I stride angrily towards the tall apartment block's main entrance, not even having to look at the invitation for the code. Why would I need to when it's already forever etched into my memory? It's only when I'm in the lift that I start to think I should have looked a little less sure of myself in case anyone's watching. But then I realise it's too late to do anything about it now and quickly press the button for the fourth floor while looking longingly at the one for the seventh.
I can't believe I'm doing this. I can't believe Falco told me to go along with it. What is she playing at? She may be his childhood friend but I don't trust her. I can tell something's happening, something big. I just wish I knew what.
Almost as soon as I knock on the door I can hear footsteps approaching, high-heeled shoes clicking on the fine wooden floor. It swings open seconds later to reveal Narissa, dressed as perfectly as ever in a long green evening dress with gold stiletto shoes on her tiny feet. My anger increases ten-fold at the mere sight of her.
"What is this?" I snap, not giving her chance to speak. "If you're hoping for a repeat of last time then I think you'll find you've got the wrong de Montfort."
She laughs, seemingly genuinely amused by my words. Then I stare at her, too stunned to move as she steps forward and runs a perfectly manicured hand gently through my hair.
"You wouldn't regret it," she whispers softly, making my mind go blank when her meaning abruptly becomes clear. Then she laughs again. "Oh, Cashmere, your poor, confused, district-born mind. If you could only see your face."
She stands back to allow me past and I scowl viciously at her before walking into what I guess from the layout of Falco's apartment three floors higher will be the kitchen. It somehow seems to be the safest place for me to attempt to comprehend what's happening here.
I wasn't wrong about where the kitchen is, but I also wasn't expecting to find Vespasian sitting at the table, leaning casually back on his chair with a steaming hot mug of coffee in front of him. When he sees me he pushes the mug across the table in my direction, telling me to have seat.
I gaze speechlessly at him for a minute, trying not to let my eyes drift to the vase on the window ledge that contains a single white rose. Then I spin around to face Narissa, who stands in the doorway, watching me amusedly. As soon as my eyes meet hers, her composure cracks for the first time in my memory as she starts to laugh and clearly can't stop.
"Relax, Cashmere," she says eventually. "Vespasian's always been lucky but he's not that lucky."
"So what's this all about?" I ask, trying desperately to keep both the shock and relief I feel from my voice and the confusion from my expression.
She takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders, making me wonder if I imagined her previous loss of self-control. Then she slinks across the room in that way that makes Gloss stare at her and me want to hit her, stopping as close as she can get to me without us touching. I stand still, determined not to give her the satisfaction of seeing me move.
"The time is now," she says, rising up on her tiptoes to whisper in my ear. "Vespasian and I needed an excuse to be in the same place at the same time so I decided to further tarnish your already less than lily-white reputation to achieve it. For the greater good, of course, so I'm sure you won't mind."
"Where's Gloss?" I ask, struggling to control my temper.
"Really, Butterfly," she says with scathing mock disapproval, "I don't think it would really be appropriate to have him here right now, do you? Not when you consider what everyone else will think is happening here tonight."
"Don't ever call me that," I spit, turning to face her as I narrow my eyes. She doesn't back away any more than I did. "Answer my question."
"I don't know where he is," she replies, seemingly honestly for once. "He's not as fortunate as you."
I duck my head at her words, knowing she speaks a truth I can hardly bear to acknowledge.
"So now what?" I ask.
"You don't get involved with this. Go to bed."
"In the guest room you offered to Gloss," I reply resentfully, hating the way she speaks to me like I'm a young and stupid child.
"That's the general idea," she replies with a smirk and a very different tone of voice. "Unless you want to sleep in my bed? I wouldn't push you out."
"You're insufferable," I hiss, spinning on my heel and storming from the room, trying to ignore the laughter that follows me.
"Cashmere. Cashmere, get up. Cashmere."
I open my eyes to find Narissa leaning over me, her expression more serious than I've ever seen it. She yanks the quilted blanket off me before throwing my coat into my arms and pointing imperiously at the door.
"Why the rush?" I ask. "Have you come to your senses and decided you're ashamed of yourself?"
"There's a train leaving for District One in an hour. You and Gloss will be on it. Falco's gone to get your brother," she adds in response to what must be my obvious confusion.
"I don't understand."
"I told you this last night," she says impatiently. "The time is now and Falco wants you out of the Capitol. Panem only knows why but he loves you. If it doesn't work out in our favour then he doesn't want you tainted by association."
"Just go, Cashmere," she snaps. "For once in your life just do as you're told."
"I don't take orders from you, Narissa Redsparrow," I retort, standing up so I can look down on her, suddenly feeling inclined to stay right where I am despite how much I wanted to leave before.
"It's not my order," she replies, looking around nervously as if she expects something to jump from the shadows and attack her. "I'm merely the messenger. Now go," she continues, pointing at the door once more. "The car will be waiting for you outside."
With one final glare at her, I snatch up my coat and stalk from the room, down the corridor to the lift and then out into the icy cold dawn. It might be spring but it still feels like winter at this time in the morning here and I shiver as I pull my coat on and wrap it tightly around myself. If I'm this cold then Gloss must be freezing.
