Chapter 26- The Real Enemy Part 2
"…Things are ramping up now. Like a runaway train I'm not sure there's any stopping it now. Every able bodied man and woman and teen is being recruited into this thing now—are you listening to me Ryves?"
Lyme snapped her fingers in Cato's face. He slowly blinked and like the dialing of a lens she came back into focus on the chair before him. Lyme had dropped by unannounced—she had been doing that a lot lately, saying it was to check up on him, but Cato knew better, she was worried he would do something drastic—and launched into some spiel about how fast everything had escalated since Coin was assassinated. Since Peeta killed—Cato quickly banished the thought from his mind, instead focusing on to the aftermath.
When they had detained him. Isolated him. Interrogated him. Threatened him. But there was nothing left to threaten. They thought he was in on it. That after all this time he would defect to the same bastards that torched his family, murdered his sister. No, Cato would never do that. He was in this now. He had blood on his hands, the death of hundreds, and there was no turning back.
"Who cares?" Cato grunted.
He rose from the bed and swung his legs over the edge. The slap of his bare feet against the cold tile loudly bounced through the small room. He focused on the gray plaster wall opposite him. He had taken to staring at the banal wall a lot recently. It helped him empty his mind, otherwise the anger boiled uninhibited just beneath the surface of his skin like a disease worked to turn his blood black and cold, his mind savage.
Lyme remained persistently seated in the chair next to his bed when he spoke.
She scoffed. The chair squeaked as she scooted closer to Cato, her back straightened making her look wider, more intimidating. It had no effect on Cato. Nothing did.
"You should! The final stand happens tonight. The war could go one of two ways for our cause, but either way I fear there will be insurmountable losses for everyone. And what are you doing about it? Just sitting here and moping like some entitled, angst riddled Capitol brat? If Peeta were here he'd be ashamed."
"But he's NOT!" Cato suddenly roared, standing to his feet and towering over Lyme. His body visibly vibrated as the resentment inside him boiled over. "He's a traitor—a killer! He abandoned us!" He left unsaid the part where Peeta abandoned him. "I don't give two shits what he would think. It's… It's time for you to go. As you said, war is coming and I need to prepare."
Standing to her feet Lyme equaled Cato's height and her hard eyes bore into Cato's casting harsh judgment. But he remained defiant and stared past her head at the gray wall. She sniffed back a deep breath and then released it through her teeth before marching out, the slam of the door closing behind her breaking Cato from his trance. Instead of preparing he just fell back onto his bed, eyes drifting to their usual spot on the ceiling: a crack in the cement that had appeared after the bombing. He kept waiting for it to grow wider, longer, eventually buckling from the weight above and caving in on him. It never did.
Before he could find his way back to his previous state of catatonic depression the door flew open. Growling Cato rose back up, obscenities on the tip of his tongue ready to be unleashed on Lyme telling her just exactly what he thought of her pestering. The plan died on his tongue in a shocked intake of breath at the sight of the bloodied and bruised girl that burst into his room.
"Prim? What the—"
Cato's voice broke the spell that had them both frozen in place and Prim collapsed to the floor. Jumping from bed Cato crossed the room, closed the door and took Prim in his arms. Her whole body convulsed as she was consumed by an unknown grief so powerful it might swallow her whole. It disturbed Cato his first reaction was to cringe away from the emotional display. But he fought that urge and continued to hold her on the floor.
"Prim, Prim, talk to me. C'mon. What happened?" Cato pulled back to look down at her cradled in his arms. The blood coating her chest had transferred to Cato and he breathed a sigh of relief as he realized the blood was not hers. Actually there were no visible wounds at all. Just a bruise on her forehead.
While Cato did not know what happened, he knew it was bad. He had not seen Prim after Coin's assassination. It was chaos and he was too numb, too self-centered to have thought of her after it. Her cursed the new selfish streak he had developed—or if he was being honest, reawakened.
"Did anyone see you come here? Prim, I need you to answer me."
Finally, Prim took in a shaky breath and then turned her wide olive eyes up on Cato.
"Peeta's not a traitor. He didn't kill Haymitch. He—He—"
"—What are you saying? Of course he is. I saw the tape, he killed Haymitch. There is no doubt."
Cato shook his head vigorously, disentangling himself from Prim and pushing back from her. They remained seated on the floor, smears of red violently breaking the monotony of gray in the room. He shook his head hoping they were just visions. They remained. All he saw was red anymore.
"Haymitch isn't dead. Well—" Prim hiccupped. "He is now…" She shook her head then winced, bringing a hand to the back of her scalp. She leveled her eyes on his, pleading and aware how crazy she must sound. Cato had lost hope long ago.
"You're in shock. Tell me what happened? Are you safe?"
"I don't know! But you have to believe me. I saw him! Haymitch." Prim threw herself forward and clutched at Cato's forearms, desperate. Her eyes were wild and red. "I followed Heavensbee into the hovercraft on an impulse, I don't know. But—but I saw him. He had Haymitch stashed away in some supply room. He'd been there for days. They were talking about Peeta. Haymitch was angry with Heavensbee. He wasn't holding up his end of some deal—"
"This doesn't make any sense." Cato interrupted. He pulled away from Prim and stood, pacing. It was impossible. Something had happened to her. She hit her head. "You need to see a doctor—"
"You're not listening to me!" Prim screeched. She stood to her feet and pointed an accusing finger at Cato. "I know Peeta hurt you, but he'd never, ever, betray us. I know that and you know that no matter how hard you try to deny it. Heavensbee shot and killed Haymitch to keep this secret. I don't know why, but Haymitch told me we have to save Peeta. No one else knows. He's all on his own. You know what I'm saying is true, just think about it. Why would Peeta do this? Why would he betray the rebellion? Why pretend to kill Haymitch and run to the Capitol?"
It was not true. Peeta betrayed me! He cheated our love and then abandoned our cause for the enemy! He lost his mind in those games. Just another broken victor. He tried fervently to deny it. He fought it with all the anger that festered inside of him. But the truth was stronger. It bulldozed through all his concocted scenarios like they were tissue paper and the realization bowled Cato over. He felt hot all over and overcome with a dizzying wave of nausea.
"To gain the Capitol's trust. He went to kill Snow…" Cato paused and swallowed reflexively. He finally stopped pacing and looked down at Prim. "He's sacrificing himself."
Before Cato had time to process it all, before Prim could even get out a response, there was a loud sound of static air that burst into the room, followed by three sequential beeps. Then a voice came on over the speaker system.
"This is Plutarch Heavensbee, your new interim President for Thirteen and the Rebel Alliance of Districts."
Prim gasped in outrage, "He cant!" But Cato waved at her to hush as he craned his head to listen. It began to make sense now.
"I have not taken this new position lightly and I am deeply saddened to have ascended to this rank under such grave circumstances. But the chain of leadership must not be broken. We are at war. A war we can and must win. Despite the setbacks we have weathered the past few weeks my resolution is absolute. I will do everything in my power and more to assure us a true victory and our oppressors will know true justice. And so I promise to commence immediately with Alma Coin's plan of attack on the Capitol tonight. This war will end. We mustn't wait another day. Forces conspire against us at every turn and the longer we wait, the more time we give the enemy to turn and use our greatest weapon and—" Heavensbee breaks, showily clearing his throat. "—And biggest disappointment against us. I ask that you please find the nearest monitor. The video I am about to play is—was classified. President Coin saw fit to keep the truth from you. In the end that allowed Capitol spies into our midst, enemies into our beds. But I will not keep things from you any longer. You deserve to know the truth. To know exactly what we are fighting against. To know the true enemy."
A deep sense of dread leached into every pore of Cato's being. All up and down the hall of the dormitory Cato could hear doors open as people gathered at the monitors that dropped from the ceiling. Cato and Prim cautiously exited his room and joined the nearest crowd. He knew what was about to be played before the television light to life. It was the surveillance video of Peeta strangling Haymitch. Prim groaned in misery and fell into Cato's side. All around them he heard the telltale signs of the birth of an angry mob, just like when Dreg had rallied the citizens of Two against him. People shouted in disgust. Cried out terrible epithets at Peeta and the Capitol, feeding each other's unruly emotions. Their Mockingjay had betrayed them. Heavensbee came back on the intercom just in time to soothe their raw emotions, a perfectly timed emotional balm. He was a true politician.
"I know. I know how you all must be feeling. Because I am feeling it too. He was our Mockingjay. Our hope. He breathed new life into our weary bones and re-ignited our fire for justice and liberty from those that oppressed us for far too long. And now he has betrayed those very same values for greed and power that President Coin would not give him. He had her assassinated and now he sits in the lap of luxury with President Snow and plots against us, ready to feed him our secrets and weaknesses. But we will not give him the chance! For we are coming and they will know our true wrath. The rebellion will win and we will have our justice!"
The crowds gathered around the interspersed monitors in the hall were whipped to frenzy by Heavensbee's words. The boy on fire betrayed them and now they wanted blood. They whooped and hollered, beat their chests and donned their war gear. It was time for battle. Cato realized it was the perfect ploy. Heavensbee had everyone exactly where he wanted. Everyone was now blindly allegiant to him and ready to rush into battle, their fears of assassins and deep mistrust long forgotten with the fresh scent of a new enemy to distract them.
"Cato. Prim…" Finnick stood before them as the riled crowd thinned around them, everyone marched to the loading bay above where they would be sent into battle. Finnick was dressed in military gear with his signature trident in one hand and a rifle slung over his back. His sea green eyes took in Prim's bloodied nature in alarm.
"Yeah?" Cato prompted.
"What happened? My god Prim you're—"
"—It's not important. What's up?"
Finnick cleared his throat, unsure how to proceed with Prim's state and Cato's seeming lack of care towards it. "We are to report to the hovercraft immediately. You and I along with Gale and Johanna are to be part of an elite crew lead by Lyme. We will be air dropped into the heart of the city when the battle starts. He thinks us leading the charge will be good symbolically. Help bolster the soldiers faith in the rebellion."
"Doesn't seem like he needs much help," Cato noted as a man charged by them, gun held above his head and a brash war cry expelled from his lips.
"Yeah…" Finnick took in the madness around them—the fervent eyes and wildly jeering limbs—then looked at Prim and her blood stained clothes again. "Something is wrong. I can feel it. He's also ordered Prim to report to the hovercraft with us. She is to be our ground medic. It's insanity. Why is he doing this? Why now?"
A small hand slipped into Cato's and his chest seized. He knew exactly what Heavensbee was doing. He was tying up all the loose ends, clearing out all final possible obstacles to his power. He was sending the remaining Victors and anyone sympathetic to Peeta, like Gale and Prim, into the heart of the battle to die. His throat constricted as he stood in the hallway, war prepping all around him and Prim's delicate hand clenched in his. He was not a thinker like Peeta. He was a blunt tool to be wielded. What could he do? Did he have enough in him to care anymore?
"You have to save him." Primrose whispered, her hand twitched in his large palm.
"Save who?" Finnick asked in confusion.
Cato cringed and looked up to the ceiling, his default setting. He felt the shirt he wore stick to the sweat that pooled on his lower back and he plucked at it.
"Cato?" Prim pulled his hand from hers and touched his shoulder. He finally leveled his brown eyes on her.
"I'm not a hero."
You have one hour. If she is not dead when I return, you both shall die at the hands of Dreg. I can tell you he is hopeful for your failure. Do not fail me Peeta.
President Snow's final words played over in Peeta's mind as Cassadine latched herself tight to Peeta's midsection, her head buried in his stomach. She sniffled lightly, but remained surprisingly in control of her emotions.
"How long have you been here?" Peeta asked.
His voice cracked from disuse. He had been playing unaffected so long it was a difficult adjustment letting his emotions return. The dam did not break immediately and let them come flooding back. It had become his only source of consolation during his exile here in the Capitol. If he had no emotions he would not be forced to think of what the others thought of him back in Thirteen. He could do what needed to be done no matter the cost.
His mission was to kill President Snow, regardless of how it ended for him. Yet they still had not let him close enough to Snow to do it and his time might very well be up. And now everything was bungled because Snow was still suspicious. The mission compromised because now he was forced to think of another. Cassy.
"I—I don't know." She pulled her head back and looked up at him with her shocking green eyes, the left one filled with blood from a burst blood vessel. "They had me in some dungeon. It was horrible. I can still smell it…" She shivered. "Peeta I've been in the dark so long!" Cassy cried out and buried her face back in his stomach. Peeta was only then reminded just how young she was. Eleven. Her parents were most definitely dead. The only reason she was kept alive was on Snow's orders. Peeta understood how Snow thought well enough now to know he kept her as collateral for a rainy day, something to be levied against Cato at the most opportune time. Now she was being used to test Peeta's true commitment to the Capitol. To make sure all his ties to his old life were truly severed. They still thought he was theirs—that while there had been a malfunction, it still worked somehow. But they were wrong.
Roughly three weeks ago…
A name called him from the void. It was near impossible to gather the energy needed to respond. He was trapped in a thick gelatinous sludge, suspended in the ether between reality and subconscious. It held him restrained. Every limb, every muscle fought against the suction of the void, but it gave only slightly. Then suddenly he snapped awake.
Bright white lights blared down on Peeta from the ceiling. It was blinding and unfamiliar. He screamed. The last thing he remembered was fire, so much fire. It rained down from the sky. He was dead. That was the only explanation.
"Calm boy, calm…" A voice spoke to Peeta's left. It tried for soothing, but its unfamiliarity only heightened his sense of anxiety. There was a harsh frantic beeping to his right. Peeta tried to sit up, but his arms gave out before he could put any weight on them to push. There was a dull throb that pulsed throughout the entirety of his body, just a whisper of the true pain he really felt. The sterile smell of bleach and antiseptic breached his nose and burned their way up his nostrils like napalm.
"It's the drugs. The disorientation will fade soon. If there's a problem you call me back in here immediately."
"Yes, yes. Thank you. And remember, speak of this to no one."
There was a vibration at Peeta's back and he moved upright with out effort. The room finally came into view around him as he rose and along with it the face of someone Peeta never thought he would see again. It filled him with terrible dread. If he were not dead he would be soon. The paced beeping increased.
"Peeta, please calm down. You are quite safe. Everyone, miraculously, is safe."
Shifting his eyes about the room Peeta tried to absorb all the new information. He was in some type of medical facility. He figured it was the Capitol's, although why they would try to keep him alive after trying to kill them all made no sense to him. The beeping came from a heart monitor to his right. Plutarch was on his left and he looked tired with deep dark bags under his eyes.
If his mind were not so groggy, if his head did not feel like it was packed full of cotton, then maybe he would have freaked out more. But he really, truly was tired. And by the amount of drugs coursing through his body—enough to make his limbs feel weightless and detached from the rest of his body—he could not find it in him to care. So he cleared his throat and tried to speak, but found he had no voice. Plutarch reached for a glass of water with a straw, which Peeta greedily sucked down.
"The—the others. Where—"
"As I said before, everyone is fine. They all made it here alive."
Slowly it all came back to him. The battle. The mutts. Gale. The lightning tree. The destruction of the force field. Beetee…
"So I'm not in the Capitol then?"'
"Oh no my boy, not at all." Plutarch huffed a laugh and Peeta wished he knew what was so funny.
"We are in district Thirteen."
