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There's Another River on the Other Side

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They gave her wings. They dressed her in gossamer and tinsel and the stuff of dreams, and boiled her hair down to rest in neat furrows on her skull, and they let her tell all the people of Panem that she could fly.

It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either.

If Rue could fly, she could have saved Katniss from the trap.

Say she couldn’t. Say she didn’t. Say she got there a second too late, say she saw the net draw up and the spear fly in. Say she fired her slingshot into big Marvel’s eye and let him bleed out in the leaves, and say Katniss fell there with an arrow on the string and an ear still ringing, ringing with apples and bombs and Cato’s curses. Say Katniss, arrowhead Katniss, with her long smooth braid and her sharp grey eyes and her strange ideas, reached up from the net and held on tight, and asked Rue to sing.

What could she sing?

-

The mockingjays whistle, four notes, one chord, all blended in the air like clouds into sunset. Katniss coughs blood, and Rue holds her tight, lets the stain spread on her thigh so that it doesn’t mix in with the rest on Katniss’ face. “Every last bit,” Katniss says, much as she can say anything now, and tries to smile. “They’ll starve. Not like us.”

“Not like us,” Rue agrees. She runs her hands through Katniss’ hair, lets them get caught in the braid. She knows, somehow, that this has to happen, that Katniss has to die now so they don’t have to face each other later. It still hurts like hitting the ground.

“Take my pin,” Katniss says. “My token. Take it.” She breathes, she shakes, she holds on tight. Her bow jabs Rue in the hipbone. “Take it and win.”

Rue does, and pins it to her rope necklace like a new charm. “I will. I promise.”

“Sing,” Katniss says, with what voice she has left. “Sing. Please.”

And Rue would have done it even if she never asked.

She sings of freedom, left feet marked on trees, rivers and rivers and rivers and ice. She sings of stars that point you north, like the hands of a clock, eleven to twelve and the wilds beyond. She sings about where souls go, creeks with no rapids, babbling through their mouths into streams and rivers and the big salt sea, where the water carries you close when you can’t walk anymore. She sings, and Katniss dies in her arms, arrowhead Katniss with her sharp grey eyes and her strange ideas and her mockingjay pin on Rue’s throat.

And Rue unwinds the net into a ring, a long torn ring looped wide enough that if Katniss had wings they could breach the circle. The spear in Katniss’ chest is like the arrow in her pin, and Rue curls up Katniss’ body and throws back her arms, builds her wings of wildflowers so she can break free. She touches her lips and says goodbye the way Twelve says goodbye, a kiss of three fingers and a gust of air to start Katniss on her way.

A parachute falls from the sky. For a moment, it blocks out the sun, and Rue stares up into its shadow. A fresh cooked groosling lands in her arms, basted in spices and dripping with fat. But groosling or not, it doesn’t smell like home, and its skin is streaked black with charcoal.

“I’m sorry,” she says, to the cameras and eyes above her, and wipes away her tears so she can look back. “I’m sorry Peeta, and I’m sorry Prim, and I’m sorry Mister Haymitch, and I’m sorry District Twelve. I love what I know of you. And I thank you. But I’m going to win.” The mockingjay pin is between the bones that hold her shoulders to her neck. She covers it with her hand, and swears. “I’m going to win.”

-

She flies to the meadow, Thresh’s meadow, with its tall cool grass and golden quicksand. The trees taper off like stragglers coming home, limping out of the forest and into the field, and Rue can’t hide anymore. She runs because just like before, the words have given her wings, There’s been a rule change, the man with the voice says, in light of a petition from the citizens of the Capitol: if the final two tributes are from the same District, they can both be declared winners. So she flies, because it’s Thresh and his meadow and she knows, knows, he wants to be free.

But she comes to him, in the place he’s chosen, because here, he almost is.

Thresh is here and strong and fed. Thresh is the lone tree on a flat gold plain, the lightning tree, the meeting tree. The grass brushes Rue’s cheeks as she scrambles through it, making as little sound as she can, just enough so he’d know not to hunt her.

They talked, much as Thresh talked about anything, back out there in the Training Center, there on the eleventh floor. Chaff told them, Chaff told them “Never each other. The Games aren’t about winning, not for us. Win if you can, die if you have to, but that’s a rule I lay down right here. How many victors we have in Eleven? Six, and three of ‘em still breathing. Figuring weight for age there should be four, and there ain’t, and I’m telling you why.

“This man, and he don’t have a name now, he was after my time but before all yours. He was thin as a rake, a climber like you, Rue, tree to tree. That’s how he killed, like hauling up baskets, looped himself wire and sliced off their heads without ever touching that ground. And that’s how he killed the girl he came with, once there wasn’t much more he could kill. And he won. Oh, he won all right.

“And he starved to death after his Victory Tour, in his big victor’s house, on the hottest day of the year.

“Never each other,” Chaff said, like he’s saying it now in the back of Rue’s head, “never each other. We let them make us killers, but we don’t let them make us animals. Ain’t worth winning if you gamble your soul.”

And the rain comes down, flattens the grass, makes the snakes revel and roll and the rabbits burrow down under their pale hills. The quicksand turns to slow mud, creeps up and swallows the reeds, and if the sun came out it could freeze the meadow into a desert.

Good thing Thresh doesn’t hide either. Not from her. Never each other.

“Together?” Thresh asks, shouldering his sickle and the snakes he’s killed.

“Together,” Rue agrees. “It’s not just us. The big boy and Clove are still alive, and Juniper from Five. And Peeta. I think they were making the rule for Katniss and Peeta, but Katniss—”

“I saw her in the sky,” Thresh says. “You kill her?”

“No.” There are baskets and bottles all around, gathering the rain, but no tent to keep dry in. Rue has Katniss’ backpack now, with the sleeping bag and the plastic sheet and the iodine. She shows it all to Thresh, tells him, “She died for me. She died for me and I killed the boy from One for killing her. I shot him through the eye.”

