Slowly I slipped from my bed and headed down the hallway. As expected, Katniss was waiting for me down on the couch. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"It's three in the morning," she pointed out.
"I can't sleep," I said.
"Don't go out there by yourself."
"So come with me."
Katniss let out a long sigh. "Come back soon, alright?" she asked.
"I'll be back before noon," I said.
The two of us exchanged a quick hug as I headed out towards the woods. Everything these days felt wrong. Lately everything was going wrong. Every day I spent almost completely alone. I didn't really do mornings anymore. I would stay up until three or four in the morning so that I was so exhausted I would finally fall asleep from a complete lack of sleep. Even then it was a restless sleep. I wouldn't really wake up until about eleven or twelve, shaking and drenched in sweat from my nightmares. I would stand in the shower for nearly an hour and then I would head out into the living room.
By that time Gale was at work and Katniss was hunting. After that I would eat something that would leave even a pigeon hungry and lay on the couch for a while longer, trying to find something on the television that wasn't the Hunger Games related. Once I would finally work up enough strength to leave the couch I would head into the garden and chat with Prim for a while. She knew that I really wasn't comprehending much of what she was saying to me but I appreciated the effort. If I felt like it that day I would head out to have a small talk with Haymitch. Although we rarely talked.
There was nothing that either one of us really wanted to talk about. Everything that we had to talk about was related to the Games. Everything seemed to be related to the Games. Instead we would drink and play a game of darts before I would silently slip from his house. He knew that even though I didn't say goodbye, I was making the silent promise that I would be back soon. Sometimes I would check my mailbox on the way back to the house for letters from Cato or Finnick but those were rare.
The Capitol were extremely slow about letter delivery. After a disappointing lack of delivery I would turn and head back to the place that I spent most of my days avoiding. By that time it was normally close to dinner time and I would head back home to see that Gale was back from work and Katniss was back with the small amount of game. Not that Katniss really needed to hunt anymore. I was pretty sure that it just made her feel better. Plus it was time for her and Gale to get out of the house and conspire on their next plot to get me out of my funk.
They had come up with a number of ways to try and get me back to normal. Some days were better than others and they knew that. Some days I was back to normal and other days I just wanted to be left alone to soak in my misery. The last few months had been terrible. My nightmares were only getting worse with the passing days and I knew that I scared Prim in the middle of the night with my screaming. Katniss tried to get me to perk up with girl talk about Cato but I rarely had anything to say to her other than checking to make sure that she was alright.
Ms. Everdeen had become a real mother to me but that didn't mean that I was really that close to her. She tried to make my favorite meals and talk with me at night but nothing that she did worked. Even Madge had visited a few times, telling me that she was grateful that I had worn the pin. I would tell her that it was no problem before turning to look out my window and waiting for her to take her leave. Haymitch would try to get me to talk every once in a while but one shake of my head would shut him up instantly. He didn't want to talk anyways. He wanted to drink.
Everyone in my life had just become a figure that was trying to get me back to normal but nothing was working. I was just a shell of the girl that had gone into the Games. It was what hurt even more on the day that I felt normal. I would have a good time with them like we used to before returning to my deadened state. I knew that it hurt them even more than it hurt me. Even Gale had been trying to get me to open up to him again. He had probably been the most successful but I still rarely talked with him.
Sometimes we would talk about the Games and he would let me cry about everything that had happened to me in them. Or other times I would tell him about the foolish people in the Capitol and would smile when he laughed at my stories. We had gotten along like nothing had changed in the beginning, but as the months had gone by and the Victory Tour had gotten closer he had gotten more hostile. Gale wanted nothing to do with Cato but I wanted the two men to meet each other. They were the two most important guys in my life and, damn it, I would get them to learn to get along if it killed me.
Finally I got to my spot and plopped down. I clasped the flask that I had taken between my hands for hours, even long after the heat was sapped away. My muscles were clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at that moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked were not in my favor. I knew that I should get up, move around, and work the stiffness from my limbs. But instead I sat as motionless as the rock beneath me while the dawn began to lighten the woods. I couldn't fight the sun. I could only watch helplessly as it drug me into a day that I'd been dreading for months.
By noon they would all be at my new house in Victor's Village. The reporters, the camera crews, even Effie Trinket, my old Escort, would have made their way to District 12 from the Capitol. I wondered if Effie would still be wearing that silly pink wig or if she would be sporting some other unnatural color especially for the Victory Tour. There would be others waiting, too. A staff to cater to my every need on the long train trip. A Prep Team to beautify me for public appearances. My Stylist and friend, Cinna, who designed the gorgeous outfits that first made the audience take notice of me in the Hunger Games.
If it were up to me, I would have tried to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour made that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it was the Capitol's way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only were we in the Districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol's power each year, we were forced to celebrate it. And this year, I was one of the stars of the show.
I would have to travel from District to District, to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathed me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I had killed... It would all culminate in the Capitol at the end of two weeks. It wasn't even being there that would be that bad. At least Cato would be with me. It was the fact that I would have to face Seneca Crane and give up the last thing - the only thing - that the Capitol hadn't taken away from me.
The sun persisted in rising, so I made myself stand. All my joints complained and my left leg had been asleep for so long that it took several minutes of pacing to bring the feeling back into it. I had now been in the woods for three hours but I'd made no real attempt at hunting and I had nothing to show for it. It didn't matter for the Everdeen's and me. We could afford to buy butcher meat in town, although none of us liked it any better than fresh game. But Gale and his family would be depending on today's haul and I couldn't let them down. So I started the hour-and-a-half trek it would take to cover our snare line.
Back when we were in school, we had time in the afternoons to check the line and hunt and gather and still get back to trade in town. It was always a good plan. But now that Gale had gone to work in the coal mines and Katniss was still in school for another year and a half - and I had nothing to do all day - I had taken over the job. It didn't bother me. It gave me a lot of time to be on my own without getting questioned about my absence.
By now Gale would have clocked in at the mines, taken the stomach-churning elevator ride into them, and be pounding away at a coal seam. I knew what it was like down there. Every year in school, as part of our training, we had to tour the mines. When I was little it was just unpleasant. The claustrophobic tunnels, foul air, and suffocating darkness on all sides. But after Mr. Everdeen and several other miners were killed in an explosion, I could barely force myself onto the elevator. The annual trip became an enormous source of anxiety. Twice Katniss and I had made ourselves so sick in anticipation that her mother kept us home because she thought that we had contracted the flu.
Gale was only really alive in the woods, with its fresh air and sunlight and clean, flowing water. I didn't know how he stood it. Actually I did. He stood it because it was the way to feed his family. Here I was with buckets of money, far more than enough to feed both our families now, and he wouldn't take a single coin. It was even hard for him to let me bring in meat, although he would surely have kept the Everdeen's supplied if I'd been killed in the Games. I kept telling him that he was doing me a favor because it drove me nuts to sit around all day. Which was true.
Even so, I never dropped off the game while he was at home. Which was easy since he worked twelve hours a day. The only time that I really got to see Gale now was on Sundays, when we met up in the woods to hunt together with Katniss. It was the one day that I went out and forced myself to be normal. It was still the best day of the week, but it wasn't like it used to be before, when we could tell each other anything. The Games had spoiled even that. I kept hoping that as time passed we would regain the ease between us, but I knew it was futile. There was no going back.
I managed to get a good haul from the traps - eight rabbits, two squirrels, and a beaver that swam into a wire contraption Gale designed himself. He was something of a whiz with snares, rigging them to bent saplings so they pull the kill out of the reach of predators, balancing logs on delicate stick triggers, and weaving inescapable baskets to capture fish. I carefully reset each snare as I went. I knew that I could never quite replicate his eye for balance. He knew where the prey would cross the path. It was more than experience. It was a natural gift.
Like the way that I could shoot at an animal in almost complete darkness and still take it down with one arrow. Or the way that I could hear a change in the wind and know exactly where to throw a knife to make an instant kill. Or the way that I could throw a knife blindly and still manage to lodge it in a young boy's eye. I cringed and kept walking.
By the time I made it back to the fence that surrounded District 12, the sun was well up. As always, I listened for a moment, but there was no telltale hum of electrical current running through the chain link. There hardly ever was, even though it was supposed to be charged full-time. I wriggled through the opening at the bottom of the fence and came up in the Meadow. It was just a stone's throw from my home. My old home. I didn't get to keep mine - since I was the only person that lived there - but the Everdeen's got to keep theirs since officially it was the designated dwelling of the Everdeen family.
If I was to drop dead right now, they would have to return to it. But at present, all three of them were happily installed in the new house in the Victor's Village. Although Katniss and I did return to use the squat little place where we were raised. To us, it was our real home. I even went to my old home sometimes. The squatters would give me a break and leave for a while just to let me be in peace. It was a respect kind of thing and I greatly appreciated it.
So I went there to switch my clothes. They would be expecting me in something nicer when they saw me. I exchanged my father's old leather jacket - that was falling apart at the seams - for a fine wool coat that always seemed too tight in the shoulders. I exchanged my mother's bleached pants for a pair of finely knit white cotton ones. I left my soft, worn hunting boots for a pair of expensive machine-made shoes that Katniss's mother always thought were more appropriate for someone of my status. I had already stowed my bow and arrows and knives in a hollow log in the woods.
Although time was ticking away, I allowed myself a few minutes to sit in the kitchen. It had an abandoned quality with no fire on the hearth and no cloth on the table. I mourned my old life here and next door. We barely scraped by, but I knew where I fit in, and I knew what my place was in the tightly interwoven fabric that was our life. I wished that I could go back to it because, in retrospect, it seemed so secure compared with now, when I was so rich and so famous and so hated by the authorities in the Capitol.
A wailing at the back door demanded my attention. I opened it to find Buttercup, Prim's scruffy old tomcat. He disliked the new house almost as much as I did and always left when she was at school. We had never been particularly fond of each other, but now we had this new bond. I let him in, fed him a chunk of beaver fat, and even rubbed him between the ears for a bit. After calling him hideous and petting him for a moment, I scooped him up with one hand, grabbed my game bag with the other, and hauled them both out onto the street. The cat sprung free and disappeared under a bush.
The shoes pinched my toes as I crunched along the cinder street. The damn shoes were too tight and gave me blisters. I hated them. And I hated the warm clothes that I was in now. I liked the weak fabric that I was in before. I liked the freezing. It reminded me that I was alive. Cutting down alleys and through backyards got me to Gale's house in minutes. His mother, Hazelle, saw me through the window, where she was bent over the kitchen sink. She dried her hands on her apron and disappeared to meet me at the door.
Every part of me liked Hazelle. I had always respected her. The explosion that killed Katniss's father took out her husband as well, leaving her with three boys and a baby due any day. Less than a week after she gave birth, she was out hunting the streets for work. The mines weren't an option, what with a baby to look after, but she managed to get laundry from some of the merchants in town. At fourteen, Gale, the eldest of the kids, became the main supporter of the family. He was already signed up for Tessera, just like me. We had done it together.
On top of that, even back then, he was a skilled trapper. But it wasn't enough to keep a family of five without Hazelle working her fingers to the bone on that washboard. In winter her hands got so red and cracked that they bled at the slightest provocation. Still would if it wasn't for a salve Katniss's mother concocted. But they were determined, Hazelle and Gale, that the other boys, twelve-year-old Rory and ten-year-old Vick, and the baby, four-year-old Posy, would never have to sign up for Tessera.
Hazelle smiled when she saw the game. She took the beaver by the tail and felt its weight. "He's going to make a nice stew," she said.
Unlike Gale, she had no problem with our hunting arrangement. "Good pelt, too," I said. It was comforting here with Hazelle. Weighing the merits of the game, just as we always had. She poured me a mug of herb tea, which I wrapped my chilled fingers around gratefully. "You know, when I get back from the tour, I was thinking I might take Rory out with me sometimes. After school. Teach him to shoot."
Rory was a sweet kid and he was one of the few in the District that didn't treat me like a broken doll. Hazelle nodded. "That'd be good. Gale means to, but he's only got his Sundays, and I think he likes saving those for you," she said.
Despite everything I couldn't stop the redness that flooded my cheeks. Hardly anybody knew me better than Hazelle. She knew the bond that I shared with Gale. Everyone assumed that we would get married. But that was before the Games. Before my fellow Tribute, Cato Hadley, announced that he was attracted to me and we fell in love. Our romance became a key strategy for our survival in the arena. It was nothing but painful for Gale. Without Cato here was even worse. I knew that Gale was looking for me to tell him about Cato and me, since I had no one to stop me from saying anything, and that was exactly why I was avoiding him.
I gulped my tea even though it was too hot and pushed back from the table. "I better get going. Make myself presentable for the cameras," I said.
I just didn't want to think about Gale anymore. Hazelle hugged me. "Enjoy the food."
My next stop was the Hob, where I had traditionally done the bulk of my trading. Years ago it was a warehouse to store coal, but when it fell into disuse, it became a meeting place for illegal trades and then blossomed into a full-time black market. If it attracted a somewhat criminal element, then I belonged here, I guessed. Hunting in the woods surrounding District 12 violated at least a dozen laws and was punishable by death. Although they never mentioned it, I owed the people who frequented the Hob.
Gale told me that Greasy Sae, the old woman who serves up soup, started a collection to Sponsor me during the Games. It was supposed to be just a Hob thing, but a lot of other people heard about it and chipped in. One day I had asked Madge - who had helped out the collection - what it had bought me. It had bought me the cupcake on my birthday and the gauze and soup after the wolf attack. They might not have saved my life but I had been grateful for both of them.
It was still odd to drag open the front door with an empty game bag, with nothing to trade, and instead feel the heavy pocket of coins against my hip. The whole thing made me sick. It was too much money. I wanted to be at least soft of poor again. I tried to hit as many stalls as possible, spreading out my purchases of coffee, buns, eggs, yarn, and oil. As an afterthought, I bought three bottles of white liquor from a one-armed woman named Ripper, a victim of a mine accident who was smart enough to find a way to stay alive.