The car pulls up in front of me as soon as I pass through the final security gate and Falco throws the door open, grasping my arm and pulling me inside. We're moving again before I've even sat down.
"Falco, this is crazy. What's going on?"
"You know what's going on, but you're not going to be here to see it. You're going home."
"But I can't go home. I've got to stay for Felix's show."
"Felix has had a few technical difficulties," he replies, his tone of voice telling me that those difficulties were neither accidental nor unforeseen. "The show's been postponed for a couple of days so there's no reason for you to stay."
"Where's Gloss?" I ask, suddenly realising my brother isn't here. "Narissa said you'd gone to find him."
"He's at the station already. I left him there because I knew you'd react like this."
"He mustn't know any of this. He can't."
"Exactly," he says. "He's not stupid. If I'd brought him with me then he'd have worked out that something's not right."
"And what does he think now?"
"That he's done here for a while and Felix has had technical difficulties. I told him I thought it best if you went home in case someone realised you weren't busy with the fashion show and decided to buy your time."
"And he believed you?" I ask, surprised that my little brother, who I've always thought was born suspicious, fell for the lie so easily.
"I'm a very good liar when I need to be, Butterfly. How do you think I've held my position for so long?"
I smile slightly and briefly rest my hand on his before moving away, just in case. A few minutes later we arrive at the station and Gloss is there waiting exactly as Falco said he would be. I can tell immediately that he believed the lie, that he suspects nothing and knows nothing about the almost-rebellion. Despite what I said to Falco, I'm not surprised. Why would he suspect the truth when the truth is so far-fetched that I barely believe it myself?
Once we arrive back in District One, I spend the whole day at home, hiding from everyone as I wait for the news I know may not come. Gloss goes to see Satin but I don't go with him even though he asks me to at least ten times. I can't face anyone, I don't want to talk. I just sit in an armchair by the phone I know won't ring, twisting the bracelet Falco gave me around and around on my wrist as though keeping hold of it will keep him safe.
It's almost dark when Gloss returns. He tries to get me to tell him what's wrong, asking me over and over again to talk to him, to not shut him out, but I say nothing. Eventually he gives up and tells me to go to bed, and when I still don't respond he picks me up and carries me upstairs. We don't bother to change or even to go to our separate rooms. What's the point when we both know our nightmares would wake us less than an hour later if we did?
When I wake up the sun is shining brightly through the window, telling me it's quite late into the morning. I take a deep breath and look down at Gloss. He's still sleeping, his arm thrown across my stomach, and I can't quite believe how peaceful he seems, what a contrast there is between the relaxed expression on his face now and the tense one I see when he's awake. Then I turn slightly and my movement wakes him, making him sit up instantly like he never left the arena.
Once he remembers where he is, he smiles at me and disappears, returning about half an hour later in fresh clothes and with slightly damp hair. The look in his eyes tells me he was expecting me to do the same rather than staying in bed staring into space and imagining the worst about something I can't explain.
"Get up, Cash," he says, speaking with a false brightness not unlike that he uses during his interviews in the Capitol. "We're going to see Satin. I need to ask her something."
"You only went yesterday," I reply, making no move to get out of bed.
"I need to go back today. And you're coming with me."
"What if I don't want to?"
"I'm not planning on giving you a choice, sister dearest," he retorts with a grin. This time I welcome it because there's nothing fake about it. It's an expression I've known for as long as I can remember. "Get up and make yourself presentable or I'll carry you to Satin's like you are."
"And what exactly is wrong with me as I am?" I ask, my voice stern despite the smile I can't quite hide.
He says nothing but holds a mirror out to me so I can see how my hair is currently a jumbled mass of curls which seem to stick out every which way but the way they're meant to.
"OK, OK, I'm getting up now. I'll see you downstairs in a minute," I say, recognising when he's in one of his determined moods and deciding to give in relatively gracefully.
It's almost midday by the time we get to Satin's, and I'm disappointed but not at all surprised to find Miracle at the house with her. They're both sitting in the dining room, with plans and charts of figures spread out around the massive table in front of them. When Gloss and I walk in they look up, Satin quickly returning her attention to her piece of paper but Miracle holding my brother's gaze for a lot longer. I deliberately position myself between them, not feeling up to dealing with another fight today.
"What did the Capitolians say?" asks Gloss, looking at Satin.
"Maybe," she replies distractedly.
"Maybe what? Which Capitolians?" I interrupt, and surprisingly it's Miracle who answers.
"A new contract," he says. "Well, it's an old contract actually. One of the ones the Woodvilles took off your father."
"So the war continues," I reply, looking at my sister rather than her husband.
"It's only a war if both sides are still fighting," she says with an evil smile. "I'd be more inclined to call it an annihilation. And Glory Woodville's going down."
I shake my head, secretly admiring my sister's determination as she continues her ongoing vendetta against the woman she believes killed our father. I smile as my eyes drift to the overcrowded table, but that smile abruptly fades as I read the headline on one of the newspapers.
"What is it, Cash?" asks Gloss, as sensitive to my mood as ever. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," I reply, picking up the paper at the same time.
