We're so close, running across the open grass to the Cornucopia, those hellhounds right behind us. We're going to be okay, Peeta and me. We're going to win together and go home together and survive.
But then Peeta stumbles. The leg that he injured gives out and he falls onto his face. I stop once I realize he's no longer right next to me; by then, he's already several yards behind. "Go, Katniss!" he shouts, working his way to his feet. Several hounds burst out of the woods behind him and run towards us with frightening speed.
"Peeta, no!" I yell, but my feet betray me, already moving fast, carrying me towards the Cornucopia as I look over my shoulder at him. "Peeta!" I can't stop myself from running away as fast as I can. My survival instinct is too strong.
"I'm right behind you!" he calls, and a quick glance shows he's back on his feet and running, but still really far behind. "Don't stop!"
I don't stop. I run, heart pounding in my ears, and climb up to the side of the Cornucopia until I'm on the flat roof. Instinctively, I draw my bow and scan the roof, training my arrow at the first thing I see. It's Cato sitting down, bloody, weakened, and looking at me hungrily. "Peeta! Hurry!" I shout over my shoulder, then say to Cato, "Don't move."
He sneers at me, but obeys like I knew he would. Cato doesn't have a death wish; he wants to win. He'll bide his time.
"PEETA!" I scream frantically, risking a look over my shoulder at him. Peeta's running, and the dogs are right behind him, growling and snarling. He makes a flying leap at the side of the building and gets halfway up. If he had something helping him, like my hand pulling him up, he might've made it farther, but I can't turn my back to Cato for more than a few seconds. Grimly, Peeta tries again – I can hear him scrabbling at the smooth metal, and then he isn't trying any more. "PEETA!"
"Katniss, I'm not going to make it," he shouts back. "Win. For me. And tell my parents-"
"No, no Peeta!" I say, voice catching in my throat. "You can't do that! We're going to win together!"
"No, you're going to win. Shoot me, before they get here."
One look down into his eyes and I know he's completely serious. "Peeta," I say again, and I feel something fracturing inside me. This is not happening. There is no way I'm seriously considering shooting him. No. But already, I'm considering how long it would take to turn and plant one right between his eyes. "Get up here!"
"I love you," he says loudly. "Shoot me. And win. Please."
The hounds are closer, only feet from him. I close my eyes briefly, clench my jaw, and then I spin and let the arrow fly. I don't have to watch it go in, don't want to, and maybe even can't, so I turn back to Cato, another arrow on the string, ready to go. But he isn't making any move toward me. He's staring down at the dogs, shocked. "Clove?" he says softly, looking at one of them in particular.
This is my chance. I could kill him right here, while he's distracted, and I'd win. But then I accidentally look down, and catch a glimpse of the hound with Rue's face, and I freeze.
A cannon booms in the distance.
Then I'm angry, more than I've ever been, because Rue is dead and it's all the fault of that blonde Career across the roof from me. Three swift steps, and I'm kneeling next to him, my knife at his throat. "Move an inch, and I'll cut your head off," I hiss. In my anger, I've completely forgotten how scared I was to face him.
"Go on," he says, breathing hard. "Do it." He isn't taunting me, I'm surprised to realize. He's serious. "I was dead anyway, right? Didn't know until now." He takes several deep, rasping breaths – something's broken inside of him. The bloody claw marks on his face shine wet in the night, and blood is dripping from the corner of his mouth. By all accounts, he should've been the victor, but there he is, on the ground, at my mercy. "Kill me," he urges, brows drawn together fiercely, but something in his face is desperate.
I've already won – we both know it – but I don't kill him quite yet. "How did you find Rue?" I demand. He doesn't answer, smiling viciously at me with blood-stained teeth until I dig my fist into a bloody spot on his arm, and he gasps.
"Which one was she?" he forces out between gritted teeth.
"District 11. She was just a little girl. How did you monsters find her?" I growl, holding the knife in place.
"Monsters? Look at yourself," Cato coughs, spitting up more blood. "Torturing someone for information. Shooting Lover-Boy in cold blood. Who's really the monster? My whole life was leading up to this. You, you volunteered." He coughs again, so violently that I almost lose my grip on his arm and neck.
I can't think about what he's saying, so instead I throw my knee over him and sit on top of him, squeezing his broken ribs between my two legs. Cato groans deeply, and gasps frantically, "Okay, okay."
Suspiciously, I relax my legs and stare at him. "Tell me."
"Marvel. He saw her in the trees, called dibs. Wanted to hurt you so you'd make stupid…" He coughs again. "Stupid mistakes. Look how well that worked."
"And you let him go alone?"
"She was tiny, he should've been able to handle it."
"She was a child," I grind out, furious.
"Doesn't matter. She wasn't going to win." He takes another wheezing breath. "Ya gonna keep torturing me? Pull a 63rd Games move and humiliate me until I beg for you to kill me? Bet your fans in 12 would love that. Gonna set me on fire, girl on fire?" he says mockingly.
"I'm not that kind of person," I say decidedly. The Games can't change me that much. I won't allow it. If I torture him to death, I could never look Prim in the eyes again. I still may never be able to.
