definitely not me," he said.
I was glad that he was doing it but I was still incredibly nervous. Before now I hadn't realized how much I had liked the isolation of the Capitol. "Welcome home, kid," Enobaria told Cato as the doors slid open.
Immediately I was blinded by the light of District 2. As my eyes adjusted to the light of the sun I was pushed out into the open air. Probably by Haymitch. I could tell that Cato was holding onto me tightly as we stepped out onto a platform. What seemed like a few thousand people were out in front of the platform and they were cheering wildly. There was a sign hanging from what I assumed was their Justice Building that was welcoming Cato home. I scanned over the crowd, trying to find someone that resembled Cato, and was shocked when a small figure came dashing out at us.
"Cato! You're home!" the little girl yelled.
She ran up to Cato and I took a step back. This was his moment. I didn't need to be that close. Cato let go of my arm and I watched as he pulled the little girl into his arms and lifted her up. She was smiling wildly at him and I had a small smile on my face too. She looked just like him. Long blonde hair and bright blue eyes. It almost looked like I could have been related to her. I assumed that she was his little sister. Leah, I was pretty sure that her name was.
"Hey, bug!" Cato cried. I almost laughed. His nickname for Leah was the same that mine was for Prim. "You've gotten so big. Did you grow that much while I was gone?"
Cato hadn't ever seemed like the type to like children but he seemed extremely fond of her. Maybe it was just because she was his family though. She laughed as he tugged at her hair and slapped his hand away. "No, I learned a new trick though!" she yelled.
Cato gave her a shocked look. "You did?" he asked.
"Yeah! Can I show you later?" she asked him almost shyly.
"I would love that."
Part of me wanted to walk forward and introduce myself so I wasn't standing here dumbly but I was interrupted with a tap on the shoulder. I turned back, half expecting it to be Haymitch telling me to get on the train. But he was standing back with everyone else. Instead it was a woman that I had never seen. She looked to be just a touch older than me. She had the same blonde hair that Cato had, but her eyes were a sparkling green.
"Hello, Aspen," she said, offering her hand. I took it and gave her a weak shake.
"Hi," I said dumbly.
"You look good."
"It's nice to finally meet the girl that was so famous during the Games," she said.
"Famous," I scoffed, realizing a second too late that it wasn't very polite.
"Oh, how rude of me. I haven't introduced myself yet. My name is Carrie," she greeted.
"Aspen. Even though you knew that."
"I'm Cato's sister-in-law. I'm married -"
My mind went back to when Cato had told me about his family. We had been sitting up in the tree with the Careers camping right below us. "To his older brother," I said, putting together the family tree as well as I could.
She smiled brightly at me. "That's right," she said happily. "Very good."
"Cato told me all about you guys while we were in the arena."
"We remember that night."
My skin crawled. I couldn't gauge whether or not she liked me. "I - uh - I'm sorry about anything that I did to him," I said, unsure if any of them liked me at all.
She smiled at me and shook her head. "Never apologize about anything that you did in there," she said.
Carrie seemed to be a good person. I was glad that she was someone that would be there for Cato while I wouldn't be. "Thank you," I said.
"I was very happy to see you make it out."
"I'm happy to still be alive."
"And I'm very sorry to see what happened to you while you were in there," Carrie said softly.
"It was... bad. But I'm alive. And that's what mattered. I'll slowly start forgetting about everything that happened to me and everything that I did."
"The arena makes you do things that you never thought you were capable of. Everything that you did in there was justifiable. And thank you for giving Cato a chance," she said.
"Believe it or not, he's actually the one that gave me a chance. I never wanted to give him much of one. But he wouldn't let it go," I said, making her smile.
"He isn't the monster that he made himself out to be."
"Trust me, I know."
Her words surprised me. But I knew everything that he did in the arena were things that he had been taught to do. Leah's voice pulled us back over to the brother and sister. "Why did you have to leave, Cato?" she asked him.
I saw the pain flash through his eyes. I remembered that Cato had told me that Leah was only six. She was too young to understand what the Games really were. He would have to lie to her. "I had to go on a little trip, Leah. It was just for a little while though. I'm back now," Cato said.
"Are you gonna go away again?"
"I'll have to leave a few more times but I promise that I'll always come back. Okay?"
It was obvious that she didn't understand the weight of the situation so she merely nodded at him with a smile. "Okay," she chirped.
It was moments like that when I could understand how people wanted kids. She was a sweet little girl. Her innocence was adorable. It was something that I didn't see often. Not even in District 12. No one was ever a kid back home. She turned to me and I gave her a weak smile. But it seemed good enough for her as she gave me a little wave with her tiny hand.
"Is that the girl that you were with on the television?" Leah asked her brother.
"That's her," Cato said, bringing her over to me.
"Mommy told me about her. She's pretty."
As stupid as it was I blushed. Cato sent me a fond smile that I returned. I realized that Leah had a few freckles on her cheeks making her look even younger than six. "Yes, she is. Leah, this is Aspen," Cato told her.
I gave the little girl a small wave. "Hi, Leah," I said.
"I really like her. You'll be nice to her, right?" Cato asked his little sister.
"Yeah," Leah promised.
Cato took another step towards me so that I was standing only inches from them. The little girl pulled me into a hug and I laughed. She was stronger than I had been expecting and it amused me. Perhaps she would be just as tough as her brother. But I prayed that she would never follow in his footsteps.
"Hi, Aspen," she finally said. "You like my brother?"
She had a little blush on her cheeks as she talked to me and I forced my smile wider. She was a shy little kid and my unfriendly demeanor probably wasn't helping. "Yeah, I do. He's grown on me," I said.
Cato grinned as I poked him in the ribs. Leah laughed lightly and I smiled at the little girl. Interrupting our little moment, Carrie came walking up to the two of us and I smiled as he let Leah down. The little girl went stalking off and I smiled. She was probably heading back to her parents.
"Brother! I've missed you," Carrie said to Cato.
Smiling at the sight, I took another few steps backwards so that cameras could catch his homecoming. I laughed under my breath as she pulled him into a hug. Cato looked very happy to have his sister-in-law back in his arms. The two remained wrapped together for a moment before she finally let go of him and stood back.
"You have no idea how terrifying it was watching you in the arena," she said.
"I think I might have a feeling, having been there," Cato said.
"Shut up. Don't you ever do anything like that again!" she yelled, punching him and he laughed.
"I don't plan on it."
"Oh, and you picked a good girl," she added on, shooting me a sly smile.
Deciding to play it up a little, I gave her a small wink and she laughed, pulling me into her side. "Thanks, Carrie," Cato said, watching the two of us with a small smile. "I know, I'm glad that I decided not to kill her."
"That's romantic," I growled.
