Tonight was the best night of my life.
Time has been scarce lately. Time has been scarce always. I never had the right moment to tell you things I always wanted to say; I never had the nerve to say the words always on the tip of my tongue. Even tonight I couldn't say those words I always wanted to tell you to your face.
I'm in love with you.
I have been since we were kids. I was in love with you all the times I held your hand when your Dad died, I was in love with you all the times we lay under the tree in your backyard, and I was in love with you all the times we would sit on your porch and stare at the stars telling each other our secrets- all the while, I was keeping my biggest one from you.
Holding you in my arms tonight and finally kissing you, unrestrained and free, was a dream come true and a memory that will keep me going when the Games start tomorrow. I'm not sure what will happen, but I want to make one final pact with you.
I promise to fight with everything I have to come home to you.
I promise to never give up.
I promise to never stop trying.
But if I fail- and Katniss, I need you to accept that this could be a possibility- I want you to keep pushing too, like we agreed on in our original pact with Gale. Be there for my family. Be there for Prim. Be there for Gale. You have my blessings in everything. I want you to be happy, even if that means I won't be there with you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
Never forget that.
My hands are shaking as I hold the letter in my hands. Tears are flowing and I finally let myself break, truly break, since the day I said goodbye to Peeta when he was reaped. I sob, the hard kind that shakes your entire body and leaves you gasping. The kind of crying that leaves you with a headache for hours afterwards.
The kind of crying where you fall asleep because it wipes you out so completely.
When I wake up I check the clock and curse when I see three hours have passed. Was I that exhausted? I rush back to the room and run into Zeno first thing, go figure. When I slam into him as I rush into the room, he grips my arms in his hands and squeezes me.
"Are you okay? What's wrong?"
"I fell asleep. Is he okay? Did he-"
"He's fine. He's taking care of Landrin. He ate something and its making him sick."
My face pales. "Did Peeta eat it too? What was it?"
"No, Peeta didn't eat it. Landrin got sick immediately after eating it so he threw it away. But it's making the poor guy miserable."
I look at the screen to see Peeta trying to get Landrin to drink some water, but he brushes it away and turns his head. All of a sudden Landrin leans over and begins throwing up. Peeta pats his back, obviously unsure of what to do to help him at this point.
It could just be food poisoning, but if its anything worse Landrin will need medicine. There's no telling when that could come at this point so early in the Games, but there could be a chance it'll flush out of his system in a few hours.
Peeta brings another cup of water to his face. "Come on, Landrin. You need fluids. It'll help you." Landrin shakes his head and pushes it away again. My stomach sinks.
The screen cuts to Stella who is following a small boy with red hair. She watches him from behind a tree and he stops for a moment as if he hears something. She retreats, ducking her head, and he continues walking slowly. He holds a jagged looking dagger in his hand; it looks a bit rusty.
Huh. Technically he could just nick someone and just give them tetanus and kill them that way. Smart kid.
Stella continues to follow him but he sees her out of the corner of his eye and starts sprinting. She takes off after him, leaping over tree branches, blonde hair flying behind her. He trips over something and she's on him in a heart beat.
In front of me, Axel chuckles and leans forward towards the screen.
Even if Peeta was winning, I could never be happy that innocent people are dying.
The boy starts screaming and Stella laughs, pinning his arms and legs down. Tears stream down his face; he's terrified. She rips his knife from his hands and stares down at him with cold eyes for a few moments before slowly holding it to his neck, pausing for a few seconds, and yanking it to the side in one swift motion.
His body jerks once and then goes limp. A cannon goes off in the distance and she smiles to herself proudly. The screen cuts to her face which is now covered in his blood. She pulls up her shirt to wipe it off and jumps up to see if anyone is around her. Seeing that she's still alone, Stella leaves his bloody body behind to find shelter.
The sight of such a beautiful girl covered in someone else's blood while walking through the forest is unsettling. Her blonde hair is matted with it. Her clothes are dripping. A place that is so naturally beautiful is now tainted with an image of death.