It's from the Capitol, today's edition. Satin and Miracle need them for work so it would be. The front page contains only one story: the tragic death of one of the city's most respected residents. The face staring back at me from the photograph is Achillea's.
It's Satin's voice this time, accompanied by the touch of Gloss's hand to my shoulder. I don't respond to either, knowing instinctively that the only thing this can mean is that the plot failed, that it all went wrong. And if Achillea's dead then who else was discovered? Falco could have been arrested, he could already be dead. Anything could be happening to him and I have no way of helping or even of finding out. I am powerless, powerless and in the dark in a way I haven't been since the arena.
"Cash, what is it? Did you know that woman? Cashmere?"
Gloss gently prises the now very scrunched paper from my hands, setting it on the table and taking my hand firmly in his. I vaguely hear him tell Satin and Miracle that we'd see them later before he leads me from the room and out into the warm spring air. I barely notice the change in temperature.
I follow him blindly, only noticing where we are when he eventually pushes me down onto a seat. The seat proves to be a park bench and I find myself looking around at the small park where we used to go when Sapphire was still alive. I haven't been back here since she died.
"Gloss," I say, surprised by how shaky my voice is. "What are we doing here?"
"I didn't want us to have this conversation in the house in case it's bugged, but we're here so you can tell me exactly what's going on. You haven't been yourself since we came back from the Capitol and I haven't seen the look on your face you had when you saw that newspaper since I volunteered for the Games. So tell me. Now."
"You can. There's nothing you can't tell me, Cashmere," he says, putting his arm across my shoulders and pulling me close. "What is it?"
"Gloss, I can't. I promised myself I'd never tell you. You can't be involved. It's too dangerous."
"It's Falco, isn't it? Or something to do with him."
"What makes you say that?"
"There are only two people alive who could make you react like this, Cash. As one of them is me and I know there's nothing wrong with me that wasn't wrong with me before we went to the Capitol, it stands to reason that it's something to do with Falco."
"Sometimes I really wish you were stupid, do you know that?"
"No, you don't. Tell me the truth."
I take a deep breath and snuggle closer to him, both because it means I only have to talk very quietly and because his presence relaxes me in the same way it always has. Then I proceed to tell him everything about the rebellion that never was. I tell him about the Dark Days, about Leander and his sons, about Achillea and her dream of revolution. The only thing I leave out is Falco's involvement and my role as a messenger, but I quickly realise I should have known better than to think he wouldn't work it out.
"So this Achillea and her followers tried to overthrow the government? Seriously?" I nod. "And you knew about this since when?"
"Since the night of your Victory Ceremony."
"And you didn't think to tell me?"
"I didn't want to put you in danger. I love you too much to get you involved. It doesn't matter now anyway. I can tell you because it's all over."
"Have the Games taught you nothing?" he asks, looking down into my eyes. "Has what's happened to us since we became Victors taught you nothing? That plot was never going to succeed. You can't overthrow the president, he's too powerful. He can do whatever he likes to anyone and nobody can stop him. That's just the way life is."
"What…happened to me after my Tour hasn't happened again," I reply, hoping to demonstrate that even President Snow isn't infallible.
"I will be indebted to Falco for the rest of my life for what he does for you, but you are only free of…that because of him. You love him, I know that, but he is still one of them. He can only do what he does because he's not like us."
I look up at him, and as I do I feel my silent tears rolling down my cheeks. He closes his eyes then, shaking his head sadly.
"He's involved in this, isn't he? That's how you know so much."
"Yes," I reply, just managing to get the word out before dissolving into tears. The rest of my sentence comes out in gasps and sobs that are barely intelligible even to my own ears. "And if Achillea's dead then they must have been found out. He could be dead, Gloss. What if he's dead? What if they found out he knew about the plot?"
He says nothing for several minutes, holding me tightly and rubbing my back until my tears subside. "Perhaps Satin can find out? She knows people in the Capitol through the workshop."
"No, you can't ask her because she'd want to know why. She can't know about this. Nobody can. Not ever."
"How about Felix? He'll have to contact you to tell you when his show is."
"All the phones are bugged, Gloss. I don't think he's as good at coded messages as we are."
"He'll be fine, Cash," he says, and I know he doesn't mean my stylist. "You know what he's like, he'll talk his way out of it and they'll never make anything stick."
"You don't know that. You know what they're like and nothing's punished as harshly as treason."
Gloss pulls me around and grips my upper arms tightly so I have to look at him. "I know you're scared but you have to listen to me and you have to do what I say. Do you understand? Can you do that for me?" I nod tearfully and he continues as if he thinks I'll change my mind any second. "You have to carry on like you don't even know about this. You have to come with me back to Satin's and then we'll go home, and you have to smile and laugh like you would normally. He's a member of government, Cashmere, they can't just make him disappear. If something's happened then we'll know about it soon enough, but you have to keep going."
"I'm not sure I can, Gloss. Every time I close my eyes I imagine the worst. I can't stand not knowing."
"You have to, Cash. You have to. Will you try and do it for me? Please."
