The Conspiracy

Chapter XXI: The Ambush and the Fight

We hear the first explosion and stop dead. That was no canon. "What was that?" Cato asks. How on earth should we know? Then there are more. Eventually the sounds blur together and I can't count them, but I guess that the mines around the food and supplies are going off. I'm thankful that I had the idea before now to start tying essential things to my belt and coat or to keep them in my bag.

"Maybe we should go back. This is looking more like a trap every minute," I answer. 2 glares at me. I don't sound scared. I'm not scared, but if our camp's exploding, we should go find out why. Cato pushes past 2 and we hurry shoulder to shoulder back to camp.

We start to smell smoke the closer we get and upon finally seeing our former camp, we realize our suspicions were correct. Someone blew up our supplies! Cato's instantly furious. Nothing is going right in here! We knew it wouldn't be easy, but why does even the easy stuff fall to pieces? 6 throws rocks into the remains, then declares it safe to approach what used to be our pile of supplies. I'm angry too, but spend the next several minutes looking through the debris. I don't think there's anything worth saving, but I continue to look, thinking.

If I were to pick a fight with Cato at all, right now would be the opportune moment. We're so high-strung already that it wouldn't be unreasonable, but I remember what we said about every decision being made by the team for the good of the team and decide against the staged fight. He'd have to be filled in and prepared for it and he isn't and if I did pick a fake fight, it wouldn't be unreasonable for him to think it's real which would be very bad.

I turn my thoughts instead to our attacker. Cato didn't believe we'd be raided but look what's happened now? 6 was supposed to prevent something like this from happening! His mines weren't supposed to blow up the supplies, just the Tribute who tried to get close to them. He's done his task too well. The best we can hope for at this rate is that the mines were set off by some opponent, preferably 22 if you ask me, and that the explosions took care of him for us. We could have easily missed the canon.

This next canon, the one that brings me back to reality, does not go unheard. I turn away from the pile of debris to see Cato drop 6's body on the ground, still looking like he's seeing red. That's at least two, probably three deaths and more than two dozen explosions between dawn and twilight. Who says our Games are slow? 2 hangs back, wary of Cato, but I move closer. I'm not afraid of him. I trust him. No matter what, we're a team. "No matter what..." I say, reminding him of our evenings in the Capitol. The Capitol won't understand this, but he will and it ought to calm him at least enough for me to be able to safely get closer. He says nothing, only nods, his eyes still hard. 2 doesn't dare come within arm's reach of him right now and indeed most of Panem must think I'm crazy for standing here, but it means more to Cato than they know. "We'll figure it out," I tell him.

"We should go back out there," he says, looking at the woods, "Whoever did it can't have gone all that far." Really? Because I'll bet they're on their way back to the Capitol right now. This is the greatest flaw in either of us as fighters. Though we can wipe our faces blank, anger can cloud our judgement, our senses of reason and make stupid things like that come out of our mouths.

"No," I tell him. "I bet they were killed in the explosions. They're probably on their way to the Capitol to be stitched back together before they're sent home. Who else knew about the trap? We should wait for the seal and the death toll from today to see who it was and who we've still got to hunt down."

"I agree with her," 2 chimes in, still standing back a ways. "They'll show their picture up there," he gestures to the place where the seal will appear in a half hour or so. "We should see who it was, rest here for a while––"

"No! Are you crazy? Whoever set that fire––" 2 was right to agree with me and what I need to do is tell Cato he's not sound for decision making right now, but with our disagreement of earlier so close in my memory, I'll have to settle for insisting on my plan and quieting 2.

I whip my head around and shout at 2 "Would you shut up?" He looks confused. All he did was agree with me. He could point that out, but he's just smart enough to know not to. I turn back to Cato and explain to him what must have been happening over the past few hours. "I think whoever set those fires was trying to trap us. Whoever it was set the first one, took off, set the second one and probably took off again. The must have been luring us away from camp so an accomplice could do this." I gesture to the pile. "Who knows, maybe 9 and 22 were working together?" I haven't seen either of them since the games began. I voice the thought I'm most hoping for. "She set the fires and he came here to collect supplies and got himself blown up. But if we go back in the woods even if we head straight for the second fire, I doubt we'll find anyone. 9 is smart enough to know not to hang around there. Let's wait for the seal, ok?" I doubt he needed that entire explanation though. When I turned back from shutting 2 up, he looked considerably more relaxed.