It did not make sense and yet it did. As Plutarch wove an intricate tale of how he worked with a group of defectors from inside the Capitol for years to overthrow the Capitol. How they rigged the Quarter Quell for escape. How he fed Peeta the answer to the layout of the arena at the Victory Ball. How he stole a hovercraft and did battle against the Capitol when they dropped bombs on everyone in the arena. He saved them all and whisked them off to district Thirteen, which now openly led the rebellion against the Capitol. It was insane. It was more than they could have hoped for.
"There's more…" Plutarch's face was grave, though he quickly rearranged it before gesturing to a door. Peeta did not know if he could handle more. "But first the President of Thirteen would like to meet you. I'm afraid I can postpone it no longer."
A woman with striking gray hair marched into the room. A gun was visibly holstered to her belt and she held herself in a rigid posture of unwavering importance. She extended a hand for Peeta to shake. He just stared at it. He knew he should shake it. It was the proper etiquette, but he just could not, not at the moment. Clarity was only just returning to his mind and it was hard enough not to panic with the flood of new information. Thirteen was real. The girls on the run from District Eight had been right! They had to be the mysterious group backing Gale as he led a rebellion in Twelve. And then there was Plutarch… it finally made sense why he spoke those cryptic words to Peeta at the Ball and flashed the mockingjay on his watch.
"I'm sorry Alma—President Coin. It's the drugs, he's still a little disoriented." Plutarch offered apologetically. She nodded tersely.
"Well Mr. Mellark. We are very fortunate to have rescued you along with the other tributes. I extended my warmest of welcomes to District Thirteen." She offered a small smile. It was anything but warm. Her eyes were a cold grey and he wondered when the last time was she had held a warm demeanor towards anyone or thing. She continued before he could respond. "I have a few questions."
"O-okay." Peeta croaked.
"Is it true you are no longer affianced to the victor from Two, Mr. Ryves?"
Like pouring salt on an open wound, Peeta cringed internally and bit the side of his cheek. That was something he had not touched on yet as his mind returned to him and it lashed at his insides all over again like new.
"Um… yea—yes." He would rather not talk about this with her. Even if she was the President it was none of her business.
Coin's jaw worked from side-to-side before she spoke, her grey eyes held his gaze unflinchingly.
"Well that's a problem." The tenor of her voice indicated it was more so than that.
"I don't see how it's yours." Peeta snapped before thinking. Her eyes narrowed a fraction.
"It is my problem and everyone's here. As I'm sure you've been fully aware since the end of the 74th Hunger Games, your romance with Mr. Ryves was—is part of this movement. You will do something about it."
Galled, Peeta stared at her with his mouth open before words came to him.
"I'm sorry, but as I said before this is my business and mine alone. I know how everyone likes to weave our story to best fit their needs, but it is his and mine alone. Our romance is not a pawn in your game and—and—and I wont—" Peeta was so worked up he was overcome by a chest rattling cough that inhibited further ranting.
Thankfully Plutarch did something right for a change and intervened on Peeta's behalf. "If you would, President, maybe you could continue this conversation at another time. He has only just woken from a very traumatic experience."
"Fine." She bit out before composing herself and brushing the hair from her shoulders. "We will talk of this another time. Do rest, Mr. Mellark. Anything you may need, just ask from the medic on duty and they will oblige."
"As for you," President Coin turned and leveled a critical stare with her cold grey eyes on Plutarch. "Come see me in my office when done here. We will be having a talk about proper protocol in District Thirteen. You may be used to doing things a certain way in the Capitol, having a certain leeway, but here you cannot just do as you please."
Peeta watched the interaction and was confused by what she said. Protocol? What had Plutarch done that angered her? She seemed easily riled judging by their first encounter.
"I'm sorry. I was only trying to save his life."
"And for that we are grateful. I'll pass along to Haymitch he may come in."
"Oh, yes, if you would though, please tell him to wait just outside the door for a moment?"
President Coin studied him for a second with tightly pursed lips and Peeta was sure she would say no, but she jerked her head in what Peeta assumed was a nod and then left.
"I want to see the others. Why can't Haymitch come in yet?" Peeta demanded of Plutarch. He did not like this. Why was he separated from everyone else? There was something more going on and he would not wait any longer to find out.
"What aren't you telling me?"
Stepping up to the side of Peeta's bed again, Plutarch gripped the railing with his thick fingers and released a heavy sigh.
"Yes, yes. Sorry. You have to understand, Peeta. I needed to do what was best for you. For all of us. There is something you don't know, couldn't know. But I think it will explain a lot of things for you. Questions I'm sure you've been having for a while now."
The vague rambling was getting old. Peeta wanted answers already. What did he know that Peeta was surely questioning.
"What are you talking about?"
"You remember at the end of the last games, when your heart stopped and you almost died? The doctors said your heartbeat was too slow, irregular after your heart attack. I'm unsure of the exact terminology, but whatever it was required you have a pacemaker installed."
"Yes, of course I remember all this Plutarch." Peeta said, irritated. Of course he knew all that. How could he ever forget the time he almost died from eating nightlock only to be saved by his heart giving out?
"Well you never needed one."
Peeta had to have misheard him.
"It is a lie." Plutarch said and rested a hand tentatively on Peeta's shoulder before taking it back when Peeta stared at it. His mind was blank. He did not know what to process at the moment so he didn't.
"You've never had a pacemaker."
"But—but I had check-ups! My heart failed, I was weakened by the games!" Peeta grew upset. The pressure rose in his head as the dread built. He felt on the verge of exploding. The heart monitor's pace ticked up as his anxiety grew.
What did they do to him?
"The Capitol doctors sold this lie to you so you wouldn't question the check-ups. But in reality they implanted a behavioral modification chip in your central nervous system near your heart. It's all too technical for me, but I knew of it because I am—was the head Gamemaker. It was my job to know everything about the Games and its victors."
The room spun before Peeta's eyes. He was going to be sick. He felt violated. He threw his head back against the bed. Once. Twice. Three times. His hands thrashed at the wires tangled with his chest and arms. He kicked out with his legs at the gate at the end of his bed. Only one connected. That's when he realized the other thing that was off. He had no left leg. He was missing his leg!
A scream ripped from deep in Peeta's chest and released upon the room in a violent burst. It clawed out from the deepest depths of his body like an untamed beast that had taken residence inside him and was not released willingly. It tore at his throat and his head heated with the exertion and rush of blood until he felt like it might just pop. His vision wavered and black spots burst before his eyes. Plutarch jumped back from the bed. A scared expression of dismay perched on his round face.
"Peeta, please, listen to me." He begged over Peeta's raging screams, waving his hands for him to calm down. Heavensbee tried to touch Peeta's shoulder again but he jerked from it and unleashed another scream.
"It—it's been deactivated and removed! I brought a trusted doctor with me from the Capitol," Plutarch rushed to get out. "That's why I wouldn't let anyone in here. No one can know about this. Peeta I beg you to here me out!"
It was beyond the hardest thing he had ever done. Peeta just wanted to lose himself in the rage. There he was safe. Safe from all the other emotions, safe from the reality of what had been done to him, safe from facing the ruin of his life. But he had never been safe, never would. Not until this was over. And so he pulled himself together. He ignored the fact that he was missing a leg. He ignored the throbbing soreness that pulsed through his body in electric waves, tormenting every muscle, every bone with its biting sting. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath imagining the things he cared for most: painting, Prim, his father, Cato, Gale—the beep of the heart monitor finally began to slow. Then he opened his eyes and locked them with Plutarch.
"Tell me everything."
Plutarch swallowed and stepped forward.
"After what happened in the arena with you and Cato they knew you could be trouble. Snow and his advisors wanted the chip installed as a fail safe against your more insubordinate leanings."
"And—" Peeta stalled and took in another deep breath. The feeling of violation went so deep he was not sure he could speak with out throwing up. "And what did this chip do exactly?"
"It acts like a mind control device, but its much more simplistic than that. It only has two settings: spy mode, which is the default setting and always on when activated, and then kill mode."
Peeta's mouth dried. He tried to swallow, but could not. He reached for the water Plutarch had set beside his bed, but his arm refused to move again. He had exerted all his energy.
"The chip was activated the night the Quarter Quell was announced," Plutarch continued. He spoke evenly now, no longer worried of an outburst by Peeta and clearly hoping to get it out quick like ripping off a bandage. "You probably wouldn't have noticed, but after that date you were an unwitting spy for the Capitol. You gave weekly reports unbeknownst to you."
But Peeta did notice it. He knew exactly when it was activated. He thought it was a reaction to Gale's embrace. It was when he began to question his feelings towards Gale and Cato. But in reality it had been the Capitol turning him against his people. He felt sick again. Plutarch took a hesitant step back, noticing.
"Do you need something? You look sick."
"Of course I do. I just learned I've betrayed my loved ones, my district, my values!" Peeta spit out.
"But it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known. When you reported your weekly intelligence gathering to Romulus you would black out to make sure you never suspected a thing…"
The sound of his voice faded from Peeta's mind as everything began to click into place. How crazy he had been feeling in Twelve, like something was off with him but he could not quite place it. Why he kept losing time and was unable to remember what he had been doing.
Oh god, Peeta realized with a dawning horror, Bonnie and Twill. He was the reason they were dead. He turned them over to Romulus! They were captured and hung because Peeta gave them up. His stomach churned violently. Peeta wondered if he could he ever trust his instincts again? There was no way to unlearn this truth, even if it did exonerate him of Beetee's death. But then did it? If his mind had been stronger, his will tougher than the chip maybe he could have prevented it.
Plutarch had continued on despite Peeta's lack of attention, speaking of a trigger for him to black out when actively rebelling against the Capitol. Which explained why Peeta fell unconscious when talking to Haymitch about starting a rebellion. The Capitol had not only made him their spy but an obedient lap dog. Except one thing did not make sense.
"If it came with a kill mode why didn't they just activate that and have me kill a bunch of people? It would have ruined my image as the Mockingjay and stalled the rebellion. Everyone would have turned against me."
"Because the Capitol wanted to see if District Thirteen would try to get to you. You aren't the only threat to them or the biggest. They figured—and rightly so—if you got here, you'd have access to all their leaders. Then they could have you destroy their biggest threat from the inside."
"And in the Quarter Quell…" Peeta paused and thought back on everything that had happened to him in there. How he thought he was losing his mind. The sudden urge to kill Finnick, murdering Beetee. Maybe he still was crazy. Who knew the long-term effects of that device?
"When I ran into the force field it did something to the chip, didn't it?"
"Yes, the doctor examined it after removing it. His best explanation is the mainframe was fried and malfunctioned, switching the kill mode on and off at random. It makes you think your allies are muttations, monsters, threats to your life. It's almost like you act in self defense."
"It didn't feel like that." Peeta whispered, the memory of Beetee's death fresh in his mind. His eyes suddenly burned and so he clenched them shut. He would not cry for what the Capitol did to him. He wouldn't.
"So why couldn't the others know? Why keep them from me? I mean you said he took it out. I'm no longer a threat to anyone. Right?"
Plutarch shifted his weight from one foot to the other anxiously. "You have to understand Peeta. This war has turned ugly fast. You know the stories of how destructive the first rebellion was and that lasted years. This one has only run the course of a few months, starting back with Eights rebellion during the Victory Tour and already its become just as destructive, if not more. Both sides have little patience left in diplomacy or moral decency when it comes to war."
What more could he take? Plutarch continued to paint a horrible picture of the current state of the war. It was one bombshell after another since Peeta awoke in that hospital bed. His left leg amputated, the pacemaker actually some kind of mind control device. And now he came to learn that District Twelve was annihilated. Blown off the map in immediate retribution for his defiance in the arena. Eight was in ruins also. All remaining victors of the Hunger Games were assassinated save for those safe in Thirteen.
"We'll destroy each other before this is over. You know this." Plutarch emphasized each word to land maximum impact. "Thirteen wants blood for the decimation of their way of life. The Capitol wants to eradicate any and all rebellious leanings."
"Why are you telling me this?" Peeta whimpered. He was spent. He just wanted to up the drug dosage and sleep the war away. But the time for inaction had passed long ago. Maybe now that he knew the truth and the chip was out of him he could truly be the Mockingjay. Maybe that was what Plutarch was building to with all of this.
"Because Peeta…" He paused and for the first time Peeta saw real fire behind his eyes, a thirst for something more. Peeta read it as a thirst for an end to the violence.
"…For the good of everyone, this must end. No matter the cost to us."
The question was only to provoke the answer Plutarch had been building to all this time, but Peeta had already reached that conclusion. He would use the Capitol's attempt to brainwash him against them.
"You pretend the chip is still implanted in you. That it is still working, although it has malfunctioned. That will be the cover to get you close enough to him, to—"
"—Snow." Peeta finished for him. "To kill President Snow."
A haughty smile spread across the puffy cheeks of Plutarch's face, making him look like some oddly bearded and impious cherub. "Exactly."
"The Capitol knows the force field made the chip malfunction. You can pretend its still controlling you to kill, that it's kept you loyal to the Capitol. They wont kill you; you're too useful to them alive if truly turned. Snow will want to parade you before the rebellion. Get close to him, kill him and this all ends."
Plutarch began to pace around the bed and Peeta gave up trying to follow him with his eyes, instead he rested his head back on the small pillow, closed his eyes and listened while images of Snow's blood on his hands danced across his eyelids. It was disturbingly satisfying.
"We are planning a full scale invasion of the Capitol in a few weeks time, once District Two falls. The Capitol forces will crumble quickly once their leader has been dispatched of and then we can rescue you."
There was a long moment of silence. Peeta could here Plutarch's heavy breathing at the foot of his bed and knew he must be deliberating on whether Peeta had fallen asleep and heard anything he said. But Peeta let his mind rest a little longer before giving himself over fully to the plan. He knew rescue was a long shot. Plutarch did too, he was only trying to placate his fears with what he though Peeta wanted to hear. This was a one-way trip, a suicide mission, and Peeta was okay with that. What left did he have to lose? He had all the more to gain. An end to the war, safety and a brighter future for those he loved.
I chose this path the moment I volunteered in Riece's places, Peeta knew in his heart. There was no more denying his purpose. It was the only way to make up for all the blood he had spilt.
"There's just one flaw," Peeta spoke suddenly, eyes slipping open and landing solidly on Plutarch's. "Snow, his advisors, they'll never accept my story or even let me close enough to him with out proof. The rebellion needs to be convinced I've turned on them too for this con to be believed."
"What kind of proof?"
"I'll have to kill someone." Peeta spoke as if it was the most normal thing to say.
"I think I know just the person," Plutarch said as he walked towards the door and opened it.
At first he would not listen to any of it. Haymitch had to be assured Peeta was fine now, of sound mind and making this decision of his own free will before he would even contemplate their plan. It was fairly simple. Peeta would continue the charade of a man damaged by war and the events of the Quarter Quell, building credence to his eventual defection. Plutarch would work on readying an escape for Peeta after he 'killed' Haymitch. Peeta would ride the stolen hovercraft bike to the nearby District Nine where he would make himself known to Capitol forces. They would do the rest. Haymitch just had to play antagonistic to Peeta. Plutarch would make sure his doctor was the one to declare Haymitch dead. All they had to do was wait for the signal that Peeta's escape was ready. Plutarch would spill a cup of coffee and his assistant Flavius would mop it up with her gold handkerchief. Then Peeta would commit the crime against Haymitch in full view of security cameras and escape.
