A/N: Ah! Only two more chapters! ONLY. TWO. MORE. CHAPTERS.

I'm going just as crazy as you guys are. Trust me on that. It's crazy to think that the project that has occupied my life for nearly a year is coming to an end. Sad day, guys. Sad day.

But! The end, while steadily growing closer, has not yet arrived! Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. And since I left you guys with an oh, so wonderful cliffy last time, I'll just skip the pleasantries, with the exception of giving a very loud, raucous shout out to all of my reviewers! I love you! A lot.

Oh, and I must point out that the chapter title today comes from Les Mis, otherwise known as the best musical in existence.

Random Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games Series. As the past two stories show, my version of events would have been quite different.

Katniss: Come on! What happens to me? I've been thinking I was about to die all weekend!

Peeta: Yeah! Not nice, AC.

Rye: YOU SHOT ME. HOW DARE YOU.

Me: (shrugs) Yep.


Chapter 25: Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do you hear the people sing?

Singing the song of angry men

It is the music of a people, who will not be slaves again

When the beating of your heart, echoes the beating of the drums

There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes


I'm sorry, Lilly.

The thought runs through my mind the exact same time the gun goes off . . . except I'm not dead.

Why am I not dead?

My ears are ringing from the close proximity of the blast. If the dust rising off the ground is any indicator, the bullet lodged in the pavement stone hardly a foot from me. The side of my face stings from bits of stone that cut my skin. However, none of this explains why I'm still alive.

I look to my right and see a figure struggling with Mitchell. I'd recognize that body anywhere. Mitchell tries to pin Peeta to the ground, but Peeta once again proves just how powerful he is. In a swift move, Peeta yanks Mitchell's gun arm to the side, throwing him offbalance. He plants his feet on the assassin's chest and kicks him away.

There's a snapping sound as he lands six feet away, but it's not the sound of breaking bone. Steel cables attached to tracks alongside the buildings break through the stone, dragging up the net that encases Mitchell. At first, I don't understand how instantly bloody he is, but then I note that the net is made of wire. The very same wire that curls atop the District 12 fence.

Suddenly, Peeta is in my line of sight, picking me up and carrying me behind the trolley where Rye lays, nearly unconscious. The entirety of the previous scuffle hardly lasted more than a minute, and yet it feels so much longer. By the look on Peeta's face, he seems torn between wanting to kiss me senseless and scream at me for being an idiot.

In the end he decides on neither, instead looking for Finnick and Johanna. They've slowly moved forward, providing cover fire for each other. The firefight is beginning to wind down. If we don't move now then we'll never be able to separate from the group.

Just then, a foul smelling stench reaches my nostrils, and I immediately want to gag. Down the street, a geyser spilling gallons of black tar begins to coat the street. Already, I'm beginning to feel lightheaded from the strong smell. We need to get out of here.

"Finnick!" Peeta yells, his meaning clear.

Finnick immediately understands and takes what appears to be a pointless shot.

The explosion a second later proves otherwise. Everyone near it is blasted off their feet, but I don't pay attention to that. I'm running toward the manhole, shoving the heavy metal lid to the side. Peeta has Rye thrown over his shoulder. Quickly, he hands him to me and then jumps down through the hole. I hear a dull thud and a curse as he lands, but then he shouts, "Drop him!"

Silently begging Rye's forgiveness, I shove him down the manhole. Johanna and Finnick are beside me now. Johanna drops down without a word.

"Go!" Finnick shouts.

And so I close my eyes and let myself fall. The fall isn't as long as I thought it would be, and I land heavily in a pair of strong arms. Peeta lowers me to my feet without a word and in the next second, the light suddenly disappears and Finnick drops down beside me, stumbling slightly on the landing, but not appearing to have hurt himself.

There's a brief moment of silence as we all catch our breath, which isn't the most pleasant thing to do in a sewer, but I'm not complaining. At least we're away from the gunfire. I hope that everyone on the team is alright, especially Boggs and Gale. I hope that they don't try to look for us. The explosion and debris hid us from their view. It hardly took ten seconds to disappear.

