"...a rule change. For this, the seventy-fourth Hunger Game, the final two tributes may both be declared winner."
For a second, Katniss thinks it's some sick joke, to be told this now after holding Rue's hand and watching her die.
And then the second passes and, "Peeta," comes tumbling out of her mouth. She can at least save him.
She can save him from everyone but that isn't enough.
He doesn't answer when she starts shouting after the cannon boom, and she finds him near the river. It takes a minute to understand what happened - he'd been digging roots and spotted the berry bushes. He'd put one in his mouth.
"Never these. They’re nightlock. You’ll be dead before they reach your stomach."
Peeta had never even been beyond the fence. There had been no one to tell him.
She just stands there. There's a smear of purpleish red on his fingertips and his eyes are still open. She would have expected him to look surprised, but he just looks calm. The body isn't even cool yet and she wants to lie down next to him and pretend he's still with her.
She thinks she should be thinking about blame, about how she should have stayed with him, they didn't need meat, roots would have been fine, about how he should have just waited for her instead of insisting he tag along, she could have fed them both. But the words feel empty and meaningless in her head. The only one that keeps echoing is just that at least she didn't have to kill him. Twice now she's been spared that much. (She hadn't needed to look at Rue's wound, not when there was the shit and vomit smell of broken guts. Her mother wouldn't do anything but tell the families to say goodbye when they brought someone in like that. The lucky ones like Rue bled to death. The other ones... Katniss wouldn't go home for days.)
Finally, she heads back to where he left the food. He'd pinched off a bit of the cheese to eat too -
No, she thinks. They still have the rolls. If he'd decided to eat while he waited for her, he'd have spread it on one of them.
"You're here, aren't you?" Katniss says to the trees. "Foxface. You must have been glad to see him find those berries. Cato has a temper, so why don't you join up with me?"
There's just the sound of the stream.
It's funny. It takes her a moment to figure out why, remember how many are left.
"I hate Cato," Katniss says. "We might as well work together, because I'd hate for you to die before I find him." She gestures at what's left of their - her - supplies. "You're hungry, right?"
There's a flash of red from behind a trunk and the fox girl is watching her. She looks even more like her nickname now, with her face pinched and narrow and showing every bone, a desperate animal, but Katniss has shot enough of those. She has nothing to be afraid of. The fox girl doesn't move any closer.
"Well, Foxface? You got a knife out of the remains of the pyramid. Give me it and you can share the food."
"Firegirl," she says back. "Why?" The fox girl's yellow eyes keep flicking to the food, but never so long she isn't watching Katniss.
"Because I don't want to get my throat slit in my sleep," Katniss says. "It's only the three of us now." She has no illusions this fox-faced girl shares her desire for Cato's death, just the animal instinct for survival. But that will be enough.
The fox girl doesn't nod, but she does pull the knife blade out. She squats and flicks it over the ground to near Katniss' feet, not particularly close. If she has any talent at throwing knives, she's doing a good job of hiding it.
Katniss picks it up. "You try to kill me, I'll kill you," she says, because she's not a fool. "Don't do anything stupid. I know you're not a fighter."
"No," the fox girl says.
"So don't do anything stupid," Katniss repeats, "and you'll get to leave."
She even eats like a fox, bolting down her half of the bread and cheese and tearing apart the apple. Then she just sits, watching Katniss eat with calculating animal eyes. The rabbits cook.
"You really hate him this much?" she says at last.
"He tried to kill me and Peeta," Katniss says. "And he's a Career, anyway. If there's going to be two winners, I don't want it to be him." Her reasons sound so small when she says them. But there aren't really words for how she feels, the thrum of hate and certainty when she thinks of Cato. Asking why seems foolish. Can't this girl see it was always going to end this way?
And it's Cato's fault if it's anyone's. Even if she forgave him for trying to kill her, she'll never forgive him for Peeta. If not for that - they wouldn't have been running out of food, they could have been out fighting their enemies. Maybe they'd have won already. She'd be back home. And now she doesn't want to go back, not just yet. Not with Cato.
Her throat is too tight now with the thought of that to even try to explain it. She cuts apart the first rabbit and gives half to the fox girl, who devours it without a word.
"Any idea where Cato's hiding, Foxface?" she asks at last.
"They've camped in the woods since the mines went off."
"But Clove's dead now. There's no one to stand guard."
She shrugs. "He's looking for you now," she says. "Not hiding."
Katniss considers this. "But why won't he come to the fire, then?"
"Because he thinks fire marks where you aren't, Firegirl."
