So... I'm going to keep this short because if you don't 'know' me then you most likely just want to read the story, but if you know me already then you'll probably also know I said I didn't think I'd do this again after 'Freedom'... But here I am... One last time...
For the original suggestion of writing Paylor and the fact I carried on writing at all, you can blame be-nice-to-nerds. For the creation of this version of District 8 and all its characters, you can blame me.
I don't own anything that's recognisable as the original canon (and unusually for me, I won't be able to avoid the major canon characters later in this one :P) - I just like to play in Suzanne's fabulous universe ;)
The first thing I notice when I push past the crowd into the main square is Katniss Everdeen's face, magnified many times so those famous grey eyes are all I can see. This Katniss is on a banner that hangs from the front of the Justice Building, but when I look around I soon see there are many more Katnisses. They put the banners up every year to hide the decaying buildings of District Eight from the easily offended eyes of the Capitol as they eagerly follow the Victory Tour. It's obvious this is one of the few ways this year is no different from usual.
There are massive photographs of Peeta Mellark as well, the boy who won the Games with her, but it's Katniss I can't stop looking at. She's the one who pulled those nightlock berries from her pocket, she's the one who wore that mockingjay pin as her district token. She's the one we're all out here waiting to see.
There's a belief many people here in District Eight have that District Thirteen is nowhere near as gone as the Capitol would have us believe, and though it's based on sketchy rumours and hearsay at best, in recent times we've clung to it tightly and it's given us hope. It's given us the courage to start to believe there may be such a thing as life without the Capitol government and it's partly what's led me here today. The fact most of that belief comes from nothing more than a sighting of a mockingjay on the footage we're always being forced to watch is something I can't think about too closely. All I allow myself to think about is that it's always in the same place. I notice it every time I see the clip on the television. I don't think it's a coincidence, and I'm not the only one.
It's about ten in the morning so it's just about light now, or as light as it ever gets anyway. Between the chronically dismal weather and the ever-present fumes that are belched out of the factories, District Eight is hardly one big ray of sunshine. But that doesn't matter to me, because today is the day we test to see if there's even a remote chance that the insane plan we've already risked our lives for will work.
I edge past the massive Communication Centre, a remnant from before the Dark Days according to my Grandpa, pretending to be looking everywhere but at the Peacekeepers stationed at its entrance. It's hard to believe, but if Farlan's plan works then I could be one of the group whose job it is to take control of the place.
I try not to shudder at the thought. Answering back to the overseers at the factory is one thing, but even to think about storming the Communication Centre is something else entirely. That's all out rebellion, and every citizen in Panem's districts knows what happens to you if you try to fight the glorious and almighty Capitol. I can add that to the list of many things I don't want to think about today.
"Stop!" growls a voice from behind me. "Stop where you are."
I halt immediately, spinning around to see a tall, dark-haired man in the white uniform of a Peacekeeper. I don't instantly recognise him, and like everyone else here, I've long since memorised the names and faces of the Capitolian soldiers I need to fear for a reason over and above the obvious, but the sight of him still makes me look at my feet. Not now. Please not now. Not when I fear he'll look into my eyes and see the truth of what I'm planning.
"I don't want any trouble," I tell him, still looking at the ground. "I'm just here to see the Victors."
"You radiate trouble and you attract it, Flax Paylor. You can't help yourself."
"I'm just here to see the Victors," I repeat, trying desperately to look innocent and unassuming even though it's obvious my reputation has already preceded me.
He narrows his eyes sharply but says nothing more so I count myself lucky. He seems as convinced as he's ever going to be and doesn't stop me when I move quickly away.
Even in the short amount of time I've been here, the number of people in the square has grown and it's more of a struggle to weave through them than it was before. It looks like everyone's taking advantage of a rare morning off work to come and see Katniss and Peeta and I'm glad to see them. We were counting on having the crowd here and it's going according to plan so far.
"What time are they getting here?" asks a small voice from somewhere at my waist height, instantly interrupting my thoughts.
"When they're ready, Taff," I reply, stopping so I can look down at the girl beside me.