A pained groan causes my attention to refocus. Rye. Instantly, I'm by his side. "We need something to stop the bleeding," I say quickly. Peeta's already on it, quickly tearing off his shirt, leaving him with only a grey tank top that's so tight I can see each individual abdominal muscle clearly. Focus, Katniss.

I make a makeshift bandage out of the material, tying it tightly. Rye moans slightly, and I slap his cheek. Not hard, but with enough force to keep him awake. "Rye, stay with me," I order firmly. "This is your chance to prove you're tougher than your brother."

As I suspected, the challenge is enough to make Rye force his eyes wide open and a grim expression to grace his features. "Help me up."

Peeta immediately pulls his brother to his feet and Rye throws an arm over his shoulders. He leans heavily on Peeta, but he's still standing on his own two feet. He'll be able to walk with us for a little while, but we'll have to stop before I would like.

"Well, that was a little unexpected excitement," Finnick says as we set off down the dark tunnel of the sewer.

Johanna snorts. "Excitement we didn't need."

The sewers themselves are dank and musty. They're a tall stone tunnel with a river of I-really-don't-want-to-know running down the middle. We're walking along a slightly raised level of stone that's sort of like a single step that runs along both sides of the tunnel. The sound of a splash is occasionally heard as one of us steps in a puddle. It's cool and dark in the tunnel, the only light coming from the dim glowing bulbs that line the tunnel wall every few yards.

"Are you sure this leads into the dungeons?" Finnick asks after a long period of silence, looking at Peeta.

"I'm sure," Peeta replies, slightly winded from supporting so much of Rye's weight. "Coincidentally enough, we'll come up right at the beginning of my cell block. Trust me. We won't get lost."

We continue to walk in silence for the next two hours. It's slow going since Rye is injured, but I really don't think anyone minds. All of us seem consumed by our own thoughts. Personally, I'm thinking a multitude of things. Of course, naturally, there's a part of my brain that is always thinking about Lilly. Hopefully she's sleeping soundly. It must be sometime near eight in the evening. What if she can't sleep, though? What if she needs me to sing to her? Or Peeta to tell her a story? My heart aches painfully, and I wish that I could somehow be in two places at once.

My other thoughts are slightly more random. I'm worried about Rye and how much blood he's lost. He needs to see a doctor as soon as possible. I'm thinking about President Snow. I'm wondering what he's doing, if he's scared of what's coming. My more vengeful side flares as I continue to think of the man that started this entire mess. The man who forced me into the arena two years ago. The man who threatened Peeta and everyone I cared about. The man who sent me into the arena yet again.

The man who took Peeta from me. The man who hurt him. The man who has given him nightmares and dark, painful memories that will never fade, no matter how much times passes. The man who shattered the cheerful optimism of my husband. The man who forced hatred into his heart.

When my body begins to shake with the strength of my emotions, I force myself to take a deep breath and try to clear my head. I take notice of my surroundings, surroundings that have not changed at all since we began walking. Same cold, pale stone. Same puddles. Same dull lights.

Suddenly, Peeta mutters, "Finally. There it is."

All of us follow his line of sight. A dull grey metal door is revealed fifty yards ahead. "So what's behind door number one?" Finnick asks lightly. "Silk sheets on a king-sized mattress?"

"No."

"I'll settle for cotton."

No one bothers to reply to his silly antics. Instead, Johanna yanks open the door and we all file inside. It's a small, cramped space, but it will suit our needs just fine. As I take in the supplies around me, it appears to be some sort of storage locker. Various supplies litter the metal shelves that surround three sides of the room. I glance over them quickly, wondering if there's anything we can use. There's some rope. Some chemicals that I don't know the name of, but warn you to keep away from flame. Some sort of electrical cord. Random odds and ends.

"We'll rest here," Peeta declares. "We're maybe half an hour's walk from the entrance to the dungeons. Grab some shuteye if you can."

That's all Johanna needs to hear. She plops down on the dirty floor and leans against the wall, immediately allowing her eyes to close. Finnick sits down beside her. "He going to be okay?" he asks, gesturing toward Rye.

