The first thing I saw in the morning were the doctors. They were standing above me, doing their usual morning routine. First they played the game. Figuring out everything that I knew. My name is Aspen Antaeus. I am twenty years old. Today I will be going to see the ruins of District 12. I know that it will give me what I need to be the Mockingjay. My only chance to save Cato, if he is still alive. They didn't usually like me talking about Cato in the sessions, as they thought that it only made me more depressed.
But I refused to just forget about him. The doctors then played my other least favorite game. Going back and talking about everything that happened. The same thing, every single day. We then went over the breathing techniques, as the doctors believed that a panic attack was likely today. They didn't want me going back to District 12, but I had to see it. We then went through the eye movements and temple massage that they'd taught me to subdue the effects of the concussion.
Once they were finally sure that I wasn't going to have a panic attack right now and after I had reassured them about a hundred times that I was going to be fine going to District 12, they finally left my side. They were no longer giving me the medicine. The Morphling had since made its way out of my system. I was almost grateful. The pain from the concussion was back but I didn't feel quite as foggy as I had before. Although my hands were shaking and sweating. Withdrawal, probably.
But I knew that I couldn't say anything to the doctors. They would just put me straight back on the table and hook me up to some new intravenous medication. Something less intense while I detoxed. They would then suggest that I couldn't go back to District 12. They had barely wanted to agree to this expedition. They were convinced that it was going to be dangerous and damaging to my psyche. I had just laughed and convinced them that I was already long past damaged.
Just about an hour into the morning, right after the doctors had finished their daily routine, Boggs had come to tell me that there was only going to be about two hours before we were ready to leave and head to District 12. But then something occurred to me. There was someone else that I had to speak to before we left. Someone that I owed a big apology to. So I nodded at Boggs, letting him know that there was something that I had to do before we left.
He agreed without complaint. I had a feeling that Boggs and I would eventually become friends. He seemed to be one of the few people here that would protect me for more than the reason that I was the Mockingjay. He just seemed to like me. Before Boggs left, he also informed me on where my family was staying. Room 307. That meant that I would be staying there now that I was officially discharged from the hospital.
After a moment I nodded and moved to get changed for the day. I ran a brush through my hair but didn't bother to braid it back. I wanted to have something to hide behind. Just in case. I had been given the same clothing that I was normally in. The ugly little gray jumpsuit. Maybe I had picked up on some Capitol traits... Seeing as I wasn't technically a soldier, I couldn't wear the black uniform that Boggs wore. But even the jumpsuit was better than the slip that they had given me as a hospital patient.
Eventually, once I had everything together for the day, I made my way out of the hospital. Boggs escorted me down to the member apartments, which I had asked him to show me to, before heading straight for the Hadley's apartment. Boggs had asked me if I was sure that I wanted to speak to them and I had reassured him that I had to do it. He showed me their apartment and I nodded. It was straight across the way from my own family's apartment.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed open the door and walked in. It was far too small for the large family but they didn't seem to have any complaints. Even though they were all crammed together. Although I supposed that it was a little smaller without two of them here. Alana and Damien were sitting on one bed, with Carrie, Dean, and Marley on the other. Aidan was sitting on the floor, as Cato had once told me that he so often did. Skye and Julie were crammed together by the desk.
"Hi," I muttered awkwardly.
The door fell closed behind me. The family hadn't even noticed that I was here yet. But they spotted me now. It was the first time that any of us had even seen each other since I had screamed at them to get out when they had told me that Leah had been killed. Their heads whipped around to me in surprise. But none of them looked angry. They looked surprised, and maybe a little dumbfounded, but there was no trace of anger on their faces.
"Aspen!" Alana said, finally shattering the tense silence. She moved forwards and brought me into a hug. "Sweetheart... We're so happy to see you."
"I can't stay for long," I muttered dumbly, pulling out of her embrace.
The family looked a little bit happier, but they still looked tired and worn out. "That's alright. We're just glad that you dropped by," Carrie said, moving forward and hugging me.
"How are you feeling?" Dean asked, giving me another hug.
"Head hurts," I admitted.
"Can you take more medicine?" Skye asked, following the line of hugs.
"No. I don't want anymore medicine. It makes me hallucinate," I admitted. At least, I was reasonably sure that they were hallucinations. It was hard to tell sometimes. "I'm sick of the hallucinations. I'd rather just deal with the pain. It's the remnants of the concussion that Johanna gave me."
"They're letting you leave the hospital now, then?" Julie asked, brushing back a few stray hairs.
"They've been trying to get me to leave for weeks. I finally accepted the offer," I said.
"Really?" Alana asked, surprised.
Maybe people were a little more surprised than I had thought that they would be, now that I was finally up and moving around. "Yes. I'm ready to start... I don't know. Doing something," I muttered.
"We're very glad to hear that," Damien said, hugging me softly.
I nodded blankly at him, standing in silence with the family. "We hear that you're returning to District 12 today," Alana said, probably for the sake of conversation.
"Have they been telling everyone about that?" I asked curiously.
"They just let us know. We're family, you know," Skye said.
She wasn't even the Hadley's family, but I knew what she meant. No matter what, we were all family. "I know. I know that. I'm - I'm sorry," I said, stumbling over my words. "About when you came to visit me and I -"
"Aspen, you have nothing to apologize for," Alana said, interrupting my poor and pathetic attempt at an apology. Which I dumbly hadn't prepared. "You had just been through one of the most traumatic things that anyone could ever go through. You were under pressure from everyone and everything."
"I shouldn't have shouted at you all like that," I said.
"We should have given you more time," Alana said.
"We all did things wrong," Damien said, stepping in between the two of us. He placed a hand on each of our shoulders and we both smiled weakly at each other. "But we meant one thing that we said. We're your family. We're here for you. This isn't the time for us all to start pulling away from each other."
"I guess I'm just used to being on my own. Handling everything by myself and protecting everyone else - even Cato - from the truth. It's what I do," I said.
"We understand that. But you don't have to do it anymore. We're here for you," Julie said.
"Whenever you need us," Carrie added.
Slowly I nodded at them. "I'm going to District 12 because... I don't really know why," I admitted. "But I have to see it. I have to know what he did to my home. I can't just hear it. I need to see it."
"We understand," Carrie said.
"And once I see it... I'm going to agree to be the Mockingjay," I said determinedly.
That was when I saw it. The first spark of excitement that I'd seen on their faces in a long time. The first time that they'd looked like they might have had some faith that it could all work out. And it was the first time that I'd said it to someone other than Katniss and Gale. The entire family looked thrilled at the news. Skye and Julie exchanged an excitable look. The idea of being the Mockingjay was terrifying, but it was something that I would have to do. For Cato.
"Really?" Skye asked hopefully.
"Really," I confirmed.
"You have no idea how happy we are to hear that," Dean said.
"No happier than Coin will be," I pointed out. She would be thrilled that I wasn't fighting against her anymore. "Not that she likes me very much."
"She doesn't like anyone," Alana said.
"Definitely not me," I said.
"Doesn't matter. The people like you. That's what matters," Damien said.
Alana walked over and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Cato would be very happy to hear that you're going to be the Mockingjay. That's what he would have wanted. To know that you aren't going to give up," she said.
And I knew that she was right. I had always known that. "He's why I'm doing this. Why I'm agreeing to fight. Because I know that he would have wanted me to," I said weakly.
"He would," Alana confirmed.
For a moment I batted the idea back and forth about whether or not I should tell them. "I think he might still be alive," I spit out, before I could think better of it.
Obviously my words surprised them. Everyone looked over at me. I didn't want to give them false hope. I knew how cruel that was. But I also wanted them to know that there was the slightest chance that he was still alive. That was the chance that I was holding onto. Alana's face turned up in a small smile. Damien looked shocked. The others were exchanging looks with each other, trying to weigh whether or not my words had any merit.
"You do?" Julie asked.
"Sort of. I get the inkling that he might still be alive. Likely he already is dead. But there's a chance that he's still alive. Not doing well. They'll be hurting him. Torturing him. But they'll keep him around long enough to know whether or not I'm alive. And once they find out that I am, they'll use him against me," I explained.
They were all old enough to know the truth. Marley wouldn't understand me, anyways. "So we make sure that they don't know that you're alive," Aidan said, surprising me.
I'd gotten the feeling that he would never speak to me again. "I understand. Once you set foot in District 12, they'll likely know that you're alive," Dean said.
They would definitely know. Which was why I had to be the Mockingjay right after. Before they could do this again. "Yes. They'll hide it from the Districts, to keep them from banding together to fight, but they'll know. And soon enough they'll show me what they're doing to him," I said slowly.
Damien placed his hand on my shoulder. "It's okay. You fight, we move in on the Capitol, and we save him," Damien said determinedly.
That was when I saw it. The striking similarly that Cato had to his father. They didn't look that similar. Cato had light blonde hair while Damien had deep brown. But they both had those piercing blue eyes. They both had that fire that burned underneath their veins. Calm in the face of threat, but always ready to strike. His personality reminded me of what I knew Cato would have been like, had he gotten to grow a little older. He certainly was his father's son.
"And if not... It's okay. I might have lost a son, but I gained a daughter," Alana said.
I turned to her, smiling softly. She brought me into a hug. "Thank you, Alana. For everything," I whispered.
"Of course. You meant the world to Cato. More than anyone else ever could," Alana admitted.
"I know," I said, my voice breaking.
It was easy enough to see the looks of pity that the rest of the family were giving me. It was enough to make me blink back the tears that were threatening to fall. "I took something from the house before we left. I thought that you would want it. I was just waiting for the right time to give it to you," Carrie said.
It disturbed the quiet and peaceful world that we had been in a moment beforehand. My brow raised in curiosity. Carrie walked over to the dresser and picked something up. It was a photograph. A second later she handed it over to me. I took it and stared blankly. The breath immediately left my lungs. It was the picture of the two of us in the cave together on my birthday. The one that Cato had told me about. My head spun. Partially from the memory of the kiss and partially from the remnants of the concussion.
"Thank you," I said weakly.
"He used to say that it was that day, when he saw you on the riverbank, that he knew for a fact that he could never hurt you. Because of how he felt seeing you like that," Carrie said.
He had admitted to everyone that he knew he couldn't kill me when that had happened. "Yes... I know how he feels. That's how I feel right now. Knowing that he's hurt and there's nothing that I can do to help," I muttered.
"There is. Be the Mockingjay. Just like he would have wanted," Dean said.
"I'm trying," I said.
"You'll succeed. We believe in you," Damien said encouragingly.
"All of you?" I asked, looking around at the family.
"All of us," Aidan said.
I whipped back around to the young boy in surprise. "Thank you, Aidan," I said softly.
"And if Leah was here, she would have believed in you, too," Skye said.
"Speaking of Leah, I was wondering if I could ask you something," I said awkwardly to Alana and Damien.
"Of course," Alana said.
"I - I missed the funeral - which - which I'm sorry about, by the way," I stuttered.
"That's alright. We understand," Damien said quickly.
"But... Well... Where is she resting?" I asked, quickly realizing just how rude it was that I had said. "If you don't mind my asking."
Alana waved off my concern. "Oh. Of course not. They can't bury people in Thirteen. Not being below ground in essentially a metal container. The land above ground is too dangerous to use for burials, too. Not with the threat of incoming Capitol hovercrafts. They cremate those who die. Leah was cremated. Her urn... it's just over there," Alana said.
She was pointing off to the right. My gaze followed her hand and I saw it. There it was. Sitting right on top of the dresser. The ashes of a seven-year-old girl. My stomach churned in knots as my throat closed itself off. It was a soft green with a golden rim. It looked like it had been painted. It was likely just silver beforehand. There was even a painting on it. It was a pretty little tree. Something that looked like one of the oaks that were spread thinly over the woods back in District 12.
"I - I like the painting," I said weakly, searching for the right words.
