I keep my eyes straight ahead, focused on the back of the guards. We are being led somewhere and while I have an uneasy feeling, I keep it in the back of my mind, trying to keep most thoughts at bay that might distract.
Well, almost all of them.
I glance briefly at the girl to my left, braid bouncing gently as she walks. Discreetly, I brush my fingers against hers. She turns her head slightly to me in surprise; I smile without keeping my gaze off the men. She doesn't return it but her body gets close enough to feel her shoulder against my upper arm.
We stop at a room, the door sliding open.
"President Snow will be here shortly," one of them says. Then they leave.
Katniss stands rigidly, arms folded across her chest. I walk over to her and place my hand on her shoulder. She turns to face me quietly, expression one of question.
"Tell me, what's going on?"
I sigh. "It's complicated."
"Then give me the short version,"
"It won't cover everything,"
"It'll be a start,"
So I tell her. About my aspiration to become Victor, Peeta's noble sacrifice and how he grew into a friend, about Snow and his deal with me, about how she and Rue began to mean more to me, how, in the end, I want to protect her. It comes out in a jumbled mess, eloquence gone; there's a nervous edge to my voice I hope she doesn't hear, even if it would make it more genuine. My heart races as everything spills out, leaving me drained but weightless by the end.
She doesn't say a word, her expression completely blank.
When I'm done, I look at the ground then back up.
She slaps me across the face.
"I deserve that,"
"You're damn right you do," she hisses, eyes full of anger, "We trusted you,"
"And I grew to trust you," I tell her, insistent, more earnest than I've been in my life, "I grew to care for you. You have to believe me,"
"Why?" she asks, voice low, "Why should I trust you?"
I'm shocked. "Why wouldn't you trust me by this point?"
"Didn't you just hear yourself?" she nearly shouts, "How do I know this isn't another part of your ploy?"
"Katniss— I— No, this isn't a ploy. I've risked too much for you."
She stares at me, her gray eyes deep, where the stone cries out, beseeching the question silently.
"Why would I risk my life for someone I don't love?"
I didn't mean to say it like that, and I'm sure she didn't either. Love is such a strong and dangerous word.
But, at the same time, she'll understand. She's done it before.
"How do you know if you'll die?" she whispers, turning away.
"How do you know I won't?"
Her head snaps forward, at my question or the door opening I'm not sure.
President Snow walks in, hands clasped behind his back. "Cato."
"Miss Everdeen," he greets warmly, though I catch his eyes aren't.
She stiffens and I move in front of her, blocking her from view in hopes he'll pay attention to me, "President Snow, please, sir, I thought that this might be a more effective way—"
"No need to explain anything to me, Cato," he answers, waving his hand, "I understand perfectly."
"Yes. Clearly you have grown fond of Katniss Everdeen and it's reasonable to see why. You have nothing to worry about,"
That's what worries me. I nod and give him a polite grin. President Snow hasn't lasted this long as the leader of our country without having back-up plans and a mind for cunning. There's something going on and I realize that now. For the moment, I have to focus on guarding her with my life. In the Arena, she or I would've had to kill each other but, here, we can think, we can plan. We can find a way to keep her safe.
He motions for me to follow him into a corner of the room. I glance back at Katniss, her pose still unmoving, tense. She watches us closely, distrusting both of us, I think. But her gaze becomes less sharp when it's on me. I take comfort in that.
"I hope you understand that the riots are still continuing," he states in a hushed voice.
"Yes, I do, sir,"
"It would be a shame to lose you," he states, placing his hand on my shoulder, "You're quite the skilled fighter and adept at managing your surroundings."
"Thank you. But what would you have me do?"
"Little odd jobs here and there,"
"I'm sure killing people will be simple enough,"
"It will be."
"Good. For the moment, however, you are free to stay here."
"Right," I tell him, "Thank you for your generosity."
Then he leaves.
I rush over to Katniss, her body frozen. I touch her face, bringing her back.
"What are we going to do?"
"We're going to lay low for now, until we're able to escape."
"I hope we have a plan soon,"
"It will be hard," I don't lie to her.
"I'm ready," she says. Then she looks up into my face.
Moments pass in silence, heavy, leading her to me, it seems, because she steps forward.
