Rue was born near the end of a hot July day.
Her eyes first blinked open as the sun was setting, the last few rays slanting through the leaves and washing the whole District in a ruddy light.
Within a week, her mother was back in the field and her father was carrying her off to join him in the orchard. He held her cradled in his arms and walked slowly, brushing stalks of wheat aside as they passed.
He placed Rue in the shade of an apple tree, and she was content. There was a mild breeze there and safety from the sun.
Two mockingjays settled on the lower branches and sang to the child below. She looked upward and smiled, burbling with pleasure.
Rue begins to climb as soon as she is tall enough to reach the lowest branches of the average tree in the orchard.
She is five years old.
Within seven months, she's working with her father. Light and small enough to not shake the fruit free from the branches as she climbs, Rue is a valuable asset. She climbs higher than anyone else will dare and picks fruit from the top most branches.
She shifts the satchel that she carries across her shoulder and brushes away the mockingjays flitting around her head. They sing to her and she whistles back, smiling upward at their outline against the sun.
The whole District gathers at noon once a year on the day of the reaping. Almost no one eats, because they don't trust their stomachs' resolve.
Rue is hungry, but she's always hungry, and just now she's wound so tightly that she coughs every time she even thinks of food. She gnaws at a leaf instead, watching the giant screens that have been erected for today.
Everyone Rue has ever known from her District looks like her, but this woman from the Capitol is the color of milk with vivid blue lines painted across her arms and up the side of her face. She looks like some kind of animal, and when she laughs and claps her teeth show bright and flashing.
She looks like a Peacekeeper's dog that's gone bad, ready to rip into a throat.
Their District is so large that the reaping takes almost two hours. There are too many names to fit in one bowl, so there are several. Each has a single name drawn from it and then those names are deposited into a final bowl. The drawing from that is what ends up broadcast to all the rest of Panem.
The citizens of District 11 must watch all of the proceedings in silence, but not a single name is read aloud until the final round. By the time the cameras turn on, you can smell the stink of fear on everyone.
Rue hates to see her father afraid.
Later, when the two hours of standing and sweating are over, she crawls up into his lap at home and stays there until the sky has gone dark and the sounds of people in the street have faded away.
The day of her own reaping is much like all the ones that came before.
When Rue's name is called, she hardly remembers what she's meant to do. She can feel the muscles twitching between her shoulders, the impulse to scamper off and hide, but somehow her feet start moving forward and soon she's standing all alone on the stage.
A strong wind blows through and seems to whimper and moan as it passes over roofs and beats on windows. For a moment she sways a little in the breeze, but Rue knows too much about keeping her footing. She doesn't fall.
Everything is so much bigger in the Capitol.
It's brighter than sunrise, harsher than the feel of tree bark, and louder than a nest of tracker jackers.
Rue hates it, but she tries not to let it show. She keeps her eyes open and alert. There is nothing here like her or like home, but she has to learn her surroundings in order to survive. It's like testing the strength of limb on a new tree by tapping it lightly with her foot before giving it her full weight. Except that here it's Rue who runs the risk of snapping.
It's then that she sees it.
She hadn't noticed before, with all the fire and spectacle, but the girl from District 12 wears a mockingjay on her chest. My birds, Rue thinks. My home.
Rue pays closer attention that night to the evening reports about the other tributes.
The girl is called Katniss. She is older than Rue. She has a sister. She practices knot tying, trap making, and studying plants. She was born in District 12, just a short ride down the tracks, but they would have never met outside the Games.
And she wears a mockingjay on her chest.
That night Rue has a dream of running up a tree, being chased by monsters limb by limb.
In the dream, Katniss is climbing alongside her and when Rue turns to scream, the other girl sings to her in the voice of a bird.
The first thing Rue sees after rising up into the arena is the trees. So many beautiful trees, it's like they built it just for her.
None of the others have noticed her. They're all much too busy looking at the other, stronger tributes.
It makes it easy to slip through, making a break for the tree line just as soon as she's secured a small backpack of supplies.
Rue only looks back once she's safely hidden in the trees. Katniss is running in the same direction, dropping and dodging, keeping low. Her height can be a disadvantage now, especially when compared to Rue. It's that which makes it so impressive once she starts to climb.
The girl on fire.
Rue doesn't really like fire much, but she loves the sun. Here inside this big glass bowl -- big enough that it really could fit all the names from the District, from every District, and even the Capitol too -- she thinks that she might just start to miss the feeling of real sunlight.
Everything here is false. Even the weather.
Early on, it's easiest just to keep out of sight, avoid conflict for as long as possible. She's hungry and cold, but the hunger is something Rue's so accustomed to that it's like having a friend from home curled up in a tree with her.
The cold is harder to grow used to, but wearing the extra socks on her hands instead of her feet keep all exposed skin hidden from the pressing winds. That was something her father taught her, though his warning had been about heat.
In the nightmares now she and Katniss are both running, but they're on the ground. Every time they try to climb the branches snap and give way underfoot.
They are both too clumsy, too slow moving on the earth, and the sounds of the monsters grow closer.
From high up, the smoke points a clear path through the rest of the forest. It says: here lies danger. Here is death.
Rue turns and climbs the other way. She moves from one tree to the next where possible and avoids the routes where the press of the trees is less thick. She keeps far ahead of the smoke and fire, and only goes still once she hears the sounds of footsteps snapping branches below.
There are people coming along the ground, moving fast.
The first few days have been easy. The tall, strong ones from the far off Districts are so concerned with stalking their small prey across the ground, nobody ever thinks to look up.
She smiles as she hears them bickering, dropping herself down flat against the branch to listen closer.
They're speaking about something.
It's Katniss. The girl with the mockingly on her chest is curled up in a nearby tree just a few feet below where Rue is hiding.
The big ones shout something up to her and she shouts back. Then she starts to climb.
Just like the rest of them, she's too busy looking down to see what's right in front of her. Once Katniss stops climbing she's just inches below. If Rue were feeling brave or maybe just stupid, she could move further out along her branch, reach down, and tug on loose wisps of the other girl's hair.
They are close enough that the ragged breathing coming from Katniss is an audible whistle in the air. It isn't the same as the sound Rue's birds make at home, but it's a comfort over the usual silence in the trees of this fake forest.
When night comes, if they're both still breathing, Rue decides she will move in closer. She will find a way to align herself with the strange girl who looks nothing like anyone Rue has ever known from home but still wears a bird close to her heart.
The girl who was on fire might be the closest thing to real sunlight Rue will see in a while.