"You can't wear black," Mrs. Everdeen gasped. "You can't!"
Prim stood at the bottom of the stairs and lifted her chin defiantly. "Well. I'm going to."
Cinna had dutifully made the somber attire. Prim had said "funerary" and he had succeeded. She looked to be on her way to a wake. "Peeta is wearing black, too."
Mrs. Everdeen's brow furrowed. "It's irresponsible!"
"It's Katniss!" Prim burst out suddenly.
"You're not helping her!"
"I'm not going to pretend it's okay, Mom. I'm not. Never again."
The knock at the door was tentative. The shouting was audible throughout the Village; both Prim and Mrs. Everdeen knew their guests had heard.
Peeta pushed open the door and smiled weakly. "Good morning." Mrs. Everdeen's heart sank. Peeta wore a pristine black suit, black tie, and black shoes freshly polished to shine like ink.
"Oh, Peeta." Her voice was low and full of mourning.
"I'm sorry. I have to." He stepped inside and held the door open for Katniss. She was wearing her usual Reaping dress; the one that still fit from last year.
Except around the waist, where the bump was starting to strain the seams.
She said nothing but stood inside the foyer of her sister and mother's house, waiting to go to her final Reaping. She'd been practicing with her bow every day, working with her mother to learn strengthening activities that weren't too risky in her condition. But she knew it was pointless. By the time she faced the Cornucopia she'd be past five months and the child inside would be too large for her to climb trees or run with jostling her womb.
She would die running to the woods. Or on the platform. She hadn't decided yet if she would just jump to ignite the explosive. It would save herself from poisoning or fire or a knife in the belly from a Tribute wanting to spite Peeta or avenge Cato. She was only certain that she knew the name that would be called and that she would die.
It had been a terrible few months.
Peeta cried for a week when she told him she was late. First with elation, then with horror when she reminded him what it meant. Two would die instead of one.
"It's the perfect revenge," she had said softly as he bawled at the foot of the bed. "For both you and Prim. He might have planned it himself."
He told her to stop saying such things, but they both continued to think it.
Peeta withdrew to Haymitch's house nearly every day. At first, she asked when he would be home, but finally Katniss let him go without question. Haymitch was surely the one man who wouldn't make it worse by offering congratulations. She could see them hunched over his kitchen table when she stepped outside for fresh air; Peeta's pale face set with a determination she hadn't seen at him. She wondered what he and Haymitch spoke about, sitting together all those hours. When he would come home in the evenings and sit with her in front of a small fire, holding her hand and talking softly to the child growing inside her, she couldn't bring herself to ask. She wanted only to carry these still moments together as her memories into the Arena.
Effie, now rarely returning to the Capital, would come over to watch television with Katniss and politely refrain from asking questions. Prim would join them every so often, but not as often as Katniss had hoped. She guessed it was too painful for her two survivors to realize they'd still lost the Game.
Even Gale took it hard.
"Can you...?" he asked painfully.
"It doesn't matter if I lose it, Gale. They'll Reap me."
"I want them to see me. With it."
She glared out at the sunset drifting over the hillside where they were hunting for the near to last time. "I want them to see what this costs." She looked down at her then-flat stomach. "The future. Our future. This is what The Games cost us."
Gale nodded. "I understand." He smiled weakly. "I'm proud of you. Defiant to the end."
Katniss smiled; a rare event after the discovery. "The bitter end."
He nodded at the sunset. "I'm going to go talk to Haymitch. This isn't the end, Katniss. Not by a long shot."
And now the day was here.
Prim took Katniss' right hand, and Peeta took her left, feeling her wedding band under his palm. Mrs. Everdeen wiped her eyes and followed her children out the door.
The procession to the Square drew eyes.
