For the first few days, everything is quiet. Peeta stirs early in the morning, doing mundane things, then we would set off towards wherever seems best. They seem to drag on—the days; the sun is hot and the wind barely scathes our skin but we venture on. I find myself growing more silent than usual and Peeta doesn't seem to mind the lack of conversation, though he notices I'm sure. It has come to my attention that he is surprisingly observant. Not that I ever really talked before but I think it spins out from the lack of prodding I do about the Girl on Fire lately. He does not suspect anything—even he's not that keen on what I do in the evening.
I think about her constantly, wondering how in the world we'll find her and when. Even though I have President Snow aiding me in my quest to be the Victor, I get no help on his end for hints and I don't ask for them, wanting to prove myself on my own terms. In some ways, I don't mind that sponsors have yet to lavish me with their gifts. It'll make it harder but then I'll look more deserving of the title.
It continues to be the sounds of only me and Peeta. His steps are louder, I think, crunching leaves and dirt. He finally lets out a breath and flops on the ground. I turn to look at him, "What?"
"Nothing, I just suddenly felt tired,"
I walk over and kneel in front of him, peering at his face. I reach into the pack on my back and hand him the canister. He looks surprised for the moment before he waves it off.
"Take it," I order.
"We need it later,"
"You need it now,"
Sighing in resignation, he takes the can from me and swallows deeply. He gives me a sheepish, thankful smile and I nod curtly. I let him have what he needs. He may have to die soon.
And I find the thought doesn't settle into my stomach comfortably.
Rising to my feet, I turn my head to stare at the trees standing around us. There's a breeze that goes over my skin and it cools me for a while; it's still hot and it seems to get hotter. When I thought of forests, I always thought they would be cooler with the shade. In the mountains, the air feels dry. At least here we can breathe somewhat.
Peeta rises and stands next to me, "Is that where we're going this time?"
"Yeah, it should find us stuff,"
"Okay," his voice is carefully neutral, knowing my implication.
We continue on for hours until the sun is low and hidden from view. We are both wide awake and staring up at the sky, a dark blue with pinpricks of white. He lets out a breath and then, "Hey, what would you do if not this?"
I turn my head upward though I can't see him—we're positioned head to head and I don't want to turn. "What makes you ask that?"
There's a ruffle on the ground—maybe he shrugged. "I don't know. I was just wondering what you would do,"
I think. "Nothing, I guess."
"Nothing?" There is no skepticism—only genuine curiosity.
"I don't know what else to do,"
"You're kind of a focused person…so that makes sense."
"Yeah, kinda had to learn and live it,"
Another couple of minutes pass and it comes from my lips, "What would you do?"
"You don't sound surprised," he chuckles.
"You're kind of froufrou anyway,"
Another laugh, "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Why? It doesn't bother you that there's little to no masculinity in your profession or hobbies?"
"Not really. It's something that I love to do so I don't consider much of what anyone thinks of it but me,"
In a way that's pretty gutsy. How often do people usually do things for themselves? Never, most of the time; there is the few of us who do things because we've been blessed with the ability to go for it. I wouldn't be here without the support and mentoring of my teachers and parents. While he may not see my life as ideal, or even acceptable, there were advantages I got that he'll never understand. There's an artistic quality to him that is foreign to me as much as my brutality is to him. He didn't have to say much but the abuse he implied weeks ago, but it should not be so shocking—in some ways, his family is no different from the arena: uncaring and cold.
I turn and punch him in the shoulder, hard enough to be emotionally distant, soft enough to speak volumes.
He turns to look at the spot where I hit him then he sits up and punches me back with equal force.
Then he grins down at me and I find myself grinning back, looking at the stars overhead. There's a tranquility I hadn't felt in months, and it hangs over us with such heaviness that we're eased into sleep without effort.
It's late in the night when I'm summoned and President Snow's face is controlled, but there's a glint in the blue of his eyes. "You're doing well, Cato,"
"Thank you, sir,"
We're quiet for a while as he leads me down a hallway, the occasional employee walking past us with a respectful bow to the president. When we're alone for certain he turns to me expectantly, patting my shoulder, "You're growing quite close to the boy,"
"Yes…" I draw this out, hesitant to voice dissent, "I thought that was the plan,"
"It is, my boy!" President Snow agrees, patting my shoulder once more, "We all know that the boy is not as stupid as everyone believes and his nature is very trusting, which makes this the perfect ploy. But my concern is that you are growing too close to him as well,"
"I wouldn't betray you!" I tell him earnestly, because I wouldn't. I'm on a mission—both for the sake of the nation and for myself.