"Don't you worry, Pretty Boy," Rye mutters. "I'm going to be just fine."

"How do you feel, Rye?" I ask concerned, but he merely smiles.

"Saint-like." I frown in confusion. "Get it, sweetcheeks?" he chuckles slightly. "I'm holey."

Peeta rolls his eyes at the bad joke. "He's fine."

Despite Peeta's declaration, I still gently peel back the makeshift bandage. The bleeding has stopped, but I'm worried about infection. A sewer is the very last place he needs to be. "Try to get some sleep," I tell Rye softly.

At my order, Rye's eyes immediately flutter closed.

After checking him over one last time, noting that his pulse is a little slow but steady and that he doesn't have a fever, I allow myself to sink to the floor heavily. Only now am I beginning to feel the pains of today. The early morning wakeup call. The six hour hike. Shooting the propos. The firefight. Walking for the past two or three hours.

My bones feel like lead.

Peeta sits down beside me, and I curl into his side, resting my head on his chest as his arm wraps around me to pull me closer. I close my eyes, soaking up the feeling of safety his embrace provides. I feel his lips in my hair.

"That was one of the stupidest things you've ever done," he tells me before glancing over at Rye. "And I'll never be able to thank you enough."

I flash him a mischievous smile that he can barely see in the dark. "You could always try."

Peeta chuckles, but he quickly sobers. "Seriously, Katniss. Thank you. He's the only family I've got left, aside from you and Lilly."

I frown as I think of how Peeta lost all of his family, with the exception of Rye, to the bombings of District 12. "You miss them," I whisper knowingly.

"Every day." Peeta sighs deeply. "I wish that Dad could have lived to see Lilly born. I wish that Chris was still around to keep everything going smoothly. Hell, I even wish my mom was still around. She might not have been the best person, but she didn't deserve to die."

We're silent for a few minutes, and though my eyes are closed and my breathing slow and even, Peeta still knows that I'm not asleep. "You need to rest," he says softly.

I know that he's right. Even a quick hour of sleep would do wonders for me, I know from experience. I glance around the darkness of the storage locker and take in the events of the day. It reminds of the Games. The firefight. Mitchell trying to kill me. Peeta saving me. And now we've sought refuge in an underground tunnel, huddled away in a small room for some brief respite.

I'm in the arena. Again.

"I just want to get this over with," I tell him honestly, a tint of anger coloring my tone. "Let's kill Snow, get rid of Coin, and go home."

"We will," Peeta assures me. "I promise."

I must have managed to fall asleep, because I startle into consciousness sometime later. Quickly, my eyes scan the room, searching for what forced me from my slumber. Finnick and Johanna are still asleep. Rye is out cold. Peeta is mumbling slightly, but remains trapped in unconsciousness. Maybe it's nothing.

That's when I hear the whispers. They're not normal whispers from normal voices. The whispers are more like a hiss, like the sound a snake makes as it slithers through the grass, unbeknownst to those who hardly ever think to watch where they step. That, of course, is when the snake will strike. Just when you think you're safe.

The hissing continues, but for some reason I can't seem to move. I can only listen as the hissing grows louder. Closer. The hissing has a meaning. They're saying something. They're calling to me. "Katniss."

"Everyone get up!" I whisper heatedly, not wanting to alert whatever enemy awaits us. "Get up! Up!"

Finnick and Johanna jump to their feet, automatically awake—reflexes gained by the arena. Peeta is already helping Rye to his feet. I'm loading an arrow into my bow. "What is it?" Finnick asks sharply.

"Listen," I tell them and all fall silent.

The hissing whispers slither through the air hauntingly. "Katniss. Katniss. Katniss."

"Someone must have seen us," Johanna growls. "Someone knows we're down here."

"We've got to make for the dungeons," Peeta says sharply.

Johanna's eyes narrow in determination. "Get ready to run."

"What happens when whatever-it-is sees us?" Rye asks.

"You run faster."

And with Johanna's inspiring words, Finnick yanks open the door, not bothering with stealth and leaps out of the doorway, immediately opening fire on whatever is coming. Horrible, screeching cries ring through the tunnel, echoing loudly off the stone walls. Johanna and I run out to provide more cover fire, while Peeta and Rye begin hobbling down the tunnel.