The liquor wasn't for my family. It was for Haymitch. He was surly, violent, and drunk most of the time. But he did his job - more than his job - because for the first time in history, two Tributes were allowed to win. So no matter who Haymitch was, I owed him, too. I was getting the white liquor because a few weeks ago he ran out and there was none for sale and he had a withdrawal, shaking and screaming at terrifying things only he could see. He scared Prim to death and it wasn't much fun for me to see him like that either. Ever since then I'd been sort of stockpiling the stuff just in case there was a shortage again.
Cray, our Head Peacekeeper, frowned when he saw me with the bottles. He was an older man with a few strands of silver hair combed sideways above his bright red face. "That stuff's too strong for you, girl," he said. He should know. Next to Haymitch, Cray drank more than anyone I had ever met.
"My mother uses it in medicines," I said indifferently.
Everyone knew that I had started referring to Ms. Everdeen as my mother. "Well, it'd kill just about anything," he said, and he slapped down a coin for a bottle.
When I reached Greasy Sae's stall, I boosted myself up to sit on the counter and ordered some soup, which looked to be some kind of gourd and bean mixture. A Peacekeeper named Darius came up and bought a bowl while I was eating. As law enforcers went, he was one of my favorites. Never really throwing his weight around and usually good for a joke. He was probably in his twenties, but he didn't seem much older than I was. Something about his smile, his red hair that sticks out every which way, gave him a boyish quality. He was a pretty nice guy.
"Aren't you supposed to be on a train?" he asked me.
"They're collecting me at noon."
"Shouldn't you look better?" he asked in a loud whisper. I couldn't help but to smile at his teasing, in spite of my mood. In spite of my fear of Seneca Crane. "Maybe a ribbon in your hair or something?" He flicked my braid with his hand and I brushed him away.
"Don't worry. By the time they get through with me I'll be unrecognizable."
"Good. Let's show a little District pride for a change, Miss Antaeus. Hm?"
He shook his head at Greasy Sae in mock disapproval and walked off to join his friends. "I'll want that bowl back," Greasy Sae called after him, but since she was laughing, she didn't sound particularly stern. "Gale going to see you off?"
The Capitol would have a fit if he was there to see me off. "No, he wasn't on the list. I saw him Sunday, though," I said.
"Think he'd have made the list. Him being your cousin and all," she said wryly.
It was just one more part of the lie the Capitol had concocted. When Cato and I made it into the final eight in the Hunger Games, they sent reporters to do personal stories about us. When they asked about my friends, everyone directed them to Gale and Katniss. Of course Katniss and Prim were fine. Even Madge was fine. But Gale wouldn't do, what with the romance Cato and I had playing out in the arena, to have my best friend be Gale. He was too handsome, too male, and not the least bit willing to smile and play nice for the cameras.
We had already made it clear that we were friends during the initial home interviews but the Capitol had concocted some story that we had recently found out that we were distantly related and since we had no previously proved romantic entanglement, the Capitol bought it hook line and sinker. Thankfully there was no photographic proof of the one kiss that we had shared. They were stupid enough to buy it. Gale and I looked nothing alike. I didn't know about it until we were already home. When the cameras came to talk to us Katniss had just told me to go along and I had.
It made everything very awkward between the two of us. Gale and I now had to be very careful around each other and watch our words. I wished that we hadn't but my relationship with Cato had made things very complicated between the two of us. I wished that Gale had never kissed me before the start of the first Games. Greasy Sae knew that we weren't related, but even some of the people who had known us for years seemed to have forgotten.
"I just can't wait for the whole thing to be over," I whispered.
"I know. But you've got to go through it to get to the end of it. Better not be late," Greasy Sae said.
A light snow started to fall as I made my way to the Victor's Village. It was about a half-mile walk from the square in the center of town, but it seemed like another world entirely. It was a separate community built around a beautiful green, dotted with flowering bushes. There were twelve houses, each large enough to hold ten of the one that I was raised in. Ten stood empty, as they always had. The two in use belonged to Haymitch and me. I walked into my own, headed straight upstairs, and walked into my room. To my surprise, someone else was already in it.
"Oh... Gale. I didn't know that you'd be here," I said.
"Got off early for the Victory Tour," Gale said bitterly.
"Oh. Gonna see me off?"
"If you want me there."
"Of course. But you weren't on the list," I said.
"Didn't expect to be," he said.
"Well I want you there anyways. I want you to meet -"
"No," Gale interrupted.
We'd had this conversation enough times that he knew where I was going with it. "Gale, you don't even have to like him. Just say hello," I said.
"I just wanted to come to say goodbye. Goodbye," Gale said harshly.
But he was already gone. As Gale went stomping down the stairs I flopped onto my bed and nearly rolled myself onto the floor. The mattress felt wrong. It was too soft. Gale had told me enough times that there was no way that he would talk to the other Victor. It was still early in the morning, only about ten, and the Victory Tour officially started tomorrow. Cato would be here tonight. I wanted Gale to try to get along with him just tonight. I stood from the white sheets and kicked the chair that Katniss had been sitting in last night out of my way before heading out of the room and stomping down the stairs.
"You're meeting him, Gale!" I yelled at the top of my lungs as his long brown hair flashed in the corner of my eyes.
He whipped back around to me and I felt the anger shoot through me. Gale came within a few feet of me and the two of us stared at each other darkly. "Why the hell do you want me to meet him?" he asked.
"Because I love you both and I want you to meet each other!"
"All he ever did was screw you over during the Games and damn near kill you!"
"Do you not recall the medicine that he got me? He nursed me back to health! He kept me safe after R -"
My voice dropped off as I remembered little twelve-year-old Rue. "I know he did some good things. But screw him. I love you, Aspen, but I am not meeting him," Gale said, with a dangerous hiss to his voice.
"I'm asking you to do this one thing for me."
"Anything but that."
"Gale!" I shouted.
It didn't affect him. I knew that he was serious about not meeting him but this was Gale. He was never serious about these things. He would get angry with me for a while but he would get over the fact that he had to meet Cato and he would grit his teeth and do it. Just because I wanted him to. But this was more serious than I had seen him in a long time. I went to argue back with him that Cato was the reason that I was alive but Katniss stepped between us. Lately she had been the person that had diffused our fights and that wasn't stopping any time soon.
"Not this again," she sighed as she pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Get him to see it my way," I snapped at Katniss.
"Stop it. Come on, you two, stop fighting about this. I've heard this fight nearly every day since the Victory Tour got mentioned."
"So she should know how I feel," Gale said.
"Gale, leave her alone. He clearly means a lot to her and she wants you to meet him. Just suck it up and meet the guy," Katniss said. I gave a small smirk. I knew that she wasn't Cato's biggest fan but at least she was willing to meet him. "Aspen, you have to understand why we are hesitant to meet him."
"I get why you guys are hesitant to meet him. Need I remind you that I used to hate him too?" I asked.
"He threatened to kill you more than once and he doesn't exactly seem like the best type of guy," she said.
My anger spiked. Most of the time I was quiet, but every once in a while my anger came on full force. It was normally during a fight or time where I felt like I was being backed into a corner. "I thought you were with me on this!" I shouted at her. I saw her flinch.
"I am," Katniss whispered.
Calming down slightly, I took a deep breath and sighed as I took a small step towards her. "You know that we both went into the Games with the same intent. All we wanted to do was get in, win, and go home. By any means necessary. He knew that he was getting close to me and in his mind the only way to solve that was to threaten me," I said.
"That makes sense," Gale scoffed.
"He wasn't raised here! Gale, if you had been raised in District 2 you would have been the same way. You have no idea who he really was away from the cameras."
"I don't want to know," Gale said.
"Look, he went about everything the wrong way but he's a good guy. You both might know that if you took the time to get to know him," I snapped.
I saw the flash of guilt shoot through her eyes. Katniss took a few steps closer to me and she gave me a small hug. I didn't hug her back but it was a common occurrence these days. I was extremely detached. "Aspen, I am with you on this one," she told me.
I scoffed loudly. "So meet him," I said.
"You have to understand that we didn't see everything that you saw in the arena. We saw him sitting by the other Careers always telling them how you were his kill. We saw a man that wanted you dead," she told me with a sad smile.
I shook my head. "He was protecting me, believe it or not," I said.
"I saw all of the times that he let you go or helped you," Katniss admitted.
"So you know that he didn't really want me dead?" I asked.
Gale was leaning back on the door and I stared at him for a moment. I could tell that he wanted to speak but the question was whether or not he would say anything. "No. He just wanted you in his bed," Gale said lowly.
My heart fell. It wasn't just because of that comment. It was because - in just under two weeks - I would find myself in someone's bed. But it wouldn't be in Cato Hadley's bed. No. It would be in Seneca Crane's. I knew that I gave a strangled cry that Katniss would mistake as just me being upset at the insult. Ever since I had been back he had frequently made snide little comments about the time that Cato and I had been in the cave together. He clearly had been as upset about it as I had thought that he would be.
"Gale!" Katniss shrieked.
She walked over to him and slapped him over the back of the head. He glared at her and I watched as she challenged him to say anything else to her. Making the wise choice he backed down from her and she shook her head. She had become very frustrated with us recently.
"Was that really necessary?" she asked him.
He shook his head lightly. "Guess not," Gale muttered.
"Listen you two, you are going to stop this stupid fight. You've been having it for nearly a month and you've gotten nowhere with it. I'm going to go out hunting. Gale, you are coming with me. Aspen, I'd really like for you to come too. You haven't really been out since you've been back," she said.
My entire body went rigid. She was right. I didn't like using my weapons anymore. Everything that I did was with the traps. Sometimes I would use trees for target practice but I never used them against animals. Even just the trees for target practice was difficult. I didn't even like being in the woods anymore. Each time that I was out there it felt like I was back in the arena. I only went to help out Gale. For about two weeks the pair had sat at home with me, just offering their comfort. But one day they had decided to go hunting and I had tried to go.
We had made it to the fence but that had been as far as I had gotten. I had looked out at the grass and seen everything. I saw the Cornucopia and heard the countdown until the Bloodbath. I saw every Tribute's life leave their eyes as I killed them. I felt the knives puncturing me of every Tribute that I had fought with and I heard the dying cries of all of those who had lost their lives in my Games. I had freaked out and had to be dragged back to Ms. Everdeen to be calmed down. A few weeks later the pair had offered to take me out again but I had refused and I had been refusing since.
The only thing that I did was take care of the traps, try to enjoy some silence, and then make my way back into the District. The place that had once been my refuge was now like a prison for me. I shook my head at Katniss and took a seat at the table. It was the same table as the one in the Capitol and I rubbed my finger over the mahogany, remembering the times that I had nearly killed both Haymitch and Brutus at the table back in the Capitol.
"Cat, I appreciate you wanting me to come with you guys but I'm not really sure that I want to do that," I said.
"Aspen... Come with us," Gale said, surprising me.
"I never said why. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the second I pick up that knife I'll be brought back to the arena," I said. They both opened their mouths to argue with me. But before they got the chance, I cut them off again. "You saw what happened the last time that we went out and I didn't even make it past the electric fence."
"You're fine by yourself out there," Gale argued.
"You know what I think when I hear you crunching a twig? A Tribute is coming to kill me. A mutt is coming to rip me apart. The fire is starting up again. I just - I can't. I don't want to be out there right now and I've had enough of sharp objects for today," I said.
A breath left my lips as I stared at the new boots on my feet. I loved hunting but I was sick of killing for one lifetime. Gale came up and dropped in front of me, giving me a soft smile. "You love hunting, Aspen. It was the one thing that would always make you happy, no matter what," he said.
I nodded softly. It was the only thing that I had spent most of my days doing. "That was before someone tried hunting me," I muttered.
"We want to see you happy again. You put on that little smile for us but I know that you aren't happy. Not really. Please, just try this out one time. If it doesn't work then we won't push you to go again."
Part of me had known that they knew that the smiles I gave them weren't real but I had hoped that my acting was better than that. But these weren't just some strangers in the Capitol. These people were my family and they knew when I was alright and when I was long past alright. Not to mention that Haymitch had told me time after time that I was an awful actor. I shook my head at Gale and let him help me to my feet.
"Alright, fine. Just this one time. If something else happens then I'm not coming back out again," I told them.
They both nodded giddily, happy that I was going out with them once more. "Let's go," Katniss said.
"I don't want to but I guess if it will get the two of you to shut the hell up already," I sighed as we walked out of the door and into the cold snow that was falling.
"You should know the one way to get us to shut up," Katniss teased.
"Buck up, Tiger," Gale said.
The pair chuckled behind me and I sighed as we walked. But I was momentarily taken aback by Gale's words. Gale hadn't called me Tiger since that day on the platform when he'd welcomed me home. It genuinely did make me feel a little bit better. It made me feel like maybe there was some chance that we could salvage our friendship. And as he turned back and grinned at me, I felt more certain than ever. I smiled as I looked around. Victor's Village was depressing this time of year. Well it was actually depressing all of the time. Those twelve nice houses and only two were filled.
The one that Haymitch lived in - which looked abandoned - and the one that the Everdeen's and I lived in - which looked almost too bright and happy to be there. The rest of the community was old and hadn't been cleaned up in years. But still the houses were gorgeous. But they were Capitol houses in and out. That only reminded me more of what it was like to be there. As we walked I looked into the Seam, the place where I had once lived. Every once in a while I would go and sit in my old home but there were only painful memories there. I missed living there but it was better to live here. At least I had food.
As we walked I saw that everyone we passed gave me sad or confused looks. I rarely walked out of Victor's Village and when I did it was usually late at night when no one else was around. That was why I always left so early to hunt. Because I didn't want anyone to see me. I didn't want people to talk to me or question what I was doing. I really didn't want them asking me if I was okay. That was the one question that had bothered me from the beginning. I would never be okay again.
