He stares back for the fraction of a second, eyes slightly widened, before raising his hands as I raise my sword.
"Wait a minute," he says, breathless, and I see the panic, "I can help."
I'm about to swing down when he finishes. My sword barely stops an inch from the top of his skull. His face is pale but he's looking at me with a calm I don't expect.
"We can help each other out,"
"I highly doubt that,"
"At least listen to me,"
His earnest isn't the surprising thing—he's the one trapped in a corner about to become another fallen tribute; it's the nerve he's looking back at me with, an arrogance that I didn't think possible. It makes me pause but I don't lower my weapon.
"You have five minutes"
"I can help you find her,"
I know who he's talking about and snort, "You're practically useless. And what's in it for you—I thought you were in love with her."
"That was before; I've changed my feelings about her,"
This is not something I thought he'd say and I don't believe him either. His closeness to her is undeniable—the dubiousness of his motives shouldn't even be that difficult to think about. After the interviews, it was pretty much established that these two were going to be the item that the Capitol would be talking about. With their infatuation and love—at least from him—they snagged the attention of the people who can give victory to only one of us; to me. Remembering this makes me want to kill him more; this has to be a trick.
"I saw the interview, Lover Boy. There's no way you'd betray her."
"How do you what I'm feeling?"
"I know what you're feeling: infatuation; and you're going to do what you can to protect her."
He looks desperate for a split second and I wonder if I've cracked him. "You don't know…anything,"
"What, are you telling me that all of that was just a ruse?"
He doesn't say anything—only looks at me blankly. I have him; if he says it was all a fake, people in the Capitol will be angry and ignore him, upset that their lovers aren't in love; if he says that he is in love he will automatically be seen as a traitor who sold out the girl he wants to protect.
But I have to think of it from the perspective of those watching. And it's not hard what the citizens of the Capitol will hope and assume: that this, begging me, is all an act to protect her. Just as I suspected, it's a trick.
"No, my feelings for her weren't a ruse," he replies after a few moments.
"Then what could you possibly want from me?"
"I…" he licks his lips, a sign of anxiety, "She rejected me,"
So that's it.
She told him to take a hike and now he's so bitter that he'll do anything to get revenge on the person who broke his heart. Huh. That's not a bad ploy.
I take a few steps closer to him, the boy shorter than me by a couple inches so I'm towering over him. He doesn't move and just stands his ground. I peer intently at him by bending lower, staring into his face. If he's lying he'll look away. But he remains firm.
There are footsteps behind us and I regard the sound of my allies faintly. They'll be here shortly.
"So you want revenge?"
He just nods so he won't have to speak and break his motives to me.
"I never took you for the vengeful type,"
"You don't know me very well, then,"
He's right—I don't. And trusting people you don't know is still dangerous. I remember the two from District 1 and it comes back to strike me hard, the choice I made. I already have two people that I can't even remotely be alone with for the briefest of seconds because one move can be made and wham, your enemies are laughing over your corpse and you've just fucked up with the biggest blunder ever.
It may be safer, though, to have him with me. He's not going to be very helpful, not much anyway—he's strong and he…paints, but other than that, not much.
Although, if what he says is true, there's no way that the Girl on Fire knows. She'll be confused and possibly even hurt that the one person who said they loved her has turned on her so quickly. It won't be a victory, not yet, but it could begin to damage her psyche. People weak in their mind and spirit are easier to break.
Clove bursts through the dense bushes and eyes the two of us, narrowing her eyes, "Cato, what the hell is this?"
"He's going to be joining us,"
"What?!" she exclaims, some birds flying away from her shout.
I can tell I shocked him too, since I never gave him an answer. I turn around, "You're not going to give us any trouble are you?"
"No, I'm not. I do want to join." He tells me, face set.
Marvel and Glimmer enter the scene, looking at the three of us. The forest is suddenly very crowded.
Clove comes up to me, grabs my sleeve and drags me away from the boy. I glare at the other two, "Don't touch him," I growl, and they back away from him, although they and the boy watch each other.
Once we're far enough, Clove hisses at me, "Are you fucking shitting me?"
"Don't you dare patronize me you behemoth!" she snarls, glaring at me hotly, "What the hell is he doing here? Why isn't he dead?"
"He offered a proposal,"
"Oh, wow, a proposal? You never make deals with dead people, Cato. It's bad enough we have those two with us—how many more people are we going to be taking in?"
"He'll be the last one."
Clove huffs, crossing her arms. "What could he have even offered to make you—?"
"He can find her."
She doesn't like to be cut off but she looks at me. Just stares before murmuring, "What?"
"Her. He can help us find the Girl on Fire."