"Ok." He answers. "Let's go to the lake to fill up the water and wait."

I agree and we cross the plain to the lake. 2 walks on my other side, as if he had been included in this decision. We hear the hovercraft pick up 6's body but none of us bothers about it. Instead, we wait for the anthem and the death toll. Each of us occupies him or herself with something different. I wash sweat and grim from my face, neck, and hands; 2 sits scared for his safety, which is a legitimate concern at this point; Cato has his eyes on me, leaning forward with his arms around his knees. He looks relaxed, compared with his anger earlier. When we see the light from the seal reflecting off the water, we all look up. 6's face appears in the sky, followed by 20's. He must have been the canon from this morning. I wonder what happened to him. In the brief pause before the seal reappears, I sincerely believe I'm about to see 22, which would of course mean we kill 2 right here and now, but then there it is. The seal's back in the sky and then it's gone again. No more news from outside the arena. Whoever blew up our supplies survived by some miracle.

Cato opens his pack and fiddles around inside it to find the night vision goggles we collected at the beginning. I do the same and 2 rises to search for a suitable branch to be used as a torch. Once we're all ready to go, we walk back into the woods, Direction: Second Fire.

We find nothing, however. No sign of the fire-starter, no sight of the bomber. Our only company is each other for the next several hours. We don't see so much as a rabbit, though of course we're trampling around, not concerned with hunting. I can behead small animals with my knives when we get hungry. We find the remains of the second fire, a huge pile of blackened wood, like a bonfire. Yes, this was a trap. No one in their right mind would ever build a fire this big unless they were asking us to come after them. I'm fuming as we leave the fire. If we'd never gone this way, we'd never have lost our supplies and 2 is largely to blame. We could have turned back when the second fire was lit like I suggested but he was so hell-bent on having a fight that we pressed on. Damn his stupidity! Damn our softness! Since when does he call the shots around here?

As dawn approaches, we remember we've been up for something like thirty hours straight and decide we need to sleep. Cato takes the first shift and once I'm sure 2 is asleep, I curl up with him. It's still freezing out here, colder in the woods rather than on the plain because there's no fire to huddle close to. But Cato doesn't mind. He lets me lay my head on his legs and rests one hand over my exposed ear, keeping it warm. His fingers brush hair off my face and when I fall asleep, I still feel them there.

Unfortunately, he has to wake me a few hours later. He can't very well wake 2 without waking me, and even if he could, would it really be wise to let 2 see me sleeping as I am? I sit up when I feel him gently shaking my shoulder. "My turn," I mutter, trying to rouse myself. Three or four hours isn't really sufficient but I'll have to make due. He presses the heels of his palms into his quads and rubs down toward his ankles. His legs are numb but he's trying to make it look like he's just stretching. I give him an apologetic smile and he shrugs. The temperature has gone up significantly so I remove my jacket and sit on it instead. Cato does the same but uses his as a pillow instead and curls up beside me. I put a hand on the top of his head, sort of like the way we sleep up in the mountains. Just to let him know that I am here.

I'm tired, more tired than I've been for any other shift which means I don't hesitate this time to rouse 2 the minute my shift is over. Once 2's ready, I curl up beside Cato. He woke up when I took my hand off his head, but tactfully kept still and quiet. He must be awake as I roll my jacket up and lay my head down on it because a few seconds later, I feel pressure on my shoulder, his hand resting protectively on me.

When I wake, I'm momentarily confused as to why I'm in the woods and not sleeping in the mouth of the Cornucopia as usual. Then I remember the fires, the explosions, and 6's murder from the night before. Cato's right hand still rests on my shoulder. "Morning, princess," 2 greets me. I sit up, pushing Cato's hand off me, intentionally rousing him but in a subtle enough manner that 2 won't suspect me of not wanting to be alone with him. "How was your nap?" He smirks at me, watching Cato sit up behind me.