Carrie smiled at me. "You're one to talk," Cato shot back.
"You tried to kill me!"
"You dropped a nest of Tracker Jackers on me."
"You shot an arrow at me."
"But I still did."
Carrie was watching the two of us with a fond smile. "You're perfect together," she said, snorting under her breath.
"We are. No matter what she thinks," Cato said, motioning over to me. "Part of me would have missed that little nagging voice in the back of my head. Maybe she can take over your spot now?"
I barked out a loud laugh as Carrie slapped him over the back of his head. "Thank you," I told Carrie.
"No problem. Welcome to the family. We've got your back," Carrie said brightly.
I smiled softly. "Ow," Cato grunted.
Cato was rubbing the back of his head and I gave Carrie a small high five. "You deserved that you know," a deep voice called.
All three of us turned around. The crowd were all talking between themselves, smiling and laughing at our antics up on the stage. I was pretty sure that they couldn't hear us but I knew that they liked watching. I assumed that they were all rather fond of Cato and his family. I turned farther and watched as a man a few years older than Cato stepped forward. Unlike Cato he had dark brown hair but he still possessed the brilliant blue eyes. I knew immediately that it was Dean, Carrie's husband and Cato's older brother.
"Cato!" a loud voice called.
I glanced down as the brothers embraced each other. I hadn't even noticed at first that a little girl was planted in Dean's arms. It had to have been Marley, Cato's niece. Cato had told me that the little girl was only two and I could tell. She was tiny, with a head of dark blonde hair, mixed from her mother and father. Dean rolled his eyes at his daughter and I laughed as Cato grabbed her hands.
"Take her, I'm sure she'd rather have you right now," Dean said to his brother.
I watched as Cato teased his family member and picked up Marley. "Hey, sweetie," Cato greeted her.
"I missed you. That sounds so stupid," Dean groaned.
I smiled at them. It was easy to see how similar Cato was to Dean. "Believe it or not I missed you guys too," Cato said.
"Glad you're back though," Dean said.
"You acted like a real ass out there sometimes. I hope that she can keep you under control," Dean said, sending a small smile my way.
Laughing lightly at the put-out look on Cato's face I rolled my eyes. He had acted like a real asshole out there at times. I mean, how many times had he kissed me without my consent? Or threatened to kill me? Or tried to kill me? There were plenty of occasions that I could think of.
"I don't think anyone can control Cato. But I sure as hell will give it a try," I told his older brother, who gave me a small smile.
"Nice to meet you, Aspen," Dean said as he gave me his hand. I took it and gave it a small shake.
"You too, Dean."
"Thank you. For everything," he said.
I knew that he was thanking me for saving Cato, but it was nothing to thank me for. We were the reason that the other was alive. "Go say hello to Mom and Dad. They've been tearing their hair out without you," he ordered Cato.
"I've been working my way around. I'll be right back," Cato told me.
"Take your time. Say hello," I said.
Cato handed Marley back over to Dean and walked off. "This is my daughter, Marley," Dean said. I nodded. I had known that but I didn't think that I should say anything. "You know, you don't have to be nervous around us."
"I guess I just remember how Cato reacted to me when we first met."
"That's a story I'd love to hear," Dean said.
"Would you believe he threatened to kill me when I was getting my legs waxed?" I asked.
Dean and Carrie howled with laughter. "I think I would definitely believe that," Carrie said.
"Just relax, Aspen. We all know what you did in there was to protect yourself and your family. Come say hello to everyone else," Dean said, grabbing me with his free hand and pulling me to his family.
Just as I walked up I saw a younger boy, probably about ten, punching Cato roughly in the arm. I assumed that it was Aiden. Cato's little brother. He looked exactly like Cato. He was just a younger version. It made me smile. Cato must have been his role model growing up.
"Man, you're so gross!" Aidan shouted.
"Thanks, Aidan. I missed you too," Cato said.
"What the hell was that scene in the cave about? I don't understand what you were doing with her," he said.
Despite my embarrassment I barked out a laugh. He sounded just like a little kid. "We were sad and tired," Cato defended weakly. Aidan looked over at me and gave me a once over. His eyes locked onto me and I laughed when Cato forced his brother to look back at him. "She's taken. Find your own."
"She could do better," Aidan said, looking at his brother.
That time both Carrie and I snorted. "Thank you, Aidan," Cato said irritably.
"I mean, yeah, she's hot. Just look at her."
"You'll have to get used to Aidan," Carrie said.
"But isn't there something else that you should have been doing instead of go -" he began.
My eyes widened at his words but he was stopped by who I assumed was Cato's mother. "Aiden!" she yelled.
Aidan backed off with fear in his eyes. I laughed as Alana walked forward and stepped in between Aiden and me. "Sorry, Mom," Aidan muttered.
She had long blonde hair and bright blue eyes, like most of the other Hadley's. "Watch your language. I doubt that she wants to hear anything about the Games. I doubt that either one of them do. Hello, Aspen," she said, pulling me into a hug. I smiled back at her and wrapped my arms lightly around her. "It's so nice to finally meet you. My son usually has eyes for the girls just like him. It's nice to see someone a little calmer. And with such a humbling background."
I wouldn't have called my background humble but I was grateful that she hadn't called it pathetic. "Thank you. It's nice to meet you all too," I said, as I looked around his family. "And you can call me poor. Honestly, it doesn't bother me."
"Well now you can sleep in your piles of money," Dean said.
"Money means nothing to me. The only thing that mattered to me was that Prim was safe from the Games. I'd do it a thousand times over for her. With or without the money," I snapped, a little angrier than I'd meant to.
"You did very well. Your sister will have someone to be proud of," Alana said fondly.
"Prim isn't really my sister," I muttered awkwardly.
"Looking at the two of you... She's your family," Alana said, making me smile.
"Yes. I suppose she is. Cato told me so much about you all during the Games. I know that he only wanted you all to be proud of him," I told his mother, glad that she wasn't upset with me.
She gave me a wide smile and pulled me a little closer to the rest of her family. I noticed that Cato was standing off to the side to watch me interact with his family. "We would have been proud of him no matter what had happened in that arena. But there was only one thing that we wanted. For him to come back. But we knew that for him to come back happy, he would need you. I'm glad that you made it back with him," she said.
"I'm glad to be back too."
"You look wonderful," Alana said.
"Thank you. I'll have to put some weight back on. So will Cato," I said.
"Thanks to you blowing up my food," Cato grumbled.
"Should we talk about how you cornered me in the tree?" I asked.
"I had a plan."
"Perhaps you should tell me the plan next time," I snapped.
Carrie and Dean were smiling at the two of us. "She makes a very valid point, Cato. How was she supposed to know?" Carrie asked.
