For the first time in a long time, I had some time to myself and nothing to do. I kind of started writing again and this is what happened... I can't promise regular updates like before, but I couldn't resist resurrecting my beloved Cashmere (and I ask you to forgive me with the liberties I've taken with both the plot of Catching Fire and basic medical reality!).
I thought I'd post to see how many of my old friends from my 'Freedom' writing days are still out there, so if you haven't read the original trilogy then this will make little sense. As ever, if it's recognisable from canon then it belongs to Suzanne Collins.
One last thing before you start - this is the sort of story that gets more cheerful, I promise. But I had to start here for it to work...
Katniss draws her arm back, taking the string of her bow with it, and everything suddenly seems to slow, almost like I'm watching on the television and the Capitolian camera crew have slowed the picture to make it more dramatic. I fly across the sand towards Gloss, throwing myself in front of him even as he starts to push me away, but I know even before I get there that I'm simply not tall enough.
The arrow sails over the top of my head and there's a sickening crack as it reaches the target it was always intended for. A massive force slams into my chest and I'm thrown backwards, landing awkwardly on top of Gloss, and though I don't truly understand what's just happened, my first thought is that he's not moving.
He's not breathing. This can't be happening. I promised myself and everyone I love that I'd protect him. He's my brother, he can't die because I won't let him. I won't let the Capitol win. I won't let them take him from me.
But then I feel the pain, and suddenly I can't see properly. I raise my hands to my chest and when I pull them back they're wet and sticky with what looks like blood. My blood.
The sound of the fighting around me is both deafening and seeming to come from miles away at the same time. With the last of my strength, I throw my arm to the side and grab a fistful of Gloss' jumpsuit, and then I hear them: three cannons, one after the other.
As everything gets slowly more distant and begins to fade away, my last thought is that one of them can't be for me. It can't be, because I'm still alive…
I open my eyes to nothing but endless white. My first thought is that I'm not really awake after all, that I really did die in the arena and I just thought I didn't. But if this is what comes after, then all the people who cling to the faith that we go somewhere better when we die are unknowingly delusional. Because it's cold in here and the machinery surrounding me looks more than vaguely sinister. It's the only thing that isn't white.
I force myself to sit up, and abruptly everything hurts. The sheet that covered me falls away and I realise I'm naked underneath it. My instinct is to pull it back up, but before I can, I see the scar on my chest. It's still a lot darker than the one on my stomach I got at the end of my first Games, but it's already fading. It doesn't make sense. None of this makes sense.
I stare down at the harsh red line across my pale skin as it gradually triggers memories of what happened. The jungle. The water. The beach. Johanna's axe. It all really happened, and yet I'm still alive. But why? And if the scar has faded this much then how long have I been here?
I somehow know it isn't that long. That frightens me more than I could ever say, because there's only one place in Panem with the technology and science to heal me at all, never mind so completely and so quickly. But I can't think about that for long. I try but everything's fuzzy and I can't think straight.
The pain that consumes my body finally reaches my mind, and I lie back on the sterile-looking white bed. Then it hits me. Then I remember what's important. Katniss' arrow, sailing over my head as I threw myself in front of my brother and wasn't tall enough. I heard it find its target. Gloss is dead. The other half of me really is somewhere I can't follow.
I've never felt so empty, and many hours must pass as I stare blankly at the stark white wall ahead of me as silent tears trail down my face onto the hard pillow. I don't care. Hours could turn into all eternity and I wouldn't care.
Gloss is gone, so nothing else matters now. I could be alive or I could be dead, but without Gloss, its all the same to me.
A hidden door in the wall opens silently, and three men walk into my white prison. The colour theme continues to their clothes, one in a lab coat and the other two in spotless Peacekeeper uniforms. It's then that I truly realise I'm not dead. I'm not that lucky. They fired my cannon but kept me alive. But why?
"Someone wants a word with you, de Montfort," says one of the Peacekeepers. He's young, dark-haired and handsome, making me think of Gloss in a way that numbs my heart all over again.