"I did it. Cato took some painting lessons with us when he got back to Two. It helped him calm down," Julie explained.
So that was how he'd become a good artist. "Yeah... I saw some of them. They were really good. He did a self-portrait of me. The day before the Interviews..." I said weakly.
The family exchanged a quick look with each other. A moment later Skye walked over to the cabinet, pulled something out, and walked back over to me. "Is it this one?" she asked.
She handed me over the paper and I gasped. It the the drawing that he'd done. "Yes. How - How did you get this?" I asked, shocked.
"Seneca Crane brought it to us once we had been evacuated from District 2. He had gotten it from your bedroom, where Cato must have left it. He took it. Told us to do with it what we pleased," Skye explained. I smiled. Maybe Seneca really was my friend. "He would have wanted you to have it."
"I thought that it was lost," I whispered.
"Seneca must have known what it would mean to you," Alana said, smiling down at the picture.
"Thank you for giving it back," I said.
"You're welcome," Skye said.
We stood in silence for a few moments longer as I debated on how to bring up what I had wanted to come and ask them. It might not have been the nicest thing in the world that I could ask. It could end up sounding a little cruel. But it wasn't meant that way. I wanted to try and make things just a little bit better, a little bit easier, for them if I could. Since I couldn't do anything for Cato right now, maybe I could try to do something for Leah.
"I was - I was just wondering if you might want to do something a little... different for Leah," I stumbled over my words.
"How's that?" Damien asked.
"We have this Meadow back in District 12. It's where we spread the ashes of those who die. The children. These wildflowers grow out there. It's pretty. Untouched, I'm hoping, by the Capitol firebombs. I'll bring the urn back and you don't have to say yes. I understand if you want her to stay with you. But... I thought that you might want her to be in the Meadow," I explained.
Alana and Damien exchanged a look before smiling. "I think that we would love that," Alana said softly.
"Leah always did love flowers," Damien said.
"She would have liked to be in a field. With flowers," Carrie agreed.
"Like the one where Rue died." A small twitch from the memory of her. "Right?" Dean asked.
"Y - Yes. That's the Meadow that the song is about," I said.
"Leah liked that song," Alana said.
She must have heard me sing it when Rue was dying. "Cato did, too," I said softly.
"Did he?" Carrie asked.
"Yes. He asked me about it one day. When we were up on the roof, the day before the Interviews, I just started singing. After a while he asked me to sing the song that I sang Rue. And I sang it to him. He said that it was pretty. I told him that it was the meadow that I liked to imagine that everyone that I cared about was in. My parents, Thresh, Rue, Peeta, Cinna... Leah," I said.
Damien stepped forward at the mention of Cinna. "We were sorry to see what happened to Cinna," he said.
"That's okay," I said, even though it was anything but okay. "I thought that he was already dead. I wish that they had killed him earlier. I don't want him suffering."
"He loved you very much," Alana said.
"I know. I loved him, too," I said, remembering Cinna and I agreeing that we were each other's family. "I told Cato about the meadow and who I hoped was there. He told me that he would tell them that I said hello. He asked me if I thought that one day we would be in the meadow together. I told him that I believed that we had to be."
Out of the corner of my eyes I saw that Alana was crying softly. She must have never thought that Cato could be that kind of person. I hadn't thought so either. For so long I had thought that he was just a typical Career. But he had proven me wrong. Time and time again he had shown me the kind of person that he really was. The kind of man who would gladly give up his life for someone that he loved. Maybe that was why I hated him sometimes, too. Because he would be thrilled that I was still alive.
"That's good to hear," Alana whispered.
"He loved you so much," Skye said.
"I love him, too," I whispered.
"Take Leah," Alana said, handing me over the green urn. She took out a bag and let me slip the urn into it. "She would have wanted to be there."
"Thank you," I said.
A second later, there was a small tugging sensation at my ankles. I looked down and saw that Marley was motioning for me to pick her up. I leaned down and grabbed her, pulling her up into my chest, smiling down at her. She threw her arms around my neck and I noticed the rest of the family smiling softly as I laid my head down on top of hers. She reminded me of Prim when she had been a baby. She reminded me that there were still people out here to fight for.
"Will you sing?" Marley asked.
"Sing? What do you want me to sing?" I asked.
"About the meadow," Marley said.
The meadow was one of the hardest things to sing about. Because I now associated it with those who were closest to me. All of those people who had died. Everyone who I couldn't even count. My parents... Cinna... Rue... Peeta... Cato... Leah... The list just went on and on and on. And I knew that it wasn't going to end. People were going to keep dying all around me. But there was one thing that I could do. Fight back. Just keep fighting. I cleared my throat and looked down at Marley.
"Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you."
The entire family was watching and listening. Marley's eyes were drooping slightly. It had been designed as a lullaby. "I can see why he liked it," Alana finally said.
"I'll sing it when I..." I trailed off, unable to say it.
"Thank you," Alana said, her voice breaking.
"Of course," I said.
My stomach roiled painfully when I saw that Alana was crying softly. She had been through a lot recently. Too much for a good mother. I stepped forwards and gave her a tight hug, gradually tightening my grip after a moment. The rest of the family slowly joined in, closing in on us from the sides. To my surprise, so did Aidan. Katniss was right, as much as I hated to admit it. They were my family. I just wished that it hadn't taken me this long to figure it out.
We all stood together for a while longer. I felt Carrie rubbing my back and Dean squeezing my shoulder. Finally the door slid open. We all broke apart for a moment to see that Boggs was standing right in the doorway. We must have been almost ready to leave. Again, just like before, Boggs looked oddly uncomfortable at the display of emotion. So I nodded at Boggs, knowing that it was time to go, and straightened up when Damien placed a hand on my cheek, briefly touching the urn. Their final goodbye.
"We'll be ready to go to District 12 in about an hour," Boggs said.
"Okay," I said.
"Soldier Everdeen would like to speak to you," Boggs informed me.
It sounded almost strange. Katniss was a soldier. Technically, so was almost everyone in the Hadley compartment. "I'll be right there," I said.
"Go on. We'll see when you get back," Damien said.
"I'll take care of her. I promise," I said, keeping a tight grip on the urn.
"We know," Alana said.
"Stay safe out there," Carrie said, giving me another hug.
"You'll be on the headset. Just let them know if you need to come back," Julie told me.
But that wasn't something that I could do. "No. I don't want to, but I know that I have to. I need to see what he's done. It's just something that I have to do," I said determinedly.
It was something that no one liked, but most people understood. So the entire family nodded and gave me their final well-wishes. Once I was sure that they didn't need another second with the urn, I turned and headed out with Boggs. The two of us walked out and headed back into the hospital. It was the last time that I would be here. At least, until the next miserable thing happened to me. As far as now went, when I came back I would start staying with the Everdeen's in their cabin.
Just a few minutes after we left the member compartments, Boggs dropped me off in the hospital wing. He allowed me to change into some boots that were sturdier than the one that I had been wearing before. It was the only part of the new outfit that I was being given. Goosebumps rose over my arms when I realized that it was very likely that I would be walking over some disgusting things back in District 12. I didn't even want to think about what I would likely encounter.
That was something that I could put off for a while. Slowly I flexed my feet around in the boots. They were the same ones that the foot soldiers would wear with the rest of their uniforms. Even though I wasn't technically a soldier, I would be down on the ground and that meant keeping me a little more protected. My feet particularly, which would be very open to infection if they were cut up. No. I wasn't a soldier yet. Not until I could manage myself and my affairs. Which was going to start with today.
Unfortunately one of the things that I really didn't like was the fact that I wouldn't be allowed to have any weapons on me when I was in District 12. I had asked about it last night and they had told me that there was no reason to be giving me one. After all, they would be watching over me and keeping me safe. The knowledge that I wouldn't have a weapon while I was so close to the Capitol's reach put me on edge, but I had agreed to it. Because it would be the only way for me to see it.
In the meantime I started brushing my hair out to try and make myself look the slightest bit presentable. Not that it mattered. No one would be there to see me. But I knew that I had to at least look like I was trying and hadn't been trying to commit suicide in every way that I knew how over the past few weeks. I had to pull myself together. I just didn't want to get dressed up. Not when I was about to see the almost seven thousand people that I had killed.
Plus there was the thought lingering in the back of my mind, wondering if someone might manage to get some photographs of me or something of the likes. Not that I really cared what I looked like to anyone. Not even to myself. But if there was a chance that they could get a photograph, and if it got back to Snow, I didn't want him to realize just how much he had managed to mess me up. I wanted him to think that I was still just as strong as I had always been.
A while later the door opened and Katniss walked in. "I don't think I've seen you move with that much purpose in a long time," Katniss said, noting that I was pacing back and forth.
"Haven't had that much reason to move with purpose in a long time," I said.
"Fair. You gonna be okay with going?"
"No. But I have to see it. I asked to see it."
"You don't know what you're going to find down there."
"I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to see down there." We paused for a moment and I turned back to her. "Remember when Snow came to visit before the Victory Tour?" I asked.
"Yes," Katniss said, surprised.
"It wasn't just to visit me. It wasn't to check up on me. It wasn't even just to threaten Gale. He said something to me that I can't forget. Not then and especially not now. 'You should imagine thousands upon thousands of your people dead. This town of yours reduced to ashes. Imagine it gone. A radioactive buried under dirt as if it never existed, like District 13.' That was what he said to me when talking about my actions were causing the system to collapse," I said.
Katniss let out a deep breath. "Aspen," Katniss started, "you -"
"Can't even try to deny it," I finished. "Snow firebombing District 12 was my fault."
"But there's something that you can do to get him back for it."
"Yes. I can. And it starts with remembering who the enemy is and what they do."
That was what I needed to do. That was what would get me to finish this. "If that's what you need to do, let's do it," Katniss said, grabbing my shoulder and squeezing.
"Have you seen it?" I asked curiously.
"I saw it go up."
Her tone was short and shaky. It must have been a nightmare to watch our childhood home go up in flames. "But the aftermath?" I asked.
"No. No one's seen the aftermath. I don't think anyone really wanted to see it."
"Can't say that I blame them."
Katniss's gaze dropped down to the urn that was sitting on the table. "What is that?" she asked.
"The urn where they put Leah's ashes."
Her face paled. "What are you doing with it?" Katniss asked.
"I was thinking of heading out to the Meadow," I said, knowing that Katniss would know exactly which one I was talking about. "The meadow that I sang to Rue about. I was thinking that I could spread her ashes. Told them I'd sing the song while I did it. She likes flowers. Alana told me that."
"That's good of you, Aspen," Katniss said, looking a little sick. "So you've spoken to them?"
"Yes. I went to see them today."
"I bet they liked that."
"They seemed to. I apologized to them. They told me that I had nothing to apologize for."
"And they're right. You were distraught. No one blamed you."
"I blamed myself."
"I know. I like that painting," Katniss said, looking over the urn.
"Julie did it," I explained.
"Yeah. Cato apparently took some drawing class with Julie and Skye after we won the Games. Something to try and help him cope with what he'd done. He was good," I said slowly.
Katniss turned back to me curiously. "Did he ever draw something?" Katniss asked.
"Plenty. This is the only thing that I have," I said, placing the drawing of me on the table. A second later I pulled out the photograph of us in the cave. "They saved the picture from their house."
The corners of Katniss's lips turned upwards as she picked up the frame and smiled down at it. "I remember this. You looked so happy. So stunned. That was when I knew that neither one of you were acting," Katniss said.
I smiled and showed her the picture that Cato had drawn. "And Seneca saved this from Cato's room in the Capitol. Gave it to his family. They just gave it to me," I explained.
Katniss glanced down at it. Her eyes widened. "He did this?" she asked.
"It's good. It's really good. When did he do this?"
"The day before the Interviews. We were up on the rooftop. I was making a flower crown and singing. We were just enjoying the peace. He was drawing me and listening to my songs."