Thresh nods, accepts it. He thanks Katniss for the food, lifts a leg of groosling up into the rain and lowers his eyes. They eat, and Thresh doesn’t have to say much after that, just shows Rue where he’s been storing his food and his tools and his water, his hollow underground where the roots of the lone tree splinter overhead. They sleep there, and warm themselves in Katniss’ sleeping bag, and Thresh lets Rue cry.

“I wanted her to live,” Rue says. “I wanted her to go home to her sister. She didn’t have anybody else. She brought her boy here with her, and he won’t go home without her. So I wanted her to live.”

“Can you want you to live instead?” Thresh asks, his voice like his heart in her ear.

“I can,” she says. “I wanted me to live before, too. I wanted all of us to live.”

-

The rain doesn’t stop. The field soaks through, and the earth crumbles over them, streaks the sleeping bag brown.

“They’re gonna come for us,” Thresh says. “Cato and Clove. Either they come, or the Gamemakers make them.”

“So we wait?” Rue asks.

“No. We go.”

The rain doesn’t stop but the parachutes fall, once Rue tells the sky the same, we go, we go. Nuts and bolts to repair Thresh’s sickle, round shot for Rue’s sling. Bread from home, wrapped up and warm and thick with seeds for them to share on the way. And one more gift that doesn’t come from Chaff and Seeder, not with the coal-black thumbprint on the box’s rough edge: three loose matchsticks to struggle to keep dry, trudging out of the wet and into the woods.

They’re already on their way when the man with the voice calls them to a feast, says it’s to the Cornucopia with them, there’s something there you need. Tomorrow at dawn.

“But we don’t need,” Rue says, holding the backpack close. She’s no hungrier than normal, she’s no sadder than she should be, and now she has Thresh, and they have each other, for eyes and height and time. “What’s there for us?”

“A chance,” Thresh says, and Rue understands.

-

The night-vision goggles come out. There’s a crater in the earth where the food used to be, the muck of burnt apples and warped metal and waste. Katniss blew it all up, every last bit. Rue tells Thresh that, tells him the story, and he smiles. “They won’t look there,” Thresh says, and Rue hides herself in the rubble, lets Thresh stalk off into the trees. They know. Whatever it is at the feast, they’ll both run for it, and one of them’ll get it and whatever else is there, whatever Cato and Clove and Juniper need, and take it to the meadow.

Rue doesn’t sleep. The smell keeps her up, the mud and the fire standing hard against yesterday’s rain.

A mockingjay shrieks, the way roosters crow for dawn, and the ground opens up in front of the Cornucopia. A long low table rises, numbered backpacks laid out clear, mighty 2, modest 5, vast 11 and meager 12. Rue makes a break for it soon as she sees the earth clam up, and still she’s not the first one there. That’s Juniper, out the Cornucopia’s mouth and taking her pack from the table without a second thought. Rue keeps running until her chest hits the table’s edge, until her hands close around the straps of her pack, 11, her and Thresh’s chance, whatever the Gamemakers say it is.

And then hot red pain shoots down the back of Rue’s shoulder, before the straps of the pack settle over it.

It’s Clove, tall heavy Clove, hair like her name smoky and hard, knives for fingers. But she can’t catch Rue, and if she can’t catch Rue she can’t kill her, and shoulder or no shoulder Rue grabs all she can and runs, runs, runs. Bag 2 gets left behind but Rue’s still got 11 and 12, 11 on her back with the sleeping bag for armor and for staunching the blood from her shoulder and 12 on her wrist. Clove’s feet pound the earth, her breath slices the air, and Rue’s wheeling through the forest and carrying too much to fly. Clove grabs her by the hair and throws her down, down in the leaves and the blood, jams her heel into Rue’s belly and makes Rue cough fire and bile and yesterday’s bread.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Clove slinks down like a cat. “You and that hick and her arrows.” The leaves crunch and Rue thinks her back is going to break, the way Clove’s smothering her, trying to get her knives to Rue’s face, throat, anything. Rue doesn’t let her. Rue won’t let her. “Well, don’t you worry, little Rue, you’ll see Katniss again—”

“You’ll see her first, Clove,” someone else says, and the hand of the devil shoots out of the earth and drags Clove down.

Rue scrambles back, back and away, but it’s the earth itself, raspy and hollow. The leaves swallow Clove’s legs to the knee and she’s screaming, flailing like a coon in a trap. Her knife falls out of her hand and Rue knows to grab it, knows to take it up and take Clove down and stab her until she stops screaming. She does. Clove’s face explodes in red, and her chest, her arms, they burst like berries. She sinks down to the ground and coughs until her cannon fires.

The earth doesn’t take Clove any deeper. But it asks, “Rue? Is that you?”

“It is,” she says, because she can’t say anything else. Her breath’s coming short and her eyes are smoking at the sides, thick with tears.

Clove’s body rolls to the side, and Peeta lifts his head out of the leaves, and she only knows it’s Peeta from the gold in his hair, gold that not even wheat or the sun or grapes on the vine can grow. “Can you still fight?” he asks her, out of a mouth of mud and blood and leaves.

“I can,” she says, because it’s true. “I did. I will.” All true.

“That makes one of us,” he says. He smiles. Rue likes his smile, like a bright half-moon. “Go help Thresh, okay? He can live too.”

“You can live too.”

“Not without Katniss,” he says.

The ground peels away over his rotten thigh and Rue believes him.

“I got this for you,” she says, and tries to give him the little 12 bag, even if it’s covered in the blood from her shoulder.

His hands come up to cradle hers. Like this, like the earth, they’re almost like Thresh’s hands, pale and wet at the palms, hard and dark at the shells, knuckles like peaks. “I know what’s in it. You’ll need it for your arm. Or for Thresh. Cato’s the one who cut me, and he doesn’t clean his sword, just sharpens it. Save it for Thresh. Win this for me. For me and for Katniss.”

“Like I promised her.”

“Keep your promise.”