She heads towards the creek to wash off her blood stained clothes. She washes underneath a rock overhang, hidden by its shadows, and she takes her time washing her face and hair out. Discarding her shirt first to wash the stains out, she next takes off her pants to give them the same treatment.
By the time she's finished you can barely see the blood stains- they just look like ordinary dirty clothes tinged with the red clay of the forest. After she's fully clothed she gathers her things to try and find shelter for the evening.
As she's trying to climb a tree, I see the girl named Rue watching her from a tree over. She snickers when Stella repeatedly falls down the tree but doesn't say anything for awhile. Stella curses when she takes a particularly hard fall and rubs her elbow; a bit of blood appears and she wipes it away. She kicks the tree and stands there staring at it trying to figure out a way to get up.
"If you find the big knobs sticking out the side, it's easier," Rue calls down.
Stella's head snaps up and she squints, spotting Rue. She reaches her hand up to a big one sticking out and hoists herself up, sticking her foot in a concave in the side of the trunk. She repeats this step going up the whole tree and finally finds a heavy branch she's satisfied with, so she sets camp for the evening.
"Thanks," Stella calls out to Rue. She inspects her elbow again and rubs it a few times. She glances over again at the small girl and narrows her eyes. "Aren't you from Eleven?"
Rue nods but doesn't say anything more. Smart girl. Rue walks over a few heavy branches to get a few more trees away from Stella, which frankly is a good move but confuses me a bit. If she doesn't want an alliance, why help her get up the tree?
Stella calls out to her again. "Hey." Rue doesn't respond. "Listen, I'm not going to hurt you tonight. You don't have to run."
"I'm not running. Just being careful."
"Careful? I'm not dangerous or anything. Promise."
My eyes narrow. Just a few hours ago she slit a little boys throat.
If that's not dangerous, I don't know what is.
"Have you killed anyone?"
Stella pauses. "Only people that have attacked me first."
"I heard screaming earlier from a little boy. I wasn't sure..."
"He came at me with a knife. I had to protect myself," Stella says. Why is she lying? What is she playing at? She hunted that boy down like he was her dinner.
Rue pauses, watching Stella. Her eyes flicker down to the girls bleeding elbow. "See that branch above your head?" Stella looks up at one holding a bunch of berries and looks back at Rue, nodding. "If you mash those up and put it on your scrape it'll heal faster."
Stella grabs some in her hand and squishes them onto her cut. She instantly smiles and looks at Prim in relief. "Thanks. Feels better already."
"No problem. I'm pretty good with plants and stuff." Rue shivers and clutches her jacket closer around her body.
"I'm good at fighting. We could make a good team, you know," Stella says. Rue doesn't say anything. "Come on, it couldn't hurt right now. Between the two of us we could get pretty far. I took down a career at the bloodbath." Rue's head snaps up. "I'm strong. I could help you."
Obviously Rue is thinking about it but she seems hesitant. She bites the inside of her cheek and brushes some dirt off her pants leg.
"For a little bit. For now." Rue looks at her. "I'm Rue. What's your name again?"
"My name is Stella."
When she smiles at Rue, it doesn't reach her eyes.
Off in the distance, the careers find a young girl hiding behind a pile of shrubs. One of the Amici in the room whoops and I shrink down in my seat. Zeno, sitting next to me, looks away from the screen as Clove pulls out her knives and begins throwing them one by one at the girl. Shrill screams ring out amongst them, but their laughter drown the sound out. She's still not dead. Marvel holds his spear but makes no move to use it; Cato eyes the girl and then sneers at Clove.
"Taking your time today, aren't you?"
"Do I comment on how you kill, Cato?"
"Just hurry up. We're still trying to find others, not just this one."