Stepping in to save Cato from an awkward conversation, Alana walked over and grabbed my hand. "I'm sorry about your District partner," she said.
My eyes widened and I would have choked on something had I been eating something. No one had said anything even remotely close to a sorry about the fact that I had lost Peeta. It meant everything to me that she had actually said something.
"You're the first person to say that to me," I told her. She gave me a small smile. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. The two of you were friends, weren't you?" Alana asked.
"Of sorts. That means the world to me. I loved him and I'll miss him more than anything. I can't imagine what it will be like to walk past the bakery every day," I told her honestly.
"I'm sure that you'll find a way to live without him," a deep voice called.
Everyone turned towards the new voice. I looked over Alana's shoulder. Behind her was an older man that was clearly Cato's father. He looked exactly like Dean with dark hair and blue eyes. My eyes narrowed at his words and I raised my eyebrow at him. Perhaps he was who had given Cato his attitude.
"Dad," Cato warned.
"Relax. I'd just like to speak to your girlfriend," Damien said.
Gently I placed my hand on Cato's shoulder and pushed him back. "It's fine," I muttered.
"You seem resourceful," Damien said.
"You were quite clever in the arena. I'd argue that you may have been the best survivalist in the Games."
"I would agree."
Damien knew that he wasn't getting to me. "Perhaps I might suggest a new way to walk through your District," Damien said.
"Perhaps after I tell them that I'm sorry for their son," I growled.
"It's nice to finally meet the girl who my son found himself taken with," Damien finally changed the subject, sensing my hesitance at talking about Peeta. "Thank you for saving him. I might be hard on him, but I don't know what I would have done if I had lost one of my kids."
Slowly I nodded at Damien, feeling a little overwhelmed. At least Cato's father was somewhat human. I wondered if he was where Cato had gotten a lot of his Career personality quirks from. He wasn't the nicest person in the world. I felt my head begin to spin as I grabbed Damien's hand and shook it. This was too much for one day. I was just ready to say goodbye to Cato and go home.
"You're welcome. Honestly, I don't know why I saved him at the beginning of the Games," I admitted, realizing that I had caught the attention of the rest of the family. "I thought about letting him die but I couldn't. I thought that I made a mistake for a long time. But now I'm glad that I did save him."
Two girls that looked to be about our age made their way up on stage and I recognized them immediately. They were the two girls from the locket he had worn. It was Skye and Julie. "We're glad that you made that decision as well," Damien said, bringing my attention back to the family in front of me.
"Trust me. We're very glad," Alana said.
"We're just sorry we have to keep him here," Carrie said.
"He wouldn't like District 12," I said.
"Why's that?" Cato asked.
"You're kind of prissy," I said.
The family was silent before they - including Damien - howled with laughter. "I am not!" Cato shouted.
"Yes you are. Remember that day in the arena where you were basically my servant? Doing whatever I told you to do? You don't know how to walk mud-lined streets, hunt, skin animals, or live on hardly anything. You wouldn't be able to keep down our winter special either," I said.
"And what's what?" Cato asked.
"Oh. It's mice meat, pig entrails, and tree bark," I said. "It's a delicacy."
To my complete pleasure, every single one of the Hadley family looked sick. "Do me a favor? During the Victory Tour, don't bring me to eat that," Cato said.
I laughed. "Deal."
The chattering from the back of the stage got a little louder and I turned back. The two girls were almost up on the stage. Cato backed away from me and the Hadley family moved to let me walk up to the three friends. They were all standing together and I watched them from a slight distance. I didn't want to get too close and interrupt their moment together. I wasn't even sure if they wanted to see me.
"You're such an asshole you know!" Skye yelled, as she gave him a good slap. I laughed as she pulled him into a hug afterwards.
"So I've heard," Cato said, giving me a pointed look.
"We love you but I can't believe what you said. That you would never touch either one of us or think of us like that? You lovable idiot," she growled.
It was extremely unsurprising that they had remembered that and I remembered what I had told them on camera. I had told them that if he made it back to them, to kill him for what he had said. "Well it was honest," Cato said, snorting at her.
"I hope you know that you had us scared to death!" Julie yelled.
I smiled, they clearly cared about him. "I figured," Cato said carelessly.
"I thought you were going to die. More than once too!"
"You'd wonder how I felt?"
"You don't think about what you're doing. One of these days you're going to get yourself screwed up a damn creek with no one to save you," she snapped.
He smiled at the two girls and I shook my head as his usual smirk rose to his face. "I think I've already done that to myself, Julie. I've missed your incessant nagging at me. And, yes, I know that I nearly died. But I had someone to save me," he said, shooting me a small smile over her shoulder.
"Since when did you rely on someone else?" Dean asked.
"Since I found someone smarter," Cato said, looking back at me. "Also, Skye, you know that I would never do anything to either of you. I love you both but that might as well be like incest."
Cato gave her a little shudder and I rolled my eyes. It was so typical of Cato to try and say something nice and then end up being an asshole. I wouldn't have been shocked if either one of them had punched him. Skye turned back to me and I gave the girl a weak smile as she walked up to me.
"It's so nice to meet you!" she squeaked, before pulling me into a hug.
I tensed at her sudden touch but gave her a light hug back. "You too. I'm Aspen," I greeted.
Skye laughed. "Yes, I knew that. Thank you for helping Cato. I know he can be an asshole sometimes but he really is a good guy. Everything that you saw in the Capitol was a front, "she said.
That was nothing that I didn't know. I didn't want to be rude to her but I knew everything about the way that he had acted during the Games. It was the same way that we all had acted. Fake. "I know that. I saw him at times when even the cameras weren't on us," I said.
She raised an eyebrow. I would tell her one day, but this was the wrong time. "Did you now?" she asked.
"There are lots of moments when there are no cameras. That's not important. I know that he has a real heart under that hard-ass exterior."
"We're glad that you know that."
"Oh, and don't take what he said in the arena personal. He said some pretty horrible things to me before the Games even started." I noticed Skye give Cato a sharp glare. "I hated him and I wanted him to die, but I'm glad that he's here now," I told her with a small smile.
"What did he say?" Skye asked.
"Honestly it's not that important. We're long past that and I'd like to not remember those days," I said.
Skye smiled and nodded at me. "I understand that," she said. "Congratulations, by the way."
"Thank you. I'm not thrilled at how I won or what I did, but I'm happy to be going home."
"Your friends will be happy," Skye said.
"I certainly hope so. Both Cato and I are glad to be home."
Julie walked up to us and I gave her a tiny smile. "We're glad that he's here now too. It's nice to finally meet the girl that Cato might actually stick with," Julie said.
Her words didn't quite sit right with me. "Uh... thanks," I muttered awkwardly.