"I have a name, you know."
The girl shrugs. "So do I."
They don't say anything for a while. Katniss wraps the second rabbit and puts it in her pack.
"Where'd you learn to watch people like that?" Katniss says at last. "Your district mines metal."
"Same place you learned to shoot people," the girl says, and Katniss isn't sure how to reply to that.
"Where's your den?" Katniss says finally, because the sun's setting. "A long walk from here?"
"A way," she says. "You wouldn't fit too, Firegirl. There's not much space."
Katniss shrugs. She can believe that. The fox girl is fourteen at most and small like a Seam kid, and she's lost whatever weight she had. Katniss says, "I'll sleep up a tree. You can stay or go back there."
The fox girl hesitates. After a minute she says, "I'll stay." She must be scared of Cato finding her before he finds Katniss. Cato is a Career, after all. He may hate Katniss for the trick with the trackerjackers, but all he really cares about is winning. When it comes down to it, he won't care which one of them lives.
Katniss has no intention of sharing her sleeping bag this time, and the fox girl doesn't ask.
It takes the fox girl a bit to get up in the tree. Katniss sees she even climbs like a fox, hugging the trunk and pushing herself up with her feet. She thinks about the knife throw and wonders if this is another act, and when she slides into the sleeping bag she makes sure her good ear is facing the fox girl.
When she wakes again, the fox girl hasn't moved. She's there in the other tree, wedged where the trunk splits, shivering and watching Katniss silently.
The fox girl is still shivering once she's on the ground. Breakfast is the second rabbit. Katniss divides it up between them. The fox girl doesn't hold the meat so much as pin it between her palms, and Katniss half expects her to fall to all fours and hold it against the ground as she tears and gulps her half down.
"How can I tell Cato where I am so he'll come?" Katniss says at last. "If he doesn't believe the fires."
"He won't," the fox girl says, gnawing at a last bone. She gets her teeth into the cartilage covering the joint, trying to pull it off. She says around it, "You've got arrows."
"Then what about him, will he tell me?"
The fox girl manages to wrench the cartilage loose. "He doesn't know you hate him so much," she says after she swallows, staring at the pile of chewed bones hungrily. "He doesn't think you would come. Or me."
So they'd just have to wander around until they stumbled across each other. Katniss nods and slings her bow over her shoulder. "Come on, then," she says. "And don't make noise." She makes sure to keep the girl on the side of her good ear. There's no point in taking chances.
It's already getting hot now, despite how terribly cold the night was. Katniss is sweating soon, and takes out her water bottle for a drink. As she sips, she sees the fox girl watching her.
But she says nothing, and Katniss just screws the cap on and puts it back in their pack.
They walk silently for a while, so much that Katniss manages to shoot a groosling. Of course she'd would be quiet as a fox as well, Katniss thinks, and it makes her miss the company of Peeta even more, whose presence had felt like a real person. The fox girl watches with predatory focus in her glittering hard eyes as Katniss dresses the bird quickly. For a second Katniss imagines throwing her the gizzard, or perhaps the heart, like she would to Buttercup, to be snagged out of the air and swallowed whole as a bloody raw treat.
Instead she stands and keeps going. But the silence is starting to wear on her and there's no sign of Cato. "We don't go to the mines until we're eighteen," she says. "Is that true in your district too?"
"We process ore too, and some people work there earlier, at sixteen. But for the mines it's eighteen."
"You seem so smart," Katniss says. "But you don't know anything about how to survive here. You should have spent time at the edible plants station back during training."
The girl hesitates a moment, probably not wanting to admit weakness, and then Katniss can see her realizing it doesn't matter. They aren't real allies. There's no need to pretend she's more skilled than she is. "There's plants like this in Twelve, isn't there?" she says.
"A bit like this. Nicer. Wetter."
"There isn't, in Five. And they said you're not supposed not to eat anything you aren't certain of. I don't know what anything is supposed to look like. I can't tell the difference."
Rue's district had sounded different, but there had still been plants and personal gardens. "What was it like?"
Poisoned, it turns out. Arsenic and cyanide in the water, and the air on dry days. The really rich imported soil for their private enclosed gardens and complained when the leaves were still spotted and the plants grew stunted and died early. One of the lead mines was contaminated with something, maybe something left over from the Dark Days, but sometimes the miners were ordered in anyway, and they'd get sick with something no one knew how to treat.
Katniss takes another drink of water. This time, she hands it to the girl afterward, who gulps down half the bottle.
