The Conspiracy

Chapter XXII: The Lake and then Safety

After Cato walked away last night, I spent several minutes curled up on the ground, my hands around my throbbing ribs as I coughed and gasped, struggling to rid myself of the feeling of his forearm on my throat. Once my body had calmed down, I began to slowly remember how very cold it was, even in the Cornucopia. I curled up under Cato's abandoned blanket and lay there awake for a long time, unable to close my eyes for more than a few seconds. Eventually, incapable of even lying still with so much open unseen space behind me, I'd stood up and moved gingerly back as far as possible into the mouth. I lay down again, my back pressing up against the metal wall. There I stayed, a knife gripped in my right hand, my eyes glued to the entrance of the mouth should anyone unwelcome join me. With the knife for comfort and security, I forced myself to sleep.

When I wake, Cato is the first thing I see. The Cornucopia is still dark and the temperature still cold as late October at home, but I'd know him anywhere. He's sitting in the mouth with me, but barely. His body is barely covered by the metal overhang. I can't tell if he's just woken up or if he's been up all night keeping watch.

Knowing the day has to start sometime, despite the fact that I'd much rather just lay here, I push the blanket off me and fold it up. Then I set it beside me and open my pack, hoping to find something to eat before I remember I ate the last of my rabbit last night as I walked back here. I'm always worried about food going bad so I end up eating it all probably too quickly. Damn. I'm hungry.

I sling the pack over my shoulder and feel my ribs give an unpleasant throb. I ignore the pain until I've got my pack secure, then I unzip my jacket and pull up the bottom of my filthy shirt. A large dark bruise has already swelled up and spread out from the point of contact, but my skin is tender for probably another two inches around the edge, telling me it's only going to look worse before it looks better. I push the shirt back down but keep my jacket unzipped; it's too hot to want to wear it anyway. Then I stand, take Cato's blanket in my arms and approach him.

"Your blanket," I tell him, dropping it on the ground beside him. He says nothing but acknowledges me by moving a hand to rest on top of folded blanket. "I'm hungry. I'll be back." My tone is clipped, my words terse. It couldn't be more evident that I'm furious with him. As I walk away toward the forest, his voice stops me.

"I got. . ." I turn around and see him holding up half a dead. . . bird of some sort. Already cooked. That's when I notice the charred remains of a fire he lit, just outside the entrance of the Cornucopia, in the same spot where I built my teepee on the day we collected nightlock.

To give in and take it from him, or to be stubborn and take off hunting in the woods? I'm too hungry for stubborn so I walk back to him, take the dead bird and sit down a few feet away from him. The pack bothers my shoulders so I remove it and begin eating.

"Your neck is bruised," he tells me, then drops his eyes to the ground.

"Really?" Well, that wasn't exactly supposed to come out of my mouth. I can't decide whether my tone is sarcastic or indifferent. I avoid his gaze as well, keep my eyes on the strip of meet I tear from the bone.

There's a long pause, probably close to twenty seconds, before he speaks again. "How's your side?"

"I'll live," I tell him curtly. Then I turn and throw a clean bone onto the blackened wood behind me. He just nods. That's as much as we exchange in the morning.

Once I've eaten my fill, we pack camp and move into the woods, searching for...who? 1 are dead. 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are all dead too. 9, 22-24 and us. We have no idea where any of them might be hiding so I suppose it's good we're not speaking to each other. We hunt, both for tributes and more food. If we make a kill, we stop briefly to wrap it up and pack it in my bag. He's carrying the remaining supplies, including the blanket. We gather some fruit and plants as well, being very careful and making sure not to eat anything we aren't absolutely positive is safe.

Any decision that needs making is made in silence. A gesture, a nod, a shake of the head, simply turning and going the opposite direction. It's our code, the one we've developed over the last nine years, but using it now is cutting, cold. I can't tell who is making it so, him or me. I have every right to be angry with him, but I try instead of brooding, to think. My throat and my ribs hurt from last night. Think past that, smart one. I don't understand what he meant. I lied to him? About what? What did I lie to him about that would make him so mad? And really, who lied to whom, here? "No matter what happens, we're a team," huh, Cato? So much for that!