She reaches down her knuckles for him to kiss. His eyes drift to the pin on her throat, and then glass over, white flooding the blue like a summer storm.

“I wish I could have kept mine,” he says, before his cannon fires too.

-

She flies.

There’s no one to hear her now, is there?, so it doesn’t matter how hard she runs, how her feet crush the leaves and the wet gold grass, how the snakes rear up and spit at her like they’re playing pigeons with her blood. Backpack, backpack, backpack and running, out of the trees and into the fields and tracking, hunting the hunters hunting each other. Her arm hangs on by threads, she thinks, until she can’t feel it at all, just the wind in the wound, beating through the threads of her jacket. Cato and Thresh leave a trail, bent reeds and blood and smears of earth, and Rue doesn’t struggle to follow it, to run until the air in the back of her throat turns to fire. She’s dry. She drinks. She opens the 11 pack and finds what was making this all so heavy, a carton of gasoline. And she hates it, hates it when they could have sent her water, when there aren’t cherrypickers or carts to drive, but maybe Thresh knows something she doesn’t and she puts it back in the bag and takes water from the other instead, drinks as she runs. She’s fast. She has to be fast. She has to be faster than them, faster than the boys running for their lives.

It’s night when she hears them, the ringing of swords and the rending of earth and a strange plastic clanging. Their voices come after, and Cato talks filthy and big. How he has the breath to curse that loud when he’s fighting Thresh, Rue doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know. But they’re fighting in the dark, in the flashes of the faces of the tributes overhead, Clove, and then Peeta, Peeta clean and gold and smiling up there with the stars.

Then Cato falls at Rue’s feet, brained with a rock.

Thresh looks up through the dark, fading with the pictures.

Cato’s cannon fires before they reach each other’s arms, and Thresh’s wild heartbeat is an echo, an echo, an echo.

-

“What do we know about Juniper?” she asks him, under their tree, sparing a match to clean a needle and light the way to sewing up her arm and Thresh’s cheek. His ear’s gone, though, all gone, food for the snakes in the grass.

“Haven’t seen her since we started,” he says.

“Neither have I.” And that’s enough to know.

-

Little backpack 12 has medicine to rip the poisons from your blood. They share it, clean the syringe between with fire, for compromise. And the fire cooks yesterday’s snakes and warms up the groosling and what’s left of the bread. They eat all they can, except the nightlock in Katniss’ old orange backpack, which stays where it is.

In the morning, they drain a bottle of water between them, and fill it halfway with the gasoline. They take a match each, and an arm of Cato’s armor, but Thresh takes the most of it because it fits him better. They pass the place where Cato died, where the hovercraft mowed the gold grass down, and split off to the north and the south.

Rue cries all through pouring out her half of the fuel. The fumes make her dizzy, too giddy to sing. But she whistles to the mockingjays, fly free, fly now, shift’s over, and strikes her match at noon.

And from there it’s a race, around the edges and away, and it’s not the first time that this forest has burned, not even the first time this week, these Games, but it burns like it wants to. It burns like she wants it to.

You smoke out a thief how you smoke out a fox how you smoke out a traitor. Rue knows and circles the forest as it burns, and waits. The smoke curls overhead and gathers like clouds, bounces on the hot high ceiling. Juniper scrambles out of the trees, her hair on fire, not just like fire, on fire, her pale spider-arms blistering silver. Rue slingshots her, and she falls. Thresh makes the rest of it quick.

The smoke turns to clouds, and the rain comes down, and the hovercraft takes Juniper away. The forest still stands, charred but eternal, and the mockingjays perch back on their trees. Rue sings, sings that it’s over, sings that the floods have come down, and the birds sing too, with her, drowning out the rain. Thresh holds her close, and he laughs, and she tells him, sing too, sing now, sing because we’re free.

But the man with the voice says, No.

No.

No, the rules are the same as they were. No, only one of you walks out alive. No, we’ve built you up and burned you down, and we’re making you animals, District Eleven. You kill or be killed. You kill your own.

So Rue says No too.

And she opens her arms. Her clothes hang wet. Cato’s armor shines slick on her arm, over the red scar, dripping through her skin. She opens her arms and says, “Thresh, I can’t. We’re family, and I can’t. And they can’t blame you if I can’t.”

“I can blame me,” he says. And his sickle is broken, broken since Cato, but the blade’s enough and Rue sees him go for it, raise his wrists to the curve.

No,” she says, again and again, and puts herself between them.

“Never each other,” Thresh shakes his head. Chaff’s words, Seeder’s words, traveling on, “Never each other.”

“Only ourselves.”

The nightlock is in Katniss’ old bag, buried berries reeking of mud and leftover gasoline. Thresh knows what they are as well as Rue, easy as pie, poison pie. She gives him half her handful like he gave her half his water, stands sure in his arms as the rain comes down.

“My brother,” she says, “my family. Never each other.”

“Only ourselves. Together.”

“Together.”

They bite down, together.

And the man with the voice says a different No, and his hovercrafts block out the rain.

-

Together, together, together, apart. They treat Rue while she sleeps, sleep her with drugs and sweet thickness in her veins. She dreams of Katniss and fire and faces in the sky, of dogs with wild Clove eyes and poison on her claws. She dreams of blood that pours out berries. She dreams that they stitch shut her back with bone needles and it spreads out like gooseflesh, like strawberry skin, seeds on the outside. She dreams they grow. She wakes up and she’s still dreaming, wrapped in white sheets and metal bars and smaller than she’s ever been, planted in the mattress ground. She wakes up, and Seeder is holding her hand.

“You made it, honey,” Seeder says, all touch but no smiles. “You won, Rue. You’re here.”

“Thresh too?” Her voice is small but it rings, rings, rings.

“Thresh too.”

“His ear?”

“With Chaff’s hand,” Seeder says, holding Rue’s tight. “And Chaff’s with him. He’s been awake longer than you.”

