The Conspiracy

Chapter XIX: Covering 24

"He can't have gone far, if he got anywhere at all. I'm telling you––" Cato grumbles as he, 2 and I begin our search for 24.

"We know. Calm yourself. We're just checking." He exhales forcefully through his nostrils, reminding me of a bull. "Oh," I blow air in his face. If anybody else tried that...well scratch that... why would they? I'm probably the only one ever who would think that something like that would bring someone back to calm. Cato blinks and I watch the offense he's taken to our decision to look for 24 leave his eyes and then the rest of him. "Thank you."

"What are you two doing?" 2 calls back to us. It probably looks strange. I'm less than a foot away from Cato, close enough to blow air in his face and 2 didn't see that.

"Nothing," I answer, stepping away quickly.

"Looks like nothing," he remarks with a slight smirk.

"I know it does." My answer is very sure, my tone very firm, countering his sarcasm. "So, let's start from where we jumped in and work our way along the river, shall we?" I look at Cato for approval. Cato nods and 2 turns away to scan the pebbles at our feet and the trees for signs of a trail. As Cato passes me, he gives me a smile, silently teasing me for having been so close, for letting 2 see, for the implication 2 got from our closeness. I roll my eyes, and then grin back anyway.

The search for 24 begins. I've got better eyes than either of the boys so they go together to the opposite bank, leaving me here to search the rocks myself. We stay roughly parallel to each other.

Maybe we underestimated this kid, or overestimated Cato's ability to cut people while infected with tracker jacker venom. I think this because it appears 24 did move. He left a pretty distinct trail of blood on the rocks for some distance past where he was cut. I don't call Cato and 2 back to me though. I'd prefer to look on my own. The last thing I need is 2 over here actually finding 24. I remember 24 being good with the paints. Hopefully he's hidden well enough that if I do find him, I can pretend I don't.

I stop at the last rock that I see blood on. I look around closely, kneel down to peer under rocks. If I'm close to him, the Capitol is either holding its breath or screaming with excitement. If I'm close to him, he's holding his breath and praying his heart doesn't beat too loudly. I'm looking but not touching. If he's as well hidden as I think he could be, all I need to do is touch his shirt and I'll have no choice but to kill him.

I see the tiniest flutter. 24's here and he's watching me through the smallest fraction of space between his eyelids. Fool! Keep your eyes closed. Other than that, he's as well hidden as I could have hoped. Even staring right at him, I can pretend I don't see him. I let no look of recognition pass my face, but peer curiously at the place where I saw his eyelashes. The Capitol will be completely mad by now, but I'm doing this for 24. I'm telling him without saying anything that I know he's here and that he needs to be very careful so I can cover for him.

I hear running footsteps to my right. straighten up, draw a knife from my sleeve and throw before I even realize who I'm throwing at. 2 dives aside, probably guessing that landing on the rocks is safer than taking my knife to the face. Cato dodges, then catches the knife by its handle. It's impressive, that's for sure, but not effortless and not without risk. I hear him exhale as he moves out of the way and see his concentration in his eyes and the way his teeth are clenched together.

"What the hell was that for?" 2 is yelling at me, too angry to notice me put my foot right in front of 24's eyes, my leg between his face and 2's line of vision. "We've been talking to you for over a minute!"

"Now who needs to calm herself?" Cato flips the knife around in his hand and gives me the handle.

"What were you looking at anyway?" 2 asks, walking around me.

"Just moss. There's nothing here."

"What were you looking at, then?" He asks too many questions.

"I thought I saw something, but I was wrong."

"Can you be sure? How do you know you weren't right the first time?" He steps closer to me and I'm forced to hold my ground or risk stepping on 24's face.

"She's got better eyes than either of us. If she says he's not here, then 23 must have gotten him first. Come on. Let's go back to camp." Cato's tone is firm. He's covering me and 2 knows by now that when Cato's covering for me, it's better just to play along.

As we make our way back, Cato looks at me out of the corner of his eye. He, his brother, and I have all kinds of codes. Looks, gestures, signals, none of which mean anything to anyone other than us. This sideways look in this situation is asking the obvious question: "Was 24 there, or not?" I make eye contact with him, just long enough to let him know to pay attention because I'm about to answer his question. Then I look down wait a beat, then look back up at him. A nod with only my eyes.


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