"Did you kill anything for breakfast?" I ask him, ignoring his question. If he's going to say good morning in the middle of the afternoon, I can call a late lunch breakfast, right? "Or have you just been sitting there uselessly for the last three hours?" His smirk turns to a glare. I make an exasperated noise and push myself to my feet. "You two get a fire going. I'll go find us something to eat." I hear movement but no words from either of them as I walk away.

I walk lightly on my toes, careful of where I step and soon I've killed two rabbits and a squirrel, via a knife to their necks. When I bring them back to our makeshift camp, I hand Cato one rabbit and 2 goes to grab the other. Rather than give it up though, I hit him with it and drop the dead squirrel in his lap. "If you want something bigger, go kill it yourself," I tell him. He looks jealously at the rabbit Cato's cleaning. "He's different. I like him right now." 2 grumbles and begins inexpertly skinning, gutting, and cleaning his smaller meal. I ignore him and sit down beside Cato. We roast the rabbits and squirrel over the fire and dig in. Once we're finished, we scatter the remains of our fire so no one else will know we were here.

We pack what's left over of our rabbits and squirrel and take to hunting the other tributes again. I would guess no one is foolish enough to be anywhere near the place where we were so we move quickly away from there. When we find the remains of the first fire, just as large as the second, any and all rage I felt toward 2 is rekindled and multiplied. Very dangerous for him. "You see?" I shout at him. "I told you! Didn't I tell you both! It was a trap and if it weren't for you," I shove 2 and he raises his spear defensively, but I'm not afraid of him. "We'd have never gone after them and never lost the supplies!"

"Hey, it was your choice to come with us. You could have stayed back with that kid from 3," 2 reminds me. "Maybe if you'd been there with him, you'd have been able to stop the bomber and you wouldn't have had to watch him die." He says it like he thinks watching 6's death bothered me, like he thinks I cared for 6. That's the last thing I need, for him to go planting ideas in the heads of sponsors that I was in any way interested in anyone in this arena.

"You shut your mouth!" I growl at him, drawing a knife from my left sleeve, holding it poised to stick him through the sternum. He bends his knees, prepared to lunge at me with the spear, but before we can do anything more than that, I feel one of Cato's arms around my waist, the other forearm pressed against my throat, one hand holding my shoulder, the other gripping my side and he lifts me up and turns me away from 2.

"I don't care how angry what you are with me or him," he snarls in my ear. His grip really is tight and I wonder what on earth is wrong with him. He's hurting me. I don't dare drop my knife, but my left hand goes to the fingers of his right, trying to pry them free of my shoulder, but he digs them in tighter, presses his fingertips into my joint. "We lost our supplies; you lost your 6. Get over it and quickly because fighting one of your only remaining allies won't help you. It won't change anything. We've still got 22 to deal with, haven't we?" 2 has made no move to hurt either one of us, but stands still, spear still defensive, and watches this uncharacteristic fight.

Then Cato shoves me hard away from him, nearly knocking me off balance. I just manage to stay on my feet and whirl around to face him again, my knife drawn back to defend myself if either of them comes near me again. I don't know what's wrong with Cato. He's never done anything like that, but if the coldness in his eyes is any indication, whatever's the matter with him hasn't let him go yet. I'm so angry that I can't even bring myself to say our, "No matter what,", our reminder that we're a team, to him. My throat aches but I don't touch it. I won't let him know he's hurt me. I won't be that weak. I don't cough or splutter but force myself to breath through my nose as I give him the nastiest look I can muster.

"Maybe we should..." 2 begins. Both our heads snap to look at him. "Maybe we should meet up again at the Cornucopia. Later, once we're calm again. We'll cover more ground that way and we'll be quieter."

I flip my knife around in my hand, gripping it tightly when I catch it again and stand up straight. The sound the knife makes bounces around in the silence between us for a moment before I answer him, "No offense, 2, but I'm not inclined to take your advice right now. It is what got us into ––" But Cato speaks over me and I feel the same betrayal he must have felt when I backed 2 yesterday instead of him.

"He's right. About all of it. We'll meet up again tomorrow."

I'm furious and confused but I'm not about to let them in on that. Instead, I lift my head and say coldly, "Fine." I take a step back from them, then turn as walk purposefully away, my feet still quiet on the pine needles littering the forest floor. I keep my knife drawn and ready, prepared to protect myself against anything.