I look into his eyes, at the totally earnest expression on his face, and I realise I can't refuse him. We are so linked in the eyes of the Capitol that anything I do is bound to impact on Gloss. I love him too much to put him at risk so I have to try.
I always knew Felix was more aware of what was happening than Falco thought he was even if he never actually told me so. He didn't have to tell me. It was the little things he did, like the way he delayed his fashion show while he waited to see what happened, and the message he sent me convincing me nothing had happened to Falco without saying it outright.
When I arrived here this morning he said he delayed everything because he didn't want me to have to deal with coming here if it went badly. He didn't have to say the words for me to understand his meaning. He meant he didn't want me here if the inner workings of the former rebellion plot were revealed and Falco ended up dead. Or worse. I shudder at the mere thought.
It's over now, all of Achillea's years of plotting and hard work rendered pointless in a matter of hours. I struggle to make myself care when all that really matters to me is that Falco is safe. The emancipation of this country meant everything to Achillea, more than her own life, and I can't help thinking I should feel bad because I can't mourn our loss at the chance of freedom when I can feel nothing but relief. Falco is alive and nothing else matters. Perhaps that's what love is. Perhaps that's what it does to you.
I push open the front door of the apartment after entering the now familiar security code and walk quickly down the corridor towards the single source of light. I see him as soon as I walk into the study, sitting on his desk chair staring out of the window, his stiffly-straight back to me. I know he hears me from his attempt to relax his shoulders, but it doesn't quite hide the tension in his posture.
My feet make no sound as I move to stand opposite him, putting myself between him and his view of the city. He doesn't move. He doesn't even look at me.
I whisper his name but he still doesn't acknowledge my presence. He stares straight ahead as if he can see through me, reminding me far too much of Gloss when he first came out of the arena. I've seen that kind of emptiness in the eyes of someone I love before and it hurts too much for me to do nothing.
I sigh deeply and step forwards, using the arms of the chair to lift myself up until I sit on his lap with one leg on either side of him. I point my toes towards the floor but they don't quite reach.
He hisses sharply when I rest my hands on his shoulders, making me whisper his name again as I begin to suspect I know exactly why. After my second visit to the Capitol following my Victory Tour, I have reason to remember the pain that comes from pulling against restraints that hold your hands above your head. I remember the exact muscles you pull and they're the ones I'm lightly touching now. That thought sets my mind racing, fearing the worst even more than I did when I first saw the blankness of his expression.
"What happened? Falco? What did they do to you?"
He does look at me then, his hands moving to rest on my hips as he softly whispers my name like I did his and tries to smile.
"You've lost weight," he says, his thumbs pressing gently against my hipbones.
"Don't change the subject," I reply, knowing my first, instinctive response of 'because I've been worrying about you' would only make him feel worse. He doesn't know I've spent the vast majority of the time since he told me about the rebellion plot half-expecting to read his obituary in the newspaper.
"They…questioned me about, well, you know about what. I told them I didn't know what they were talking about. They believed me. Eventually."
"What do you mean 'eventually'?" I ask, pushing back slightly.
He says nothing, his eyes locked with mine even when I unfasten the buttons of his shirt and push the fabric aside. His usually honey-coloured skin is all shades of black, blue and purple with bruises.
"Like I said," he whispers. "Eventually."
I don't know what to say so I wrap my arms around him as best I can with the chair in the way, only realising how that probably won't help when I've already moved. I apologise and try to pull away but he doesn't let me, telling me over and over again that it doesn't hurt anymore. I know he's lying but I let him hold me anyway as it seems to help. I remember how many times I've clung to him in the past and wonder if this is how he felt, if he held me tighter and tighter because it was the only way he could think of to take some of the pain away.
It was just after nine in the evening when Felix left me in front of this apartment building and the clock above the fireplace has struck one in the morning before we move. I half-expected Falco to want to talk about what happened during his questioning, but as the hours ticked by I came to realise this isn't so very different to my memories of the arena. Some things are better left alone until it's possible to gather enough strength to deal with them, and some things are simply better left unsaid. He'll tell me when he's ready, I think to myself, and when he eventually stands up, taking me with him to the bedroom without saying a word, I also say nothing. Sometimes there simply aren't words.
Later still I'm lying staring up at the ceiling even though I can see very little, listening to the distant and muffled sounds of the Capitol outside, which never seem to stop no matter what ridiculously early time in the morning it is. I still can't believe the rebellion's over before it began. I can't believe all those years of meticulous planning could be brought crashing down by one person's betrayal. It just goes to show how precarious life is, how dangerous it is to act against the president's authority.
It makes me think that I shouldn't be here, that the risk is too great. I am a Victor and that means the president sees me as property. His property. So if I were to be found in this room, in this bed, then the consequences don't bear thinking about. For the first time since I sat on the tribute train that took me to the Capitol for my Games, I start to consider if it would be best for both of us if Falco and I didn't see each other any more, even if it is the absolute last thing I want..
"I thought I'd never see you again," he whispers into the near-darkness, seeming to know I'm awake. "I thought they'd kill me and I'd never see you again."
