"Who would have thought that I'd be escaping the Capitol with a good-looking District 2 boy and a scowling tree climber District 12," Isabelle says and looks at us both, "You guys really aren't the best match, you know."
I smile and squeeze Katniss's hand slightly as we step over the solid, grey brick bridge that connects the Capitol to the piece of land seperating that part of Panem from District 1. It's like being in the arena once more. Running from unknown forces, not knowing what twist and trap to expect next, constantly hiding and risking our lives for our allies. For me, it was a little bit too much like the arena. I think it's become a habit of all victors to compare their surroundings and lives to the Games. It doesn't make it easier knowing I'm not the only one who imagines muttations jumping from rivers and trees, but at least I know people around me feel the same thing. We know what to look out for when the other starts getting memories and halucinations. For Katniss, it looks like her whole body freezes, her breath becomes ragged and she reaches to touch her forehead, her mouth letting out hysterical noises. Isabelle's hand always goes straight to her belt where three blades are kept. And for me, I'm not sure what the other two see, but for me it's like the whole world freezes and I'm in the tube again, being pushed into the arena. Those last few seconds where you are considering stepping off the plate early and ending your life before someone else can.
"Did you just call me hot?" I tease and Isabelle scoffs.
"How much longer until we can rest?" Katniss sighs as she drags her legs over the bridge before trying to collapse. She hasn't slept in days, insisting to take watch for traps and hovercrafts, or refusing to rest and instead sitting up and talking with either me or Isabelle.
I put my hand under her back to keep her steady and slip my other arm under her knees, lifting the girl up so I'm carrying her. She lets out a small sigh of happiness and tilts her head back towards the sky.
"When we stop again, Katniss, you're eating my meal," I say as I notice how much lighter she has become since leaving the Capitol. We have all lost weight, but neither me or Isabelle's lack of food compare to how much weight Katniss has dropped. Isabelle had stocked up on dried apples, crackers, seaweed, soup, bread and tea leaves, but I don't imagine that we have much longer until it's all gone.
"Hmmmm," Katniss mumbles. Her eyes slide closed and she's pulled into a dream. I remember her saying that in my arms, the nightmares go away, so I continue to carry her as we walk down the dirt path from the bridge and look out to what lies infront of us.
We'd been able to either deactivate or get past all of the bombs in the Capitol in less than three days and without any major injuries, but there are rumours that worse traps lie between the Districts.
Isabelle and I stand on a thin dirt strip that has been dug infront of a forest that looks hundreds of kilometres long. I can't see anything but dark coloured trees and a train track that looks like it's been made recently and used often... A train track... Train track... To need a train track, you must need trains to be passing on it. They would be going on it often for deliveries to and from the Capitol, sending out searches for us. I'm jolted backwards, and then running forwards to a crumpled piece of paper that lies on the side of the tracks. Isabelle seems to have realised this too, because she's sprinting at my shoulder, and then ahead of me. I almost don't even remember I'm holding Katniss, but I look down to see she's still sleeping.
"It's a timetable," Isabelle says. She holds up the piece of paper I had spotted and passes it to me.
Words are printed across the page in black and yellow ink. Every day has a seventh of the page, listing times and stops of the trains.
"What time is it?" I ask.
"Twenty past five in the afternoon," Isabelle says, looking down at the watch she stole from the Capitol.
"The next train is coming in thirty minutes."
"I'm scared," Katniss is the first one to speak after ten minutes of staring at the train schedule blankly.
"Consider our chances," says Isabelle. "Hiking all the way to District 12 on foot will take months at least, and probably several injuries on the way. If we don't die of starvation or dehydration before we reach your family," she points to Katniss with a wave of her hand and rolls her eyes, "we'll most likely be close to dead as it is."
I know she's right, but doubt still tugs at my brain. To board a train where there is a fifty percent chance it will be filled with Capitol passengers, or maybe even Snow and several Gamemakers... The other fifty percent chance it will just be a cargo train on the way to pick up coal and goods from the Districts. "So either we try to get to 12 on foot, where hovercrafts will be crawling every inch of Panem to find us, or we take our chances and board the next train to the Districts."
"I think I'd rather take my chances," says Isabelle quickly. "Better to die in a luxury Capitol train than in the woods."
I think I see Katniss open her mouth to argue, but I'm not sure because it's closed again in less than a second. I can see how much she'd rather lie down on the mud, grass and pine tree branches every night than hide in a spare room of a train, but she knows it wouldn't be the smarter option.
"So it's agreed then. We'll take the next train that comes," I say.
The two girls nod in agreement and Isabelle mutters something about going to tie knots with the rope. The one she had carried before even entering the Capitol. Earlier, when Katniss had asked why she had it, the small girl had replied that she'd rather hang herself than be tortured to death in the arena. But she's started to use it as a form of entertainment, tying and untying different knots in her time walking.
A hovercraft materializes overhead. I grab Katniss's hand and dive for shelter of the closest tree, but Isabelle stands in the open just infront of the bridge with her hand clutching her knives tightly. The wind from the hovercraft blows strongly and I'm reminded of the cold nights near the end of my time in the arena. I remember watching Isabelle's Games, where they were placed in freezing, snowy mountains with no sunshine and temperature that was always below zero. I can only imagine she's reliving the cold nights she spent in her little cave, waiting for people to comeby and hiding from the ones after her.