"We should light a fire during the day. We've got to be far enough away from everyone that even if they see the smoke they won't come this far out of their way to find us," he suggests. It's the first thing he's said to me since this morning.

"You're sure we won't end up like 15?" I try for a grin, trying to joke with him for both our sakes. We cope with everything using humor. Shouldn't I be able to stomach my anger long enough to at least try?

"We'll be fine." His voice isn't his own, but I'm glad to hear that it's lost the bitter quality it had last night. "We'll build it, wait till it gets hot enough, then put it out and roast everything over the rest." I swallow and nod. We gather firewood, clear a patch of ground anything that will be sure to increase the smoke and then I set to building a teepee while Cato tries to get a spark going by rubbing a stick against a thick strip of bark.

When I finish, I sit back on my heals and watch him for a minute or two. His teeth are gritted in frustration. "Lyme said you've got to let air get to it," I remind him. With a noise of irritation he throws the sticks away.

"You do it." I watch him pace, giving him time to cool down before giving him the order.

"Calm yourself and come back here." If we're not friends right now, we have to still be allies who can function as a team. There's no note of persuasion in my voice. I'm telling him what to do. He drops his shoulders, looks up at the sky, which is taking on an odd gray quality, exhales forcefully and returns to my side. "You put a hole in it. We need another-," he hands me another flat piece of wood. "Right." I'm no whiz with fire, but I remember the process and Cato's got the strength and endurance to get it to work. I dig out a trench in the sand and set the flat wood perpendicular to it. "Try again. I'll help. If I remember right, it's a two person job anyway."

He does as I tell him, knowing that right now, I'm more sound for decision making because he's so annoyed. As we start to see smoke, I lower my face so that the side of my head is on the ground and blow gently. When the smoke wavers, I stop, worried. I lean over and grab something that can serve as a fan and fan the smoke, which, after a minute ignites. It's a little flame, but we've made fire. "Here," he says, beaming, seemingly forgetting that we're not friends right now. I move out of the way as he puts the flint inside the teepee. As we watch the tiny flame grow, we hear a roar behind us and feel heat far too great for our little fire.

Instantly, we turn and realize we're facing a wall of flames spitting fireballs. We've set off this pod again! It must be a massive pod because we're not in the same part of the forest as before. Horrified, we stand up, abandon our supplies except for everything currently attached to us and pelt away from the heat. "The lake!" I shout over the roar of the fire.

"I'll follow you! Go!"

"You're faster! You go ahead!" Wait, what did he just say? If we're not friends, if he hates me as much as he seems to, why is he risking his life to stay behind me?

"Move!" We never stopped running but there's an imperative tone in his voice and I know that for his sake, I need to lead.

"Fine, but don't you dare make me turn around to look for you!" I shout back at him.

"I'm right here. Run!" We're fast, very fast. It's one of the reasons we were the tributes selected by 2 for the Games. Even with trees in our way, heat dehydrating us and smoke choking us, we keep enough distance between us and the wall of fire that we're never burned. Still, terrified and beginning to feel slightly sick, I make as straight of a line as I dare to the lake. As far as I know, it is still the safest place.

Smoke is making my eyes stream so the immersion into the water is a welcome relief. I exhale slowly as I plunge into the lake, keeping the water out of my nose but fully aware of the sound the water makes in my ears. We're safe in here as long as there's nothing too sinister. I pick my head up and the rushing doesn't go away. More fire has pursued us, even in here. It appears that the surface of the water is on fire. So this is why the fire came from behind us. The Gamemakers intended to push us toward the lake, which has quickly turned from a place of safety and refuge to a nightmare. Our lake, our greatest source of fresh water is also one of their pods!

"Cato!" I scream over the din. There's fire not five feet from me in all directions. All of it higher than my head. I can't see him. When he doesn't answer, I really begin to panic. I cry his name again but there's no answer. Then suddenly, everything stops. No more fire, not on land or in the water. I see him. He's facedown and I'll kill him for it! This is no time to be unconscious! Maybe out of relief, maybe trying to wake him, I shout his name again and begin a freestyle stroke toward him when the fire bursts out again, and this time some of it is right in my face. "Come on, Seneca!" I shout, frustrated, propelling myself backward. The fire stops one more and I make it past the first wall before it starts again. If I don't get him out, he'll drown. As I realize this, my arms do something weird, like flail, and my head slips under the water, long enough for me to register two things:

There are things other than Cato and me in this water. Some nasty looking fish have joined fire stops at the surface.