She smiled again. "I wish I could have seen you two. That day. Carefree. In love," Katniss said.
The two of us exchanged a little smile. It had been so long since we had just sat and laughed and smiled together. I wished that she could have been there that day. I wished that they all could have been. Although it might have made things a little awkward, since we really weren't wearing any clothes that day.
"Me, too. That was the day that we really just got to be ourselves. Nothing else there. No Games and no Capitol," I admitted.
"We're going to get there one day. I promise," Katniss said.
"I'm supposed to be the older sister. The one that protects you," I teased.
Katniss smirked at me. "Every now and again I can be there to protect you. After all, you've already done so much for me," she said.
"I love you, Cat," I said happily.
"I love you, too," she said.
The two of us stared at each other before I opened my arms and Katniss fell into them. Just as she used to when we were kids and Mr. Everdeen had died. We just stood together for a long time. Neither one of us dared to move away from each other for a long time. The hug was something that I had so desperately needed. We had both needed it. I had missed the feeling of just a simple human touch. A hug. The forms of comfort that I hadn't had from anyone in a long time.
When we finally released each other, Katniss looked back at me. "Can you pick up a few things from the house while you're there?" she asked.
"I've already got the list going in my head," I said.
"Thanks. Do you want me to go with you? I - I want to see it," Katniss said, not exactly looking sure of herself.
"I need to do this alone, Katniss. I'm sorry, but I have to do this alone."
"I understand. I would have wanted to do it alone."
"If you really want to know, I'll tell you about it when I get back," I promised, almost wishing that I hadn't.
"I'm not sure that I even want to know what it's like down there," Katniss said.
"I don't know if I even want to see it," I admitted.
"I'm proud of you, Aspen."
"Thanks, Cat. I'm proud of you, too, you know?"
"You've been so strong. Even more than me. You've been strong for me when I couldn't be. You've been my Mockingjay when I couldn't be. You and Prim. Both of you. You're my sisters and I'm so proud of you both," I told her honestly.
"We're proud of you, too," Katniss said.
And I always would be proud of them. Because I knew just how strong and brave they both were. The two of us just sat together for a while. We collapsed back on the bed as we waited for the hour to pass. It wasn't something that I wanted to do, go down to District 12, but I had to see it. Katniss definitely wasn't coming down into District 12 with me, but she would be up in the hovercraft, watching me from above. One of the many people who would be keeping an eye on me.
A while later Boggs arrived back in the room. Katniss and I straightened up as we looked at him. He gave us both scrutinizing looks, probably curious if we genuinely were ready to go. Which we weren't, but it was time. I had to see what they had done. I had to know just how bad things were. Boggs waited a moment before telling us that it was time to go. We both nodded - unable to bring ourselves to speak - and walked with him out of the hospital.
We walked through the halls together as my hands bunched at my sides. The whole thing was incredibly tense. Because I knew what I was about to see. We headed into one of the elevators that appeared to be for service out to the hangars. Boggs lifted up a door from the bottom and we stepped out together, heading straight into the hangar. Finally people weren't staring at me quite as much as they had been. Because they all knew where I was planning on going today and didn't want to make me feel worse.
My hands were now shaking even worse than they had been before. We would be in9 District 12 within the hour. And deep down I knew that I wasn't ready to see it yet. Because I knew what I was going to find. It horrified me, to think about what was going to happen. To think about everything that I had already caused. Now I was finally going to see it for myself. I was about to turn down another hallway that Boggs led me down when a loud shout echoed behind us.
"Just a second," I told Katniss and Boggs. They both nodded. I turned back to see that Dean was waiting for me. "Dean?"
"Almost forgot something," Dean said.
He handed me over the fabric bag that had Leah's urn. I had almost forgotten about taking it with me. "Oh. Right. Thanks for getting it back to me," I said dumbly, grabbing the bag.
We both hesitated. I got the feeling that Dean wanted to say something else. "You alright?" I asked.
"Just wondering if you'd like for someone to come with you. It might not be a great idea for you to be wandering around District 12 by yourself," Dean said.
His words made me smile slightly. Everyone kept offering to go with me. But I couldn't take anyone with me. "It's something that I have to do. I know District 12. If they're out there I can find a hiding spot. I'll know where to go. And I'll just have to wait for the hovercraft to come and get me," I said, trying to reassure him.
"They're not giving you a weapon?" Dean asked, spotting my empty hands.
"No. They don't think I'm stable enough yet," I said.
"That's a little funny, coming from some of them."
It was enough to make the corners of my lips tilt upwards. "I've thought the same thing. I miss the bow. I got rather attached to it over the past few months," I admitted.
"I can try and get you another one," Dean offered.
"Would they listen to you?" I asked.
"I'm on their security council. I might get a say in what we can do for the Mockingjay. Once you officially agree, at least," Dean said.
"I'd like that."
"We're on your side, Aspen. All of us. Me, too. And I can be there with you right now, if you want me to be."
"This is something that I have to do alone. But thank you. I appreciate it."
That was when I realized that maybe one day I would have wanted them to come back and see the District. "If they ever let me come back, if they even manage to calm everything down, I'll bring you back with me one day. I'll show you once it's safe to be out there. Once they... clean it up," I muttered, unable to say the truth of what they would have to do.
"I would like that," Dean said happily.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Why do you want to go to District 12?"
Obviously my question surprised him. "Excuse me?" Dean asked.
"Katniss wanted to go with me, too. But District 12 was her home. It's not your home. That's District 2, which, last I heard, was still standing," I said, trying to be as delicate as possible.
"Standing, but there have been a lot of issues there with Cato being in... the state he's in. Unknown, I mean," Dean said.
But at least they still had their home. "So why do you want to go to District 12?" I asked.
"Because Cato never really got the chance to see your home. He was there for a few minutes and a few hours a few different times. But he only saw your home and the Justice Building. That was it. He always wanted to see it, you know. He wanted to see the house that you grew up in. He wanted to see your Hob. He wanted to see the woods that you used to hunt in. And your meadow..." Dean trailed off, sounding like he might have been getting choked up.
Leaning over, I placed a hand on his arm. "Yeah. We used to talk about how I would walk him around the District and bore him silly with stories about what each place meant to me," I said, smiling fondly.
"He really wanted to see it, believe it or not," Dean said.
"He said that he did."
"For him, I wanted to see it. Since he might not ever get the chance to see District 12, I wanted to do it for him," Dean explained.
Immediately I knew that Dean was someone that was like an older brother. He was the kind of older brother that I would have wanted. He was the kind of older brother that I had now. Whether or not I wanted him around. He was family now. Something that I hadn't thought that I would ever have again. I had been so convinced that the last of my family was gone. But they weren't. It turned out that I had an astounding amount of family members still around. But I could handle myself.
"You know, Dean, you don't have to watch out for me. I think I've got enough people here watching out for me," I said, motioning around to everyone watching us.
"But how many of them do you trust?" Dean asked.
The truth was, I didn't trust very many of them. I trusted Katniss and Gale, of course. I had known them forever. I trusted Cato's friends and family, but I still had a hard time looking them in the eye. I likely would for a while. I trusted Prim and Ms. Everdeen, but they weren't fighters. Unfortunately my trust with Haymitch was broken and I had never trusted Plutarch. Coin was a definite no. I wanted to try and trust Seneca. Boggs was slowly starting to gain my trust.
"Very few," I admitted.
"You're my sister, Aspen. Whether or not you like it. Now and always. The only thing that I ever wanted was for Cato to find himself a good girl. And I know that he found one. With or without Cato, I'll always protect you," Dean said determinedly.
A good older brother. Protecting his likely deceased brother's wife. "Thank you. I don't need it, but thank you," I said honestly.
"I see why he was in love with you," Dean said, giving me a fond smile.
"Thanks," I said, blushing softly.
"I always knew that Cato wasn't just the Career-driven kid that he showed himself to be. I saw who he was at home. I knew that he wasn't like that. Not really. When I saw him with you in the Games, I realized that it would just take the right person to bring it out. And that person was you. You brought out the man that I knew that he was," Dean said.
"Is that why you don't hate me?" I asked.
"Yeah. Because I know just how happy you made him. And, no matter what's happening or will happen or has happened to him, he would think that it was all worth it. Just to get to know you," Dean said.
No matter what happened to him... He was right about that. I knew that he was. "I think I needed to hear that," I said, my hands relaxing slightly.
"Come by if you ever need to hear it again, okay?"
"Be careful out there. We'll see you back here soon," Dean promised.
The moment that he brought me into a hug I realized that I definitely would take him up on his offer to go and talk about Cato. Something that I hadn't wanted to talk about beforehand. But I knew that I did miss him. I wanted to talk to him. Because he knew my husband. Likely better than anyone. As we pulled apart, Dean placed a little peck on my cheek. I knew that this was what it would have been like to really have a brother. But, I supposed that he was my brother now.
But it was also that little peck on the cheek that told me something that I had been trying to fight back against. It told me that Gale was something more to me than just a brother. Because I felt something more than being with Dean. Not to the level that I felt with Cato, but there was definitely something there. And it was more than having just known him for a longer time. I knew that there was something there. But it wasn't something that I was anywhere near ready to acknowledge. Not now. Not ever.
After waving to Dean, I walked up to Katniss and Boggs, where they were waiting for me. "Okay," I said, nodding at them and adjusting the strap of the bag.
"Are you ready to go?" Katniss asked.
"Yeah. I think so. Let's get this over with," I said.
"Come on, then," Katniss said.
We would likely be back in District 13 within a few hours. I was already antsy to get back to District 13. I knew the horror that awaited me. At least I would be able to go back and be with my family. I would be heading straight back to the barracks the moment that I arrived back in Thirteen. Right now they were still trying to wean me off of the medicine so that I would no longer be under the influence of Morphling, which was both terrifying and thrilling.
As Boggs walked Katniss and I over to the hovercraft that would take me to District 12, I looked over it. Suddenly bile built in the back of my throat. We hadn't even moved yet and and I was already nervous. Because the hovercraft here looked just like the one that took the Tributes to the arena. It was rising on a platform as men and women were walking back and forth around it. Likely getting ready for takeoff. The doors opened on the other side of the launch pad, filling the hangar with light.
That was when I realized that I would finally see the outdoors. Something that I hadn't seen in a long time. Not since I had left the Capitol for the Quell. The plank for the hovercraft was already lowered and I let out a little groan. I felt like I was walking to my death. I felt like I was about to be back in the arena. Which, I supposed, in a way, I was. Because this was something that the same people who had tortured me in the arena had done.
Sirens and bells were echoing everywhere. My eyes widened when I realized that someone was standing near the lowered plank. We were about halfway there when I spotted Gale there. Of course he would already be here. Waiting for me. Leaving Boggs and Katniss behind, I rushed forwards and flung myself into his arms to embrace him. He tightened his arms around my back as I pressed my chin against his shoulder. We were best friends. I just had to remember that.
"I can't believe you're going through with this," Gale muttered in my ear. A moment later he released me and I stepped back. "You can say no."
"I need to see it for myself," I said determinedly.
"This way," Boggs said.
He was motioning towards the hovercraft. Boggs stood back behind us as Gale, Katniss, and I walked forward. Katniss and Gale trailed behind me as I walked in. The doors to the hovercraft closed as the engines began to whir and it raised up into the air. My entire body tensed as I remembered how I felt the first time that I was on one of these things. Gale stopped and looked over at me. I smiled and shook my head nervously and somewhat awkwardly.
"You okay?" Gale asked.
Katniss looped her arms over my shoulders. "We can stop this if you need. Or we can do in there with you," she offered.
"No. No. I need to see it. Sorry... This just looks like the hovercrafts that they use to take us into the Games," I said, looking around the darkened area.
"We'll give you a minute if you need," Katniss offered.
"No. I'm fine. Let's go," I said.
