The Conspiracy

Chapter XXIII: Close

In the morning, I give Cato some basic tests to check his brain function. Obviously he is going to be fine because he woke up, cleared his lungs, and was really only without oxygen for less than five minutes. At home, they'd give him oxygen therapy to treat that, but we don't have the means here. All I can do is check his basic motor functions, ("Here, touch the tip of my finger now touch your nose, now my finger again") hand-eye coordination, (I remove my District token, the small diamond ring which glints in the early morning light, toss it to him and he catches it no problem. We repeat this three or four times), memory, and cognition (I'm no good at setting and solving complex math equations so for these last two we stand and spar for a few minutes. We learned specific motions in training at home. I remember them in my sleep and if he falters I'll notice. Also, I was always more proficient with the more complex moves so I can test his problem solving abilities by seeing if he can get himself out of a tricky situation. Actually, sparring is an effective way to test all of the above). He seems a little groggy to me, but that could also just be from stiffness and bad sleep. I'd forgotten about the sting in my hand, but it's red and swollen now, which he notices at the end of our match. I tell him, only because he asks, how I got it. His lips tighten but he can't seem to find words. I squeeze his forearm reassuringly before I go over to where we left our boots, socks and shirts to dry.

We're tired and stiff, but we press on, looking for food and water and working the soreness from our bones and muscles. We no longer trust the lake. If the Gamemakers have rigged it to light on fire, my best guess is that there is some nasty chemical in the water that would do us both in. Of course, Caleb might be able to debate that. Who knows? Maybe we triggered tiny fire launchers concealed in the banks. Whatever the answer, I don't want to test it.

As primitive as it is, we eat squirrel raw with as much dignity as we can. We've both had enough fire for a lifetime. There's no way our supplies are still intact and even if there were, there's no getting either of us to go back to that part of the woods. Raw squirrel provides sustenance but the aftertaste is disgusting so we find mint leaves and chew on them. If we spit them out and chew new ones every so often, it dulls the taste of the squirrel.

We're both very thirsty, so its a stroke of luck when we find a shallow pond. Before we drink, we inspect the bank and the bottom of the pond. It's only natural to be suspicious, especially after last night. I recognize many of the plants growing along the edge and know that they need mass quantities of water to grow. I also know they're edible if you're desperate enough. Their water source is this pond and if they're alive, the water must be safe to drink. We have no more iodine (which is why we are being so careful about inspecting the water) and no more canteens so we both cup our hands and lift a sip of water to our mouths. Cato suggests we wait a while just to be sure there are no adverse effects and we spend the next half an hour collecting edible plants. One of us stands guard over the pond, watching to make sure nothing strange occurs and the other gathers. Who knew we'd ever be this desperate? After a half hour, we drink more water and eat some of the food we've collected over the course of the day.

In the evening, we find proper shelter not far from our pond. We're deep in another part of the woods far away from the fire pod, under cover of some trees, sitting across from each other, our backs against two different trunks, our legs extended, soles touching. This time we're waiting for the anthem to play. After the announcement of feast and the promise to restock our supplies (at least that's what we assume it is), we look at each other, annoyed with Seneca Crane, annoyed with everyone. Yes, it's helpful of them to offer to resupply us at this stage, but in all honesty, we wouldn't even be here if it weren't for them. Why can't we just live in the woods? We'd manage. Maybe we don't want to live in these woods but somewhere away from the Capitol, away from the government. Together. We'd more than manage together in a forest out of the reach of the Capitol. Hell, we're managing now. We'd thrive away from here, be genuinely happy as we always have been at home outside the fence.

"You know what?" Cato asks me. I look up at him, pulled away from my thoughts by his voice. "They said we can both go home. We did it." It doesn't much matter now if the Capitol hears that kind of talk from us. We're a team by their own rules and we should be happy about it. And as for bringing it up two days after the original announcement, well, we didn't exactly celebrate that night, did we?

"Yeah," I smile back at him. "It almost feels like we've already won."

"We will," he assures me. "Just a couple more days." We both laugh then, giddy with the prospect of our success. We'll be back in the Capitol, homeward bound, in a couple of days! There's no way any of the other tributes will hinder us. There's no one who rivals the pair of us at home, and they're all trained fighters. The rest of the tributes are just kids: one injured, one very smart and fast but weak, one apparently a decent shot with a bow and arrow but useless at close quarters, and one giant who didn't pay attention to training. We can take them.

