A/N: Here it is, as promised! :D I just want to tell you all that you're fabulous and I think you're amazing!
"In three words, I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on." –Robert Frost
I can't stop staring at my face in the mirror. It seems conceited, I know, but I just can't look away. I look at my face and I don't see me; I see a killer. Cato's killer. Surely this is not me. No, clearly there is some mutilated murderer, some horrible twisted monster, some hirviö living inside this mirror, behind the pane of reflective glass, mimicking the human form so perfectly that it's able to fool everyone but itself.
When I finally tear my eyes away from the distorted mirror image spread before my eyes as smoothly as butter on bread, I look down at my hands. These damned small hands that weren't strong enough to maintain someone else's life, that could hardly support one life, much less two. My own two hands, the hands that just weren't capable of keeping someone more important alive, couldn't keep a hold of something bigger than myself. These two damned weakened hands that couldn't hold on.
"I'm so sorry, Cato," I whisper to myself, to my hands, to that bloody monster in the mirror. "Haista paska, kädet, sinulla oli hänet, ja päästät hänet karkuun. Sinä arvoton paskiaiset! Hitto sinua! Hitto sinua helvettiin!" A tear unexpectedly splashes down onto the backs of my hands; I wipe it off on my skirt quickly. I draw in a shaky breath, trying to keep myself from crying. I bite my tongue so hard that it hurts, and I catch a faint taste of blood, but it takes my mind off of Cato's death momentarily, and I am relieved.
"Did you love him?" a solemn, strong voice asks from somewhere behind me, and I jump at the sudden sound. I turn to see Simon standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the light from the kitchen behind him as he watches me in the darkened bedroom. The question, followed by Simon's presence, is so sudden and startling that I don't have enough time to process it.
"I...What?" I manage to stutter, biting at my tongue again. I bite until I can taste blood a second time, this time in a different spot, and then I stop. I'm going way too far with my tongue biting strategy.
"Did you love him?" Simon repeats, slower and slightly quieter this time so that I have time to absorb it into my brain. I can't see his facial features very well in the dim light, so I can't tell what his expression is, but I can tell that he is looking straight into my eyes, commanding truth in the softest way possible; the Simon way.
"Of course I loved him," I answer immediately, sharper than I intended. "Cato...he was our friend. He was a good friend, too. How could I have not loved him? We spent three long days together, trying to figure our way out of Phantom's Fray, and he was a part of our troop…" I blink a few tears away, because they blur my vision so much that I can't really see anymore.
Simon sighs in frustration. "Rose," he says with uncharacteristic impatience, and it only just occurs to me that when he asked me if I loved Cato, he didn't mean platonically. He didn't mean if Cato and I were friends with each other. He meant the kind of incriminating love, the kind of love that I feel for Simon.
"No!" I hiss across the room, a rough serration penetrating my voice. I don't like this conversation, because it's just too uncomfortable. "Simon, not...It wasn't like that, I swear. Cato and I...we were friends and only friends. We weren't...we weren't anything like you and me, hiding our love behind the bushes, or in the darkness, or in the woods, or—"
"Yeah, I get it," Simon claims, stepping closer to me. Without the light behind him, his facial features are even harder to see, so I stand up, just to get somehow closer to him. His hand approaches my arm almost playfully, then backs away before it makes contact. "So you felt nothing for Cato? Nothing at all?" He looks sceptical, as if he doesn't believe me.
"Absolutely nothing," I reply with a firm nod. I see Simon falter again, wanting so much to touch my arm and yet unsure of whether or not he should, so I just reach out and grab both of his hands. "My heart belongs to you and you alone. If you don't know that by now, you are quite possibly the stupidest man alive." So what if it's cheesy? It needs to be said so this uncomfortable conversation regarding who loves who can finally be put to an end. Of course, in saying this, everything gets even more uncomfortable, but whatever. It's almost resolved, I think. You've got to go through the thorns if you want to get the rose.
Simon smiles faintly and finally allows himself to touch my arm. His fingers fondle my elbow. "Rose, I...You have no idea..." He starts to say, leaning in slowly, as if to kiss me. It is clear that neither of us is in control of our emotions at this moment, because I start leaning in towards him as well. I realise we're about to kiss, and even through this realisation, I don't try to stop it.
Then, something within my brain goes off, and rather than seeing Simon's face, so close to mine that we are almost touching, I see Cato's limp dead body, his eyes big and scared, his skin lacking in colour, save the big blotches of broken flesh that plague him like a kind of leprosy and big black circles around his eyes, and his hoarse voice crying out, begging for mercy. A kind of mercy that I couldn't give him. Damn my weak hands! Vitut!