Taffeta is eleven years old, I know because she's counting down the days until she can take tesserae, but she looks little more than eight or nine. The minimum age for factory work here is twelve, but I know her because she's worked in my section after school since she was about seven, collecting scraps of fabric and cleaning the factory floor to earn a pittance from the overseers willing to overlook her age to get the necessary but unprofitable job done.
After all, why get an adult or youth who is capable of production work to do a job like that when there's a desperate little child or fifty out there willing to do it for virtually nothing? I don't know what it's like in the other districts because that's how the Capitol likes it, but in District Eight that's how it is. They keep us poor and hungry because it keeps us working.
"What are you doing here anyway?" I ask, narrowing my eyes at her. "You shouldn't be wandering around on your own. Where's your dad?"
"I'm not a child," she replies sulkily, scuffing her already worn and filthy shoes on the muddy ground. "I can look out for myself."
"Taffeta," I intone warningly. "Don't start on me with your cheek."
"Then don't call me Taffeta," she says, scowling up at me through impossibly long dark eyelashes.
I shake my head but say nothing further. The other children have teased her about the fussiness of her name since she and her classmates have been old enough to talk, calling her 'District One' and asking her when she's going to volunteer for the Hunger Games. Though she's desperate to take tesserae to help feed her family, she's sensible enough to fear the arena so she doesn't find it funny. We're a superstitious lot here, and she's old enough to know people think it's ill luck to imagine someone going to the Capitol in case it comes true.
"Go that way," I tell her, squeezing her narrow, bony shoulder tightly in something that isn't quite forgiveness as I push her back towards the Communication Centre. They'll be here in a minute. It's time.
"Why?" she asks, trying and failing to turn back to face me as we weave through the mass of people.
"Do you want to see Katniss and Peeta or not?"
"Then move and stop whinging," I retort, pushing her again as I look up at the Capitolian camera crews congregating on the balconies of the buildings.
To my surprise she doesn't answer back, and before I know it I'm climbing the Communication Centre's stone steps again, pushing my way to the top so I can get a better view of the square. The entire stage is surrounded by Peacekeepers already, as I knew it would be. Seeing them there, it's hard to imagine our plan working. I turn away so I don't have to look.
"Over there," says Taff suddenly, tugging on the sleeve of the dress that was my grandmother's. "Look."
I sigh deeply at the sight of the slight figure pushing her way up the steps towards us, trying not to laugh at the way she glares at the people who get in her way.
"About time," I snap, pretending to be annoyed as she finally stops beside me. "You'll be late for your own funeral, Zib."
"Hopefully," she replies, tucking her arm through mine as she scans the square just like I did. Then she drops her voice to a barely audible whisper as she continues. "I had to see if I could get right up close to the stage. Stone was there. I thought he saw me so I had to disappear real quick. I wasn't much caring where I disappeared to."
I stare straight ahead, not wanting to let my reaction to her words show, but I grip her arm tighter so she knows I heard. Erebus Stone is our Head Peacekeeper, and he's definitely someone whose name is known for a reason other than his rank. Zibeline still has the scars on her back from where he had her whipped and she isn't the only one.
"And did you?" I ask, knowing she'll know I'm talking about getting to the stage because I can't remember a time when she wasn't my friend. We went to school together and have worked in the same section of our factory since we got too old for what little learning the Capitol decided we could have. I know how she thinks and she knows the same about me. "Can you?"
"Of course," she replies smugly, momentarily tilting her head so it rests on my shoulder.
"Where's Baize? Taffy's here but she should be with her dad. Where's Cali? And Darry and the others? Where's Cam?"
"Don't worry so much, Commander Paylor," she replies teasingly.
"Quit calling me that. I don't command anybody."
"If you say so," she says, her eyes telling me that she really thinks I should be able to take a joke. "But seriously, Cam's a big boy, he can look after himself."
"I didn't say he couldn't," I say, only changing my tone when I notice I sound as sulky as Taffy did earlier. She knows me far too well. She knows it's him I'm really thinking about despite how I haven't even admitted it to myself for many years. "We still need to know."