It feels like too much to hope, but she asks, “We can both win? They’re letting us both win?”

“They have to. You both did.”

Rue believes that. Rue has to believe that. The second part, but not the first. We won, we won, but the man with the voice and the man with the roses can take that away.

-

There’s a strange man with Mister Trajan in the prep room, strange in that he isn’t strange, strange in that he’s just a plain man in a black sweater when the rest of the prep team is like ceramic birds parading around a vase. Rue’s quiet like she’s always quiet when she comes in a room, watches them, listens to them. The plain man has gold around his eyes but nothing else that shines. Mister Trajan’s eyes only shine angry, shine sad, shine like the plain man isn’t wanted here.

“I thought we agreed that we weren’t gonna interfere in each other’s work,” Trajan says.

“I’m not interfering,” the plain man says. “I’m bringing a gift. Haymitch wants her to wear these.”

“Last I checked, Haymitch had nothing to do with District Eleven except getting drunk with Chaff. And last I checked, you turned District Eleven down.” Trajan has a smile that’s big like he is, bright like he is, with perfect frothing-dog teeth. “Guess I should thank you, huh, Cinna? Is that what you really came here for?”

The plain man glares at Trajan, but then he sees Rue, and he lowers his eyes in apology. “Congratulations, Rue,” he says. “I’m Cinna, the stylist from District Twelve.”

“Hi,” she says, “and thank you, Mister Cinna.”

He comes away from Trajan, brings his parcel up to Rue. “This was going to be for Katniss,” he says. “Do you want to wear it?”

Rue smiles at him. “If Mister Trajan says it’s all right.”

“Fine,” Trajan says, “what is it?”

“Wings,” Cinna says.

“I already made her wings.”

“Not like this.” Cinna hands down the package to Rue, and it’s true, these are heavier than the light fairy wings, and Rue can feel the shape of feathers under the garment bag, wide starched feathers like an angel or a bird. “And you can take the credit if that’s what you want, Trajan.”

“Nah,” Trajan says. “You take it. We don’t interfere in each other’s work.” But he smiles, and he lets Rue unwrap the wings, peeling a feather at a time.

And they put her on stage in black and white, with the wings of the Mockingjay stretched out behind her, so that when she runs into Thresh’s arms and touches his face, smooth where the ear’s still gone, it looks like he caught her but can’t cage her. It looks like she’s flown home.

-

“What was going through your head, Rue, when you remembered the berries?”

“I just knew I couldn’t kill Thresh,” she says, truly truly truly, “and I knew he couldn’t kill me. That’s not how we treat each other, back home in District Eleven. If I had my way I would’ve let everyone live, all the tributes, Peeta and Katniss and Juniper and even Cato and Clove, but I couldn’t, ‘cause they were all playing by the rules. And then when they changed the rules I was just so glad, I mean, gladder that it was Thresh, but I was so thankful, that someone out there had said it would be okay for two of us not to die. Not just one. Anything more than one is still more than one, anything that lets two of us out together is better than none, better than no one. And I knew, before, I’d have to find Thresh, I’d have to make sure that both of us could make it out. But I found him, and we did this together, and just as I was sure we’d both be okay they took that change away. And all I could think was no.”

“No?”

“No, Mister Flickerman.” Rue lowers her eyes, but the smile starts all on its own. “No, they can’t give us something and take it away. No, they can’t make me kill the man who’s like my brother. No, they can’t make my brother kill me, can’t turn us out of people and into animals. Just no. And that’s all I could hear, and I remembered Katniss’ berries, and Thresh said no too. It was for us. But it was also for you. For all of you who told us yes, before they told us no.”

-

Home isn’t there to greet her when she steps off the train.

There’s nothing there at all. There’s the smell of the train and the gravel of the square and the cold cold steps of the Justice Building, like someone washed the Reaping all away, like the rain came down outside too, the fire and then the rain. No cameras, no lights, no people all gathered. No celebration. The square is the square, clear as water, clear as a midsummer sky, and a fall of white roses is all that waits.

It’s scary enough that Seeder’s hand slips out of Rue’s, sweating all over. Scary enough they all look to Chaff, who hasn’t got a hand to hold. Scary enough that when someone runs through the quiet, smoke on her heels, Thresh goes for a sickle he doesn’t have, that Chaff puts an arm in front of them all to stave that off, to put himself first in line.

But Thresh pushes against it, shoulders Chaff out of the way. “Winnow.”

“Thresh, you have to get out of here,” she says, she who’s like Thresh from tip to toe, strong and broad and tall like the lightning tree. She runs up to the train, leans them all back in. There are blisters on her arms, her face, the base of her neck. “They came for us. They killed Gran, trapped her in the house while it burned. I ran. You have to run too.”

Thresh holds her by the arms, but it can’t keep his from shaking. “Who else?”

Winnow holds him tight, and looks down at Rue.

“All of them?” Rue asks, even though she already knows, down inside where parts of her are missing.

Winnow nods with her eyes.

It’s a haze, after that, a whirlwind, a brushfire. Chaff tells them to run, north, they’ll know the path when they see it, there should already be a breach in the fence, already a trail of Peacekeeper blood, Capitol blood. Thresh and Rue, together—they’ve been through hell, to the depths of hell, and now, climb out, climb out and don’t look back. Twelve. Go to Twelve. Follow the mockingjays. Rue hears all she can, heeds all the orders she can, knows one of them is keep quiet but right now she can’t. There are too many people to cry for.

But as long as she can run without stopping, Thresh lets her cry.

And there is, there is a breach in the fence, due north, and there are the stains of Peacekeepers cut down like grass, like wheat, like eggshells.

-

Never lose sight of the north star. If there isn’t a north star, follow the trees, there’s north in the trees, climbing up the trunks where no stars shine at all. Sing for the mockingjays, let them know you’re here. Hear them in the trees, see them on the boughs, and carved into the trunks, long beaks and little talons pointing you on.