"Isabelle," I hiss.
She doesn't move. Her eyes are distant, and her blade ready to slash at anything within a metre radius of her body.
Katniss moves before I can, crawling from under the tree and pulling at Isabelle's free arm in the direction of shelter, receiving a slice just below her elbow from the girl's blade.
"Katniss, it's you," Isabelle gasps and her hands goes over the cut she made on Katniss's arm.
The hovercraft is hovering over us now, as they both fall down under the tree.
"It's not after us. It's being sent to the mines," Katniss says.
She's right. It's a black hovercraft, fairly small compared to the ones they have already sent out in search for the three of us, and the red sirens at the top of it are blaring loudly, almost loud enough to burst my eardrums. Once it's gone, my ears are stull buzzing, but I barely pay attention to them. I'm more worried about the purpose of the hovercraft. The only send them out when an explosion has happened, so I've seen them rarely in my life...
An explosion in the mines.
An explosion that might be involving Gale and various other friends of Katniss's from District 12.
She lets out a gasp as she realises the same thing I do.
"What's the matter?" Isabelle asks.
"There's been an issue in the mines," I reply shortly, wrapping my arms around Katniss before she falls down into my lap and shuts her eyes.
Katniss is only out for a few minutes, but Isabelle has already given up on trying to wake her and has gone back to the bridge where she continues to make tangles with that short piece of rope of hers.
I stroke hair back from the stormy eyed girl's face as she finally begins to move around and flutter her eyes open.
"Did I miss anything exciting?" she asks.
I shake my head. "Isabelle had another meltdown, but she's fine now. Hows your arm?"
She looks to her cut. It's deep, but the bleeding has stopped and I don't think it's anything to worry about right now. "It's fine."
"Can I ask another question?" I say.
"How are you ?"
She sighs. "After running from the Capitol for weeks with barely any food and sleep, with my only companions being an arogant, sarcastic, hot guy and a short-tempered, snappy little girl? This may sound weird, but I'm alright. You know, I feel... alright. Better than I have in a while."
"Maybe that's because we're one step closer to getting your family and Gale back," I point out.
At the mention of Gale, she tenses and I can see her trying to remember what we talked about before she feinted. "The explosion... the hovercraft... that was real?"
I nod. "Yes."
The light in her eyes dissapears and is replaced with what can only be described as lighting. Jolts of electricity pass through her stormy eyes.
"Maybe it's better not to think about it right now," I suggest and she smiles sadly.
"What do we do after this?" she says.
"That's a pretty vague question," I say.
"I mean, if we do escape Panem, what happens then? Will we stay together? Or will you go and find a life away from me and my family? What will we do?" she replies.
"If you think for one second I'm letting you out of my sight ever again, don't get your hopes up. I will be with you until the day I die," which may not be far away, "I love you."
"I love you too," she says before taking a deep breath. "Who's Azora?"
I'm taken aback for a moment. "She..."
"You loved her," Katniss states.
"How do you know?"
"The look on your face when I said her name."
"Yes," I say. "I did love her."
She gives me a look that asks what happened.
"Her name was pulled out at the Reaping day," I say. "No one volunteered that year."
"What was she like?" Katniss asks.
I'm suddenly grateful. That she doesn't give me her apologies, or become silent, but that she understands that 'Sorrys' don't help anything. It was one of the things no one could ever understand in District 2. At her funeral, people would send their apologies to me and fret about how sad I must be, but not one of them asked how I saw her, or asked my opinion on who she was.
"Azora was... so much like you," I say, realising it for the first time myself. "Stubborn, independent, spirited, beautiful, wanting so much to get out of here. She promised me that she would come back, or try to at least, and she did, but... She was the first person I ever loved, I can't forget her as much as I try."
"Sometimes it's better not to forget. It can keep you strong," she says.
Suddenly my mouth is filled up with the taste and scent of smoke so strong I can barenly breath. Dust blows in to my eyes and I shut them to try and help the sting.
It's gone in a matter of seconds, as I see the train coming towards us.
The three of us are racing for it at once, and it's coming at full speed.
"Take my hand," I say to Katniss and she grabs it without hesitation. I extend my other one out to Isabelle but she shakes it off.
"One," Isabelle says.
We take a step backwards as the front of the train moves past us.
We glance into the windows, and I can see figures moving past without noticing us.
The back of the train is getting closer... closer... At the end is a small square on the outside with a ladder that leads to the top. I focus my eyes on this as I prepare to jump.
I push myself off the ground and all three of us go flying onto the back, desperately clutching at the ladder of anything to hold us.
When we're moving, I can feel my skin being pulled from my bone and skull.
I move towards the door at the back, the two girls following me, and it opens without force.
We climb slowly in, and are met by one face that looks at us with pure shock.
Katniss and I recognise him at the same time, though our reactions are different.
She's the first one to speak, and when she does it comes out as a rush of air.