"Usually he runs through them pretty fast," Julie said with a scoff.
My eyebrows knitted at her words and I had to ball my hands together and bite my tongue. I would have loved to scream at her but that wouldn't look good for me. This wasn't my home. I had to get my act together and remind myself to be nice to everyone here. I understood that she was protecting her friend but she could have gone about it differently.
"Julie!" Skye shouted. I turned to the other girl.
"What?" Julie asked.
"Come on, the poor girl just got back from the Games. Be nice," Skye hissed at her friend.
Briefly I darted my eyes back to Cato and I realized that he was watching us with a tense stare. Obviously he had been expecting that this wouldn't go over very well. He probably thought that they would hate me. Maybe they did. They couldn't really say it, even if they did. Cato seemed like he was about to jump into the conversation but I shook my head at him. I wanted to try and be friends with Julie. She shook her head at me and sighed.
"Sorry about that," Julie said.
"I just know that every girl that Cato has brought around to us has only wanted the same thing. They wanted to watch him go into the Games and they wanted him to win. They got the money and fame from him winning," Julie explained.
Everything that she was saying made perfect sense to me. She wanted to protect her friend and that was noble. I understood why she had said what she had. It was the same type of thing that I would have said to someone had Katniss come back with some guy. It was the way that friends acted when they protected each other.
"I would give anything to give up all of the fame that I got from the Games," I said.
"Really?" Julie asked.
"Yes. I would love to be home with my family. The one that I have left."
"The Everdeen women," Julie stated.
"Yes. You know that I don't want that from Cato. I have the fame. I'm a Victor too. And now I have all of the money that I could ever need. I wish that I didn't have any of it," I said.
"You'd rather be poor?" Julie asked.
"If it meant that I didn't have to live with everything that I did out there, I would gladly be dirt poor again. Nothing good comes from being in the Games. The only good thing that came out of this was him," I told her.
For the first time since she had talked to me a smile graced her face. "I'm glad to hear you say that," she said.
Cato pushed past her and the three of our heads whipped towards him. He had been speaking with his family happily but now I saw that a worried look was on his face. Right as I was about to ask him what he was staring at, he walked up to me and grabbed my arm and pulled me into him. We all turned to see what he was suddenly so panicked about. Julie and Skye were watching us with close eyes, clearly concerned at their friend's sudden demeanor change.
"Hey, Clove's family is here," Cato said.
My heart stopped. They were here and I would have to speak with them. "What?" I asked weakly.
I didn't want to speak with them. I was perfectly content speaking with Cato's family and friends. "Give them your condolences," Cato said.
"Can't I do that on the Victory Tour?" I asked.
"No. Do it now. It's being respectful. After you say goodbye to them you have to leave. Keep yourself on schedule to get back home. I know you don't want to be here. This isn't your home," he said with a sad smile.
I shook my head and grabbed the side of his face. He smiled at me and grabbed one of my hands, warming my heart. This was the person that Cato really was and he was perfect. "But something that's here is," I said.
He grinned at me as I placed a hand on his chest. There were a number of people that were shouting happily at the sight of the two of us. I smiled softly at him as he leaned down and gave me a small kiss. There were a number of shouts from his family. I blushed as Cato pulled me into his chest. I noticed that it was particularly Alana and Carrie who were smiling. Cato pulled back from me and released my hand but I grabbed it and pulled him back to me.
"Come with me, please. I don't want to face them by myself," I begged him nervously.
It was obvious that he didn't want to make me face them but I knew that I would have to meet them by myself. No matter how uncomfortable it made me. "I can't. I've already said that I was sorry for her death," he said.
It must have been while I was talking to Julie and Skye. "You suck," I groaned.
"I'm sorry. I have my family to focus on. Plus it will make you look bad if I go with you and if you keep them waiting. Go, Aspen. I'll be waiting right here," he said.
Weakly I nodded at him and made my way over to where an angry looking family stood. It was obvious enough that they were related to Clove. I was shocked that they weren't crying or at least a little teary. They just looked angry. Obviously with me. They all had the same dark hair and eyes that Clove had, not to mention that they had the same harsh glare. She was practically a mirror image of her family. It seemed like she had a mother and father as well as an older sister.
"Hi. I don't really know what to say," I said to them, gaining no reaction. I sighed deeply and chose my words carefully. "I could say I'm sorry until the world ends but it wouldn't make any difference. Your daughter is gone but it wasn't me that killed her. She attacked me and I had nothing else that I could do. I tried to fight her but it was no use. She had me pinned and she made fun of a little girl that was killed. So Thresh killed her. I'm not sorry that she's gone. She tried to take my damn head off. But I am sorry that you lost a daughter."
My apology wasn't really even an apology but it was better than nothing. I had really tried to make it genuine at first but it hadn't really worked out like that. Like I had said, Clove had tried to kill me, I wasn't sorry that she was dead. Just the way that I hadn't been sorry when Cato had first seen that she was dead. But I was sorry that they had lost a member of their family. The woman who I assumed to be Clove's mother scoffed and stood closer to her husband.
"Your apology is not accepted," she growled at me.
"I didn't think that you would," I said honestly, nodding my head.
"Do you know what it is like for a mother to lose her daughter? Especially to something that she trained so hard for. She lost to someone that didn't deserve to win," she said.
The anger was rising in my chest. How could she think that I had ever even wanted to be here? All I had ever wanted was to ensure that Katniss, Gale, and Prim were safe. But I had put them in more danger with everything that I had done in the Capitol than they had ever been in.
"Now imagine what it would be like to never know your parents. To know that they died to these Games. Think about how hard you would have fought to make it back home. There might not be a mother and father waiting for me back in District 12 but I still have a family. I deserved to make it home just as much as Clove did," I hissed at her family, hoping that they would see my side.
But they were just as Career-minded as Clove had been. Her father stepped up to me and I felt my breath quicken. "No you didn't," he said.
I glared at him. I needed to get out of here soon. "Why's that?" I asked.
"Because you were weak. He saved your life," her father told me.
"No one makes it through the Games without help. Maybe she should have learned not to make fun of a little girl," I sneered.
"You knew that the little girl would die."
"You're just as miserable as she was."
They didn't appreciate that. My stomach was roiling around painfully. They were making me nervous and I could feel the panic beginning to set in. Deciding that it was better that I backed away now before I did something that I would regret I took a deep breath and nodded at her family. They were clearly angry and I didn't blame them. It was hard to lose a family member. That much I knew. But it was harder to never know one. I took one more deep sigh and gave her parents a small wave.
"Sorry that you lost your daughter," I said. Just before I turned I heard her mother scoff. "I'll just take my leave now, I think."
