So this is the last of my contributions to the Victory series Caisha702 and I are writing. For anyone new, we're making a series of AU oneshots where someone else from the 74th Games won. The other six can be found on our profiles, three (four with this one) on mine and three on hers.
Yeah. This was probably the hardest to write since the characters are younger than I'm used to writing. I hope they don't sound far too old – but if they do, remember that children in Panem grow up fast.
I peep out from behind my tree, slingshot reloaded and ready to fire if Cato seems to be overwhelming Thresh again. He might not fall for the same trick a second time, but if he beats my District Partner I'm dead. Anyway, I've moved trees so he won't be ready for a rock from this position. Hopefully.
There's a scuffle and both fighters fall to the ground, fighting desperately. I turn away. I should be keeping my eyes open in case my help's needed, but I can't watch this.
Then a shot of the canon, and I cautiously look again, ready to fly through the trees, mind whirling with survival possibilities. Thresh and I planned for this situation as well, but somehow I don't think our trap will work against Cato when there's only me between him and victory. I could try to get into the fields. Thresh knows his way round there far better than I do, but I'm betting Cato hasn't even stepped in there since the Games began.
Luckily, I don't need to use any of these plans. Thresh is climbing out from underneath Cato's dead body, a grim smile on his face.
"You can come out now, little Rue," he says, "You're safe. We've won."
I jump down from the tree to land gracefully on my feet.
"Are you sure he's dead?" I ask Thresh, gingerly nudging Cato's body with my foot.
"Yeah, you heard the canon too, didn't you?"
"Yes, but still," I frown, "Why aren't they announcing us the winners yet?"
I'm hit with a desperate thought, one which I instantly push away to a much less obvious one. Almost unconsciously, my fingers check if my slingshot is loaded.
"Maybe we need to let them get the body first?" I ask, hopefully but instinctively knowing that this isn't why.
"Maybe," Thresh agrees.
Without any more words, we move a bit along the edge of the forest and watch as a hovercraft glides down and picks up Cato's dead body. After it disappears, the anthem plays out and Templesmith makes his announcement.
"Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favour."
It takes a few seconds for my mind to register what my ears have heard, and when I realise what's going to happen my hands are already up, holding my slingshot at the ready.
If I aim for Thresh's eye he'll be disabled for a few seconds, which should give me enough time to head for the trees. He knows the fields but I know the forests, and he's too heavy to reach my height in the trees. It'd give me a head start. Maybe I could knock him out with a rock and… and…
Thresh picks up his sword and I draw back the elastic, ready to fire.
"Wait!" he yells, and I'm so surprised I lose my grip and let the slingshot fall limp.
"I don't want to kill you," Thresh says, "You're only twelve. I don't want to live with killing you."
He raises the sword, and the realisation of what he's about to do hits me.
"No, Thresh!" I scream desperately. "Don't do this!"
He points the sword at himself and I scream his name, one last time.
I wake up still screaming and covered in sweat. It takes my eyes a while to adjust to the darkness, and for a while I can't remember where I am.
Then I remember again, and the horrible truth hits me the same way the realisation that the rule change had only been a temporary measure to have a three-way District fight and then a dramatic fight between two allies had hit. The dream was real. I am in my new house in Victor's Village, two months after being the only twelve year old to ever win the Hunger Games.
I did it without killing anyone either, something that maybe only one or two others have ever done. Yay me. The fact that I know that no one's death was really my fault doesn't stop me feeling horrible, though. It doesn't stop me feeling like it was – especially Katniss', especially Thresh's. Knowledge doesn't stop the nightmares.
Nothing does, not even my parents' failed attempts to comfort me every time I wake up screaming. Speaking of which, here they come now, bursting through the door.
"Are you okay?" asks Dad, completely ignoring the fact that my scream means I'm probably not. Honestly, adults can be so thick sometimes.
I nod, because I know that's what I'm supposed to do. One thing I've learned since coming home – no one knows how to deal with you. You're supposed to be this invincible victor, the youngest ever. But you're also only twelve, nearly thirteen, and so far out of your depth you don't know what to do.
No one gets that, though. Because you are a Victor, after all, and they're thought to be more than human. And to add to that you have five younger siblings, who depend on you for so much. For everything.
The Games have forced you to grow up fast. Faster than anyone else in District Eleven, even if you thought that by twelve in the Districts your innocence was far gone. And now you're nearly thirteen, and you've learned that you were wrong. About so much. And you want to go back, but you can't.
On top of this, you have your siblings to worry about. They can't see you like this, and neither can your parents. Because then they'd ignore the others for you, and that would never work.
