Disclaimer: I don't own the Hunger Games

Chapter 14:

She doesn't remember how often the whip cracked down onto her back. She doesn't remember his questions or her own inevitable screams. She doesn't remember him tearing apart her shirt, nor does she remember her own thoughts and words.

She only knows because of the angry marks all over her body, her sore throat, her opened shirt, which she's only still wearing to save the last of her dignity. Only one of his questions sticks still in her mind: "Where is he?" He asked this over and over again, and every streak of the lashes is a reminder.

It hadn't been the rack. But the whip had only been a slight improvement. And, as it is, she doesn't believe that has been their last session. And clearly, her prison, now dark as night again, is no safe haven either.

The tender contact of skin on skin, and the following shoot of pain rolling through her body, send her jolting upwards, and sinking back as quickly, held back by the pure agony, the red flesh that once was her back.

Not afore lashing out herself, though. Her hand, though weakened, makes impact with someone's side with a satisfying smack.

It doesn't take long to occur on Katniss whom she just slapped. After all, the choice of people who could be in her cell is limited to two, and one of them would mean a torch of light. Though, she highly prefers the other's companionship. Johanna, at least, doesn't have an instrument to torture her with. And if she did, Katniss is fairly certain she wouldn't be the first on the woman's list of people to torment.

An angry cry can be heard, though, followed by rubbing, which Katniss assumes is Johanna acting on her human instinct. "Seriously brainless, I understand your hesitance to be touched after Seneca's loving treatment. But if you weren't covered in wounds already, you'd find a welt at your cheek now. I was trying to free you of your garment without causing too much pain. But nothing is so hard as a man's ingratitude."

Katniss can't help but silently agree with her. Whenever she -or Johanna, obviously- does something selfless, something considered right, they get punished for it by some unknown force. The better the deed, the worse the punishment. She snorts at the irony. If only it worked the other way around.

"It was a reflex," Katniss justifies herself, although she is not sure if she should. Only then does she remember what the woman said afore spreading her wisdom. "And what do you mean you were trying to free me of my garment?"

Johanna rolls her eyes, even though the girl can't see her. She finds the younger is quite predictable -an open book.

"Just imagine, it's easier to loosen it when the blood's still fresh, not completely dry. Thankfully the material isn't the best, so I can still tear it, but you must get it off, otherwise the building crust will enclose it. And let me tell you, it'll be no fun getting the fabric out of you."

She hadn't noticed the stale smell before, neither had the metallic taste overtaken her tongue. And if there was the last bit left in her stomach, she is sure she would be puking by now again.

Of course, modesty can't play a role now, but still Katniss feels uncomfortable as Johanna reveals her side to the cold air, which hits it with full force, and bite her lips so hard it draws blood not to protest loudly as she hears the ripping and feels the shirt fall to the floor. She is stripped to the waist, and although the woman can't see her, Katniss has the urge to pull her arms up to her chest and shield it from foreign gazes. However irrational that might be in her current situation.

She is snapped out of those thoughts by the other female's voice saying, "Now we're going to get down to the nitty-gritty."

And then she feels her skin being torn down with what she suspects to be a piece of garment. She grits her teeth to prevent a scream from escaping her lips, but she can't suppress a groan. Only know is it she realizes how weakened her body is, for the next rip causes her vision to blur, as if to block out the agony, and the following sends her body flat to the ground, blackened out.

When her eyes open again Katniss immediately feels the itching beneath her torso. It's familiar, although her senses refuse to tell her what exactly it is. Carefully, as not to stress too many muscles, she moves her hand to the dry blades she's lying on. Crunches them between her fingers. Until she remembers.

Hay. A horse's food has become her pillow. There's no pressure on her back, so she's assuming she hasn't been blanketed also. She finds she can't lift herself anymore; thinking about it, doesn't understand how she managed afore, and contents herself with removing the hay piece by piece.

She has a feeling the cold stone underneath, as well as the icy breeze hitting her wounds should bother her, but they're soothing. The pain's still prominent, but there's a slight relief provided by air, and the mere allusion of improvement is worth a mint to Katniss, for her back feels as though it is on fire. Hot, merciless flames grazing the surface, never going deeper, never ending her suffering, but burning the skin till they reach the nerves and can torment those.

She's lost in her thoughts for a moment. Allows herself to think of Prim, whom she'll never see again. Of Gale and her mother, who'll suffer the same fate as young Prim. She thinks of the joy they'd brought her, even though happiness had ceased to exist in her life. She thinks of Prim's laugh, so much like a million bells, and her mother's first song after her husband had died. She thinks of Gale's smile, reserved but honest, and the smell of Sea's stew and her crooked, teeth baring grin winds its way into her mind.