"If you're going to kill me then do it already. Why didn't you all just leave me to die in the arena? I wish with all my heart that you had."
My voice sounds dry and scratchy, and I lose it totally when I see the woman behind the Peacekeepers. Prisca Oakhurst. Head of Snow's Secret Service, Defence Force and general torturer of anyone who gets on the wrong side of the president. I shiver again, but this time I know it's not because of the cold.
It's not that I fear for myself because they can't truly hurt me now, not when Gloss is dead and Falco most likely is as well, but that I fear I might say something I shouldn't in a pain-ridden haze. I know too much, about the president, about the rebellion attempt that failed and about the one everyone was hoping would succeed.
Falco always told me I knew too much and I always told him not to be so stupid. I was the stupid one. I was always the stupid one.
"We're not here to hurt you, Cashmere. Surely you must realise how much trouble we've taken to save your life?"
I slowly and shakily rise to my feet, wrapping the sheet around my cold body as I back away from Prisca, not trusting her words for a second. The thud I make as I hit the wall behind me echoes around the room long after I fall still.
"Keeping me alive and not hurting me are two very different things. And I know where I am so I know none of this is being done for selfless reasons. What do you want from me?"
"It has been decided that you're more use to us alive than you are dead."
"You should have thought about that before you threw me back in the arena," I growl, glaring at the Peacekeepers and the man in the lab coat, who are watching me with the same fascination I suspect they'd show a cat that had been cornered on the street by a group of young men who had decided they wanted to stone it to death for sport.
"We live in an ever-changing world, Cashmere. What seems like the right course of action at one time isn't necessarily the correct one to take in the end."
Everything's still hazy, but I'm aware enough to see the way the older Peacekeeper is looking at me. I can see the lust in his eyes and my heart sinks as I immediately think of Snow's original use for me when I won the Games.
But the terror and revulsion I'm expecting doesn't come, and it's then that I realise I don't care anymore. All I can see in my mind is the look on Falco's face as I turned away from him to go to the hovercraft and the Quell arena, Victory screaming as we were led away from District One, Gloss' last moments. Whatever they do to me, it can't be worse than that.
"I want to see my brother."
"But, Cashmere," says Prisca with sickly-sweet false sympathy. "Your brother died in the Quell…such a tragic waste…"
"Where is he?! What have you done with him?! I want to see him!" I reply, becoming increasingly aware of the hysteria in my voice and not caring in the slightest.
Blinded with hatred and grief, I throw myself at Prisca, my hands raised and my fingers curled like claws.
I almost reach her. I get so close I can see a faint scar above her right eye that I've never noticed before. But then I feel a sharp pain in my neck and everything turns black yet again.
The next time I wake, I'm sitting on a chair rather than a bed. They've dressed me in a paper tunic that's so thin I doubt I'd have felt any more vulnerable if they'd left me naked. My wrists are bound to the arms of the chair and my ankles to the legs. The blindingly bright lights flicker on and off every second and it's still freezing cold in here. I wonder if this is how Gloss felt when he was in his first arena. I hope that wherever he is, it's somewhere better than this.
The sound of someone clearing their throat makes me look up. Prisca sits opposite me, and though her chair looks considerably more comfortable than mine, her back is as poker-straight as ever. Her expression is harsh and unforgiving, as totally unfeeling as it always is. She gives nothing away. She barely looks human.
"This would be so much simpler if you just cooperated," she says, and her smile is cruel rather than comforting. "A lot less time-consuming for me and a lot less painful for you."
All I can think is that Gloss would want me to fight back. If there's a even a tiny chance that he can see me now then I want to make him proud.
"I've survived a Hunger Games, been sold as a sex slave, hit in the chest with an axe and forced to witness the death of a brother I love more than my own life. Are you seriously mad enough to think you can hurt me now?"
"You couldn't begin to imagine…" replies Prisca, her voice trailing off in a way that's every bit as ominous as the glint in her eyes.