"Let's head toward the river," Katniss says, taking it back. She doesn't want to go without water, and perhaps Cato will be there, come to drink as well like a wild dog at one of the streams at home. Katniss has sat by water before, waiting for animals for her to shoot. And in the end, this isn't any different.
When they come to it, her fox girl speaks without being spoken to for the first time. "They've gotten bored."
She can't really blame them. Katniss is tired of playing tag with Cato as well. She touches the riverbed, digs a little to find the ground underneath dry. On either side, the water plants are wilting to death in the afternoon sun. It must have been drained last night. "That's good," she says. "Now we know where to meet." The lake can't have been drained. Even if Cato doesn't understand the meaning of this, that the Gamemakers have decided to end the game, that's where Cato will have to head for water.
He might have figured it out already, Katniss realizes. While she'd been looking for him in the forest, he's had time to head there and find some hiding place for an ambush. Like the fox girl at the feast.
"Maybe he'll hide in the Cornucopia," Katniss says. "That was clever of you. What was your bag? The thing you needed most, Foxface?"
"Food," she says.
She supposes that's what it always comes back to. It reminds her of the bird she's still carrying. Katniss considers if they should stop, cook it and eat before the last fight of the games. But Cato might not be there yet either, and she doesn't want to give him any advantage. "Well. Let's go."
"He might not go there at all, Firegirl," she says. "It's open ground, and he uses a sword."
"He'll be there. He's a Career. He'll want to end this." Katniss is certain of it.
The fox-faced girl's cleverness hasn't left her, though, and when they reach the lake and search, Katniss finds no sign of Cato. The fox girl crouches by the shore and drinks water from her cupped palms.
"You need to purify the water to be safe," Katniss chastises, and the fox girl says, "I haven't gotten sick yet," and then, "Besides, it'll be over soon, you said."
But it's almost dusk, and Katniss doesn't want to spend the night shivering and staring into the dark with her goggles on, waiting for Cato's attack. "Let's get back to the trees. We'll fight Cato tomorrow." She passes the girl the squirrel. It's too small to bother dividing up, and Katniss doesn't feel hungry. She just wants Cato.
And then there he is, charging them out of the forest. Katniss hears the fox girl inhale sharply, and she swings her bow into position and aims an arrow only for it to bounce off.
"No. Run," the girl breathes, and she's off seconds before Cato reaches them. Katniss thinks she's talking to herself, scared it'll be her neck Cato chooses to snap, but then Cato keeps going right past her, and his face is mottled with the strain like he's been running flat out for some time before this.
She hears the girl shout, "Run!" a second time behind her as the wolves come into view.
Cato has climbed the Cornucopia, nearly to the top, and he's doubled over gasping so loudly she can hear him when she reaches the tail. The fox girl is at the bottom and Katniss thinks she's found her chance - a hidden knife, or just shove Katniss off, slow her down for the wolves to grab first. Then the fox girl and Cato will be the victors.
Katniss is thinking of aiming her arrow instead of trying to climb, hoping the Gamemakers will call the wolves off with the death, but when she raises her hand the girl grabs it and pulls her up.
She hesitates then, looking behind her at the swiftly approaching monsters. There's perhaps two dozen, more than she has arrows even if she could shoot all of them before they reached her. She looks at Cato. He has body armor, probably all over his body except for his face - but that's not in view right now, he's curled up choking and gasping near the lip of the Cornucopia, facing away from her. He's much stronger than her, and the nearer they get the better chance he has of winning, but she'd have to get down and go around to have a clear shot at his face.
He sounds like he's trying to say something. Katniss turns to the girl. "Can you understand-" she starts to say.
Even in the dim light she can see the girl pale. "'Can they climb it?'" she repeats, and then she falls to her hands and knees and starts scrabbling up the Cornucopia.
Just like the tree, she doesn't really know how, and Katniss can hear the girl slipping around as she stares at the assembling wolves. They're on their hind legs now, and as she aims an arrow she sees a snarling blond-haired one with striking blue eyes.
The arrow almost drops from her fingers. She scrambles backward, nearly falling off the other side, then starts up the Cornucopia.
She hears claws scrabbling on the gold, a second of hot breath against her ankle, and then it slides back down. The wolves can't climb.
Foxes aren't much better, it turns out. She hears the girl shriek, losing her grip and sliding to the side, and grabs her before she can fall to the ground. One of the mutts jumps at her as Katniss yanks her back up, a small dark one with a woven straw collar, and then there's a line of blood down the girl's stomach and she can see the flesh starting to split open.