Haymitch hated it, but he acquiesced when it became clear to him by Peeta's look of finality. He was exhausted, drained by it all and unwilling to fight about it. The decision was made. The bloodshed had to end. Peeta would see to that. Plutarch finally left him be as a medic administered a new dose of morphling.
"It was all leading somewhere," Peeta muttered to Haymitch as the new dose of drugs crashed over him like the dark salty water of the arena. "I just never knew what until now…"
The Mockingjay will give everything for the people. The boy on fire will let his flames consume him, along with his enemies and the people of Panem will be born anew.
There was a rough brush of whiskers across his forehead as Haymitch did something completely uncharacteristic. He kissed Peeta on the forehead. A single drop of wetness spilled on Peeta's bruised cheek. Before he pulled back and before the wave of drugs dragged Peeta under he heard Haymitch's final words to him as if spoken through a tunnel.
"All I ever wanted was to keep you safe. I'm sorry."
There were so many things he wanted to say. Don't be. It's not your responsibility. He made this choice and he alone. That he was doing this for Haymitch too. That he trusted him with his life and hoped Haymitch would give him that same honor. Instead he slipped into unconsciousness.
All the soldiers and war equipment had been loaded on the stolen trains and hurtled toward the Capitol at breakneck speed while the hovercraft followed from above. Per Boggs over the intercom they were less than an hour out now. Soon everyone would be thrust into battle. Win or lose, there was no coming back from this. Cato knew that. It was time for him to make his choice. He felt the darkness inside him. It rotted him from the inside out. He had so much anger. It eclipsed all his other emotions, fed him, drove him, and pushed him further along the path of despair. Cato was not sure he could be saved from it. There might be no use.
Heard from behind Cato were Prim's sharply paced breaths. He did not have to see her to know she was frightened. What thirteen year-old wouldn't be at the prospect of dropping in on a war?
"It's just like going back to the Quarter Quell…" Prim moaned.
"Except this time we have an army on our side and more than just one of us gets to come back so buck up." Johanna ordered. Cato heard the soft thump of her hand slapping Prim's back.
"You're right," Prim responded unwaveringly.
Cato looked over his shoulder to see her straighten to her full height. She threw her shoulders back and glared dead ahead. Cato followed her line of sight straight to Plutarch Heavensbee.
The elite team of victors—the Gold Team as Boggs had designated them— gathered on the upper deck of the hovercraft with Plutarch Heavensbee and the flight crew. His two male assistants flanked him on either side, but Cato noticed his most loyal one, Flavius, was missing. Lyme checked everyone's guns one last time. There was another team to be dropped in with them: The Titanium Team. All men and women from District Thirteen. The very best of their class, trained with sniper rifles, explosives, and close range combat. Cato knew those were the real ones intended to infiltrate the heart of the city, to find and most likely kill Peeta (and maybe even them). They had superfluous silver ribbons adorned to their chest next to the D13 badge. Something they must have done for unit cohesion.
A crew of men with bug-like contraptions Cato knew to be cameras from all his experience stepped onto the flight deck. They set up near Heavensbee. Then Boggs came in with two soldiers and a prisoner in cuffs—the very same young man that assassinated President Coin.
Lyme was busy fiddling with some cube device in the lead of them now. Cato positioned himself to her left. They had not spoken to each other since a strained greeting when they boarded the hovercraft. Behind them in two single file lines stood Finnick, Gale, Johanna, and Prim. No one spoke now as they watched the scene unfold before them. Plutarch fixed the collar of his shirt and straightened his superfluous military jacket before stepping in front of the cameras. Cato watched as one of the camera operators hooked a cord to the computer board by one of the flight managers. He pressed a button with the symbol of a microphone on it. It lit red—in use.
The televisions lit up as Plutarch's face was broadcast to all the rebel soldiers and districts alike.
"The time is upon us," Plutarch intoned gravely, his game face on as he perfectly pandered to his audience. "In less than an hour now we will make our final stand. But before that I wanted to show you what justice looks like. To show our enemies just how serious we are."
On his cue the two soldiers pushed the traitor forward. He stumbled over his restraints, but managed to stay upright. Plutarch moved out of the camera's frame and everyone was treated to a close up of the man's face. His eyes quavered in fear and sweat pooled at his brows. His mouth was gagged, but his throat worked furiously anyways, the veins on his neck strained as he tried to speak.
"The Capitol has used fear and death as a tool of oppression and manipulation for far too long, but no more!" Plutarch addressed over the intercom. His voice built rousingly, surely whipping the crowds that gathered before their televisions in the respective districts and the rebel soldiers on the trains to a fever pitch. "Tonight it ends and a new order of peace and prosperity will be ushered in! But first we must exorcise the devils from our midst, starting with the coward assassin."
The Titanium Team cheered loudly to the right of Cato. There was probably more cheering across all of Panem now.
Boggs moved before the traitor and read from a slip of paper, "Alabar Bridgeport, you have been charged with treason, espionage and three counts of murder against the people who sheltered you, fed you and clothed you. For that the sentence is execution by firing squad to be carried out without delay or prejudice."
Cato twisted to look behind him, but Gale had already moved in to block Prim's view. Johanna moved slightly to lean against Finnick, her face strained and wide eyed. It was something she had seen before he could tell. When he turned to look back the two soldiers and Boggs had their pistols drawn.
"On my count. Three… two… ONE."
A rapid succession of gunfire exploded forth. Someone screamed. The assassin, riddled with bullets, flew backwards to the floor dead. The cameraman zoomed in for a close up of his vacant eyes before the feed went black. Then it was just Heavensbee's voice.
"Do right by our country. Fight for us Panem and tomorrow may we see a better, brighter day."
A cold sense of realization dawned on Cato. Clarity he had not felt in a long time. It was as if he could see everything perfectly for what it was and where it all led. There would always be morally corrupt men and women filled with a greedy lust for power and willing to do anything for it. Kill one and another waited in the wings ready to step forth and fill the void. Cato knew what he had to do. The time for a choice was truly upon him. Peeta had played his card and it was still up in the air if he failed or succeeded, but either way he lost. Cato knew that now and so he made his decision. He never was the hero. So he gathered all the rage and hate, all the violence that had settled in his heart, hardened it and harnessed it. He felt the frown that was almost a permanent fixture on his face smooth out as a fire bloomed in his eyes and the red returned. He vibrated with a dangerous energy that even Lyme noticed as she cocked her head to the side and eyed him apprehensively.
"He's lying!" Prim hissed. Everyone went rigid behind Cato. He slowly turned his body just enough so that he could see those behind him. Prim was red in the face she was so outraged, all her fear disbanded—a similar fire lit behind her eyes.
"He killed Haymitch. He planned this all! He just wants to be in power. To rule all of Panem—"
"Prim…" Cato warned. Finnick and Gale stared between Cato and Prim questioningly. Lyme remained facing forward, posture perfect and face blank as if she heard none of this, but Cato knew better.
"No, Cato. They need to know, now."
"What do you mean?" Johanna asked from the side of her mouth, carefully watching the other team to their right. No one had overheard them yet, everyone involved in their conversations that might be their last before they were dropped into the center of a battle.
"I mean," Prim began again. "That Peeta faked killing Haymitch so the Capitol would believe him a traitor so he could get close to and kill Snow. Heavensbee helped, but then murdered Haymitch. I saw it."
Everyone was stunned silent. Cato carefully tracked all the movement around them on the flight deck. Heavensbee was busy at the control monitor with his assistants and Boggs doing last minute coordinating over hologram with Commander Paylor. She seemed to be arguing fiercely with them. To the right the Titanium Team trash talked each other and the Capitol, riling up for a fight. One of them, a gruff looking woman with curly black hair, caught Cato's eyes and sneered. His eyes flared briefly, unleashing a hint of the fire that burned inside him and she looked away, cowed. He then noticed outside the windows beyond her the dark backdrop of mountains in the clear night sky. They truly were at the Capitol's doorstep. His heart rate increased.
"I knew it," Gale finally spoke. "It all makes sense!" His body sagged with relief, the strap of his rifle slipping from his shoulder and down his arm before he caught it.
"Fuck, careful! You'll kill us all," Johanna berated Gale.
"This, this…" Finnick searched for the words to encapsulate the crush of emotions playing out across his face before righting himself and staring at Prim. "You're a very brave girl. I think everyone has gravely underestimated your strength. If we succeed today Panem will owe you a huge debt of gratitude."
Prim's cheeks heated just a fraction under his praise before Johanna broke in again with a heavy dose of reality.
"That's all good and fine, but first we have to find Peeta. He is the only one who can refute Plutarch's claims. If we don't before that Titanium team finds him or any one of our allies then everyone's dead."
Lyme turned around for the first time and her face was stone hard.
"We will get to him first. We will save him because its what we must do."
The aircraft banked to the right. Suddenly Gale stepped out from behind Finnick and moved towards Cato, his face subdued and his approach tentative. Cato felt the urge return to pummel him, but he quashed it down for the moment.
"I know I've hurt you and that you probably think the worst things of me…" Gale paused and cracked the smallest of smiles. "Heck if I were you I'd hate my guts too. But it's time we did something about it and I know there's one thing we can both agree on. We love Peeta and want to save him. Let's put aside our differences for now so we can save him."
Looking into those dark cobalt eyes of Gale's Cato saw for a moment just what Peeta might be attracted to and it gouged at his insides like a cleaver before he shook off the feeling and found himself further resolved.
"You're right," Cato spoke evenly and Gale's eyes widened. "It is time to do something."
The hovercraft then tipped forward slightly. It made its descent. Cato turned his back on Gale, on everyone. He made his way towards the control monitor. Boggs rapidly spoke in to a headset while Plutarch's assistants flitted about and the flight crew guided the ship towards the city. The windows ahead of him revealed a quickly growing cityscape as they descended into the airspace over the outskirts of the Capitol. It was so vast and miraculous in its size and lights it stunned Cato every time he saw it. He came to a stop before Plutarch and waited for his attention. He got it quickly. Plutarch's eyes flashed briefly with fear before he masked it.
"Yes, Mr. Ryves?"
Before he could reply Boggs spoke over the ship's intercom. Everyone was to get to their battle stations. In five minutes they would be dropped into the heart of the city. A flurry of activity exploded all around Cato. Then… BOOM! The ship rattled and a flash of light burst in the night sky, disorienting Cato. A bomb had gone off in the air to their left, startlingly close. Plutarch swiveled to face Boggs.
"What the hell is Paylor doing?" He demanded. "She is supposed to protect us from those ground missiles!"
When he turned back to Cato he found him dropped to one knee and his head bowed.
"Plutarch Heavensbee," Another bomb exploded in the air ahead of them and the ship dropped a few hundred feet jarringly, leaving everyone's stomachs behind. Prim let out a startled scream. The craft evened out and Cato took a deep breath. He touched the rage and pain he had gathered for resolve before he forever sealed his fate. There will be no turning back now.
"I pledge my life and allegiance to you and the future of this great country. Tonight the war ends and I will help you achieve it in anyway possible. I am yours, a blunt instrument and honed tool for you to wield however seen fit. Now and forever."
Someone gasped behind him, but Plutarch responded by wrapping his fingers around Cato's chin and guiding his head up to look into Plutarch's eyes. They were narrowed greedily, a self-satisfied smile planted on his wide face.
Desperate. That's what Peeta was. He had scoured every inch, every nook and cranny of the room they were shoved in for a way out, but nothing. And the hour was almost up, Peeta was sure of it.
"Come on, Cassy think. There has to be a way out of here. Something you saw that might be a weak spot." Peeta said, desperation rasped his voice as he felt along the dark damp stonewalls for something, anything that might supply them salvation. He knew it was useless though he just could not give up. He could not allow Cassy to see that.
"I can't, I don't…" She trailed off as she began to cry. Peeta knew his frantic behavior only frightened her more. He had to calm down. He stopped racing the outskirts of the room and folded Cassy's delicately small body into his, his nose nestling in her dirtied fire-red locks. They still held the smell of smoke and ash and Peeta wondered if it was the same smoke from the night the Capitol burned her home to the ground—because of his actions.
"It's going to be okay. I promise I will get you out of here."
"Bo—th of us." Cassy hiccupped. She pulled free of his arms to stare him down, demanding as ever.
"Yes... Yes of course." Peeta averted his eyes to the ceiling. "We're both getting out of here."
"Cato will save us."
It was said with such unwavering conviction Peeta recoiled impulsively. Her statement rang meaninglessly in the hallow space of his chest. He wished he still had that kind of belief in Cato, but things had changed so drastically since those days of the first Hunger Games—when Peeta believed anything was possible with Cato. Now he was not so sure of the man he was let alone Cato. He hated himself for thinking such a thing, but he knew Cato never wanted any of this, just Peeta. His heroics were always rooted in a self-interested desire to save Peeta for himself. And now… well now he was lashing out. He wanted others to hurt like him. If there was anyone that could jolt Cato back to reality, show him there were things worth fighting for it was Cassadine. But things were so damaged now could he even blame Cato for not trying to save him?
Realizing Cassadine looked to Peeta for a response he stumbled to reply, "Ca—Cato will always—"
The walls vibrated with the detonation of a far off blast and Peeta's words stalled on his lips. Dust and grime fell from the ceiling, filtered through the dim light. Cassadine's head whipped about in fright, searching for the source of the sound. Peeta knew what it really meant. War had come to the Capitol. Another muffled blast could be heard. The walls shook again and the foundations groaned like an old man trying to stand on his weary bones.
"What is that?" Cassy asked fearfully.
"That, my darling, is the sound of Peeta's failure."
Peeta spun around to face the door where President Snow now stood. His face was masked in darkness as the light poured in from the hallway behind him. He was flanked by Peacekeepers, their guns trained on Peeta and Cassy. Peeta should have noticed the pungent odor of roses and blood that now filtered in to the room sooner, maybe he could have attacked. Now he stood quickly and shoved Cassy behind his frame. Snow smiled mockingly at the gesture. He knew it was a pointless one.
"You've failed me twice now Peeta. First at tempering the spirits of the districts, which I grant you was a considerable exercise in futility but we had to try something didn't we?"
President Snow stepped into the room and the walls vibrated with another blast, but one could be tricked into thinking it was Snow's presence that had the walls quaking in fear. What came next, Peeta wondered in fear? His priorities were now permanently altered after finding Cato's sister. But was her life really more important than saving a whole country? There was no right answer, each choice only led to disaster.
"And now you've failed such a simple task as killing this child. You've done it before. The boy from Ten. We all know this, which signifies to me you never really were ours, were you?"
Peeta remained stationary in front of Cassy and defiantly silent. He lifted his chin in rebellion.
"Answer me," Snow growled before being overcome with a cough. He covered his mouth with a handkerchief. When he pulled it away and looked at it something indistinguishable passed over his face, but Peeta could not read it. "We promised, no more pretenses Peeta. I think you've been pulling one over us all. Letting us believe the chip still worked when clearly it has no effect over you whatsoever. I must congratulate you on the gambit, but it was unsuccessful, yet again. Guards…"
The Peacekeepers marched forward and Peeta tensed, ready to fight and holding Cassy close to his back. He would not allow them to harm her.
"Now Peeta, let's not try anything foolish and get the girl killed before we have to…" Snow warned and stepped back into the hall, motioning for them to take the lead.