"And we will," she answers in that almost inaudible hiss, suddenly deadly serious as she nods once in the direction of the stage. "But first we need to see if the Mockingjay's got wings."
They're holding hands as they walk onto the stage, and when they stop they're close enough to still be touching. I can see what they're doing, what I'm almost certain they've been told to do by people who must truly think we're stupid. Go on the Victory Tour and act like a foolish young couple in love, they must have said. Everything you did at the end of the Games was out of love and you have to show everyone that, you have to make them believe.
Well we don't believe, or if we do then we don't care. The love story doesn't matter. What we care about is that Katniss Everdeen defied the Capitol, and yet here she is, alive and standing right in front of us. She defied the Capitol and she lived, and if she can do it then maybe we can too.
"What's she going to say?" asks Zib, still gripping my arm tightly.
"Nothing, probably," I reply vaguely, concentrating more on the way the Peacekeepers position themselves around the square than on her. "What do you think she's going to say?"
"Let's start a riot?" she answers flippantly, making me slap the back of her head sharply.
"This isn't a joke, Zib. Don't talk like that," I hiss, looking nervously around for white uniforms.
None appear, and in the end Peeta does most of the talking, reeling off what sounds like a very well prepared speech as he tries not to look at Dimity's weeping parents at the foot of the stage. Katniss hovers slightly behind him, but there's something about the way she scans the square, and it tells me she knows as well as I do. What she did changed Panem, no matter how hard the Capitol is trying to pretend it didn't. She committed the single most public display of rebellion since the Dark Days, and no amount of hiding behind a love story will change that.
"Katniss!" shouts a voice from behind me, and everyone instantly spins around in that direction.
I can see the Peacekeepers searching for the person who shouted as well, but before they can even work out who it was, another person repeats the cry of the girl's name. Then another joins in, and then another and another until the whole crowd is screaming just that one single word.
"Katniss! Katniss!" they chant, and it doesn't take long before I start as well. I've never felt anything like it. I've never felt that we're more powerful than those who run our lives, but I do right now. This feels like rebellion, more than standing up to the overseers ever did, and I don't want it to end.
Zib pulls away from me slightly and stands on the tips of her toes to see the reaction on the stage as she also screams at the top of her voice. I scan the crowd and see many people I recognise. Every one of them is shouting for the girl from District Twelve. Every one of them is shouting their defiance for all to hear.
"Did you see them?" Zib says after the pair from Twelve have finally been ushered away, her eyes bright with excitement. "Did you see their faces?"
I know she means the visiting Capitolians on the stage without her having to say so because I saw it too. They could sense the rebelliousness in our voices and for a second they weren't so sure of themselves, for a second they weren't in control. I could tell by their expressions that they didn't like it.
"Maybe it's not such a good idea to…do this now," I whisper eventually.
"What do you mean?" she hisses as we walk back towards the factory, trying not to draw the attention of the Peacekeepers who now surround us all.
"They sense it, Zib. Can't you tell? They're expecting us to try something."
She doesn't speak again until we're back on the factory floor in the middle of the crashing and scraping of the machinery, but when I lean down to pick up a new piece of fabric, she leans down with me at exactly the same time.
"The plan's in place, Flax," she whispers, her lips brushing my ear. "We can't turn back now."
It was just after five in the afternoon nine days later that Taffy raced in, weaving through all of the people and machinery with her usual abandon. She whispered to me that she'd been learning all about District Three at school today, and that's how I came to be standing in the freezing cold outside the Communication Centre, waiting for eight o'clock. Because in the code Twill MacArthur has developed so she can use the children she teaches at the school to pass messages to those in the factories who are part of the planned rebellion, District Three is the name for the Communication Centre. I just feel sorry for those who heard the words District Two, because they'll be the ones with the hardest job of all. They'll be the ones trying to take the Peacekeeper Headquarters.