"Maybe it would be better if you didn't," I reply, hating the feel of the words in my mouth. "Safer, I mean. For you. If they find me here…"
"Safer?" he echoes. "Do you think safer matters to me? Do you think it ever did?"
"But they hurt you," I say. "They'd do worse if the president found out about us and about what you do for me."
"And what do you think not seeing you would do to me? There was a time when I thought my life made sense. I wasn't always happy but I knew what I had to do and I did it. But then there was the Sixty-sixth Hunger Games and everything I thought was important suddenly wasn't. You changed everything, Cashmere, and I'd never go back."
"But…" I start, trailing my hand lightly over the bruises on his chest. "…I can't bear the thought of what they did to you."
"Then don't think about it," he replies, tugging lightly on the lock of my hair he was twisting around his finger. "There was one thought that stopped me from confessing everything in that interrogation room, and that was the thought of being here with you like this. If you look me in the eye and tell me you don't love me then I will let you walk away, but don't ever even think of leaving me for my own safety because I won't let you."
"I could do it, you know," I say, my voice deliberately light. "I am a true daughter of District One and I'm very convincing. I could look you in the eye and tell you I don't love you."
"But I wouldn't believe you," he replies as I turn around to lie on my stomach and push myself up on my elbows, staring straight into his dark eyes. "I know when you're lying, Butterfly, I can always tell."
"Just like I can always tell with you. You admitted it yourself, you can't lie to me."
"And I don't try to," he says, flipping me back over so I'm the one looking up at him. "I love you, I always will. Whatever happens with the president and the Peacekeepers and the revolution, that won't ever change."
"Good," I reply, smirking when he quickly lies back down again, the pain obviously getting too much. "I told you those bruises still hurt."
"I don't care," he says, putting his arm around me again and pulling the blankets up.
I close my eyes, thinking my mind might finally rest enough for me to go to sleep, and I realise that I don't care either. I don't care about the risk, I don't care about what the consequences would be if we were discovered. All I care about is that he's alive and here with me. That's what matters.
It's already midway through the morning when I wake up, and that means I'm running very late for the first of many interviews I'm scheduled to give. I won't be mentoring this year but Gloss will, and it seems that every reporter in the city wants to speak to me about the possibility of increasing the District One winning streak to three consecutive years.
That means the day passes very quickly as I am whisked from one high-profile location to another, barely having time to gather my thoughts before I'm asked the same questions for what feels like the thousandth time. My brother joins me at several of the public appearances we make, and I can tell by the look in his eyes that he's hating every second of it despite the sunny smile he gives to the cameras. If I could take him from here then I would, but as the sun sets he is swiftly taken away, leaving me staring after him, dreading the thought of where his final destination will be.
I know I shouldn't take the risk, not considering how any number of people could have seen me there only last night, but I go to Falco's apartment anyway. The fall of the rebellion hit him hard, as I knew it would, and I want to be there for him. Nevertheless, I leave it as late as I can before leaving the restaurant which was the location for my last interview, and it's nearly midnight by the time I let myself inside the familiar building.
Falco's already waiting for me when I get to the seventh floor, realising I wouldn't be able to stay away, but as soon as we sit down we jump to our feet again in response to the noise that's obviously coming from the other side of the front door. We exchange worried glances, then for once I do as he tells me and go back into the sitting room, hiding behind the mahogany screen by the window. It will be the death of both of us if the wrong people find me here.
I listen for voices in the corridor and I don't know whether to be relieved by what I hear or not. All I know is that it isn't the Peacekeepers, so I leave my hiding place and step carefully and quietly out of the room.
I've seen plenty of surprising and shocking sights in my life, but when I see Narissa I'm truly stunned. She can barely keep herself upright, her usually perfect hair is dishevelled, and the few items of clothing she wears are torn and filthy. She couldn't look more different from the poised and elegant woman I'm so used to despising.
I get closer and she laughs at me, stumbling forwards. She smells of alcohol and smoke, sweat and stale perfume. If it wasn't for Falco's grip on her arm then she'd have long since fallen over. I'm lost for words. I don't know what to think.
"Narissa, where have you been?" asks Falco.
"Forgetting," she replies, her voice slurring.
"What have you taken?" he asks, bending down and lifting her up, carrying her down the corridor and nodding at me to follow.
"Not enough," she says.
"Falco, what's wrong with her?" I say, rushing ahead of him so I can open the door to the guest bedroom.
"She's drunk, Cashmere. Drunk and Panem knows what else."
"I know that," I retort, speaking more sharply than I intended. "But why?"
"I can't imagine she escaped as lightly as I did when everything fell apart," he replies ominously, and when I remember how black and blue with bruises he is, I shudder to think what happened to her.
"Falco," whimpers Narissa, the feeble voice sounding strange coming from her. "Falco, she's dead. It's all over. She's dead."
"I know," he says soothingly, putting her down on one of the armchairs.
When he starts to step away she clings to him, and it's only when I go to help and she clings to me as well that I realise how far gone she is.
"Butterfly, go and run her a bath. She'll have to sleep it off here."