Whenever people saw me they looked like they wanted to break for me. They looked like they were ready for me to fall apart at the seams. Sometimes it felt like I might. But I was stronger than they thought. Finnick Odair now knew that. I had kept my promise to him and had mailed him a letter the second that I had gotten home. It had been frantic but that was exactly how I felt as the counter began to tick until I returned to the Capitol and was forced to come into contact with the men that had ruined my life. I had maybe started the letter out wrong but I had said everything that I needed to in that one letter.
I know what they make you do in the Capitol. Your job. Why didn't you tell me? I wished that I would have known. Finnick, I needed to know. It could have made things a little bit easier. A little more expected. But I was floored during that meeting.
President Snow is forcing me to do the same. But with only one man - Seneca Crane. I suppose that's why he's still alive. I know that's why he's still alive. To 'break me' apparently. They told me that to my face. I can't do this. How could I do something like that? This is a Gamemaker. The Head Gamemaker. He sent the wolf, the Tributes, the fire, and all of the other mutts after me during the Games. He tried to kill me and now he expects me to be in bed with him. And I can't just ignore him. He's threatened to kill someone for each time that I say no.
What do I do, Finnick? He can't just force himself on me. Or maybe he can. They are Capitol people after all.
Please help me,
I had sent the letter praying that I would hear back the next day but I should have known that it would take longer than that. It was the Capitol and letters went out as slow as possible unless it was something that they deemed important. It was nearly a month before I finally got my response back from Finnick. Although I had looked at the date and realized that it had been sent only about two weeks prior to when I had gotten it. Two weeks. That was about normal for what I had expected from them. I remembered opening his letter with shaking hands.
Thank you for writing to me as soon as you could. Don't panic. The worst thing that you can do to yourself right now is panicking. Remember that you have time before the Victory Tour comes around. Don't panic and in the meantime let me figure something out with this whole situation.
Because you're right. He won't do that. Seneca Crane is a horrible man but he is not a rapist. Remember everything that he did to you in the Games. He can't look at you and not feel any guilt over it. He won't be able to live with himself over it. I will figure something out. I promise you that. I won't let the same thing happen to you that happened to me. And so many others. Not again.
Keep calm. Do yourself a favor and don't let President Snow see how this affects you. That's exactly what he hopes will come of this. He wants for this to happen. He wants to see how this can affect you. The best way to do that is by pretending that you've gotten over it and it hasn't even phased you.
I'm sorry that this happened to you. I never wanted this. I'm here when you need me.
My heart had lifted when he had sent me that letter but it had been right around the time that the nightmares had taken over full-force. Almost two months had passed since then and I was starting to have the night terrors regularly. They were some of the worst things that I had ever have happen to me. They were even worse than the normal nightmares that I had. I had managed to write back to Finnick quickly, but I knew that it would be weeks before I heard from him.
I wish you were here. That's something that I never thought that I would say. I had to tell everyone that you weren't the pompous ass that we always thought that you were. Sorry. But it's true. Everyone likes you now. I told them that you were helping me get Sponsors through the Games. But it's not just because I miss you, although I do. I need someone to talk to.
I have Katniss and Gale but I can't speak to them about this. He'll kill them if I mention even a word. But they know something is on my mind. I can tell that they try and catch a glimpse of me when they think I'm not looking. And I could never admit this to Prim anyways. It would destroy her to think that something like this is happening to me. Sometimes I think about telling Haymitch. But even then I'm afraid that someone will know. I can't risk anyone knowing. I can't have anyone else dead because of me.
What is the first time like? Don't you dare laugh.
In all honesty I really had thought that he would laugh. He probably had laughed. I had asked him more because I was curious but I also wanted some reassurance that it wouldn't be as bad as I thought that it would be. I knew that it would be bad with Seneca Crane, but I had hope that I could at least try and forget about it. He had given me the answer that I had asked for but it hadn't been the one that I had wanted.
I don't want to lie to you. You would probably know that I was lying to you anyways. In a word? Horrible. It's everything that you would hope that it isn't. But that's only when it's with the wrong person, keep that in mind. It can be a wonderful thing. Only when you're ready and it's with the right person. Don't worry. I didn't laugh. Because no one laughed at me when I asked.
But we won't talk about that right now. Only when the time comes. Try and forget about it. It could be much worse, Aspen, I promise you that. And I am still working to protect you.
In other news, I wanted to ask you something. Are you ready for the Victory Tour? You only have a few months left before it starts.
My mind had raced after he had sent me that letter. I hadn't really been able to tell whether or not he had been telling me to have my first time with Cato. I knew for a fact that I would rather be with him for my first time over Seneca Crane, but I would rather be with him over anyone else. But that still didn't mean that I was ready yet. I had other things on my mind, like the fact that my family was in danger because I didn't know how to do the right thing. And as for the Victory Tour, years could pass, even decades. But there was no way that I would ever be ready to meet the families of the kids that I had killed.
For a long time after I had gotten that letter I hadn't known what to say. It had sat on my desk in my room and I stared at it day after day. One day Katniss had come in and seen it. For nearly a week after that I had had to convince her that I was just writing out my feelings on paper and there was nothing going on besides the fact that I was tired and stressed out. When I had finally answered Finnick, it hadn't been much of an answer.
No. But I never will be.
And it was the honest truth. I would never be ready to face these people. I would never be ready to own up to everything that I had done, even with my justification. That letter had been sent out about a month ago and I hadn't heard back from Finnick yet. He probably either hadn't gotten it, had no idea what to say, or was just waiting to see me during the Victory Tour. My best guess was on the last option. I was desperately looking forward to seeing him. He was the one person that I knew would understand what I was going through.
Finnick hadn't been the only person that I had talked to over the past few months either. I had exchanged a few letters back and forth with Cato too. But they had been barely anything. I was confident that the Capitol wanted to keep our communication with each other to the absolute minimum. Still though I kept all of his letters pinned to my wall. They were things that reminded me that I wasn't alone in this. The first letter that we had exchanged had come a few weeks after I had gotten back home. Actually it had been closer to a month. But I was still having a hard time adjusting.
Remember me? Just kidding. It's only been a few days but I wish that you were here. We're still getting through all of the celebrations and I can barely get a second away from the cameras. Judging by what I've been seeing from District 12 it looks like things are the same way there. I saw your District getting all of the food. I'm really happy to see that. They deserve it. They must be happy to have you back. I wish that you could come. Just for a day. They keep reminding me of the Games here. I wish they didn't. You're the only reminder that I want.
These days I can hear the kids in the Academy practicing all night long. I used to be one of them. Victor's Village is pressed right up against the Academy. It serves to remind the kids of what lay within their grasp, but I'm pretty sure that it is also to torture the Victors. It works. I know that I'm not the only one that has a hard time sleeping. Some of the younger Victors also have problems. The older ones have just gotten used to it.
I want to warn the kids not to train. I want to tell them that they have no idea what the arena really is like. They don't know just how awful it is. It's not what they tell us that it is. Aiden still practices. He's good. He always was. I'm afraid that he will go into the Games.
Everyone says hello. How are you adjusting?
His letter had made me smile for the first time in the weeks that I had been back home. After the first day when I had gotten to see Katniss, Gale, and Prim again I really hadn't been in much of a good mood. It had quickly died once I realized just how strange it was to be a Victor. It was nothing like I had been anticipating. His letter had interested me. I had no idea that the Academy really was right up against Victor's Village but it didn't surprise me. He hadn't told me that when we'd been talking about District 2.
It showed them that success was right within their grasp. But I had known that Aiden practicing was killing him. He didn't want to see his little brother go through the same hell that he had gone through. It made me happy that his family cared enough to think about me. It made me feel like somewhere out there people really did care about me. And not the fake caring that the people of the Capitol did, people that really actually cared for your well being. My response to his first letter had been almost immediate. I wanted it to get to him as soon as possible so I would have someone to talk to that I could vent to. Someone that wouldn't worry too much.
It would be very hard to forget you, no matter how much I try. Just kidding. Sort of. I've been better. At first it was good to be back home. The District has food and people seem to like me a lot more. But we've kind of fallen back into the same pattern from before I went to the Games. It seems like I'm the only one that's still hung up on them. Of course, I'm the one that lived through them. Not them. I don't sleep through the nights. Do you? I wasn't really expecting to but it makes me tired all the time.
So I just go out and walk around. Sometimes in the woods. Sometimes just around the District. Anything to try and get my mind off of the Games. I can tell that Katniss and Gale pick up on it but they don't say anything. I've asked them not to. I haven't been hunting since I've been back. Not really. Just trapping and whatnot. I miss it but I can't bring myself to pick up a weapon. Not when I know what happened the last time that I held one. Maybe I just need you to yell at me.
Aiden will be fine. Let him be a typical District 2 kid right now. He's still too young to even go into the Games. He doesn't see what a nightmare they really are yet. When he gets older he'll see that these Games are a bad thing. Tell your family that I say hello back.
And happy late birthday, by the way.
It had been something that I'd almost forgotten. I had meant to tell him happy birthday before I had left District 2 but I had forgotten. I'd been too excited to get back home. He had turned nineteen only three days after we had left each other's company. It was almost three months before I got my next response. Every day I thought about Cato but after a while I forgot about the letters. Or I figured that he had forgotten. I had never been so happy as when I finally got my response from him.
Thank you, Aspen.
These letters are taking forever to get to each other. I guarantee that the Capitol has something to do with it. Not wanting us to talk to each other. That's what my family has guessed at. Part of the punishment for making them look stupid at the end of the Games. Well done. That's what I think about whenever I need to smile. Or you and your scowling. What I wouldn't give to see you scowl again.
I've only managed to sleep through a few nights. Mostly I can't though. I just dream about the arena all night long. The one good thing is that I can see you in them.
The Victory Tour is coming up soon. Are you ready?
Despite how annoying he was, it made me smile. He had made a number of comments about how annoying it was that I always scowled. But I couldn't help it. There weren't many things that I had to smile about these days. Although it had made me smile when he had said that his dreams were worth it, because at least he saw me. I hated that he wasn't in my dreams. It was always the mutts or Rue. His question was the same as Finnick's. Unsurprisingly he had gotten the same answer.
No. I can't think of anything that makes the Victory Tour okay. The only good thing is that I get to see you again. I don't want to face these people's families. We destroyed most of them and now they have to pretend that they are thankful for us. I can only imagine how angry I would be if I was the family of a deceased Tribute.
Are you ready?
That had been the last time that I had said or heard anything from him. I assumed that the Capitol had just cut off the last letter that he had tried to send me and I wasn't surprised. They didn't want us talking to each other. Not without their consent. If nothing else I would be able to see him tonight. I would see what six months had done to him.
Six months hadn't really done that much for me. My figure had curved out slightly and I had lost some muscle mass from my lack of training. But the abundant food helped me retain the muscle despite my limited activities. My daily run from my house to wherever I felt like running kept me lean. My eyes were harder now. Seldom was there any joy in them. They had constant bruises under them but a little bit of makeup easily fixed it and kept my friends from asking. My hair had grown since I had last seen Cato. It now hit the lower middle of my back and still fell in the choppy sections that Flavius had put them in. In many ways I hadn't changed. But in other ways I looked like I had aged an entire lifetime.
As we walked through the woods, I looked for any differences. There weren't any. Everything looked the same as it had when I had last been to our hunting spot, the day that Prim had been Reaped and I had taken her place. That day had only happened a little under seven months ago but it felt like forever. It didn't even feel like me that had been out here, joking around and bickering with Katniss and Gale. The pair stopped and I looked around realizing where we were. It was where we hid our weapons. I hadn't seen my real knife in months. Maybe they had lost it, or gotten rid of it. Maybe I wouldn't have to hunt.
Everything that I used was brand new. I hadn't thrown a knife at anything other than a tree. My bow and arrow had been unseen since I'd been back. I stuck only to where we laid the traps these days. I watched as Katniss ducked down and grabbed her bow and arrows. Immediately I thought back to the people that I had hurt and killed with the one that I had used in the Games. Gale took his knife and Katniss came up with mine. She walked over to me and held it out to me.
"Here you go. We've kept it sharpened and clean," Katniss said.
"I knew that you would appreciate it when you got it back. Be careful, no one has held it in a long time. It will probably be pretty cold," she tried to warn me.
"I know," I said, grabbing it anyways.
The knife was insanely cold but I held a tight grip on it. The faces of every Tribute that I had killed had come in contact with flashed through my mind and I began to sway back and forth. But before I could drop the knife and fall, Gale caught me around the waist and helped me straighten up.
"Hey, are you alright?" Gale asked.
"Here, put it down. You don't have to do this just for us. We just thought it would be a good way to spend the day," he said, but my grip on the knife only tightened as the faces came closer. "Aspen, you don't have to."
I shook my head at him and pointed to a turkey that had come out in front of us. I stood in front of the turkey and raised my knife, watching as it stood completely still. My hand shook slightly but I forced myself to keep still as I prepared to throw the knife. Reminding myself one more time that it was only an animal and not a person, I let a breath out and threw at the turkey. But right as I threw the knife, it sailed into the eye of one of the boys in the Games. I let out a small shriek and stepped back as I stared at his body. What the hell was happening to me? How did he get here? He was dead.
One by one the faces of the Tributes that I had killed came to obtain a body and come to a stop in front of me. The boy from District 6 was first, and though I hadn't killed him he had died because of me. He had a bloody torso as he stared at me. The next to pop up was the girl from District 9. Her throat was torn and I felt a lump rise in my own throat. The District 7 male was next, followed by District 8 female, Jason, and the boy from District 9. They were all staring blankly at me.