"ENOUGH!" I cry out in worry, shoving Simon hard in the chest with my fists as if I'm literally shoving away the bad images. I blink in confusion for a moment, realising that I have just shoved the boy I love away from me, just as our lips connected in a wonderfully sweet kiss. His kisses are always wonderfully sweet. I draw in a few ragged breaths, trying to calm myself down so I don't make the same mistake twice.
"I'm sorry," Simon says perplexedly, his hands softly caressing my own, trying to console me. It's not really working; Cato's lifeless body is still haunting my mind. Will there ever be a day that I don't see Cato's bloodied, wrecked body falling from my hands, hitting the hard, compacted earth five metres underneath me, his flesh and limbs and torso being torn apart by Trixon's teeth, when I close my eyes, knowing the entire time that I let him die? "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"No, I'm the one who's sorry," I apologise shakily, raising my fingers to my mouth and beginning to gnaw away at what's left of my nails. My middle finger doesn't have a nail at all, and the rest don't have much for nails, but what they do have is shoved between my teeth and bitten repeatedly like a nervous chipmunk. "It's just...I can't stop thinking about Cato."
Simon rolls his eyes. "Rose, you did not kill him," he tells me, and I start to protest violently, but he gently shakes my hands to calm me. He yells loudly over my voice, "Rose, you didn't kill him! I did!"
Everything stops dead around us. Time falls still as I stare up into Simon's face, and he stares back at me intensely, telling me the honest to God truth. We both stop breathing momentarily. Then, I start to breathe again in fast, shallow breaths that hardly keep my heart beating. I'm pretty sure I could fall over dead at any minute now. I'm relatively positive that I'm having a panic attack, or an anxiety attack or something. There's no difference, really, when you think about it.
"N-No, no, Simon, you didn't kill Cato, you didn't. You couldn't have; you couldn't! Y-You weren't even there," I recall, remembering that fateful day vividly in my mind. It was just myself and Cato in the Fray to meet our untimely deaths, and I was the one that couldn't hold onto him long enough to save his life. My life was spared, but not his. How backwards it all is. Hänen aikajana päättyi; hänen eloonjäämisaste nollaa.
"Yes, and that's why he died," he tells me seriously. "Look, Rose, some of the guys..." He trails off embarrassedly for a minute, then circles back to the conversation. "Well, you know how they were about it. They always suspected we were together, and so when we split up into groups, you remember that we purposely picked different partners?" I nod. "Then you and Cato fell in the Fray, and remember how Camden and I were the first ones there, trying to help you out? Well, the other guys had a grand old time with that one. So I thought that maybe if I acted like I didn't care, maybe it would kind of stop the gossip." He bites his lip before going on. "I was so selfish about the whole thing. I could've been there with you, or somebody else entirely, and it would've been me in the Fray, not you and Cato. And, believe me, Rose, I would've replaced you in that pit in a heartbeat if it was at all possible. I could've done so much to save his life, but I chose not to for my own egotistical reasons."
I stare unhappily at Simon, trying to decide what I am the most unhappy about. Am I unhappy that Cato died because Simon didn't sacrifice his dignity by going into the Fray with me, or am I unhappy that Simon feels like this is his fault? It's also possible that the thought of Simon falling into the Fray and potentially being the dead one in this situation makes me feel more than one emotion. I have no idea which reason it is. My thoughts are a blur of words right now, rushing through my head faster than the currents in a stream, much too fast to catch any of them.
"So you...were sort of defending my honour?" I ask inquisitively. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but then again, maybe I'm right. Maybe I'm just trying too hard to put a positive spin on this situation. "You were defending my honour by trying to stop the spread of rumours while Cato and I were in the Fray?" I look at the floor, trying to decide my feelings on this. Should I smile or should I cry?
"Yes," Simon answers quietly, and he sounds slightly ashamed. "It was...a pretty fatal mistake on my part, and I'm so sorry to both you and Cato for what I did." He looks at me, as if he really wants to just kiss me and have me not feel so bad about this, or perhaps make up my mind for me, but he doesn't make any sudden movements towards me. He wouldn't do anything that might make me uncomfortable.
"I...I don't even know what to think of you right now," I say slowly and honestly, because I quite honestly don't know what I think of Simon's actions. On one hand, he did me a favour by defending my good name in front of the troop. But on the other, he led to what ultimately meant Cato's death and my eternal misery. So, never mind his death being my fault, I guess; it is, more or less, Simon's. But, then again, Simon and I both had a hand in the partnering up process, and we both deliberately picked other people. So I am at least equally to blame. Vitut! Miksi tämä on niin vaikeaa?