The Peacekeepers shoved Peeta forward and Cassy whimpered, latching herself around his waist. Peeta kept one arm carefully planted over her shoulders, hugging her close as they proceeded towards their fate. His mind was numb, the walls of his skull vibrated like the walls of the palace. All options were now up. He could still try to get to the President, they had not cuffed him, but Snow was smarter than that by forcing them to lead and keeping a troop of Peacekeepers between them. Anything he tried was sure suicide.
"What must your people think of you, the precious Mockingjay," Snow sneered the word from a distance behind Peeta. His heart clenched and he jerked Cassy closer to him as she whimpered. Another explosion rattled the window frames. It seemed closer now. He saw flashes of light explode in the distance in the dark of the city. A fire burned in the distance. He imagined the wretched cries of the innocent as war rained down on the city. Were his loved ones out there? Did they even still love him?
"Even if you failed me you still served your purpose, your image is ruined now. What do you think your love Cato must think? Or has your fickle heart forgotten him and moved on to its newest entertainment. What was his name…? Gale?" Snow paused to think and let his words sink in. Peeta wanted nothing more than to twist around and lunge at him. To wrap his fingers around his pale throat and throttle him till his face turned purple and his skin cold. Then his mind flashed to strangling Haymitch and his stomach heaved.
"You know both of you were supposed to die in the Quarter Quell. But I always seem to underestimate your effect on others, how it leads to last minute interventions of luck. I think you'll find out today your luck has finally run dry."
One of the Peacekeepers jabbed Peeta on the left side with the butt of his gun. He forced Peeta to turn into a closed door. They had reached their destination. The door opened automatically and they were shoved through. It was a command center. People sat in rings around a giant white table, which produced a hologram of the city. It displayed everything. The densely packed streets with towering skyscrapers, where the rebel soldiers were, the hovercraft that carried Plutarch, the base camp in the west where Commander Paylor was labeled. Where there were battles raging. Where Capitol citizens, now destitute refugees as their homes burned, ran to the center of the Capitol. Peeta spotted a cluster of dots close to the heart of the city. They were labeled Victor team. Peeta felt a glimmer of hope before it was dissolved in a sea of acidic fear. Don't come here, Peeta thought. Plutarch had not given up on him. His friends were coming. They would all die.
Dreg stepped in front of Peeta with a vile smile planted on his scarred face. His eyes filled with a hunger for blood that unsettled Peeta's stomach more than the war that raged outside the palace.
"I can't say I'm not disappointed." Snow spoke as he entered the command center. He was still closely guarded by two brutish Peacekeepers. "You could have put an end to this war with the child's death. The rebels would have been completely demoralized at the corruption of their precious boy on fire."
Dreg's grin grew maniacally larger as Snow mocked Peeta. His muscles twitched in anticipation. Of what? Peeta only fathomed the worst. The sound of another muffled explosion detonated somewhere outside. The lights flickered, but remained on.
"Either way, they shall see you die." Snow said and snapped his fingers.
A group of Peacekeepers converged on Peeta and Cassy.
"No!" Peeta shouted and thrashed. He tried to keep his grip on Cassadine as tight as he could. "Don't let go, don't let go Cassy!" She let out a high-pitched scream as strong hands looped around her belly and lifted her up. Peeta was propelled forward by the tug, but hands behind him gripped harder and held him back. He twisted and contorted violently as his body was stretched painfully by the tug-of-war. They can't have her!
"You can't have her!" Peeta shouted desperately. "Please! No, just take me. Do what you want with me, but don't hurt her!"
It was useless. No one listened to Peeta as he struggled with all his might in the arms of the Peacekeepers. He was forcefully ripped apart from Cassadine and then they were both carted kicking and screaming from the command center to an adjacent room. President Snow and Dreg followed behind. The room was empty, cleared save for the few chairs that lined the walls, a tray of weapons by the door and a mobile camera that hung from the ceiling. Peeta was shoved into the center of the room. The Peacekeepers then moved to opposing corners of the room.
The Peacekeeper that held Cassy forced her into one of the chairs and then stood behind her, hands on her shoulders to keep her firmly planted. Snow took a seat next to her while Dreg took his time at the tray of weapons. His gaze took in all the choices as his hand lovingly stroked across the edge of a sword. A trail of blood was left behind as it sliced the skin of his thumb open. He did not flinch.
"Cato was always most proficient with a sword, lets see if he taught you anything."
Dreg turned and threw the sword at Peeta. It clattered to the floor before his feet. He took in the bloodied edge of the blade and its polished silver surface. He managed to catch a distorted reflection of his face for the first time in weeks and was appalled. He did not recognize himself. His face was too hardened and scruffy, his blonde hair almost black from dirt and matted to his head with sweat. His blue eyes a dull grey, hopeless. He bent to pick up the sword. When he rose he found Dreg suddenly before him with a familiarly large iron war hammer. Flashes of pounded flesh and bone swam before Peeta's eyes. Peeta took a step back dizzy.
"I thought you'd like this." Dreg gloated as he took a predatory step forward. "I specifically requested it. Snow was kind enough to oblige. He thought Stasson deserved a second shot at you."
It was like facing off with Stasson all over again on the top of the Cornucopia. Fighting for his life and Cassy's while death waited patiently all around them for their fall. He needed to clear his mind. He had to pull it together, he—
"Begin!" Snow announced and suddenly the camera came to life above Peeta and Dreg charged.
Flying forward Gale collided with Prim's back and covered her just as a rocket whistled past overhead. It collided with the façade of a two-story brick house and detonated. The explosion rocked the ground and Gale rolled from atop Prim. Bits of brick and fiery mortar rained down upon them.
"Up, now. Move, move! Take cover ahead on the right under the portico." Lyme screamed.
She tried desperately to be heard over the chaos of war. Screams of fleeing Capitol citizens echoed throughout the chilly night air along with frequent explosions, war cries and the pop-pop-pop of rapid-fire machine guns. It was chaos.
Gale jumped to his feet and yanked Prim up with him. They sprinted after Lyme and Finnick, Johanna hot on their tail. Smoke hung thick in the air and stung his eyes. It would have been hard to see if it were not for all the fires that raged lighting their way down the dark streets. His heart pounded in his ears. His blood was like fire as it hurtled through his veins. He was only in the Hunger Games for a few hours and he thought that was a true lesson in hopeless horror. This was already worse.
As soon as they had dropped into the heart of the City they were under gunfire. Peacekeepers lined the roofs of the residential street the hovercraft deposited them at with automatic rifles and sniper guns. They were immediately separated from the Titanium team. One of them was shot through the eye right before Gale, his blood coating the cobblestone street like a fine misting of rain. He felt nauseous, but managed to force down the feelings as his instincts took over.
Gale still could not grasp it. Peeta was not the traitor—which he never once believed—and Cato now was. Even after everything he knew! Plutarch was nothing more than a more polished, smooth-talking and deceitful Snow, something he never thought possible. And now Cato was up in that hovercraft with him, plotting and aiding him in the destruction of the Capitol. With his help he would usher in a new era of tyranny. Gale was furious and mainly on Peeta's behalf. He had thought something was off with Cato since they escaped the Quarter Quell, but he had severely underestimated the depths of it. How could he turn his back on Peeta?
Everyone regrouped under the portico with Lyme. They all panted harshly trying to catch his or her breath. Gale worried he would never catch it again. He held his breath anyways until Peeta was found safe and sound. Only then would he be able to breath again.
"The palace is about two klicks north of us." Lyme motioned behind her back. More gunfire cracked in the distance. A woman screamed. "We'll use the alley's behind the houses to make our way there. We'll move down this street, at the intersection make a right and beeline it straight for the alley between the apartments. Avoid confrontation as much as possible. We need to conserve our ammo because once we find Peeta we're gonna have to fight our way out of this."
"Same formation?" Johanna asked.
Gale turned to Finnick, "You okay?"
"I'll be fine. Always am." He rolled his shoulders and stood tall, staring down Gale. "Are you?"
He did not reply.
"Okay, let's move out on my count."
Prim took in a big gulp of air before Lyme hissed move. Gale's mind had drifted to Peeta—what he might be going through at the moment—when his fear started to overtake him. How could he possibly tell Peeta that Cato sided with the enemy? What if he was already dead? What if they were all killed before they got to him? It delayed his start. Johanna gave his back a shove. He lurched forward and took off after Prim's back. They were a few meters ahead of them.
A group of Capitol civilian families ran through the street, carrying as much of their belongings as their fingers could hold. Suddenly gunfire rang out and they were all gunned down. Their blood leached out into the crevices of the cobblestone and ran down the street towards them.
Then a group of about ten Peacekeepers turned the corner to their street. Lyme maneuvered quick and efficient her hands practically a blur as the green laser light from her rifle took aim at the nearest Peacekeeper. Gale was still too far behind them. She managed to gun down three of them before her rifle jammed. She went to pull out her pistol when two Peacekeepers shot her—multiple in the chest, one to the head. She collapsed to the street dead.
"LYME!" Prim screamed. She fired a few shots from her gun, hitting a Peacekeeper and pushing them back. She ran to Lyme and pulled out the medkit.
Finnick roared in anger and charged the men.
"Finnick don't!" Johanna warned.
Gale and Johanna then charged too with their green lasers aimed. Finnick fired indiscriminately at the Peacekeepers and then tackled the nearest one. Johanna and Gale took cover behind an abandoned car as a shower of bullets tore after them. They were pinned down while Prim was vulnerable out in the open and Finnick tussled with a Peacekeeper hand-to-hand. They slipped in the blood of the murdered citizens. Finnick had him in a chokehold when the man pulled a knife from his boot and lashed Finnick's hand then stabbed it into his thigh. Finnick's ragged scream was like a punch to the gut. Gale knew he had to act fast or they were all dead. More gunfire entered the fray and it was Johanna. She charged them down alone. Gale popped up from behind the car and returned fire, giving her cover. The other Peacekeepers fell fast under Gale and Johanna's fire. Their white Peacekeeper suits painted red with their blood. But Gale could not shoot the man Finnick fought from this distance with out hitting Finnick. The man withdrew the knife from Finnick's thigh. He howled. The soldier moved to stab him in the chest. Finnick struggled to hold him off when Johanna sniped him in the back of the head. The man fell lifeless atop Finnick.
They rushed to help pull the man off Finnick. Johanna turned to yell for Prim, "Lyme's dead, help us with—" But Prim was already there, her fingers stained red and her eyes wide, but ready to help. She instantly set to work bandaging Finnick's wounds.
"We have to get off these main streets, before another squadron finds us." Gale said as he stood amidst the littering of dead bodies. He had never seen so much death and blood not even among all the Hunger Games he had witnessed combined. He swallowed down the bile and fed off the anger that pooled in his chest. He looked up the street towards the alleyway Lyme had mentioned and pointed.
"There! That's where we head."
"What about Lyme, we can't just leave her." Prim said as she finished bandaging Finnick. Another missile could be heard streaking through the air before it detonated nearby. Prim ducked instinctually.
"We have to, no other option." Johanna stated matter of fact. "C'mon, let see if you can stand."
Gale and Johanna positioned on either side of Finnick and pulled him up. When he went to put weight on his right leg he groaned and almost collapsed back to the ground.
"Fuck." Johanna hissed.
"I'm sorry, I screwed the mission." Finnick said ashamed. "Just leave me behind. You have to get to Peeta."
"No we're not going to doing that." Gale refused. "You didn't screw anything. We'll find Peeta and we will get out of here! Commander Paylor is our best chance. I can tell she doesn't agree with Plutarch taking the Presidency. If we can just get to her with Peeta and explain."
"That's an awful big if." Johanna noted.
"It's our only option. I'll help Finnick walk. The two of you take the lead. You can still shoot, right?"
"You bet." Finnick cracked his knuckles then took up his rifle.
"Okay then, lets move."
They had just made it to the mouth of the alley when suddenly televisions lit alive all down the street. They paused in confusion more than anything. Gale looked up and down the streets to see that even the televisions inside the homes were on of their own accord. A wave of trepidation settled over him as he looked to the nearest TV on the street.
After a few seconds of nothing but static suddenly an image flickered to life. Prim gasped and Gale felt his stomach drop out from beneath him. Finnick sagged against him.
"What the hell?" Johanna cursed, gun aimed and ready.
It was Peeta and some other man Gale had never seen before. He was a brute at about six feet tall and well muscled with a jagged scar across his nose. He had the same type of hammer the guy from Four in the last Hunger Games used and he faced off against Peeta with a sword.
The guy charged Peeta with a zealous cry, but he parried to the right skillfully dodging the man's attack. Then he sliced at his back, only managing to give a superficial cut. Gale could tell it was enough to enrage the man further. He was overly confident in his abilities and furious Peeta had landed the first blow. Gale felt proud. That was the Peeta he knew and loved.
"You forget, Dreg," Peeta sneered. "I've beat the Hunger Games twice now. What have you done?"
"You stupid—ARG!" The man roared and charged Peeta, but he slipped from his grasp at the last minute and landed a slash to his arm.
"What is the point of this?" Gale asked, looking to the others for answers. It did not make sense. It sounded like the battle itself had stalled as all eyes turned to watch the battle on the television screens.
"Maybe Snow doesn't know Peeta's already labeled a traitor?" Finnick supplied. "Maybe he thinks by making us watch Peeta die we'll be so demoralized we'll quit fighting."
"Then we need to move!" Johanna barked.
It sparked the life back into them and they began running down the side streets, but a television was never out of their view. Gale had troubling supporting Finnick's weight and keeping track of Peeta. They were now dancing around each other, each taking in the other. Then Dreg lunged again. But it was a fake out. Peeta fell for it, stabbing and missing, unable to correct in time as Dreg swung the hammer at Peeta. He just managed to throw up the sword. The hammer connected with the sword in a horrible screech of metal and it shattered. Peeta was now defenseless.
The remnants of the Gold Team pushed on, but suddenly found themselves drawn into the battle on the screen, as the stakes grew fiercer. Peeta tried to defend himself with the broken stub of the sword, but it was useless. Dreg proceeded to chase him across the room with unrelenting attacks. The hammer swung to and fro in frightening speed and strength until it connected with one of Peeta's knuckles and he cried out. The broken sword hilt flew from his grip. Then Dreg kicked Peeta in the chest and he fell to his back, cradling his left hand. Gale could not breath. No one moved. It was like watching the Hunger Games back in District Twelve all over again. He knew how this ended and he would be forced to watch someone he loved die all over again with out being able to do anything.
"KEEP MOVING!" Gale bellowed. He would not be useless again.
The man brought down the hammer on Peeta, but he kicked backward and the hammer landed between his legs. Peeta struggled to push back further away from his pursuer, but Dreg just lifted the hammer and brought it down again. Peeta rolled to the side. Gale could tell Dreg grew weary of this. He was ready to bring an end to Peeta. Gale's heart seized up and his running stalled along with everyone else's as Dreg jumped atop Peeta, holding him down by the thick of his thighs.
"There will be no getting away this time." Dreg growled. "No amount of luck can save you now. There's no Katniss here to protect you from the Careers, no Cato here to save you from having to kill Stasson or rebels in a hovercraft to save you from the Quarter Quell! It seems with out all your friends you really are just a stupid baker's boy."
The hammer rose high above Dreg's head, the iron glinting with an almost palpable thirst for blood. All eyes were riveted to the television, afraid to look away, but unable to watch the ending they knew was coming. The hammer streaked downward when there was a burst of fire and an explosion of rubble before the feed went blank. Everyone turned their heads towards the direction of the palace where a huge explosion sounded and a burst of flames licked the air. A black pillar of smoke now funneled into the night air, the flicker of flames alive inside it.