That's when I get my first look at the monsters chasing us. Eerily glowing green scales reflect dully off the faint light. Razor sharp, black talons scrap loudly against the stone floor as they run after us. The muttattions look like a giant ugly lizard procreated with an equally hideous bird. Their large, serpentine heads tower six feet over ours when standing on their muscular, bird-like legs. Heavy wings flap haphazardly, creating giant blasts of wind that threaten to blow all of us off our feet. Their blood red eyes are full of malice. They were created for one purpose only: to kill me.

I utilize my exploding arrows, trying to shoot them where more than one lizardbird will be hit, but they're simply too big and built too tough. The small, compact explosions of my arrows will blow one of their feet but after shaking it's snake-like head it'll be on its feet chasing us once more. I change tactics and aim for their large, glowing red eyes.

Suddenly, a pained cry echoes through the air, and I see Finnick fall. Before the creature can finish him off, I fire my arrow straight into its eye. The ensuing explosion causes bloody brain matter to spray us all, but nonetheless, Finnick manages to scramble to his feet and resume running.

Somewhere along the line, Peeta simply threw Rye over his shoulder so he could move faster. However, Rye is not down for the count. He holds his gun in his hands, firing bullets at the evil creatures that hunt us. He's the only one firing though. Johanna, Finnick, and I are running out of ammunition. I'm down to only ten arrows, and they only have one more round of bullets.

There are still ten heinous creatures chasing us.

"How much farther?!" Finnick yells, stumbling slightly. Blood pours from a long, deep cut on his face, stretching from his temple down to the curve of his jaw. He can hardly see three feet in front of him due to the red that's literally obscuring his vision.

"Just another minute!" Peeta hollers back. "We'll make it!"

All of us manage to find a second wind, bursting forward faster than we've ever done before. But it's not enough. I hear the heavy beating of the creature's wings as they try to fly in the enclosed space. The scrape of their talons against the stone. Their angry, bloodthirsty screeches. They're gaining on us.

I turn around and fire another arrow, hitting one in the knee, causing it to tumble forward and trip up a few of its cohorts. I bought us time, but only a little. No more than thirty seconds. We have to reach the end of the tunnel.

"There!" Peeta suddenly shouts and we all see a rusted, metal ladder in the distance, leading up to the ceiling where another manhole will lead us into the dungeons.

Peeta reaches the ladder first, leaping onto the rungs, despite the extra weight of Rye. All of us stop about twenty yards away to provide cover fire. Finnick and Johanna shower the creatures with bullets. Some of them fall, but six more still remain.

Suddenly, Finnick's gun stops shooting. "I'm out!" he cries.

"Go!" Johanna yells. "We're right behind you!"

I know it kills him to do it, but Finnick turns and quickly begins to climb the ladder. Johanna and I continue firing upon the creatures, but they're jumping around the confined spaces of the tunnel, making it hard to fire a sure shot. They're getting smarter. Johanna focuses on a group of lizardbirds to her right, protecting the ladder.

"Katniss, go!" she screams as one of the creatures screeches in agony at the bloody hole in its heart. "Go!"

"I'm not leaving you!"

"Now is not the time to be stupid and noble, brainless!"

"You're my friend!" I shout angrily as I fire another arrow. "I'm not leaving you!"

Johanna glares at me. "Damn it, Katniss! Go! One of us has to die, and it's not going to be you! You've got that ridiculously adorable baby girl that needs you! What do I have to lose?"

"Haymitch! Finnick! Peeta!" I cry, trying to persuade her differently. She can't be doing what I think she is. "Come on, we can do this!"

"Some battles you can't win!" Johanna glances at me, her eyes filled with resignation. "Let me do this!"

Tears fill my eyes. "Johanna!"

"Katniss, go!" Johanna locks in her final magazine clip and resumes firing. "Just promise me one thing!"

"Anything!"

"You make sure that old bastard dies! Kill him, and I'll die with a smile on my face!"