I kick myself back up, inhale as much air as I can, hold my breath and plunge back under. My eyes are wide, looking for fish that need to be avoided and trying to find Cato. When I see a shoe and the stripes of red that are on all of our pants, all thoughts of avoiding fish vanish and I swim straight for him. As I reach him, I register that I think I may have kicked something, but I don't care. I turn him over which is a mistake because the pale blue mask that has replaced his face terrifies me more than anything I've seen thus far because I know it's real. I can't curl up into his chest, hold onto him, and say his name and wait for the hallucinations to stop.

Save him! Get yourselves out of here! Thank goodness I had Enobaria for a trainer. She never said those words exactly, but I can guess that's what she's saying now. Her ruthless voice in my head is all that gives me strength to do what I need to.

I wrap one arm around his chest and begin to swim as quickly as I can toward what I think is the shore. When the fire dies down, I see that I'm right and I try to get as close to it as I can before it comes up again. This is incredibly risky because I don't know exactly where it'll pop up next, but I don't think about anything other than the fact that Cato's not breathing, at least not until I feel the searing pain in my left hand. I can't help it. It feels as if I've stuck my hand into a forest of electrifying needles. I jump, pull my hand away, tuck it to my chest, stick my head under the water and look for whatever it was that shocked me. Despite all my reading, I don't know much about aquatic life. This creature is blue, tinged slightly with orange as more fire erupts above it. The tentacles in front of me must have some kind of defense mechanism that stabs anything that touches them. I don't think this thing can be particularly intelligent because its puffy top curves funnily, propelling itself right into the fire on the surface of the water and it is incinerated. When the body is gone and the long bluish tentacles have fallen down in the water, my path is clear. I give a very Cato-ish roar of desperation and frustration. Throwing all caution out the window and disregarding the pain in my hand, I swim for shore.

The Capitol seems to have had their entertainment because there are no more strange fish in the water and there's no more fire before I reach the shore and once there, everything leaves us alone. I'm shaking as I drag Cato out. I pull him as far up the bank as I can before I collapse with his shoulders on top of my legs. They didn't train is in CPR in Career training (what Career will need to know how to revive someone?), but I read and Peacekeepers know how to do it. I check for breath and heart sounds, knowing I won't hear anything. Then I take a deep breath as I place both my hands on the center of his chest and push down using all the strength in my arms as well as the weight of my upper body. I force myself to remain calm, medical calm, doctor calm. Count. Thirty compressions at a rate of one hundred beats a minute. I'm not sure if I've my timing is exactly right, but I stop after about twenty seconds. "Cato?" I say, but he remains motionless. "Hey!" I shake his shoulder, fairly certain that is not part of CPR but desperate for a response. Nothing happens. I've never done this to a live person before, but it's the best chance I have. I place my right hand on his forehead, my left under his chin and push his head back tilting his chin up, trying to open his airway.

I lean down, hoping like I never have in my life that I'll feel his breath on my skin but there's nothing still. No! Wake up, damn you, and breathe! With two fingers on my right hand, I hold his nose closed. Then I cover his mouth with mine and breathe for him, one quick gust of air to see if I can get his chest to rise. My left hand, which rests again in the center of his chest, moves very slightly. I breathe again for him, the same push of air as before, sit up again, place my right hand on top of my left on his chest and press down again. If I'm not careful, I could crack a rib which could then puncture a lung and then he really will be a goner. Oh, that's productive! Calm yourself and fix this.

Over the next twenty seconds, I give him another thirty chest compressions. I'm talking to him, "Come on. Come on, breathe! Breathe!" He doesn't, so I breathe for him again. Two more bursts of air, both of which move his chest. I haven't heard a canon but maybe it went off when we were still in the water? No, the hovercraft would have picked him up. But maybe not because I was still so close? Maybe they're waiting for me to leave? I don't know about any of those other things, but do know I will not leave him.