That was all that it took for them to realize that it was time. Now or never. And it had to be now. Immediately I took a seat near the front of the hovercraft, with Katniss on one side and Gale on the other. To my surprise, Boggs would not be going with us. But everyone would be watching out for me while I was back in Twelve. They would have visuals on me and they were giving me some type of comm to use so that we could speak and I could let them know if I needed to leave.
The hovercraft jerked slightly before rising into the air and shooting straight forward. I watched the windows for a while to see what was happening. I could see that we were leaving something that looked like a cave. As we flew through the air I noticed that everything around Thirteen was woods. Very pretty, a little greener than the woods back in Twelve. Of course the rest of Panem didn't know that they were out here. It just looked like empty woods.
The entire ride took about an hour. It turned out that District 13 hadn't been very far from District 12. Especially not with the ability to travel by hovercraft. The entire ride was spent with Katniss and Gale trying to get me to talk to them. Probably trying to make me feel a little better before having to see one of the worst sights that I ever would. I barely responded to them as they tried to talk to me. I was much more concerned about what I would find.
"What's in the urn?" Gale asked, spotting it inside my bag.
"Leah's ashes," I answered bluntly.
Katniss had already known what was in there, but she didn't like hearing it again. I could tell. Gale flinched slightly. Neither one of them wanted a little girl to die. They didn't want anyone to die. Except those who deserved it, of course. I knew that while Gale might not have loved Cato, he did like how he was always willing to save me. And he didn't have an issue with the two little girls in his family. They probably reminded him of Posy.
"I'm going to go to the Meadow at some point. Spread her ashes out there. It's more peaceful than being trapped underground in Thirteen," I explained.
"That's good of you," Gale said.
"She would have loved it," Katniss said.
"Yeah. The flowers out there are beautiful," Gale said.
They were trying to make me feel better. But I couldn't bring myself to say anything more. So I just leaned back in the chair again and pressed my head back against the cold metal. My hands gently ran over Leah's urn. Pain and loss. I had suffered so much of it recently. And I had realized something. They defined me as much as happiness or love did. Whether a world, or a relationship... Everything had its time, and everything ended. But until my time came, I would make something out of that pain and loss.
Finally the hovercraft gave a little lurch and I felt us dropping through the air. I didn't look off through the windows. I didn't want to see what was happening out there. We were back in District 12. Finally. As I tried to glace out, just to see something, but I wasn't tall enough to see out of them. Gale and Katniss were giving me concerned looks, probably trying to see if I would back out of it now that we were here. But I wouldn't. I took in a deep breath as the ramp lowered.
The three of us got up and stood at the edge of the ramp, holding onto the roof as we got to the ground. "Thirteen swept everything, top to bottom so you'd be safe," Gale called loudly, over the roar of the engine. "You sure you don't want me to go with you?"
"Yeah. I'm sure," I said.
"Call us if you need someone to come with you," Katniss prodded.
"I'll manage," I said.
"We'll have our eyes on you from above," Gale said.
"It's fine. I'll see you in an hour," I called back.
"Be careful," Katniss said.
The protective one, as always. It was something that had come out the moment that Prim was born. She became the protector. Something that I had always been. Which was exactly how we had ended up volunteering for Prim not that long ago. The two of them gave me quick hugs but they didn't linger for that long. Which was good, because I couldn't bring myself to hug them back. They didn't seem offended. Because they knew that I wasn't into it. Not right now.
They finally released me and I stumbled weakly out of the hovercraft. I wanted my bow with me. I had a terrible feeling that something was going to jump out and kill me. I knew that they were watching me as I stepped fully out of the hovercraft. The moment that I had and I was clear of the machine, it rose back up into the air. And that was when I realized just how bad it was. Because I was immediately hit with a pile of soldering ash and half-destroyed buildings.
The scent of smoke and ash was still heavy in the air. It smelled like they had bombed Twelve just days ago, not almost five weeks ago. It must have been bad if it was still this horrible out here. The smell in the air reminded me of the fire that the Gamemakers had set during the Games last year. It made my eyes water and the back of my throat burn. I was all too familiar with how it felt. Ash was blown into my face by the wind and I leaned over, coughing to try and clear it from my system.
It wasn't so bad that I needed to lean over and vomit like I had then. But that was when I realized something even more awful than all of this. People must not have just died from the firebombs. It was so much worse than that. Some of them likely had, but many of them must have died from smoke inhalation. Just the way that I almost had. I remembered the way that it felt like my internal organs were actually being cooked and how each breath had sent a searing pain through me. I knew how painful it was.
As I looked off into the distance I realized that this entire thing was a complete nightmare. Everything was still smoking, like it had just been burned down a few days ago. And the colors... District 12 had never been a particularly bright and shiny place. But we'd had the natural browns and whites. The colors that had always shown me just how simple we were. But I had loved it. And now the colors were gone. Everything, every single thing, was gray. Even the air seemed to hold a gray tinge.
Slowly I started to move forwards towards the Hall of Justice. The Justice Building. The very place where my own Reaping took place was burned to the ground and destroyed. Only a piece of the sign remained, sitting half-buried under the rubble that was once the magnificent building. It was hard to walk towards it as every step was covered with rubble. It made it very hard to keep my balance as I paced through the streets, getting closer and closer to the building.
Only the very shell of the building remained. I could see all of the wiring and piping that kept the building once standing that was sticking out. The stage that the Reapings occurred on was buried underneath the rubble. But I knew where I was. The same place that I had stood not even two months ago. When my second Reaping had happened. Where everything had really changed. My hand gently brushed over the rubble. Still hot. How was it still hot? Had the firebombs been that hot?
Fire... The Girl on Fire... If these hadn't been people that I loved, I might have laughed. Because Snow was very good at getting to me. He always had been. He knew what my weaknesses were and he knew how I would respond. He knew that I would hate seeing this. He knew that it would break me. I gently stumbled through more of the remains and I turned around in a circle, staring in horror at the bits of District 12 that remained.
Only the shells of all of the buildings remained. And those were only the buildings that had managed to survive the bombing. The stone and metal buildings. What had happened to the wooden homes? They must have been ash by now. I breathed in heavily - taking in more ash - before letting out a deep breath. My hands were shaking. I was terrified by the sight of it. This was what Snow had done. To destroy me. He had destroyed District 12. And almost everyone in it.
It was very hard to force myself to keep moving. I almost wanted to go back to the hovercraft. The further that I got in, the harder that it would become. But I had to see it. So I fought my way back to my old home. It was almost impossible to walk over the rubble and remains of the bombing. All of the paths and streets were gone. With each step that I took the rocks slid out from underneath me and I would come close to falling over. But I managed to keep myself upright.
Gradually I made my way to what I assumed was the interior of one of the larger marketplace shops. It was hard to tell without a point of reference. And I hadn't spent much time in the marketplace anyways. Even after winning the Games, I had always wanted to support those in the Hob. So I had gone and bought from them. Even things that I didn't need. Sometimes just to give it to those who did need it. As I attempted to walk down a sloping pile of rocks, I practically fell to the ground.
Everything kept shifting with my weight. I started walking back up an incline towards what would lead me to what remained of the Seam when I brought my foot down. Something cracked underneath it. I glanced down and slowly moved my foot off to the side. I immediately stumbled backwards as my hand shot to my mouth and I breathed out weakly. It was a human skull. Despite my best efforts to calm down, I couldn't. My entire body erupted into horrible quakes as I continued on.
The only thing that I wanted was to get away from the remains. So I stumbled backwards with my hand still over my mouth. It was the only thing that I could do to keep from screaming. I tried to tell myself that they were already dead. There was nothing that I could do to help them now. So I continued climbing up the rubble of what had once been a building. I was heading straight for where my home used to be in the Seam. But the moment that I made it over the crest I realized that the skull was nothing.
Because, right in front of me, was the worst sight that I had ever seen. Worse than anything that the Hunger Games could have thrown at me. Just two feet away from me was the beginning of thousands and thousands of human remains. Covered in ash. Barely recognizable. Some were piles of bones while others still retained their shape. The ash having settled over them only gave them a gray tint, adding to the obvious recognition that they were dead.
Some of the bodies still had their arms thrown up. It was obvious enough that they had been trying to crawl out. They must have been desperately trying to claw their way out of what had become their death chamber. Each one of them was someone that I had known. Someone that I might have spoken to. Someone that I might have loved. Not far from me was a dog sifting through the remains. Trying to find a meal. My breaths were coming in ragged gasps as I stumbled towards the remains.
Suddenly I was unable to hold my own weight anymore. I collapsed to the ground, my legs becoming rubbery and useless. I weakly crawled through the rubble, fighting back tears, staring down at the rocks and bones, trying to drag myself through the bodies. It was almost impossible to stop myself from having a panic attack. One that likely would never end. My entire body was shaking so badly that I could hardly breathe or move. This was what had become of my home.
Eventually I had managed to drag myself away from the bodies. I couldn't go through there. Because I would just want to sit and wish that I was dead with them. So instead I forced myself to my feet and tucked tail. I sprinted back through the remains of District 12 and away from the bodies of all of those who I had killed. My legs were shaking as I ran and more than once I collapsed when a piece of the debris would shift under my feet. But I refused to stop. I had to flee.
It was like with the Jabberjay's. I couldn't face them, so I had to run. On and on. Until I finally made it to a place that looked a little familiar. Some sense of normalcy. The scent of the flowers was barely enough to distract from the scent of smoke back in the District. I was in the Meadow. The Meadow just outside of the woods. It was the one place that I had seen in District 12 so far that looked like it might have been untouched. The sight of it made me take it as a good sign. It would be a happy place for Leah.
Keeping my voice low, I sat back on my knees and opened up the urn as I prepared to give the same goodbye that I had to Peeta's parents at his funeral. "Those we love don't go away, they walk beside us every day, unseen, unheard, but always near, still loved, still missed and very dear. For you, Leah," I whispered.
"Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you."
The moment that I finished the song, I tilted the open urn over and released the ashes. The wind gently carried them away just a moment later. I watched for a long time, knowing that I was wasting my hour away, but refusing to move. I hoped that her ashes never got mixed into the ashes that were all that remained of District 12. I never wanted her to know about the horrors that killed her. I wanted her to be at peace in the Meadow. Maybe with Cato. Where I would eventually meet them.
Once I had managed to get back to myself, knowing that I had a limited amount of time to do everything that I needed to do, I knew that it was time for me to leave. I still felt horrible about everything that I had seen, but I did feel the slightest bit better about Leah. Taking a deep breath, I knew that it was time to head home. To all of them. The little one that I'd lived in back in the Seam. The one that the Everdeen's had shared next door. And the home we had in Victor's Village.
So I trekked back to my old home in the Seam. In the remains of what had once been District 12. I couldn't get over it. District 12 was gone and we were never going to get it back. Eventually I made my way over to my little shack. The snow didn't collapse the roof as I had thought that it would. As I had been expecting. But it was too early for the heavy snow anyways. Instead the ash had settled completely over the house, almost burying it. I ignored the call that it was almost time to leave and walked forward.
They weren't getting me to leave until I was good and ready. Instead I got down on my hands and knees and spent at least ten minutes trying to dig out the door to my house. Once I had, I entered the house. I folded up the bag that Dean had given me and grabbed my own game bag, tucking in their bag and Leah's urn. They would want it back. As I walked through the house, not that it was very much, I glanced around. The ash had dyed everything an ugly gray.
But the house had always been a tiny and pathetic little thing. I was surprised that it was even still standing. But I lived pretty far back in the Seam and most of the damage had been done up near the Square. Most of the damage out here was the ash. I walked over to the dresser and picked up the black-and-white photograph that I had of my parents, giving them a silent apology. Since I had destroyed their home. Then I took my father's hunting jacket and slipped it over my shoulders.