"No, I know you would not," he says this with a discretion to his voice that I don't understand, voice barely above a whisper and it sounds…almost threatening. My heart quickens on impulse, never liking threats. "You're much too smart to do anything that would put yourself at risk. But it nevertheless gives me concern,"
"I assure you, sir, Peeta means little to me,"
He smiles with something that doesn't reach his eyes. With his face so close to mine I find myself inhaling scents I find peculiar—roses and…blood? Of course I don't ask but I worry about his health and wonder if it's declining. He may not be seen highly in the lower regions of our country but Districts 2 and 1 see him for support. I continue to say nothing anyway on the smell, and especially not his eyes.
"See to it that he remains so, Cato," he tells me, "Because you're going to have to kill him,"
It's without preamble, without the grandest of gestures—it's spoken plainly and abruptly and my mind has to struggle for a moment to comprehend what he just told me.
"Yes, as soon as he wakes up, he must be eliminated. The crowd is getting restless, after all, from all the lack of fighting. And while they have enjoyed the camaraderie between you two, there is speculation that is not good for the press or public."
"What kind of—"
"Nothing you need worry about, my boy. Just see to it that it is done, and, since you're one of the best, I doubt I'll have to repeat myself."
There's dryness in my mouth and throat even though my stomach churns and there's acidic wetness building deep down, threatening to rise and spill over. In the morning I have to kill Peeta.
Or it'll be my head.
And the decision is so easy that it surprises me why it's not harder. But it's the obvious choice. It's always been the obvious choice. But it doesn't keep my head from spinning and seeing fuzzy images blur in my head of the times we've spoken deeply or shared a similar thought.
I am told to sleep in the comfort and warmth of the building and I wonder how Peeta has yet to notice the times that I've left the woods. I am told to save up my strength for the morning because once he is killed that's the end of the first phase; then it'll all be about the Girl on Fire and tracking her down.
The dawn comes too quickly.
I leave the building and they wish my luck, the staff, and all I do is nod, having gotten no sleep. I couldn't bring myself to do so, and I wish they had let me go back to the woods to rest last night. But I probably would have had a harder time with him next to me.
I don't bother to pretend to sleep, and I just watch him as the sunlight cracks through the sky, the pinks shattering the grey and deep blue. He stretches, yawns, looks around blearily with such vulnerability that I'm thinking of the first time I killed a lamb, to get me used to blood, at the age of 12, and all I could think about was how dead and terrified it looked after it was all over.
He looks up at me, mouth drawn in a straight line, and it hits me: he knows what's about to happen. And there's no weapon in my hand yet. My sword rests comfortably on my back in the makeshift sheath he and I made together.
It doesn't sound like anything else is awake besides the two of us. The birds having chirped at all and they always promptly do at the sunrise. It's deader in the forest than it has ever felt to me without the mockingjays and green birds.
"You're finally going to do it," he states this more than asks. There's a resignation on his face that I admire and scold myself for doing. "Alright then,"
Then he lunges towards me, throwing me off guard and off balance, his fist colliding into the side of my head. I ignore the throbbing sensation and bend to the side to sweep at him with a high kick, the heel of my foot hitting his shoulder and scathing across his chest. He falls backward before rolling to the side, climbing to his feet, and running straight towards me.
I pull out my sword and he barely skids to a halt, the tip just touching the skin beneath the fabric of his shirt.
"You're making this harder," I bite out.
"You're the one betraying me," I hear him say this, despite his voice being so god-forsakenly low.
"This has been set since the beginning; don't tell me you were stupid enough to fall for it,"
"No, I've known it all along," he tells me, looking down at the tip of my weapon, glinting in the birthed light of the sun, "That doesn't make it any less painful,"
My throat tightens with a constriction so fierce it leaves me breathless. I don't say a word for fear of sounding choked on national television. For the world, this betrayal will be worthy of conversation for years after I am dead and gone, for my family and district, I will be hailed for my cunning and ability to not care about the lives of others; for everyone else, I'll just be the asshole who won. For me…I don't know what I'll be, but I won't be dead.