Obligated to pretend this was an honor, the children dressed in black stood out like screams in the sea of pastel colored frocks and summer suits. Peeta and Prim ignored the gasps as they led Katniss to the rear holding square, the very last roped segment, saved for the 17 year old girls. Delly Cartwright and Madge were already there, watching her mournfully. Peeta led her right to the rope and she turned to face him.
"I'll see you inside," she tried to joke.
He nodded. A slight smirk. Because he knew it was true, too.
"See you in a minute," Prim nodded, her mouth a thin line. Katniss stroked her hair and told them goodbye. Peeta took Prim's hand as they walked to the stage, drawing stares and a look of distain from the chief Peacekeeper.
Haymitch was waiting at the top of the stairs, stone sober. When Effie arrived the whole place was shocked.
Her natural hair was a soft honey brown. It was wavy and hung just past her ears; short enough to comfortably fit under her usual wig cap. Her makeup was simple. The dress was one Katniss recognized from her mother's closet. She wore the boots of a miner's wife. She tried not to make eye contact as the townspeople stared at her. She crossed the Town Square slowly, deliberately.
Effie Trinket took the stage as a resident of District Twelve. She stepped to the podium just as the anthem began to play.
She did not mouth along with the video.
When the reel ended, she looked over to where Haymitch sat beside Peeta and Prim. Haymitch nodded.
She leaned into the microphone. "Let's get this over with." There were ripples of shock at her unforgiving tone. She plunged her hand into the glass ball of names. She withdrew it and looked at the slip. It hardly mattered. Upon every slip in the glass ball, the same name was neatly printed. Her eyes closed.
"Katniss Everdeen." The slip fluttered to the ground.
Katniss nearly laughed. She smiled as she stepped out of the holding area. She rested one hand on her stomach as she walked, unfettered, toward the stage where sat her husband and sister. They watched her approach.
It was nearly a relief. After all this waiting, it was finally here.
She climbed the steps and stood on the stage, turning so the cameras that broadcast this scene to all of Panem could see her bump in their Districts. She hoped they all saw.
Effie didn't congratulate her, but instead walked to the ball of boys' names. Wordlessly, she plunged her hand inside and yanked out a name.
She froze. The paper shook in her hand. She looked up. Katniss frowned at Effie's sudden stillness.
The wind left her lungs. She could hear Hazel's wails as she looked out to the sea of boys' faces. Gale's face swam into focus from the sidelines; aged out and unable to volunteer before his brothers' could have been selected.
Vick was moving to the rope even as Rory turned around where he was and held up a hand to stop. To stay. To honor the promise they'd made when they saw Katniss beaten for trying to save Prim. Don't make Mom cry harder, brother. Vick bit back tears and Rory lifted the rope and walked down the aisle to the stage where Katniss stood. Where Prim sat shaking, white as a ghost.
He finally reached Katniss and turned to face District Twelve.
"Your Tributes," Effie Trinket said stonily. "Given for a war that ended seventy five years and we are forced to fight still, every day."
The Peacekeepers watching cut the feed and the microphone screeched as it shut off. She pushed the stand to the ground and turned, marching to the Justice Building without demanding Rory and Katniss shake hands.
Katniss looked over the crowd. A chair scraped behind her. She turned and saw Peeta walking to the edge of the stage. Haymitch was on his feet; Prim standing beside him. Peeta reached the edge of the stage. He looked in the largest camera trained on his wife and the object of Prim's adoration.
Peeta pressed three fingers to his lips then raised them in the air. "For the glory of Panem," he said, his voice dripping with ice. "See you in the Capital."
Katniss listened to the dry summer breeze swirl dust through the silent Square. She looked back out over the crowd.
A hand raised from the back; three fingers in the air. She squinted.
Greasy Sae, a fixture in the Hob who had known Katniss all her life, stepped forward from the cluster of fearful parents. Her hand was stretched in the air, matching Peeta's gesture. She stood boldly still and stared at the cameras panning over the gathering. She waited.
