When I break into the clearing, she's on the ground, hopelessly entangled in a net. The career pack is nowhere to be seen.
"Left!" Rue shouts, and I look that way just in time to dodge a spear thrust to the gut.
The boy from District 1 stumbles slightly with his own thwarted momentum. He's too close to shoot, so I drop the bow and grab the shaft of his spear with both hands, trying to wrench it away from him. It's one of the stupider impulses I've ever had; he's bigger and stronger than I am, and when he regains his footing he swings me around so that I lose mine. I manage to keep my grip, but I don't have enough weight to drag him down after me. He yanks the spear up and I come up with it — not enough to get my feet under me, but that's a secondary concern. As long as I hang on, he can't stab me.
Unfortunately, spears aren't just stabbing weapons. When my adversary figures out I'm not letting go, he drops down on top of me, pinning my body to the ground with his own and pressing the shaft against my throat. Choking, I struggle to push it away, but all I manage to gain are a few scattered split-seconds of air. It isn't enough to sustain the strain on my muscles, and I know that as soon as my arms give out, I'm finished.
Just when I'm about to lose hope, something comes down over the District 1 boy's head. It takes me a moment to realize that it's a fold of the net, that I've bought enough time for Rue to get free, and that instead of running, she's standing over a boy twice her size, trying to pull him off me. She can't, of course, but when he lets go of the spear to tear the mesh from his face, I swing the shaft up against the underside of his chin. It stuns him just enough for me to have time to get to my feet. Before he can recover, I drive the point into his chest. His body slumps against Rue's shins. She gives a small, horrified yelp and jumps away from it, then looks up at me with wide eyes.
"That's the second time I've helped you kill someone," she whispers just before the cannon goes off. It takes me a longer moment than it should to realize she's talking about the tracker jackers. This is such a different thing, physically — the wet sound of flesh giving way, the too-slight resistance of bone, the spray of blood on my legs — I'd nearly forgotten that that was killing too, however less direct.
"Let's get away from here," I tell her, hurriedly picking up my bow.
She clings to my free hand with both of hers as we walk.
"One person isn't much of an ambush," I muse out loud.
It's evening, and we're eating together again. Rue is sitting so close that she'd be getting crumbs on me if we had anything that crumbled. We haven't spoken much since the attack, but I don't think she's been more than three feet from my side the whole time.
"It wasn't an ambush," Rue says. "He heard you shouting and must have decided to deal with you first. I guess I wasn't exactly much of a threat."
It's awful, but I can't help cracking a small smile. That was the plan, and it worked. Lately, all of my plans have been working better than I would have ever dared to hope. For the first time, I'm really starting to believe that I can win this thing.
"Katniss," Rue says, "how long are you going to stay with me?"
My smile vanishes. "Until the end," I tell her automatically. After everything that happened today, I can't imagine any other response.
"But what happens then? What's 'the end'?"
I don't have an answer for her. Thankfully, before I have to give one, the trumpets sound. "Let's listen to the announcement," I say quickly. If there's going to be a food drop, it might be the best chance we'll ever get to pick off the District 2 tributes.
But that's not what the announcement is about. It's about a rule change: "For this, the seventy-fourth Hunger Game, the last two tributes alive will be declared joint winners."
I look to Rue. Her mouth is caught in something between a gape and a smile, and there's just a hint of tears at the corners of her eyes. Then she looks to me, too, and promptly hugs me like she means to crush my ribs.
"So many times I've wished I weren't the oldest," she babbles. "So many times I've wished that I didn't have to be the strong one all the time, that I had an older sister to love and look after me. When I met you, I thought… but I knew that it couldn't… but now it can. Katniss, thank you for saving my life, thank you, thank you. I love you. Promise me I'll get to meet Prim."
"Of course," I tell her. "You'll be great friends, I know it."
I want to be as happy as she is, but there's a sliver of worry preventing me. Why would the Gamemakers give us this? What are they planning?
A few hours later, it looks like they're planning to light me on fire again.
Rue shakes me awake, grabs my hand, and drags me up, still reeling from images of the District 1 boy alternately skewering me through the heart, choking Rue, and calmly telling me about his mother as he bleeds onto my boots. She has me on my feet and running before I've fully comprehended that this isn't another nightmare, let alone figured out what's wrong. Then I smell the smoke, and one glance over my shoulder confirms it.
The wall of flame isn't as close behind as it was the last time, but that's hardly an incentive to relax. "Dump packs! Move faster!" I pant out to Rue, but she shakes her head.
"Stream ahead!" she tells me. "Very close! We'll be safe there!"
She's right. In just a few minutes, we plunge into cold water up to my chest and her neck. We stand there shivering and with Rue's teeth chattering as the fire approaches to just a matter of yards away, stops, and slowly dies to cinders.
"Careful," I whisper to Rue as we wade back out. "There's probably someone around here." What else could the point of that have been?
As I step onto the bank, something shifts beneath my foot. I stagger back, arms reeling, and just barely manage to keep from falling flat into the water. As I do, I hear a loud, pained groan.
"Katniss?" says what looks in the dark like a large clump of mud on the shore.
Rue gasps. My shoulders stiffen. "Peeta."