I look across at Cam and he smiles slightly before turning back to the massive building behind us. Part of me can't believe we're here, that we're stupid enough to think we can take on the Capitol and win, but the rest of me is buzzing with excitement and anticipation. What if we do win? What if we fight them and they leave? We could have control of our own lives for the first time ever. We could have everything we've ever dreamed of. It's got to be worth trying.
I look up at the massive television screen on the front of the Justice Building, watching Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark standing before a wildly cheering Capitolian crowd, and then I turn my head to see the clock. Five to eight. Five minutes to go. My heart begins to beat faster as the people around me seem to close in, drawing closer together in an atmosphere so charged that I'd know something was about to happen even if I wasn't in on the plan.
"Make sure your mask's on tight," whispers Cam, leaning down so his face is level with mine. "Don't let anyone see your face once this starts."
"Make sure you take your own advice," I reply, rolling my eyes at him. He thinks he's the tough one, he always has, and he's been looking out for me for so long that it's become something of a habit. I'd never admit it, but I think I'd miss him if he didn't. "If you die then I'll have nobody to nag and shout at."
He laughs but then abruptly falls silent as the clock begins to chime. Everyone around me reaches for their hastily improvised masks and I find myself doing the same without having to think. My hand closes around the piece of black fabric I smuggled out of the factory, that I took home and carefully cut holes out of so I could see and breathe, and as I fit it tightly in place, the chaos begins.
When they realise what's happening, many of the people in the crowd who had gathered to watch the Victory Interview begin to try and flee to safety, but many, many more pick up anything they can find to use as a weapon or missile and charge forwards into the fray. A wordless battle cry starts up as they run at the ill-prepared and temporarily stunned Peacekeepers and soon the noise of people screaming, guns firing and bricks crashing into buildings is almost deafening.
I hear a loud bang as the gallows is torn down and set alight, but then Baize drags my attention back to the job in hand. I see Taffy standing in front of him, her eyes wide as she frantically tries to look in every direction at the same time, and she makes me remember what we're supposed to be doing.
"Baize, take some of your boys and go around the back!" I shout, nodding in the direction of the group of men he works with. "Cam and the rest, stay with me! Hopefully we'll meet in the middle!"
To my great surprise they obey me instantly, pulling previously hidden metal pipes from the side of the alleyway that leads to the back of the Communication Centre and racing off without another word. The Peacekeepers are getting more organised now, I can tell by the increased gun fire. If we're going to do this then it has to be now.
We'd been a relatively small group before, but as I sprint down the path towards the building's front entrance I find myself in the middle of a raging mob, many of them with their scarves tied up over their mouths to hide their faces. I tighten my grip on the rock in my hand, thinking it very inadequate against the guns of the Peacekeepers, but I don't have time to dwell on it because before I know it we're there and the fight is happening all around me.
I raise my arm, pulling it back and then slamming it forwards so the rock smashes into the skull of the Peacekeeper nearest to me. He crumples to the ground instantly, and when I look at the rock it shines wet with his blood. The man doesn't move, and for a second I stand there staring down at him because he's the first person I've killed and I did it without even thinking. But then I see another white uniform in the corner of my eye and I lash out again.
I don't have time to stop and think after that, not until we've scaled the Communication Centre steps, somehow managing to overwhelm the Capitol soldiers with sheer force of numbers.
"Is that it?" gasps Zib, gripping hold of my arm and looking up at me with eyes that seem to shine through the mud and blood on her face with a mixture of happiness and stunned disbelief. "Is it over?"
"I don't think so, Zib," I reply. "It wouldn't be that easy."
"But it is that easy, Flax. Look," she says, raising her other hand to show me the gun she carries. "We're as strong as they are now."
"Hey, Paylor! You broke your word! This isn't the middle!"
I spin around to see Baize and the others striding down the corridor towards me, looking bruised and battered but not significantly reduced in numbers. Many of them take turns to clap us on the back, and old Darry even ruffles first my hair and then Zib's, laughing when she protests. When I scan the entrance hall the only Peacekeepers I see are those who've been captured by us rebels and every visible weapon is in the hands of one of us.
"This is too easy," I mutter under my breath, barely aware I'm speaking aloud at all. "Why is it so easy?"