That was definitely the best way to do it. "You won't even apologize for what you did?" her sister scoffed.
Honestly I should have expected her sister to say something like that. It made total sense. If someone had killed Katniss and they had come to District 12 I would have said something like that. But I still fought to stay planted in my place. She wasn't understanding that what I had done, I had been forced to do. I would have loved to let every one of those kids live but that wasn't the way that this world worked. Innocent kids died every year. They always would.
"You didn't even kill her. That asshole had to come and kill her for you," she continued.
My face lit up. She would regret calling Thresh that. "Do not insult Thresh in front of me," I sneered.
"Why not? Your boyfriend killed him, you know. He saved your life and you didn't even help him in the end. You couldn't do anything. Because you were too weak!"
"I am not weak," I said, thinking about Seneca Crane's kiss from this morning.
"I'm glad that he's dead. He deserved it. I just wish that you were dead too," she continued, the crowd hushing as her words got louder.
"Get in line," I said.
"Or maybe the little girl. Your friend's sister. None of you would be a loss to the world," she snapped.
White hot rage went flashing through me and my next movements were uncontrollable. Without warning, I flung myself onto Clove's sister and knocked her to the platform ground. "Fuck you!" I screamed.
Everyone should have expected for something like that to happen. And I wasn't planning on stopping at any point soon. The cameras were flashing and the crowd was screaming but I wasn't planning on stopping at any second. I wanted to keep this going for as long as possible. The girl grunted as I punched her hard in the face. I felt her nose crack under my fist but I didn't stop. She was probably my age - just a touch older than Clove - but clearly Clove was the better fighter.
"Your sister was no loss to the world. She was cold and she was cruel. She was a terrible person that only knew how to fight. That was all that she was good for. And apparently she wasn't even good at that," I hissed.
She grunted as I took a knee and jammed it into his windpipe. Clearly she was having a hard time breathing as her face was starting to turn red. I finally stopped my attack on her and looked down at her face. Blood was running down her face and her eyes were both swollen shut. I swallowed the lump that had risen in my throat and stared down at the girl. But as I went to get off of her she swung at me again. It wasn't close enough to hit me. Rage rising in me, I punched her again and watched as more blood began to fall from her nose.
"Oh, get Aspen!" Carrie yelled in the background, over the shouts of the crowd.
But there was no way that I was letting her get away with it. Not after insulting Thresh and Prim. One was dead and the other was my family member. She had no right to say anything like that. As I pulled Clove's sisters hair so that her head lifted off of the ground I gave the girl a maniacal grin. All I was doing was picturing Seneca Crane's face over place of hers. She stared at me with the little sight that she had left and I could see her swollen lip tremble.
"No, damn it, let her beat the hell out of Dara," Skye called back to Carrie. So Dara was her name. An ugly name for an ugly girl.
"She deserves it," Julie added on.
"Go, Aspen!" Aidan cheered, laughing.
The crowd had gone silent but it didn't stop me from curling my hands around Dara's hair. I pulled harder and harder on her hair, smirking as piece by piece it was pulled out. "Get the hell off of each other," Cato growled, before I was lifted off of the girl.
"No!" I barked, trying to get back to her.
"Stop. Now," Cato hissed at me. I gulped when he shoved me back behind him and towered over the other girl. "Dara, you stay away from her. Clove was my friend and she's dead now. Get over it. She wasn't the best Tribute." Cato motioned back to me and I swallowed hard. "If you ever lay a hand on her again, I'll kill you. And now you know that I'm not kidding."
His demeanor reminded me of the ruthless fighter that I had met in the Capitol and part of it reassured me. At least I knew that I hadn't changed him that much. Now that I was no longer on Dara I realized that I was shaking. I wasn't quite sure what it was from but I knee that my nerves were frayed. Dara weakly stood up and I watched as her family grabbed her and pulled her off of the stage. Everyone in the crowd was silent as Cato wrapped an arm around me and I gulped. What the hell had I done? I noticed that Cato's grip was tighter than normal.
"Alright kids, I think it's time to get a move on," Haymitch said, interrupting the silence.
"Probably a good idea," I muttered.
"We've caused enough of a disturbance in these people's day. Aspen, I think it's time that we got you on your way back to District 12. Say goodbye," Haymitch told me.
"Okay," I said, knowing not to say anything with the warning look in his eyes.
Cato pulled me over to where his family and friends stood, all waiting for me with sympathetic looks in their eyes. I was glad that they at least didn't look afraid of me or like they hated me. Cato's father and brother's both looked impressed with me as did Skye and Julie. I assumed they might have finally realized that I wasn't the weak little Tribute from District 12 that they thought that I was. Alana and Carrie both looked like they wanted to cry for me. They knew the toll that the Games had taken.
"Damn, those were some good hits," Julie said as she walked over to me and I laughed, giving the girl a small hug. Maybe we would be friends after all.
"Thank you," I said.
"I can see why he likes you so much. I'm sorry for acting the way that I did earlier. You're good for him but I'm not one to admit that," she said.
"I understand. It was good to meet you, Julie," I said.
"Surprisingly enough, it was good to meet you too."
Her answer made me snort. I turned away from her and was met face to face with Carrie. She gave me a small hug. She was a good person and I was sure that she was a good mother. "It was really good to meet you, Aspen," Carrie said.
"You too, Carrie. Take care of him, please?" I asked, looking over at Cato.
"Absolutely. Take care of yourself," Carrie said.
"And have a safe trip back home, Aspen. Don't worry about Dara. She deserved to get knocked on her ass," Carrie told me.
I laughed. "She looked a little big headed," I said.
"She always thought she was Clove, but there was one difference. Clove could actually fight," Carrie told me with a wink.
"Yes. I do recall that," I said softly.
Carrie looked like she might have said sorry but I shook my head. Briefly I said goodbye to the rest of the Hadley family and I gave Skye a quick goodbye. They seemed rather happy with me. Damien had given me a short hug and had seemed rather happy with me. He had at least said that he was happy that his son had found himself a good girl. Alana had given me a long hug and kisses on each cheek. She had even made a brief comment that we would see each other soon and she would be happy to have me in her home. Dean had offered to show me all of Cato's baby pictures, an offer that I had been happy to accept.
Aidan hadn't seemed thrilled to say goodbye but he had said that I just needed to write to him if I wanted him to beat Cato up. It made me smile. Leah and Marley had both given me hugs and Leah had made me promise that I would come back and play with her sometime. Skye had made mention that we would chat more the next time I was around. Even Brutus gave me a pat on the back as I left the platform edge, complementing me on the hits. Enobaria joined him and I bade her a small goodbye before turning back to the train. Effie had already reembarked the train and Haymitch was waiting for me at the doors.