"NO!" Gale howled.
He fell to his knees and brought Finnick down with him. The smack of cement against his kneecap's barely registered as a fissure split open his heart. In the distance before him the black smoke grew thicker and all around him the sounds of war returned.
The world ripped apart. A blast of fire enveloped the room so hot Peeta felt the hair of his eyebrows singe and his throat go dry as sandpaper. The earth rumbled. Everything went black.
Consciousness returned quickly to Peeta. The sound of crackling flames and the clatter of rubble falling from the ceiling pricked at Peeta's ears. He was relieved to still have his hearing after the roar of the blast. Then his senses picked up on a sticky wet substance slickening his hand and warming his stomach. There was also a rather heavy weight atop Peeta. He cracked open his eyes and jerked when he found the lifeless brown eyes of Dreg staring back. Then he remembered. He had got hold of the broken piece of sword and stabbed Dreg in the chest just as the room exploded and the ceiling collapsed atop them. By some miracle Dreg's body bore the brunt of the fallen rubble. A large wooden beam from the ceiling crushed down on Dreg's back. Peeta could feel the weight of it slowly crushing Peeta into the floor. His legs were completely pinned by the rubble. He had to get free, the need built in him like an itch in the center of his chest building in infuriating intensity, unable to be scratched. He avoided the dangerous thoughts that lurked in the back of his mind. What it meant that Cassy had been in here when the missile struck.
After a deep breath Peeta flattened his hands against Dreg's chest and gave a push. He barely budged. Peeta tried again and still nothing. His mind began to cloud with panic as it dawned on him he might be trapped. He began to struggle more fiercely, arching his back and pushing up with his elbows planted to the ground and hands firm against Dreg's lifeless chest. Still nothing worked and the weight only grew heavier. More debris fell from the caved in ceiling by the minute. Who knew how long the structure would hold before this section of the palace collapsed and they were buried?
Peeta sniffed and smoke tickled his throat. There was a fire. It crackled and hissed as it ate its way through the rubble like a snake prowling for rodents. Sweat built along his brow. His leg grew numb from the pressure bearing down on him. He pushed with all his might against Dreg's form, a cry wrenching from his lips at the strain and yet nothing gave. His breathing soon became labored—in and out in short gasps. The weight of Dreg and the beam atop him grew too much. He heard coughing and a groan. Others were alive, but he did not dare call out for help. Were they friend or foe? The scale weighed heavily in the latter's favor.
Suddenly there was a large crash and a burst of embers sparked across the air above Peeta. Someone screamed. He crushed his eyes shut and braced for another explosion. But nothing happened. Then Peeta realized the weight atop him was a little lighter. Something must have collapsed on the other end of the beam atop Dreg, freeing some of the weight on Peeta's legs. It was not enough to allow Peeta to move, but then a familiar ghostly pain overcame him in his left leg. He bit his lip to hold back a cry from the throb and road the wave of nausea that accompanied it. Then he opened his eyes and smiled, determined and actually grateful for the loss of his leg. The prosthetic attached to him was twice as strong as the whole of Peeta. He could use it to his advantage now. After gathering precious oxygen in his lungs—the smoke only grew heavier in the air above Peeta and the heat harsher behind him—he clenched the muscles in his thigh and drew his knee up. It met heavy resistance against Dreg and the beam atop him, but he managed enough. Then he straightened the leg, kicking out as hard as he could. The mechanic leg collided with whatever blocked in his feet and smashed through it with little resistance. There was the sound of rubble and cement scattering then a rickety groan. A frightened cry familiar to Peeta's ears rang out in the room followed by Dreg's body slipping between Peeta's legs and the beam toppling backwards. Whatever gap he had cleared caused the ceiling beam to fall back into the cleared space. Peeta was freed!
After accounting for all his limbs and finding no severe injuries, Peeta stood and the wreckage came into full view. The room was destroyed. A gaping hole opened up to the palace grounds to the right of Peeta was completely ablaze—no escape that way. The wall opposing that where Snow and Cassadine had been stood only partially intact and the command center could be seen beyond it, but everything around it was covered in rubble and scorched. The floor above had collapsed in on them. Live wires sparked above Peeta's head. Broken pipes leaked water. And still dust and chunks of rubble fell down on the room. The smoke turned the room a hazy grey distorted by the flicker of orange flames. Peeta hunched low to the ground, breathing in the clean oxygen that remained and climbed over precarious chunks of cement and wooden beams towards where Cassy had been. She was alive. She had to be. He knew it.
"Cassy." Peeta hissed as he crawled closer to her section.
He waited a beat and then one more, his eyes scanning fervently for a revealing streak of red hair, something—anything to lead him to her. Then he heard it: a small whimper. It was Cassy and she was close.
"Tell me where you are!" Peeta shouted now, dispensing with caution.
"Here, here!" She cried back, muffled by something.
Peeta jumped over a large chunk of ceiling with jagged iron rods protruding at hazardous angle and headed towards the pounding sound of Cassy's fist against whatever had her trapped. He reached the sound to find what looked like an overturned bookcase. Where it came from he did not know.
"Cover your eyes Cassy! I'm going to make a hole."
After giving time to make sure she did as asked Peeta lifted his left leg and brought it down on the structure, smashing through it as if it were nothing more than weak rotted wood. In the palace halls Peeta picked out the distinct sound of gunfire—pop-pop-pop. He hurried up and made quick work of the wooden case with his leg until there was a hole wide enough for a single person to fit through. He pulled back, looked through and shouted, "Give me your hand!"
It was too dark to see, but he felt a hand grab his and so he heaved. His body strained to pull her weight out of the rubble. He planted his prosthetic against a piece of cement and gave another jerk, this time freeing her. Only the person that jerked out of the hole he created was not Cassadine at all. It was President Snow.
"WHAT DID YOU DO TO HER?" Peeta screamed.
He lifted Snow and slammed him down atop the large piece of cement ceiling next to them. He kicked with his left leg to break off a piece of jagged iron rod and brought it to Snow's throat. His white beard was already stained red with blood and more dribbled from his mouth as he tried to speak.
More gunfire cracked within the palace. Screams echoed in through the gaping wall of the palace perimeter.
"I DON'T BELIEVE YOU!" Peeta roared in Snow's face. He was so sick of this man and his lies. All he ever did was bring misery and death. He was a sickness, a parasite that thrived on human suffering and Peeta would not allow it to live one second longer. He flexed the muscles in his arms and jabbed the rusted pipe further in to the skin of his neck until Snow groaned and a trickle of blood joined the red already in his beard. Peeta noticed now that the smell of roses were finally gone and all that lingered was the scent of blood, hot and coppery. He sneered in disgusted, feeling the muscles of his face twist in unrecognizable hate.
"Y-you should Peeta," Snow coughed out, more blood bubbling up at the corners of his mouth. Peeta was taken aback by his deteriorated state.
It was done. He would finally end Snow's reign of terror. Peeta pulled the pipe back and rested it over Snow's heart. Peeta was no longer playing the part of a broken tribute; he had officially transitioned into the deranged. There was nothing left to ground him. It was all lost to war and fire and death. He thought back on all the lives lost because of the Capitol, because of Snow: Katniss because of the sick games they created to keep the districts in line; Riece because he stood with Peeta in an act of rebellion; Portia because she dared defy the Capitol and turn Peeta into the literal embodiment of the Mockingjay; Beetee because they had tampered with Peeta's mind; His father…
They deserved justice. They deserved more.
And I deserve vengeance.
Peeta lifted the jagged pipe and steadied his arm, ready to deliver the final blow. There was another explosion close by that shook the room and loosened more debris from the ceiling. Anger, hate, the need for retribution, they all coursed through Peeta's veins like gasoline, unnatural and completely consuming him. The hallow space in his chest craved to be filled—filled with blood and vengeance and death. The fire grew bigger and the smoke heavier as it ate is way across the room. His heart thumped familiarly in his chest like a war drum. Thwump thwump. It too demanded blood. Peeta craved it in that moment and nothing else; would never crave something as much as he did this. He looked up at Snow's ice blue eyes, expecting fear or defiance, or in another world regret for all he had done. He wanted to watch the wretched light fade from his evil eyes. Instead he found laughter. A hand came to rest on Peeta's shoulder and Peeta bowed his head in shame as all of the fight fled him and it was all over with that one delicate word—"Don't."
"We promised no more pretenses," Snow said with a chuckle. "B-back before the tour. I have never lied to you. But you have not given me the same courtesy."
Peeta threw the pipe from his hand disgusted by what he had almost done. By killing Snow he would have become what he feared he already was—a killer. The Capitol, Snow, they all tried to make a killer of him, to pervert him and his image. In the games and with the chip they implanted. But this act—thoroughly premeditated and executed with a clear mind—was when they won and he truly lost. He could not do it. He would not become a killer for them or anyone else. The space that had opened inside him could not be filled by acts of violence.
Standing to his feet Peeta turned into Cassy's small embrace. She was alive and unscathed for the most part aside from the gash to her cheek and the limp in her left leg. He breathed in her musky, smoky scent and out his rage, confusion and hurt. No matter how this ended he finally had found his peace and a way to a clear conscience. He would not let the worst of his impulses dictate his actions. He was no brute.
"You were never here for anything but to kill me," Snow continued, goading almost now. As if he wanted it to all end, sensing how the tide had turned and desperate to reverse its affect. Peeta knew now he could never give him that satisfaction. "Unfortunately you put your trust in the wrong man—"
Snow was overcome with another coughing fit, spitting up more blood. There was too much smoke in the room. Peeta could barely keep his eyes open and Cassy grew faint against his side.
"What do you mean?" Peeta demanded.
"I'm not the real enemy," Snow spoke slower now, the very skin of his face seizing up like it hurt to even speak. "Heavensbee has always craved power at all costs. He could never get enough. You think he was satisfied with just being head Gamemaker? Or s-some important asset to the rebellion?" He sneered the very word, but things began to click in Peeta's head and he paid no attention to the little digs Snow tried to make on his deathbed. "No, Heavensbee is way too ambitious to ever settle for such a meager consolation prize as gratitude and admiration. Think Peeta. I never had an assassin inside District 13. Do you think if I did I would have waited all these years until now to kill Alma?"
Clenching his jaw Peeta turned away from Snow. He would not allow him to see defeat in Peeta's eyes. This was Snow's moment of destruction and he would not turn it around on Peeta. Even as his words rang more true than anything he had ever heard come out of Plutarch Heavensbee's mouth. The weight of the truth and what it might mean was almost too much. If Cassy were not here to fight for it might have finally been enough to snuff his fire. But he had risen above worse. He would again.
"You've been played my dear child…"
"Maybe so," Peeta relaxed his body and turned back to Snow, crouching over him with a dangerous stare. "But either way I'm walking out of this room alive. You failed Snow. The Capitol has fallen and you've lost everything. Now you get to lose your life."
Standing, Peeta straightened his back. He took Cassy's hand in his and began to walk away from Snow's crumpled form on the fallen cement. They worked their way through the smoke, over the debris towards the command center and a way out. At the last minute he turned back to Snow, who was on his side trying to lift himself up to no avail. The fire grew behind him ever more, licking towards him with a hungry roar.
"It looks like that fire I started has finally caught up to you." Peeta smiled serenely as Snow's icy eyes filled with loathing. "If there is any justice in this world may you suffer even just a fraction of the pain you inflicted on Panem."
"They'll kill you!" Snow spat before heaving a deep cough. A mist of blood expelled from his lungs and he collapsed onto his back. "They'll kill both of you and think nothing of it!"
"It's possible. I've been told I have a severe martyr complex." Peeta smiled fondly at the memory of Gale. Then with a shrug he said, "I'm the Mockingjay. I will always do what is needed of me."
And with those last words Peeta turned his back on Snow and never looked back.
Once free of the bombed portion of the palace and in its open halls Peeta pieced together what had happened. A contingent of rebel soldiers must have attacked, bombing one portion of the palace as a diversion so they could attack, which was why no one came to help. All the remaining Peacekeeper forces now battled with the rebels in the halls. Gunshots, explosives, smoke and wretched screams echoed through the ornate halls.
He carried Cassy in his arms now as her left leg was injured and she could not keep up. He tried to run as fast as he could, desperately searching for an escape. He turned a corner and skidded to a stop.
"Look at me, do not look around! Okay?" Peeta warned Cassy. She buried her head in his neck. He could feel the rapid rabbit-like beat of her heart against his chest. He tried to stifle his own.
They had just turned upon a hallway littered with dead bodies. Most were Peacekeepers, their white uniforms and the marble floor splattered with blood like someone took a can of red paint to the room and threw it about freely. He stepped his way through cautiously but quickly and reached another hall. To one side they passed a charred doorway with badly burned bodies piled by the entryway. Death and destruction lay at every corner and Peeta was lost. He wanted to head away from the sound of the fighting, but not get lost deeper in the palace. Each turn seemed to bring new horrors.
The ground shook from multiple explosions and Peeta lost his balance, slamming into the wall. Cassy fell from his arms and hit the marble floor with a cry. A Peacekeeper sprinted around the corner and saw them. He drew his gun. Peeta pushed off from the wall, reaching down to scoop Cassy up in his arms. He burst through a set of double oak wood doors across from him just as they were riddled with bullets. Cassy screamed in his ear. He cursed. They were now in an expansive room with high vaulted ceilings, stone pillars and long wood dinning tables. He sprinted across the lengthy room, his feet barely making a sound as they padded across the rich velvet floor. He heard the doors kick open behind him and Peeta threw Cassy underneath the nearest dining table, diving after her as more bullets spattered across the carpet where he had just been standing.
"Crawl that way!" Peeta shouted, pointing towards the opposite end where he could see another set of doors.
Her green eyes were alive with terror, but she nodded and set off on her hands and knees between the chairs. Peeta twisted to look back and saw there were multiple sets of feet now moving towards them. His blood coursed fast and hot through his body spiked with adrenaline. It clarified his mind and he kicked out with his foot, knocking a chair over. The feet moving up the line of dinning tables stalled and bullets quickly sprayed the area where the overturned chair lay. With their attention diverted Peeta crawled out the other side and then charged the nearest Peacekeeper, grabbing a large glass pitcher from the table as he went. The man barely had time to swivel to face Peeta before he was on top of him. They slammed to the ground and Peeta smashed the pitcher against his face. Peeta ripped the pistol from his grip and aimed it at the other Peacekeeper. Before he could fire the man spit blood from his mouth and then collapsed to the ground. Standing behind him was a rebel soldier with a blood stained blade in her hand. She had unruly black hair and a silver ribbon adorned to her chest next to the District Thirteen badge.
"Oh thank god," Peeta sighed as relief flooded his system. He lowered the gun as he tried to catch his breath. "Please tell me you're the rescue party."
The woman smiled crookedly at him. Peeta pushed up on his knee to stand just as her hand twitched and the blade flew across the table towards Peeta. The adrenaline in his system had yet to completely fade and he reacted quickly enough, pivoting to the side. The blade just barely nicked his shoulder, but his hand seized from the pain and the gun fell from his grip.
"In here!" The woman shouted before drawing her gun. A green beam of light targeted Peeta's chest.