Then there's her father. Guilt sweeps through her as she realizes how much she's forgotten about him, although she vowed to never forget. She can't recall the exact shape of his eyes, the dimples in his cheeks when he smiled and even the stunningly beautiful voice that made the birds stop singing has faded her memory. Right then, she believes she deserves every lash she's gotten. How dare she forget?

Forget. This one word brings her to the last person she's ever cared about. She wonders where he might be right now. Ironic how it's the very same question she was tortured about. All she knows is that he's neither caught nor dead. She'd share his fate immediately. No, he's somewhere out there, maybe somewhere safe. She hopes somewhere safe. She hopes her last sacrifice has not been in vain. She wonders if he might be thinking about her this very moment. If he wants to take her place, foolishly.

How could she know he is outside the walls of her prison this very moment? Clasping the rocks with rough hands, raw desperation flooding right through his fingers, breezing between slits to the girl in the cell, caressing her back, comfortingly, as though it was the boy himself. But there's no one to whisper in her ear and tell her the well kept secret of distance.

He turns to the men escorting him, masking the pain on his face with cold words. "If your plan doesn't work, she is going to end in the flames."

One nods sadly, reaching out to touch the boy's arm. He flinches back. He won't let him. He is supposed to suffer his mother's punishment. And he's being prevented from doing so by the man trying to comfort him. "She is. And so are you. But it's our last hope."

Peeta eyes the ground with deliberation. Hope. What is hope? An illusion? He used to think it's strong. It can overcome fear and agony. He isn't certain anymore. He faces the man, his blue eyes boring into the stale ones.

"It is. Only I wish we wouldn't need to take the risk."

The man grins tiredly, his face seeming stony, older than his years. "There's never been success without risk."

Peeta glances at him strangely. "You'll never know until you've tried it."

The man sneaks his hand onto the boy's shoulder, grasping firmly. "And isn't that an argument for me?"

All four heads shoot up as metal makes contact with rock, but only one pair of eyes is able to see the reason.

She didn't notice the flash of light getting greater while coming closer to her, too lost in thought. Only the bars scratching the floor as they swing open, and the sound of flesh hitting the cell's ground allow her to become aware of her surroundings.

The body, recognizable only by the spiky hair covering her head, spins around at a surprisingly fast pace, snarling at the man shielding her way to freedom.

"I hope you're going to die with us." She spits the words, drops flying like venom onto his bared feet. If only she could poison him with them.

He guffaws almost immediately. Katniss can't help but silently agree with him. Johanna is at his feet, disgraced, and he is as safe as can be. Under the witch's protection. Untouchable. No matter the amount of strength the woman may carry with her.

"Oh, but I'm not. To your comfort, you know he is. He'll inflict no more pain upon you. But then again, maybe the purgatory will."

With one last laugh, one last glare received from Johanna, and one last fist taken to his shin as an aftermath of his mockery, he disappears in the long corridor, taking the light with him.

Johanna snorts.

"I know you're awake brainless, no use hiding it."

And Katniss shifts her head to grimace weakly at her. It isn't as powerful as she'd like it to be, but she can't master enough of her face to manage her trademark scowl.

Johanna actually grins at that. "You can be so glad unconsciousness saved you from these bastards. But nothing will spare you my last words."

Katniss' hand rubs her temple, trying to comprehend the woman's words. Words. Last words. Last. The indication hits her like one of her arrows would an animal's skull.


Somehow she doesn't need to explain. Understanding passes between them, for the first time.

"This noon. With you and one of the idiots. When he didn't want you, they tried to give me to him. But my life's worthless. So I refused. And he said I'm too stubborn." She smirks, as if enjoying filling Katniss in on the most recent events.

"The other man chuckled at him in that cruel way of his, afore telling him he deprived himself of his last pleasure. The widening, fear filled eyes were the last thing I saw of him. And believe me, that's the satisfaction I'll think of while they're making the flames burn me to ash. I'll devour his screams."

She's cruel. There's pure hate in her voice. And as sinful as it might be, Katniss sees her words as justified. Is it allowed to find joy in a man's death? Probably not. But why should she care? While ending his life, they're ending hers.

"Don't they want to use me to find him? And what's with you? Couldn't they have killed you afore already?"

She's never been sensitive, and formulating isn't one of her biggest strengths either. But what other, kinder way of blurting the questions would there be, really? Sometimes, words are like gifts from heaven, given at the right time, in the right place. And when they fail one, who says heaven isn't busy presenting another searching soul?

"I can't answer them all at once." Johanna rolls her eyes at her younger cellmate. She can only wonder why Katniss would care now that she's sentenced to die this very day.

"First of all, the witch is going to ask you one more time before bringing the torch to the stake. She thinks if you don't answer this question in the face of death, you won't do it at any time."

"I don't even know!", the girl calls. "I don't."

"Shush," Johanna hisses. "You think I care? I doubt you'd tell them if you knew, so the outcome's the same."