"Hey, you alright?" Cato asked me.
I turned back to him with a small smile. He brought me closer to him and I smacked him roughly in the shoulder. He cocked an eyebrow and I grinned at him. "That's the second time that you've asked me that. Don't tell me that you're getting all soft on me," I said.
He laughed loudly. "Not a chance in hell," he said.
"I think I'd actually miss the old Cato. He was fun to mess with," I told him with a small wink.
In a typical Cato fashion he pushed out the back of my knee and caught me right before I fell. I could hear everyone around us laugh as I reached up to slap him. "Well I can offer to kill you if that would make things better," he said.
I smiled at him. That was the awful Cato that I had stupidly fallen in love with. He pushed me back up and the two of us stared at each other for a moment. "You know what, I might actually like that," I said.
"I'll be more than happy to threaten you."
"I'll be more than happy to shoot you."
Cato smiled and pulled me against his chest. "I'll see you soon, alright?" Cato asked.
"What do we have, five months until we see each other again?"
There was a very sickening feeling that hit me at the thought of what was going to happen the next time that we saw each other. The breath left my throat as I thought about what would happen when we did get around to the Victory Tour. I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to get out it. I would get to be with him for a few hours in the Capitol but then I would be delivered to Seneca Crane. Shuddering slightly I shook my head and smiled at Cato. We weren't there yet. I could ignore it for now.
"For the Victory Tour. Where we have to say that we're sorry that everyone's kids are dead but we needed to do it," I groaned.
"We have to do it. It'll be okay."
"We saw how well my apology just worked out. How many people do you think that I'll fight on that tour?" I asked him sadly.
"I'm gonna go with four," he said with a dead serious look.
The two of us stared at each other for a moment, neither one of us smiling or betraying any hint of emotion. Finally though he smiled at me and began to laugh. I rolled my eyes at him and slapped his chest. Some part of me had always thought that he was funny. Although the slap had done pretty much nothing other than sting my hand. He was like hitting a damn brick wall and he knew it. He began to laugh even louder and I grunted at him.
"Shut up. You know I'll actually miss your dumb ass," I said truthfully.
He was a pain in the ass but there would be some part of me that would really miss the annoying Victor. I genuinely was in love with him. I had a feeling that I always would be. There was just something about Cato. He had ways of getting me to talk or getting under my skin that no one else had ever been able to do. But he also gave me the butterflies and made me happier than anyone else had ever known how to do. Being with him was something totally new and exciting.
"You know, I'll actually miss you too," he said.
We had sure come a long way in just a few short weeks. "Oh, I'm honored," I snapped.
"Maybe just as much as I'll miss that cave."
And maybe not. His smirk was back on his face. I rolled my eyes at him and thought back to the overconfident Tribute that I had met only three weeks prior. I still saw the attractive, confident, young man but there was something different about him now. He seemed older and wiser. He wasn't as quick to act and he was more careful about what he said. He seemed like the type of person who had seen too much. He was the type of person that I had always thought that he could be.
"Watch it on the damn re-runs."
"I intend to," Cato said, smirking.
"You're such an ass."
"So I've heard."
"Why do I love you?" I asked with the roll of my eyes.
He grabbed me by the waist and I struggled against him for a moment. But we both knew that I wasn't serious about trying to get away from him. He smirked and pulled me close to him, ruffling my hair. "I love you too, sweetheart," Cato teased.
For a moment I really didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay here. I never wanted to leave Cato's side. But there were other places that I needed to be. Pushing my hair back in place, I forced him to let go of me and I took a step back. It was almost hard for me to back away. I could tell that he was having a hard time too. He had a fond look on his face as he watched me and I smiled at him. I couldn't believe that I had fallen for him but I had. And now I had to leave him. But at least while I was gone from him I would be back with my family. It was the one thing that made leaving him okay.
"I guess I should let you be with your family now," I said.
"It's time," Cato said sadly.
"Besides I have somewhere that I need to be," I said, looking off of the platform and away towards where District 12 lay in wait.
He smiled at me as I turned back to him and I knew that he knew all that I wanted was to go home. "Go home, Aspen," he said, giving me a small kiss on the forehead.
"I'll be back," I said.
"I know. I'll see you soon. Be with your family and write to me."
I would be sure to write to both Cato and Finnick while I was back in District 12. "It might help me," Cato said.
"What do you mean?"
"It's been forever since I've actually had to write something."
"How unsurprising," I said.
It was so typical that the Academy would teach them everything to do with keeping them alive during a fight but nothing with real life skills. How to read and write and communicate verbally with others. "I love you, Aspen," Cato said.
"I love you too, Cato," I told him. The smirk on his face turn into a real smile. "I'm glad that you're back with your family. Home is where the heart is."
His smile faded slightly but I still saw it in his eyes. He grabbed my hands and pulled me a little closer to him and I smiled. "But a piece of it isn't here," he told me softly.
Despite the slightly cool air where we were I felt my heart warm. His lips met mine and I smiled into the kiss, attempting to black out the roars of the crowd and the shouts of disgust from Aiden. The two of us stayed together for a long time as Cato deepened the kiss. It was embarrassing that his family was watching but I couldn't bring myself to leave yet. An unfamiliar voice roared up through a microphone and I pulled away from Cato. Haymitch grabbed my arm and pulled me away from Cato. Both of us kept our hands together as long as we could but finally the distance was too much and our hands fell apart.
Cato gave me a small wave and I returned it as I was forced to stand at the doors to the train. "District 2! Let's give one final hand for the newest Victors! Aspen Antaeus and Cato Hadley!" the mayor of District 2 yelled. The crowds roared once more and I gave the Hadley family one last wave. "We're glad to have you home Cato! And, Aspen, we will see you in a few months!"
"Goodbye!" I yelled.
"Bye, Aspen!" the entire Hadley clan shouted.
And that was it. I was pushed back into the train and the doors were sealed behind me. I stayed at them as long as possible, like I had done when it was time for me to leave District 12 almost a month ago. The crowd continued to yell as the train slid out of the station and I bid a silent goodbye to Cato. I would see him soon. With a small sigh I took a seat on the orange couch and kicked my feet onto the table. There was nothing more that I needed to hear and with a ride long ride to District 12 I might as well sleep. It would be overnight but I wasn't really sure that I wanted to sleep alone in my bedroom.
"Well that was nice and entertaining. Thank you for the show, Aspen," Haymitch said.
I rolled my eyes at him. "I'm very glad that you liked it," I said.
"When I said to be charming that wasn't really what I had in mind. Although it is is District 2. Maybe they like that kind of stuff," he said with the shrug of his shoulders.