A moment of comfort. I missed the feeling of having my parents near me. A moment later I started to pace around the house, touching everything. One last time, because I doubted that anyone would ever let me come back here. Not just because of security, but because of my sanity. They were concerned enough about this visit. I touched the scorched cabinet that Katniss gave me before leaving the house, saying my final goodbye, and headed over to the Everdeen house.
Theirs was much easier to enter. I just had to force the door open and slip in through the narrow crack that I made. I stared down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settled on the tough leather. While my home was mostly untouched by the damage, their home was much worse out. It was larger and heavier. It had clearly taken more damage. My house must have been hidden by theirs. At least most of our things were in the house in Victor's Village. I froze after a few seconds.
Now I knew exactly where I was. Right where I was standing was the bed where Katniss had shared with Prim had stood. The bed that we had all crammed into so many times before. It was long gone by now, mixed in with the rest of the ashes of the house. Over just a few feet from where I stood was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provided a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I have oriented myself in the sea of gray?
Almost nothing remained of District 12. I realized it the more that I looked around. Everything was gone. As Katniss' voice came through my headset she told me that the only area that escaped incineration was the Victor's Village. Who could guess why? Perhaps so anyone forced to come here on Capitol business would have somewhere decent to stay. The odd reporter. A committee assessing the condition of the coal mines. A squad of Peacekeepers checking for returning refugees.
But no one was returning except me. At least, from Thirteen. And this was only a brief visit. Last night had been a rather large argument over my visit. The authorities in District 13 were against my coming back. They viewed it as a costly and pointless venture, given that at least a dozen invisible hovercraft were circling overhead for my protection and there was no intelligence to be gained. I had to see it, though. So much so that I made it a condition of my cooperating with any of their plans.
They knew that this was the only way to even hope that I was going to work with them. Finally, Plutarch threw up his hands in frustration. He had already agreed but the District 13 leaders were not happy when they'd heard the plan. He had given them the same argument he'd given me. That they might as well let me go. Better to waste another day than another month and how a tour of Twelve would be just what I needed to convince me that we were on the same side.
The same side. Were we honestly on the same side? I couldn't even think straight. But we couldn't have been on the same side. Not completely, because they never told me the truth. Because they never told me the damn plan that helped get District 12 burned to the ground. A pain stabbed my left temple and I pressed my hand against it. Right on the spot where Johanna Mason hit me with the coil of wire. The memories swirled as I tried to sort out what was true and what was false.
What series of events led me to be standing in the ruins of my city? That was hard because the effects of the concussion she gave me still hadn't completely subsided and my thoughts now were definitely having a tendency to jumble together. And the drugs were still making me see things. If I hadn't known that Snow was really as cruel as he was, I would have thought that the bodies that I'd seen back in the Square were a hallucination. My hands started to shake again.
It was enough to tell me that I would be in a state of panic in a matter of minutes. Not something that I could afford. They would come down here and drag me out, kicking and screaming if they had to. But I wasn't done here yet. There was something that I still had to do. So I used the technique one of the doctors suggested. Starting with the simplest things that I knew to be true and worked toward the more complicated. The list began to roll in my head as it had so many times before.
My name is Aspen Antaeus. I am twenty years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games twice. I escaped once. I was pulled out the second time. The Capitol hates me. So many people have died because of me. District 12 was burned to the ground because of my actions. Cato was taken prisoner. He is thought to be dead. Most likely he is dead. It is probably best if he is dead...
"Aspen. Should I come down?"
Gale's voice reached me through the headset that the rebels insisted that I wear. He was up in the hovercraft with Katniss and a few other men, watching me carefully, ready to swoop in if anything went amiss. I realized that I was crouched down now, elbows on my thighs, my head braced between my hands. I must have looked on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Which I might have been. It wouldn't do. Not when they were finally weaning me off the medication. I straightened up and waved his offer away.
"No. I'm fine."
To reinforce my words, which I knew that he didn't believe, I began to move away from my old house and back in toward the town. Not that I wanted to be there. But because I knew that it was the way back towards where I needed to be. I was grateful that Gale and Katniss hadn't pushed coming into Twelve with me. They both understood that I didn't want anyone with me today. Not even them. Some walks you had to take alone. And I didn't want them to see what I had done.
The summer had been scorching hot and dry as a bone. There had been next to no rain to disturb the piles of ash left by the attack. Which only made things even worse. There was no rain to even start to wash away the aftermath of the attack. They shifted here and there, in reaction to my footsteps. But that was it. The little breeze that had been present before, while I had scattered Leah's ashes, was gone. Now there was no breeze to scatter them. Now that Leah was gone, so was the breeze.
As I walked I kept my eyes on what I remembered as the road. As I continued on I managed to walk straight into another skull. I accidentally kicked it and watched as it went flying away from me. It rolled over and over and landed face up, and for a long time I couldn't stop looking at the teeth, wondering whose they were. Probably someone that I had spoken to a million times before. Then I was thinking of how mine would have probably looked the same way under similar circumstances.
Eventually I managed to convince myself to keep walking. I stuck to the road out of habit, but it was a bad choice, because it was full of the remains of those who tried to flee. Just like in the street back near what used to be the Square. Some were incinerated entirely. But others, probably overcome with smoke, escaped the worst of the flames and now laid reeking in various states of decomposition, carrion for scavengers, blanketed by flies. My hands started to shake again. Seven thousand dead. All my kills.
In the Hunger Games, we were credited for those we killed or had a hand in killing. I was credited with over seven thousand people. An entire District, dead, because of me. I saw the remains of a body, someone with only one arm, and stifled a sob. Ripper. The woman who had so often told me how to handle Haymitch. Who had been one of the few to never treat me like a broken doll after I came back from the Games the first time. Eventually I forced myself to keep walking, passing more piles of remains.
I killed you. And you. And you.
Because I did. It was my arrow, aimed at the chink in the force field surrounding the arena, that brought on the firestorm of retribution. That sent the whole country of Panem into chaos. Everything that was happening in the Districts right now, all of the people who were still dying for the rebellion, more and more every day, were dead because of me. No matter who was pulling the trigger. In my head I heard President Snow's words, spoken the morning I was to begin the Victory Tour.
"You should imagine thousands upon thousands of your people dead. This town of yours reduced to ashes. Imagine it gone. A radioactive buried under dirt as if it never existed, like District 13. You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Antaeus. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war?"
It turned out that he wasn't exaggerating or simply trying to scare me. He was, perhaps, genuinely attempting to enlist my help. But I had already set something in motion that I had no ability to control. And it was getting worse and worse by the day. The only good thing was that there was a chance that there would never be another Hunger Games. Because everyone in the world will be dead by the time that this war is over.
As I continued walking, I spotted another skull. There were so many laying everywhere. I was starting to get a little numb to seeing them.I stopped long enough to lean down and look at it. Did I know them? Probably. If not by name, by face. Because everyone knew their precious Victor. I could tell by the appearance of it that it was from a child. I put a hand over my mouth and let out a dry sob. More children, just like Leah, dead because of me.
Burning. Still burning, I thought numbly. The fires at the coal mines belched black smoke in the distance. I hadn't even realized that they would still be burning. Of course they would. No one put them out. There was no one left to care, though. More than ninety percent of the District's population was dead. We were mostly extinct. The remaining eight hundred or so were refugees in District 13 - which, as far as I was concerned, was the same thing as being homeless forever.
In the back of my mind I knew that I shouldn't have thought that; I knew that I should have been grateful for the way we had been welcomed. Sick, wounded, starving, and empty-handed. Still, I could never get around the fact that District 13 was instrumental in Twelve's destruction. That didn't absolve me of blame - there was plenty of blame to go around. But without them, I would not have been part of a larger plot to overthrow the Capitol or had the wherewithal to do it.
The citizens of District 12 had no organized resistance movement of their own. No say in any of this. They only had the misfortune to have me. Some survivors thought it was good luck, though, to be free of District 12 at last. To have escaped the endless hunger and oppression, the perilous mines, the lash of our final Head Peacekeeper, Romulus Thread. To have a new home at all was seen as a wonder since, up until a short time ago, we hadn't even known that District 13 still existed.
The credit for the survivors' escape had landed squarely on Gale's shoulders, although he was loath to accept it. As soon as the Quarter Quell was over - as soon as I had been lifted from the arena - the electricity in District 12 was cut, the televisions went black, and the Seam became so silent, people could hear one another's heartbeats. No one did anything to protest or celebrate what had happened in the arena. Yet within fifteen minutes, the sky was filled with hovercrafts and the bombs were raining down.
The wedding was a cover-up formed by Plutarch Heavensbee to bring in my family and Cato's and warn them what was going to happen in the arena. He had warned them to be prepared. The only good thing that he had done for me. It had informed them to be weary of an attack once the arena was destroyed. But they hadn't known what I would do and they hadn't known what the Capitol would do. They had only been prepared for a potential and likely attack.
District 2 had been placed under martial law. Because they were favored from the Capitol - and because Cato hadn't been stupid enough to jam his sword into the force field - they had been left mostly alone. Cato's family had evacuated to save themselves from a type of interrogation. Skye and Julie had come with them, as had a few other of Cato's friends. People that I hadn't met yet and didn't really feel the need to. It was during their evacuation that Leah had been killed.
Back in District 12, it was Gale and Katniss who thought of the Meadow, one of the few places not filled with old wooden homes embedded with coal dust. He herded those he could in its direction, including Katniss, Prim, and Ms. Everdeen. They had been concerned that the Capitol would do something extraordinarily cruel, which they had been completely right about. Which was a good thing. They might have saved no one if they hadn't reacted when they did.
Gale had formed the team that pulled down the fence - now just a harmless chain-link barrier, with the electricity off - and led the people into the woods. He and Katniss had managed to keep everyone who survived out of the sight of the Capitol bombers. They took them to the only place that they could think of, the lake that Katniss's father had shown us as children. And it was from there that they watched the distant flames eat up everything that they knew in the world.
By dawn the bombers were long gone, the fires dying, and the final stragglers were rounded up. Ms. Everdeen and Prim had set up a medical area for the injured and were attempting to treat them with whatever they could glean from the woods. It hadn't been easy, but apparently it had worked out alright. They had managed to keep everyone alive until they got to District 13. The real problem had been finding enough food to keep everyone from starving to death.
Thankfully, being raised in District 12, they were used to not having enough food. But not for days on end. They had all known that they would have to do something. Snares had been one thing, but they had only had so much rope and twine to use. And they had to wait for animals to cross their paths. So they had done as we normally did. Gale and Katniss had three sets of bows and arrows, one hunting knife, one fishing net, three throwing knives and over eight hundred terrified people to feed.
With the help of those who were able-bodied, they managed for three days. As they had both told me, they likely wouldn't have been able to make it much longer. People had already started to collapse but no one had died. They were in for trouble if they couldn't figure out what to do soon. And that was when the hovercraft unexpectedly arrived to evacuate them to District 13, where there were more than enough clean, white living compartments, plenty of clothing, and three meals a day.
The compartments had the disadvantage of being underground, the clothing was identical, and the food was relatively tasteless, but for the refugees of Twelve, those were minor considerations. They were safe. They were being cared for. They were alive and eagerly welcomed. That enthusiasm was interpreted as kindness. But a man named Dalton, a District 10 refugee who had made it to Thirteen on foot a few years ago, leaked the real motive to me about a week ago.
"They need you. Me. They need us all. Awhile back, there was some sort of pox epidemic that killed a bunch of them and left a lot more infertile. New breeding stock. That's how they see us."
Back in District 10, he had worked on one of the beef ranches, maintaining the genetic diversity of the herd with the implantation of long-frozen cow embryos. He was one of the few people that spoke to me like I was just a normal human being. He had found me one day after having a nightmare. He hadn't tried to calm me down. He had just spoken to me. But it had actually made things a little bit better. As bitter as Dalton was, I almost liked seeing him around. Because I was bitter, too.