And you're only twelve, nearly thirteen, and no one knows what to do. You least of all. So you nod, and force a smile, and say that everything's okay. Because although you're barely holding yourself together, no one else needs to know that. No one else needs to be burdened by you. You've hurt enough people already. 23 tributes, who won't come home because of you.
Katniss' sister, who won't see her ever again. Thresh's family. The mother of his unborn child. The child itself, who'll never have a father. The families of all the other tributes. All because of you.
But because my parents really need me to respond, I nod and smile weakly at them.
"Yeah, I'm fine. The nightmares aren't coming as often now."
This is a bit of a lie – they're still coming almost as frequently, but I've gotten better at hiding the sound.
"Can we do anything?" asks Mum.
I shake my head. "Just let me go back to sleep. It isn't good for me to stay awake for so long every night."
"Are you sure?" says Dad. "Can you go back to sleep now?"
"Yep. Just leave the light on, will you?"
"Rue," says my mother, frowning. I never used to be scared of the dark, not till after the Games. "Rue, my little Rue. What shall we do with you?"
"Hey, that rhymes!" grins Gelland, oldest of my siblings, from where he's slouched against the door frame. He's good, I have to give him that – I never even noticed him come in.
"You know, this really isn't the time, Gelland," I tell him.
"Of course it is! There always time to rhyme! Hey, I just rhymed again. I'm a poet and I didn't know it. Cool, isn't it?"
"Brilliant," I say, smiling despite myself. 'Land always knows how to cheer me up, even if he often does it by accident. But that's just my little brother.
Our parents looks at each other, smile, and, as if by some unspoken agreement, leave the room and leave Gelland and alone.
"So," he says, more serious now that it's only us two. "Stop lying. Are you really okay?"
I go to nod, then stop. I'm not okay, and Gelland knows that as much as I do. There's no point in lying to him – he took care of everyone when I was away, and would have taken over my job if I'd died. And he knows me better than any of the others do, anyway. We're united in being responsible for the others.
I'm spared having to answer him honestly – he may be the most trusted of my siblings, but he's only just eleven after all, and I don't want to burden him with too much – by the creak of the door.
A small familiar silhouette steps in, and I groan inwardly. Trust Iris to pick now to come in. The girl might be a certified genius, but she has absolutely no sense of timing. Or tact. Then again, that may be her plan – to catch me when I'm vulnerable and unable to think straight, and convince me to go along with whatever crazy scheme she's gotten into her head in the moment.
Still, couldn't she have picked a better time? The new Capitol digital clock that came with the house says it's just past four in the morning. It's too early to be awake, and if it wasn't for the dream I would be. I might be a morning person, but even that has limits. Iris is the only one in our family crazy enough to be up voluntarily at this hour.
Gelland obviously has similar ideas, as he frowns and says: "Iris, why in Panem are you up now? It's four in the morning, for Snow's sake!"
My brother never has been very good before ten or so in the morning.
Iris shrugs, pushes her new wire-rimmed glasses up her small nose and leans against the closed door of my bedroom, dwarfed beneath it.
"How could I sleep?" she asks us, obviously not expecting an answer. "First there was Rue's scream, then the pounding of footsteps from Mum and Dad. Then your door opened, and on top of that Clemmy started crying. And of course, no one else could do anything about it, because they were all tending to precious Rue, our glorious Victor."
She's nine and three quarters, but her voice is loaded with enough bitterness for someone twice her age. Maybe being a genius has its drawbacks – it means you grow up fast, I guess. Almost as fast as winning the Games.
My little sister keeps on talking, voice not losing that bitterness: "Then, Clemmy's crying woke the twins up, and I had to deal with two grumpy six year olds as well as a sobbing toddler. Of course, no one even bothered trying to come help, because good old dependable Iris had it all in hand. They didn't even stop to think if I wanted to be constantly nursemaiding the little ones.
"After I've finally gotten the three of them back to sleep, Mum and Dad come in, pat me on the head, mutter something vaguely about doing a good job and wander off back to sleep. I have to chase after them, and when I ask how you are they give me some transparent nonsense about how you're fine. When that doesn't fool me, they say I'm too young and to go back to bed!"
Here she's lost for words for a moment. I decide that now's a good time to stem her off before she gets going and wakes everyone else up again, but Iris must see my mouth opening and launches off into a new rant before I can interject.
"After everything I've done to help, after I look after all the younger ones more than Mum and Dad do, more than the two of you high and mighty ones do, no matter what you say, I get a pat on the head and a 'you're too young to get this'! Hypocrites! I'm expected to be the older sister babysitting the little ones, but yet I'm too young to be included in whatever's going on.