He lets out a shaky breath that I realize he and I have been holding. Mine comes out steadier.
"Look, I know that this is what you're supposed to do," he murmurs.
I suddenly don't want this conversation heard and walk forward, sliding my sword along his body until the tip is streaking over his neck and if he breaths too deep the neck will slice itself. "Then why did you stay for so long? Why did you save me?"
The question is out and he looks me in the eye, his eyes a lighter, brighter shade of blue than President Snow's, yet infinitely more understanding, even in the face of death, "Because…I can't kill people."
"Don't lie to me, Peeta," I tell him, voice low too, "I know you could if you wanted to,"
He smiles with a sad bitterness that looks unfamiliar on his face, "Maybe, if I wanted to. But all I want to do is protect people. And that's why I saved you. You owe me now."
You owe me now.
The little cunning bastard… and there's no malice when I think this, just something sad and unfamiliar.
"And what do you want?"
"Your protection of Katniss,"
My mind staggers over for what my body is too still to do, "What?"
"You think I'm stupid. I know you aren't around at night. And while I don't know what goes on or where you go, there's something being plotted against her. And I love her too much to see her die like that. She has to be protected,"
"Why? What makes you so determined to see her live?"
"You would understand it better if you loved her," he tells me, looking down, a softness entering his face that's so private and emotional it disorients me to look, "But I am not doing this for myself. There are people who need her—her family, her friends, and her people. You don't understand, Cato, but she's special—she's meant to do something so important that for her to die would destroy us all."
"You make her sound like some messiah."
"Isn't she? The Girl on Fire? The girl who has been throwing the whole world out of balance since she entered the Games? She is a rebel without even knowing what she's caused outside this arena."
I stare at him blankly, "How would you know that?"
"You act like I don't have resources or sponsors of my own,"
I keep staring at him, not saying a word.
"I am laying my life down for hers. You just have to protect her—even though I know you don't want to because being Victor is important to you; I get it. You have family of your own. But this is our deal for my having saved you. She needs to live,"
"I don't care what you can and can't do—you will do this."
He doesn't understand why I said that. "She is a threat to everything we know."
"Everything you know. There's something bigger that you're too blind to see,"
"You're so in love with her that you aren't even realizing that this is your downfall—you're dying for her and she doesn't know; I bet that she wouldn't care even if she did. Why would you throw your life away for someone that doesn't love you back?"
He smiles again, "I've been doing this thing for years, in small ways that don't matter. But this is the big one. She's…important," Shit, all this because he loves her. He's doing this all for her and there's no guarantee that she'll even come out of this alive because it's not just me out there that needs her dead—there's the whole world outside that is crying for her to die so everything can be at peace again. He doesn't understand how dangerous she is, how badly she must die for everything to be okay. How she shouldn't be loved by him because it would make everything easier to deal with. He's so broken over her that it nearly makes me puke right there, on his shoes, and I wouldn't give a damn because it's too much.
The plea in his face is too much.
I give him no answer as I slice his throat and he falls to his knees; my sword rose in the air, high above me because I moved so fast that it flew up in my rage and distress and relief, the red streaking down the front of his shirt in dark waves. His eyes are lifeless, the blues becoming blank and it's like looking at the sky without the sun, and his body sags to collapse at my feet and there are phantom people screaming around me as I stare at his corpse. His head lolls to the side and I find myself transfixed by the serenity in his face—like he's done something worthwhile, like he's done something no one ever believed he could do; like he would gladly do this over and over again.
All because he loved her enough to die…
He might be the one gone but I've never felt colder, like I've truly betrayed someone close to me.
And it's absurd, because we're not close. He was always a pawn to learn about the Girl on Fire, to learn why she sets everything ablaze wherever she goes, to learn why she does what she does, what her secrets are, why she loves to sing… We're not close.
We never were.
I turn to look at the camera, my stance coming off as triumphant, and I smirk before I stalk off.
When I know I'm not in sight, I retch violently in the bushes, the vomit staining my shoes.