"What did you say?" asks Cam as he appears on my other side.
I gaze back at him for a minute but then I shake my head, listening to the fierce battle still going on outside in the square. It isn't over yet, and we won't last very long if we stand here speculating about our apparent success.
"Nothing. It doesn't matter. How many guns have we got?"
"Guns?" replies Zib.
"Yes, guns. You know, the metal things the Peacekeepers usually carry so they look all threatening."
"There's a reinforced door back there that looks like it might be a weapons store," says Cam, smirking at what I said. "And all the Peacekeepers were trying to get into it when we got here."
"Let's go," I say tersely, nodding my head and striding forwards. Once again they all trail after me without protest.
When I get there I find a huge steel door with a red sign attached to it. 'Authorised Personnel Only', it reads, and on closer inspection, the lock seems to require a code to open it. I'm about to look around at them all, to ask for suggestions because there's no way we can fire a gun at it and break it open, but then Cam pushes me out of the way.
"Go get that prisoner," he says to Baize. "I think it's about time we got one of them to do some good for this district."
"He won't tell you what the code is," says Cali, speaking for the first time since we stormed the building.
"He will if we…persuade him," he replies ominously, making sure the struggling Peacekeeper hears.
We all stand back slightly then, and I force myself to watch as Cam, Baize and some of the others start to persuade the captured man to cooperate by hitting him as hard as they can. He might be a Peacekeeper, but he doesn't look especially strong, either mentally or physically. Before they started on him, his features were the finely chiselled work of a Capitolian surgeon, and when they give him chance to speak, he gives in so easily that I suddenly want to ask him how someone so weak ended up in President Snow's army.
Cam punches the code he gets into the panel and the Peacekeeper gives a visible sigh of relief when the door swings open. Many people surge forwards, disappearing to see what's inside, but a lot of the others remain where they are.
"What shall I do with him?" asks Baize, and it takes a good few seconds for it to register in my mind that he's talking to me.
"Kill him," says Zib without hesitation, already starting to raise her gun.
I'm about to ask her if she even knows how to fire it, but at that moment Taffy pushes through the crowd and stops by my side, closing her filthy hand into a tight fist in the fabric of my jacket. I take one look at her and shake my head. She's too young to see something like that, although judging by the state of her, it may be too late for a sentiment like that.
"Not yet," I say, slamming the rock I still have in my hand against the side of the Capitolian's head. "Lock him up somewhere. He might be useful later. Do the same with any others, but keep them in separate rooms and search them first."
Zib stares at me, and I wait for her to question me, to ask who died and made me the boss, but she doesn't. Instead she nods twice, first to me and then to two of the station workers, who drag the unconscious Peacekeeper away down the corridor. She follows behind them, only turning back when I call after her.
"Don't kill anyone unless you have to."
"They'll kill us if they get the chance."
"We're not them."
"Whatever you say, Commander."
I scowl at her and then spin on my heel, heading straight through the doorway with Cam and Baize following behind. It's dark in here. There are no windows and only one small light bulb hanging from the ceiling, but it's just bright enough for me to see the rows of guns lining the walls.
"Told you so," says Cam teasingly as we watch some of the others unhook them from the shelves.
"We should take some of them away. Hide them down by the river or something."
"Because this seems too easy. Something's not right. We can always get them back when we need them."
"We need them now, Flax. The Capitol isn't going to surrender Eight without a fight. You're right when you say the battle's only just started."
"There are more guns than people right now," I reply, scanning the room carefully. "Keep what we need and take the rest of them away. Baize can take them."
"Because he can take Taff with him," I answer, glaring across at the big, burly man who was stupid enough to bring his girl into the middle of a war zone as I raise my voice so he can hear me. "If it's going to kick off again then it'll be here because they'll want the Communication Centre back. This is no place for her."
"I kept her where I can see her," replies Baize. "I'll make no apology for it. If I can see her then I know nothing bad's happening to her."
"How can you protect her in the middle of a riot?"