"I'm not stupid, you know! Those tests they made me take when I was younger said I was a child prodigy, and you know it. I'm easily the smartest person in the District. So why in Panem doesn't anyone in this family trust me? It's always been Rue and Gelland, the twins and Clem. And Iris in the middle, looking out for everyone and appreciated by no one.
"I'm sick of it! I'm sick of you two thinking you're so high and mighty just 'cause you're a bit older than me. I'm sick of people lumping me in with Clem and the twins, even though I'm a good three years older than the twins and over half a decade older than Clem. I'm sick of you two looking down your nose at me, even if in school I'm doing harder stuff than you are, Rue. Even if there's the same difference between us two-"
She points at Gelland.
"Than between the two of you, you don't seem to care, do you? I'll always be stupid little Iris, your little sister who won't grow up. Well I will! I'm ten next month-"
"And I'm thirteen in three weeks," I point out, deciding that her rant's gone on for long enough. "There's still three good years of age difference between us, and three years is a bit under a third of your age."
"But there's three years of age difference between Mum and Dad," Iris says.
"Yeah, but it's all relative," says Gelland, a touch self-importantly. It's rare for anyone to be able to get one over Iris, so we're all happy when we can. "At our age, three years is a huge difference, 'cause it's a third of your life, you see. And… and a…"
"Quarter," I supply.
"Yeah, quarter of Rue's. And… screw it, I know I'm going to mess up the maths. Whatever it is of mine. Anyway, for our parents, they're what? Fifty-ish? And that would be…"
"About one seventeenth," says Iris, before I've even started working it out.
"See?" exclaims Gelland, triumphant. "There's a huge difference between a third or a quarter and a seventeenth."
He doesn't quite say 'Ha! I'm right and you're not, so there!" but his tone implies it. Iris frowns at him over her glasses and speaks on.
"Maybe so, but that same age difference is also between me and the twins, who are the closer to me in age than Clem is. Anyway, Daisy and Orchid are immature six year olds, whereas I'm a mature nine year old."
'Land snorts into his hand. Iris doesn't quite glare at him – she hasn't glared at anyone since she was Clem's age; I think she's forgotten how – but she comes as close as I've ever seen her come.
"Anyway," says Iris, going back into rant-mode. "This was all bad enough before Rue's Reaping. Then, of course, you go off and get yourself chosen, and everyone goes all super worried. Only I'm not allowed to. 'Oh, Iris, go watch the little ones, will you? We would hate for them to see their sister getting killed.'"
When she's quoting one of our parents – I'm not sure which one, but it sounds like Mum due to the high pitched voice she's putting on – Gelland pulls a face.
"Oh, come on Iris," he says. "She didn't say that."
"Not exactly," says Iris. "It was the general intention, though. Honestly, Rue – none of us thought we'd be seeing you come back."
Gee, thanks for the support, my ever loving family. Though they did have a point – I honestly didn't think I'd be able to make it out alive. At least not till the rule change, which gave me a bit of optimism, albeit not much.
Iris continues: "They thought I was too young to watch you in the Games. But I'm not! I've seen all the Games fully since I was what? Five? Six? Why should the one in which my sister happens to be participating be any different? And of course, after you got home it was even worse than before. Everyone fused around Rue, our big grown up victor.
"But you're not, are you? The Games have changed you. Now you two are withdrawing even further away from me, leaving me stuck in with the little ones when I'm not little, and you know it. You know what, Rue? The Games have changed the rest of us, too. So stop being so selfish and start thinking of your family as well, for a change!"
Gelland snaps back at her before I can even digest what I've just heard.
"You stop being selfish! You have no idea what Rue's gone through! No idea."
"How am I supposed too?" Iris says. "You all seem intent on keeping it away from me. Why don't you-"
"Iris, enough," I interject, astonished at how firm and confident my voice sounds. It's supposed to be used for singing, not for keeping younger siblings in line. I generally let my parents or Gelland do that – or Iris, I realise with a start. Maybe she has a point about double standards.
Still, I'm supposed to be the (almost) teenager here, not her. No matter what issues my sister has, justified or not, this really isn't the time to deal with them. It's the time any sane person should be asleep, and I really don't have the energy to deal with this.
"Look, Iris," I say once she's fallen silent – probably out of shock, but still. "Can we talk about this in the morning? Please?"
One thing you can say about my sister – she may be conniving and tactless, with a Korda stubborn streak wider than the rest of the family's put together, but she is kind hearted enough when she puts her mind to it, and more understanding than she lets on – maybe more than she consciously knows. It's why she's so good with the little ones.