And her hand suddenly touches my cheek, softly pressing against where she slapped me. I can only stare at her, heart pounding until I don't think I can breathe. I'm feeling a little nervous and not from anything bad.
"I know you promised Peeta to help me…" says Katniss, breath quiet at the base of my neck.
She pulls away, leaving me cold. "If you didn't promise him, would you still have done it?"
The nervous feeling flies to my chest, gripping my throat and I can't swallow. My body is stock-still but it's never been more aware of anyone in its life. The world falls into the background and she's the only person I see. I find my head lowering, gray eyes coming closer, beckoning. My mouth touches hers. Then heat.
It radiates, pours into me, her tongue darting past my teeth. It's different from when I kissed her in the Arena, to silence her, to keep her from doing anything rash. There's nothing calm about this—my hands rove her waist, pulling her tightly into me, like I've done this a million times before even though I never have.
Her hand fists into my hair, and I hiss, nipping the side of her jaw. She gasps. I pull back, staring at her. There's a faint flush on her cheeks, looking a little surprised. Then she smiles, letting out a breath of air. I grin back, brushing her hair before I embrace her.
"I promise you I'll protect you," I promised Peeta, now her. I will. Or die trying.
"I don't know why you care so much,"
I pause, musing. "To be honest, I don't know either,"
She laughs, not the least bit angry by my bluntness. I think she appreciates honesty above most virtues, and I like her more for it, I realize.
"I don't know either, why I like you,"
"Oh, is that right?" I question lightly, I'm not offended at all.
"Yes," she replies, with her smile still there but this seriousness covers her eyes again. "You're…confusing."
I keep my hands at her shoulders. I feel the same way about her sometimes but… Why is it so hard to talk to her? I've seen her angry and upset and I am used to those, seen it every day of my life, from my father and mother, from the people living in my district. It's something I understand, hiding ferocity and unleashing it.
It's her…beautiful self I don't understand. Gentle, a caress of silk on bare skin, and I think of her softer moments—where she would stand near Rue, ever the protector, let the little girl cling to her when she was frightened in the middle of the night; her voice as she sings, an ethereal lilt that reached the sky, more effective than any Mockingjay.
This is the side I am falling in love with.
But I can't tell her that. While I may have declared that risks are involved with love (which doesn't have to be romantic), and we've kissed, with even President Snow insinuating it before us, I can't tell her I'm falling in love with her. She might just be infatuated and it might be the same for me. They're different—love and infatuation, falling in love with a person and falling in love with an idea. Because she's not an idea—she's so much more than that.
But I take her hand, ignoring my inner conflict by rubbing small gentle circles onto the back of it with my thumb.
"I am going to get us out."
Her gaze is steel, and then it welds down. "I know."
She is now counting on me, depending on my strength to lead her out.
I can't fail.
I'd rather die than fail her.
I'm in too deep.
So I find myself staring up a cold white ceiling, lights harsh and bright. I sit up in the bed, propped on my elbows. I turn to stare at the door, which is opening. A woman walks in and smiles, carrying a tray, dressed in a fancy outfit that reminds me of a maid's garb.
"Hello, my name is Antonia."
I nod, wary. Something's off about her.
She sets the tray down on the nightstand by the bed, and excuses herself, but not before saying, "Please eat up,"
I watch her leave and look at the food. I prod it experimentally with a finger, aware there might be cameras somewhere. I turn toward it, not smelling anything unnatural but then some poisons are scentless. I take pretend to sip from the water, not letting it past my lips, though my dry mouth begs for it.
Perhaps a part of me desperately wants to believe that the Capitol isn't a terrible place. It's…almost like home to me, a home that I've always wanted to belong to. It means so much to me and it would pain me to find that everything is more illusory than Track Jacker venom.
I have to keep my guard up though because Katniss is a part of my world now, however intrusive, unexpected and sudden it was. She came in my dream last night, staring at the moon, like back in the Arena, but she was singing a mournful song, baying in the white glow around her. Despite the serenity of the scene, there was a loneliness that plagues my thoughts even now.
But in the midst of her song, calling out the stars, she turned to me and smiled beatifically, whispering my name and three words I couldn't catch. They fell mute, swallowed by the dark, and I couldn't even read the lips I wanted to claim with my own.
I get up, shaking my head, forgetting food and sleep, and dress. Rushing down the hall, I find her in her designated room. I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding and go up to her.