It’s easier than the Games, it is, no mutts and no traps and no cameras, but they’re still prey. They run, and they gather, they drink from the rivers and cross where they can, follow old roads of iron north by northwest. No wings on their backs, only wings overhead, wings flapping like the tears that stop falling because they can’t be drunk back in.

Forests with trees like skin. Wolves with eyes like theirs. Mother, father, brothers, sisters, burned and buried and dead. Rue remembers them to Thresh, name after name, voice after voice, as they trudge up and on through the dark.

Running, it takes them a week. Thresh, who thrived in the Games, who knew to live off the land as much as what few gifts fell from the sky, survives for them both. No gifts fall here; no gifts fall now.

-

The forest ends in a meadow where a girl gathers flowers for the not-yet-dead. Her hands are stained green from tearing up the grass, but the rest of her is washed white, even her hair. Peeta, Rue thinks, and then the girl looks up, eyes on level with Rue’s, nose to nose a field’s length away, and Rue corrects herself.

“Primrose,” she says. The mockingjays take up the name, and wind sweeps the field, scatters the summer flowers.

“Rue.” Prim’s eyes lower to the pin on Rue’s necklace, Katniss’ pin, and she runs across the meadow, meets Rue halfway. Theirs is the hungry embrace of strangers, hiding their eyes in shoulders and tangled hair. The morning sun beats down on them, and Rue finds tears to cry when Prim’s begin, and Thresh guards them both.

There are worlds to say, but not much breath to say at all. Prim leads them back, through to the Seam, the blackwashed houses of the coal miners, grey like their eyes. Missus Everdeen is all Prim and no Katniss, her sad hollow eyes like slivers of a spent sky. But there’s a healer’s business to her and she’s probably just as dry of tears as Rue, maybe drier, so she sits Rue and Thresh down at their board and gives them a share of bakery bread and fresh goat cheese. The raisins are sweet and burst on Rue’s teeth.

“We have to get to Haymitch,” Thresh says, when all the thanks are given. “They can’t know we’re here.”

“Then you can’t go through town.” Missus Everdeen hangs her head, and tells Prim, “Go to Hazelle.”

-

Gale comes to them just like his name. The windows shudder and the hinges creak and Thresh is ruffled all through but doesn’t bend. Gale is his name, a storm in his eyes and through his hair, and his skin is like wood just barely dry enough to burn. He shuts the door behind him and Prim without a word, and stands in its shadow. Rue is close beside Thresh, close enough to hear the fire snap between his bones.

“What’s Snow done?” is the first thing Gale asks.

“What hasn’t he done?” is the first thing Thresh asks back.

“We’re still here,” Gale says, crossing his arms. “Is District Eleven?”

Rue doesn’t know. Thresh says nothing, nothing with words, but Gale reacts like Thresh is talking and all he says, then, is “C’mon.”

And it’s back to the meadow and then to the woods, with never the fence in sight. Rue holds Missus Everdeen and kisses Prim and says she knows it’s not the last but can’t be sure inside, and Gale takes her and Thresh under the fence.

It’s faster, knowing where they’re going, having Gale to guide, with the warmth and strength of Missus Everdeen’s food and Prim’s smile. Gale keeps close, lets Thresh learn the route and Rue learn the plants on the way, what they can keep if they need to run again. Gale feels, and lets it show, lets his anger shine like summer on his cheeks. It makes him glow like the corners of his unsprung traps where the wind’s rustled the leaves. Rue thinks of Peeta, his devil’s hand, his golden hair cracking through the mud. She looks for him in the earth with the goatsbeard and arrowhead.

The Victor’s Village in Twelve burns with afternoon, a cluster of great empty houses and overgrown squares of land that grows nothing. Haymitch lives in the second-to-last house, the only one that smells of electric lights and moonshine.

Haymitch had come to them in the Capitol, had tumbled in with Chaff at the candy-colored hours of the night. Rue was up early, before the sun in a place where the sun never shone at all as far as she could see. And they talked so close and so deep they didn’t notice her, three hands on the table and no cards. And Rue wouldn’tve listened if they hadn’t been talking about her and Thresh, Katniss and Peeta.

“Yours won’t turn on each other,” Haymitch had said, like it was a wonder, like butter and snow.

Chaff had laughed. “What, and yours will?”

“Hell, that girl’d turn on her own mother. You won’t believe what I’ve heard,” Haymitch had said. “I don’t know. But I meant what I did. This is the year.”

“I meant it too.”

“We’ll see.” And Haymitch had leaned back and barked out a laugh, then looked at Rue like a Peacekeeper, taskmaster, landlord, judge. “Or we could just ask her right now. How about it, Rue? Do you think you can win?”

Haymitch looks the same, smells the same, sounds the same, opening the door to his house. “They got you?” he says, hanging yellow and slack and poisonous but welcoming them all in.

“Like they got you,” Thresh says.

“Then we’d better get them right back.”

-

Rue doesn’t count the days, not here. The television counts them, and the meals, and the visits at the cellar door. Haymitch’s phone speaks of shortages, music and ribbons and freshwater pearls. Thresh asks the right questions, the wheres and whens and whiches. Gale brings Haymitch game and liquor and tells them about the new Head Peacekeeper in town, about the closure of the Hob. Prim brings a share of the baker’s bread.

It’s like the height of harvest, like two families in one home. Rue and Prim, sharing stories and singing and mourning if there’s time to mourn, as close to the windows as they dare. Thresh and Gale, deeper inside, chalking maps on Haymitch’s floor, laying loose bricks and corks as traps. The girls play at hope and the boys play at war, and all of them together know both are on the rise.

District Eleven burns, and the wind whips it north, carries it to freedom.

-

“But it’s all our fault—”

“No, Rue.”

“Then what? The Capitol killed our families, and now that we’ve run away, they’re—you see what they’re doing, Thresh, you hear the same as I do.”

“It’s not the Capitol.”

“But who else could?”

“We could,” Thresh says. “We did.”

