Rue is curled between us, breathing evenly; tonight, she faces me and an instinct I don't understand stirs inside me. She's just so little. She sleeps with the girl cuddled against her back, her braid a mess and her face at peace. She doesn't stay up late anymore to keep an eye on me. It's oddly disconcerting, in both good and bad ways.
I pry myself from Rue's grip on my sleeve, shuffling quietly out of our shelter. I walk toward the opening of a clearing, white light illuminating the surroundings. The moon isn't even large. The sound of my steps on the grass is comforting but something feels off when I get to the middle.
There's blood on the ground and I follow the trail, getting thicker as I go along.
I halt immediately when I see who it is: Clove hangs limply in Marvel's arms, and he's crying with tightly shut eyes. Hers are dark and wide open, glazed. She suddenly turns to me and lets out a scream filled with betrayal and rage—
I jolt out of sleep, cold sweat on my brow. The yell is caught in my throat. I wait until it dies away to let out a breath. Carefully, not disturbing the two beside me, I curl my knees to my chest and rest my head on them. I breathe in and out. It was only a dream—nothing more than that.
But I know that's a lie because I've seen her in my mind so often now. It's been days since we encountered them. Marvel will be hunting with a vengeance now, I'm sure of it. When I saw them together, Clove dying in his arms and him just calling to her to stay, it's a vision that's been imprinted behind my eyelids. It's always them.
I know it's not just that I killed her—it was their brief interaction. Something about them just spoke volumes on intimacy. Like they had shared much together in the time I've been separated from them. He had brushed her hair, I remember, even though it was quick, and maybe out of panic, but that stayed with me.
I know I don't like it. While she and I didn't develop anything romantic, there's jealousy here anyway. I'll be the first to admit it; I don't feel it often, if at all, but when I do, I recognize it instantly—an inexplicable urge to be possessive over what I have. And what I should have had was his position—where she is my friend and part of my world and I'm holding her close because, damn it, that's what I was always supposed to do.
Because, in my mind, when the end came, I would be there until she was completely gone, to honor her memory; because, in the end, we were together, and we were friends, despite what we tried not to do and all the rest.
And he got to do it.
The sun breaks through clouds. I look up to watch it rise, golden and serene. Fucking sun is mocking me.
I glance at the girl, with her messy braid and dark skin, chest rising and falling. It would be easy to kill her now. Both of them, though it would prove merciful and less of a challenge, I want to do it, without thinking, without remembering. Because what are they to me? Everyone has to die at some point, especially here. Clove eventually had to go, too, now far beyond my reach and for what?
Because I owe the leader of my nation loyalty, and in turn, will provide my family stability?
Because I promised a boy who was dead to begin with, caught on love and willing to give his life for it?
Because of a girl who confuses and angers me all the time, yet there's something about her that pulls me forward, and it's dangerous and stupid but there and I don't want it to be?
It's too much.
I don't notice my hands are in my hair until I hear them moving. I compose myself, staring out. Rue greets me as usual and I return it. She follows only a few seconds after, inspecting the outside. We leave our spot and I look around. Rue says she'll be right back, and there's no need to ask why so we only wait, the girl telling her to be careful.
I glance at her, to my left. Though she's petite compared to me, she stands tall. She pulls her arms above her head, breathing. Her mood is calm, almost peaceful. I don't know why since I've never seen it before. Then she drags her fingers through her hair, tugging out the braid and it falls out in black waves. It's so private, yet open, that I almost look away, but I keep my gaze on her. Her hair is surprisingly thick; darker in the sun if that's possible, even when light makes it dully shine. She combs it out with thin fingers, and I'm reminded of her bow, like she's a living weapon and I'm the only one who sees it.
A chill runs through me, but nothing about is negative.
She begins to braid it back again when her eyes meet mine. She draws away a little, pulling her hair to her chest, self-conscious. "What?"
"Nothing," I answer, voice hoarse. My gaze drifts to the forest floor. She doesn't move, doesn't continue with her hair. Her eyes just stay on me and I'm tempted to look back up. I lift my head up to tilt it in Rue's direction. Where is she anyway?
This causes my heart to speed up, from wondering where Rue is and how she's affecting me. The world is watching our vulnerability and I find myself hoping no one notices. Even if it will help with getting sympathies, I don't want it like this.
But then, too, these are the Hunger Games, a place where everything is real yet staged. Maybe they'll believe that I'm truly trying to get her to lower her guard down. It's what I've been doing since the very beginning.
Footsteps break me from thought. I look down at her. She's not close to me but it's the nearest we've been together since she slapped me. There's nothing in her now that says she wants to fight. She cranes her neck to stare at me and I'm suddenly confused about her face. How can something so sharp in every way just suddenly melt into softness?
Annoyed at myself, I say, "Can I help you?"
She doesn't attack or fall for it. Instead, her hand touches my arm and warmth is burning through the material, touching my skin.
It's a whisper, too quiet but I catch it. I know what she's talking about, not answering. There's a lot I want to say, everything a blur of emotions. I simply ask, in a hushed voice I never thought I could do, "Why?"
"Because…" she breathes out, "I know I caused it."
"It was bound to happen,"
"Death is never fine," she placates, and her touch becomes a reassuring squeeze.
It's too much. With purpose, I tell her, "You wouldn't pity me if you knew all about me."
Her brows furrow. She wants to ask but there's this glint in her eyes, beneath the gray, that says she'd rather not know, despite the fact she should. God, she's so close…
Rue breaks the spell and I breathe out in sighs of relief, dizziness and loss. The gray eyes move from mine, warmth leaving. She has this look on her face that almost mirrors my own.
I must be imagining it.
"There you are!" Katniss says, "Where've you been?"
Rue blinks, tilting her head, bird-like, "I've only been gone a few minutes."
Really? It felt so much longer than that.
"We were getting worried," she replies, touching Rue's head softly.
"I was fine. I took a little longer because I was gathering these," Rue looks down, indicating the bundle of edible plants in her arms.
"Oh! These will be useful," she says, looking at Rue with what I can only call motherly pride. The little girl smiles at the compliment. Katniss takes it from Rue and goes to where the backpack is, moving everything around carefully.
Rue skips to stand in front of me, "Hi."
"Hello," I add, "Good work on the plants."
"Thanks," she says. She doesn't do anything else. There's this grin on her face but it's not quite a grin either. More of a…smirk?
I raise an eyebrow at her, "What?"
"So…what'd you and Katniss talk about?"
"Oh, yeah?" she says this with this almost…mischievous tone to her voice. I never thought of children as menacing, or even devious. Rue is making me seriously rethink this.
"Yes," I answer evenly, "We didn't talk about anything."
"Are you sure?"
I arch my brow higher, "Rue…"
"Cato…" she mimics.
"What are you implying?"
"Nothing," She states quickly. Then she twirls away like she didn't just leave me anxious, bemused, and perplexed all at once.
Rue, I've noticed, can be a little silly—which children sometimes are. But there's a practicality to her nature that I've seen. She wouldn't tease about something so serious. Would she? Do children do that? What did she even see? Was she actually watching us this whole time and neither of us noticed? And if a child isassuming things, then the whole world will too. When I looked upon the Girl on Fire as a challenge, I knew she would be one in a fight, but this… this is a whole new challenge I was not expecting, that no amount of training has ever prepared me for. It's new, strange, even something to truly fear.
Peeta flickers briefly across my mind, alive in death.
I find myself caught in feelings of inadequacy, with dread sliming itself over it.
"Cato, we're leaving," announces Katniss.
Meeting her eyes briefly, I nod. Trying not to think of how she said my name. The simple fact she did made my heart thud.