I quickly do what he says and then return to the bedroom. Narissa looks to be asleep now, clutching Falco's hand and twitching in response to whatever she sees in her dreams. The look on her face and the tension in her body tells me that what she's seeing isn't pleasant.
"Will you help me with her?" asks Falco. "I know you don't see eye to eye and I shouldn't ask you anyway, but she's my friend. She needs me."
"What happened to her?"
"I don't know," he replies. "She and her grandmother were arrested shortly before they arrested me. The story they put out about Achillea's death was released the following morning but I heard nothing of 'Rissa until Felix called to say she'd been released without charge and that he'd seen her going into Paradise a few hours ago."
"Forgetting," I say quietly, echoing Narissa's earlier words.
"Yes," he says, brushing his friend's hair from her face and lifting her up again. She moans lightly but doesn't wake.
"I don't think she'd want me to help you," I say, returning to the bathroom so I can hold the door open but not going any further. "She wouldn't want me to see her in such a state."
"She should have thought about that before getting herself into 'such a state' then, shouldn't she?" he replies, and I shrug my shoulders, following him into the room.
I try not to look at the bruises that cover Narissa's almost white skin as Falco gently lowers her into the bath. She wakes up enough to grasp his hand with both of hers and I see the red circles around her wrists where they've obviously been tied. The wounds are bleeding slightly as if they've been recently reopened, but they look old enough to make me think they weren't the result of her being at the place that's haunted my dreams since I went there, not entirely anyway. I shudder at the thought and occupy myself with washing her hair so I don't have to think as much.
However much I attempt to push the feeling of discomfort away, I still find it hard to deal with situations like this, which don't seem to be all that unusual in the Capitol. Drinking to forget isn't unheard of in District One but it's something done in the privacy of your own home where your rivals and the gossips can't take advantage of your loss of control. Nobody back home would allow anyone but the very closest of family to see them if they ended up in this condition. Being here feels wrong.
A short time later I'm standing in the doorway of the bedroom as Falco draws the blankets up around Narissa before backing towards me, still focused on his friend. She looks different to how she normally does, tiny and vulnerable without her fine clothes and makeup as she lies in the massive bed. She frowns and shakes her head in her sleep, turning onto her side and curling up into a ball as if she's trying to make herself invisible.
"Let her sleep," I whisper to Falco as he takes my hand and squeezes it tightly.
He nods and lets me lead him from the room. He doesn't have to speak for me to know what he's thinking. I can see the pain he feels, the bitter disappointment at how the rebellion plot they'd all thought had been planned so carefully failed before it even started.
There's nothing I can say to make it better, nothing I can do to bring Achillea back and resurrect something that may never get close to becoming reality ever again. I know that, but as I pull my jumper off and throw it to the ground before climbing into bed, I feel like I should say something, that I should at least try.
I open my mouth to speak but Falco raises his hand and covers my lips with a finger, shaking his head.
"Don't," he whispers. "Don't say anything. Just stay here."
I nod and curl up against him, once again only remembering his bruises when it's too late. He exhales sharply but doesn't let me pull away. I find it easy to give up and remain where I am, silently thanking anyone who might be listening that whoever betrayed Achillea wasn't important enough to know more than the barest minimum of detail. Perhaps if he or she had been higher up the ranking list then they'd have known of Falco's involvement and he wouldn't be here with me now. As it was, there wasn't even sufficient evidence to convict Narissa, who had been more heavily involved than anyone but her grandmother. I am more grateful for that than I could ever say.
It's still dark when I wake up, cold and shivering despite the many blankets on the bed. I instinctively reach out for Falco and sit up instantly when I find his side of the bed empty and cold. It takes my eyes a couple of minutes to get used to the darkness and by the time I'm able to see the outlines of the furniture, I decide I've been sitting here for long enough.
As soon as I push open the bedroom door and slip out into the corridor, I can make out the low sound of people talking. I know I shouldn't interfere and I don't want to eavesdrop but I somehow can't stop my feet from taking me to the slightly ajar door of the guest bedroom. I tentatively push against it and it swings inwards to reveal Falco sitting on a chair beside the bed where Narissa lies, still wrapped up in all of the blankets and twisting her hands together on her lap.
"Sorry," I whisper quietly, looking at Falco. "I didn't mean to disturb you. It's just you'd gone, and…"
He smiles and looks at Narissa, who is staring straight at me. She still looks worse for wear but her eyes are clear and alert in a way they definitely weren't a few hours ago. She shrugs her shoulders.
"You might as well come in because he'll only tell you everything I say anyway."
"I don't have to," I reply, almost laughing inside when I realise this is the first time the Capitolian woman and I have had what might pass for a civilised conversation. It's ironic that it takes something like this to make us achieve it. "I'll just go back to bed."
"Sit down," says Falco, getting up off his chair and pulling himself onto the bed beside Narissa.
I expect myself to feel the familiar pang of jealousy as he takes her in his arms and she leans against him but I don't. She looks so small and broken beside him and the way he looks down at her, the way he holds her, reminds me not of how he holds me but of how I held Gloss when he first came out of the arena. For probably the first time I understand that they've been friends for so long that they are virtually brother and sister.