Simply because my body is alert does not mean my mind can't wander. I find myself dwelling on Cato's words, as well as 2's. The way 2 said, "You wouldn't have had to watch him die." As if he thought 6's death was harder on me than any of the others I've witnessed in here. I wonder what that was about before I remember what Cato asked me on our first night here. "Do you have a thing for him?" Has it really looked like I cared for 6 the way 24 cares about 23? "I don't care how angry you are with me or him," Cato had said. He was the one who killed 6. He did it after he told me to and I did nothing. Does he think I'm upset with him because he killed some boy I barely knew? Is that why he grabbed me when I went after 2? 2 provoked him by bringing 6's death into the mix. And straight after he mentioned 6, I got defensive and told him to shut his mouth. Not only that, but just about every time 6 was in trouble in here, I backed him up. No one else. Just me. And I was the one who suggested we take him into the Alliance. I've led them to believe I liked that little twerp! Damnit!

Boys are so stupid! Did they never consider the age gap between us? He was, what? Fourteen at most? I turned eighteen on the second day in the arena. That's at least a four year difference. No, thank you!

Frustrated and deciding I'm hungry, I throw my knife at a squirrel in a tree. The blade sticks him in the gut and he drops to the ground, squirming. Dammit! I grit my teeth against the apology I would ordinarily utter for a stupid mistake that caused such a painful death and spill the rest of the creatures blood. Then I scatter the leaves and pine needles so no one will know I was here.

I rest a while, cleaning the meat, then light a small fire, roast what little meat was not damaged by my faulty throw and begin to eat before I remember that I'm still carrying the rest of the rabbit in my pack. Ah, well. I'll save that for later.

Sometime in late afternoon, a cannon fires, followed five minutes later with another. I wonder what's happened. I won't find out until I get out of the arena, or meet someone friendly and well-informed enough to tell me. Ha! The most I can do is wait for the anthem to play to tell me who's dead. Maybe 2 met up with 22 and they had it out. Maybe they fought and 2 killed him but died of his injuries. That would be fine with me. Still the canons remind me of where I am and that I can't afford to sit here eating right beside a fire. I need to keep searching for other tributes. I stamp out the fire, scatter the remains, check my supplies and continue walking.

I walk for another hour before I find anything interesting. A clearing. Even if I didn't see the two bodies lying in the fading light, I would not enter it. You're a sitting duck in an open area like that. These must be the two bodies of the two dead tributes from earlier. Why has no hovercraft come to collect them?

As I look at 21 I hazard a guess at why not. She's covered in flowers. The only way I can tell it's her is her size and strands of her curly black hair poking through the spaces between the stems of the flowers. Whoever did that must have been here for the hour in between the cannons and now. They must have been the one to cover her in flowers. I can see the spear that pierced her but the wound that cost her her life has been decorated with flowers.

2 lies on his side, blood soaking the grass and dirt around his head. From here I can see the torn skin in his neck. It's small. Not knife sized like it would have been if Cato had gotten him. Good. I'm glad I can rule Cato out of this fight. I don't want him to be the one who killed 21.

No, whatever killed 2 was smaller. An arrow? So, judging by what 6 guessed, 23 was involved. That would make sense. 2 went off in this direction and ran into 23 and before she shot him, he speared 21. I see ropes on the tree behind 21 and change my theory. He set this trap. 2 did. I don't know when, but then again, he doesn't know when I turned my jacket into a weapon. And when Cato and I had our fight, he went off to check it, found 21, killed her and was then shot by 23.

My eyes wander again to 21's small lifeless form. Her greatest defense must have been 23. I never saw her excelling with weapons at training and she didn't take much from the Cornucopia. Whatever was in front of her plate would, I suppose, have been easy enough to scoop up before sprinting for the cover of the trees. I don't know how she made it out here on her own with virtually no supplies whatsoever. She was unarmed and he speared her! Bastard! If 23 hadn't already gotten him, I'd destroy him for this. We told them not to hurt her! That spear in her diaphragm can't have been painless!