Katniss bit her lower lip to control the unwelcome tremble as Thom, a young miner who her father had mentored in blasting out new coal tunnels, stepped forward and saluted. He was quickly joined by Ripper, who sold Haymitch his illegal liquor.
Madge Undersee stepped out into the aisle of corralled children and raised her palm. Rory Hawthorne walked up the aisle to stand beside her.
The hands rose, first one by one, then by dozens, then in waves.
Gale raised his fingers to them. Katniss joined them.
The Peacekeepers turned off the cameras.
Katniss hurried into the Justice Building, fearful the Peacekeepers would knock her around before the Games even started. She darted past their weapons into the Female Tribute's Holding Room. Inside, she halted.
She could see her scratch marks on the floor from last year; when the guards had to drag her out by her hair. Her fingers found her stomach.
So much had changed in one year. She closed her eyes.
"I wouldn't change a thing," she whispered, denying her regret. Nothing would change that now anyway.
Footsteps in the hallway drove her into the center of the room. The door pushed open.
"Katniss," cried Mrs. Everdeen, wiping her face. Peeta and Prim were silent behind her, closing the door as she ran to her daughter. "I didn't...I still wanted to hope..."
"Mom, it's okay," Prim murmured. "You'll see her again."
Mrs. Everdeen clung to Katniss. "It won't be the same on TV."
"No, Mom. You'll see her again." Both Katniss and Mrs. Everdeen turned to look at the unsmiling blond girl with the black ribbon in her hair. She strode forward quickly and yanked her mother hand into hers. "You must believe me. And Sae will make you feel better."
"What?" Mrs. Everdeen stared at her.
"When you leave here. Go to Greasy Sae. I left something with her for you. It's a surprise."
Katniss eyed Prim warily. She's never seen her so somber and severe. Where was her jumping, smiling, laughing little sister? The cold young woman in her place made her sick.
"Mrs. Everdeen." She turned to face Peeta. "In case we don't meet again," he told her, "I wanted to tell you I love your daughter with all my heart and I hope I made her life better while I was in it. Thank you for taking me in when I was alone."
"Peeta," Mrs. Everdeen gasped, caught between tears and confusion, "I don't understand."
"I wanted you to know how much I've appreciated all you've done for me," he repeated. "I have to go see Gale. I'll see you on the train," he said to Katniss. With a curt nod, he disappeared out the door.
When the Peacekeepers came to tell Mrs. Everdeen to leave, she burst into tears and wailed for her daughter. They dragged her away. Prim was allowed one more minute.
"Prim?" Katniss whispered, her voice cracking. "Why is Peeta always leaving me? You've spent time with him...does he think I'm...gone? Already?"
Prim looked up at her. "He'll come very shortly," she whispered. "He just needed some time to get things ready." Prim stood up and walked to the door. "I need to see Effie. I'll meet you on the train."
The door clicked shut and Katniss crumbled. The sobs bounced off the lonely walls and echoed back to her. She clenched her fists and tried to drive down the pain and fear. She would die alone; she had to face that it was her time. Might as well know that going in.
She chewed her tongue until the pain stopped the tears. Her breathing quieted.
The door opened. Effie Trinket stepped inside, a puffy-eyed Rory behind her with a jaw set tightly. "Katniss. It's time."
Rory helped her up on to the train; her balance was off and she nearly stumbled. The crowd was thick with murmurs and stares as they watched them board. Katniss didn't think she'd ever been so uneasy at the start of a Games Season, no matter how she hated them. She turned and looked out on the sea of faces.
"I didn't think I'd miss them already," she muttered.
Rory blinked; she thought to stave off tears. "It'll be nice to have some peace and quiet anyway," he tried to joke, watching his sobbing mother rock his screaming baby sister on her hip. She nodded, hearing the pain he tried to hide.
"We're getting underway," Effie's voice came from behind. "Let's get settled."