She smiles as she sees me. My heart does these flops that I can't explain.
"You're alright?" I ask.
"Yes," she answers, though her expression is bemused.
"Cato, is something wrong?"
"The sooner we get out of here the better." I really do mean just her. But I don't plan on telling her that—she'll refuse to leave otherwise; because it's the kind of person she is.
Or maybe I'm just competing with a dead guy, even if he is a friend.
I can't tell.
I lead her out into the hallway, pristinely white to the point it's sterile. We meet some guards downward and they address me.
"President Snow would like to have a word with you, Master Cato."
I am unaffected by the title aside form a little confused. Why would they call me that? "Alright, where is he."
They take us to where he is located and I enter the space, Katniss following until one of the guards holds up an arm.
"Only Master Cato,"
Katniss glares at them and huffs, "You're just going to keep me here?"
"Yes, President Snow requested him specifically."
"If I remember correctly," she begins, narrowing her eyes, "the Victor requested me specifically in exchange for his district to have their needs—where he goes, I go. I'm his."
The words stir something in me, primal and possessive. She's mine. And I am hers, too.
Before they interrupt her or recover from her words, I intervene, "I am sure President Snow will not mind, and if he does, she can always take to another part of the vicinity."
They are quiet as they let her pass, her shoulder brushing my arm in the slightest of touches.
President Snow stands by a window, looking out at the expanse of the Capitol. I motion for Katniss to head to a private corner. I approach President Snow and wait for him to speak.
"We've received word that the districts are in an upscale peak of the war,"
"The riots have escalated to that, my boy. We're going to need to round up full defenses to ward off the other districts."
I stare out the window, feeling Katniss' eyes on my back, "Which ones?"
"All, excluding 1 and 2,"
My home is always loyal; then I look down at the city, "Does the Capitol know?"
"Not the citizens. Best to leave them in the dark, as it is of no real worry. It's merely a whole populous of fools that believe they have a chance to avenge the death of a little girl and dozens of others,"
Rue. And hundreds mores from ages ago…
As I find myself staring out into the city, where I've always wanted to belong, I've realized that he and I are both the same kind of person and not.
Back before the Arena, I would have agreed with every word he said. I would have wanted nothing more than to help him in any way I can. In some ways, I still do. Because deep down is the Cato I still am and will be—ruthless and bloodthirsty, to the very end; because it's who I am and who I was raised to be.
However, now there are knots that coil tightly in the pit of my stomach, where everything churns in acid. Where my mind is uncomfortable with children dying, and my heart clenches at the thought of hurting people Katniss loves, and a little girl with long blonde hair comes to my mind's eye, thus I think of Rue.
And how he just mocked her memory in front of me.
His head is placed on a pike before I can even register what happened in my thoughts—
I'm thrown back, astounded by my disloyalty. Because I never thought I could conjure up such things about our leader.
But I did.
For Rue, and for the girl behind me whose stare continues to burn.
"You will help us of course," President Snow says.
"Of course, sir,"
"Very well. That is good to hear. That will be all, Cato. We will call you when we need you."
Katniss and I exit quietly, until we're back inside her room and I take her hand.
We have to leave now.
Though a plan would have been far more efficient and make me feel more prepared, Katniss suggested the idea of 'winging it.'
"We can't wing it," I murmur.
"Do we have much of a choice?"
I reckon she's correct. And she is. I sigh.
I've gone over countless ideas and strategies, both courtesy of the Academy and myself, relayed them to her, and none of them seem satisfactory at all. We've come to the conclusion that any attempt, even a well-organized one, is essentially useless when facing down an entire city full of deadly weapons and deadlier people. But, still, I like plans.
So, with no plan, we head to our respective rooms until night falls.
In the middle of it, the stars drowned out by the city lights, we make our escape.
Very, very fast.
Because people are still watching—not the world but the creators of it.
Alarms sound and ring in my head.
A guard comes up and points his gun at me. I punch him squarely in the gut, grab his gun and butt his head with the end of it. I grab her hand and she grips it tightly, both of us running out of the building and into the city streets.
Colors whir by, gawking, shouting.
We head into a darkened alleyway, black compared to the light pollution. She reaches for me, hand upon my chest.