More chest compressions. I'm shouting again, hitting his chest rhythmically, shouting something that's not so nice, irrationally angry at him now for not breathing. I listen at his chest for his heart, put my hand close to his lips. Nothing. I breathe into his lungs again, so scared now that I'm crying, crying which is inhibiting my ability to count beats, meaning that I'm off my rhythm. Am I doing this right? Was that thirty? I don't know. Crying and shouting and swearing all the time wondering if I've missed something.

Finally, finally, finally, he coughs, spewing water everywhere. As he coughs again I push down on his chest, helping him expel the water that's been drowning him. He's not fully conscious yet, but coming to in a big hurry with the clearing of his lungs. He opens his eyes, coughs up another mouthful of water and gives me a very slight smile. Like it's funny. I hit him, hard and not timed with an exhale. A sharp, open-handed strike to roughly the same place where I was doing compressions a minute ago. It makes him cough violently again, which can't be bad, actually. My blow is punctuated by a yell of mingled relief and anger and I get up and walk away. He's awake enough that he can cough the rest up on his own and I need to move. I can't sit there anymore.

It's not funny, not in the least! He could've died; he would be dead if I hadn't sat there for minutes trying to wake him up again. Ok, maybe it wasn't minutes but it sure felt like it. I've never been so scared. I wipe my face on the sleeve of my jacket, and realize that it does nothing but mix fresh water with the salty stuff pouring from my eyes. I don't dare go near the lake again, not even to wash my face, but instead pace around for a while, my hands up over my mouth, trying to stop the sobbing and shaking, looking back every so often to make sure Cato's ok. He is. He sat up a while ago, braced himself on his hands and knees and coughed up what was left in his lungs and vomited anything he had eaten. He took off his shoes and socks and his wet shirt before zipping back into his jacket. The jacket dries quicker than anything else so it probably is keeping him warm. He's also emptied his bag on the ground beside him, spreading out the blanket for it to dry so we have somewhere warm to sleep tonight.

I decide that's a good idea, kick off my shoes, peel down my socks, unzip the jacket, quickly whip off the shirt before getting back into the outer layer. It's still cold now, but it will warm quickly. My pants are wet, too, but they are made of a material more like the jacket than the coat, so I leave them on, hoping they'll dry and warm up again quickly.

Cato is sitting with his arms around his knees when I return to him, shirt, boots and socks in one hand. I've walked in a big circle around him so he jumps when he feels my hand on his back. I sit down as close to him as I can without being on top of him, setting down my bundle of stuff absentmindedly, and rest my head against his arm, realizing that thinking I had this terrified tantrum thing under control was a mistake. He puts his arms around me, pulls up my hood and lets me bury my face in his neck where I cry again, silently though. The whole point of the hood being up is so that the cameras don't see me. It'd be pointless to sob loudly again if I'm trying to prevent them seeing me cry again.

It doesn't matter now how jealous he was, how traitorous he thought I was, how angry I've been all day or what we've said or done to each other. I don't care how if my ribs are still sore and he doesn't even seem to remember 6 or our last conversation with 2. We've both messed up; neither of us has communicated the way we should have, but when push comes to shove, we'll put our personal problems aside to protect each other.

At first, Cato's grip isn't nearly as strong as usual. He's weak, I guess from the lack of oxygen to his muscles and brain, but gradually he holds onto me tighter, rubs my back until I've calmed down again. When I have, I pull off the hood and speak to him. "It was a reassuring smile? You were telling me you were gonna be ok?" I'm still close enough to him that I feel his head move as he looks at me.

"Of course." He kisses the top of my head.

He squeezes my shoulders and rests his head on top of mine. It's only now that I realize that it's freezing, but he's warm, at least to me. "Sorry," I tell him. Sorry for whacking him. Sorry for walking away. Sorry that all of this has happened to us. Sorry I didn't remember before right now how totally safe I feel with him protectively holding onto me.