At the other end of the dining table Cassy jumped up and screamed, "Peeta look out!" The woman fired the gun, but it missed Peeta as she took her eyes off him startled by Cassy's appearance. Peeta ducked below the table and shouted for Cassy to get down too. She dropped just in time as the woman fired a shot at her. Now re-armed with the pistol Peeta aimed underneath the table and pulled the trigger, shooting out her kneecap. The woman screamed and collapsed to the floor.
As Peeta ran to the end of the room to get Cassy three more rebel soldiers burst into the room. Suddenly green dots of laser lights swirled rapidly around the room. Peeta took hold of Cassy's hand and tried to make it to the opposite door, but the soldier's lasers honed in on Peeta and opened fire. Peeta barely had enough time to get behind one of the stone pillars before they were riddled with bullets. The rapid pop-pop of their guns sounded like firecrackers set off and masked the sound of their movements. Cassy quivered against Peeta, her arms wrapped around his legs. He took a deep breath, then pointed his arm from around the stone pillar and shot blindly at them.
"Stop, stop!" Peeta shouted. "I'm Peeta Mellark, the Mockingjay! I'm on your side!"
More bullets littered the walls in front of him and cracked against the surface of the pillar, loosening dust and chips of stone. Someone laughed over the sound of the gunfire.
"You really are a crazy son of a bitch."
"This motherfucking traitor thinks he can play us?"
Peeta's heart raced in his throat practically choking him. They thought he was a traitor. Plutarch really had turned everyone against him. He was not safe anywhere. Maybe if he gave himself up they would let Cassadine live. It might be worth a shot.
"If I turn—"
Suddenly the bullets stopped whizzing past him. Their sound still echoed across the massive room, but they were pointed in a different direction. Someone cursed and another person screamed in pain before falling silent. Peeta checked around the edge of the pillar. Peacekeepers. He pulled back behind the pillar. Peeta's breaths came in ragged pants. Peeta ran his shaking hand along the top of Cassy's hair. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. He nodded it was okay to let go and so she disentangled from him. This was their opportunity. She took his hand and Peeta took a deep breath and held it before he took off towards the doors only a couple feet from them.
"Don't let him get away!" Another shouted.
One of the men was closer than Peeta realized and tackled him from the side and knocked Cassy to the ground. The man was lightning fast. He rolled with the tackle and pulled atop Peeta while plucking a dagger from his boot. But before he could bring it down a bullet pierced through his skull and he fell off Peeta sideways, dead.
Looking up Peeta saw a Peacekeeper approaching them. Peeta struggled upright, kicking the dead rebel's legs off his and scrambling in front of Cassy before the Peacekeeper came to a stop before them. Peeta lifted the gun with a shaking hand. He was exhausted and on the verge of being spent. He did not know how much more fight he had left in him. But he could still pull the trigger.
Except the Peacekeeper held up his hands and shouted through his helmet, "Wait!" His hands lifted up the helmet, undoing the clasps and then he pulled it off revealing a familiar harsh face made of sharp lines, a thick black beard, and scrutinizing black eyes. It was Darius.
A sharp gasp escaped Peeta's lips and his fingers tightened on the trigger. "You! You stay back! Don't think I wont pull this trigger!"
"Oh my sweet Peeta, I have no doubt you would. But I also know that you need me right now. I'm the only one that knows the way out of here and is willing to tell you."
A more stable and right-minded Peeta might have heeded the voice in the back of his head that told him no, shoot him. He shot you. But Peeta also knew Darius was right. He had saved them and now he offered an escape. And so he lowered the gun. Darius offered a hand for Peeta to take. He glared at it and then stood on his own, ignoring the ache he felt in every strained joint.
"Take that door there," Darius pointed at what looked like a normal wall, but upon closer inspection Peeta saw hinges and a latch. "It's only used by Avoxes. Follow the hall until you reach the kitchens, take a right and you'll find an exit by the freezer locker. I'll mislead the remaining Peacekeepers as to your position so you should be safe."
Peeta stared at him for a moment, unsure if he should trust him. Was he just leading them deeper into the castle? Was it a trap so he could have Peeta to himself again? But something about the way he looked—his dark eyes open and repentant—told Peeta he was different. He was seriously offering Peeta an out. And so he took Cassy's hand in his and took off towards the hidden door.
"Peeta!" Darius called just as Peeta was about to run through the opening. "I nev—never meant to hurt you Peeta and I never would again. Never. I… I just wanted you to know that…"
There was such sincerity in his voice and dark eyes Peeta felt the urge to believe it. He had just proved himself invaluable in their escape from the palace and the rebels, so Peeta took pity on him. He moved forward and gripped his shoulder, offering a small smile, before running through the door with Cassy and leaving the tainted memory of Darius and all things Capitol far behind.
It seemed impossible that Darius could be trusted, but what he said turned out to be true. They found a door out of the palace by the freezer just like he promised. He hefted Cassy up into his arms and then burst through the door at a sprint. He did not know what they would face on the other side of that door, but he figured it was best to hit it at a run.
Once through the doors Peeta was bombarded full-force by the sounds of war. Screams and guttural wails, gunfire, and explosions tore through the air and rattled his brain. The smell of gun smoke and blood filled his senses. There was a hovercraft in the distance firing down on the city; it's bullets shot through the sky towards houses and buildings like meteors. The night sky itself was tinged red by fire or maybe all the blood spilt.
"Where do we go?" Cassy asked against Peeta's cheek.
He searched the horizon as he sprinted across the wide-open grounds of the palace. Their best bet was to head for cover in the alley among the buildings directly ahead of him. But beyond that he did not know. If the rebels and the Capitol both wanted him dead, then where did safety lie?
"I don't know," He shook his head and looked around despondently, "But away from here."
A contingent of Peacekeepers came hustling around the corner of the grounds to Peeta's right, just before he was to reach the opening of the alley. Shots rang out and cracked against the cement of the building to Peeta's right. He lifted the gun and fired indiscriminately behind him at the white-clad soldiers before jumping into the alley for cover. He pushed his legs to carry them faster, begging his body for just a little more energy.
The Peacekeepers boots could be heard against the cobblestone as they closed in on the alley. The alley was bathed in a flickering light from a nearby fire and Peeta caught sight of approaching soldiers from in front of him too. He skidded to a stop.
Peeta turned to run back, but one of the Peacekeepers had already reached the mouth of the alley. Peeta fired his gun and the man dove behind a dumpster. Then his gun registered the empty click of his clip. He was out of ammunition. He threw the gun in frustration and put Cassy down.
"Look for a door! Any way in!" Peeta shouted.
They both moved to opposite sides of the alley in desperation, groping in the shadows for a door or window that would grant them access to one of the buildings. Peeta found a door, but it was locked. He threw the weight of his body against it, but it did not budge. Suddenly the brick to the left of his head exploded in bits from a bullet. More Peacekeepers now charged down the alley. Then more gunfire exploded from the opposite end of the alley.
"Get down!" Peeta shouted as he pressed flat to the ground.
Cassy was flattened to the concrete on the other side of the alley from Peeta and shook in fear. He could not hear anything above the explosive rapid-fire of the automatic weapons that discharged from both ends of the alley. Then another voice shouted over the commotion, "Shield your eyes."
Not being fast enough Peeta caught sight of the light grenade that exploded in front of the Peacekeepers like bottled lightning. Both they and Peeta were blinded. The gunfire at their end ceased, but the approaching rebels behind Peeta did not quit. He rolled on the ground, hands clutched to his eyes. He saw nothing but bursts of stars and black shadows in the forms of people. Then the gunfight ceased. Peeta stumbled to his feet and tripped across to the other side of the alley where Cassy was. He took her in his arms and shielded her. He could here the approach of the other soldiers. The Peacekeepers were all surely dead as they were too.
"No, no please, don't hurt her! You can have me, but don't hurt the girl!" Peeta begged towards the blurry shadows as they approached. His eyes stung from the flash grenade and unshed tears. The figures stopped moving at his words and an eerie silence fell over the alley. Peeta could hardly breathe. This can't be the end. I've made it so far!
"Impossible." Someone gasped.
"Peeta!" Another shouted and then Peeta was truly confused as someone rushed forward and embraced him.
Finally his vision returned to him and he was able to take in the incredulous faces of all his friends as they stared down at him. Prim had her arms wrapped tight around his neck and was efficiently squeezing the life from him.
"You're alive!" She sobbed as Peeta tried to take it all in. "I knew it! I just knew we'd find you."
Scanning the group before him he saw Johanna standing to the side watching the mouth of the alley, her gun gripped tight in her hand. She nodded at Peeta, a small smile biting at the corner of her mouth. Then he saw Finnick beaming wide with his full-toothed grin in Peeta's direction. Peeta felt a smile pull at his own lips in return. Then he noticed Finnick was injured and leaned for support against Gale.
Time stopped and his heart stuttered. All the breath sucked from his lungs. Those brooding cobalt eyes almost so dark they held no color at all latched onto his like a lifeline and Peeta stood, Prim's arms unceremoniously fell from his. Something inside Peeta warmed, offering the subtlest hint of remedy to the scorched earth of his wounded insides.
They both spoke each other's names at the same time. Peeta could not believe it took him so long, but there it was. All laid bare for him to see in its inevitableness. They took a step towards each other when Peeta remembered.
"I didn't betray you!" He turned to look at everyone. "You've got to believe me. Heavensbee tricked everyone—"
"Yeah, yeah. As usual we're way ahead of you." Johanna dismissed as she counted her ammo and then helped check Prim's stock for her as she attended to Cassy's injuries.
"He's seized control of District Thirteen and the rebel army," Finnick supplied.
"I found Haymitch…" Prim offered, stopping bandaging Cassy's ankle as a shadow flitted across her face. It was then that he noticed there was something different about all of them now that Peeta looked. They had been through as much as Peeta and had come through the other side changed. Prim especially. She held an unwavering stare that hinted at a new set of armor she had developed to protect herself.
"Heavensbee killed him. But not before I figured out how you worked together to try and trick us so you could get close to Snow."
"What? No! No…" Peeta took a step backwards from everyone. This was not how it was supposed to be. Not at all. Even when he knew rescue was a fantasy he never imagined it could turn out this bad. Peeta knew he should cry, he could feel the unshed tears behind his eyes, but it was now expected. When had death become so routine he no longer cried?
"Peeta?" Gale asked hesitantly, handing off Finnick to Johanna as he stepped toward Peeta with an extended hand.
"I'm good. I'm fine." Peeta shook off the loss and refocused on those before him.
"And Snow?" Finnick asked.
"Please tell me that fucker's dead?" Johanna's eyes were more hopeful than he had ever seen on her normally hardened face.
"He's dead." Peeta said with confidence. He could feel it. A quick check over his shoulder confirmed the whole western portion of the palace was now aflame. He hoped the whole place burned down to the ground.
Everyone let out a sigh of relief. Almost everyone…
"Wait…" Peeta said as he took stock of those around him and realized one very important person was missing.
All head's ducked except for Gale who was only a few feet from him. He held Peeta's eyes with a distressed yet warm embrace. Peeta's heart seized like a fist had suddenly squeezed it tightly. Before he could hear the news he could not fathom, but always knew possible in the back of his mind a harsh spotlight blared down upon them. Peeta shielded his eyes from the floodlight as the air whipped about them and the whooshing sound of a hovercraft overcame their senses.
"Halt! Turn over the traitor."
It was Plutarch Heavensbee's voice over the loudspeaker from the hovercraft. They were found out.
Someone shouted run and Gale dove into action. He scooped up Cassy as if she were his own and turned to head towards the northern mouth of the alley. But it was too late. Both openings were now blocked as a contingent of rebel soldiers bore down on them; green lasers from their guns aimed at everyone's chests. Peeta did not even bother moving. His exhaustion had finally caught up to him. Gale turned back to the group and then found the door Peeta had tried to beat down earlier. He kicked against it. Over and over and over.
Bang, bang, bang.
No one moved to help. No one did anything. They knew what he did not. It was useless.
"Gale, enough." Peeta spoke up.
He turned back with wild blue eyes and unruly hair. He resembled the defiant and angry man he knew before they became friends in Twelve, before they were something more and his rough edges softened…
"What? No. No, come on. They can't have you! We can't just give up!"
"It's over. Please, let's face it. We tried."
Peeta moved towards him and rested a hand on his arm. He was just so tired of fighting. Now matter what they did, no matter how many threats they overcame they always came out behind, another just waiting on the horizon to overtake them. He made it through the first Hunger Games impossibly with Cato by his side only to find he was forced back in with even more impossible odds. They somehow get out of that only to be thrust into the middle of a war, which Peeta thought he could end with the death of Snow only to find the real enemy was Plutarch all along. It never ended.
"If it ends here amongst my friends and… and you," Peeta looked deep into Gale's eyes and felt a peace settle over him. "Then I'm okay with that."
Cassy looked over Gale's shoulder through her thick red hair at Peeta. She was no longer fearful or desperate, just as exhausted as he felt. Everyone was ready for it to be over. He felt the muscles of Gale's arm relax slightly.
"No Peeta, this can't be it. He can't win." Gale sat Cassy down and got right in Peeta's face, their noses inches apart. His blue eyes held Peeta's, captivated by the depths of their devotion. "I refuse to lose you again."
"You never had him."
Another voice spoke from behind Peeta, gruffer and colder than he ever remembered. Gale's eyes locked onto something over Peeta's head and darkened to the color of coal. He brushed Peeta aside and stood in front of him. Peeta turned and finally took in the site of Cato standing before the extended ladder from the hovercraft. He was alive. But changed. Darkness hung over him like a visible cloud. Peeta barely recognized his face. All emotion was cleansed from it. It reminded Peeta of himself. Of the man he played to get here. It frightened him.
"And you never deserved him." Gale spat back, his fists clenched at his side and his back taut like steel. He looked ready to take on Cato and the whole army of soldiers that now blocked them in from either side. The soldiers to Cato's left were already detaining Johanna, Finnick and Prim in cuffs. They struggled and one jabbed the butt of his rifle into Finnick's injured leg. He cursed and fell to his knees. The others quickly stepped into line.
"Cato, Cato!" Cassadine suddenly chirped. She lunged forward, but several green beams of light landed on her chest and Peeta tore her back, moving in front of her and blocking the targets on her small frame. "Cato it's me, Cassy! Cato, please!"
Peeta watched as Cato took in the site of his very own sister and then disregarded her. He felt her shudder as her breath was expelled in a stifled sob. Peeta felt his blood thicken at the transgression.
"Hand over the traitor. He must pay for his crimes."
Cato motioned at some soldiers and they moved towards Peeta. He was stunned. Prim and Johanna raged at him from the sidelines. Calling him things like a coward and a puppet. Finnick just bowed his head ashamed.
"I won't let you have him!" Gale roared and charged Cato. Cato had all the time he wanted to respond before Gale reached him, but he let it happen, like he wanted this fight too. Before Peeta could act two soldiers were upon him. They forced his hands behind his back and cuffed him. He was made to be a spectator to this trading of blows between his lovers. A brutal fist collided with Cato's face. He rolled with the punch then followed through with one of his own to Gale's stomach. They pummeled each other with unrelenting fists until Cato picked Gale up by the torso and turned to slam him into the brick wall behind them. Cato spoke something in Gale's ear and he froze. Then suddenly the crack of a gun reverberated down the alley like a bomb. It sucked all the air from Peeta's lungs and he watched in horror as Gale slid down the wall to the cobblestone. Cassy wailed sirens into the night air.