Glimmer and Rue were next and I stared at them with tears building in my eyes. How could this have happened to them? Rue was the worst. She looked heartbroken. Ethan and Marvel popped up and I looked away from the pair but they quickly disappeared. Clove stared me down too and I gulped at her, Finch following with a blank stare. Thresh was next and he stared at me, behind him Coral with a vicious smile, and Peeta was last, looking like I had been the one to kill him.
All of the Tributes that I had either had a hand in killing, had directly killed, or felt guilty for surrounded me and my hand tightened on my knife, despite the fact that I knew that I wouldn't throw it. They all walked towards me with a bright white light filling their eyes.
"This was your fault," they all began to chant in unison. "You killed us. Why did you hate us, Aspen? What did we do to you? Didn't we deserve to live too? We had families to go back to too. Ones that were still alive."
Tears built up in my eyes as Rue stepped forward and stood directly in front of me. She was shorter than me but it felt like she was towering over me as my legs threatened to give out. "You should be here, not me," she said.
"I know," I said weakly.
"I had my mother and father to go back to. And brothers and sisters. Who did you have? No one. Friends that you barely speak with anymore. A woman who isn't your mother and a little girl who feels like she broke you. No mother and father. No. They're here. With us," Rue hissed at me.
She stepped back and I tried to back away, but it felt like I was glued to my spot. Peeta came up to me next. He had a gaping hole through his back and stomach. I let out a soft cry. It hadn't been that bad? Had it? He stood chest to chest with me and I felt his blood smear onto my body. Just as it had the day that he had died?
"Why didn't you warn me that she was behind me? I could have lived, just like you would have wanted me to. Or was that a lie too? Did you really not care what happened to me? Did you want me to die, did you want Cato to do it? Just so that you didn't have to do it yourself. Do you feel better now?" he asked with a blank face.
My entire body was shaking and I started to sink to my knees as grief overtook me. "I didn't know that she was behind you. I'm sorry, I wanted you to live," I told Peeta softly. "I didn't mean for you to die, I was willing to kill myself for you. That's what I wanted to do!" The group of Tributes began to approach me, closing in on me on all sides and my breath began to quicken as I sank to my knees. "No! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, I only did it so that I could live. I never meant to hurt any of you. I didn't want you to die. I wanted you to live. I would have killed myself to save you! Please, I'm sorry!"
She leaned down and grabbed my shoulders. "Aspen, stop!" she yelled.
I cried out, closing my eyes. Tears were rolling down my face as she continued to shake me and I prayed that she would stop teasing me a just kill me. "Come on, you're fine! It's us, we aren't in the arena!" Gale screamed at me.
I opened my eyes again. I stared at him and frantically looked around. I was laying in his arms, huddled into him and Katniss was leaned over me, looking extremely concerned. "Gale," I whispered.
"Katniss," I sobbed.
"You're okay," she promised.
My sobs turned from fear-ridden to hysterical sobs as I leaned into Gale. "Hey, it's all right. We aren't in the arena. You're home, you're in District 12. The Games are over. I've got you. You're safe," he whispered into my hair.
Katniss pulled me into her. I wanted nothing more than to leave and go back to bed but I knew that they would have something to tell me before I got to go back home. "I'm so sorry, Aspen," she sobbed as she pulled me into a bone crushing hug.
"It's okay," I muttered.
"I should have never tried to make you go hunting today. I'm so sorry. I didn't know that something like this would happen. Come on, we're going to go back home. I'll make you some tea if you'd like?" Katniss asked.
"Please," I said, glad that she wasn't trying to continue pushing at me to go get Haymitch and seek help from him.
Without saying another word, I watched as Gale picked up the knife and tucked it back into its spot. We quickly made our way out of the woods and I watched the looks of people as we walked through the streets. Everyone looked so happy, but they didn't realize that there was someone here who was anything but happy. The only thing that would make me happy was seeing Cato later today. He would know what to say about this.
"Alright, I'm gonna head back home," Gale said as we walked past the Seam.
I grabbed onto his shirt. "Wait," I said desperately.
He merely laughed and pulled me off of him. "Calm down, I'll be back. I'm only going so that I can wash off and get ready to meet your stupid boyfriend," Gale said.
"Thank you, Gale," I said happily.
"You're welcome. I'll see you two later."
We both waved him off. Before he could get too far away from us, I called out to him. "Hey, you're coming to the train station after he looks around right?" I asked Gale, who raised an eyebrow at me. "I can't see him until he makes his way over to the house tonight. And then he's only here for the night before we have to leave for the Victory Tour. I want you to be there. I want the both of you to be there."
"We will, Aspen."
"I'll need someone to see me off before I go into that shit storm," I said.
Katniss laughed lightly and nodded at me, standing in between Gale and me. "Of course we'll be there," Katniss said.
"Thank you," I said softly.
Gale stayed quiet though and I turned back to him to see that he was staring at the ground with a hard scowl. I sighed and walked over to Gale, shaking at the cold. I used to love the snow but recently I had grown a little fond of the warmer weather at the Capitol. It was the one thing about that place that I really missed.
"Hey, it's only a few weeks. I'll be back before the snow melts," I said. He nodded slowly. "Maybe we can go out and pelt snowballs at each other like we used to."
Gale snorted at me. "It's been a long time since we did that," Gale said.
"Come on, you guys remember that right? The time that we convinced Prim that unless she filled Katniss's bed with snow she would get stuck in the snow when she came back from school," I said with a small laugh.
Both Gale and Katniss smiled at the sight of me with a smile on my face. It had been a truly happy time though. We had all been joking around and Gale and I had told Prim to fill up Katniss's bed with snow. It was the first of many pranks that we had played on her. She had always hated us for doing it. The whole thing really had made no sense but it was funny and Prim still loved to bring it up. Gale laughed loudly and I laughed when she slapped him.
"Thanks for that!" Katniss barked.
"It was funny," I said.
"Prim was playing stupid little jokes on me for weeks after that. And it took me forever to get all of the dirt off of my sheets that came with that snow! I had to sleep without sheets," she complained softly.
Gale rubbed the back of his head and laughed as he shoved Katniss. "Those were good times. Alright you two, get going," he said. He shoved us lightly towards Victor's Village. "There isn't long before the train gets here and we have to meet him in the house. It's what, an hour or so?"
"Something like that," I said.
"Then get going. I'm sure you'll have to wake up Haymitch. I'll meet you girls at the platform later. See you Catnip, Tiger," he said as he gave us both short hugs, ruffling our hair.
I shoved Gale away from us and rolled my eyes. He made his way away from us quickly and I walked with Katniss into Victor's Village. "What a pain in the ass," I growled.
"At least he's smiling. At least you both are," Katniss said.
"Feels funny. He's right though. Haymitch is probably in an alcohol induced haze. I need to go wake him up and get him to get ready," I told her.
"Need help?" Katniss asked.
"I'm good. Go and head back. I'll take care of him. I'll see you back at the house," I told her, before she got a chance to argue that she should go with me.
She always liked to be there with me. I had a feeling that she thought that Haymitch and I were going to kill each other one day. She might have been right. Katniss and Gale both now knew Haymitch, as did Prim and Ms. Everdeen. Ms. Everdeen sympathized with the older man but I knew that she preferred to keep him away from Prim. On the other hand, Prim was a little fond of the man. He bothered her at times but she mostly liked to talk with him. The only time that no one had really liked him was the one time that he had gone through withdrawals.
Gale thought that he was a worthless drunk but he had been much nicer to the man since I had yelled at him for talking about Haymitch the way that he did. Gale clearly had realized that I was in the same state that Haymitch was in and he had never said anything poor about the man since then. He knew that I owed Haymitch everything. And some part of me liked him anyways. Katniss loved Haymitch for everything that he had done for me but couldn't stand to be in his house.
As I pushed open his door I didn't blame her. The house was covered in paper and bottles and everywhere that I stepped was full of some type of trash. You could tell that the Capitol had designed the place but it had a very Haymitch sense of style. It was extremely messy and smelled like liquor. As I walked through the hall I saw that Haymitch was passed out at his dining table with a glass at his side. I rolled my eyes as I stomped up to him.
"Why did I not see that coming? Figures I'd be the one that has to play adult here," I sneered as I tried to poke him awake. "Haymitch! Haymitch."
When I realized that it wasn't going to work, I grabbed his glass and stared at it for a moment. It was half-empty. He had clearly fallen asleep while drinking it. Before I could convince myself that it was a rude thing to do, I threw it onto the man and stepped back as he shot up.
"Haymitch. Wake up. It's tour day. Haymitch," I said as he grumbled drunkenly.
He slowly peeled his eyes opened and I rolled my eyes as I went to find his boots. We had been out in the woods longer than I had thought that we were. "Well there were so many nicer ways that you could have done that. Like maybe asking me if I wanted that drink!" he yelled.
"You don't need another drink. You need to get up. Cameras will be here soon," I said.
"Those bottles are expensive and hard to find."
"You have fifty other ones. You'll live."
"What are you doing?" Haymitch asked as I walked over to his shoes, grabbing them and flinging them at his face.
Haymitch just barely managed to bat them away from my face and I glared at him darkly. "Cry me a river," I snapped. I moved the glass away from where he could get it. "I already told you. Cameras are gonna be here in an hour. If you wanna be babied you should've asked me to bring along Katniss."
He tried to grab the glass again. I'd become very good at expecting where he was going to try and move. It all came from that day on the train all those months ago. Haymitch tried to stand from the table and I shoved him back down, the two of us locked in a dangerous glaring contest.
"I just sent her back to the house though, so you're stuck with me," I snarled lightly as I turned back and moved away from him.
I watched out of the corner of my eyes as he pulled himself off of the table, hardly managing to walk. Maybe he would be able to clean up his act by the time that the cameras got here. "And I thought you were a hard-ass before the Games. I can only imagine how much Cato will be glad to see that his woman is more like him now," he told me, splashing some water on his face.
I had to resist the urge to punch him in the throat as he sat back down. "Get ready," I snapped.
"And I was going to ask you to wake me without giving me the moment. You are a strangely dislayered person," he said, as I stomped back up to him.
Grabbing him by the arm, I yanked him up and out of the chair, slightly surprised by how much he weighed. I had thought that he would weigh less than that. "Get the hell up, Haymitch," I ordered him.
I was hoping that he would take some of the strain of his weight off of me. Luckily he did and he stood, staring me down with a curious smirk. "How much time did you say we have?" he asked.
I let out another groan. "We only have about an hour before the cameras show up here and I need you somewhat put together. Please. Just get up and pretend like you're somewhat sober," I begged.
His face softened at my pathetic begging but he quickly sobered up and gave me a nasty smirk. I rolled my eyes as I realized that he wasn't going to take it easy on me, no matter what day today was. "You do realize that when you and Cato are going to be reunited you'll be on camera," he said.
"Of course. I've gotten the direction packages," I said.
"That means that you might actually have to try and be charming again. I know how hard that was for you the first time around."
I scoffed loudly. I hadn't been that bad. People had liked me. More than I preferred though. "I'll think about it when the cameras are here," I said.
"You have about an hour or so to make yourself feel a little better. You could always..." he trailed off and I gagged slightly.
Even though I really hadn't ever been physical, with another person or with myself, I knew exactly what it was that Haymitch was getting at. He waggled his eyebrows at me and I scoffed as I slapped him on the arm. He was just doing it to try and get me to ignore him.
"Shut up, you're disgusting," I sneered at him as I walked over to the door. "Take a bath, Haymitch."
He stood and walked out to the hallway so that I could see him out of the corner of my eyes. "I just did, sweetheart," he told me as he motioned down to himself.
Despite how much he annoyed me I laughed lightly before stepping out of his house and closing the door behind me, hoping that he actually would get ready for the day. As much as I loved to say that Haymitch was next to useless, he had really helped me over these past months. As I walked down the street to my house, I sighed at the sight of the others. Normally I would have said that Victor's Village looked so out of place in District 12 but it actually fit in.
The community hadn't had any maintenance done since it had been built seventy-five years ago. Leaves were everywhere and the paint was peeling off of the unoccupied houses. Not to mention the fountain that sat in the center of the road hadn't worked for as long as I could remember. In fact, I was pretty sure that it had never worked. The community itself was extremely depressing and lifeless. It really actually looked perfect in District 12. It was nothing compared to the way that the District 2 Victor's Village. They actually took pride in their appearance. We didn't care.
Walking up the steps to my house, I pushed the door open and looked around. Normally Prim was in the foyer but she was nowhere to be found. Even her stupid cat was absent. Buttercup wasn't back yet. Why not? As I walked through the house I noticed that it was almost completely empty. The television was off, none of the lights were on, and the kitchen smelled like nothing. I began to panic as I approached the back of the house. I had left them all here. Where were they? Deciding that I was acting irrationally, I cleared my throat and called out.
"Hey, Mom! Prim, Katniss! I'm home, guys. I'm gonna get ready for the Prep Team to see me so that they can get done fast. If Haymitch gets his lazy ass over here tell him that I'll be ready in -" I started before Ms. Everdeen popped out from the door to her room.
My breathing slowed slightly as I saw her with a large smile and I smiled back at her. She looked oddly happy today. Maybe she was getting ready for the cameras. Prim was besides her and the younger girl gave me strange look. Her smile was strained. I cocked my head at the two women, wondering what it was that they were giving me the looks for. I normally disappeared for long spans of time so it wasn't my random leaving this time.
"Did you have a good walk dear?" Ms. Everdeen asked me.
She knew that I was out hunting with Gale and Katniss earlier. "Walk? I was just out with -" I started to clarify before she cut me off again.
"Honey, we have visitors," she said.
My face went white. Who was here that was so important that Ms. Everdeen wouldn't say anything about me hunting? They were no one from District 12 so that only meant one thing. They were from the Capitol. And there was only one person that would visit me from the Capitol that would make everyone so tense. Katniss walked out of the kitchen with a tray in her hands, giving me a panicky look but I managed to keep calm. I watched as a small sea of white followed her out of the kitchen and my heart dropped into my stomach. Peacekeepers. That was a bad sign.