"I promise!"

"Great! Now get your ass out of here!"

I fire one last arrow and then turn around for the ladder. Tears fall down my cheeks as I quickly climb the rungs of the ladder, a black talon cutting the stone not two feet from me. I keep climbing. I hear Johanna's voice down below me. She sounds as though she's running away, trying to draw their attention away from me.

"Hey! Come on, you scaly sons of bitches! Fresh meat right here!"

A sob escapes my throat when all the muttattions immediately answer her call.

Suddenly, a hand reaches down to me. I grab it without thinking. Then I'm hauled up through the hole. Peeta, Finnick, and Rye are all crowded around the opening, and the moment I'm on the ground next to them, I hide my face in Peeta's chest. "Close it," I whisper.

"No!" Finnick protests. "Not without Jo!"

I shake my head. "Close it. It's what she wanted."

"I'm going down there," Finnick declares, but Rye grabs him before he can lower himself back down.

"There's no helping her," Rye says sadly. "Let her be the hero she is."

We're all quiet for a moment as Rye's words sink in. For a few seconds, all of us allow ourselves to mourn the loss of our friend. Then, in a gesture that symbolizes much more than it would appear, Peeta slides the metal cover over the hole. Sealing Johanna's fate.

He looks at us all in turn, his eyes radiating a deadly, vengeful gleam that I've never seen. This is the dark side of him that I knew was lurking beneath the surface. The side that thirsted for revenge. For death. It scares me, but I don't flinch. I allow his anger to feed my own. Fury over all of Snow's injustices fills me; Johanna's death now added to his list of sins.

He will pay.

"Let's go," Peeta says coldly. "Stay quiet. Follow me."

Silently, Peeta begins to lead us through the Capitol dungeons. Unable to help myself, I take in everything around me. Everything that was Peeta's life for nearly two months. The dungeons are not like those in District 13, with white walls and floors and bright red doors leading into the cells. These floors are made of black stone. Stained, grey brick makes up the walls. Some of the stains are brighter than others. The walls are stained with blood.

We pass steel doors on either side, each of them bearing a single black number. The only light available is provided by single bulbs dangling every few feet from the ceiling. For the first minute or so, it's completely silent. Deathly silent.

And then we hear a scream. I immediately want to cover my ears as the scream continues. It's a horrid sound, guttural and pained. A wounded animal crying out for help as it stands upon the brink of death. All of us tense, Peeta especially so. I notice a tremble in his hands. Beads of sweat on the back of his neck.

No. No, no, no, not now!

I take his hand in mine. Immediately, his grip on my fingers is painfully tight, but I pay it no mind. Slowly, cautiously, I move until I'm in front of him. That's when I see his eyes. His eyes are wild with fury, and yet glazed over in a look I know all too well. Flashback. I flinch as another scream splices through the air, a gurgling sound its echo. Peeta's grip threatens to break my hand.

"Peeta," I call softly. With my free hand I touch his face. His eyes find mine. "You're with me. You're fine. You were rescued. You healed. Remember Lilly. She's waiting for us." I stare into his eyes, firmly holding his gaze so he can see the truth in my words. "Remember."

Suddenly, Peeta blinks and he relaxes just slightly. His grip on my hand lessens dramatically, and I fight not to show the pain as my blood rushes through my hand. I hold Peeta's gaze a moment longer. "Good?"

"Good. Let's go."

Peeta resumes walking. The screams seem to have lost their immediate effect on him. He moves stealthily, in a way that I would have thought him completely incapable before his torture. His feet don't make a sound against the stone floor. Not even a scuffle.

When we reach a corner, Peeta raises a hand, signaling us to stop. He presses himself up against the wall and we do the same. For a moment, I'm confused as to why we haven't continued, but then I hear the thud of boots on stone. Someone is coming, a guard. Peeta knows their patrols and shifts by heart. He's waiting.

I'm staring at the floor just around the corner of the wall. The toe of a black boot steps into view. My eyes dart up just in time to see the Peacekeeper turn the corner, and that's when Peeta strikes. He moves faster than I've ever seen. Before the Peacekeeper can even begin to understand what's happening, Peeta has grabbed the man's head. Then, with a sharp, quick twist, Peeta snaps the man's neck.

