Disclaimer: All characters and their personalities were creating by Collins, not me. I have no claim on them. Some events may seem off in time or in the happenings as I am trying to sneak a story in before the epilogue, much of which would not seem possible with the epilogue that was written.
I can hear the footsteps behind me, gaining five steps for every one I manage. I can see a break in the trees ahead and I urge my body forward. I break through into a clearing, the big lake on my right. I run toward it, knowing I need to reach it, but the faster I run, the farther away the lake gets. It feels like a cruel joke. Suddenly I hear a low grumble to my right and I turn my head just as a pack of mutts breaks from the woods… the leader has Rue's eyes.
I wake up screaming, thrashing wildly at the covers. Peeta's strong arms pull me close, he whispers calming words into my ear. It has been 10 years since the Hunger Games and the nightmares have yet to cease. They used to come once or twice a week, but recently they were coming back every night, the thought that this was an omen of some sort put a lump in my throat.
I don't know why I felt this way. Things had been going well since we won our battle against the Capitol. It all feels like it happened just yesterday. Volunteering to go to the Hunger Games in Prim's place, winning along side of Peeta, returning to the Capitol for the Quarter Quell, being broken out by District 13, and more importantly, leading the Rebellion as the Mockingjay, together we overthrew President Snow.
Paylor has taken over as President in the Capitol and got right to work sending out teams to help restore each District. She has even managed to settle two new Districts in the North [Districts 14 and 15], but only citizens hand picked by the Capitol could go. Apparently they were still under construction so President Paylor was not giving out much information. What we did know what that one district would be used for agriculture, and the other for coal and oil mining. Now that the Capitol was supplying all of the districts with equal resources, more food and fuel would be required for everyone to thrive. Some of the people in District 12 had other thoughts. There were rumors that those districts were really built over secret bunkers to train new Peacekeepers, and even an army. But given the circumstances before the Rebellion, Katniss did not blame District 12 for having doubts.
But Katniss had met President Paylor, she had worked with her before and after the Rebellion. She wanted to Panem to be a nation of unity. She wanted everyone to live in thriving and sustainable conditions. Most importantly, she wanted each district's children to live as children. No more reapings. No more Hunger Games.
Katniss sat up in bed and stretched, her muscles had grown sore from being tense through out the night.
Peeta let out a tired moan and slowly sat up as well. "Bad nightmares? You screamed for a long time before you finally woke up."
Katniss could only manage a nod in reply. She didn't like the fact that her nightmares were not only getting more frequent, but the effects were getting worse. "We are going to be late". She looked at the time on the fancy Capitol clock in their room. They were still living in the Victors Village and still only had Haymitch for a neighbor, even though the elimination of the Hunger Games meant no more people would move in. The other homes were mainly used for political visitors from other Districts. About twice a year Gale would come into town and stay in one of the houses. The first time he visited she asked him to go hunting, but he declined saying he had business with the Mayor. Katniss knew from that point on their friendship would never be the same, if their friendship even still existed. He still had yet to marry and start a family, and Peeta had concluded it was because Gale would never get over his love for her. Katniss has shrugged the thought off at first but it seemed more and more plausible.
Katniss pulled the standard civilian clothes from her dresser. District 13 had been designated the task of manufacturing clothes for everyone in the Capitol and the Districts, and since there were thousands of people, it was easier to make the same clothing in a simple gray color. District 13 had originally made a pact with the Capitol to move underground as long as the Capitol left them alone. They were so used to a life without sunshine and fresh air that they had no complaints about working in the clothing factories. Each District had eventually gone back to a normal pace of working and socializing, classes forming on their own. The civilians were still expected to hold jobs, with the exception of those in the victor villages, and wages were distributed depending on the job you held. No one complained, not even those on the bottom. They had electricity 24 hours a day, warm water, and their bellies were full.
Once she and Peeta were dressed they headed downstairs, hand in hand. They tended to stay side-by-side when the moment allowed. Back before and during the Rebellion, they had spent so much time trying to save each other; the instinct to protect was ingrained into them. As usual, a hot breakfast sat on the table. Even though she was relieved of her cooking duty, Greasy Sae still came every meal to make sure Peeta and Katniss were eating well. They had a habit to get distracted, spending their days wandering District 12 and talking to friends, new and old. Today would be no different, they hoped to head to the bakery to pick up some fresh bread. It was bittersweet for Peeta, since his family used to own the bakery before the Rebellion. The bombing had killed them all, not many from District 12 survived. A new baker from District 6 was sent into town, Cassius, and he and Peeta worked together some days, trying out new recipes and learning from each other.