He took a seat next to me and I kicked his legs off of the table. He laughed and I rolled my eyes. I wasn't really sure if Haymitch was like a father to me or an annoying older brother. "Can it, Haymitch," I said. He looked over at me. "She shouldn't have come after me. I would think that trying to attack a new Victor probably would have been a bad idea."
"It is a bad idea. But she was angry."
"So am I. Whatever, I don't care. Let's just get home," I said.
Haymitch nodded at me, shutting his eyes. "Finally, something that I can get on board with," he said.
The two of us settled back into the couch. I was exhausted and I wanted nothing more than to sleep for a month. Maybe when I got back home that's what I would do. But it would be very hard for me to sleep that long. I knew that sleep would start evading me soon. Sleeping with Cato was helpful but now he was gone. I would have to learn to get over it. I shut my eyes and gave in to the yawn that had been threatening to escape my mouth for hours. As I settled back into the chair I let sleep overtake me as my thoughts drifted back to the forests and people that awaited me back home.
They ended up not even waking me up throughout the night. Instead someone draped a blanket over me and let me sleep when we stopped to refuel. I thought about getting out but I decided to just go back to sleep. I curled up against the couch and drifted in and out of sleep, not really getting any good sleep. The only time that I was really awake was to stuff myself with lamb stew for dinner before passing out on an empty stomach. The next morning I was finally awoken. I sat bolt upright when a hand laid itself on my shoulder and I was met with Effie's startled face.
She backed off slightly and gave me a wide smile that I fought to return. At least I hadn't slapped her. "Aspen, dear, it's time to wake up. Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," she said.
"I just thought you might want an update on where we are," she said. I straightened in the couch. "Welcome home, Aspen. We're pulling into the station now. Your family is on the platform."
Nearly bowling her over in the process I jumped up from the couch and dashed over to the doors. "Open the doors, open the doors," I muttered excitedly.
It looked like Effie might have wanted to tell me to get changed but I would have ignored her. I didn't care. I just wanted to see my family and get home. I wanted to be home. I wanted to see Katniss, Prim, Mr. Everdeen, and Gale. I felt the train slowing down and I could hear the screams of District 12 outside. It had been a long time since a Victor had come home to them. Now we had another one and the District would actually have food for the next year. Not enough but more than we normally had. I knew that I was bouncing and I probably looked rather silly.
"Calm down, girl. They ain't gonna open just because you're excited," Haymitch told me.
I laughed lightly. "I just want them to open," I said impatiently.
"We all want this to be over. It's been a long almost four weeks. I just want to drown myself in my drinks."
"Oh, before we get off," Haymitch said and I turned back to him. "Whenever you need someone, I'm here. You need someone to come talk to and figure things out with, my door is always open," he said.
I smiled at him. In the time that I had known Haymitch, that was probably the nicest thing that he had ever said to me. I grabbed him around the torso and gave him a quick hug. "Thank you, Haymitch. I honestly couldn't have done this without you," I told him.
"You're welcome, sweetheart."
Before turning back to the doors I glanced back at Effie and gave her a little smile. "And, Effie, I'm sorry for not behaving like I should have and causing so many problems. I know that we didn't always get along but thank you. You believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself," I told her.
Even through all of her makeup I saw the small glisten of tears in the corners of her eyes. She teetered up to me and I groaned when she pulled me in for a bone crushing hug. Damn. She was stronger than I thought she would be. She was stronger than most of my friends. Maybe it was because she'd always had enough to eat.
"Oh! I will miss you, dear," Effie said, pulling away from me, the tears now closer to falling than they had before. "Now, go! Be with your family and head on out before I cry. This makeup isn't waterproof. I can't believe that I didn't wear waterproof makeup!"
The train engine came to a stop and the doors opened. Before I exited I laughed loudly. Typical Effie. I turned and smiled as I was met with the roaring crowd. The scent of the pine and oak trees filled my nose and I smiled. Everyone was jumping around and cheering and I couldn't help but to laugh. For the first time since I'd been in the Capitol I felt truly happy and free. I was back home. And I never wanted to leave this place. The colors were so much duller here than they were in the Capitol and the people were so plain but it was perfect.
This was home. It always had been. Kids were jumping up and down and all waving to me as I waved back at them. I let my eyes scan through the crowd and I gave Madge a little smile. She blew me a little kiss and I laughed. She'd never looked so proud. Next to her was Greasy Sae who was smiling up at me like I was one of her own grandchildren. Just behind them was the Mellark's and I felt my throat tighten. They looked heartbroken but the small nod that his family gave me made my heart lift. They knew that I had tried.
"Aspen!" a loud voice called.
The voice was so piercing and so familiar that I turned away from the crowd. It sent a shiver right up my spine and made me crumble. For the first time since the Reaping I felt myself fall apart at the seams. Because right now, right here, I was allowed to. A little blonde girl came rushing forward and tears immediately began to fall. It was Prim. She dashed up to me and I caught her in my arms as I dropped to my knees on the platform.
"Prim!" I screamed, not bothering to hold back the tears. I had proved to them that I was tough. I had earned this. "I love you so much!"
"Aspen," Prim cried again, tears running down her face.
"It's okay. You're fine. I'm fine. I'm back. I'm never leaving you again," I told her.
I pulled back and looked into her eyes. Her blue eyes were watery but they were full of happiness. "Aspen," she repeated weakly.
She was overwhelmed. I could tell. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart. I'm sorry for scaring you. I'll never do that to you again, understand?" I asked her.
Through the tears Prim had barely managed to nod. The crowd had quieted a little since I had gotten off of the train so that they could hear my exchange with Prim and I heard many noises of affection at our private conversation. They loved Prim. They would be happy to see her happy again. I tightened my arms around her and crushed her against me. She cried into my shoulder and I felt it wetting the fabric of my clothes. Her arms were locked around my neck. I pushed her hair off of her face with a small smile. She was here and she was safe. And I was alive.
"I missed you so much, I'm so sorry!" she sobbed.
I pushed her off of my shoulder and forced her to look into my eyes. Her nose was a bright red and I wiped the tears out of her eyes. "Hey, it wasn't your fault. Never think that this was your fault, okay?" I asked her.
She nodded weakly. "You were hurt -"
"I'm not. I'm all better. Nothing hurt out there. Nothing. Nothing that was as bad as leaving you. I'm home, okay?"
"Don't leave," Prim begged.
"Never. I'm back here and that's all that matters. Let me go say hello to everyone else, okay?" I asked.
Prim straightened up and tried to wipe the tears from her eyes. She very slowly nodded. But was there anyone else even here? I hadn't bothered to look past Prim if anyone else was on the platform. All I had been focused on was her. I had just needed to make sure that she was here. I noticed that Prim was still attached to my legs.