He was very likely right about Thirteen, because there didn't seem to be nearly enough kids around. But so what? We weren't being kept in pens, we were being trained for work and the children were being educated. Those over fourteen had been given entry-level ranks in the military and were addressed respectfully as 'Soldier.' Every single refugee - from District 12 and beyond - was granted automatic citizenship by the authorities of Thirteen.
Still, I hated them. Those in Thirteen, all of the refugees, and every single other person who was still breathing. But, of course, I hated almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone. Although as much as I hated them, I really hated seeing District 12 in the state that it was in. Because I had grown up here. These people, as much as I had hated some of them, had watched me grow up. Some of them had loved my parents. What would they have said if they could have seen what I had done to their home?
The surface beneath my feet hardened, and under the carpet of ash, I felt the paving stones of the Town Square. I must have circled the District at least three times. But I couldn't stop walking. I just had to see what was going on. There was another call from Gale and I asked him to give me another half hour. The authorities wouldn't be happy with me, but Gale wouldn't argue. Around the perimeter of the Square was a shallow border of refuse where the shops stood.
A heap of blackened rubble had replaced the Justice Building. I crossed over it, at least knowing that no Reaping would ever be held here again. I walked to the approximate site of the bakery Peeta's family owned. Nothing much left but the melted lump of the oven. Peeta's parents, his two older brothers - none of them made it to Thirteen. Fewer than a dozen of what passed for District 12's well-to-do escaped the fire. Maybe it was a good thing that he was already dead.
Everything that he loved was gone. Now I just had to hope that he was in the meadow with his family. I felt sick at the thought that so many people in District 2 were dead, too. Plutarch had mentioned to me last night that there was a small rebel force there. They were the ones who had stuck up for Cato and me after the collapse of the arena. Many of them were killed. Cato's home was likely burned to the ground. His sister was dead, too. He wouldn't have had much to come home to. Except me...
There was a little bit of the shell of the bakery left. And the second floor - where they had lived - was still standing in some place. Maybe I could get up there. As I walked in, the first thing that I spotted was four bodies. Burned to a crisp, huddled together. His family. Rye, my friend. My legs buckled as I turned backwards and sprinted up the stairs that would likely collapse at any moment. It was a good thing that I hadn't eaten much lately. I had lost weight. Obviously enough to keep the stairs from breaking.
I couldn't even pretend that Peeta's family might have made it somewhere else. They were dead. Right downstairs. My breathing came in labored gasps as I leaned up against the wall upstairs. As my gaze slowly turned upwards I realized where I was. It was a place that I had only been in once before. I had ran straight into what was once Peeta's room. It hadn't been redecorated since his death. And it had been mostly untouched by the bombs. Just as my home had been mostly standing.
His family had let me in here just a few weeks after the Games so that I could see it. But I had barely been able to stand being in here back then. Now I wanted to linger. So I slowly paced back and forth through the room, also well aware that the floor might collapse. His room was nice. There were paintings sitting everywhere. Most of them were half-finished. A good amount of them had ash settled over them and some were burned from the heat of the bombs. He even had one painting still sitting out.
It was right on his bed. The paints and brushes were sitting off to the side. He must have been doing it before the Reaping. He had thought that he would be coming straight back here. He had never gotten the chance to finish it. I picked up the little painting, no bigger than a dish plate, and sobbed softly. It was of the meadow. He must have been thinking about it. I had seen Peeta the day before the Reaping. He must have been thinking about drawing Katniss and I into it. I saw the hints of blonde and brown.
Many of his paintings had Katniss and me in them. I had noticed that the first time that I had been in here. As I walked back and forth through the room, I picked up the painting and tucked it into the bag. I also grabbed one of his paintbrushes, a few cans of paint, and a plaque. It was the plaque that Peeta's family had received for his death. It wasn't the nicest memory, but I couldn't bring myself to leave it here. I wanted the memory of Peeta with me, not in this horrible place.
My stomach was churning in knots as I looked over the remains of the bakery. Not much and it would continue collapsing over the next few weeks. Soon it would be nothing but rubble, just like the rest of District 12. I walked back out and down the stairs. Just three steps from the bottom, the stairwell collapsed. I dropped to the ground and rolled forwards, grunting from the impact, and sprawling out a few feet from the base of the stairs. And right in front of the remains of Peeta's family.
It was enough to get me to gasp loudly and jump back to my feet. Gale's voice came back over the comm, asking me if I was okay, but I ignored him. Quickly I backed away from the bakery and bumped straight into something. Not again. I needed to pay more attention. Before I could stop myself, I lost my balance, fell backwards, and found myself sitting on a hunk of sun-heated metal. It burned my hands and I hissed, pulling them back off and into my lap as I got back to my feet.
Just like everything else in District 12, it was almost completely destroyed. There was barely enough of a shape for me to tell what it was. For a moment I stared at the remains of the metal structure. I puzzled over what it might have been, and then I remembered Thread's recent renovations of the Town Square. Stocks, whipping posts, and this. This was the remains of the gallows. Bad. This was bad. I knew it was as I started to breathe heavily in and out.
It brought on the flood of images that always tormented me, awake or asleep. Cato being tortured - drowned, burned, lacerated, shocked, maimed, beaten - as the Capitol tried to get information about the rebellion that he didn't know. It made me sick. If he was alive, I knew that was what was happening. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to reach for him across the hundreds and hundreds of miles, to send my thoughts into his mind, to let him know he was not alone. But he was. And I couldn't help him.
Running. Suddenly I was running away from the Town Square and to the one place the fire did not destroy. I passed the wreckage of the mayor's house, where my friend Madge lived. No word of her or her family. Were they evacuated to the Capitol because of her father's position, or left to the flames? Likely left to the flames. Ashes billowed up around me, and I pulled the hem of the jumpsuit up over my mouth. It wasn't wondering what I was breathing in, but who, that threatened to choke me.
Again I was reminded of running away from the wildfire in the Games last year. The first wildfire. The first one that had burned straight through some of the muscle on my thigh. No evidence that it ever happened, except for in my memories. My eyes were burning as I ran through the remains of the buildings. All of these people, all of these lives, that I had destroyed. My body was shaking again and my legs were threatening to give out. I was sure that I was about to drop to the ground.
The grass had been scorched and the gray snow fell here as well, but that was the only damage from the firebombs. The twelve fine houses of the Victor's Village were unscathed. I bolted into the house that I lived in for the past year, slammed the door closed, and leaned back against it. The place seemed untouched. Clean. Eerily quiet. My hands were shaking as I slid down against the door. Why did I come back to Twelve? How could this visit help me answer the question I couldn't escape?
"What am I going to do?" I whispered to the walls.
Because I really didn't know. People kept talking at me, talking, talking, talking. So many people had been trying to talk to me. Not that I ever really listened to them. Because I didn't want to hear them. But that didn't stop them from speaking about anything and everything. Plutarch Heavensbee. His calculating assistant, Fulvia Cardew. Someone who reminded me of Effie Trinket, but I liked far less. There were a mishmash of District leaders. Military officials.
But not Alma Coin, the president of Thirteen, who just watched. She had only spoken to me once, yesterday, for the first time. She was fifty or so, with gray hair that fell in an unbroken sheet to her shoulders. I was somewhat fascinated by her hair, since it was so uniform, so without a flaw, a wisp, even a split end. Her eyes were gray, but not like those of people from the Seam. They were very pale, as if almost all the color had been sucked out of them. The color of slush that you wish would melt away.
What they wanted was for me to truly take on the role they designed for me. The symbol of the revolution. The Mockingjay. It wasn't enough, what I had done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution. The person who the Districts - most of which were now openly at war with the Capitol - could count on to blaze the path to victory.
Which might have worked. I could have tried to do it. That was why I came here. Because I was hoping that seeing what President Snow had done to my home would remind me of how much I had lost because of him. It would encourage me to fight back. I wouldn't have to do it alone, after all. They had a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances - as if that didn't sound horribly familiar - and all I had to do was play my part.
It would have been easy enough. Just stand and give a written speech. Just like on the Victory Tour. But we saw how well that worked out. I tried to warn them about it, but they said that it would be fine. Sometimes I listened to them and sometimes I just watched the perfect line of Coin's hair and tried to decide if it was a wig. Eventually, I would have the doctors order them to leave the room because my head started to ache or it was time to eat or if I didn't get above ground I might have started screaming.
This was the first time in months that I had been above ground or out in the air. It almost made me wish that I was still underground in District 13. Because at least I couldn't see all of the damage in there. I wondered what it would look like in the other Districts. The ones that were fighting. Were they getting to this point, too? I would try to ask sometimes, but they didn't tell me. And if they had nothing to say that I wanted to hear, I didn't bother to say anything. I would simply get up and walk out.
Just like I had yesterday. The first time that I had officially met Coin. I had only seen her in pictures beforehand. But her hair and eyes had always fascinated me. There was something about them that I couldn't trust. I remembered being in a slight haze when people would try and talk to me over the past month. When the doctors wouldn't ask them to leave I would get up and go to the boiler room whenever I either got overwhelmed or just didn't want to listen to them.
Yesterday afternoon, as the door was closing behind me, I heard Coin say, "Maybe you should have rescued the boy instead."
Meaning Cato. I couldn't have agreed more. He would have been an excellent mouthpiece. Everyone liked listening to Cato. The way that he spoke in both of his Interviews. He was always a charmer. And the way that he would speak to me about what was happening in the Districts. I knew that he would have been much better than me. I wasn't a public speaker. I hated everyone and had a hard time speaking without getting angry, which would have been wrong for this purpose. I had to be strong, not bitter.
And who did they fish out of the arena instead? Me, who wouldn't cooperate. Even now, by the time that I got back, I couldn't be one hundred percent positive that I would cooperate. Beetee, an older inventor from Three, who I rarely saw anymore because he was pulled into weapons development the minute he could sit upright. Literally, they wheeled his hospital bed into some top secret area and now he only occasionally showed up for meals. Yesterday had been the first time that I had seen him in weeks.
He was very smart and very willing to help the cause, but not really firebrand material. He was a good man. Smart and kind. But those weren't the kind of people who were good for fighting. They needed someone who would be able to stand up and actually fight with the rebels. Then there was Finnick Odair, the sex symbol from the fishing District, who kept Cato alive in the arena when I couldn't. They wanted to transform Finnick into a rebel leader, too, but first they would have to get him to stay awake for more than five minutes.
Even when he was conscious, you had to say everything to him three times to get through to his brain. The doctors said it was from the electrical shock that he received in the arena, but I knew that it was a lot more complicated than that. I knew that Finnick couldn't focus on anything in Thirteen because he was trying so hard to see what was happening in the Capitol to Annie Cresta, the mad girl from his District who was the only person on earth he loved.
Despite serious reservations, I had to forgive Finnick for his role in the conspiracy that landed me here. He, at least, had some idea of what I was going through. He had been my friend for a long time beforehand. He had helped me through my first Games, getting me Sponsor medicine that had saved my life, and had comforted me when everything had happened with Seneca Crane. And it took too much energy to stay angry with someone who cried so much.
Slowly I moved through the downstairs on hunter's feet, reluctant to make any sound. I picked up a few remembrances as I walked. Things that I knew that Katniss, Prim, and Ms. Everdeen would want. A photo of their parents on their wedding day, a blue hair ribbon for Prim, Katniss's arrowhead that I had gotten her for her birthday. And the family book of medicinal and edible plants. The book fell open to a page with yellow flowers and I shut it quickly because it was Rye's brush that painted them.
What was I going to do? Was there any point in doing anything at all? Katniss, Ms. Everdeen, Prim, Gale, Gale's family, and those who remained of Cato's family were finally safe. As for the rest of Twelve, people were either dead, which was irreversible, or protected in Thirteen. That left the rebels in the Districts. And how could I help them? Giving a few speeches? Doubtful. They were already fighting. They were already encouraged to win the war. Wouldn't I just look pompous if I started giving speeches?