One of the Peacekeepers walked forward to me with a drink in his hand. It was the drink that Katniss was carrying. She looked like she was about to drop everything and shoot the Peacekeeper through the heart for being here. The Peacekeeper slipped his helmet off and I got a good look at his face. He was probably in his early thirties, with dark brown hair and piercing green eyes. He looked like he was about ready to tear my heart out of my chest. That was probably exactly what he was thinking about doing.
"Hello, Miss Antaeus." I blanched. I knew who this man was. He was the man that I had kicked on the hovercraft after the woman had given me the tracker. He had said that he would enjoy watching me die. He was probably having more fun watching me right now though. "It surely has been a long time since I have seen you. I'm glad to see you are doing well. Come this way, please, you have a guest who has been patiently waiting."
"Okay," I said numbly.
As we walked, I felt the hatred seep off of the man. I had no idea why he was so angry with me. I had only kicked him and it had been an accident. But that was just the way that the Peacekeepers were. They usually hated everyone. There were very few that I had ever met that had even been the least bit polite to a District resident. Especially not one from District 12. We stopped in front of the door to the office and I walked into the room.
Standing behind the desk that I hardly ever found myself at was none other than President Snow. My heart dropped. He had a small smirk on his face as he watched the opaque video screen in front of him. I walked up to the desk with a gulp and took my spot behind the chairs. The screen was playing the video of the last day of my Games. Cato and I were holding the daggers to ourselves and I looked away for a moment. I looked like I was only seconds from death, which I had been. President Snow smiled as he watched the video and took a drink of his red wine. Or at least that was what I hoped it was.
"Such bravery. Such spirit. Such... content," he drawled.
He turned the screen off and took a seat. I continued to stand behind the chairs. He smirked, probably well aware that he was making me nervous. "President Snow. What an honor to have you visiting in my home," I said.
He gave me a sweet smile. "I've never been to District 12," President Snow said, glancing around.
"I've never heard of you coming to visit a Victor. Perhaps you wanted to make sure that I was adjusting to my new life here?" I asked him.
My voice had a small sneer in it. So that probably was not my best move. Instead of being angry with me he merely laughed and handed me a wine glass. I stared at it for a moment and he smirked at me again. Damn it. I wanted to take the letter opener off of the desk and wipe that look off of his face.
"I assure you that it isn't poisoned. I would never stoop to something so low," he said. I scoffed lightly. What about the Games? "I'm sure that you've settled in just fine. Perhaps just missing your fellow Victor?"
I didn't miss the way that he sneered Victor. "Very much so," I said.
"My dear, I think we can make this so much simpler if we agree not to lie to each other. What do you think?" he asked.
I took a sip of the wine, still not completely trusting him. It was bitter and strong but it wasn't bad. I did prefer Haymitch's whiskey though. "You're right, I do miss Cato. He was a big help in the Games. I've been trying to write to him but those letters don't seem to ever go through that well. Too bad, perhaps not all of your systems are as flawless as you think they are," I said with a sudden bout of bravery.
"I assure you that the mail system works just fine. We only need to manage your letters to your fellow Victor. Ensure that you aren't oversharing," President Snow said.
As in, don't talk about the thing with Seneca Crane. "As for the not lying to each other. Yes, I think that would save time," I said.
He smiled at me and I gulped when I saw that the wine had dyed his teeth a bright red. "Brave inside and outside of the arena. Sit down, please," he said. I nodded, taking a seat in front of him. "I have a problem, Miss Antaeus. A problem that began the moment you held out those two daggers in the arena. If my previous Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane had any brains at all... He would've blown you to bits then and there. But here you are and you know where he almost was."
"Of course," I snarled.
"He eagerly awaits your arrival," President Snow said.
I refused to let him see my reaction. "Why didn't you just let me die when I got up to the Tribute Recovery Center then? I was only an inch from death. It would have been easy to say that it was too late to save me," I said. His eyes were bright with amusement as I spoke. "Maybe it was because that was too easy. You would have had riots on the streets if you had killed me. People fell in love with the fact that Cato and I had fallen in love." He nodded. "So I guess I do know why I'm still here. And I know that my living is the only thing that is currently keeping him alive. Or that seems to be what you made me think during our last meeting."
His smile went from small and light to one of pure, raging excitement. He looked like he might burst into a million pieces. Please? "You are just too much fun to have dead, Miss Antaeus," President Snow said.
"Thank you," I gritted.
"You are right. He is just dying to see his precious little Tribute again," he said. I really had to fight to not let any emotion cross on my face. "After that fiasco there was nothing left to do but to let you play out your little scenario. And you were very good. A hold-down crazed besodded school girl routine. Impressive. Truly. You convince the people in the Capitol. Unfortunately not everyone in the Districts fell for it. I mean, you can't know this, but several of them. People viewed your little trick with the daggers as an act of defiance. Not as an act of love."
"That's what it was," I said.
"I'm sure. If a girl from District 12 can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to prevent them from doing the same? What is to prevent say... an uprising? That can lead to revolution. And then in a fraction of time the whole system collapses," he said.
"There have been uprisings?" I asked, the possibility both elating and terrifying me.
"Not yet. But they'll follow if the course of things doesn't change. And uprisings have been known to lead to revolution." President Snow rubbed a spot over his left eyebrow, the very spot where I myself got headaches. "Do you have any idea what that would mean? How many people would die? What conditions those left would have to face? Whatever problems anyone may have with the Capitol, believe me when I say that if it released its grip on the Districts for even a short time, the entire system would collapse," he continued.
With a nasty smirk on my face I gave the President my best sorry look. "You have no idea how much it means to me that you liked my acting. Haymitch always told me that it was terrible," I told him. I saw the brief fury flash through his eyes. I had a fucking death wish. "It must be an extremely fragile system if it can be brought down by just two knives in the hands of kids."
It made the situation no better. There was a knock on the door and a Peacekeeper opened it. "Her mother wants to know if you want tea," he said.
"I would. I would like tea," President Snow said. The door opened wider, and there stood Ms. Everdeen, holding a tray with a china tea set she brought to the Seam when she married. "Set it here, please."
President Snow placed his book on the corner of the desk and patted the center. Ms. Everdeen set the tray on the desk. It held a china teapot and cups, cream and sugar, and a plate of cookies. They were beautifully iced with softly colored flowers. The frosting work could only be from the Mellark's bakery. My stomach churned as I started at it. I knew that President Snow was watching me to gauge my reaction.
"What a welcome sight. You know, it's funny how often people forget that presidents need to eat, too," President Snow said charmingly. Well, it seemed to relax Ms. Everdeen a bit, anyway.
"Can I get you anything else? I can cook something more substantial if you're hungry," she offered.
"No, this could not be more perfect. Thank you," he said, clearly dismissing her.
Ms. Everdeen nodded, shot me a glance, and went. I saw that Katniss and Prim were both out in the hallway and glancing in. They wanted to see what was happening. President Snow poured tea for both of us and filled his with cream and sugar, then took a long time stirring. I started to swallow the tea, even though it was burning m throat. I senses that he had had his say and was waiting for me to respond.
"I didn't mean to start any rebellions," I said.
"I know." President Snow smiled at me and the sight raised the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck. "There are very few people who dare talk to me in the way you do, Miss Antaeus. Actually, there in no one who dares speak to me that way. Perhaps that is why I keep you around. I need someone to break. My blood went ice cold. I wasn't a fan of how he had said that. "As for the system. Yes it is indeed. But not in the way you imagined it," he said.
Briefly I glanced around the room and saw that there was actually a small picture of Cato and I at the party before the Games. We were dancing together and the two of us were smiling at each other. When had he gotten that picture? How long had that picture been in here that I hadn't even noticed? When was it taken? I was pissed off at him throughout the entire dance. But it still made me smile slightly. We looked so happy. If only we had known what our happiness would mean. Perhaps things would have gone differently.
"Well then how should I imagine it?" I asked, turning back to him.
The normal smirk that graced his features was gone and replaced by a nasty frown. My nerves were building. This conversation had gone downhill fast. "You should imagine thousands upon thousands of your people dead. This town of yours reduced to ashes. Imagine it gone," he said. He wasn't kidding. He would kill everyone that I knew. He was talking about the murder of thousands of people. And he wouldn't even bat an eyelash. "A radioactive buried under dirt as if it never existed, like District 13. You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Antaeus. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war?"
"No," I immediately answered.
For once I wasn't making things worse. I was telling the truth and there was nothing more there. All I wanted was for my friends to be safe and to be with Cato. All I wanted was for us to be happy and to pretend that the Games were nothing more than a nightmare. But that wouldn't happen. His angry stare went back to a normal face and he nodded at me.
"Good. And neither would I," he said. I nodded even though I doubted that. A war had been on the horizon for years but no one was brave enough to start one. "Tell me. At what point did you realize the depth of your hatred towards the boy that you claim to love? When did you realize that the only reason you fell in love with him was because you knew that there was no way that you had to ability to make it home on your own? That the only way for him to not kill you was to make him fall in love with you?"
My brain felt like it had stopped working. I didn't hate him and that wasn't what I had done. I had little faith that I would have ever been able to win in a fight against him, but I loved him. "I don't hate him. Why would you even think that? We both tried to kill each other at some point, that's true. But we saved each other too. I could have let that knife hit him. He could have let the Careers kill me. We both stood, armed, in front of each other more than once. I could have fought him at any point, even when he wasn't looking. I could have easily killed him. I do not hate Cato, I love him," I argued.
"Don't lie," President Snow said. "You promised. I know that you aren't quite sure how you feel."
"I know how I feel. I know that I love him," I said.
He made me feel like no one else ever had. It was love that I felt for him. Right? "You are the girl who has never known love. Not from a mother or father or even a sibling. How do you know that this is love?" President Snow asked me.
A spike of anger shot through me. Standing from my chair I walked to the edge of the desk where President Snow sat and placed my hands in front of him. "Why do you constantly play these games? There are faster ways to get this over with than to make me look like a fool. Why don't you just kill me now? You want to, I know that. If you kill me you get rid of all of your problems. Why not just end it now?" I asked.
He smiled at me and reclined slightly in the chair so that he was slightly back. "This is the temper that got you in so much trouble in the first place. Had you been quiet in the first place you may have never drawn Mr. Hadley's attention to you. This might never had happened. He would be my Victor and you would be where you belong. A box, six feet under," he snarled. I stared at him angrily but sat back down. "You see, that's why we don't take twenty-four kids out and shoot them every year. Things are so much more fun this way. I don't want to kill you. I want us to be friends. I can't kill you. There would be riots."
"Arrange an accident," I said.
"Who would buy it? Not you if you were watching. No. Friends we must be," he said.
For a moment we stayed locked together in a staring contest but I finally nodded at him. "I'm surprised that you're they type to want a friend. But I suppose that doesn't matter," I added softly, when I saw the look that the President was giving me. He was clearly about done with this conversation.
"How's the handsome cousin?" President Snow asked.
"I don't know... I don't..." I trailed off. Talking about the two people that meant the most to me in the world was overwhelming me.
"Speak, Miss Antaeus. Him I can kill off easily if we don't come to a happy resolution. You aren't doing him any favors by disappearing into the woods with him each Sunday."
How did he know? People could tell him that Gale and I spent our Sunday's hunting. Katniss too, but she clearly didn't pose a threat to him right now. She was just a girl that was my friend. Mostly family. Gale was the one that posed the threat here. Didn't we show up at the end of each Sunday loaded down with game? Hadn't we for years? Even before Katniss joined our midst. It was why he had always been just a touch closer to me. The real question was what he thought went on in the woods beyond District 12. Surely they hadn't been tracking us in there. Or had they? Could we have been followed?
That seemed impossible. At least by a person. Cameras? That never crossed my mind until this moment. The woods had always been our place of safety, our place beyond the reach of the Capitol, where we were free to say what we feel and to be who we were. At least before the Games. If we had been watched since, what had they seen? Two people hunting, saying treasonous things against the Capitol, yes. But not two people in love, which seemed to be President Snow's implication. We were safe on that charge.
Unless... unless... He couldn't know about it. But if we were watched, they might have known. He might know. It only happened once and it was fast and unexpected. But it had happened.
After I got home from the Games, it was several weeks before I saw Gale alone. First there were the obligatory celebrations. A banquet for the Victors that only the most high-ranking people were invited to. I had seen Cato briefly but we'd barely managed to exchange ten words and barely a kiss. A holiday for the whole District with free food and entertainers brought in from the Capitol. Parcel Day, the first of twelve, in which food packages were delivered to every person in the District.
That was my favorite. To see all those hungry kids in the Seam running around, waving cans of applesauce, tins of meat, and even candy. Back home, too big to carry, would be bags of grain and cans of oil. To know that once a month for a year they would all receive another parcel. That was one of the few times I actually felt good about winning the Games. It was the first time in a long time that I'd smiled.
Between the ceremonies and events and the reporters documenting my every move as I presided and thanked the audience, I had no privacy at all. After a few weeks things finally died down. The camera crews and reporters packed up and went home. My family settled into our house in the Victor's Village. The everyday life of District 12 - workers to the mines and kids to school - resumed its usual pace. I waited until I thought the coast was really clear, and then one Sunday, without telling anyone, I got up hours before dawn and took off for the woods.
The weather was still warm enough that I didn't need a jacket. I packed along a bag filled with special foods, cold chicken and cheese and bakery bread and oranges. Down at my old house, I put on my hunting boots. As usual, the fence was not charged and it was simple to slip into the woods and retrieve my knives. Not that I used them. But now I didn't like to be in the woods unarmed. Just in case. I went to our place, Gale's and Katniss's and mine, where we had shared breakfast the morning of the Reaping that sent me into the Games.