They left the waving hands of District Twelve and followed Effie to the dining car. Katniss eyed the chrome walls and gaudy gold handrails. She wondered what Prim must have thought first climbing aboard. But then, she had Peeta to comfort her. She wondered what would have been if she had boarded that train with Peeta. Would she have killed him, never knowing he loved her? She shuddered. She was glad it was this way. No regrets.
A sniffle behind her brought a smile to her face. If it had been her, she'd have protected him. As she could do now for Rory. Even for just a little while. She stopped and turned back to him.
"Will you help me, Rory?" she feigned. "My balance is off. Will you hold my hand?"
If the fourteen-year-old knew her game, he didn't show it as he eagerly grasped her fingers. She leaned in. "I'm glad you're here with me," she whispered. "We're not alone."
"No, that we're not."
Effie pushed open the door to the dining car and Rory helped Katniss inside. Peeta and Prim were waiting with Haymitch. Rory led Katniss to a chair by Peeta and she sat while he took the open chair by Prim.
"This is normally the time I do introductions," Effie sighed. "But you already all know each other. I guess...we wait now."
"I think we should give Peeta and Katniss some time alone," Prim hinted loudly. "Rory, I'll show you your room." She took his hand and nearly dragged him from the car.
Katniss nearly jumped up. "Leave the door open!" she called after their retreating forms.
"Haymitch, come with me to our room," Effie said quietly, nodding her head in agreement with Prim's sentiment. Katniss nearly smiled that they weren't denying their involvement anymore. She couldn't say with certainty for whom this relationship was most beneficial.
When they were at last alone, she turned to her husband.
"I'm sorry, too."
"About this all." Peeta frowned in confusion. "Don't...Do you regret this?"
"Marrying me? Making this child?"
"What?" he stared again. "Katniss, no. Never. Why would you think that?"
"You're always gone! You heard about the baby and disappeared, what was I supposed to think?" she countered.
"Katniss," he sighed. "You knew what it meant as much as I did."
"Yes, but I can't run away from it. And I don't want to."
"You think that's what I was doing?"
"What were you doing? All those afternoons with Haymitch? What was happening?"
Peeta stared at her. His eyes drifted to direction from which the train came. "I wonder if Twelve is celebrating our departure," he said suddenly.
"Let's go see, shall we?" He stood up abruptly and held out his hand. She gave up and let him help her to her feet. They walked to the next car.
As they passed the sleeping cars, Peeta tapped on the closed door. Effie and Haymitch emerged first, then Prim leading Rory as they walked to the final car and Peeta pushed open the door.
The caboose was a glass-walled and glass-ceilinged room on wheels. The lush carpet and overstuffed furniture seemed out of place as they watched the trees fly by on either side.
Katniss came to stand beside Peeta as he stared back toward Twelve.
"We must be at least fifty miles from there by now," Haymitch said slowly.
"Eighty," Effie smiled. "This train travels at 225 miles per hour."
"Very fast," Haymitch smiled back.
"Very fast indeed."
Katniss frowned at this enigmatic banter. Peeta looked over at her. "Do you trust me?"
She blinked. "What?"
"Do you trust me?" he asked softly.
"Yes. With my life," she answered.
"I love you. I'll do anything for you."
She smiled. "I know."
"Good. Hold on to something."
"There it is!" Prim cried suddenly, pointing to a plume of black smoke rising from where their district lay.
"What is that?" Rory gasped.
"The Hob. On fire," Haymitch said, pushing Effie onto the sofa and getting to the floor.
"What?" Katniss asked as Peeta lowered her to the ground and climbed on top of her.
Rory hit the floor as Prim tackled him and clung to a chair.
"It was the only signal we'd see from here," Peeta said.
"Signal for what?"
The world began to shake violently as the chargers blew.
The dust was billowing in the breeze as the car slowed to a stop. Katniss blinked and stared at the cracked glass ceiling over Peeta's shoulder. She could feel the fresh air swirling around them through the shattered windows. Prim's hand was on her elbow.