He catches the limp body before it can hit the floor and quietly drags the dead Peacekeeper out of sight behind the wall. Then, he finally makes eye contact with us. He barely takes note of Rye and Finnick's slightly shocked expressions. His gaze rests unblinkingly on mine, almost like he's daring me to condemn him for the murder he just committed.

I merely take his hand. Acceptance. I knew that he would seek revenge. I had accepted that fact long ago. So had he. I'm not saying that a part of me isn't terrified of the man before me, but I still love him.

Wordlessly, we move on.

We only meet one other guard on our way out of the dungeons, and Peeta quickly disposes of him as he did the previous guard. It might be my imagination, but I swear I saw a flash of recognition in the guard's eyes before Peeta ended his life. He must have been one of Peeta's "interrogators."

In that case, I'm glad he's dead.

Suddenly, Peeta turns back to us. "Okay, we're about to get out of here. Right through the door is a group of stairs that lead up to the ground level. If they haven't created a new shift schedule, there will be two armed Peacekeepers guarding the door outside. We'll have to be quick. Finnick, you take the guy on the right. I'll take the guy on the left. Katniss, Rye, you head straight down the hallway to the elevator. You know what to do." I nod sharply, remembering Peeta's instructions verbatim in my head due to the hundreds of times we've discussed this plan.

We reach the stairs and Finnick moves to the front of the group so that he's on Peeta's right. Rye and I hang back the moment we reach the top of the stairs. Peeta's hand grips the doorknob, ready to jerk the door open any moment. I watch as he soundlessly mouths a countdown from three, and then suddenly he wrenches the door open. Finnick immediately darts to the right, while Peeta attacks the guard on the left.

But Rye and I are already sprinting down the hall. The gold doors of President Snow's personal elevator gleam brightly, as if they'd just been polished. It's exactly like Peeta's sketch. That's what his second sketchbook, the one he never let me see, is filled with—drawings of the inside of the Capitol mansion. All of us memorized them over the past three weeks.

I search to my right and immediately find the keypad. There's an eleven digit code that changes every day, but on a pattern. Peeta, in his many visits to President Snow's office, memorized both the pattern and the codes. Today's code, ironically enough, is HUNGERGAMES.

Quickly, I punch in the code, praying that Peeta is correct.

The doors open.

Rye and I immediately step inside, blocking the doors so that they won't close. Peeta and Finnick run silently down the hallway. Behind them, the door to the dungeons stands unguarded. The two Peacekeepers—now dead—are stuffed in a closet to the right.

The moment Finnick and Peeta pass through the doors, I step back and allow them to close. Peeta and Finnick are breathing heavily do to the sprint down the hall and the scuffle with the guards. I note a cut under Peeta's eye. One guard must have gotten in a hit.

Everyone is completely silent as the elevator takes us up to President Snow's floor. He has the entire upper floor to himself, the penthouse, and if Peeta's sketches are anything to do by, it's the epitome of Capitol extravagance. Personally, I don't really care. All that matters is watching him die.

Finally, the doors open, revealing the foyer. Black and white marble tile covers the floor. Then, a circular step leads down into the living area. The soft sound of running water tinkles softly from the large water feature in the middle of the room; a three tiered waterfall that empties into a small pond filled with bright orange, yellow, and white fish. Plush purple sofas with bright white pillows sit on either side of the pond, dominating the room. Large, marble columns dot the floor, acting as gateways into the various sections of the room. Vases of noxious roses litter the room, though tastefully done.

I hate it.

Peeta turns to Finnick and Rye. "Guard the door."

Finnick and Rye nod silently, and without another word Peeta takes my hand and leads me through the living area. Our footsteps are silent as we glide over the marble floor. Peeta steers us down a wide, picture frame-lined hallway. Crystal chandeliers twinkling with gold hang every few feet, bathing the hallway with glowing light. But I'm hardly focused on the refracting rainbows of light. My gaze rests on the large mahogany door at the end of the hallway.