He responds by holding on tighter. A nonverbal, 'Don't apologize'. "I shouldn't have hit you. I should've known –,"

"Ssh," I tell him. I rub his back too to quiet him. "I know." I know he didn't mean it. I know it would have never ever happened at home and it'll never happen again. It was a mistake brought on by anger at a fabricated situation devised by 2 to throw a wrench in between us. All it takes to create jealousy and force it to the surface is one sentence by a desperate boy, and such ugly emotion can turn into defensive blind rage as quickly as dry grass will catch fire.

Yes, the situation was trivial and if he ever hit me that hard outside the arena, I'd have a huge problem with it, but with the stress of our lives literally constantly in danger, here he's got an out. No one but someone who's gone through the Games can understand how quickly the smallest things can be magnified when you're fighting tooth and nail day in and day out to stay alive. And I'm a Career! The odds are supposed to be in my favor but that doesn't help; clearly we're just as at-risk in here as everyone else.

I remember the question I had earlier: What did I lie to him about that would make him so mad? It's now that I realize that the content of any lie wouldn't have mattered. What would have made him angry was that I'd lied at all. When you come in here with a pre-arranged agreement with someone and then find out twelve days into the Game that your counterpart might not have been being as honest as you'd both promised to be, when she agrees to separate and only seeks you out after the Gamemakers have said you can both go home as victors, it's going to look suspicious. Based on his reaction to what 2 said, I know jealousy was a factor, but that injury, the one done by my supposed fair weather friend attitude, did much more damage.

Cato doesn't seem to see the out though because he continues talking. "I wanted to talk to you last night. . . to fix it. I know there's not really an explanation, but I didn't mean it. I swear I didn't." I've never heard his voice shake like this. He stops speaking as something else occurs to him. "Did I hurt you?" If I get hurt in here, it won't be good and if he's the one who did it, if he's the one who's injury jeopardizes my safety, he'll never forgive himself. That's the message his question conveys.

I sit up and look at him directly so we can both see each other's eyes. "I'm ok," I tell him. He needs to know more that that. I understand both how I know that and why he needs the information. If I'd ever hurt him, I'd want to know exactly how badly so I could compensate and cover for him should he need it. "It's bruised and a little sore," I explain. Really most of the pain was gone by the time I woke up this morning. I'd say that, but using the word 'pain' would not downplay this the way I want to. Yes, I recognize that might not be entirely healthy, but neither is volunteering for the Games. Maybe it would be right to question my mental state. "I've been hurt much worse than this before."

"But never by me," he answers quietly. It isn't a pity party; it's a fact.

"No," I agree. "Never by you." My voice is very gentle, as is the hand I have on the back of his neck, trying to calm him.

"Never again by me either. I promise." I tell him I know again, wrap my arms around his neck and pull him into a hug. His arms go around my waist and he buries his face in my shoulder. His grip on me is just as strong as usual, not weak like a few minutes ago, not crushing like the last time I saw 2 alive. Just normal, secure and comfortable. Strong it may be, but this is the same hug as right before the reaping on the last day at home. He's clinging to me for support so I hold him. I can feel his body shaking and I can only imagine he's having the same silent breakdown I just got over.

Slowly, I feel the shaking subside and then he sits up again and makes eye contact with me. I can only imagine how ridiculous this must look in the Capitol. Two Careers, both from District 2, both with red puffy eyes, sitting cuddled together in the middle of the arena. I brush some of his drying hair off his forehead and we simultaneously give each other half smiles.

We know we should find better coverage than out here right next to the lake but we're exhausted. I take two knives from my jacket and he checks that the blanket is mostly dry. Somehow the material seems to be drawing the water to the outer edges where it runs off into the ground. It's still damp, but it's heavy and we'll be warmer under it than not. We lay down and he drapes the blanket over me, leaving his arm protectively on my shoulder. I keep my hands under the blanket and press the handle of my second knife into the palm of his hand. "Just in case." We know this is ridiculously arrogant, sleeping so out in the open with neither of keeping watch, but after what we've just gone through, I've got a pretty good feeling that the Gamemakers will let us sleep through the night. I move closer to Cato, touch my head to his chest just like the last night at home and the tracker jacker days. We're asleep, sharing our body heat, safe with each other, before the anthem even plays.

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