I cross over to the armchair and take the thick quilted robe Falco offers me, wrapping it tightly around my shivering body and revelling in its warmth. Narissa's breathing is short and shallow, as if she's preparing to say something she doesn't even want to think about. She probably is. Then the floodgates open and she breaks down completely, hiding against Falco's shoulder like she never wants to face the world again as her entire body is racked with the force of her sobs.
"They killed her, Falco," she gasps eventually. "The president's guards. They killed her right in front of me."
"Start from the beginning, 'Rissa," he says, pushing her hair back behind her ear gently. "What happened? What went wrong?"
"We were betrayed," she snarls, suddenly angry despite her grief and tears. "I don't even know who by. I didn't know everyone, nobody did. She said it was the safest way and it turns out she was right. We wouldn't be here now if she hadn't been so careful. But the silly old fool knew everyone involved and they all knew her."
"Surely you must have some idea who the traitor is?" I ask before I can stop myself. I look away, waiting for her anger to fall on me, but surprisingly it doesn't.
"No," she snaps, "I don't. But I will find out, and when I do…"
She sighs and pulls away from Falco slightly, still leaning against him but not clinging to him like she was. She looks up at him and tries to smile but quickly gives up, looking away as she begins to speak again.
"We planned it so well," she says. "Our…friend on the outside was going to take out the communication network and the computer systems just before the meeting and then we were going to make our move and neutralise the president." Hearing that makes me wonder which lucky person had earned the right to that particular task. "But a couple of hours before it was all due to start, Snow's Peacekeepers knocked the door down and it was all over."
"Then what happened?" prompts Falco when she seems to lose her train of thought.
"What do you think? They took us to The Vault for questioning," she replies, visibly shuddering. "Hours and hours it went on for, the same questions and the same answers. I just kept saying that I didn't know what they were talking about and they didn't believe me. And then Grandmother confessed everything and took all the blame herself."
"Why?" I ask, dropping my guard in response to the way her grief has obviously made her drop hers. She's virtually unrecognisable from the woman I've despised for so long.
"Because she knew they'd decided she was guilty anyway. And because she knew that if she died then she'd take the names of all the people involved with her."
"How did she end up dead?" asks Falco. "Why did they kill her before she could name anyone else who was involved? It doesn't make sense."
"She was there in the room with me. She kept winding the Peacekeepers up even as they tortured her and eventually they reacted. They reacted to her words without thinking about practicalities. I guess they didn't remember she was eighty-six until it was too late. They pushed too hard and she wasn't strong enough to take it. She died at my feet with that smug smile on her face to tell me they'd done exactly what she wanted."
"One of the guards killed her?" asks Falco quickly, a shocked expression appearing briefly on his face.
"I believe he's now minus the ability to speak and maintaining the city's sewers," Narissa replies dryly. "How shall I put it? The events of two nights ago didn't go down very well with his superiors."
"What happened then?"
"I don't think they could believe their luck when they first realised they'd actually discovered the leader of the plot. When she died that was all they could focus on. She'd said over and over again that I wasn't involved and I'd been denying everything from the moment they arrested me. They seemed to lose interest and they released me soon after. On the president's orders, apparently, so I guess he's earned himself another slave."
"When they took you to The Vault, did they…did they hurt you in any other way?" asks Falco tentatively, and I know then that he noticed the scratches on her hips just like I did.
Surprisingly, Narissa laughs. "You mean did they rape me?" she replies, shaking her head. "When there was a chance I might still have been released without charge, they didn't dare. There was a chance I would walk out of that prison with my fortune and my reputation, they knew better than to argue with that."
"I just thought…"
She shakes her head. "I'm sure Felix told you where I've been," she says, casting a sidelong glance at me for the first time since she started speaking. I try not to look judgmental but I know far too much about that place to be certain I succeed. "I heard they arrested you as well," she continues, looking back at Falco.
"They questioned me and they let me go. And Vespasian, Phoebe and a couple of others. They couldn't prove anything, Achillea was too careful."
"Good," she replies, her voice as sincere as I've ever heard it in a way that makes me think that, whatever else she is, she does genuinely care about him. "I think I'll be able to sleep now."
She shuffles away from Falco and back down the bed, and I look away as he smoothes her hair back from her face. Then he takes my hand and pulls me to my feet, leading me back to the main bedroom.
"She just needs to sleep it off. She's so strong-willed that she'll be pretending she's back to normal in the morning."
"I don't doubt it," I reply, trying to keep the disapproval from my voice for his sake.
I wake up when Falco gently shakes me and whispers that it's time for me to go home. I turn around, stretching my arms above my head as I look up at him. Then I remember. Narissa. Achillea. The rebellion that never was.
"Where's Narissa?" I ask, sitting up and swinging my legs over the edge of the bed.
"I'm not sure," he replies. "She isn't here. She left before I woke up."
"But I'm back now," says that familiar, lilting voice that part of me will always despise.
I stand up and look towards the door just as Falco opens it to reveal a very different woman to the one I remember from last night. In fact she looks like last night never happened, restored to her usual flawless perfection in a skin-tight, blood red shift dress.