I waited at least two hours. I'd begun to think that he'd given up on me in the weeks that had passed. Or that he no longer cared about me. Hated me even. And the idea of losing him forever, one of my best friends, one of the only two people I'd ever trusted with my secrets, was so painful that I couldn't stand it. Not on top of everything else that had happened. I could feel my eyes tearing up and my throat starting to close the way it does when I get upset.
Then I looked up and there he was, ten feet away, just watching me. It was the first time that I'd really seen him since that day coming back from the Capitol. Katniss wasn't with him. Without even thinking, I jumped up and threw my arms around him, making some weird sound that combined laughing, choking, and crying. He was holding me so tightly that I couldn't see his face, but it was a really long time before he let me go and then he didn't have much choice, because I'd gotten this unbelievably loud case of the hiccups and had to get a drink.
We did what we always did that day. Ate breakfast. Hunted and fished and gathered. Talked about people in town. But not about us, his new life in the mines, or my time in the arena. Just about other things. By the time we were at the hole in the fence that was nearest the Hob, I really believed that things could be the same. That we could go on as we always had. I'd given all the game to Gale to trade since we had so much food now. I told him I'd skip the Hob, even though I was looking forward to going there, because the others didn't even know I'd gone hunting and they'd be wondering where I was. Then suddenly, as I was suggesting I take over the daily snare run, he took my face in his hands and kissed me.
I was completely unprepared. It was the second time that he'd done it but it was no less shocking than the first time that he had done it. We had stayed together for a little too long. Even longer than the first time. Mostly because we weren't interrupted that time. I was reasonably sure that I made some sort of noise in the back of my throat, and I vaguely remembered my fingers, curled tightly closed, resting on his chest. Then he let go and said, "I had to do that. Just so you know that it wasn't on impulse." And he was gone, as was our old friendship.
The warning was plain enough. If you aren't desperately in love with Cato, I'll kill Gale. "What do I need to do?" I asked, resigning to the fact that I would have to play his game.
He stood and I followed him. We walked over to where the screen sat on the desk. He turned back to me and I trembled slightly at how close he was. "When you and Cato are on tour you need to smile. You need to be grateful," he said.
I nearly vomited. But I stayed silent and nodded at him. If it avoided a war, or Gale's death, I would do whatever the hell they wanted me to do. "Of course," I said.
"But above all you need to be madly prepared to end it all in love. Do you think you can manage that?"
"Yes," I said. His smile grew slightly.
He walked away from me slightly and I let myself take a breath of fresh air. He smelled like blood and roses. As he pressed at a few buttons on the screen that sat on my desk I sighed deeply. The team would be here in only two minutes. This conversation had to be coming to an end.
"Yes, what?" he asked.
He wanted to know that everything was in his control and it didn't just stop there. He wanted to hear that he was in control too. "I'll convince them," I gritted out, wanting nothing more than to chuck the stapler on the desk at his head. But that would probably only make him more mad at me than he already was.
Faster than I had expected, President Snow whipped around to me and I took in a deep breath. "No. Convince me. For you, Miss Antaeus. You convince me... for the sake of your loved ones," he said.
I looked at the panel of glass in front of me. Gale was on it as were Katniss, Prim and Ms. Everdeen. They were sitting in the living room, clearly worried. Peacekeepers were surrounding them and I felt a growl build up in my throat. He was using them as bait for me.
"I would hate for you to lose the only people that you have left here. It would be quite the tragedy," he said, before turning and walking out of the room. Since I wasn't watching him it surprised me when he spoke in my ear. "By the way, I know about the kiss. The next time it happens, I'll whip him to death in front of you."
Completely numb, I walked out of the room behind him and took a deep breath as he walked out of the house. Some of the Peacekeepers were ahead of him, others on the sides, and the rest behind. He quickly made his way out the door and it shut before I got a chance to take everything in. My head was spinning. I was sure that I was about to be sick. Especially since Gale was the first one to stand once I walked into the room. I smiled at him weakly.
Once everyone was sure that they were gone my family made their way up to me and started to ask me if everything was alright and what he had said to me but I waved them off, telling them that apparently it was customary that he visit the newest Victors before the Victory Tour. They didn't need to know that he was threatening me and that they were his leverage. Especially not Prim. Not Gale, either. It was his life that was being threatened. I was about to ask Gale if he had seen Haymitch, but before I got the chance I heard loud voices outside.
Immediately knowing that it was Effie Trinket and the rest of my group, I made a quick dash outside. Cinna would be with them. Before they came into view, I looked down at what I was wearing. Effie wouldn't be thrilled with what I was wearing. It wasn't the most Capitol thing that I could have worn but it would work. Effie probably wouldn't like that it was so dull but Cinna would side with me. He would call it some word that made no sense to me. Some new style that he could pass off. Hopefully he just wouldn't be outnumbered by the rest of the Prep Team.
Once more I heard Effie's voice and I moved forward to meet the group with her. Effie was dressed in a stupid green skirt suit, similar to the one that she had worn during last year's Reaping. Her hair was now a bright yellow, almost mirroring a clown version of my own. She held her gloved hand up to the rest of the people with her and I laughed. At least she had gotten rid of that ugly fuchsia that she had worn last year. That was the worst that she'd had it in a long time.
"Stop. Take it all in. This... is sacred ground. History was made here. You'll get used to the smell," she said. I laughed lightly, forgetting how eccentric Effie was. It was something that I had almost missed while I was home. "Hello, my dear!"
Effie came up to me, embracing me in a tight hug. "Hi, Effie. Good to see you," I greeted.
"The Capitol hasn't been quite the same without you."
Despite everything I managed to grin at her. She looked me over once, frowned disapprovingly at my outfit, and let me go, walking into the house where Haymitch was now standing. I knew that he hadn't showered but at least he had gotten himself up from the table. That was one step in the right direction. Flavius stepped up to me and I smiled at the man. His hair was still a bright orange and he still looked like he had fallen into a vat of tie dye. But he was a good man at heart. He pulled me into a hug and I had to resist sneezing at all of the perfume he was wearing.
"There she is. My greatest triumph," he said as he pushed me back slightly to look me over.
"You look... lovely," Venia said, almost regretfully.
"Your nails!" Octavia shouted.
They had been bitten down pretty far. "Sorry," I muttered.
For a moment I thought that I had done well with my outfit until their gazes fell down to my tattered boots. Flavius's face fell slightly but he managed to keep his mouth shut. Something that genuinely shocked me. Octavia pushed past her friend and I laughed at the woman. She was extremely friendly but sometimes her attitude was a little off-putting. She would get angry over little things, like the fact that I grew back hair apparently faster than anyone else that she knew.
"Sweetie, we've missed you," Octavia said, as she pulled me into a hug.
I hugged her back and gave a small smile when I looked her over. She had purple hair now and for some reason it actually looked good on her. Venia walked up next and I nearly laughed. Maybe it just hadn't been important before or maybe I had never noticed it, but Venia towered over me. She must have already stood at six feet and with her heels. She was probably over two feet taller than me. She dwarfed me even more than Cato. Speaking of, he should have been pulling into the station soon. Venia gave me a hug and when she let go she turned back to my house.
"What a cute 'lil house," Venia said.
"Is it small?" I asked.
All three of them laughed. The trio walked over to my house and I grinned as they looked it over, poking at it like it was a small child. Though the house was the nicest thing that I had ever seen here in District 12, it was just your average home to a Capitol resident. This was like everyday life to them. This was probably what the poor of the Capitol lived in. Too poor to be a real Capitol citizen, but too rich to be suited for the Districts. It almost made me laugh.
"Quaint, isn't it?" Flavius asked his friends, who all nodded at him.
Turning away from the pair I noticed that Effie and Haymitch seemed to be in the middle of a small argument. Naturally. It only made me smile. They hadn't even been together for two minutes and they were already fighting. I rolled my eyes at the pair and went to break it up but as soon as Effie noticed that I was looking at her she brightened and completely forgot about Haymitch, who looked pissed.
"Of course, you've heard about Cinna," she said.
My face fell. What had happened to Cinna? Part of me debated on asking her what had happened to him, but the other part told me that I didn't want to know. He had made me the star of the Games and I was sure that President Snow wasn't too happy about that. But he wouldn't do anything to the man. Would he?
"What happened to Cinna?" I finally asked Effie.
Judging by her face I could tell that nothing serious had happened but I was still nervous. Her face fell and for a moment I thought that I would vomit. "Oh, dear. He's a fashion star," she squealed.
I nearly killed her. She had made me think that he was dead but it was all because he was some big shot fashion person in the Capitol. Not that I cared, but I was happy for him. I was sure that it was what he wanted. "That's nice," I said.
"You're his muse. Everyone in the capitol is wearing him. Everyone. Everyone!" she squealed.
I rolled my eyes. A habit that I had grown rather fond of the last few months and everyone else had grown tired of. Looking down at my own outfit and then Effie's I stifled a small laugh. "Not everyone," I told her.
She raised her eyebrows at me. Before she had the chance to question me on what I had meant, I saw Cinna pop up behind her and I smiled brightly. "Cinna," I breathed, before running up to the man and letting him pull me into a hug.
"You have no idea how good it is to see you. It hasn't been the easiest few months, especially with the fact that no one really understands anything about the process in the Capitol," I told him.
"Come on. Let's get you started," Cinna said.
"Joy," I groaned.
He grinned at me. The Prep Team set me on a chair in the living room, and, as usual, started talking nonstop without bothering to notice if I was listening. Which I wasn't. I was more laughing as Cinna made faces at me. While Venia reinvented my eyebrows and Octavia gave me fake nails and Flavius massaged goo into my hair, I heard all about the Capitol. What a hit the Games were, how dull things had been since, how no one could wait until Cato and I visited again at the end of the Victory Tour. After that, it wouldn't be long before the Capitol began gearing up for the Quarter Quell.
"Isn't it thrilling?"
"Don't you feel so lucky?"
"In your very first year of being a Victor, you get to be a Mentor in a Quarter Quell!"
Their words overlapped in a blur of excitement. "Oh, yes," I said neutrally.
Not long later, Octavia called me. "Aspen? Aspen is this your friends' little sister?" she asked.
I looked over. Now that Cinna was working with me, the Prep Team had started to wander around. In the front yard were Gale, Katniss, and Prim. I assumed that Katniss and Prim were trying to escape. Prim was currently being passed around by the three and Effie was laughing. Even I laughed. Prim looked terrified. Katniss was staring at the group like they were from another planet, which they basically were. Gale, on the other hand, was trying to avoid the glances from Venia and I laughed loudly. Why would they be interested in a guy like Gale? He was so plain.
"Oh, isn't she so adorable!"
"My goodness, I can see how people fell in love with her in the Capitol."
"Sweetie," they all gushed, poked at Prim's cheeks, who looked ready to kill them.
Shaking my head, I looked away and saw that Cinna hadn't been looking at the others. He was giving me a scrutinizing gaze and I felt slightly self-conscious. What was he staring at me for? "Are you okay?" he asked.
"That obvious?" I asked, knowing that I was wearing my emotions right now.
"Sorry," Cinna said, smiling.
"That's alright. I'm good," I said, wishing that I could tell Cinna the truth, but glad that he had asked.
"Ready to work?" Cinna asked.
"I guess so."
"Alright, good. We only have a little while before you get to see Cato so we'll have to get through this relatively fast. Sorry about the rush."
"I was expecting it."
We made our way back into the house and I sighed as everyone was ushered away from us. Katniss, Gale, and Prim were ordered into the other rooms so that I could get ready in peace and have time to mentally prepare myself for the interview. Haymitch and Effie were in the corner of the room, Effie on her phone and Haymitch was filing through some electronic device that Effie had given him. I, on the other hand was thrust back into a chair while everyone continued getting to work.
After chatter of the Games, the team worked silently, only speaking when they needed each other to move or give them something. My nails, eyebrows, and hair was done quickly and my makeup was on faster than I had ever seen it done. Maybe we really were behind schedule. I looked at myself in the mirror as they pulled me out of the room. My eyebrows were evened out again and my makeup was soft. My eyes were a dark, but they were contrasted with makeup slightly darker than my own skin over the eyelid. I had a rosy pink on my lips and cheeks too, giving me a sweet and sultry look. My nails were done a dark green and I smiled. It was one of my favorite colors.
The whole time Cinna was working we talked about my talent. We had one telephone in my house that I used to pretty much only talk to Cinna. I would have talked to Cato but I didn't know his phone number and I had a feeling that no one would have let me use it for him anyways.
But as for the talent, every Victor was supposed to have one. Your talent was the activity that you took up since you didn't have to work either in school or your District's industry. It could be anything, really, anything that they could interview you about. Cato, as it turned out, actually had a talent, which was teaching young kids how to sword fight. He absolutely hated it but it was something that he could do that fascinated the Capitol. It pretty much got them to leave him alone, other than to take some videos and ask him about strategies.
I didn't have a talent, unless you counted hunting illegally, which they didn't. Or maybe singing, which I wouldn't do for the Capitol in a million years. Not after Rue. Ms. Everdeen tried to interest me in a variety of suitable alternatives from a list Effie sent her. Cooking, flower arranging, and playing the flute. None of them took, although Prim had a knack for all three. Finally Cinna stepped in and offered to help me develop my passion for designing clothes, which really required development since it was nonexistent. But I said yes because it meant getting to talk to Cinna and he promised he'd do all the work.
Finally I was finished after Cinna tossed a new bundle of clothes that I had 'designed' at me, teasingly called me useless, and ordered me to get changed. I did so quickly, the entire time getting barked at by Effie that I was moving too slow. As I was dragged to the door of my home, I could just barely hear Caesar Flickerman starting the show. Effie silenced the small chatter that surrounded us. She wasn't paying attention and I could tell that she was nervous. Pressing my ear against the door, I listened to the welcoming of the show and grinned as I realized that Cato should be right outside.