"How could she have protected herself if the Peacekeepers charged the Community Centre? Because that's the only place I could've sent her. It was too late to send her back to Nessa."
"I think we should take some of the guns and hide them," I reply, nodding in reluctant acceptance. "Will you take them?"
"That's not part of the plan. Farlan said to take this place and stay put."
"Farlan doesn't know everything."
"Neither do you, Flax Paylor," says Darry, stepping forwards. "But I'll take your word for this. I'll take the guns if you ask me to."
"And I'll go with him," adds Baize, his eyes not leaving mine even as he holds his arm out until Taff runs to his side.
"I'll go too," she says. "I can help."
"And a big help you'll be, I'm sure," I tell her solemnly, forcing myself not to ask her how she came to be so muddy and how she got the cuts and bruises on her face and hands.
As I watch them prepare to leave, I quickly realise that most people here are happier when they're following instructions or orders. It's what they know and what they're used to, and before I know it they're tying piles of guns together and lifting them onto their shoulders.
"Do you know where you're going?"
"Better than you do, Paylor," hisses Baize under his breath, and the atmosphere in the room seems to lighten a little when we both laugh.
Once the small group have left, the rest of the rebels soon disperse, leaving me alone with Cam. It's only when I know there's nobody else around to overhear that I finally feel able to confess to the thought that's been lurking at the back of my mind since way before today.
"Cam?" I say, and he turns to me immediately. "Do you know how to fire a gun? Because I don't."
Several hours later we're slumped against the wall in the entrance hall as the dawn light shines down through the glass domed ceiling. The noise from the square has stopped, and now it's almost unnaturally quiet. I wonder what woke me until it starts again, an almost rhythmic tapping echoing back towards me from one of the rooms down the corridor.
I slowly move away from Cam, lifting the arm that was draped around me up and lowering it back against him. He turns slightly and sighs but doesn't wake, so I get up and creep towards the source of the noise that disturbed me. It's only when I see her sitting on the floor inside the otherwise empty room that I realise Zib wasn't still in the entrance hall.
"What are you doing? Can't sleep?"
She looks up at me with red, tired eyes, taking the bullet from the gun in her hand and then immediately replacing it. It clicks into place loudly when she jerks her wrist and I realise that's what I heard, over and over again.
"Not much," she replies, still staring up at me even as she dismantles the gun one more time.
I cross the room and flop down onto the floor beside her, reaching across to put my hand over hers. She drops both gun and bullets and they land on the ground with a loud clatter. I wait for Cam and the others to come racing in, convinced we're under attack already, but they don't arrive and the silence continues. Zib pulls her hand away only to turn around and push herself against me, wrapping her arms around my waist like she hasn't done for nearly twenty years.
"Are you going to tell me or do I have to guess?" I ask, reaching up to stroke her hair only to find it still matted with blood from last night.
"Is it over?" she replies, answering my question with one of her own. "Have we won?"
"I don't know," I say, not seeing the point in lying to her. "It still seems too easy. If it was this easy then we'd have been free years ago."
"But I…I… Sometimes I think I'd rather die than go back to what we were before."
"I know," I whisper. "I know. But I'm kind of hoping it won't come to that."
She leans closer to me and pushes the gun away in one movement, and it's the sight of it skidding across the floor that makes me think. It makes me remember the thought that was nagging at me even as she taught us what I thought none of us knew.
"Zib? How did you learn to fire a gun?"
"You don't want to know," she replies, releasing me slightly but not moving away.
"If I didn't want to know then I wouldn't ask."
She sighs deeply and rests her head on my shoulder again. "If I tell you then don't judge me, Flaxie," she whispers. "You have to promise you won't judge me."
"Last time you said that we were fourteen years old and you stole that blanket from the factory because your mother was sick and you didn't want her to get cold at night."
"Do you remember when Adie got sick?"
"How could I forget?" I reply, knowing she's talking about what happened six years ago.