But I can imagine, and that's the problem. Over the years, Falco has told me enough about the woman sitting opposite me as casually as if she's in her own house for me to understand the true horror she's capable of. She's right, I'm scared, but I'll be damned if I let it show.
I owe everyone I love that much. I owe Gloss that much. He might not be here with me but I have to be strong for him. And for Falco. Because I don't know for sure that he's gone. Gloss is dead but Falco might be alive out there, mourning my supposed death but still alive, and as long as he's alive then I've got something to fight for. I've got an incentive to keep my silence which will last as long as my hope that he will outlive me and all of this.
Then I know. All of this. The rebellion plot that's been sizzling in the Capitol for longer than I've been alive. Falco. That's what this is all about. That's why they didn't leave me to die on the sandy ground of the arena. Snow, via Prisca and her cronies, wants to use me because he's always suspected Falco of being involved in planning a revolution and he thinks I know something too. Either that or he just wants to blackmail Falco into telling everything he knows in exchange for my life.
Well, I won't let him do it. I won't say a word and I won't let Falco either. I'll kill myself first. If I find a way to kill myself then Snow won't have leverage over Falco. So that's what I have to do. I have to finish what the Capitol started.
I take a deep breath and look around the room, trying to be as subtle as I can so they don't know what I'm thinking. The totally white box is completely empty other than for the Peacekeeper standing against the back wall behind my chair. But if I can just get my hands free then once Prisca's gone, I can…
I can do what? Cover my mouth, hold my nose and simply stop breathing? I don't think I could do that even if they weren't watching me all the time and wouldn't have plenty of time to intervene. Perhaps I could convince one of the guards to kill me? I could make one of them lose their temper, just like Achillea did years ago when she was looking for her own death. Yes, I could make that work. I'm not afraid to die, not when the alternative is as bad as it is.
"There's no way out of here," taunts Prisca, interpreting my scanning of the room as thoughts of escape. "And I know you're scared, Cashmere de Montfort. I can smell fear. I can sense it. And you're scared, you're so scared that you'll tell me anything. Isn't that right? Well how about starting by telling me where Hazelwell and the others are running the rebellion from?"
My scar might be healing at a frightening rate that can only have been artificially enhanced, but for some reason my chest still hurts. Or maybe it's my heart, aching for everything I've lost. But that's just ridiculous and far too sentimental for a situation like this. Weakness and ridiculousness like that won't get me out of here. Only fighting back like I should and like Gloss would want me to can do that.
"Rebellion? What rebellion? I think someone's feeling a little insecure, don't you?" I reply, my tone every bit as mocking as my interrogator's was. "Surely no one would dare presume to question the almighty Capitol?"
She nods almost imperceptibly and the Peacekeeper smacks the back of my head so hard the tiny room starts to spin. My chin lolls forwards onto my chest and it takes all the self control I have to keep myself from being sick.
"The rebellion, Cashmere," persists Prisca. "Just tell me, and this will all end."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I whisper when stillness is finally restored. "There is no rebellion. If there was a rebellion amongst the Victors then you'd have found out about it when you brought us all to the Capitol for the Quarter Quell. And how would I possibly know about any other plot? I only leave District One when I'm summoned by Snow…I mean the president."
"Hazelwell. You know through him and everyone else he associates with. You're in it up to your neck so don't play innocent with me, it won't wash."
"A bit like you then," I retort, giving her my best District One sneer as I do my very best to channel Satin and the girl I used to be. "That uniform looks like you've been wearing it since the Dark Days."
She doesn't move and simply laughs her low, cackling laugh, but the Peacekeeper's fist connects with the side of my head once again.
The last thing I hear as I black out is Prisca hissing angrily at the man behind me, reminding him that I can't answer her questions if I'm unconscious.
They keep me in that same white cell for what feels like a lifetime, although I think I could still count the time that's passed in days rather than months. I can't even begin to guess by looking at my still-healing scar. I know enough about Capitolian medicine and technology to know that if they really wanted to save me, as they obviously did, then it could only have been a matter of days since I was in the arena with Johanna Mason's axe embedded in my chest.