Leaning in closer to me, the scent of the forest and stale sweat already permeating from her, she gazes squarely into my eyes, "That's only one person. One person that may or may not even be that big of a threat,"
"Clove, c'mon," I whisper back, "She's been showing us up since we got here and we both know it,"
Clove rarely admits anything but the way her brows furrowed together proves to me that she understands the circumstances. The Girl on Fire, Katniss, has to be stopped soon. But then she seems to regard me a little longer. "Cato… these are the Games. You can't lose your head."
"I'm not going to die,"
"I don't mean that. I mean…" she pauses, glances to her left and stares at the ground, "You get too competitive."
"Like you said, they're the Games."
She returns her eyes to me, dark and feverish, "Exactly. And, sometimes, you get fixated on what you want."
I withdraw from her, standing tall, "This is different."
She doesn't say anything.
"So, we're going to keep him. And you and I both know…"
She turns, not facing anybody, "Right."
We can always get rid of him later, just like everybody else.
I turn back to Marvel and Glimmer, who have been furtively glancing back and forth between Clove and I and the boy from 12. Glimmer is the first to address the issue, "What are we doing with him?"
"Lover Boy here," I say casually, grinning, "Is going to help us track down his girlfriend,"
"Really?" Glimmer asks incredulously.
At the same time, barely above a whisper, he says, "She's not my girlfriend…"
No one else seems to have caught it, as inaudible as it was supposed to be. I turn around to face him, "So, you think you can keep up with us, then?"
The others look at us back and forth. They're not going to trust him and I don't expect them to; I certainly don't. But he may be just the most valuable player that I've been able to snag and there was no way I was letting such an opportunity slip away now, not when I'm just beginning to think of and appreciate all the possibilities.
"Yes, I can."
"Good, then," I say, gripping my sword tighter as I walk forward, taking the lead, completely comfortable. Everyone else is going to be worried about their own skin around him for a while.
"Wait a minute!"
I turn around to look at Marvel, "What?"
"You're not even going to consult the rest of us on it?"
"What's there to discuss?"
"Look, you may think that you're great and everything but no one ever said that you could make the decisions for the whole group,"
I face him, standing tall. "Oh? And what makes you think you can challenge my authority?"
"Your authority?" he barks, the sound reverberating through trees.
Glimmer moves closer to him, "Marv,"
He ignores her, stepping toward me. "As a group aren't we allowed to form our own opinions and voice them?"
I snort. "This isn't a democracy,"
"But to allow him to join us, without asking us if it's okay or whether we want him dead or not—"
"Really? I thought he did, since he looked at all of us," Clove saunters to my side, glaring at the two of them, the boy from 12 caught in the middle, staring off into the distance.
"No, he asked you," Marvel snaps, "And he even disregarded you,"
I close the little gap, making it smaller and stare him down, my hand automatically going to my sword in case he loses his sense, "The last time I checked, you two were the ones who wanted our help, who came to us to form an allegiance; I think Clove and I have a little more authority in that regard,"
Marvel blinks a few times, falling silent.
Glimmer suddenly laughs, "You can't be serious. Since we're the ones who asked you, wouldn't that make the two of you a little more akin to people we're hiring?"
"You've given us nothing as payment," Clove adds, her voice on edge.
"We've given you our loyalty,"
"You buy loyalty; you never just give it,"
Marvel raises his hand, looking at me and pointing at the other tribute, "In any case, we would just appreciate it if you would talk to us about all of your decisions,"
I cross my arms, grinning, "All of my decisions?"
Glimmer looks at her fellow tribute, "Are we making him leader?"
Clove doesn't say anything about that statement; she only glances at me. I try to hold her gaze but her dark eyes flicker away and I'm back to looking at the others.
Marvel sighs, rubbing the back of his head, "…He's right, Glim. We did go to them, after all,"
She doesn't correct him, only becomes sullen and silent.
The forest is thick with tension until the source of it steps forward, "We should get going,"
I look at the boy from 12, his eyes remaining on the distant horizon.
"At least someone is willing to move on," I comment, taking the lead again, their footsteps trudging behind me, all different beats with different thoughts.
I'm no longer at ease. The two of them aren't as stupid or as submissive as they appeared to be. They won't attack me or Clove, I'm pretty sure—not even they're that unpredictable, or even that desperate yet—but I'll have to watch for Lover Boy back there. He may be the one who'll backstab us but his presence is just as unwelcome to them as it is for me; but I need him to find her, if he even can.
"Hey, you," I say, looking at him, "Up in front,"
He obliges quietly, moving away from Glimmer and Marvel, in-between Clove and I; the positions are the same again, only with this new tribute in the very front. He's quiet, mellower than a lamb. And, for a long while, I just stare at the back of his head and wonder why he wanted to be us, the ruthless tributes.