There's a moment of hesitation when we finally reach the door. Peeta's hand rests on the crystal doorknob. His eyes find mine. "Ready?" he whispers.

I feel my eyes harden. "Ready."

And then Peeta throws open the door.

It's comical, how President Snow doesn't even jump at our appearance. He sits behind his intricately carved wooden desk, leaning back resignedly in a high, leatherback chair. His fingers form a steeple in front of him as his eyes study us coldly, but with a hint of sadistic amusement.

"Ah, the Mockingjays," he says with a smile, as if we're old friends. "What a wonderful treat. Please, sit."

He makes it sound as though it's a request, but I hear the command in his words. This time last year, I would have done as he said. But that was last year.

Neither Peeta nor I move.

President Snow clucks his tongue in disapproval. "I must say, Katniss, you have given me quite the headache over the past two years. Why can't you just die like everyone else?"

"Just stubborn, I guess," I reply coldly.

"And Peeta!" Peeta stiffens slightly as President Snow rises from his chair and slowly walks in front of his desk. "You certainly look better. Last time I saw you, you weren't looking your best."

"Funny how that happened," Peeta replies sarcastically.

President Snow smiles. "Oh, yes. I found it quite . . . amusing. You just couldn't betray our Girl on Fire, could you? Why? Oh, that's right. Love."

"And you now have a product of that love, do you not?" he continues with a smile. "How is the child of the lovers of District 12? I can just imagine the possibilities! Tell me; is it a boy or a girl?"

Peeta or I one must have showed some recognition because his eyes brighten. "Ah, a little girl!" His eyes find Peeta. "She must have you wrapped around her finger. I hear fathers are hopeless against their daughters." Peeta remains silent, much to Snow's irritation. "Come now, Peeta! You were much more talkative last time you were here."

"I don't have much to say."

I notice that Snow seems to be much more interested in Peeta than me as they continue to spout retorts back and forth. It might seem arrogant, but I thought for sure that I would be Snow's first target, but it appears that he has taken a liking to Peeta. I mean that in the worst way possible. He finds Peeta more interesting. Perhaps it's because he knows he's responsible for how broken he left Peeta. And the fact that Peeta has returned, like a spurned hero, showing no obvious sign of the horror Snow inflicted irritates him. Peeta is interesting.

I am not. It's fairly obvious by the way he mentioned Lilly, nearly ignoring me completely and focusing on Peeta's attachment to her, that I am not of consequence anymore. I've become normal. I'm a mother like everyone else. I'm boring.

But Peeta . . . a phoenix risen from the ashes . . . he is not boring.

"What do you say we play a game?" Snow asks suddenly with a smile. "Or perhaps finish the one we started? I haven't moved a single piece. You have my word."

Peeta's eyes narrow. "Your word means nothing."

"Oh, I think we can agree that words are, in fact, quite powerful," Snow counters. He takes a seat across from a small, square table. A chess board rests atop it, the pieces of each side scattered about the checkered squares. "Please, Peeta. Let's finish this."

Peeta glances at me and then back at the board.

"You didn't tell her about our little chats?" President Snow asks, seeming hurt by Peeta's silence. Snow turns to me. "You see, Katniss. Your husband and I got to know each other quite well during his time here. When he wasn't otherwise occupied, I would bring him up for a game. He's quite the chess player, did you know?"

"He's never lost."

"Neither have I. Isn't it exciting? This is more than just chess. More than a simple game. Chess is life." He gestures to the board. "For instance, we have our pawns. People who are expendable . . . but sometimes they may surprise you. Like yourself." Snow's eyes land on Peeta. "Of course, then we have our knights. Valiant. Brave. Noble. The soldiers. But, as history will show, all great warriors fall to the King."

"Which is you."

Snow's smile is wide and grotesque. For the first time I see the blood staining his teeth, covering his tongue. I resist the urge to vomit. "Yes. I am King."

"All kingdoms fall," Peeta says as he sits down opposite Snow. "If I remember correctly, it's your move."

"Right," Snow says, glancing at the board. Suddenly, after a moment, he looks up at me. "Do come closer Katniss. Watch your king fall."