"Are we still going to see Cassius today? I have been working on a new kneading technique I want to talk to him about." Peeta looked up from his eggs, his blue eyes sparkled in the warm light from the fire. Katniss loved how happy he was these days, always so optimistic. He had let much of the past go, his nightmares had all but ceased to exist. She wishes she had his will to move on.
"I think we should. We haven't been to see Cassius in over a week. He'll be upset if we hold out any longer."
Having settled their daily plans, they put their dishes in the sink and headed out the door. It was May and the weather was unseasonably warm, but the sky was blue with out a cloud in the sky. Katniss loved weather like this. She closed her eyes and imagined she was up in a tree, Gale by her side. On a day like today the forest would be full of animals to hunt. Peeta slipped his hand into her and she opened her eyes. Focus Katniss, those days are gone.
The walk into the main part of town took about 20 minutes. The Peacekeepers had a few cars and would pick them up if they asked, but they had never taken advantage of their service. They preferred to walk along the road, greeting passersby and discussing the day's happenings. When they made it to town they were greeting by Ryssa, the new Mayor's perky wife. She reminded Katniss of a short and stocky Effie, only with less schedules.
"Kat! Peet!" Katniss hated the nicknames she had for them. She opened her mouth to refute but Peeta gave her hand a squeeze. "I was hoping you would come into town today! Have you heard about the mandatory message from President Paylor at ten today? Well, of course you probably have. My husband and I would love if you could come to the viewing in the town square. People will be more cheerful with your presence. I was worried you would miss it since you came into town a little later than normal"
Ryssa went on about how she woke up early to start her day, and the importance of being timely, but Katniss wasn't listening. Her stomach had dropped to the ground and her knees began to tremble. Mandatory message? Why would President Paylor be sending them a mandatory message? They only had one mandatory message from the Capitol since the Rebellion and that was to talk about civilian casualties, the reparation of the Districts, and the plan for a new Panem. Since then the Districts relied on the Mayors and the Peacekeepers to relay information. President Paylor visited each district once a year and gave a speech, mainly to share what new things the Districts were doing, and what changes the Capitol was undergoing. Something was wrong, she could feel it. She started to sink to the ground but Peeta held her up. "Sure, we'll be there Mrs. Toin." Always to her rescue.
"Oh Peeta, you know to call me Rys." With a quiet giggle and a wink she hustled off to the next unexpecting group of people gathered in town.
"Are you okay?" Peeta continued to hold her up, but turned her to face him. She leaned her forehead against his chin.
"Something is wrong Peeta. Can't you feel it?" Her heart was beating so fast she swore others nearby could hear it. She tried to keep a calm face, despite the Rebellion being over and having lived 10 years of peace, the townspeople still looked to Katniss for assurance. Their hope still rested in her.
He cupped her chin and pulled her head up so that their eyes met. "I'm sure it is just changes in the Capitol. We are coming up on the 1 year anniversary of the newly founded Panem and they are probably just doing a recap of all the progress we have made."
Katniss leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips. She was glad Peeta found his way back to her, and even gladder she let him get close to her again. He was exactly what she needed to survive. "I hope you're right." But deep down she had a sneaking suspicion Peeta was trying to protect her. With all of the nightmares and screaming in the middle of the night, she probably seemed more fragile than usual. She wished Haymitch was in town so she could look to him for advice. He was in the Capitol meeting with President Paylor's staff for his bi-annual scribing. A team of writers was putting together a History book of the Panem we all used to know. They were mainly using Haymitch and other older victors to share stories from the past Hunger Games. They were gathered twice a year for a weeks stay in the Capitol. "We still should have some time before the mandatory message. Let's go find Cassius."
Cassius was never hard to find. He was always in the back of the bakery, from open to close and sometimes past hours. His wife, Sheena, worked up front taking care of visitors. They had a 6-year-old son, Kelt, and Sheena was 6 months pregnant with their second child. Every time they left from a visit with the Baker's family Peeta got that look in his eyes. The look that said he was going to talk to Katniss about starting their own family. It took them some time to come together after the Rebellion, but they had been married 7 years now. Most couples were at least thinking about having children. But Katniss still couldn't bring herself to think about bring children into the world, even if the Hunger Games were over.
"Cassius! How's the bread making going this morning?" Peeta marched right into the kitchen and gave Cassius a slap on the back.
"I've been at it for 4 hours Peeta. Just roll out of bed?" He jabbed Peeta in the stomach and pointed to a stack of rolled up dough. "Make use of yourself and start kneading that dough."