Rue remembers the easy weight of the can of gasoline, the scent as it curled, ready to burn.

-

“Scorched earth,” Gale explains. “It’s the best way they could have done it, the way the district’s laid out.” He lays out corks and carvings and pebbles on Haymitch’s floor, chalks in the districts with a corner of coal. “If I were them I’d burn all the mansions where the foremen live. Eleven’s always the place they crack down first and hardest because they think it works.”

“It doesn’t,” Thresh says.

“No,” Gale agrees. The marker for the Capitol is an empty bottle in a nest of cork mountains, and District Two rings it in pebbles. “Not if they can’t move their forces from Three and Four.”

“Are Three and Four really in an uprising?” Rue asks, eyes the bones and rusty screws piled in the chalk.

“And Eight,” Gale says, “and from what I can hear Seven’s involved too but I don’t think they’re fighting yet. But look where they are. And look where Eleven is. The Capitol can’t send enough people to burn it down, not if there’s real fighting in the north and the west. And definitely not if we caught them with their pants down.”

The we snaps through the air like a broken wheel.

“Eleven needs us, though,” Gale points out, like he doesn’t even care what he just said, what he just bound himself up in, but Rue knows he knows. He taps his fingers on the lump of coal that’s placed as Twelve. “Look. If Seven’s involved, even if they’re not fighting yet, Twelve links it with Eleven. If we take control of the railways—”

“Let me guess, you’ll conduct the train.”

“...Mister Haymitch,” Rue says, hanging her head so she doesn’t have to see him at the top of the basement stairs. “Is it true?”

“True enough that I have to tell you to shut your traps about it.” He comes down the stairs, steps heavy enough that the boards don’t creak. “That is, unless I can get you to keep talking.”

“Don’t act like we don’t know what’s going on,” Gale says.

Haymitch laughs. “Then know what’s going on. Do you know what you’re risking if you bring the Capitol down on us?”

“The same as Eleven’s risked,” Gale says, “and Eight and Four and Three.”

“Wrong, kid. Coal doesn’t burn the same as wheat. It’s not just the surface you set on fire. Not here.”

Gale shivers, and Rue knows enough to know why. People go into the earth to die, here, and dead men are the reason Gale is Gale and Katniss was Katniss, like they’re the reason Rue is Rue now. Mister Hawthorne, Mister Everdeen. She knows Haymitch is speaking poetry the way Eleven speaks whistles and song, the way they’re speaking fire now.

“Then we bring them down quiet,” Gale says like the last crackle of a log. “We bring them down on the surface.”

“Then which one of you do I send to snuff the new head Peacekeeper in the dark?”

Gale raises his hand, like he’s got all the answers.

Thresh closes his hand over Gale’s, and brings it down for him. “Let them blame me.”

-

There’s a difference between Eleven and Twelve, as far as blame goes.

In Twelve, if they don’t catch you, they don’t blame you.

They don’t blame Thresh. They don’t catch him. He comes in through the cellar door with terror in his eyes so bright that Rue can see it through a ring of sleep.

“Thread and three others,” Thresh says when Rue asks, when Rue holds him close, part of her, all she has outside herself, her brother in all but blood. “I let them hear him scream.”

His breath is cold.

“The others died like Cato,” he says, and Rue understands.

-

Haymitch gives them no rest, because the district gives Haymitch no rest, because the district doesn’t rest, not now, not anymore. All Haymitch does is ask, “It’s done?” and wait for Thresh to nod his head. Rue is still holding him when he does, and his sweat pools on her shoulder.

“Then you two know what’s next,” Haymitch says, and no, Thresh doesn’t, and neither does Rue.

Haymitch goes to the map on the floor, the chalk and the coal and the crumbled wheat. He takes a coin out of his pocket, and sets it down east, at the farthest reaches of Eleven where the rivers run out to sea, where the ground is the wrong green to grow, where the wolves have human eyes.

“Sometime tonight, the fence comes down,” Haymitch says. “We’re getting as many of our people out as we can. I need you to lead them, Rue.”

“Lead them where?” she asks, when she means, what, me, no, because those words won’t come out.

Haymitch laughs. “Didn’t Chaff and Seeder tell you the way?”

-

It’s all sparks but no fire when the fence comes down, like a war in the sky. Heat is a haze and smoke is a curl, like a hungry hand reaching for a higher branch. What fire there is is Gale, all Gale, tearing the chains of the fence apart almost as soon as Thresh slices them undone. And then the first wave leaves like there are dogs on their heels, all the miners and merchants at the center of town, as many as can be spared to pave the way. Thresh is with them, with Rue, always with Rue. Gale won’t, Gale comes later, only after he can be sure his family is free. He and Thresh say nothing and everything to each other, talk like they talk in District Eleven when there’s Peacekeepers about.

And there are. But Rue’s supposed to get out before they catch her. And if they can’t catch her, they can’t kill her.

They run through the woods, they meet in the meadow. Missus Everdeen and Prim come with hundreds from the Seam, children and elderly and people too afraid to fight. Rue meets all of Gale’s brothers and sister and holds them like they’re her own, like they could be her own. They flock around Thresh like little brown birds on a big brown branch, and that they can laugh means Rue can sing. The meadow fills up like a lake of ducks in spring or a field of geese in fall, and Rue can’t count, can’t think to count, how this many could follow her.

So she doesn’t count. She sings.

She sings to follow the Mockingjay. She sings to follow the river, to follow the sun as it rises, to follow the iron tracks rusted to orange and gold. There’s another river on the other side, the song said in Eleven, and that’s the river they’re following now, and when it meets the biggest river everything runs East.

She sings, and even the birds listen.

She sings, and even the birds follow.

-

This time, she counts the days, because she can’t count the dead. Counting the dead is left to Thresh and Missus Everdeen and Prim, who keeps as many of them alive as she and her mother and the healers from the town center can. When Gale asks if Rue wants to know the numbers, either way, living or dead, she tells him no. Not until they’re done. Not until they’re free. The dead are free, and the living will be soon, and the great big river flows east by southeast.