So she opens her mouth to protest, but closes it when she sees the look on my face.
"Fine, okay. Just don't you dare sneak off before the rest of us are awake, or I'll… I'll… I'll do something, okay?"
I nod, and finally manage to get a bit of peace and quiet.
As usual, Iris is right. I don't stick around to have another long conversation with her. Oh no. My little sister's had enough of the spotlight; and anyway, I still have no idea how to deal with the new Iris, the one bold enough to speak out against her elder siblings so much.
So I set my fancy new Capitol alarm clock to five thirty am, and sneak out of the house before anyone else is awake. It's not too hard. With the exceptions of myself and Iris, none of the family are what you'd call morning people.
I head out of Victors' Village into the rest of the town part of District Eleven. The streets are mostly deserted at this hour, although there are a few people wandering around – drunks, tradesmen who need to get up early. I see the baker's boy hauling a bag of flour to the bakery, which makes me think of Peeta, who is so connected to Katniss in my head that the thought of him brings a lump to my throat at the thought of her death.
At least I didn't see her die first hand. That's one small blessing. No, Thresh and I hid out in the forest, waiting for the other four to kill each other off at the feast before fighting the last survivor. Katniss was my friend; I didn't want to kill her. And we both figured it would be safer that way. Still, it was bad enough having to watch her death by Cato when I had to watch the Games recap.
I swallow the lump down and head across town to a little grove of trees I've always used as my hideout. It's where I first learned to climb trees properly, after having my friend Sapling's cousin terrify me with tales of how the overseers make the smallest go up the highest when they start work, and how he saw a kid fall to her death. Of course, poor Sapling's been scared of heights ever since. Not me though. I figured that if they'd make me climb up, I might as well learn early. Be prepared.
I wasn't a natural climber – no, far from it. Fear of falling made my limbs clumsy and my fingers slip. In the end I forced myself to jump off the branches to prove it wouldn't hurt. It didn't, so I lost a bit of my fear. Not all of it, of course. Believe it of not, some of it still stays with me today. It's why I'm such a good climber – if you're not scared, you don't have that extra edge. If you're not scared, you get careless. And when you're up at the top, balancing on nearly nothing, careless is the last thing you want to get.
After I mastered clambering around the lower branches, I slowly ventured higher. Gradually I got better and more confident, and eventually I learned to swing between trees and fly. Once I learned that, I enjoyed climbing. Everyone has their release – 'flying' is mine, and there's no way I'm letting Hunger Games taint that.
Maybe that's why I haven't come back here since I won. It's been two months, and I've somehow managed to keep away from my favourite spot in the whole District – in all of Panem, even. I've been too busy, what with winning the Games and getting everyone settled in Victors' Village and renewing contact wit Sapling and Lucky. And having a huge fight with Blossom, Thresh's old fiancé. Understandably, she was a touch angry to find me coming home at his expense.
These are only excuses, though, and deep inside I know that. Everything's been so different since I've come home. I stopped being a child the second my name was drawn from the Reaping Ball, and since I won the Games everything's changed and gotten darker. If this is the world of adults, I honestly don't know why Iris wants to be one so fast.
I look up at the trees and sigh. I can only resist for so long, and each time there's been a crisis at home I've started to come here to cool off. Of course, I've never gone the whole way before. This time, though, I think I'm going to try the trees again.
As I tentatively grab hold of the first branch, a feeling of contentment rushes through me. I didn't need to worry, I think as my body automatically starts climbing. This is one thing that won't be tainted by the Games. I may have used these skills to save my life, but they're associated with safety and not killing, apparently.
Hopefully, over time the other changes will be less tainted. Hopefully, over time Iris will learn to get along with the rest of us. Maybe I need to take a look at myself though first. She may have been right – I may be thinking about what impact the Games have had on me without thinking about how it affected the others, too.
I don't know if I'll be able to improve, though. Definitely not at first. The memories are too raw, and I don't want to stifle them too much. I don't want to turn into one of those stone-cold, drunken mentors. But maybe that's what I'll become anyway, if I keep on thinking purely of myself.
Maybe the nightmares are just self-fulfilling prophecies. Maybe now that I know I'm isolating everyone else, I'll be able to deal with them.
Or maybe I won't. Maybe the nightmares happen anyway. But if I keep on going on like this, I'll be a nightmare to everyone around me. Perhaps that's why Sapling seems distant, somehow, ever since I got back from the Games. Not to mention my family.
I'll probably never be the same person I was before the Reaping; you can't just ignore something this life changing. Still, maybe I can learn to stop focusing on it, learn to move on.
After all, part of me knows that it's the only way to stop the nightmares.