"That's quite a transformation," I say dryly, unable to resist despite what she's been through.
She spins around and walks back down the corridor without a word. Falco follows her so I do as well, watching as she sits down at the kitchen table.
"She always said she'd only involve me if I promised I'd deny everything if we were discovered," she says quietly, talking to Falco and not seeming to either notice or care about my presence. "She asked me to make that promise over and over again, every day when I got up in the morning from the day she told me the story of what happened to my great-uncle and his family when I was ten years old. That's a lot of promises. She wanted me to live and the only way I can do that is by pretending this never happened. So I'm going shopping."
I stare at her, unsure whether to hate her for the flippancy of her last comment or admire her strength of mind.
"I'm sure the stylists will be pleased to see you," says Falco, apparently deciding not to push her and to let her deal with what happened in her own way. "Just promise me one thing, 'Rissa. No more visits to Paradise."
I expect her to look away in shame, but then I realise I should know better. Creatures like Narissa Redsparrow don't do outward displays of embarrassment, even in front of their closest friends.
"Not unless you come with me," she purrs, the confidence back in her voice like it never left.
"I don't think so," I reply, speaking for Falco in a way that obviously amuses the other woman greatly.
"Are you going to stand for that, Minister Hazelwell?" she says. "Letting a mere district girl tell you what you can and can't do."
Falco smirks at her. "I expect so. I've got used to having her around now so I reckon I'd be lost without her."
I try not to smile but I can't help it and I can see Narissa knows it. For once she gives in gracefully, shrugging her shoulders and hugging Falco as she says goodbye. I don't think she intended for me to hear her whispered 'thank you' but I do.
When she's gone Falco turns to me and smiles sadly. He says nothing and doesn't move, so I walk over to him and wrap his arms around me, holding them in place until he eventually tightens his grip.
"I don't know what to do," he says quietly, touching his lips to the top of my head. "Achillea's dream has been keeping me going for so long that I don't know what to do without it."
"You were completely cleared of all charges, weren't you?" He nods in assent. "So you do what Narissa's doing."
"Shopping?" he asks with a smile I feel rather than see.
"No," I reply, rolling my eyes. "I'm being serious, Falco. You have to go to work tomorrow and carry on like nothing's changed. You were questioned about a plot you knew nothing about, they understood that and released you, so you carry on as normal. Give them no cause to suspect the truth."
"But all that work, all that planning. Was it really all for nothing? Was it really over in less than an hour?" he asks, pulling away slightly. I can see the barely suppressed anger in his eyes.
"For now," I reply, dropping my voice to the quietest of whispers. "But Achillea made sure she died without telling the Peacekeepers a single name. The backbone of the plot, the people who were going to make it work, they're all still there. Give it time and maybe someone will begin again."
"We'd nearly done it," he replies. "We could have been free. Panem could have been free. And we wouldn't have to hide anymore."
"And that might still happen," I say firmly, standing on my tiptoes to kiss him. "One day we'll be free, but until then we have to carry on like before and make the best of it. We have no choice, you know that."
"When did you become so wise, Miss de Montfort?" he asks teasingly, and I know then that he'll be able to get through this.
"I've always been wise," I reply. "It's just taken a while for me to convince you to believe it."
"I think you're very convincing, Butterfly. You convinced me when I saw you on that tribute train two years ago and I haven't doubted since."
"I know what I convinced you of that day, Minister Hazelwell, and it wasn't my wisdom."
He laughs and points to the door. "Go home. I'll come and see you as soon as I can."
"As soon as I can get away without it looking suspicious. It might have to be at the reaping."
"I'm coming back here with Gloss when he mentors," I reply, his mention of the next Games making me remember what I've been meaning to say for a while. "I won't leave him to deal with everything on his own."
"Is that such a good idea?"
"It's the only option I have. I won't leave him."
"You'd best go then. You're giving me a lot of organising to do and there isn't much time."
"I don't know what to say," I tell him, understanding his meaning straight away, knowing that if I'm in the Capitol and not mentoring then the president won't let me rest for long.
"Don't say anything. You don't have to, you know that. I love you and I'll keep you safe so you're still here to remind me I haven't lost everything."
I nod, kissing him and quickly leaving the apartment before I change my mind and go running back to him like I want to. In some ways we have lost everything. Achillea's plot was the nearest thing to revolution Panem has seen in over sixty years and yet it failed in a matter of minutes. However as I told Falco, there's still a chance. It might not be now but at some time in the future it could happen again. The vast majority of people involved remained undetected. And that means there's a chance the rebels could eventually succeed in sending President Snow crashing down even though they haven't been able to achieve it this time. I only hope I'm alive to see it happen. I hope with all my heart that one day I'll be able to watch him fall.
So that's it then. I've finally got to the end...
Thank you so much to everyone who has read, reviewed and favourited (including a surprisingly large number of people who have never commented - it's the last chapter...I'd love you to talk to me). I look forward to reading what you think of the end and am now asking you a question at the same time: I have a plan for what I suppose I would call the 'sequel to the sequel'. What do you all think? Shall I post it?