"I know," my almost-boyfriend tells me. "It was a stupid, selfish thing to do, and I completely understand if you never want to speak to me again." He takes a deep breath. "I mean, I really hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, for everything I did to you and Cato that day, but...I guess I understand it if you can't. I mean, I wouldn't even forgive me for something like this."
I look at him and draw in a sharp breath. I realise that I completely forgive him for all of this madness. I also come to a startling realisation that no one is to blame for Cato's death. What Simon said the other day makes so much sense to me now; he had come to accept his mortality was inexorable, that his survival rate was finally at zero, that death was hot on his heels and it wasn't letting up, which ultimately led to his downfall. If he really didn't want to die, he would've tried harder to hold on to me, to pull himself up to safety. He wouldn't have told me to "Let go."
"It's nobody's fault," I say monotonously, then look up at Simon with a faint smile. There is more emotion in my voice when I repeat, "It's nobody's fault. Cato's death was just a blameless accident, a random act of nature." I glance away, and then look back, a different thought coming to mind. "Or, maybe it's both our faults. We can share the blame equally, fifty-fifty. We can split it right down the middle, because we were both trying to stop the spread of rumours while we were going out on group missions."
Simon looks at me with a small smile, then looks off to his right, then back at me. "Um," he stammers. "So...So what do we do now?" He looks concerned, as if his next move might be the most important move he makes in his life. And who knows; maybe it could be.
I put on a face like I'm thinking hard about what the next step might be. "I think we kiss," I tell him, because I can tell that that is what Simon really wants to do, and it also happens to be something I really want to do. So I take a step closer to Simon and place my hands on his shoulders, pulling his face down closer to mine. Simon puts his arms around me, and the next thing I know, we are kissing. Really kissing.
Simon's mouth is vibrant against mine, so lively and realistic and amazing. My heart pounds in my chest, beating hard enough to kill me, and I realise that I have never felt this way before about anyone. I identify the feeling as a very powerful attraction, some very potent liking for Simon. The emotion itself is strong enough to stir my heart and mix up my mind. I guess it feels awfully close to love, and to be totally honest, that's the part that scares the hell out of me.
I feel my teeth start to close together in thought, and they meet something soft and warm. Simon's lip? As if in response, my almost-boyfriend gives a small, low whimper and pulls his mouth away from mine, leaving my body dripping with longing and a lusting fire burning in my chest. I want more. I want him to keep kissing me and never let go.
"Oi paska. Did I bite you?" I ask sympathetically. When I think, I tend to bite my lip, and now shouldn't be any different. I'll have to work on that.
"Yeah," Simon says, touching his fingers to his lips, as if he expects there to be blood. I don't know how he'd ever see it in this dark room. Besides, I didn't even bite him that hard. Of course there's no blood. "Yeah, it's fine though." As if checking his fingers in the dark didn't work, he licks his lip. "No blood. We're good."
There is a knock at the doorframe, and I suddenly feel my heart skip a nervous beat when I notice Bertie's silhouette outlined between the light of the beyond and the darkness of the room. Thank God she came in when she did, not a minute sooner when we were kissing. This could have ended much differently; much worse than it is. Simon and I exchange a quick glance.
"Dinner is ready," she announces quietly. It's been a quiet couple of days around here. Around all of Paleo, actually. I think the reality of death in this war has managed to silence an entire village and move them to tears. Wartimes are always hard times, and I suddenly find myself wishing that there was more I could do to end it all and let everyone here live free.
It's been three weeks since Cato's death, five weeks since I've been here, and I'm missing home. I never thought I'd say that. I've never missed home before—in fact, all the time I was there I was looking for a way out—and yet, as I sit here on the couch in the Withers' cottage watching Simon clean his sword, I feel a sort of homesickness weighing in my stomach. I don't know; maybe it's just because I'm trying to deal with Cato's death. Or, maybe it's not homesickness at all, but rather emptiness because one of the few people I know in this whole fucking village has passed on, and it happened because of me. It could go either way, I suppose.
"Rose?" Simon asks, and I scarcely feel his hand against my forearm. He gives it a light shake, and I drag my eyes up from where they're resting on the floor to see my almost-boyfriend's concerned gaze directed at me. "Is something bothering you? You don't seem like you're really…here. Mentally, I mean."
His sword is lying across his lap, and the white rag he was using to clean it with is draped over its double-edged point. His left hand is still resting against my right forearm, and it's not until now that I start to recognise that it's there.