As it is, 2 is already dead and I'm not about to run out into that clearing. I look back at 2 and before I make the effort to stop myself, the words "Good for you, Fire Girl," escape my lips. It's the closest I've come thus far to addressing someone other than Cato by name, and certainly the first time I've been at all happy for her, happy she got to 2. No matter what sympathies I had for the girl, her ally should have the pleasure of killing her murderer. Immediately after the words leave my lips, my eyes sweep the clearing and the trees around me. It wasn't loud but if someone was close, they could have heard me. I draw one of my knives, take another look around then turn and leave the clearing. I hear the hovercraft overhead a minute later.

I'm freezing when the sky lights up and the anthem plays. 2's face appears followed by 21's. So this is why they play the deaths right before we all should be going to sleep. To get the images to come back to our minds if we've seen our competitors die. Think of something else.Before I give myself nightmares of the death of that poor little girl, I tie myself to a new tree and try to find some comfortable and warm way to sleep.

It's fruitless and I wake up exhausted again. Exhausted and hungry. "Fine," I say to myself. That's not good. I've heard people start talking to themselves if they spend too much time alone. They go crazy. No, Clove, you don't go crazy. You go home.

I pass today like I did yesterday, hunting more: more squirrels, rabbits, finding berries and other edible plants. If I'm not one hundred percent positive about a berry, I leave it entirely alone. The last thing I need is to touch a nightlock muttation and have it get death juice all over my nice protein. All day I scour the woods for any of my remaining competitors: 9, 22, 23. I don't think I'll find 24 out here though. He won't be wandering around the woods. I'm sitting with my back against a tree, not quite ready to continue hiking or return to the Cornucopia when I hear the anthem play, followed by the trumpets that precede an announcement. I listen attentively.

There has been a change in rules. Two tributes, if they hail from the same District may be crowned victors this year. Two of us. Cato and I. I'm packing my gear and up on my feet, beaming as Claudius Templesmith repeats his message. That crazy plan worked! Letting 12 live. Our fight. Ha! Take that, Brutus! Where's Cato? I decide the best bet I have of finding him is going right now to the Cornucopia. It was our established meeting place after all.

I hike for maybe two hours through the night to get back to the Cornucopia. There's no sign of Cato on the plain so I circle the horn and find him curled up as usual in the mouth. He's covered in a blanket, one of the few things that remain to us since the blowing up of the mines, and he appears to be sleeping. He must genuinely be angry with me if he didn't even wait for me to arrive here. I need to talk to him. Honestly, quietly so that the Capitol won't hear.

It's cold enough again that I can justify curling close to him. I drape one arm over him, holding gently to his shoulder with my hand, and resting my head near his. I let my hair fall over my face to cover my mouth. By now, he must be awake. Arrogant we may be, but when you're in the arena and someone touches you in your sleep, you wake the hell up and fast. He must know it's me though because he doesn't move. "Cato," I whisper. When he doesn't answer, I continue, "Cato, can I talk to you?" I notice that his arm is shaking beneath mine, but I don't hear his teeth chattering so it must not be from the cold.

"No," is his reply and he makes no effort to keep his voice down. It's low and dangerous, just as it was yesterday. He's never used that tone with me before yesterday. "Get off me."

"Wait a second," I keep my voice gentle, non aggressive. "Let me-,"

"Move! Now, or I'll hurt you!" I guess this is it then, time to find out if he's acting or not. If he is, he'll hit me and it'll be up to me to react like it hurts. If he's not, he'll hit me and it will hurt.

"We're allies, remember?" I say, but I hear his breathing quicken and his arm is still shaking, "We did it." It's now that I know he's not been acting. He's never hit me so hard in my life. The arm that had been shaking so badly had apparently been holding back the jerk that sent his elbow into my ribs, knocking any and all breath from my lungs. I'm lying on my back, struggling to catch my breath when I feel his forearm at my throat. My eyes go wide.

"Don't touch me again, got it? You lied to me!" he snarls at me. "We're only allies because they said that's the game they want to see." He puts more weight on the arm at my throat. Some choked sound involuntarily escapes my lips, but the pressure's gone in a second as Cato uses that arm to push himself up, then he walks away from me. It doesn't much matter to me where he's gone because my eyes are streaming and I can't breathe.

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