Zib's little half-sister got the same virus that killed my grandmother, only, as some of the lucky ones did, she survived even without the cure the Capitol gave to those who were most useful to them. I remember it even now. I remember how the Peacekeepers guarded the precious vials of medication, how they were immune to the pleas of people who got on their knees in the street and begged them to spare their child or elderly relative who wasn't deemed to be worth saving. I'd have begged them myself if Grandpa hadn't stopped me, if he hadn't taken my hand in his and told me in a hushed whisper that Grandma wouldn't want me to demean myself by pleading with the likes of them.
"And you remember how she got better?"
"Obviously," I reply, thinking of the now twelve-year-old girl who my friend treats more like a daughter than a sister.
"She wouldn't have, if I hadn't…if I hadn't made sure she did."
"What do you mean, Zib?"
"I love that girl so much. I couldn't watch her die. I couldn't."
"I don't get what you're telling me," I say, even as I feel my heart sink because I'm starting to think I do.
"Some of the Peacekeepers had a bit of a black market thing going with the medicine. Adie didn't survive without the cure. She survived because I got it for her."
I'm not stupid and I knew about what was going on at the time. How could I not notice how few burials there were on the nice side of town by the station? It was perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes that they were getting the cure from somewhere. But Zib's poorer than poor. She and her small family of three barely have enough to survive and little Adelaide had no choice but to accept tessera grain on the day she turned twelve just like her big sister did before her.
"You're the smart one, Flax," she says. "Use your brain. What does a poor girl with nothing have left to sell?"
"Why?" I reply, almost too horrified to speak as I hold her at arm's length so I can see her properly. "You should have talked to me. We could have found another way. Somehow we could have done something."
"Done what? You still think we can take them on and win, Flax. Even after everything that's happened to us, you still have hope. But I know better. And I couldn't watch Adie die. I'd have done what I did a thousand times to save her, and I still would."
I don't know what to say so I hug her instead, crushing her so tightly against me that she laughs and tells me that suffocating her isn't the solution to all our problems.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because you'd have charged in and got yourself killed. And because I dealt with it. Once I saw Adie open her eyes again, what happened didn't matter." Then she laughs again and when I look questioningly at her she carries on talking. "I asked him to show me how to use a gun and he did. I think he found it funny that I wanted to know, and he didn't think it would matter or make any difference because it wasn't like I'd ever get to use one for real."
"Shows what Peacekeepers know," I reply, standing up and pulling her to her feet with me. I know her and I know she won't want to sit around talking more than we already have.
"Next time I see him I'll be able to put a bullet through him," she says, her dark District Eight eyes seeming to flash with anger. "And I know exactly where I'll be aiming for."
By the time Zib's dragged me back to the entrance hall, the others have started to wake up. I can see them looking around trying to decide what to do next, almost as if they're confused because they don't have a shift at the factory to attend.
"Now what?" says Zib loudly, making them all stop to look at us.
"We can't stay here forever. We control this place, but we have no idea what's going on everywhere else."
"So we go back to the main square?" asks Cam, taking my hand as he gets up even though he hardly lets me bear any of his weight.
"We'll have to. Do you think Baize and the others ended up there?"
"Maybe," he replies, but his expression tells me he isn't optimistic.
"We'll go and see," I say firmly, refusing to let myself consider that my decision might have sent them to their deaths last night.
The first thing I notice is that the city's a total mess. The bodies of the dead, both district and Capitol, still lie among the rubble and the smoking remains of last night's fires and there are people everywhere, milling around uncertainly. But then my focus moves to the opposite side of the main square, because over there the people abruptly aren't aimlessly wandering anymore. They're fleeing for their lives, and even as I watch, the noise of what sounds like drums begins to ring in my ears.
When the gunshots start, I realise it's not drums I'm hearing but the impact of many sets of boots hitting the floor. The line of Peacekeepers erupts into the square seconds later in numbers greater than I've ever seen. I only associate the buzzing noise coming from above me with Capitolian hoverplanes when the bombs begin to fall.
"Go back!" I scream. "We have to go back!"
"Go back where?" shouts Cam in response as we flee back the way we came.
"To the Communication Centre!" I reply, bellowing at the top of my voice in the hope that some of the other people running with us will hear and decide to follow. "To the Justice Building! To anywhere that means anything to the Capitol!"