They tramp through the woods and over the low mountains, hollowed out by dynamite and hell from the skies. So many can gather and several can hunt but mostly they run, keep to the river with bowls and boots full of iodine and moss to drink it clean but not clear. The birds carved on the trees show them the way, beaks and wings and peg feet all carved deep as family.

The birds are Chaff’s, she realizes, Chaff’s or someone like him, someone before him, someone before Panem, before the Dark Days, before electric fences and jabberjays and cool white roses.

River meets river and escape meets escape and Twelve meets Eleven like harvest, like hope, like victory.

The last leg of the railroad, they take together. And five thousand strong, they fly to the ocean, and perch on the concrete boughs of District Thirteen.

-

President Coin changes the number to fifty-one hundred seventy four, because she has to find homes and food and a kind of work for all these people, but she’s thankful and hopeful and Rue can see it in her face. Fifty-one hundred seventy-four, sick and exhausted and hungry but here, here Coin will feed them and free them. She darkens the ink they use for their handprint schedules so Eleven’s people can see them on their arms.

Thirteen is warm and underground and grey, but Rue still flies through the halls, learning it and seeing it and finding all she can. She asks about Chaff, and Coin says Chaff is in and out, ferrying people up from Eleven and starting fires and spreading whistles on the hot west wind. She asks about Seeder, and Seeder is here, Rue can see her soon, Seeder is keeping in contact with other victors and other resistances and even some people in the Capitol. Rue tells Coin what Haymitch and Gale and all them in Twelve are doing and Coin says she already knows, and it’s thanks to Seeder and her friends across Panem.

They walk, and Coin explains, and Thresh follows. It’s been waiting years, over twenty years, since Haymitch came to Thirteen and left knowing what was what. It’s been waiting longer than that, waiting since Chaff, since Seeder, since so many to hope and seek and follow. Thirteen has been waiting in the shadows like a fox come to steal your basket, like a thief come to raid your house.

“And we can’t thank you enough,” Coin tells her, tells her and takes her by the hand over the ink that says where, when, what. “You’re our Mockingjay. You sang your people here, and soon, you’ll sing the world to peace.”

-

Seeder just holds her, just holds her and tells her nothing at all.

-

Plutarch comes with spring, and news, and games. Plutarch is a round red man with a voice like a saw and Rue knows she’s seen him somewhere before. He laughs at jokes that Coin doesn’t really make, and he says things that make Mister Boggs blush up to his eyebrows, and even if he’s Capitol Capitol Capitol Rue can’t hate him.

Thresh makes a map on the wall of what everyone calls Command and Plutarch loves every inch of it, every curve and symbol and most of the plans. He puts his hand on Thresh’s cheek and says, “I’m sorry,” and Thresh stands and takes it and says, “I lived. It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, well,” Plutarch says, “it matters a lot that you live. More than you know, more than you know.”

Plutarch comes with cameras and scripts and a problem only he can see. “The Capitol doesn’t know as much about your rebellion as it should,” he says. “Sure, you’ve rung them in, and when the noose draws tight they’ll feel it, but this isn’t about overthrowing them. This is about changing them. This is about still having a country when it’s all over, not another Dark Days. How much of the south is burning?”

“Enough that they can feel it in the west,” Seeder says.

“Yes, yes,” Plutarch says. “But look.”

It is a noose, Rue sees that now, Three and Four in the west, Ten and Eleven in the south, and from Twelve to Eight to Seven crossing east to north. Plutarch traces it counter-clockwise. “You still need a knot,” he says.

Seeder holds Rue’s hand about as tight.

-

Trajan and the Prep Team come like flat glass angels, all light and no touch. They’re smaller, somehow, and Rue would think I’ve grown but it’s only been an autumn and the start of a winter. Trajan shrinks most, like a rock in a river, still shining and smooth but with all the texture gone.

Beetee comes next, and how, no one’s quite sure. One day, there are hummingbirds filling Command, nosing at every screen like woodpeckers, let me out, let me out. Beetee is with them, but nothing about him touches the screen, all from the other side, like a face in a box. Sometimes a woman with tangled hair stands behind him, with heavy happy eyes leading the birds.

Between them, all of them, they give Rue wings again, wings she can’t see except on the television. There are cameras, and Cressida, and a green screen.

They tell Rue to imagine the Games again, and Rue doesn’t need to. Imagine the fire? No need, it’s all around her. Imagine the smell of gasoline and flesh and hate. Imagine the smoke in the sky with nowhere to go but the rain, and imagine the rain never comes.

The rain never comes in Rue’s dreams.

She raises her arms, and they tell her there will be wings, black and white as ash.

Don’t look, Rue, they tell her.

Just sing.

Beetee and Trajan will take care of the rest.

-

So she sings.

Or she speaks, and the sounds become songs, the way the birds speak to each other, rhythm and hope. She tells the world to burn, to fallow, that there will be nothing left for the Capitol to take, so the people will take the Capitol. She tells the world that it gave her wings and she will rise above the fire, and lead her people there just like she led them here. She tells Panem that it is free.

She watches the broadcast replayed and replayed. The green screen is gone, leaving fire and feathers and sky. She is the Mockingjay.

So she sings.

-

Twelve burns because she sings.

Twelve wasn’t supposed to burn at all, the way Rue’s and Thresh’s families weren’t supposed to burn at all, the way the arena wasn’t supposed to burn at all but Thresh and Rue burned it anyway. Coin and Plutarch and everyone in Command say it was inevitable, say Twelve was the weakest link in the chain, or the fray of the noose, and if the Capitol had to strike anywhere it would be there, to burn the most with less. The Capitol runs on fear, Coin says, and a blow against Twelve is meant to be a blow against Eleven and Thirteen.

It isn’t. Rue says over and over, it isn’t, it can’t be.