"But it was my fault," Katniss says numbly, trying to shove the girl above her because she doesn't seem able to climb on her own. "She wasn't even there Rue, I was the -" And then the weight she's pushing is gone, something else pulling the girl up.
Cato has recovered at last. For a second Katniss can't make sense of what's happening. He has his arm around the girl's neck, pulling her back (and Katniss can see her guts are starting to spill through the cut and she wants to be sick) but he doesn't just snap her neck and end it.
He's staring at Katniss instead, and the growing darkness does nothing to hide his hatred. Does he really want her dead so much just over those wasps? Well. She's glad of it. If they were the last two she'd still try to cut his throat. He deserves to die. He deserves to suffer.
"You want me dead too," he hisses. "Or you wouldn't have left the redhaired bitch alive." Katniss has an arrow aimed at him but, "If you shoot I'll break her neck when we land. Come here. Come here and find out who'll win without your bow, coward, you and-" And then he screams, a knife stabbed through his hand.
He falls backward. Katniss grabs the girl before she can follow him.
She's - Katniss gags and closes her eyes and says, "It's okay it's okay it's okay," and opens them again. She doesn't have to be scared of the wound. Capitol doctors can fix it, they can fix anything, they've put victors back together who were hurt far worse than this. "Lift your, lift your arms a little, you'll be okay, just have to..." she babbles, and she pushes everything back inside. Then it's easier. She wraps what's left of the role of bandages around the girl's middle, then takes off her jacket and tears it into strips, tying those on top.
"It's still there," the girl says, pointing, and Katniss turns.
The little one that cut her open. Rue. It's making its way up the Cornucopia very slowly, claws digging into the gold. It slides back toward the bottom but not all the way, then starts up again.
It's a cleaner death than her first one. Katniss sends an arrow through one big brown eye, and the thing spasms silently and falls off, still.
The others are busy with Cato. She can still hear him fighting the pack. The armor that protected him from her arrow works against the claws and teeth of the tributes made wolves, and he must have some weapon, perhaps just the knife the girl shoved through one hand. Things aren't going to end quickly.
Katniss gets back to the edge. It'll just take one arrow, she thinks.
It could just take one, but it doesn't. He's surrounded by them, almost impossible to make out. She shoots the District 1 boy, then Clove, who she might as well have killed, and Glimmer, who she did, and one she thinks might be the District 4 girl, and that reduces the press a little, enough that there's gaps she can shoot through, only Cato looks up at her and sees her aiming and ducks, diving under the lip and out of her reach.
Fine, she thinks. If he thinks he can win then let him try. He deserves to be torn apart by a pack of dogs, and if somehow he does win she'll still be here waiting with an arrow.
She sits down next to the girl, and spends a moment trying to figure out which one of them is shivering before she realizes they both are. Blood doesn't show well on the black of the jacket strips but when she touches it she finds it's wet.
"You shouldn't move," Katniss says. Maybe that'd slow the blood loss a little. Then, "You don't have any more knives, do you?"
It occurs to Katniss that she could just as easily be lying. The girl is fox-faced, clever and inscrutable. She should cut her throat now, or push her off the edge side to the mutts - she doesn't have body armor, it'll be over on the first blow. There's no reason to wait for a knife in the back.
In the growing dark the girl looks smaller, and her face like a hollow-eyed skull. She could be any of the kids Katniss sees in the streets of her district, could be Prim in the months after their father died. "I'm going to die, aren't I?"
"No," Katniss says. Peeta said she couldn't lie but she tricked him, and she wonders if she can lie well enough for someone now. The girl is silent, and Katniss can guess. She can't even do that much for her.
It's cold. She pulls the plastic around them - it stops the wind a bit, and if they sit on it they're not directly against the freezing metal. They press together and listen to Cato fight, hear the mix of screams, human and animal. And then it's just Cato screaming, and Katniss knows he's down.
"There," Katniss says. "You get to live. I told you."
Only Cato doesn't stop screaming. It just gets softer over the hours, very slowly, until finally it's just hoarse moans on the edge of hearing, the words inaudible, but Katniss can still hear his voice in her head, saying her name. But she can't shoot him, not without getting down.
She might be able to, if she got down. They might be busy with him, might not notice her until she put her arrow through his head. Or they might be waiting for exactly that. And it's been obvious for hours that it isn't the body armor keeping him alive now. They might kill her, or they might drag her in and tear her apart just as slowly next to him.
She could kill the girl as well. But that doesn't mean this will stop. May, she thinks over and over. The final two tributes may both be called winner. They've done all this to give the viewers a show. Would they really cut it short in return for one quick kill?