It isn't far to the Communication Centre, but it feels like miles when all I can hear is a jumbled mass of almost deafeningly loud sound. It seems to be a mixture of gunshots, people screaming and an unfamiliar Capitolian voice, projected on a loudspeaker as it asks us to put down our weapons and surrender, and it fills my mind so I can think of nothing else.
As I sprint away towards relative safety, I try to pick out the words the man on the loudspeaker is saying and force myself to think about what they mean. Surrender? I know that one, but as if we could surrender now. Sure, the voice sounds reasonable enough - put down your weapons and everything can go back to normal - but how can everything be normal now? How can normality return after this? And how can we trust a word the Capitol says? They've always made a habit of being something nasty pretending to be something nice and there's no reason for them to change now.
"You were right," says Cam, gasping for breath as we lean against the stone wall of the Communication Centre entranceway and watch people trying to bar the door. "They knew all along. They were waiting for us to do this."
"It doesn't matter now," I reply. "We have to think. There must be something we can do."
"Surrender?" says someone else, a woman I don't recognise. "We're through. It's over. But maybe they'll decide we're more use to them alive than dead."
I scan the vast room looking for inspiration, not willing to believe it's over yet.
"Did Farlan say anything else? What are we supposed to do now? They must have thought about this. They must have."
"I don't think there's anything we can do. It's finished."
Even as he's speaking, the bombs begin to fall again and there's a crashing sound as the Peacekeepers attempt to break the door down.
"We have to move! We have to get out!"
"No, Cam!" I scream, trying to make myself heard over the sirens and the loudspeakers and the endless crashing from the front of the building. "It's too late for that! We can't!"
He grabs my arm and drags me along the corridor back the way we came.
"Don't be stupid! They'll be around the back as well! It's suicide to go that way!"
"That's why we're not going that way," he gasps, sliding to a halt in front of a nondescript looking door about halfway down the equally featureless and grey corridor.
He drags me into the room, slamming the door shut behind us, and I stare incredulously back at him when I realise where we are.
"Cam, this is the laundry room."
"I know," he says, frantically opening and closing hatches on the wall until he finds the one he's looking for. "My cousins work in here, remember. The Capitolians have to have their clothes washed somewhere."
"This is no time for games," I snap, stepping back towards the door because if I'm going to die then it's going to be with a weapon in my hand not hiding amongst the dirty linen like a frightened child. "The others are still out there and I'm going back."
I start to move again but he holds me still, spinning me around so I have to look at the dark hole in the wall he's just uncovered.
"We go down there and we get to the servants' entrance. Then there's only one hidden door and a short walk and we're back in the main square. It's our best chance."
"No way. Not without Zib and the others. I won't leave them to die."
"If the Peacekeepers kill us all then who will work in the factories for them?" he retorts, clearly hoping I won't notice how he's edging me towards the hatch even as he talks. "They won't kill indiscriminately, you know that."
"If you're so sure of that then why are you here? Why did you drag me with you?"
"You know the Capitol. If something happens then they have to blame someone. They have to be seen to punish someone. Who's the one always answering back to the Peacekeepers? Who's the one who speaks to the overseers when there's a problem in the factory? You, Flax," he whispers, "it's always you. And I… None of us want to see you hang."
I look up at him, the logical part of me knowing he speaks the truth, but I still can't bear to run. Running feels like admitting defeat, like surrendering to the Capitol all over again. For one short day we had a chance, for one short day we were free. I'm not quite ready to let go.
"Live to fight another day, Commander Paylor," he whispers, standing behind me so he can turn me towards the hatch. "Go. I'll be right behind you."
"-can take care of herself."
"It's funny," I reply, raising my foot to the ledge and pulling myself up, "but she said the same thing about you. And don't call me Commander."
With those final words that sounded a lot like a command, I close my eyes and let go, hating myself for taking the coward's way out as I fly down the laundry chute at ever increasing speed.
Thanks for reading. If you're all still out there and want another chapter then I'll post again after Christmas...