Peeta chuckled. "Sure thing, that reminds me…"
Katniss excused herself back to the front of the store. As much as she wanted to learn about kneading techniques, she wanted to speak with Sheena. She needed to discuss the mandatory message with her and see what her thoughts were. She was always honest with Katniss. She found Sheena hovered over a pan of freshly baked cinnamon buns.
"Hey Sheena. Good morning to you." She smiled and leaned back against the glass case that housed all of the mornings baked goods.
Sheena looked up and smiled. "Hi Katniss. Mind giving me a hand with these? I am trying to get everything sorted into the case before we have to head to the town square for the mandatory message."
Good, so it would be easy to bring up. "Sure." She grabbed a pair of gloves and helped Sheena neatly arrange the cinnamon buns in their designated spot. "So what do you think about this mandatory message? Any idea what it is about?"
Sheena shook her head. "No idea Katniss. But I'll be honest, I have a bad feeling."
So there it was, someone else felt the same. Katniss wondered how many other people in were worried about the message. Did it bring back memories of past mandatory messages? Did it bring back memories of the reapings? "Well, we will find out soon enough." She looked at the clock. "In fact, we should probably get going. Ryssa wants us at the front of the crowd, showing support. She must have an idea of what the message will be if she wants us visible to the public. And that gives me a bad feeling."
Peeta and Cassius appeared from the back, cutting off their conversation. "Ready to head to the square. Ryssa wouldn't want us to be late!" Peeta said it in his best Ryssa impression. Katniss couldn't help but laugh, and Cassius and Sheena laughed along with them. The four of them made their way out of the door and found a slow stream of people were already making their way to the town square. Everyone was just as anxious to hear what it was President Paylor had to say. Kelt was in something called pre-school and would view the message there. President Paylor had started it a few years into office, she said she wanted to start educating the children early.
By the time they got to the town square it was half full. Peeta and Katniss said their goodbyes to Cassius and Sheena, and made their way to the front of the crowd. Mayor Toin and his wife sat on a small stage set up just for the occasion; a microphone and speakers had been brought in. Katniss wondered what they would need to be used for if President Paylor was making a speech on the air. The Mayor motioned for Peeta and Katniss to join him and his wife on stage. They did so reluctantly, taking a seat facing the crowd. Across the square the town clock began to gong, the townspeople growing quiet at the sound.
Katniss's chest felt heavy, breathing become a chore.
Dong… What could President Paylor want?... Dong… Has war broke out in District 2?... Dong… They had the most unrest since the Rebellion… Dong… No, what about another Hunger Games?... Dong… Reapings from the Capitol families?... Dong… No, President Paylor promised. … Dong… the days of children dying were over… Dong… Then what?... Dong… They were about to find out… DONG.
The big screen above District 12's capitol building flickered to life. President Paylor's face appeared on the screen. She looked older than Katniss remembered, her face aged from years of political stress. She imagined that running the new Panem wasn't an easy feat, even if things were significantly better than before.
"Greetings people of Panem. I hope to find you all well on this beautiful May morning". She was upbeat and smiling, but Katniss sensed distress in the back of her voice. Her eyes seemed dim behind the happy mask she wore. "You all know the story of our past. The history of the first rebellion against the Capitol, and the start of the Hunger Games. Then, the second Rebellion against the Capitol, which resulted in the Panem we know today. Equal resources for the districts, no more children dying for remembrance, no more starving families." She clears her throat. "But, despite the positives we have all experienced over the past decade, a new hardship has come to our attention. As you know, we lost hundreds of thousands of people in the war against the Capitol. They went on bombing raids across the country, most Districts had no warning." Katniss couldn't help but think back to the night District 12 was bombed. She had been unconscious and on a hovercraft at the time, but Gale had been there to rescue her family. It was the same bombing that killed Peeta's' family.
"Also, despite the elimination of the Hunger Games, it would seem as though an overwhelming number of couples are afraid to have children. They are afraid to bring children into our new Panem for fear of the old ways. " Katniss was starting to get a weird feeling in her stomach. Where was President Paylor going with this? President Paylor's demeanor changed, her tone become more stern and dominant. "Therefore, as of noon today, women and men ages 14-18 will be gathered at the town hall." A murmur spread across the crowd in the square. "A team of Peacekeepers and Medics from the Capitol will be arriving to run physicals on each eligible boy and girl, assessing their physical health and their gene pool." Many of the town's people still looked confused, maybe stood with their mouths drooped open. Katniss grasped Peeta hand and tried to breath. She could see where this was going. But President Paylor wouldn't dare. She couldn't…"
President Paylor swallowed and delivered the last of her short speech. "Those found in great health and with good DNA will be sent to District 14, which will now be home to our state of the art breeding facilities."
The screen went blank. The crowd remained still. The Capitol was taking the children again.