Silence falls again between us, content, excited silence. Then Cato snorts out what sounds like a laugh and I look around at him. "What's up now?" I ask him.

"Nothing. I just –." He's awkward and he's rarely awkward. "I just... Well, it's not really funny but. . . nothing." I prompt him again. He shakes his head at himself and tells me, "It's stupid. Don't worry about it. I don't know what made me think of it." I remain silent, assuming he'll either tell me or not. I'll ask him again if he doesn't speak up within the next thirty seconds, but I try not to pry. Turns out, this time I don't even need to ask. He sighs and says, "I think I want to kiss you." Come again?

"What?" I say. Is that the appropriate response? What am I supposed to say? That bossy little voice can talk all it wants once I've been stung by tracker jackers, but does it show up now to help me through a social situation? No, of course not. And of course my response is ridiculous and inadequate. For all the training I underwent at home about how to read people, no one ever taught me how to react to this. But this is Cato, my best friend of ten years. Since when does he say things I'm unable to respond to?

"Uh. . . I," he stammers. "I don't know. Forget it." He doesn't sound angry, quite the contrary. He even gives me a small half-smile. I force a small laugh and begin to play with leaves from the tree behind me. I shred them along their veins, throw the pieces away, and pick up new ones.

"You kissed my head," I remind him, my voice quiet.

"I did." The defeated look on his face gives me the impression he'd let the subject drop now if I did. Crap. Fail. Again. It seems like I've deflected without having meant to. 'I want to kiss you'. And then from me: 'Well you did already so...I'll just tear up these leaves.' We don't talk for about another minute, both lost in thought.

I've never given any thought to kissing him. Yesterday, I gave him mouth to mouth, which is about as close to a kiss as you can get, and it never even occurred to me that the guys back home will give us a hard time about that. Partly because Cato wimped out and had to have me save him, but also partly because I had to kiss him to get him to come back. I never even thought of it as a kiss. I thought of it as 'This is the only way I know how to help him.' I was terrified I'd lose him, and not because being allied with him keeps the others away. No. I was scared I'd lose him. I don't want to lose him. He's strong and safe, and warm and comforting and reminds me of home.

"Like. . . now?" I'm surprised that that came out of my mouth but glad I didn't give it more thought. If I had, I may have chickened out of saying the only appropriate thing that's come out of my mouth in the last five minutes. I guess the fact that I never entertained the idea of kissing him doesn't mean I'm don't want to, which I didn't know until just now.

He doesn't verbalize his answer, but looks up briefly, gives me a shrug, and then fixes his gaze again on the ground, embarrassed or hurt or I don't know what. I curl my legs up and go to sit next to him, then put a hand on the side of his face to get him to look up at me, then kiss him, gently, very gently as I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing. I realize when I pull about a millimeter away that that wasn't good enough. That humored him, but it wasn't good enough for me. It didn't tell him what I wanted it to. And for another thing, I want to kiss him again. Maybe I have for a while. So sue me.

I press my lips to his again. It's a deeper kiss this time, one hand behind his head, the other on his shoulder. His arm goes behind my back, his fingers strong behind my shoulder, holding me close. I smile and pull just far enough away so I can utter audible, understandable words, "What are you thinking?" His hair feels soft under my fingertips. We've been friends for years and we've been training together forever but we've never been this close. I'd never have thought of being comfortable enough to run my fingers through his hair and let myself observe that, even though it's probably dirty, it's soft. He's Cato: strong, safe, warm, comfortable, home, dangerous to someone on his bad side, never soft until just now.

I feel his breath on my lips as he quotes his thoughts at me, "'How mad would she be if I wanted to kiss her again?'"

I shake my head very slightly, not wanting to move any further away than I absolutely have to. "Not." We're both smiling as he kisses me. We don't stop until we need to breathe. When we do, we pull apart and look at each other, both grinning and breathing faster than normal. Who would have thought this of all things would speed up our hearts and breath? We're Careers, the best runners of our age... Since when...Who cares?

This isn't the Cato I know, awkward and nervous, but this isn't the me that I know either, wanting to kiss either Cato, but I like all four of us. And I like both Catos enough to want to keep kissing either or both of them. I wrap my arm more securely around his neck and pull myself onto his lap. It's not seductive or anything like that, but how else am I supposed to snuggle and kiss him at the same time? I hug myself tightly to him and smile as we kiss again and all the years of Peacekeeper and Career training have made our grips on each other unbreakable.

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