"Cato, we have to keep going—"
"I know," then I shush her, pressing her face into my chest as guards run past, our bodies obscured too well in the dark. She pulls away, my hands sliding down her back; the act isn't sensuous but it's kind of hard not to think about touching her, even in the middle of all this chaos. She still comes to mind in every possible way.
We take one another's hand to not get lost. Carefully, we make our way through the city, avoiding the people.
President Snow must still not want the citizens to panic since there hasn't even been a remote flicker of our escape on the giant television screens or a wailing siren.
We don't make it much farther. People jump out from shadows and surround us.
I reach forward and deftly swing out one of their weapons, whacking one soldier in the side of the face. They don't fire at us and it confirms that we're wanted alive. Rushing out, I tackle a man to the ground and backflip to an upright position. Katniss, despite not having her signature weapon, dodges one other guard and knees him in the face by pulling down his head as he fell.
I drag her from the fallen bodies, telling she has to go on her own.
"No, I won't leave without you!"
"Katniss please, you have to make it out!"
"Cato— I— I can't—"
I hear footsteps and realize she would just be caught, even if she managed to get out it would've been inevitable. So kiss her again, putting in all the feeling I have for her into this one last kiss until I see her again. Because I don't know when that will be; and I want her to remember me, even if it's just physical, even if it's just subconscious.
The kiss was fast and we both whirl around to face down the enemy—the people I've strived to pleased—and we fought.
It was a valiant effort but just that—an effort.
We're dragged back to where President Snow meets us at the entrance, his eyes far colder than I've seen them.
"Take the girl,"
"No!" I shout, trying to reach for her as she reaches for me.
"No, you can't—" I turn to Snow, pleading, "Don't hurt her! She has nothing to do with this,"
"She has everything to do with this, if you remember our agreement, my boy. She has become a symbol for the districts of Panem and anomaly for everything we hold dear here at the Capitol. She must be eliminated, as per our contract."
"Why? Why does she matter?" I ask, "How can one girl do so much damage?"
"How indeed…" he murmurs before kneeling in front of me, "Tell me, how did she damage you?"
I look away, knowing all the answers but giving in to them. It was supposed to be a simple mission—to kill this girl. But she wormed her way into me, beneath my skin and burrowing into every fiber, every cell.
"She didn't," I finally say.
"You shouldn't lie, Cato. She took everything from you—especially what you've wanted most, to be Victor."
But none of that matters now. All that matters is her safety. This confirms what Peeta said is true, the first boy to love her and see how special she is. She is important. Something will come out of her—whether it is good or bad is debatable.
For me, it'll always be good.
Even if it hurts.
"Please," I whisper, the word sounding broken. Pathetic. Lost.
"You will do as we agreed—you will be of use to us."
Everything I know about the Capitol…despite what's going on, I still don't want it to be a lie. How can I suddenly distrust everything I've ever wanted to be? Everything I've ever emulated and wanted to serve? It's like telling your parent how much you admire them only for them to cast you aside. I've had moments like that.
"Cato, your use in this war can still be of service,"
I look at him squarely in the eyes, and I wish I was staring into gray. "If I do this for you, will you promise not to hurt her?"
He smiles, and there's that scent again—of blood and roses, "I promise I won't hurt her,"
It's me he hurts.
I writhe and struggle, bounded by leather and hands to a white bed, everything too bright and stale to look at. Faces are covered in shadows by the intense light. I yell as they hold me down, though I promised to hold my end of the deal because, maybe, maybe, he won't hurt her and she'll be safe because I want her to be safe so, so much. And there's too much pain.
He's gone back on his word before but I have to try—stupidly trying to trust liars and snakes but trying. I don't know when I became this desperate to believe in the good of people and the honor of promises but here I am, feeling excruciating agony in the back of my head, in my arms, legs, everywhere in my body until I feel numb from fire, in my blood, flowing through the veins.
Lightning erupts into my head, seeing red, inhuman shrieks coming from my throat, harsh anger beneath the rough screams.
She has to be okay. She has to be.
I cry out louder, white blinding my vision until it's all I see. Orange dances in front of me, wispy, like smoke, flames with no heat, reminding me of Peeta. He gave everything up for her, too.
I drown in the sound of piercing cries I wish weren't mine—they sound so shrill and weak.
But she's worth it, the Girl on Fire...
I love her so, so much.