The Conspiracy

Chapter XIII: 24

I start removing knives from fallen tributes, passing my hand over their eyes as I do so. Dead or not, they're looking at me and I don't like it. 24 is sitting on top of a heavy metal case, trying to bandage his cut arm. It's not a pretty cut, jagged and deep from what I can see even at this distance. If that gets infected and he never gets back to 23. . . I sigh, then approach him. "Need some help with that?" He glares at me, suspicious. I glare back. "Tell you what, if that gets infected and you pass out, no one will carry you. You'll die of the infection, exposure, some animal. . . " Take your pick. "I'd be doing you a favor."

"That's what I'm worried about. People don't do other people favors in here."

"Calm yourself. I'm not administering medicine. I'm wrapping your arm in a bandage. We're allies, at least for now. Having you alive means that my night shift will be shorter. I'd like to keep it that way as long as possible. So how about you do us both a favor and let me wrap your arm?" I snatch the bandage from him, but wait for his consent. He seems to weigh his options in his head, then obligingly holds out his arm. "You're welcome."

"You too." Oh, a wise guy! How clever!

"Hang on a sec." Cato's behind me. "Put this on it." He gives me a bottle of clear liquid. "Peroxide."

Oh good. Like 24 will consent to this. I open the bottle. "Smell," I tell him. He does, then I tip the bottle and let a few drops of peroxide fall onto my hand. I dab that on my cut lip. "Peroxide," I explain. "It'll sting but it'll clean the wound. Want it?"

"Fine." I hide my surprise, tear off part of bandage, fold it in half, let some peroxide fall onto it, then press it to his arm. It takes several seconds before the moderate stinging pain registers with him. I see it in the way his jaw tightens.

"Why are you helping us track her, anyway?" I ask. Sometimes talking about something totally unrelated helps and this seems like a perfectly valid question. "I thought you two were in love." I remove the gauze pad from his arm and wait for the fizzing to stop.

"Why didn't you question Cato when he handed you the peroxide? You didn't sniff it. You just took it. You trust him." Hey! You're not supposed to catch onto that kind of stuff! And if you do, you're not supposed to say it out loud! Fool! "Being with you guys is the best chance I have of staying alive to help her." I look up at him, holding the partly-wrapped bandage in place. It's actually kind of clever. Say something that's so painfully true that no one will believe him. He's crazy but by the end of this, Cato and I are sure to be crazy too.

"I'm gonna pretend that was a joke," I tell him coldly, though I could hug him for it right now, "But I don't recommend you tell it to anyone else. They aren't nearly as nice as me."

"True. They didn't tell everyone to stop when I had the girl from 4." Brilliant, 24. Just brilliant.

"What happened to your hands?" I ask. They were bandaged before he even entered the fight. "They weren't like that last night at the interviews."

"I had an accident." Thanks for being so specific. Well, he doesn't have to be. It's smarter, actually. The less I know about him, especially about his injuries, the safer he is.

"Smart kid," I tell him.

"How is he?" Cato asks. He walked away earlier and is now standing over 24's shoulder.

"He'll be fine," I answer. I'm no qualified medic but I know enough to know that 24's able to travel. "Keep that knife on you."

"Because I'm going to walk around unarmed in here." I grin at his actual joke and stand up.

Eleven died at the bloodbath. There are seven of us in the Alliance so we're looking for six of our fellow tributes: 9, 15, 20, 21, 22, and 23. Since when do the outer Districts have so many Tributes who make it through the bloodbath?

"I say we split up," 2 is saying, clearly trying to assume the leadership role. I'm sure that'll work out for him. Cato and I are in charge. "Some of us should go track down that kid from 11."

"Be my guest," I tell him. "I don't know about you but I'm not tracking that kid, certainly not alone."

"You scared, District 2?" He sneers at me. I run my fingers along the handle of the knife in my right hand, but I don't throw. Keep calm.

"No. Just not stupid." Keep calm and give him the most smart ass answer you can muster. He snarls and starts toward me, but Cato puts the point of a spear on his chest and he stops. Good boy. Learn your rank. "He's been gone for two hours." I continue. "If he's smart, he's mapped the field already and could ambush anyone who goes near it. He's from 11. The thing probably looks like his backyard and is as easy for him to navigate. I'll stick with the woods if you want to track that."

"Shouldn't we stick together anyway? How are we gonna find each other if we split up? Coming all the way back here's gonna be way out of the way." 24 speaks up, unusual for a non-Career addition.

"What do you know, Lover Boy?" 1 snarls at him. Good girl. Back up your fellow Tribute.

I decide to help him out. "That's smart. We've not got that many to track down anyway. Why not just stick together. Leave what supplies we can't carry here with 6 and travel with what we need for making a camp at some point tonight to find the others."

"Right? We'll need all of us to take the boy from 11, won't we?" I look at 24. Now he's just rubbing it in.

"Thanks, 24." My tone tells him to be quiet. "Are we good then? Stick together until we get the other six out of the way. Then split off?" 2 tries to push Cato's spear away but Cato grabs the front of his shirt and holds him still.

"Answer her," he growls.

"Fine." Cato eases up on his grip around the kid's collar. 2 shoves him and steps back at the same time, embarrassed and flustered. Careers are bred to be leaders. Taking orders is going to be miserable for him.

"What about the supplies?" asks 7. "What if a bunch of the others come back to pick stuff off? How is he going to stop them?" He is smaller and significantly less talented than any of us when it comes to combat.

"6?" He's been crouching beside on of the metal plates in the ground since the end of the fighting, examining something, but he looks up at me. "You've got a plan to keep the stuff safe, right?"

"I. . . " He doesn't look one hundred percent sure and stops before he can get more than that out. Maybe he's scared he'll lose his bargaining chip with me if he can't produce instant results.

"We're not gonna hurt you. You're still valuable. We've been in here for less than four hours. If you don't have a plan yet, stay here with 7 and figure it out." I turn back to her. "You can help him guard the stuff until he gets his plan running." She doesn't look pleased but I don't care.

"Man, you are soft, aren't you," 1 says in her singsong voice, a hint of laughter coloring her words just slightly. Oh, I will not have this happening. Sometimes I've seen this. A couple of the Careers gang up on one of the other smaller ones. Cato can't back me up here. It'd only make things worse. I'll have to teach this little girl myself. Even 6 and 24 who weren't raised with Career mentality, have noticed a definite upswing in the amount of tension. 6 doesn't answer me, but watches instead as I turn to face 1.

"Soft?" I ask her quietly, daring her to repeat herself. "Here, I'll show you soft!" I charge her and she snickers until my shoulder rams her in the stomach, momentarily lifting her off the ground. When she lands, hard on the packed ground, I'm on top of her, my knees pinning her shoulders, my toes digging into her wrists, one of my knives at her throat. She struggles, her legs kicking against the ground. "How 'bout I stick you here?" I growl at her, pressing the point of the knife under her chin. I hear her companion behind me and turn just as he reaches us. He's leaned down, trying to pick me up off her, but I open a deep cut on his cheek and when he falls with a yell of pain near 1's left hand, I lift my foot momentarily and give him the bottom of my boot to his head before returning to 1, my knife now across her throat. "Now who's soft, huh? Keep it up, girly." I turn the knife, press the blunt side to her skin. She squeaks, thinking I'm going to cut her, but I just stand up. "So, 6 and 7 stay here. We'll track the others."

I'm glad 1 are too stupid to realize we've just decided to use their plan after all.

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