The soldiers led Peeta towards Cato who waited patiently by the hovercraft ladder for him. He holstered his gun nonchalantly as if he had done nothing more than dispense of a bothersome fly.
Suddenly the life kicked back into Peeta.
"No! NO! Gale!" Peeta raged and bucked against the rebels who manhandled him towards Cato.
Johanna frothed at the mouth as furious nonsense poured from her lips. Prim cried. Cassy was cuffed and brought to Finnick's side. He tried to console her. But she was overcome with grief. When Peeta was brought to Cato his eyes only sought out Gale's. He found them. He was still alive. Peeta could see dark red stained Gale's shirt, but he could not see where he had been shot, if he was going to die. Then he was handed over to Cato.
The last words Peeta heard were, "Cato why?" as Cassy sobbed and they were locked into place by the paralyzing beam of the hovercraft and sucked up into the sky.
Peeta could barely take being next to Cato for the thirty-second trip up to the loading bay. He felt as sick and betrayed as he did the time he woke up in District Thirteen's medbay to discover he had a mind control device implanted in him. Then for one radical moment he hoped the same had been done to Cato, but that was quickly discredited. He was never a threat to them and they knew that. The Capitol never would have been worried about controlling him. If they controlled Peeta then they did Cato. At least at one time they would have. Now Peeta did not even know the man next to him. He was just another Career.
Once free of the gravitational pull of the hovercraft beam Cato took a hard grip on the back of Peeta's neck and forced him forward. Peeta violently jerked away from Cato's grip and jumped forward a few paces. His skin crawled where Cato's fingers had connected with his flesh.
"Do not touch me."
Cato shrugged and then motioned for him to move forward. Peeta did, turning when told and climbing the stairs when asked. They ended on the flight deck after Cato typed a code into the access panel to the right of the automatic doors. Big bay windows offered a dramatic and expansive view of the city before them that on any other occasion would have amazed Peeta. The sun just began to creep up behind the mountains in the horizon. It offered dimmed gold light, still held at bay by the oppressive night of war. The city itself was a speckled landscape of burning buildings and desolation. They were alone on this upper deck save for two pilots, Plutarch Heavensbee and his two assistants standing before them with a triumphant smile planted on each of their wretched faces.
Leaving Peeta for the moment Cato moved to stand by Plutarch's side. He took Cato's hand in his meaty one and shook it gratefully. Mouthing vibrant words of gratitude.
"Cato." Peeta hissed, a last ditch effort to reach him. "What are you doing? You're smarter than this. You know I'd never—"
"Save it!" Plutarch cut off Peeta. He marched forward and shoved a finger in Peeta's face. "Your lies wont save you here. The war will end soon now. All of the final pieces have fallen into place. Paylor is at the doorstep of the palace. Snow's forces are in disarray. You have lost my boy. Let's not be a poor sport too. Go out with the shred of dignity you have left."
The rage that had been building steadily inside Peeta now since Cato shot Gale finally exploded like a grenade and he lunged at Plutarch. He slammed his head into Plutarch's round one. The resulting explosion of pain was offset by the undignified squeal the pig of a man Plutarch let out as he fell backwards. Peeta was about to dive atop of him to stomp on him. To unleash any and all pain he could on the disgusting excuse for a human when he was suddenly yanked back by Boggs. A swift kick to the back of his legs brought him to his knees.
"I don't understand!" Peeta screamed, struggling against Boggs arms that held him down. He looked only at Cato, beseeching common sense to prevail. "He's the traitor! Not me. Do you really think that little of me now? After everything we've been through? After all we've suffered and endured? I know I messed up. More than most, but despite that all—no matter how much you hate me because of it—you know I'd never betray the people of Panem!"
"ENOUGH!" Bellowed Plutarch, now back on his feet. His nose bled profusely. It dribbled over his chin and stained the collar of his cream shirt. He withdrew a gold handkerchief to hold against it and Peeta felt his skin itch at the sight of it. A stark reminder of how horribly he had been deceived.
"I won't let you spoil my—our victory!" Plutarch sputtered through the handkerchief. "It has been long fought, but it is finally here."
Shaking angrily, he turned away from Peeta and marched toward the computer board next to one of the pilots. He pressed a red button that lit up and then spoke into the microphone. Cato remained were he stood, unmoved and blank faced. Peeta shook his head in revulsion.
"We have captured the traitor Peeta Mellark," Plutarch announced over the speakers. "He shall be duly and swiftly executed for his crimes. The Mockingjay will pay and in this final act of violence Panem will be reborn anew; better, safer, more equitable. Rejoice in our victory now! For it is truly ours to share in together."
Frantic for an ally Peeta craned his head to look at Boggs only to realize he too understood what was going on here, but either did not care or was the ultimate soldier following his orders to the grave. He turned forward again to find Plutarch back before him with a truly insane glint in his malicious eyes.
"Boggs, if you will."
He motioned with a hand at them. The coward could not even be bothered to execute Peeta himself. The unlatching of Bogg's holster chimed loud in Peeta's ear as a fist cuffed the back of his shirt and dragged him upright. Then cold chills ran up the length Peeta's spine as he felt the tip of Boggs gun come to rest against his temple. His legs felt weak and he had to force them to keep hold of his weight. He would not be so feeble as to need to be held up for his own execution. But he also knew his voice was stronger.
"You're just as vile and evil as President Snow." Peeta gritted out. He would not let Plutarch see him go out begging and weeping. No he would speak his mind like he always did until that final shot rang out. "No worse because you're dangling hope before the people only to rip it away for your own selfish, greedy goals of power, wealth and comfort. You're true Capitol trash."
Satisfied, Peeta closed his eyes. He would not look at Cato again. The last thing he wanted on his mind was the image of those that truly loved him. Drawing on the comfort of their faces to carry on with him into the void.
"Just do it." Peeta spoke to Boggs.
Bracing for the end Peeta took a deep breath and held close the image of his loved ones. But suddenly there was a growl and he was shoved back into Bogg's chest as Plutarch darted forward in surprising agility and stole the gun from Bogg's hand. Peeta opened his eyes to confront up close Plutarch's raging mad face, twisted and warped by his insanity. He forced the gun into the space between Peeta's brows so hard it dug into his skull and tears welled to the surface of his eyes with out consent.
"I'll do it myself." Plutarch sneered in Peeta's face. He was so close he could count the open pores of his pale sweaty skin.
"You have no idea what I went through to get here! I had to have control of Thirteen too or just overthrowing Snow's regime would never have been enough. It wouldn't keep my rule safe from Coin's machinations." His eyes were wide open and twisted as his lips quivered with the insanity of his rant. He was lost in the lunacy of his power trip, jabbing the gun into Peeta's head until he was lightheaded and fearful that thick finger might slip on the trigger and it would all be over before he realized it. "The things I've done… you think you'll die a hero? A martyr? That they'll remember you? Ha! No, you'll die a traitor. Your name will be forgotten in a few years, just a vague memory of some boy who was supposed to change their lives and instead let them down. I will be the hero, me!"
Plutarch leaned back to bark out a laugh, his portly frame jostling with the radical expulsion of air before he honed back in on Peeta with his wicked stare. His finger tensed on the trigger and ever fiber of Peeta's being tensed, waiting for the darkness to overcome him one final time. This was it.
"I will be the man who saved them from oppression and lead them into a new era! I'll be more loved than you could imagine. Those backward commoners from the Districts, you give them too much credit. They'll dote on my every word and follow my every whim. All your friends will be executed. The truth will die with them just like with Haymitch. No one will ever know of our little plot and I, I will forever have the power!"
Peeta screamed. He thought he was ready to go. But he was not, there was so much left for him to do, so many dreams unfulfilled. It was not fair. This life cast upon him was too short and damning. He thought he would be alone forever. He volunteered for the Hunger Games to escape his wretched life only to finally find the things that truly made it worth living.
Realizing there was a shocking lack of pain and that he could still feel, Peeta opened his eyes. He was the only one standing. Plutarch's two assistants hid beneath a desk huddled in fear. Boggs laid dead to his right—a bullet through the skull—and Plutarch moaned on the floor. He clutched at his thigh where he had been shot clean through. Peeta's eyes whipped about for an explanation before landing on Cato's face—now purpled with a dark bruise from Gale's fist—as he rose up from a crouch by Plutarch. He held a gun in each fist, one of them the gun Plutarch had seconds ago intended to spray Peeta's brain across the wall.
Peeta was in shock. He could not bring words to his lips. None of it made sense at the moment save for the fact that for some reason Cato had just saved Peeta's life.
"You!" Plutarch seethed from the floor through gritted teeth, clutching his bloodied thigh and choking back whimpers. "How could you? You shall be hung for this too!"
But Cato just shook his head. "No I wont."
Then he pointed over his shoulder at the computer board where the two pilots sat frozen in fear, hands in the air. Plutarch's face grew pale and he slumped further onto the floor. Peeta did not get it.
"You never were mine were you?" Plutarch asked all the fight drained from him in defeat. "You played me the same way Peeta played Snow."
Cato shook his head again, now just the hint of a smile pecking at the corners of his lips. That's when Peeta saw it. The little red button with a microphone on it was lit up. The speaker system had been on the whole time. Everyone heard. Everyone heard! A laugh bubbled up from Peeta's chest at the realization before a sudden shrill siren burst in his ears and flashing red lights cut it off.
"Multiple ground-to-air-missiles are locked on. It's Commander Paylor! She's going to fire on us!" One of the pilots notified, panic stricken.
"Our shields are still inoperable!" The other shouted frantic. The ship began to make a heavy bank to the right as they tried to maneuver through the high-rises of the city.
"What did you do?" Plutarch gasped, suddenly wild and alert again. "You've killed us all!"
"Not all of us." Cato said and then he holstered his gun and stuck the other in the waistband of his pants before rushing towards Peeta. He quickly undid the cuffs and Peeta let a sigh of relief slip from his lips. Then he looked in Cato's amber eyes and saw all the warmth and emotion that had been missing not a minute before returned. He knew he was safe.
"We have to move!"
And then they ran for their lives, the pilot's and Plutarch's two assistants close on their heels, but as soon as they got through the bay doors Cato shut them and shot out the access code panel. They were sealed in. As they ran down the hall the sound of their futile fists pounding against the steel doors faded.
"I—I don't understand." Peeta panted out as they made a sharp turn and headed down a tight spiral staircase into a long hall lined with marked doors. They passed one marked Engine Room. Another marked Maintenance.
"You're not the only one that can dupe people." Cato huffed in reply, latching his hand around Peeta's wrist and tugging him faster. "We don't have much time. I told him to give us five, now c'mon!"
"Told who? What's happening?" Peeta shouted over the sirens frantic as they entered through a door marked Escape Pods.
The room they entered was long and overcrowded. The right side ceiling was caved in and a mess of exposed wires and bent steel. Every several feet on either side there was a small bay door numerically marked. They raced down the narrow steel platform. Finally they reached the second to last space where the only remaining intact pod was. Cato stood before it, pressed a few buttons on the panel to the left. The door slid open to reveal a single cramped seat. He motioned for Peeta to get in. But Peeta would not budge. It only now started to dawn on him what Cato had done.
"N-no." Peeta took a step back and shook his head fiercely.
"Yes." Cato countered calm and forceful. There was no question about his intentions.
"But you had me thinking the worst of you a minute ago and now I just got you back and you know the truth and I know the truth and no, NO! This isn't how it gets to end."
"You're getting in that fucking pod." Cato's eyes flashed merciless for a second. His strong large hands gripped Peeta's shoulders and forced him towards the pod. But Peeta slipped free at the last minute and jumped backwards, away from the opening.
"Please Peeta," Cato begged. His soft brown eyes now brimmed with tears and raw emotion the likes of which Peeta had not seen on him since before he shut off all his emotion towards Peeta. "Don't waste everything I've done for you. You've saved so many people, my sister included and I'll owe that debt to you forever. Now please do this for me."
"I can't let you do this." Peeta protested.
"I made the decision to die for you a long time ago."
"This isn't the Hunger Games anymore!" Peeta shouted in exasperation. His eyes burned. His throat constricted. Hot tears finally welled up and spilled over his cheeks. There was no holding them back now. Just when he thought there was nothing left to feel or lose he realized there was always something more. He stepped in closer to Cato, feeding on his warmth and strength for the courage to do what Cato asked, but finding he still lacked the resolve. How could Cato ask him to abandon him? He could not turn his back on him again. Cato stepped closer too. He looked down into Peeta's eyes with a love he forgot he could be made to feel by Cato.
"I blamed you for all the wrong things." Cato spoke softly. It was so intimate and quiet that it brought him back to the days when he would sneak into Peeta's room at the training center to steal away precious moments together before the games started. "I pushed you to Gale. I know that now. It's my fault and I accept it. Now let me make amends and do this. Let me try and do the right thing instead of the easy thing. Because hating you, pretending you don't mean anything to me is impossible. I need to atone for so much—for all this hate I carry in me, for casting those men in the Nut to death, for escalating the war to this point, for losing you."
Shaking his head Peeta moved the final step in so that his cheek now rested against Cato's chest. He could hear the way his heart stuttered at the contact and Peeta's heart ached. He wished he did not have that affect on Cato. Maybe if he did not he could convince him to take the pod instead. After all it should be the Mockingjay that died for his people. Was that not what he had planned upon coming here?
"Stop it. It wasn't your fault. Their deaths are not on your hands and neither is our broken relationship. It was our fault. We made mistakes together. You don't get to hold all the blame now. I wont let you."
Strong arms wrapped around Peeta and pulled him closer. He moved his head to look up at Cato; the tears now flowed uninhibited and blurred his vision.
"I never meant for—for any of this. I never meant to start a war. I just wanted to show everyone we have a choice how our life turned out. I wanted us to live. I didn't want this to happen—" Peeta choked on his words. His throat was swollen and raw. He wrapped his arms around Cato's strong back and tugged him as close as he could, urging this moment to last forever. Praying they could just meld as one and make the escape together. He knew they were broken long ago and this fixed nothing, but it did not make it by any means easier.
"Listen, Peeta. They'll think you're dead too. You can start over. Escape and have the life you always wanted, no longer burdened with the weight of the nation's hope squarely on your shoulders. Just take my sister with you. Promise to protect her, l-love her." Cato broke off and took a shaky breath in. Peeta watched his Adam's apple move as he swallowed and looked off above Peeta's head. "Raise her to be good and kind spirited like you and I know everything will work out. Gale will find you at the crash site. He'll help you get out of the city. Gale loves you completely and selflessly. I can see that now. Everyone can. Love like that is rare, precious, once in a lifetime." Cato paused and looked back down at Peeta. There was only truth in his eyes and the faint hint of longing, a wish for a second chance in a different time when it might have been he who loved Peeta right. "Don't squander it. Don't push him away like I did to you. Because you deserve happiness. You deserve the world and you deserve to live, you need to. It's still the only thing I know to be true in this fucked up world. That and I love you."
And then Cato leaned down and they kissed. He pressed his tear soaked lips against Peeta's and all the fear and doubt, anger and hate, any unnecessary emotion, it all just dissolved away, except for love. It filled him up, quenched his thirst and sated all his need. Cato's hands reflexively tightened at the base of Peeta's back, pulling him up and into the embrace as it deepened for just a moment before he released Peeta and stepped back; the connection severed.