She wipes her forehead and pulls out one final blade from her jacket. She twirls it in her hand, watching her prey, deciding on where she can aim. Knives stick out from her abdomen and other places; apparently Clove decided on a direct hot to the heart when the blade makes a small thud noise into the girls chest. A cannon goes off and the Careers begin cheering and high diving each other.
With all the kills combined, we are down to a total of nine tributes left.
Zeno shivers and glances at me out of the corner of his eye. I take that as my cue to leave the room again and get fresh air. Seeing so much death is unsettling. It makes my heart hurt.
Disappointment follows when I leave the room to see that Zeno has decided to join me outside. Before I can retreat back to my room, he holds a hand up to stop me. I open my mouth to retort but he cuts me off.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to lie to you about who I was." He runs a hand through his hair. "I feel like you're angry at me."
"I'm not angry." My voice sounds cold even to me and instantly I feel bad, but only a little. "I'm just tired, Zeno. We all are tired."
He rolls his eyes. "Maybe that's true, and if it is, I'm sorry for pushing this. But we need each other. I don't want to be here any more than you."
"I don't need anyone but Peeta, and he's in the Games if you haven't noticed." My eyes narrow. "Why did you stay if you don't want to be here? No ones forcing you to be here."
He snorts. "You haven't met my parents. They basically told me I'm disowned if I didn't stay here." I raise an eyebrow. "No, really. Why do you think Cato is like he is? My parents raised us like that. I'm just the black sheep of the family, through and through." His eyes are sad when he says this.
"I'm not mad at you Zeno, I was just a bit surprised," I say with a sigh. "This whole thing is crazy. I still don't understand why we're staying here for this. What's the point? They could have let us say goodbye and sent us home again."
"Something's up," he says quietly. "Something doesn't feel right."
"I'm guessing you guys didn't hear about the rule change then?" Axel walks out of the room and interrupts our conversation yet again. He sits down on the bench and looks up at us as he ties his shoe. "I hear they have quiet an ending to the Games this year."
"What are you talking about?"
He winks at me. "I'm not sure, Katniss. But even if I did, I sure as hell wouldn't tell you."
"What the hell is your problem?"
"My problem? My problem is you and your damn Baker boy stealing all of Stella's spotlight. She's one of the strongest people in the Games, one of the smartest, and she didn't get shit noticed because of you two."
"It's not her fault," Zeno says in a low voice. "Maybe you should go back in the room, Katniss."
Axel stands and gets right in Zeno's face. "What, you scared I'm going to hurt her feelings? She's a big girl, Zeno." He pauses. "You know, I wouldn't get on my bad side. Too bad Cato isn't here to help me out."
"The hell are you talking about?"
"Word travels fast, Zeno. Word on the street is you grew up bullied in your district and that even Cato chipped in occasionally." Zeno tenses and Axel smiles. "There it is. Poor little Zeno wasn't the pride and joy of his parents, huh? Everyone loves Cato. He's the sunshine of that family."
Zeno grabs my hand and pulls me down the hallway away from Axel. We round the corner and he opens a door leading into a stairwell, where he promptly slams the door shut behind us and stands there uncomfortably.
I don't say anything at first. What do you say to someone who always lived in the shadow of his brother? Who was constantly bullied? Granted, Peeta got it from his mother but he has his father and the rest of us to keep him sane. Zeno probably doesn't.
God, he has to be so lonely.
Surrounded by all those people that live for the Games, that thrive on competition, that can't wait to volunteer every year, that cheer for every murder. To live in a place like that with a soul like his... I can't even imagine.
"This is awkward," he says quietly.
"I thrive on awkwardness." I smile and he breathes out a sigh of release. Dealing with Peeta all these years taught me how to make someone relax in moments like these. Acting weird or not acknowledging things isn't good, but neither is forcing someone to talk about it. "You don't have to explain anything. Don't worry."
He looks like he wants to talk but then shakes his head, looking away. He bites his lip and I hear growling coming from his belly. Since he doesn't want to talk, maybe he'll be down for something else.
"Want to grab some food? I'm hungry."