Katniss sarcastically thinks how much the woman must be thinking of her to come to this statement.

"I, on the other hand, can only tell them how to help someone escape. Or who else helped him. They know me long enough to realize no amount of torture can get me there. My punishment was being downgraded to harlotry. They said it wouldn't make much of a difference, since I'd already been sleeping with half of the men in the castle, but being called a whore is still considered a disgrace." She huffs in annoyance. "As if that'd matter to me.

"But anyway, I believe they're going to kill me now because I refused to do my job and because I kind of helped you; a traitor. They've got a real reason to get rid of me. Even if the people here are too scared to get violent, to rebel against her reign, they wouldn't have tolerated my execution easily."

If she's honest, Katniss can't fathom why that would be the case. Johanna isn't the most cheerful, charming person she's ever met. Far from it, really. If there was a complete opposite of Prim, it would be her.

"Why?" What is there left to lose? She feels free, suddenly. Free to ask any question, free to do anything she's ever wanted to, because it doesn't matter. She's doomed anyway. She wants to run, even though she knows she can't. She wants to feel the wind whip her hair, wants everything to become blurred as she flies by.

"Because, despite all differences, I'm one of them. They would have seen how defenseless they really are. And they would have become even more scared. But too much fear leads to anger. Uncontrollable anger. And she knows. She can't risk it."

Katniss' eyes widen. "So she searches for a reason until she's found one?"

"Not necessarily," Johanna denies, shaking her head. Somehow, both of them have developed the habit of using body language even though they can't see each other. It might be some kind of comfort to them; to move. "It depends on the concerned person, on the character. Thus, you see why she'd want to get rid of me."

And she smirks with satisfaction, as if this was an accomplishment. And maybe it is. That, however, depends on one's point of view. Many things in life do.

"I do," the girl admits. "And I've been a target since I lied."

Johanna gapes at her. Lies are sins, sure, but Katniss' lie must have been more than a mere violation of the rules of heaven. For if the witch was devout, her husband would still be alive. Thou shalt not kill. She follows her own laws.

"What did you lie about?"

Can she tell her? Trust her to keep this secret? Who would believe the woman if she decided to spill it? What would be her motives?

But she can't risk it. Her family's lives are at stake, and they're the last things of value to her. "It doesn't matter anymore."

"But doesn't that mean you're guiltless?", the woman asks, exasperated as to why she wouldn't want to save her own skin. There's only been one person to get her to help him, and although strangely, she can't bring herself to regret.

"I'm not. Only not as guilty as they might think." Her tone is brave, braver than she feels inside.

"Well, if you can't tell me on your deathbed, then you won't at all. The witch is right in that matter."

They startle as they hear something soft flatter onto the floor. Muscle slumps against the metal of the bars, and a deep voice, one neither of them has heard afore, commands,

"Dress in those."

The mixture of a snort and a chuckle escape Johanna's lips. "Want me to be decent, do you? I'd rather die in the same clothes I was born with."

"Do what I've ordered you to." And with that, he stomps of, making sure the females notice his dying down footsteps as he vanishes into the direction of light. He doesn't need a torch; he's got an exact map of the corridors right in his head.

"They'll make you, if you don't, you do realize that, don't you?", Katniss says, reaching out for the garment. She finds it to be one piece, instead of two, like she'd assumed. She is glad to finally have something to cover her bare chest. Although she isn't a fool; she knows it's doused with some kind of poison, to prolong her death and suffer.

The woman huffs. "Then they're going to have to make me. I'm not going down without putting up a fight of my own, however small it might be."

She finishes her sentence the second the cloth is around Katniss' body. And the girl notices a slight pressure on her head, managing to ignore the pain in her back as the crust is scratched by the rough material.

"There's a hood." She announces, surprised. Do they think them such cowards? Wanting to hide their faces from the world? She angrily pushes it down, until it falls to her shoulders.

"Yet another reason to refuse. I won't die faceless," Johanna claims proudly.

"Neither will I." Bitterness laces with sadness in her voice. Her family will see her face, most likely, being torn to ashes. She vows to herself not to scream or betray any features, no matter the pain. Her own last fight.

The first thing I've got to say doesn't have anything to do with the story, much rather with the date. I was shocked today, because someone asked me: "What's so special about today?" Can you believe that? I told her immediately, but still I can't believe it. How can someone forget after only eleven years?

I'd like to say I'm sorry. Sorry for the victims of the attacks on 9/11. Sorry for their families. I'm so sorry. But despite all the death and grief, we shouldn't forget. Or much rather, because of them we shouldn't forget. I'm getting sentimental, I know. But I have no other words to express what I'm feeling so...you'll have to live with this.

So. Now: I really hope you liked the chapter. I'm glad I got it done in one week, but I don't think I'll manage the next one as soon. Three exams in one week, and I have to study.

Tell me what you think, please.