"Welcome. Welcome. Last year the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games promised the greatest love story of our time. Two brave young people against all odds chose to die rather than to lose each other. As a nation we shared the agony. But we had so little time to revel in their joy..." Caesar drawled.
Despite the fact that I was still trying to listen to Caesar, I was pulled away from the door by Venia. She looked me over and fluffed my hair a few times before nodding to herself. "It's time. She's done," she said, stepping back to observe her work.
Haymitch brushed by me, giving me a small nod before walking off to the door. Although I was sure that he was very tempted to call me ugly. He tended to like to making little biting comments like that. Cinna moved forward and looked me over before letting a large smile settle over his face. I blushed lightly and laughed as he motioned for me to make a small twirl. It made me feel like for once I really was a princess, not a prisoner. Which was exactly what I was.
"She's lovely," Cinna told everyone.
"Thanks. I've really outdone myself," I teased.
"You're useless," Cinna teased.
It made me snort. He led me over to the door where Haymitch was waiting and I took a deep breath. "Remember how to act?" Haymitch asked.
"We're about to find out," I said.
"And now we must feed the monster," Cinna said softly.
That time I let out a loud laugh. Leave it Cinna to make me feel better. Finally glancing up from her phone, Effie walked over to us and let out a small squeal when she saw me. Okay, so sometimes I missed Effie and sometimes she drove me out of my damn mind.
"Oh, don't you just look adorable!" she yelled.
Actually I looked like I was sick of everything. I was. "Thanks, Effie," I said anyways.
"The Capitol is so excited to see you after so long of almost nothing. Now Cato is coming up on the house now so get ready to meet him again," she said. That time I let a real grin cross over my face. I turned back before the door opened and saw that Katniss and everyone else were being pushed back towards the television. They weren't allowed to be outside. Only Effie, Haymitch, Brutus, Enobaria, and whatever Cato's Mentors name was were allowed. "You're excited. You're in love. Big smiles for the camera in three... two... one."
Finally the door was pushed open and my heart lodged in my throat. It had been so long since the cameras had been around me. I'd almost gotten used to being on my own again. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the blinding lights that were put up by the Capitol workers and I coughed. But quickly I adjusted and looked around myself.
"There she is, Aspen Antaeus, the Girl on Fire! And there he is folks... Cato Hadley, the fierce Career," Caesar said.
So he was here. The question was, where? I quickly turned to my side. That was where all of the noise was. Standing with a proud look on his face was Cato. I noticed that my family was watching through the window so that no one could actually see them. Cato's hands were crossed over his torso and I immediately dashed over, launching myself into his arms. He caught me but I barreled into him so roughly that it knocked him back. The two of us went sprawling into the snow.
"Uh-oh. Whoa! I hope they're alright," Caesar commented.
But I was too busy with someone else. Cato looked freezing. I assumed that it was much warmer in District 2. Laughing, Cato threw me under him and pressed snow to my face. I shrieked with laughter and gave him a hard kiss on the lips. His arms wound tightly around my back as I reveled in the sight of him again. The two of us remained locked together for a while and my heart melted. This was what I had needed for months. I could have stayed like that forever.
"Umm. Ahem! Anyone at home? Should we come back later?" Caesar asked.
I finally pulled myself away from Cato. Just as I was about to stand up and talk with Caesar, Cato grabbed my hand and kept me at his side. He looked good but tired. "Well I knew you'd be a little happy to see me, Twelve, but this is a pleasant surprise," he said, with a smirk and I laughed.
In some strange way, I had almost missed him calling me Twelve. "Good to see you, Two," I teased.
"It almost reminds me of when we were in that cave and you seemed to get the idea that we should -" he began.
Easily I shut him up with a slap to the arm. I could practically hear everyone in the Capitol laughing. In fact I could hear them laughing over the cameras. I knew that Caesar would give us a moment if it meant that the Capitol could see us interact. Despite the fact that he had a sly grin on his face I saw the love shining through in his eyes. For just a moment I forgot about the threats, Seneca Crane, and the Games. It was just the two of us.
"I missed you, you asshole."
"There it is. I knew that you could only go so long," Cato teased.
"You ready to head out in the morning?" I asked, when I saw the sadness overtake his face.
"Not like we have much of a choice," Cato said.
"I guess I should talk to them, shouldn't I?" I asked.
He gave me a small nod, chuckling lightly. "It's time," Cato said regretfully.
He stood and offered me his hand, which I gratefully took. Once I was on my feet, I shook myself off and gave a bashful grin at the odd camera that was following us, showing Caesar. "Sorry, Caesar. It's just been a little while," I said with a false laugh.
He obviously didn't care as he gave me the small shake of his head. Of course he didn't care. Not when it meant that they got juicy videos of their favorite Victors. "No, please. It's alright. It's your day," he said with a small grin. I gave him a tiny nod, forcing the smile to stay on my face. "How's it going?"
I nearly laughed. That was a very blase question. Clearly Cato hadn't been expecting the question either as he stammered over his words for a moment. But just as quickly as he lost his composure, he gained it back once more. He gave Caesar a small grin and laughed, almost like he was embarrassed at whatever his answer would be.
"We're good," he said simply and I snickered.
The whole world seemed to stop for a moment, completely in shock at Cato's answer. He had always been the Tribute that loved the lime light and loved to tell everyone exactly what it was that he was thinking. I was sure that they were wondering why he had gone so quiet all of a sudden.
"That's it? That's all we have? 'We're good.' So tacky all of a sudden," Caesar laughed. "Cato, come on. Give me some details. Since Miss Aspen seems to be a little shy at the moment," he added, with a wink in my direction.
Deciding that I needed to say something, I cleared my throat, letting Cato know that I did have something to say. He nodded at me and I took a deep breath. I had to pacify President Snow and the whole thing started right here. This was the beginning of the Victory Tour, I had two weeks to make him believe that I was the perfect Tribute.
"Well things are, uh... things are great here in District 12. Thanks to the generosity of the Capitol we've never been closer. In twenty-five years to be exact actually. We owe them everything," I added onto the end, forcing myself not to throw up the little amount of food that I had eaten today.
His brilliant smile plastered on his face, Caesar laughed loudly and gave a huge smile. "Fantastic," he chirped. I smiled back. Even though I hated the Capitol, some part of me couldn't hate Caesar Flickerman. He was just so friendly and made everyone look amazing. "Well you have a busy schedule tonight so we'll be letting you go for the night. We'll be checking both of you through out the Victory Tour." One of my eyebrows shot up. That was fast. But all the better. "Thank you so much Aspen Antaeus and Cato Hadley."
We both gave little waves, waiting for our cue to stop. The screen showed us images from the Capitol, where everyone was cheering and yelling. They all looked so happy and I nearly threw myself onto the camera. If only they knew how unhappy we really were. The screen finally went black and both Cato and I dropped our hands, small scowls taking over our faces as Effie stepped in front of us, motioning to everyone standing around.
"Wonderful. Everybody in motion we are out of here in ten," Effie said.
Bored now that everyone was gone, I nodded, turning back to Cato. With the cameras gone now I could actually talk to Cato freely. Not about everything. But I could talk to him. I gave him a once over and smiled. He had the same bright blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. His eyes looked like they had become even bluer and I grinned. They looked gorgeous. His hair was getting longer too. Now it was just long enough to be tucked behind his ears. Normally I didn't like that look but Cato looked good with it.
"Good to see you again," Cato said, laying a hand on my hip.
"Those damn letters were taking too long. I thought about giving you a call but I didn't know what your phone number was or if it was safe to call," he said.
Calling would have gone faster but it was better that we didn't. The Capitol could tap phone lines and they would be able to listen to us talking to each other. They would either end up knowing something to get myself or my friends killed. And the same with him.
"Probably better that you didn't. I know that they could tap the lines if they really wanted to. The only person that I talk to is Cinna," I told him.
"For your fashion line," Cato said teasingly.
He knew that it wasn't me. "You like them?" I asked.
He pressed his mouth against my ear. "I like what's underneath better," he growled.
My face lit up red and he smirked, knowing that he had gotten to me. "Shut up," I mumbled. "So where are you staying for the night?"
He grabbed my hand. For a moment I was caught off guard. His hands had been so rough the first time that I had touched them. They were soft now, like he had just been born. It was strange. "Well if you leave your window open we could always..." he trailed off. I glared at him.
Typical Cato. I wasn't ready for anything like that. "Really?" I asked.
He laughed at my glare and held his hands up in surrender. "Okay, fine, I get it. I have to stay where I was told to stay. They have a room for me in the Justice Building, I think," he said.
I had only been in there once but it seemed nice enough. "Good enough for one night," I said.
"Probably not much but better than nothing," he added on.
"I want to take you around the District tomorrow before the celebrations. I want you to see my home," I said.
"I'd love that."
Slowly I began to pull him towards my house but I noticed that Peacekeepers still stood in front of it. I cocked my head at the ones still standing guard and rolled my eyes. Maybe they weren't allowed to leave the post of my house until I was gone on the tour. As I moved to brush past them, Effie's voice called me back to her.
"Come on, children, we are on schedule. The train awaits!" she yelled.
Both Cato and I whipped around to her, completely in shock. He got here tonight and we would leave in the morning. That was how this was supposed to work. That was the plan. Not to leave tonight. I wasn't ready to say goodnight. Not that I needed to pack or anything, but I wanted to get my time to say goodbye to everyone. And they were supposed to meet Cato. Turning back to Effie, hoping that it was a mistake on her part, I took a deep breath.
"Wait, what?" I asked.
"Time to leave," Effie said.
"We were supposed to be in District 12 tonight. Cato would stay in the Justice Building and we were going to have some time in the morning to look around. I was supposed to have time to say goodbye to our friends and family in the morning on the platform. Why are we getting on the train tonight?" I asked.
Instead of rolling her eyes and yelling at me for not knowing the schedule, Effie actually looked guilty. "Oh, I'm sorry kids. I thought that you knew. Well, I thought that I had told you. I guess I got a little distracted," she said. This wasn't the time to be distracted. What the hell was going on? "They were direct orders from the Capitol from President Snow. He has moved each festivity a day forward. Something about timing being a little off." My face heated up. Damn him! He was doing this to purposely to annoy me. "Come now!"
Despite the fact that I knew that I would get yelled at, I stood my ground and stared holes into Effie's back. Before she could even notice that I wasn't behind her, I turned back to my house, ignoring Cato hissing my name. I was not leaving here without saying goodbye.
"I want to say goodbye to my family first. That's what I deserve. Cato got to say goodbye to his family so I should get to say goodbye to mine," I barked as I turned around.
"Aspen!" Haymitch shouted.
He was giving me a dark glare and I sighed pathetically at him. "Come on, my house is right there!" I barked.
"I know, but it's time to leave."
I turned back to my house but was cut off at the entrance by one of the Peacekeepers. The others were currently busy keeping my family back behind the door as they tried to make their way out to me. "I'll make it fast, I promise," I told the man.
The man sighed at me and shook his helmeted head. "I'm sorry, Miss Antaeus, we need to get you to the Capitol right on time. Orders from President Snow. No stopping or saying goodbye. You'll be seeing them soon," he said.
My stomach turned again as I gulped deeply. Turned out that it was still the same man that I had kicked on the hovercraft. And, even though he sounded sad, I knew that he was beyond happy that I didn't get a chance to say goodbye.
"You know, I'm almost glad that you didn't die in the arena. I think it's actually become fun. Watching you to see when you'll finally break. I'm betting that it's soon," he told me darkly.
"I'm sure my final act won't disappoint," I said.
That sounds like a rebellion, idiot. I quickly took off to my group, giving my family one last sorry look. The looks on their faces broke my heart. Katniss looked like she might run to me anyways, no matter what the consequences. I shook my head at her and sighed. It wasn't worth it and I would be back here in a few weeks. I blew a small kiss to her, trying to reassure her silently that I was alright. Prim looked like she might cry and I had to look away from her. I just wanted to tell her that I wasn't going into the Games. Actually this was probably worse than the Games. But she didn't need to know that.
The last thing that I wanted was to make her even guiltier. I flashed her a reassuring smile and turned to Ms. Everdeen. She looked proud but hurt. I knew that it killed her that this had happened to me and she felt guilty. After all, it was only because one of her biological children got Reaped that I went into the Games in the first place. I gave her a small wave and turned to Gale. He looked furious as his eyes burned holes into Cato. I shook my head at him and blew him a kiss, laughing lightly as he rolled his eyes. Cato grabbed my hand and pulled me along with the group and I nodded.
Cato's attempt to grab my hand would likely send Gale into an angry tizzy, but I had to do everything possible to be in love with Cato over-the-top. For both of their safety. Turning away from my family and friends hurt but it made me see Haymitch out of the corner of my eyes. He was walking parallel to us and I almost hadn't noticed him. But his look made me notice. He looked completely broken hearted. It was worse than everyone else's looks together. I shook my head and leaned into Cato as we headed to the train station, not that it was a very far walk.
"Timing my ass. President Snow did this to try and get to me," I said.
"Don't be silly, Aspen," Effie said.
"He's just being a child now, doing little things that he thinks will upset me and make me do something stupid. It won't work," I said, with a harsh bite to my words.
Cato nodded at me and let an arm fall over my shoulders. I was shivering slightly from the cold and he knew it. "Good," he said. I leaned into him a little more. "It's only a few weeks and you'll see them again."
"I just wanted to say goodbye," I muttered. "And I wanted you to meet them."
"Did they want to meet me?" Cato asked.
A brief hesitation. "Yes," I lied.
"They wanted to meet you."
"Your friends probably wanted to kill me," Cato said.
"It doesn't matter. I wanted you to meet them and you would have. They had agreed," I said.