I'm not allowed to sleep for long. I've got used to the glaring, flashing lights, but the sirens they seem to sound every hour always wake me every time I drift off.
The sleep deprivation bothers me less than it should. I don't want to sleep anyway because all I can think of is Gloss, lying on a glass table in some Capitolian laboratory somewhere. I know enough about these people to know they won't send him back to Satin so she can give him the decent burial he deserves.
But I can't think of Satin. If I do then I'll make myself weak. I'll allow thoughts of the one thing they might use to break me to enter my head and then Prisca will know. I don't know how, but she'll know. She always does.
They're always watching me. Just because I can't see them through the glass wall, I know that doesn't mean they can't see me. But the only time anyone comes in is when the Peacekeepers arrive to tie me to the chair so my interrogation can begin again. I can't help wondering what it is that's convinced them I know so much. I wish I knew why they're wasting their time on one insignificant district girl like me.
"Good morning, Cashmere," says Prisca mildly as she enters the room, and her tone of voice is enough to fill me with dread because I know she's getting annoyed that she can't get anything out of me and that it's only a matter of time before the real pain begins.
"Perhaps not for you, agreed, but it is for me. It looks like the Quarter Quell might come to a satisfactory end after all."
"Who's the chosen Victor then?"
"That depends on those left, of course."
"Don't bother with that trash," I snarl back, finding that aggression is an even better mask for fear than I could have imagined. "You and yours chose the Victor at the same time as you chose the competitors and we both know it. Is it Brutus? I guess he'd cause you the least amount of trouble. Or maybe Enobaria? She's a risk but a very useful one, don't you think?"
My interrogator loses her cool for the first time then, and she slaps me so hard that the chair I'm sitting on tips over. The already abused side of my head connects with the cold floor of the cell, and for a moment I forget everything but the taste of blood in my mouth and the loud crash of the table that was between us as it flies into the wall. Then reality abruptly returns and one of Prisca's lackeys sets the chair upright again with me still in it, my wrists and ankles still tightly bound.
To my surprise, she kneels down on the floor in front of me, and for a while she just stares in silence. She knows this is worse for me than if she was hitting me again. It's the waiting and expecting pain which is worse than the pain itself. And she's been there often enough to know that. As Phoebe, Falco's friend and fellow government minister used to say, nobody does torture like Prisca Oakhurst.
"That's a pretty tattoo, Cashmere," she whispers, tracing the outline of the tiny gold butterfly on the inside of my wrist with the point of a bright silver dagger I didn't see her reach for. "A lot subtler than I'm used to seeing these days."
"What can I say other than that the style genes skipped the Capitol and went straight to District One? It's not your fault, you couldn't help it, I'm sure."
Prisca doesn't reply for several seconds, staring at me with her cold eyes. Then she begins to slowly shake her head.
"Perhaps you'd like a matching one on the other side," she says eventually, pushing the edge of the dagger into the delicate skin of my wrist.
She smiles triumphantly when I can't stop my breath from catching, as if she's waiting for me to start screaming and begging for mercy. But I won't do it. I won't ever do it. Before I went in to the Quarter Quell arena, I was worried I'd get hurt and Victory would see me crying out in pain, but that was then and this is now. Now I'm determined that I'll never let this bitch break me or get a single piece of useful information from me.
"All you have to do is tell me what you know and this will all stop," she breathes, her eyes glinting in the spotlight in a way that tells me she's enjoying this way more than she should as she pushes the blade a little deeper.
"Never. You might as well just kill me because I'll die before I betray him," I tell her, only realising when it's too late that she'll take my words as a confession, as my admitting there's something to betray.
"Give me the names of the traitors, Cashmere. Just one name and I'll leave you to sleep. Who are the rebels? What did Hazelwell tell you?"