Of course, I hated the Capitol, but I had no confidence that my being the Mockingjay would benefit those who were trying to bring it down. How could I help the Districts when every time I made a move, it resulted in suffering and loss of life? Everything that I had done had caused people to be killed. During my first Games, during the Victory Tour, during the Quell, and now afterwards. None of my moves had been small and I had been paid back ten times over for each of them.
The old man shot in District 11 for whistling. The man in District 9 for his comments. The crackdown in Twelve after I intervened in Gale's whipping. My Head Stylist, Cinna, being dragged, bloody and unconscious, from the Launch Room before the Games. The horrible broadcast of his execution, likely a present from Snow to me. Brilliant, enigmatic, lovely Cinna was dead because of me. I pushed the thought away because it was too impossibly painful to dwell on without losing my fragile hold on the situation entirely.
What am I going to do?
To become the Mockingjay... could any good I did possibly outweigh the damage? Who could I trust to answer that question? No one that I could think of off of the top of my head. Certainly not that crew in Thirteen. I could have sworn, now that my family and Gale's and the Hadley's were out of harm's way, I could have run away. Except for one unfinished piece of business. Cato. If I knew for sure that he was dead, I could have just disappeared into the woods and never looked back. But until I did, I was stuck.
My ears were alert to any shift. That was why I spun around and stepped back against the counter at the sound of a hiss. In the kitchen doorway, back arched, ears flattened, stood the ugliest tomcat in the world. Thousands of people were dead, but he had survived and even looked well fed. On what? He could get in and out of the house through a window we always left ajar in the pantry. He must have been eating field mice. I refused to consider the more likely alternative.
"Figures. Buttercup," I said.
The cat was making all sorts of nasty noises. Probably complaining just the way that I was internally. He was probably irritable that I was one of the few that managed to survive the attack on District 12. Just the way that I was angry that he was one of the things that managed to make it through the bombing. How had that stupid cat managed to make it? The one creature that I might have enjoyed having dead. As I had threatened him with so many times before.
I squatted down and extended a hand. "Come here, boy," I whispered.
Not likely. He was angry at his abandonment. Besides, I wasn't offering food, and my ability to provide scraps had always been my main redeeming quality to him. For a while, when we used to meet up at the old house because we both disliked this new one, we seemed to be bonding a little. I had thought that he might have been starting to like me. Not like, but maybe tolerate. That was clearly over. He blinked those unpleasant yellow eyes at me.
"Want to see Prim?" I asked.
Her name caught his attention. Besides his own, it was the only word that meant anything to him. He gave a rusty meow and approached me. I picked him up, having a hard time keeping a hold of him, stroking his fur, then opened my game bag and unceremoniously stuffed him in. There was no other way I would be able to carry him on the hovercraft, and he meant the world to Prim. Her goat, Lady, an animal of actual value, had unfortunately not made an appearance. Likely dead, being out in the pasture.
"There you go. Oh, you're breaking my heart," I mumbled as Buttercup gave a loud howl.
Grabbing some medicinal herbs and concoctions that Ms. Everdeen had used on her patients, I started to slip them into the game bag, hoping that Buttercup wouldn't eat them. In my headset, the metal piece in my ear that sometimes screeched when it picked up interference from the Capitol hearing aid, I heard Gale's voice telling me we must go back. But being here had reminded me of a few more things that I wanted. I slung the strap of the bag over the back of a chair and dashed up the steps to my old bedroom.
At the last moment I turned back to Katniss's. Inside the closet hung Katniss's father's hunting jacket. Before the Quell, I went with her to bring it back here from their old house, thinking its presence might be of comfort to the rest of the Everdeen women when I was dead. Thank goodness, or it would be ash now. Which was good, considering that my house at least had made it through the bombing. Most of the Everdeen's had been incinerated.
The soft leather felt soothing and for a moment I was calmed by the memories of the hours spent wrapped in it. What would Mr. Everdeen have thought if he could see everything that had happened? That I had done? Maybe he would have been proud. Then, inexplicably, my palms began to sweat. A strange sensation creeped up the back of my neck. I whipped around to face the room and found it empty. Tidy. Everything in its place. There was no sound to alarm me. What, then?
Nothing. I was just overreacting. I had to calm down and try to remember that everything was going to be okay. I headed back downstairs, picked up the game bag, stuffed the jacket in, and headed into the study. As I walked up to the desk I picked up a picture of Mr. Everdeen and the picture of Cato and me. Our first kiss at the party before the Games. It was the only photograph that I had, save the one that the Hadley's had given me. I needed to keep it. Maybe to show them. They would like it.
Suddenly my nose twitched. It was the smell. Cloying and artificial. It reminded me of the scent of the garden up on the roof back at the Training Center. Something that set my nerves on edge. A dab of white peeked out of a vase of dried flowers on my desk. It was the only living flower among the dead ones in the vase. I approached it with cautious steps. There, all but obscured by its preserved cousins, was a fresh white rose. Perfect. Down to the last thorn and silken petal.
And I knew immediately who had sent it to me.
For a moment I held it in my hands. But when the goosebumps rose I dropped it back on the desk. When I began to gag at the stench, I backed away and cleared out. Where were they? Close. They had to be close. How long had it been here? A day? An hour? Roses couldn't be left out like that long. The rebels did a security sweep of the Victor's Village before I was cleared to come here, checking for explosives, bugs, or anything unusual. But perhaps the rose didn't seem noteworthy to them. Only to me.
Downstairs, I snagged a few more bottles from the kitchen, hushed Buttercup, who was hissing, and dashed off. I could hear the hovercraft up in the air as I ran along, bouncing the bag along the floor until I remembered that it was occupied. On the lawn, I frantically signaled to the hovercraft while Buttercup thrashed. I jabbed him with my elbow, but that only infuriated him. A hovercraft materialized and landed just a few feet from me. I sprinted up to it as the ramp dropped and ran in as the hovercraft took off again.
Gale helped me back to my seat. "You all right?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said, wiping the sweat off my face with my sleeve.
He left me a rose! I wanted to scream, but it wasn't information that I was sure I should share with someone like Plutarch looking on. Everyone in here would hear me and it would make it a nightmare. Because they already thought that I had been in far too of a fragile state to come here in the first place. A stupid comment about one live rose would only make everything worse. First of all, because it would make me sound crazy. Something that they already thought was a possibility. That I was permanently insane.
Like I either imagined it, which was quite possible, or I was overreacting, which would buy me a trip back to the drug-induced dreamland I had recently been trying so hard to escape. No one would fully understand - how it wasn't just a flower, not even just President Snow's flower, but a promise of revenge - because no one else sat in that study with him when he threatened me before the Victory Tour. The only person who might have understood was Seneca Crane, and they still didn't always trust him.
Positioned on that desk, that white-as-snow rose was a personal message to me. A personal message to everyone who knew President Snow. Who genuinely knew him. Not just the way that he made himself appear during speeches. Plutarch Heavensbee, Seneca Crane, and me. We were the only people who might have understood. And we weren't enough. But I knew that the rose spoke of unfinished business. It whispered, I can find you. I can reach you. Perhaps I am watching you now.
Out of the corner of my eyes I could see that Katniss and Gale were giving me concerned looks. But they thought that it was just because of what I had found. And it was. But it was so much more than the decimated remains of District 12. It was my newest warning. So I sat anxiously in my seat as Gale took his place next to me. My heart was pounding out of my chest. What was Snow thinking of doing now? I left the game bag in my lap and placed a hand on it as Buttercup began to growl irritably.
Katniss's head whipped towards the bag. "Is that...?" she trailed off.
"Yes," I said.
"You're joking. That disgusting thing made it?" Katniss asked, looking repulsed.
"Yes. I thought that Prim would want him," I said.
"Better make sure you hide him. I don't think they're too big on cats in Thirteen," Gale said.
He was right about that. We weren't allowed to have animals in Thirteen. At least, animals that we weren't planning on eating or skinning. And I oculdn't imagine the look on Prim's face if they told her that we were going to make gloves out of Buttercup. I would be able to hide him. We would just have to keep him in the room. We would figure out how to feed him and let him wander around. We sat in silence for a while as I stared at the other end of the hovercraft.
"You don't need to talk about it, just tell me that you saw what you needed to see," Gale said.
"I did," I said, not bothering to look at them.
They knew that it was the wrong time to try and talk to me. Right now I just needed to think. I had to sit and stare angrily at the other end of the hovercraft. I had to steam over what President Snow had done to my home for a long time. To all of those innocent people. I knew now what I must do. I had to go and get revenge for all of those who had died in District 12. For all of those who had died for my actions. They would not have died in vain.
After a while I started looking out of the windows. Someone from the Capitol had to have been close recently. Were there Capitol hovercrafts speeding in to blow us out of the sky? As we traveled over District 12, I watched anxiously for signs of an attack, not telling the others why I was concerned, but nothing pursued us. After several minutes, when I heard an exchange between Plutarch and the pilot confirming that the airspace was clear, I began to relax a little.
Gale nodded at the howls coming from my game bag. "Now I know why you had to go back."
"If there was even a chance of his recovery." I dumped the bag onto a seat, where the loathsome creature began a low, deep-throated growl. "Oh, shut up," I told the bag as I sank into the cushioned window seat across from it.
"I can't believe you brought him back here," Katniss said.
"I would have rather had Lady. At least she's useful," I said.
Gale and Katniss took their places next to me. "Pretty bad down there?" Gale asked.
"Couldn't be much worse," I answered.
"Was there -?" Katniss started.
"You don't want to know. Trust me," I said shortly.
That was the end of that conversation. I looked into their eyes and saw my own grief reflected there. That was our home. It had been for our entire lives. And just one foolish action on my part had destroyed it. Our hands all found each others, holding fast to a part of Twelve that Snow had somehow failed to destroy. The love that we all shared. The familial bond. He could do what he wanted. No one blamed me. They still supported me. They were still rooting for me to pull it together and be the Mockingjay.
We sat in silence for the rest of the trip to Thirteen, which ended up taking about forty-five minutes. I had a feeling that they wanted to be out of the airspace. Just in case. It was a mere week's journey on foot. Bonnie and Twill, the District 8 refugees who Katniss and I encountered in the woods last winter, weren't so far from their destination after all. They apparently didn't make it, though. When I asked about them in Thirteen, no one seemed to know who I was talking about. Died in the woods, I guessed.
From the air, Thirteen looked about as cheerful as Twelve. The rubble wasn't smoking, the way the Capitol showed it on television, but there was next to no life above ground. In the seventy-five years since the Dark Days - when Thirteen was said to have been obliterated in the war between the Capitol and the Districts - almost all new construction had been beneath the earth's surface. The only new development had been the hangars that were just underneath the low hills in the valleys.
There was already a substantial underground facility here, developed over centuries to be either a clandestine refuge for government leaders in time of war or a last resort for humanity if life above became unlivable. Which was a good idea, since apparently for some years the air pollution had been so bad that people had died from it. But it was well before the First Rebellion that the air had become breathable again. And it had remained that way since, seeing as only a few Districts put out pollution.
Most important for the people of Thirteen, it was the center of the Capitol's nuclear weapons development program. During the Dark Days, the rebels in Thirteen wrested control from the government forces, trained their nuclear missiles on the Capitol, and then struck a bargain. The bargain that would ensure that we would never hear about them. They would play dead in exchange for being left alone. Something that had actually stunned me out of my drugged state a few weeks ago.
The Capitol had another nuclear arsenal out west, but it couldn't attack Thirteen without certain retaliation. It was forced to accept Thirteen's deal. The Capitol demolished the visible remains of the District and cut off all access from the outside. Perhaps the Capitol's leaders thought that, without help, Thirteen would die off on its own. It almost did a few times, but it always managed to pull through due to strict sharing of resources, strenuous discipline, and constant vigilance against any further attacks from the Capitol.