"I never was a hero, like you Peeta. I've fucked up too many times and acted foolishly selfish. I—I never loved you properly, but hopefully this can make up for it. Give you the opportunity to be loved right, the chance at a normal, peaceful life."
"No but don't you see Cato?" Peeta lifted a hand to wipe the tears from Cato's face and tenderly stroke the bruise underneath his left eye. His stomach twisted into thorny knots knowing this would be the last time he ever touched Cato. "You are the hero. Right now. And I've never loved you more…"
Then Peeta stepped into the escape pod and took his seat. He held eye contact with Cato for as long as he could, memorizing every minute detail there was. It would be all he had left of Cato. He would need it, to carry on with him. Cato gave Peeta one last small smile which would be seared into his minds eye forever and then the door of the pod cut down like a guillotine, forever severing Cato from his life. And with a sudden jolt like the ground had dropped out from beneath him he was ejected from the hovercraft.
The escape pod thrust from the hovercraft with a bursting of its small jet engine before the light flickered out and it fell heavy and fast towards the ground. Behind it a cluster of missiles streaked through the air like a flock of vengeful birds before impacting the side of the hovercraft. The detonation lit up the sky brighter than the rising sun before the craft split apart and rained down on the city like falling stars in the morning sky.
Every soldier laid down his weapons. Every refugee, man, woman and child turned their heads up toward the sky and mourned.
The war was over.
Five Years Later.
The earth was hot and moist against Peeta's knees. The sun shone down on him from its perch in the afternoon sky warming his skin and bringing a prickle of sweat to his brow. He hummed a familiar tune—one whose lyrics he no longer cared to remember, but could never forget—as he worked the fertilizer into the soil with his gloved hands. It was pungently fresh, having just been purchased from a neighboring goat farm. The tree required weekly tending, a draw back to its genetic tampering. But he relished in the manual labor and the opportunity to dirty his hands.
Things had finally started to return to normal. A normal not many people ever knew, a better, newer normal. Where one could live in peace, with a future bright and hopeful, not marred by fear, uncertainty, and death. Rebuilding Panem would still continue for the foreseeable future, but enough work had been done that every day was not a constant reminder of the destruction wrought by the Second Rebellion. Instead it was a hopeful symbol of the better world they actively worked to achieve.
People had returned to District Twelve, and continued to do so. The population grew weekly. Most of Victors Village stood intact from the bombing by the Capitol. The first people back to Twelve took up residence in them. Two of the original home-comer's were Gale and Peeta—now known as John (his father's name), but still Peeta to Gale and Cassadine in the privacy of their home. No one seemed to question his striking resemblance to the Mockingjay—Peeta had died his hair brown and made sure to conceal his prosthetic leg in public—but it was not surprising. Everyone was ready to move on. They had needed the sacrifice of their two heroes to achieve resolution Even though his name and Cato's had been cleared in the resulting revelation of Plutarch Heavensbee's corruption, no one wished to be reminded of the war. It was best to move forward. That's what Peeta did.
Victors Village was where the effort to rebuild District Twelve began. They worked outwards, clearing the wreckage and bodies left behind. Then the rebuilding began. It was not what Twelve used to be, but it was better. There was no Seam. No division between the town, those lifted up by the Capitol and all the rest left to squalor. President Paylor had created the government Heavensbee promised. One that was fair and free. Twelve lived in relative prosperity and a peace it had never known. An economy grew from their abundant lumber, the fences that cloistered them in quickly torn down. Travel between the Districts was easy and accessible. They were a unified people instead of segregated and oppressed with ample opportunity open to those that wished to take it.
Compacting the earth around the base of the tree, the manure thoroughly mixed in, Peeta sat back on his haunches and wiped at his brow. His necklace had fallen out from under his shirt as he worked the dirt. He brought a hand up to finger at the two rings that dangled from the hand-woven sting. The dried out bark was worn smooth to the touch from all the times he fingered them mindlessly over the years. At first it hurt him to have such a reminder dangling so close to his heart. But now it was a memento of something precious and what better place to hang it than over his heart?
Cato was gone. For five long years now. The suffocating pain of loss gradually faded over time. Just like Cato had promised Gale found Peeta at the pod crash site. Cato had shot him clean through the left shoulder; he needed no more than some sutures, a bandage and a sling. All of which Prim did for him while they explained to Commander Paylor of the situation, of what Cato had requested of him. He had used the fight as the opportunity to impart his true plans on Gale. Paylor acquiesced after Heavensbee's true motivations were revealed over the speaker system and she regretfully fired her defensive ground missiles on the hovercraft.
From there Gale smuggled Cassadine and Peeta out of the Capitol. Cassadine wanted to see her home one last time. So they stopped in Two. There was nothing left but ash. The hulking mass of the Nut no longer loomed over the region. Everything they knew was burned down, destroyed. Peeta remembered kneeling in front of her and taking her small porcelain hands in his.
"Now it's time to rebuild."
And rebuild they did. Brick by brick, day by day, they put their lives back together. Things really started to get better when Finnick and Annie Cresta were married a few years after the war ended. They wanted to wait and give everyone the time to heal and rebuild. Which Peeta was grateful for because it allowed him time to study up on District Four's marriage traditions so when the time came he officiated the ceremony. It was the first time Peeta felt overcome by a truly celebratory mood. It was also nice to have a day reunited with everyone he cared about. Effie was there. She had been found locked away in a cell below the training center. The effects of the war were most visible on her. She no longer wore outrageously colored hair and outfits, instead living in somber shades of black and grey. Her personality was still bubbly, but subdued, ever on edge. She was the hardest to talk with for Peeta, but he was glad she survived. Johanna was not hard to reconnect with. She was now—begrudgingly as she said—Governor of Seven, yet she still maintained that spunky nature about her that he loved. Prim and her mother were also in attendance. They never returned to Twelve. The memories they held there too painful. Peeta understood, but he was also tired of running from what he knew to be true. After that they all made sure to take the time to visit each other. No one else could ever truly understand what they had been through. They were the remaining survivors from the Hunger Games, now just a chapter in their country's brutal history.
Prim was now in medical school in the Capitol, learning to become a doctor. Her mother had settled down in Four near the ocean. Something about it soothed her. Peeta made sure he visited them both frequently. Gale was always happy to come along.
Cassadine grew up fast too. Now sixteen she had a fierce independent streak that lead her to apply for the new scholastic program created by Paylor's administer of education, an extended schooling at the new Capitol University. Education was one of President Paylor's biggest pushes.
Before Cassy parted he gifted his portrait of Cato to her as a going away present. He knew she would always come back to visit him so he wanted to make sure she had something to remember her brother by. He was glad he never destroyed it. The portrait now hung in the small room she shared with another student at the school.
Before she left he hugged he close at the train station. She now reached almost eye level with him. She was a tall and beautiful young woman with her flowing red hair and flawless alabaster skin.
"You know I'll come back all the time to visit," She said exasperated by his display of affection. Everything that happened to her had hardened her. But Peeta suspected she was always destined to be an emotionally reserved woman.
"I know, I know. You're always right." Peeta paused. "Just like you were with Cato. He did save us you know, just like you said. And I know he couldn't be more proud of the woman you've become."
Cassadine's eyes glassed over for a second and then the train whistled and she leapt forward, leaving a kiss on his cheek and giving a quick hug to Gale before she hopped on the train.
Sending her off to the Capitol was the hardest thing Peeta had done in years. He had grown to love and care for her as if she were his own sister, just as Cato had requested. It hurt more than he expected to say goodbye to her, even though it was not a real goodbye. He would see her again. They were family. But he knew he had completed Cato's final request when she left to go create her own life in the Capitol and now he was not sure what was left of his life.
So Peeta stood and took a step back. The tree that started out only as a small sapling that reached Peeta's knee a few years ago now stood nearing six feet tall. The vanilla blossoms were now in constant bloom and they sweetened the air of their house and backyard each morning with their fresh scent.
This was Peeta's tribute. His very own hanging tree. It was a reminder each day of what it took to get here. What was sacrificed and what was gained. Peeta moved forward to stroke the smooth bark of the tree. It was the same bark as the rings that hung over his heart. Their love may not have lasted, but it was real. It changed a nation. And suddenly he knew he was ready to move on. He lifted the necklace over his head and picked a sturdy branch tying the necklace around it. He took a small step back to observe the two rings as they swung to and fro in the breeze. If he closed his eyes he could have been transported back to the rooftop of the training center, back to when he first met Cato. Instead he kept his eyes open.
The hinges of the door to the back of the house groaned as it opened and shut. Peeta turned from the tree to see Gale coming out. He had a tentative grin on his face and his right hand behind his back. Peeta's heart gave a small flutter at the sight of that smile, the hint of those white teeth and teasing tongue.
What had he been waiting for?
Peeta did not deserve such a man. He doted on Peeta in every way. He was there to pick him up when he fell, to hold him through the night terrors, to push him to be his best self, and always waiting patiently for him when Peeta would truly return all the love he had to offer.
Gale's family had also returned to Twelve and now they were practically his family too. They spent long evenings together cooking out and sharing in each other's company until the young children had long fallen asleep. In probably the strongest indication of the change of times in regards to attitudes towards being gay, Hazelle pulled Peeta aside one night to give her blessing to their relationship.
"At first I may not have understood it, but I see now it's the same as anyone else's love. There is no difference. I just want my son to be happy and you make him. That's all a mother could ask for."
Then she kissed him on the cheek and went back into the living room where Gale wrestled with his two brothers and Posy squealed in excitement, jumping on the couch cushions. Peeta smiled warmly as he looked upon the familial bliss. This was what they had fought for. This was what everything Peeta had been put through and endured was for. This was exactly what Cato sacrificed himself for, so that life could continue, so that life could flourish with out the constant threat of death and suffering.
Over the years Gale and Peeta grew back together, slowly, but Peeta still found it hard to believe he deserved the happiness Cato wished for him. It held him back from loving Gale completely and he knew Gale knew it. But he never begrudged him or pushed him. He only waited. Some nights Peeta would rage at him for being so kind, lost in his grief and trauma. Then he would wake the next day filled with regret and fear that today was they day he gave up. Except he never did.
"What do you have there?" Peeta asked.
His smile only got bigger as he made his way towards Peeta. It drew Peeta in intrinsically, his feet moving of their own accord towards Gale until they met at the halfway point between the house and the tree. The bridge between their hearts was still connected, Peeta could feel it, the pull between them; the urge to cross it and let their hearts unite. Yet still he had held back all these years.
"Hold out your hand and close your eyes."
Stifling his curiosity Peeta did as asked. His hand hung in the air before him, the sun beating down on his back. A bead of sweat ran down the length of his spine. He heard the earth around Gale's feet crunch as he stepped closer. The tips of Peeta's fingers just barely grazed the fabric of Gale's shirt. An earthy smell of evergreen—Gale's smell—mixed with the scent of vanilla and overtook his senses. His two favorite smells mingled. They could coexist, Peeta realized. One did not have to replace the other. They could coexist in gentle harmony with the other. Then Peeta's hand dropped with the weight of Gale's palm against it. The touch was almost sensual, but over too quick. A small, cool metal object was left in his palm.
"Open them," Gale whispered in Peeta's ear.
Peeta's eyes snapped open. Gale's face was right before his, but pulling back. Peeta yearned to stop him, but his eyes fell to his palm instead, searching to discover what the object was he held.
"Gale…" The breath was almost knocked out of him at the discovery. "How'd you find it?"
"It took me a long time, but I had some help from a friend in Thirteen. He kept an eye out for it." Gale explained, unable to contain his hopeful smile.
It was the gold mockingjay pin. The very same one gifted to him by Riece. The one he wore through both Hunger Games and inspired the moniker given to him by a rebellion he ignited. He thought it was lost forever. The last time he saw it was in his dorm in Thirteen before the bombing. Peeta felt something stirred in his chest. Something unfamiliar and yet intimately known. His mind buzzed like a swarm of summer cicadas as he traced the image of the mockingjay with the pad of his thumb. The design so familiar he could draw it in his sleep.
"Here, let me." Gale said. He softly plucked the pin from Peeta's hand again and then lifted it to Peeta's chest where he carefully pinned it. "Back where it belongs… I hope that's okay?"
He watched Peeta inquisitively, chewing on his full bottom lip. His eyes searched out for a sign of some sort that Peeta was not in fact okay with the liberties he took to get the pin back, maybe even waiting for Peeta to break and fall apart. But Peeta was more than okay with it.
"I love you," Peeta gasped out. His eyes widened and he looked up into Gale's eyes, almost cerulean from the sunlight, shocked. Gale was shocked too. But then his face transformed before Peeta's very eyes as a true smile stretched itself across his chiseled jaw.
"I—I'm sorry it's taken me so long."
Gale stepped forward suddenly, their chests bumped. "Don't be. Even a piece of your love is enough for me. That will always be enough."
"You don't just have a piece. You have it all." As Peeta said it, he knew it was the truth. There was no more denying it. No more hesitation or putting it off because of a debt he thought he owed Cato, Cassadine or Panem.
Gale stared down at Peeta's face heatedly, taking a small step forward. It was barely noticeable, but his presence swelled around Peeta, welling up and over him like a crashing wave soaked him to his core. He could feel his cheeks flush with the look as something settled in his heart. The space that had opened up all those years ago in his chest was suddenly—finally—gone, closed, and with out it he felt infinitely lighter and yet more full. He was whole again. It was like finally coming home. He had always been trying to leave this place. Always trying to escape. To find somewhere better, a new home. What he did not realize was home was always here. With him. Peeta finally allowed himself to cross that bridge between them and to let their hearts meet.
"Kiss me." Gale requested.
Peeta's eyes swept up from Gale's full lips over his face and to his blue eyes. That was when he truly understood how much he was loved. He could get used to that.
"Okay." He smiled a genuine, lighthearted smile and then leaned in.
Here's that A/N I promised:
So that's it. We have finally reached the end of our journey. It was an epic and unexpected one I'd say. I never expected it to grow so big. I'm glad I was able to finally finish it. Your reviews have meant the world to me and it was for all of you that I pushed out this massive final chapter. I'm sure this ending was nothing short of polarizing and I totally accept if you hate it or were deeply upset by it. Not everyone must agree with my ending, but I think the quote I used to start this story by Anais Nin really set the tone and kind of blatantly foreshadowed where this story was going to end. I wanted to play with the conventions of your typical fanfiction romance story and do something different where the hero of the story ends up with someone else, even though this started as a Peeto pairing. I know most people read these stories for the pairing, I know I do, but I also felt like just because it started as one pairing doesn't mean that is how one is obligated to end the story. First loves don't always work out and who knows, maybe even Peeta and Gale wont, your allowed to make up your own mind on how their future plays out. But Peeta will always be connected to Cato, he will still be his first everything and that can never be taken away. Sadly as this story came together while I was plotting it out I discovered how truly damaged and broken they were together and it couldn't last no matter how strong their love was. That's why I really liked what Cato said to Peeta back in chapter 22, "Sometimes love isn't enough to salvage what can't be fixed." I think it's a truth he stumbled on by accident and it may not be the happiest, but it is true to real life. The power of love is great and beautiful, but I do think it gets put on this pedestal and really love is just as fickle an emotion as anything else. But you could see with Gale and Peeta's relationship what love is capable of. It repaired them and truly healed them. So even in this tragic ending I think it still ends on a positive note of hope and love and I do hope you come to see that too.
Anyways, thanks for listening to my rambling note. I love you all and your continued support means everything!