She carries on relentlessly, until I can't see the pale skin of my forearm through the scarlet red of my blood as she cuts my skin time and time again, her barked questions never ceasing. I bite my lip so I stay silent, just like I did all those years ago when Cornelius Winterborne bought me from Snow and I did what I had to do to save Gloss' life. That only infuriates her more, but the longer I stare at her and the angrier she gets, the more she gives away and the more I can read from her expression. There's more to this than I first thought. I might be the tortured prisoner the whole of Panem thinks they saw die, but I'm not the only one under pressure.
"You don't know where Falco is, do you?" I ask, guessing wildly and then laughing through the pain when I see the fleeting uncertainty that appears on her face and vanishes a split second later. "He left the Control Room before you could kill him and now you've lost him!"
My head hits the floor and the world fades before I can react.
When I wake, I remember what I saw and I take her reaction as confirmation. At least I've really got something to fight for and focus on now. At least I know my silence isn't for nothing.
I knew something had changed when they came for me and dragged me off the floor and out of my cage instead of tying me to the bloodstained chair I refuse to sit on by choice. I hadn't the strength to either resist or even to support my own weight, so in the end one of the Peacekeepers carried me, throwing me over his shoulder like I was a sack of clothes.
They take me down yet another floor, even further into the depths of the basement. Or at least I assume it's the basement, because there are no windows. I still have no idea where I am, if I'm even in the Capitol.
The corridors of this floor are darker, filthy and damp like my first arena, and it takes the shock of seeing a person not in Peacekeeper uniform who looks in a state as bad as me to pause my impending panic attack. The Quell must be over, for I quickly realise that the person is Johanna Mason. We're flung into dark and dirty cells next door to each other, and though the glass panels slide across the front of them so we can't escape, I can still hear her shouting abuse at her captors. Then the loud and vulgar young woman's brain catches up with her eyes and she realises who she just saw.
"De Montfort, you're dead. I killed you ! You're dead!" she yells, the volume of her voice escalating with every word. "Why aren't you dead?"
I remain silent because I know refusing to respond will drive her as crazy as it did Prisca. And make no mistake, I hate her. She intended to kill me when she threw that axe and it was only chance and the intervention of the Capitol that meant I had the misfortune of being saved. The fact I'd have done exactly the same to her if I'd been in her place is something I should think about, I know that. But this situation hardly lends itself to considered and rational thinking, so I let it go and revert back to hatred and silence instead. It's the only thing stopping me from thinking about Gloss.
They bring Peeta Mellark in a few minutes later, and shove him into one of the cells opposite me, in between one containing a red-haired Capitolian man I don't recognise and another which has the glass windows covered or blacked out so I can't see inside.
"Why are you alive, de Montfort?" yells Johanna again, and I keep ignoring her as I try to think.
As I thought when I first saw Mason, if she and Mellark are here then the chances are that something happened during the Quell to upset the outcome the Capitol wanted. Something must have happened, because they both look beaten up but neither have injuries even the gullible Capitolian audience would believe fatal. But what?
They leave us alone at first, and I'm surprised by how desperate I am to know what happened. I didn't think I was capable of caring anymore, but the thought Falco might still be alive out there is competing with my grief for Gloss and forcing me to keep going. However that doesn't mean I'm willing to admit weakness to Johanna Mason by asking her for an explanation. Rather than do that, I sit down on the disgusting floor, lean back against the glass, and hope they're going to talk to each other.
The red-headed Capitolian stares across at me, but when I attempt to smile and softly ask his name, he shakes his head and covers his mouth with his hand. At first I think he's telling me not to talk, but I eventually realise he's actually telling me that he can't talk. Isn't turning him into an Avox enough for the Capitol? What can he possibly have done to make them punish him all over again?
"His name's Darius," whispers Peeta Mellark, and even that sounds loud in the silence.
I turn away and say nothing, not wanting to risk asking even one question because I know it will open the floodgates and one or both of us will end up saying something we shouldn't.
A short time later, they bring in another red-headed Capitolian Avox, a young woman this time, and Mellark shakes his head.
"She was Katniss' servant when she came to the Capitol, nothing more."
"Is the Quell over?" I ask, suddenly unable to stop myself.