Now the citizens lived almost exclusively underground. You could go outside for exercise and sunlight but only at very specific times in your schedule. Mostly so they didn't end up missing someone. With so few people in Thirteen, and disease being very likely in the close quarters, they had to keep an eye on everyone. You couldn't miss your schedule. Katniss had told me all about the scheduling works last night. Since I was about to start getting them now that I was discharged.
Every morning, you were supposed to stick your right arm in this contraption in the wall. It tattooed the smooth inside of your forearm with your schedule for the day in a sickly purple ink. 7:00 - Breakfast. 7:30 - Kitchen Duties. 8:30 - Education Center, Room Seventeen. And so on. The ink was indelible until 22:00 - Bathing. That was when whatever kept it water resistant broke down and the whole schedule rinsed away. The lights-out at 22:30 signaled that everyone not on the night shift should be in bed.
At first, when I was so ill in the hospital, I could forgo being imprinted. Before I had moved out of the hospital, but once they knew that I was physically healthy enough to start doing my duties, they had tried to imprint me. But I had panicked and trashed to the point that they had finally just written it down on a piece of paper. At that point I had been expected to get with the program. Except for showing up for meals, though, I pretty much ignored the words on the piece of paper.
Ignoring everyone who was trying to get me to get up and do whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing, I would just sit in the hospital and try to block out everything. I would sometimes wander around Thirteen or fall asleep in a place that was hidden. An abandoned air duct. Behind the water pipes in the laundry. There was a closet in the Education Center that was great because no one ever seemed to need school supplies. They were so frugal with things here, waste was practically a criminal activity.
Fortunately, the people of Twelve had never been wasteful. But once I saw Fulvia Cardew crumple up a sheet of paper with just a couple of words written on it and you would have thought she had murdered someone from the looks she got. Her face turned tomato red, making the silver flowers inlaid in her plump cheeks even more noticeable. The very portrait of excess. One of my few pleasures in Thirteen was watching the handful of pampered Capitol 'rebels' squirming as they tried to fit in.
In the back of my mind I had been realizing that I didn't know how long I would be able to get away with my complete disregard for the clockwork precision of attendance required by my hosts. Right now, they left me alone because I was classified as mentally disoriented - it said so right on my plastic medical bracelet - and everyone had to tolerate my ramblings. Plus they still thought that I was suffering from a miscarriage. But that couldn't last forever. Neither could their patience with the Mockingjay issue.
All of a sudden one of the screens in the hovercraft started playing the Panem anthem. The last time that I had seen something like this it had shown me Cinna's execution. I felt Gale and Katniss's hands tightening around my own. The people in Thirteen hadn't been able to intercept all of the transmissions from the Capitol that had been sent out. Apparently Beetee had been unable to break through their system, which was what he had been trying so hard to do since getting here.
"What is this?" I whispered.
"Warning, probably," Gale said.
President Snow's face filled the screen and I balled my fists. "Citizens, tonight I address all of Panem as one. Since the Dark Days, Panem has had an unprecedented era of peace. It is a peace built upon cooperation. And a respect for law and order. In the past weeks, you have heard of sporadic violence following the actions of a few radicals in the Quarter Quell. Those who choose this destructive path, your actions are based on a misunderstanding of how we have survived. Together. It is a contract.
"Each District supplies the Capitol. Like blood to a heart. In return, the Capitol provides order and security. To refuse work is to put the entire system in danger. The Capitol is the beating heart of Panem. Nothing can survive without a heart.
"The criminals that kneel before you use symbols for the purpose of sedition. Which is why all images of The Mockingjay are now forbidden. Possessing them will be considered treason. Punishable by death. Justice shall be served swiftly. Order shall be restored. To those who ignore the warnings of history, prepare to pay the ultimate price."
The screen went blank. It must have been a warning before an execution in the Districts. "Asshole," I growled.
"He's just trying to quell the fight," Katniss said.
"It won't work," I said determinedly.
"We know, Aspen," Gale said reassuringly.
From the look that Plutarch was giving me, I knew that it was his warning. To tell me that this would only get worse the longer that I said no to being the Mockingjay. And he was right. More people were going to die for me. The least that I could do was fight alongside them. The people who believed in me. Plutarch and I exchanged a long look. Finally, after what felt like hours, I gave the most imperceptible nod. It was time for me to get off of my ass and do something.
From the landing pad, Gale, Katniss, and I walked down a series of stairways to Compartment 307. We could have taken the elevator, only it reminded me too much of the one that lifted me into the arena. I was having a hard time adjusting to being underground so much. I liked the hills of District 12. But after the surreal encounter with the rose, for the first time the descent made me feel safer. I hesitated at the door marked 307, anticipating the questions from my family.
"What am I going to tell them about Twelve?" I asked Gale.
"I doubt they'll ask for details. They saw it burn. They'll mostly be worried about how you're handling it." Gale touched my cheek. "Like I am."
I pressed my face against his hand for a moment. "I'll survive."
"Ready?" Katniss asked, placing a hand on my shoulder.
"Let's do it. Hey. Don't tell them about Twelve, okay?" I asked Katniss.
"They don't need to know. I don't even need to know. You were the only person who needed to see it," Katniss said.
"Right," I said weakly.
"It'll be okay," Katniss reassured me.
"I know," I said.
Then I took a deep breath and opened the door. The first time that I had ever been in here before. I had tried to never drop by. Gale gave me a final nod before turning to see his own family. Katniss and I stood at the doorway. Ms. Everdeen and Prim were home for 18:00 - Reflection, a half hour of downtime before dinner. I immediately saw the concern on their faces as they tried to gauge my emotional state. But I was a master at hiding my emotions.
"It's okay. We're okay," Ms. Everdeen said, rushing forward to embrace me. I had only seen her a few times since arriving at District 13. "We're all here now."
A second later Prim heard Buttercup growling. "Buttercup!" she cheered happily.
"I smuggled him in. And I got Dad. And I got some of your herbs from the kitchen," I said, slowly taking things from the bag.
"They have strict rules. I don't know what they'll do if they find him here," Ms. Everdeen said.
Before anyone could ask anything about how I got him and what things were like back home, I turned the bag over and emptied it. Obviously Buttercup was not happy with being practically thrown from the bag. But it became 18:00 - Cat Adoration. Prim just sat on the floor weeping and rocking that awful Buttercup, who interrupted his purring only for an occasional hiss at Katniss or me. He gave me a particularly smug look when she tied the blue ribbon around his neck.
Of course Katniss and I rolled our eyes. Ms. Everdeen hugged the wedding photo tightly against her chest and then placed it, along with the book of plants, on our government-issued chest of drawers. I handed Katniss their father's jacket. She smiled and placed it on the back of a chair. For a moment, the place almost seemed like home. So I guessed that the trip to Twelve wasn't a complete waste. I took the photograph of my parents and Cato and me on the dresser.
"Thanks for grabbing all of it," Katniss said, as I spread everything else out.
"I had to," I said.
The last thing that I pulled from the bag was Peeta's last unfinished painting. I wasn't really sure where I could put it since there were no nails to hang it up and it felt a little too precious to just prop it up against the floor. So I pushed everything on the dresser forwards and set it down against the wall behind the dresser. In the back of my mind I couldn't figure out what forced me to take it, but I knew that I needed it. Katniss walked straight over to it and stared blankly.
"That's..." she trailed off.
"Peeta's. Yeah. I don't know, I felt like I needed it," I said.
"It's - nice," Katniss said, her voice breaking.
"Do you want it?" I asked.
She started to shake her head. "He was your friend," Katniss said.
"He would have wanted you to have it. He would have wanted you to like it," I said gently.
Katniss took the painting from me and placed it on her dresser at the side of her bed, gently touching the canvas. "I love it. Thank you," she said, her voice becoming very weak.
"You're welcome," I said gently.
We all knew that Katniss was never in love with Peeta. She hadn't known him, just the way that I hadn't, before the Games. But I knew that she had always felt some draw to him because of that moment with the bread. I knew that they could have made a good couple. So I sat with Katniss on the bed and told her all about how precise Peeta was with his strokes, telling her all about painting that I could remember Peeta telling me about. She had never looked so entranced with my words.
The four of us sat together for a while as Katniss and I talked and Prim and Ms. Everdeen played with Buttercup. We were finally heading down to the dining hall for 18:30 - Dinner, where Gale met up with us, when his communicuff began to beep. It looked like an oversized watch, but it received print messages. Being granted a communicuff was a special privilege that was reserved for those important to the cause, a status Gale achieved by his rescue of the citizens of Twelve. Katniss had denied one to stay with me until I would stand and fight.
"They need the three of us in Command," Gale said.
"Damn it. I was actually hungry," I growled.
"Afterwards," Gale said, grinning sideways.
Trailing a few steps behind Gale and Katniss, I tried to collect myself before I was thrown into what was sure to be another relentless Mockingjay session. This time they would harass me for longer, since I was no longer in the hospital. I lingered in the doorway of Command, the high-tech meeting and war council room complete with computerized talking walls, electronic maps showing the troop movements in various Districts, and a giant rectangular table with control panels I wasn't supposed to touch.
No one noticed me, though, because they were all gathered at a television screen at the far end of the room that was designed to air the Capitol broadcast around the clock. Apparently they were constantly airing things about how it was illegal to be a rebel, they would shoot on sight, martial law, and everything like that. All of the obvious things. There were even executions. Things that they were trying to use to intimidate the Districts. I didn't want to have to see it.
For right now I had seen enough of President Snow. Maybe for a lifetime. I was thinking that I might have been able to slip away when Plutarch, whose ample frame had been blocking the television, caught sight of me and waved urgently for me to join them. I reluctantly moved forward, trying to imagine how it could be of interest to me. It was always the same. War footage. Propaganda. Replaying the bombings of District 12. Which I particularly loved. An ominous message from President Snow. Just like earlier.
That was when I realized that there were others who I knew in the room. Cato's family - at least, the adults - were also in the room. They looked as curious as I now was. What were they doing in here? Dean was the only one who held the same status that Gale did. Maybe it would be a warning to District 2. But it wasn't. Instead it was almost entertaining to see Caesar Flickerman, the eternal host of the Hunger Games, with his painted face and sparkly suit, preparing to give an interview.
Likely it would be something about how the rebels were horrible people, we were only lying to ourselves about what we could and couldn't do, and another comment about how the 'Capitol darling' Aspen Antaeus was now fighting against those who loved her. Whatever. I rolled my eyes and turned to leave. They were the ones who had started this. Maybe we should show your people just what you did to thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and then we'll see who the real villain is.
"Hello. Good evening. And a big welcome to all in Panem. I'm Caesar Flickerman. And whoever you are, whatever it is you're doing, if you're working, put down your work. If you're having dinner, stop having dinner. Because you are going to want to witness this tonight. There has been rampant speculation about what really happened in the Quarter Quell. And here to shed a little light on the subject for us is a very special guest."
It was probably just some Gamemaker making me out to be the bad guy again. As they liked to do so often. Plutarch was trying to say something but I ignored him. Unless it was something important, I didn't care. But my footsteps were halted the moment that I heard Alana's mouth drop open into a shriek. My head whipped back around and I ran to comfort her. But I stopped again when the camera pulled back and I saw what she was screaming about. She was screaming because his guest was Cato.
A/N: Here's the new chapter! Thanks so much to everyone who gave me the new follows and favorites! And thank you to everyone who has stuck with me this far. Please review! I would really like to know what you guys think! Also, would you like to see a Cato P.O.V. on what's happening to him in the Capitol? Until next time -A
Guest: I should have been a little more specific. I meant the speech that Alexander Ludwig gave as Cato at the end of the movie. At least, I believe that's what you're referring to. I hope that you enjoyed!