"You're so stupid!" a loud female voice called.
I smirked. I would know that scolding tone anywhere. It was Katniss. I turned to her and smiled lightly. "Cat," I whispered.
"Why the hell did you do that? You should have let me volunteer! Did you see how badly you were hurt?"
"Believe it or not, I did."
"And what the hell happened to killing him, huh? I can't believe you're such an idiot! You nearly died!" she shouted.
As she walked up to me I laughed. Part of me had thought that she would have the same reaction to my return as Prim but the rational part of me had known that there was a fat chance of that. She punched me in the shoulder and I saw that she was crying. My tears fell a little harder as I brought her into a hug. She let out a soft sob and relaxed when she finally managed to hug me back. She sobbed into my shoulder and I did the same to her. The crowd was back to cheering. We hardly ever showed emotion at home. This was a rare display of affection between us.
"I missed you too, Cat," I told her as I released her.
I saw that a smile had risen on her face. "You're home," she whispered.
"Told you I'd be back," I teased.
"I hate you," Katniss said, bringing me back for another hug.
"I know. You know why I did it. I wanted to make sure that you were safe. I wanted to keep Prim safe. Sue me. I'm back here safe and sound," I told her.
She rolled her eyes at me, knowing that she had no argument. "Don't you ever do that again," she warned.
"I don't intend to."
I heard heels clicking on the stage and I turned back to properly introduce Effie to my family. But to my surprise it wasn't Effie. It was Ms. Everdeen. "Welcome back, sweetheart," she told me.
"Hi, Ms. Everdeen," I said, giving her a small hug.
"I'm so glad to see you."
"Thank you so much for everything that you did for my girls. You're one of mine too. You know that."
"You always have a family with us," she told me.
My heart warmed as I nodded at her. She had almost always known exactly what to say to make me feel better. She might have had a hard time since Mr. Everdeen had died but I knew that she would be okay now. Because she knew that she wasn't going to lose anything more. She had always been the mother that I had never gotten to know. But now I felt like I knew my mother better than ever. No matter how awful it was, I shared an experience with her.
"Thank you Ms. Everdeen," I told her with a small smile.
She gave me a knowing smile and shook her head. I tilted my head at her when I saw that she was looking overly fond. "You know, I think that Mom has a little nicer ring to it. And it's a lot shorter," she said.
My eyebrows shot to my forehead. Had she just told me to start calling her Mom? I had never expected that. "Really?" I asked.
"Only if you want to. I know that no one can replace your mother. But I've tried to raise you the way that she would have," she said.
My stomach twisted in knots. She was giving me a slightly guilty look, almost like she wished that she hadn't said it. Ms. Everdeen looked a little regretful. I knew enough to know that she was thinking that she had made the wrong decision to tell me to call her mother. Would I? Would my real mother have been okay with me calling her that? She would have only wanted me to be happy and if that meant with a family that wasn't really mine, she would have been just fine.
"You've done an excellent job. Mom," I added.
Her grin went wide. "We love you," she said.
"I love you all too. You know, that's a pretty big house in Victor's Village for just one person. I could use some more people to help me fill it," I said.
"Are you sure?" Ms. Everdeen asked.
"Can we?" Prim asked.
"Fight you for the room that overlooks the woods," Katniss teased.
"I'll win," I said, making all of the women laugh.
"We would love to," Ms. Everdeen said.
They all gave me another smile before stepping off to the side. My eyes went wide. He was here. "Gale!" I yelled, sprinting up to him.
"Hey, Tiger," he laughed.
It didn't stop me. I couldn't tell by his face whether or not he was happy with me. I wasn't sure that I really cared. I just knew that I was thrilled that he was here. He obviously didn't hate me that much. So I ran straight up to him and didn't slow down. Without thinking I jumped into his arms and he laughed as he caught me in them. He stumbled back a few steps but otherwise remained steady. I wrapped my legs around him and buried my face into his shoulder. He would never give me the same feelings that Cato did but I would always love him. His hands went up to my hair.
"You're here," Gale muttered.
"I'm here," I whispered.
"I knew that you'd make it back. I knew that you'd come back to me. Back to us."
He brushed my hair back and I dropped off of him with a big smile. "I'm back for good," I said happily.
"You smell weird."
"And your skin is really soft." That was all courtesy of the Capitol. "There are no scars on your hands," he noted, as he turned them over.
I nodded at him and sighed. I would miss those scars but I couldn't get them back. I would just have to make new ones. "Courtesy of the Capitol. All of it," I told him.
His eyebrows knitted in anger. "They took the scars away?" he asked.
"Everything. After the arena they completely cleaned me up. Don't worry, I can get the smell back," I said.
"We can do without the smell," Gale said, making me laugh.
"I'm sure that you'll have me all bruised and banged up in no time," I joked with him.
He laughed lightly. "Just go find another black bear to fight with," he said.
"That hive was ours and it knew it," I said defiantly.
"Sure it was."
"I love you, Gale. I'm sorry for having to put you through all of this," I said.
He didn't say anything as he pulled me into a tight hug. It made my entire body quiver slightly. I had never thought that I would get a chance to hug him again. I never thought that I would get a chance to hug any of them again. It was the same type of hug that he would give me when I was a kid and had hurt myself. He gave me a small kiss on the top of my head and I smiled. This was everything that I needed. Not the money or the fame. I just needed them.
"What I went through was nothing compared to what you went through," he told me.
I nodded silently. But I didn't want to think about it. My time in the Games and the Capitol was over. It was time to forget. After a moment Gale released me and I leaned onto him slightly as the crowd cheered behind us. Prim came up between the two of us and I gave her a small smile, pulling her into the side of us. Ms. Everdeen, or my mother, came up behind us and laid her hand on our shoulders and Katniss came up to my front. She grabbed my hand and I smiled at her. Prim gently tucked herself against my waist.
"So what now, guys? Where do we go from here?" Katniss asked.
"Wherever we want," Gale said, pressing a kiss to my temple.
"Should we go home?" she asked.
We all looked over to Victor's Village. Haymitch was standing right in front of me and he turned back. He gave me a big smile and a thumbs up and I blushed. Effie was behind me, standing at the entrance to the train, giving me a huge smile, and wiping tears from her eyes. All around me were the people who I would have, and nearly did, die for. It was the most comfortable that I had been in weeks. For the first time in weeks I was truly safe. I was in my element and I would stay here. Even though Cato wasn't here, this was where I belonged. I turned back around to face Katniss and I gave her hand a tight squeeze.
"I am home," I said, with the biggest smile on my face any of them had ever seen.
A/N: The edits are done! Hop on over to the sequel, Burn, if you feel the need. I will be redoing most of those chapters too. Let me know what you think! Until next time -A