"Shouldn't you be dead?" interrupts Johanna before I get an answer.
"I would be if you'd done a better job with that axe. I wish I was," I reply, before turning back to Peeta, staring across at him and willing him to tell me.
"Yes," he says, but once again, Johanna interrupts.
"The bastards left us," she snarls. "They took their precious Mockingjay and left us to die."
"Good," says Peeta. "I'm glad they got out while they could. Katniss is the one who matters."
"Speak for yourself," retorts Johanna. "I'd have died for her, but being tortured in a Capitol dungeon? That's different. I didn't sign up for this."
They carry on bickering, but I stop listening. The Quell's over and at least one person, Katniss Everdeen, has escaped the vicious clutches of President Snow. But how? Who got her out? Not Falco. I refuse to believe he had the ability to take someone from the arena and chose her over me. He wouldn't do that, not even for the sake of his beloved revolution. So who? Heavensbee? He was the leader of the Capitolian rebellion plot, but I don't see where he would have taken her to. None of the districts are out of reach of the president's forces and he can't possibly have kept her here in the Capitol. None of it makes sense. Unless what Narissa half told me all those years ago about District Thirteen is really true… But it can't be. It's impossible. Isn't it?
The weeks that follow are some of the worst of my life. Every minute of every day is filled with dread and fear, with the death of Darius and the other Avox, with Johanna's screams as they torture her in the middle of the room where we can all see, and Peeta's anguished cries when his nightmares strike. They take him out once, and when he comes back, his hair is clean and he looks almost presentable. But his eyes are wild, tormented in a way I'd never imagined possible. After that, I find I can't look at him because it hurts too much. He doesn't say another sane or rational word.
Many times I wake to my own screams as well. Prisca poured boiling sugared water onto my bare skin once, right over the scar left by Dahlia's knife, and though the pain has barely lessened since, the physical torture is nothing compared to the mental, for me at least. They show me images of Gloss' death constantly, and I know the injections the Peacekeepers give me contain tracker jacker venom because I've never known horrors that can compare to the images I see when I close my eyes.
I mark the days by placing dots of my own blood on the wall in the corner of my cell, judging time by the appearance of new guards to replace the old. It isn't too hard because my finger nails are bitten so deep that they bleed almost constantly. I do it in my sleep, or when the venom takes hold. I can't stop myself. And the pain reminds me I'm alive so I'm not sure I want to.
There was one time when I woke up facing the glass front of my cage and I was sure I saw Gloss, lying on the floor in the cell opposite. Then I blinked and the glass was totally opaque again, making me think I imagined the whole thing, that for once my mind was seeing what it wanted to.
I remember that moment all the time, because the sight of my brother is the only pleasant thought I can summon, and even if it is in my imagination and I'm finally losing my mind, I don't care. I lie back down, and it's then that I hear his voice.
"Don't give up," he says. "You're not allowed to give up on me, sister. I won't let you."
I turn over again and he's sitting in the cell with me, watching me and smiling that genuine smile I often suspected only I saw. Only he's not there. He can't be. I know he can't be because he's dead. I'm hallucinating. I have to be.
I blink and he's gone.
I turn over and wipe my face. The back of my filthy hand is wet with tears.
When I wake up he's there again, only this time he's telling me it's time to move. Before I have chance to sit up and tell myself he's not really there, I'm startled by a loud bang.
The main door the Peacekeepers always come in and out by flies open, only the people who storm into the room aren't Capitolian. They're all wearing grey uniforms I've never seen the like of before.
I stare at them even though their focus seems to be entirely on Peeta and I doubt they've even noticed I'm here.
I wish for a quick death because I know it's the only escape I can hope for. Then the nearest soldier turns towards me. His fierce, dark-eyed gaze shows no mercy, but instead of feeling afraid, all I can think is that I'm sure I've seen him somewhere before.
"That's not Enobaria Moreno," he growls, slapping the arm of his nearest companion to draw his attention to me.
He's got a District Twelve accent.