"I've just been thinking about…" I almost don't want to say it. I can't very well tell Simon that I'm thinking about my home country, my home world. What if he takes it personally and thinks that I want to leave him here? Like, I mean, we should both know full well that the time's going to come when I have to get sent back there, but…neither of us should be expecting it to come so soon.
"Thinking about…?" Simon prompts gently, removing his hand from my arm and fiddling with the hem of the rag in his lap. I watch his fingers as he does so.
I take a deep breath, deciding that now is the time to just bite the bullet and get it over with. "Well, you know, like…my home." There it is; it's out in the open now. I can't take it back now. We're in too deep for that. But that doesn't put my mind at ease, so I add stupidly, "Look, it's not that I don't like being here, and it's not that I don't like being with you or anything like that, it's just…well, I mean, I've been gone for five weeks now, and I'm a little worried about how they're doing there."
Simon takes the rag up in his hand again and starts running it up and down the length of his long blade in an almost contemplative manner, not saying anything as he does so. He goes about this for a long time, and I watch him tensely, trying to read his body language. But, Simon's body language is like trying to read braille. I've never done it before, and so I don't really understand what he's trying to say.
Finally, my friend responds carefully, "I guess I can see where you'd be a little…concerned…about how your family and friends might be doing in your absence." He pauses, as if he expects me to answer him with more information, and so I do my best to come up with an intelligent reply.
"Yes," I say pensively, biting at my lower lip as I try to think. "I don't…I don't want to leave here or anything, but I can't…I just can't help but wonder what, like, Lilly and some of my other friends are doing, and I suppose my mother, and Bo, and my aunt and uncle…" I trail off, trying to decide whether or not I just sound like a whiny little bitch, or if maybe I sound justified in my worries. Probably a little of both.
Simon nods and continues to rub at his blade with the white rag. He considers this for a moment, then stops cleaning his sword and looks me directly in the eyes. "Look, Rose, if you really want to know how everyone in your home is faring, Bertie would be able to show you, if you asked her nicely." He looks almost like he might smile, but it fades quickly. I think he's worried that I'm thinking of leaving him and the Withers and the rest of our army troop in order to go back to a school I hate, or a home I hate, or the mother I dislike, when in actuality, I'm just curious as to how they're living without me. I doubt they're too affected by my absence.
I take a moment to think about this. Bertie could show me how my family is doing without me. It's kind of nice and horrifying all at once, to be able to see what life is like for your loved ones in your absence.
"Maybe," I say in response, and I turn my eyes downwards and play with the hem of my skirt, utterly conflicted. "Simon?" I ask after a minute of silence, because something is nagging at my brain and it won't stop. I need my friend to know what I'm thinking, and I need for him to know now.
"Hm?" Simon acknowledges distractedly. He has flipped his sword over and has started cleaning the other side.
I lean in and peck a kiss on his cheek. "I just want you to know that I don't want to leave you." I chew my lower lip, trying to compose the rest of what I have to say in a way that Simon will understand, without making myself sound too desperate. And how does one go about doing that?
"I know, Rose," he answers when I fail to continue speaking, and suddenly, I know what else to say. It just sort of comes naturally now, flowing off my tongue as free as anything.
"I don't love my mother." I can't believe I'm saying any of this. "I don't love my family. Not the way I should, anyway, or the way they deserve to be loved, and it's been this way for ten years now. I wish I knew how to fix it, but I don't. I have nothing to go back to there, and I don't ever want to." I pause for a moment to bite my lip. "I guess, Simon, what I'm asking right now is that you don't make me go back to America, ever."
Simon sets down his cleaning utensil and looks me in the eyes again. "Rose," he starts carefully, "you do understand that…if, at the end of the war, you do end up deciding to stay, you can never, ever go back to your home again. Your whole life comes here with you. Should you choose to stay here, all record of you ever having existed in that other world will be wiped away and brought to Caultel." His gaze is serious, but he also looks strangely saddened by what he has to say next. "I can't decide any of this for you, but please, just realise, Rosie, that this is a serious decision to make, and it shouldn't be made lightly. Just because you've had a falling out with your mother, or an argument with a family member…that isn't necessarily cause to stay here." He seems very conflicted about this, as if he was required to give me that little speech, but also like he wants to try and influence me to stay with him. It was hard enough to even hear him say all that; I imagine it's even harder to actually say it to someone you have strong feelings for.
I bite my bottom lip, which I suddenly realise is quivering lightly, and my eyes start to sting with unshed tears. I blink them away rapidly and look off to my distant left. "Then I guess I have a lot to consider," I mumble, raising my left fist to my mouth and beginning to nibble at the long sleeve of my blouse.