Katniss isn't sure about any of it. He's right, she is a coward. She sits, clutching the girl by her side. The girl's on the side with her bad ear so she can't hear her breathe, and her hands are numb and she's shaking too badly to feel the movement. Katniss wonders every few minutes if she's holding onto a corpse, but the cannon doesn't fire. She wonders if they're just drawing that out, too, pretending the girl is still alive to torture Cato longer, but each time she works up the courage to ask the girl mumbles an answer.
Sometime during the night, Cato goes quiet. There's still no cannon. She could try to look, put on the goggles and lean over the edge, but she doesn't trust her limbs to do that without falling.
"Still alive?" she says, her words slurred by frozen cheeks.
"Sorry," the girl replies. Katniss tenses, thinking the girl means to stab her or push her off the side finally, and she feels something that's almost relief. But the girl doesn't move. "Thanks for not... Sorry."
And eventually it's dawn. The temperature spikes with the light, and Katniss wonders if they're heating the metal of the Cornucopia as well, if they control it. She doesn't think it should have gotten cold so fast last night, freezing as soon as the air was. Now Katniss can feel her fingers again.
Her legs are cramping, and so she crawls to the lip again and looks for the mutts.
She sees what's left of Cato. It's been pulled out into the open, enough that she could shoot it from where she is, and Katniss is sick wondering how long it's been there, if she could have shot him hours ago if she'd just looked. Maybe that's what they were waiting for, for her to realize, a last cruelty to end the games on and now the victory music will play and they'll come to take her.
And then the bloody meat of his body moves and she understands that he's still alive. That's why the cannon wouldn't fire.
She shoots him. There's the booming of a death and the wolves leave.
And nothing. They wait. Nothing comes for the three of them.
"We're too close to the body," Katniss guesses. "It doesn't count until they retrieve it."
The girl doesn't say anything. She stares at Katniss, but her face is unreadable.
"Come on," Katniss says. "It's almost over. We can go home."
It takes time. They crawl slowly down the Cornucopia until it's close enough that Katniss feels safe about the drop. She goes first then helps the girl down. The heat is helping, and she thinks the girl is reviving too. At first they lean against the metal for support but within a few minutes they're both staggering away, toward the lake.
The hovercraft comes for the body. "There," Katniss says. "There. See. You won. We get to go home." She listens for the trumpets.
Instead there's a voice. It says that there will be only one winner.
Katniss goes for her knife. She's out of arrows, but she's stronger than the girl and when the girl goes for her throat with another knife or just her teeth she'll be ready.
The girl is looking at her with dead eyes that remind Katniss of her mother's. "Thanks," she says. "You tried." She shrugs, tries to smile. "It wasn't like I could have won," she says. "It's okay."
Katniss thought she hated Cato but it's nothing before how much she hates them suddenly, hates the Capitol and the Gamemakers and the Peacekeepers and everyone, everyone involved in this, if she could she thinks she would kill every one of them she would with her bare hands, like one of those tributes who went bestial, if maybe that's how it happens, hate like this. She wants to dig her fingers into the president's throat until she reaches blood and watch his eyes go dim as Peeta's and it will never be enough.
She killed for them and then they wouldn't even let Cato die, and now they've changed their minds again?
Behind her, near the edge of the water, are bushes with laden with blueblack fruit, like tiny spring grapes. Katniss lets go of the hilt of the knife.
"Just get it over with," the girl says. "Don't leave me for - I don't want to die like that."
"The bushes," Katniss says. "Look. By the lake."
The girl goes tense and Katniss realizes she thinks she'll be stabbed as soon as she does. But she closes her eyes for a second and turns anyway.
"Oh," she says.
"That's what killed Peeta. They kill instantly," Katniss says. "My father told me, never eat them, you'll be dead before they reach your stomach."
"Oh. I see." She smiles weakly at Katniss. She's so clever, Katniss thinks, I didn't even have to explain.
The girl leads the way, her walk almost steady now. She picks a berry and raises it to her mouth.
Katniss grabs her wrist. "Stop! That's not the -" And she looks at the girl's startled eyes and realizes she didn't know there was any plan.
Katniss keeps holding on, tight enough she's probably causing bruises. "There has to be a victor," Katniss says fiercely. "They'd never let the games end without a victor." She reaches out and takes a berry with her left hand.
"I told my sister that I'd go home," Katniss says. "And I told you that you would." She lets go of the girl's arm. "On three."