So Gale comes, like ash drifting down from the clouds in place of rain, all too much at once. He comes, and he comes straight to Command, and Thresh is there to greet him. Theirs is the embrace of brothers, or brothers-in-arms, with more arms to take up than they have to wrap around each other. Gale bleeds, old half-open wounds, and no one dares clean him up until the word is given.

“Haymitch?” Chaff asks.

Gale shakes his head, no. “My trap,” he explains. “Haymitch sprung it for me and told me to run.”

There is no alcohol in District Thirteen. There’s none in Twelve either, the way Gale describes the trap, the way Haymitch made sure that if we burned, they burned with us. Booze and gas and coal, he said. Scorched earth. The very traps he told Gale not to set, so many weeks ago.

“Here’s to a dead hypocrite,” Chaff says, with tears at the corners of his eyes. He toasts with his coffee. Command follows suit.

-

Finnick comes with a train and a small army, and no one knows what to do with him.

He comes with stories and laughter and a strange kind of sunshine that starts behind his eyes and works its way down. He comes with a sawed-off shotgun like the foremen carried in the shadows of Eleven, guns too big to down a bird with but just the right size to stop a worker trying to run. He comes with a woman he says is his wife at last, and she never leaves his side, like she’s part of Finnick’s coat, an extra sleeve, a hood, a weight in the hem so it lays just so. Her name is Annie, and Rue remembers her from a Games not so long ago. She carries more knives and needles than she has fingers, and they’re clean, all so clean.

Finnick comes because the rebels have taken the railroads. And he kisses his wife and holds her flush to his side and looks Coin in the eye and tells her, “Pull it tight. If it’s a noose after all, pull it tight.”

He fights with Plutarch. Rue doesn’t blame him.

And soon enough, Rue’s not the only one in front of the green screen, telling the Capitol what it is and what it’s done and who needs to be saved.

When it gets to the worst, Annie covers Rue’s ears. “I didn’t want to hear it either,” she tells Rue. “Not now, not ever. You shouldn’t know.”

-

The call comes when Trajan and Cressida are editing in the sun and the feathers and the music, twists of Rue’s song like bread swelling in an oven. Trajan takes the phone and doesn’t smile, just twirls the cord in his long lean fingers and stares beyond the screens.

“Yes?—Ha, and why should I believe you?—Cinna—Cinna, where are you?—You fucking idiot, don’t do this, not for me—Well that’s fair. It’s not.” Trajan’s hand shakes enough that the spring of the cord contracts, expands, contracts, expands. “It should’ve been you in here, you know.—Fine. Fine—Cinna? Cinna, wait—no—Cinna, I—”

As far away as she is, Rue knows the phone is dead.

Trajan stops editing the propo to tell Command, we’re all dead by morning.

-

There is a deeper underground than District Thirteen. There are tunnels of endless grey too rough to echo, but oh do they ever shake from the outside, the upside, the ceiling. Thousands walk them now, with grey blankets, grey clothes, grey eyes.

The lights go out, and the people survive, and Rue sings. She sings because they owe their lives to a man she only met once, a man who ser another girl on fire. She sings because the rhythm overhead has no beat, and her heart is loud enough to break through the roaring overhead as the missiles tear through the earth like bloodhounds. She sings because there’s nothing but song down here, no sun and no fire and no life.

She sings. The world sings with her, because the world has shrunk to this hole in the ground, a cave without shadows, and everyone with ears to hear them learns her songs by rote.

They listen to her when they can’t look.

They listen to her because there is nothing to see.

-

The hummingbirds flit from district to district on Thresh’s map, and Beetee’s voice is garbled by distance and new copper wires. The bird’s beak points like a little sunbeam filtered through dirty glass. “Three and Four are jointly mobilized,” Beetee says, “which holds the west and southwest. Ten and Eleven, south and southeast. Has Chaff reported in?”

“Soon as he could, after the bombing,” Seeder says. “We’re as good to go as we’ll ever get.”

The hummingbird nods for Beetee. Rue holds her fingers out, lets it land on her palm. She can’t feel its little talons, just buzz and light. “And the North?” Beetee asks.

Finnick takes out his shotgun and waves it, just a little hello. “Where do you think I got this? Johanna’s been ready to go as long as the rest of us.”

“Yes but is the rest of the district ready?”

“Ask her yourself, if you can get ahold of her.”

“Well, I suppose that’s answer enough.” The bird flits back to the map, and sets Gale’s and Thresh’s faces aglow on the way. “After all, the only thing between us and them is a standing army.”

“A standing army doesn’t do them any good if it’s also a starving army,” Plutarch says, and only he laughs at his joke.

“Starving hasn’t done anyone in this country good,” Coin says.

Rue may not think it’s funny, but she does understand.

-

“I’m going,” Thresh says.

Rue just holds him and tells him nothing, nothing at all.

-

They leave her behind.

Beetee leaves, with a click and snap of hummingbirds. Command goes silent, as silent as the underground, and then all the screens wash down to flat colors, tables and circles and letters that fly by too fast. Coin buzzes, and Plutarch laughs, but Boggs stands aside, an eye on Coin like a foreman who knows his workers are up to no good, like you smoke out a fox, like you smoke out a traitor.

Finnick leaves, with Annie and her knives and a train that brims with soldiers spilt over the boxcars like a bumper harvest.

Thresh leaves, and Gale beside him. They’re not on the same squad, and Rue knows it chafes at them. Gale is a sharpshooter, trapmaker, bomber. Thresh is a killer who sees in the dark. Rue cries, because what they’re doing is beautiful and horrid, and watches them stand, hands clasped, for as long as they can.

Rue wonders at the map on the wall of Command and traces all the paths Thresh left, left foot, peg foot, traveling on. The soldiers tell her to keep her hands off the walls.

And when the war begins, as if it had not begun a year ago, Rue has nothing left to do but stand by the green screen and sing.

They’ll edit the wings in later, they tell her.

Later.

When everyone still living can see.

For now, they can hear.

***