"Do they hate me?" Cato asked.
"Not really. Ms. Everdeen is just kind of nervous about you. Remember, she knew my mother and father well. Katniss is hesitant. She's happy that I love you but she's got a thing against the Careers. Prim is terrified of you. But she likes that I'm happy."
"And your cousin?"
There was something bitter in his voice. "He's fine," I muttered.
"Why did they make him your cousin?" Cato asked, pulling me close.
"Think about it. Our story was all about how in love we were. It was why we got away with the end of the Games. Having one of my best friends being an attractive male wasn't good. Especially when people had questioned that we were involved before the Games. So they made up the lie and since there was no solid proof that we were together romantically beforehand, everyone bought it."
"Was there?" Cato asked.
Another hesitation. "Nothing that I ever got a chance to explore. There was someone else that I fell in love with," I said, pressing a kiss to Cato's mouth.
"Keep reminding yourself that," Cato said.
"Are you jealous?"
"No," Cato snapped.
"Yes, you are," I said, laughing softly.
"Shut up," Cato snapped. He turned serious for a moment. "I know you, Aspen. You'll be fine. You just have to take a deep breath and remember that they can't do anything to you anymore. You've already beat the hardest part," he said.
But the hardest part hadn't passed. Not with Seneca Crane waiting for me. "I know," I muttered.
"They did the same thing to Julie and Skye," Cato said.
"They did?" I asked, surprised.
"Same thing. Two nice-looking girls as my best friends didn't look good. So the first time that cameras caught them with one of our male friends they took pictures and claimed that they were in love with those guys. They threatened me to keep along with the story and I did. They're not dating those guys but I have to ensure that they stay friendly with them to fool the Capitol on the occasions that they get pictures of them all together," Cato explained.
It wasn't just me that they were threatening. It was both of us. I wasn't sure if it made me feel better or worse. We walked up to the train and I sighed at the sight of it. No less horrific than I remembered it. Although at least this time there was slightly less of a chance that I would die while I was in the Capitol. But only slightly. And there was the chilling fact that I was two weeks away from being in the grasp of Seneca Crane, much to my horror.
We stood in front of the doors and as they slid open I looked inside. It looked exactly the same as it had when it had been taking me to the Games. But this time everything was different. There wasn't even a slight excitement that I would get to see what the Capitol was all about. No. This time was fear and rage. Fear for what they would to do to my family. Rage over what would happen the next time that I was met face-to-face with President Snow or Seneca Crane.
"All right kids, all aboard," Effie called and we stepped into the train. "Fabulous. Wine, massages, spa treatments. I told them nothing but the finest treatments for my two Victors."
I raised my eyebrows. Technically she only had one. The other was nothing more than a headstone now. One that I visited frequently. "Uh... Effie?" I asked.
"Well, one Victor, but Cato you may as well be mine too! It will be wonderful. It all needs to be..." Effie trailed off as she lost her words.
Shaking my head at Effie, I walked over to the bar and snatched the drink out of Haymitch's hand. For a moment I debated on pouring it down the drain, but at the last minute, I decided to down it. Haymitch snorted and I could practically hear Effie chastising me in her mind. But, luckily, she hadn't been watching. She was still trying to find her words.
"I'm gonna go out on a wild limb here and guess. Fabulous?" I asked with a small snort.
Instead of understanding that I had been teasing her, she brightened and gave me a large smile. "Exactly," she chirped. I shook my head. "Now the schedule is a bit of a bore. Twelve days, twelve Districts but it's mostly parties, celebrations and adoring fans to greet you in every stop along the way and then we wrap it up in the Capitol. All you need to do is give a few speeches, wave to the crowds, and enjoy your time in the spotlight. You've earned it."
There was a dreamy look in her eyes. Turning back from the counter, rage shot through me. I knew that most of the time Effie didn't think about what she said but there were times that the things that she said really got to me. This was one of those times. How dare she think that I deserved to be praised? I had done awful things and that was what this Victory Tour was really about. It was to get the Victor to feel guilty for everything that they had done. And to make the Districts feel even worse. It was just one more way to show how little we really were to the Capitol.
"What did you say"? I hissed at Effie, giving her a chance to change her answer.
Sensing the tension and knowing where the conversation was going, Cato stepped in between the two of us and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Aspen," he said to me softly, more as a warning than anything else. "Don't worry about her Effie, she's been spending too much time in her own head and not listening to others. It's fine, we should be heading to bed. It's been a long day for the both of us and tomorrow will be even longer."
The other woman fawned at the sight of Cato. She batted her yellow eyelashes and I rolled my eyes. She was such a Capitol woman, just slightly less worse than the others. But what she had said made her just as bad. It showed how different she really was from us.
"What a good gentleman you are, Cato," she cooed at him. I scoffed. "I said enjoy it Aspen. You've earned it."
She didn't understand that I was angry. Loosing my temper I stepped up to her and heard Cato groan behind me. But I brushed him off. This needed to be said. "I earned it? Do you know I earned it? By killing people. Not even just one person. More than one. I stabbed someone in the eye. Another person I stabbed in the throat. I ripped someone's skin off. Two people I got killed by mutts. Two I got killed accidentally by other people. Both of those I loved. I drowned someone. These were people's kids. Their family. That isn't even all of them. I've torn apart families and all that you can think about is the parties that they will throw for me? Pieces of trash. All of you. Damned cowards," I hissed.
For a moment I actually felt bad about what I had said. At least the part where I had cursed at her. That had been slightly unnecessary but she had needed to hear it. Hurt flashed through Effie's eyes but she quickly replaced it with her stern scold.
"Young lady," she growled.
I felt a sudden spout of bravery as I stared her down. Cutting off whatever lecture she was going to give me, I held a hand up. "I'm not really in a mood for a lecture. I was just ripped from my home with no warning. For a second time this year. I'm just getting sick of it," I growled at her before stomping out of the room.
The room was silent as I left. I wasn't in the mood to hear anything else. I headed down the hallway, remembering where my room was and walked into it. The damn thing looked exactly the same. Still just as impersonal. I pulled open the drawers and peeled off my clothes, grabbing a white tank top and a black pair of running shorts. Yawning I washed off my makeup too and braided my hair before sitting on the bed and facing the wall. I was only sitting for about a moment when I heard the door slide open. I let out a small sigh and shook my head.
"I'll apologize to Effie later," I said softly as I turned back, surprised to see that it wasn't Haymitch, but Cato. "I thought you were Haymitch."
He shook his head at me as he walked over to me and sat down on the bed. He had changed too. He was wearing a pair of loose black shorts that hung around his waist and no shirt. He had never been one to really care what he looked like in front of me. He didn't care how little he was wearing. I blushed as the thoughts that ran through my mind turned from angry to something completely different.
"You don't have to apologize to anybody. Not me. Not Effie. No one. You have done nothing wrong," he said.
I gave him a small smile. "I've done a lot wrong," I said.
"Not for me."
"Not even with the knives?" I asked.
"No. You got the two of us out of there together. You showed me how much more there was to life than the Hunger Games."
"You did me some favors too."
"Showing me that love isn't something that I should be afraid of. I told you that night up on the roof that I didn't believe in love. I do now," I said.
"Good. Come here. Tell me something that you did over the past few months," he said as I laid my head on his shoulder. I snorted at him softly and he flicked me. "Something that has nothing to do with the Games."
I shook my head at him and sat up straight. "That's the problem, Cato. Everything that happens in my life now has everything to do with the Games. Nothing that I ever do again will have nothing to do with the Games. This is our life now. The Games are us," I said.
"They don't have to be. Right now, today, they don't have to be about Games."
"That's good. Because I don't want to talk about that right now. I've been waiting this long to talk to you and I didn't want it to be about the Games," I said.
He nodded at me. He pulled the two of us up to the headboard and I half-laid on him and half-laid against him. Our hands twined together as one of his ran up underneath my shirt to stroke at my bare skin. My eyes went back up to his hair and I grabbed it in my hands. Instead of sticking up in spikes it now flowed down to his ears. The sides were shaved off too I noticed. It was different than I had ever seen anyone have it before. I liked it. The look made him seem older.
"Your hair is longer, I like it," I told him honestly.
He smiled at me and tugged at a lock of my hair. I laughed and remembered the times that he used to do that to me before we had gone our separate ways. "I thought that you might like it," Cato said.
"Brutus told me that every Victor needs a look. Mine is this."
"It's a good look."
"Yours is longer."
"Well it grew back after it was burned off," I said, almost laughing.
"Keep it like that. I like it," Cato said.
"You liked pulling it, like a little kid," I said.
He smiled bashfully at me. "I guess yours is the little braid that you wear," he said.
We both laughed. "Old habit I got from Katniss. It was the easiest way to keep it so that it was out of my face," I said.
"My Mom keeps asking me to grow it back on both sides but Brutus tells me that there's no way that I can go back to the way it used to look," he said.
I laughed. It sounded like a very motherly thing to ask. "She doesn't like it?" I asked.
"She thinks it makes me look too old," Cato said.
Nodding at him, I rubbed my hand over where he had no hair. It was soft but sort of prickly where the new hair was growing in. "I agree with Brutus. As horrifying as that thought may be." We both laughed. "It does make you look older. It makes you look like a Career, actually. Even more so than you used to," I told him.
There was a conflict of emotion in his eyes. I was sure that he liked that I liked it but maybe he didn't want to be the Career anymore. "I suppose," Cato mumbled.
"They'll like the pictures that they'll take of you when we get to the Capitol," I said.
He shook his head at me. He laughed and grabbed my hair, tugging on it and pulling me so that I slipped into his lap. I laughed and let him undo my braid. He slowly ran his hands through it and I sighed. I loved the feeling of him doing it. He spent a few minutes untangling the braid before my hair fell down my back. Even now that it was totally undone he continued to run his hands through my hair slowly. It almost made me fall asleep in his lap.
"We have almost two weeks before we get there. And this Victory Tour can take as long as possible before we get there," he said.
I knew that he hated the Capitol too, maybe just slightly less than I did. "Hey, maybe I'll chop all of my hair off or dye it blue?" he suggested.
At the image of Cato doing just that I snorted under my breath. For a moment we sat together in silence but then a thought dawned on me. Had he said that he would dye his hair blue. But why had he only said blue? He could have just said that he would dye it.
"Why blue?" I asked him.
He looked very surprised. Maybe he had thought that I would just shrug it off. He smiled at me and kissed my forehead lightly, bringing a small blush to my cheeks. I loved Cato because he was everything. He was tough but he was sweet too. Not that he ever showed anyone besides myself that he was sweet. That was strictly for his own family and me on the rare occasion. President Snow was wrong. I knew what love was and I knew that it was how I felt about Cato.
"It's my favorite color," he said.
I raised my eyebrows. It was one of those things that I had never really thought about. His favorite color. It was such a mundane thing but it was something that people who loved each other knew. It was something that we should know about each other. So why didn't I know that it was his? If I would have had to guess I would have thought that it was red. The color of blood. It seemed to suit his personality so well. Blood and anger. All the things that it meant to be a Career.
"Really?" I asked.
"I would have thought that it was red," I admitted.
Cato laughed and shook his head as I smiled at him. "Now that's stereotyping. Thinking that my favorite color would be the same color as blood," he said.
It was my turn to laugh. "Good job, figuring it out," I said.
Of course, I would have called him stupid had he not. "No, I like blue. It reminds me of the sky. I used to be stuck inside training all day when I would really want to practice in the yard. You knew that. You had to be at least sixteen to practice in the yard," he said. I frowned at the memory. He had only ever wanted to be outside and he hadn't even been allowed that. "But, anyways, everything of mine was blue. My walls and my clothes. My family hates blue to say the least."
It was such a Cato thing to do. I smiled at him and shook my head. I could picture a little Cato with everything blue. So much so that it made his family hate the color forever. "That's actually pretty cute," I said.
"You should know that I'm cute," Cato said.
"Thank you, darling," Cato teased.
"I always liked purple," I admitted.
He cocked his head at me. "I thought it was green," Cato said.
"It is. But I love purple too. Nothing we really get is purple. Not in District 12. It's just such an interesting color. Although after being in the Capitol for a long time I think that the only colors I like now are black, white, grey, and brown," I said.
He laughed at me and I grinned. Sometimes I thought that I was way too serious, but it was days like this that reminded me that I wasn't too serious. I was just around the wrong people. People who either cared too much about something that they didn't understand or people who didn't care at all. Cato pulled me against him a little tighter and I felt his hand linger at my waistband. He wasn't going to do anything but it still made butterflies erupt in my stomach. Excitement, not dread, exactly how I felt when I started thinking of my arrival in the Capitol.
"I agree with that one. We should get to bed, Aspen," Cato said.
"I know. We'll be in District 11 in the morning," I pointed out.
Rue and Thresh. I had dreaded that moment for months. "No. Tomorrow is a travel day," Cato said.
"Yeah. If you would have stuck around for dinner Effie would have told you."
"Oh... So two days then?" I asked.
"Yeah. I know that you don't want to be there but there's nothing more that can be done. We just have to get there and get over it."
"Goodnight, Aspen. I'll see you in the morning," Cato said.
He didn't bother going to his own room and it didn't bother me. I loved having him here with me. It made me sleep just a little bit better. So we exchanged a long kiss as he tucked himself into my sheets. Taking a deep breath, I laid under that sheets and let my head fall onto his shoulder. He wrapped one hand around my shoulder pulled me even closer. He pressed a kiss against my forehead as I pressed one into his chest and I felt him grin. I yawned deeply and closed my eyes, nuzzling into his chest.
"Goodnight, Cato," I said softly, praying that the next two weeks would go by as quickly as possible. They would be more days of the utter hell that the Capitol had thrown me into.
A/N: Here is the first edit for Burn. Let me know what you think! Until next time -A