My king being Peeta. I resist a shudder. In many ways, we're carrying on two conversations at the same time. On the surface, you think they're speaking about chess. But in Snow's mind it's much more than a game. Chess, like he said, is life. The pieces are people. He rules over them all. And we are his opponent. He is trying to destroy us.

"Tell me," Snow says slowly as he stares at the board. "What do you think will happen if the Rebels win the war? Do you honestly think you can retreat back to your precious District 12? Fade away from the scene?" He makes his move.

Peeta studies the board. "Hardly. But hey, if you're dead, I'll sleep easier at night."

Snow chuckles. "I've changed you," he says, a hint of victory in his voice. "You have darkness in you."

"We all have darkness," Peeta replies as he makes his move. "Good and bad. Light and dark. All that matters is what we choose to act on."

"So wise for one so young."

"So foolish for one so powerful."

"Foolish?" Snow raises his eyebrows, moving a bishop forward. "How so?"

"You believe power comes from elevating yourself over others. That exerting your will upon them gives you power. That control gives you nothing. Only fear."

"Fear is control."

"Fear is fear. Nothing else."

Peeta moves his knight.

"Are you saying you do not fear me?"

"I am saying that there are stronger emotions that overcome fear. It's what fuels the rebellion. It's why District 11 sent Katniss the bread in the arena. It's why she saved my life. It's why I saved hers. It's why I allowed myself to be tortured."

Snow eyes have narrowed dangerously. "And what is greater than fear?" He moves his queen forward. "Check."

Peeta suddenly smiles. "Love." He moves a single pawn. "Checkmate."

A tense silence envelops the room as Snow stares at the board expressionlessly. I watch as his eyes rove over every piece, looking for a way to prove Peeta wrong. Slowly, his eyes fill with rage as he sees his world crumble around him. As he learns that he is no longer king. He no longer has control. Not over me. Not over Peeta. Not over Panem.

President Snow is nothing.

"You can never defeat what you don't understand," Peeta says evenly as he gets to his feet. He takes my hand, lacing his fingers with mine. "Game over, Snow. You lost."

"No!" Snow suddenly shouts, making me jump. In one swift move, he swipes the board off the table, sending pieces scattering throughout the room. "No! I may have lost, but you will die as well!"

"Not today," I reply coldly, taking a bold step forward. "The Rebels are entering the city. You can hear them in the streets!" It's true. Now that I pointed it out, everyone pauses to hear the sound of gunfire blasting through the streets. Shouts and screams from the people below. "Do you hear them? We won't be slaves again! Your time is up!"

"Tick, tock."

President Snow's reply takes me off guard. Immediately, I'm thrown back into the arena of the Quell. It was a clock. Each hour bringing a new horror. A toxic gas. Malicious monkeys. Blood rain. The wave. The jabberjays.

"What do you mean?" I ask suspiciously.

"Tick, tock. My time may be up, but you will die as well. Tick, tock."

And that's when I hear it. A ticking noise. Immediately, I know what Snow is trying to do. What he is planning to do. I yank Peeta's hand. "We've got to get out of here!" I yell at him, ignoring Snow's maniacal, crazed laughter behind us.

Peeta follows me without question and as we dash through his penthouse, we can hear Snow yelling. "You will die! You will all die! Everyone will die! Tick, tock, Mockingjays! Tick, tock!"

When Rye and Finnick come into view, Finnick immediately presses the button for the elevator. We all pile in, and the doors immediately close. We begin to descend, though Peeta makes it stop on the next floor down. We dart to the stairwell.

We're running down the hall when Rye asks, "Why are we running?!"

And that's when the penthouse explodes.


Another cliffy! Oh, how I love them.

Summary time!

Peeta has finally reached ultimate badass status; Katniss is Katniss the Lizardbird Slayer; Rye keeps asking questions; Finnick is now Scarface; Johanna went out in a blaze of glory; and Snow put A LOT of metal in the microwave . . .

Quote from the next chapter comes from . . . Gale!

"I'm sorry."

Lots of love,

AC