"Then kill me," he says in a whisper. "Just do it already. So my family can keep at least a little of their pride." He keeps a shadow of his usual confident smirk halfway on his face, but underneath is was acceptance of this fate and maybe just a little begging.
"Your family?" I ask, expecting some kind of trap. I won't be surprised at all if they train the Careers in how to beg their way out of being killed.
Cato swallows hard and looks away, not about to speak, but then I clamp my legs down again, harder. When I let go, he's shaking, sweat breaking out on his forehead. "Yes, my family, their lives depend on me," he says very quickly. "Why do you want to know that?" he asked, trying to frown, but his face keeps inadvertently twitching back into being in unbearable pain.
"What happens if you die?" was all I say.
"Don't you mean when?" he rasps, but I twitch my knees, and he gasps out a quiet answer I can't quite make out.
"What?" I frown, leaning slightly closer after a glance at his arms to make sure I've pinned him.
"I die, they starve," he says softly, but distinctly through bloody lips.
I sit back up, keeping myself firmly in place on top of him so he won't get any ideas and try to throw me off. I'm not going let him win, ever, for any reason, but this thought of his family catches me off-guard. By killing him, I'm killing a whole family. "Brothers or sisters?" I ask, trying to make some sort of peace with this decision.
"Three brothers. One younger. And a little sister," he says shortly, then adds in a voice softer than a whisper. "Stop. Kill me." I don't answer, lost in thought, until he adds even quieter, "Please."
"One of us has to die," I say, thinking out loud.
"Right," Cato's confused.
"And I need to get back to Prim."
"Am I supposed to say something?" he asks, breathing labored.
"No," I glare, and he cowers.
"Okay, sorry. Don't…" He doesn't finish that sentence, but the way he's cringing from me makes it clear what he meant – don't hurt me again. And I feel a little pity for Cato, how he's reduced to this.
"I could throw you down to the mutts," I say savagely. "Let them kill you for me."
He doesn't ask me not to, he has too much pride, but he does glance over the side at the hounds, which are still circling us, growling, and when he looks back to me, he's terrified.
"Or slit your throat, how about that? Maybe a knife in your gut, like your goon did to Rue?" I continue, almost trying the ideas on, because when it comes down to it, I have reservations about straight-up killing someone. Everything else I've done was out of survival instinct, never cold-blooded murder like this.
"Take your pick," he says flatly.
I run through every scenario I can think of, multiple times, trying to think of some way to win without losing myself in the process. Killing Cato while he lies there, helpless, is more than I can ever justify to myself. Only now do I understand what Peeta had meant when he said he needed to stay him; now, when it's too late to tell him.
I refuse to be a part of an undisguised fight to the death between two teenagers. But what does that last-minute decision make me but a hypocrite? I was okay with it when the violence was excusable, when it was going on to faceless other tributes, far away from me. Suddenly, though, it's different with him breathing right here beneath me. I have to do something unexpected.
An idea occurs to me, half-formed and completely insane, but definitely unexpected. So I start going through his pockets with the hand not holding a knife to his throat. Most of them are torn open, the others empty or holding only dirt, and one in his jacket is sopping with blood. "Turn over," I say abruptly. "Slowly. Sudden movements and I'll put this through your jugular."
He doesn't argue with me and slowly turns, hissing through his teeth when I accidentally brush his ribs. I stay hovering over him, holding the knife against his neck and drawing a thin red line around it in the process, and then he's finally on his stomach, cheek pressed into the cold metal. "What are you doing?" he asks, his words muffled.
"I'm not sure." I check all of his pockets in the back, find nothing, and say sharply, "Hands." With a length of rope from my backpack, I tie them together at the wrists, having to pull one of them over farther since he can't do it himself and making him groan again. I wrap the rope around several times and tie several redundant knots, just to be safe. I know that later, I'll have to worry about his legs, but he's weak for the moment, and that's good enough.
"So you changed your mind about the torture?" he says darkly, and I can feel him shaking harder, muscles trembling.
"I'm not sure," I say again. "Stand up." Cato does his best to obey, but after the first few tries, he's a quivering mess. So I help him up, keeping the knife handy in case he tries anything. Finally, he's standing on shaking legs, towering over me and looking very dangerous. Nervously, I grab my bow and draw an arrow. "Go by the edge," I order.
"You're feeding me to the dogs after all," he says wearily. The mutts are already jumping, trying to bite his feet as he gets closer to the edge.
"Don't assume." Carefully, I aim and shoot, straight past him into the skull of one of the dogs. Cato, who'd stiffened at the twang of my bowstring, looks at the dog and then at me in shock. But I pay no attention to that and shoot the next dog, then the next, all of them in succession until they're all lying on the ground, dead. "Jump down," I say impatiently. "If you run, I'll shoot."
With no expression, he does what I ask. I jump down a safe distance from him and point the bow at his head when I land. "Face against the wall." While he stood there, I pick all the arrows out of the corpses and put them back in my quiver. I definitely am not thinking about the mangled body on the other side of this building. "Walk in front of me and follow my directions."
He obeys, but says over his shoulder, "So what, are you going to try to convince me not to kill you?"
"Gonna drown me?"
"Shoot me in the back?"
"I don't get you, Twelve," he says after a moment.
"Stop trying. Head left a little."