"Are you all right?" Prim said earnestly.
"Yes," Katniss evaluated. She looked up at Peeta, hovering over her and looking towards Rory.
"And you're all right, Rory?" he asked.
"Yeah..." Rory said slowly. "What happened?"
"There was dynamite stuffed into the coupling joints of this car and the rest of the train!" Effie smiled. "I can't imagine who would do such a thing."
Katniss saw Thorn raising three fingers high in the air in her memory.
"Oh look," Haymitch said. "The rest of the train isn't stopping. There must be something wrong with their brakes," he hinted. A small plume of smoke was trailing from the side of the engine, streaking quickly away in the distance.
"We better get going," Peeta said quickly, climbing to his feet and hauling Katniss up. A rosy glow of energy grew about him; something Katniss hadn't seen since the day he learned he'd be a father. "Ready?"
"Ready for what?" she demanded. "What the hell is going on?"
He looked sheepish but incredibly excited. "I told you I'd do anything for you, Katniss."
"And Twelve will do anything to keep their small family of Victors together," Prim grinned. Katniss watched her nod to Haymitch and Effie.
"There's a plan, Katniss. Rory," Peeta nodded. "Sae is taking your mother and your family through the woods towards what was Thirteen right now. Madge's dad is corralling everyone else that wants to go and will take them as soon as the Peacekeepers are taken care of. The miners are on their way to meet us along these tracks, then we'll head out that way too."
"We're abandoning the District?" Katniss breathed.
"We're fighting back. Katniss, we're taking it all back." Katniss felt his hands slide around hers. "It'll be okay."
"What about...?" she trailed off.
"I'll be ready to deliver your baby in the woods," Prim said, sidling up to Katniss to comfort her sister. "I know it's scary, Kat...but if she takes after you she'll belong there already."
Katniss stared around at Peeta, Prim, Haymitch, and Effie. Rory was equally dumbfounded.
"You're the mockingjay."
Peeta looked up at Rory's proclamation. "What?"
"In school," Rory said, his eyes shining with wonder. "We learned about the rebellion from the Dark Days. What started it all. Wanting to be free from the measures after the first empire fell." His voice was rising in volume and frenetic energy. "The symbols on the banners was a new bird; a mockingjay. It led the troops. Mrs. Hadder - my teacher," Rory explained, "she said she always hoped we'd see a new day. When we fought for freedom and 're leading us back to freedom." The smile stretched across Rory's face. "Peeta Mellark, you're the Mockingjay."
Peeta stared at the sky. "We all should fly free." He looked back to his wife. "And we will."
Rory lowered Katniss down to Peeta as they crawled from the wreckage of the train. Prim jumped into Rory's arms and they watched Haymitch tenderly help Effie down what was left of the stairs. They hurried back towards the district, tucked into the edge of the woods as the sounds of hovercrafts drifted in from the distance.
The miners were waiting, eagerly arms with their pick axes and a few assorted weapons. A familiar face stepped out from the cluster and Rory ran to his brother. Gale swept him into an embrace. "You didn't think I'd let you go without a fight?" he whispered as his little brother shook.
"It's a long hike," Thom said, holding out a hunting knife to Peeta.
"It's going to be a long war," he said, tucking the knife into his belt.
Gale released Rory and walked over to Katniss. "Thought you might want this, Catnip." He held out a rolled blanket. Katniss took the bundle and let the blanket fall free. Her bow and a quiver of arrows stared back. A smile crossed her face.
The smallest among them walked ten paces into a clearing. A clear voice rang out in the quiet forest. The gathering turned to hear her words.
"This is for Rue!" Prim shouted to the sky. "This is for Jane! For Gizmo! For Clove! For Glimmer! For Cato! For every drop of blood shed and for every childhood lost." She looked towards her sister. "It's time to take it back.
Katniss raised her bow to the sky.
The arrow flew.