The Conspiracy

Chapter XXIV: The Feast

When I wake up, I'm laying with my head on Cato's chest, one arm wrapped around him. I fell asleep like this but vaguely remember that I moved at night. I rolled over but kept my head on Cato's arm. The parts of me that had been touching him, part of my face, the inside of my right arm, and most of my right side rapidly became cold. That woke me. I stirred, touched Cato's arm, remembered where I was, then roused him gently. I said his name twice before he woke up.

"Hm?" He was too tired for real words. I mumbled something and reached for his hand and he understood. He curled up, his other arm around my waist. Content again, I moved closer to him and he tightened his grip. "Thanks for waking me up," he said into my hair.

I wasn't sure if he was sarcastic or not so I sighed, found the arm around my waist and pushed it back. "Fine. Go back to sleep." It didn't sound aggressive, maybe a little defeated.

"I meant that." He put his arm back around me and moved his head closer to my ear. "The more often it's you that wakes me up, the better."

I just laid there, slightly stunned, then I turned to see him. "When we get home, you should be a poet."

He nodded and smiled. "After today we'll be one step closer." He kissed my temple. He's right. Maybe tonight will have been our last night in the arena, but that's probably too much to hope for. "Go back to sleep. We'll need to be rested to do this." At some point I moved again, waking both of us briefly, just long enough to turn over again, push Cato's shoulder and rest my head again on his chest. That's how we've been sleeping until now.

He's got his right arm wrapped around me, though not as tightly as usual because he's still sleeping. It's dark but I can tell it'll be dawn soon. Maybe I am a little nervous because I've just realized nothing else could have provoked me to wake up this early, unless... Typical of many victors I've seen, I give a small start as a darker thought occurs to me and look around, peering into the shadows, looking for anything that would have woken me: another tribute, an animal, a mutt. There's nothing. I should have guessed. The Capitol will want us to go to the feast and kill each other. They won't be sending in mutts or setting fires to chase us around unless they think we're not going to go.

I sigh and bury my face in Cato's jacket, enjoying the last minute or two of comfort before we get up and start the day, which is sure to be exhausting. I think back to last night and tighten my arm around Cato's chest in a hug.

We'd forgotten where we were until some sound spooked us both. I don't know how we managed it, given how close we had been to each other, but we were both on our feet with weapons drawn, looking around for whatever had made the sound in less than three seconds. We'd searched our immediate vicinity, ascertained that it had been nothing more sinister than some small animal, then decided we'd better go to sleep. I'd curled up next to him and fallen asleep. I inhale deeply, taking in his scent.

Tough it out. Get out of here. Maybe last night will have been the last night in the arena and then we'll be going home. Home. No. You're in the arena now. Don't get lost thinking of home. Tough it out. Get up.

I pick my head up, kiss Cato's chest, then sit up, trying not to move his arm too far and kiss him again lightly, like the first one from last night. But he doesn't move. I smile and kiss him a third time, longer, less gently. I'm supporting myself on one elbow and the hand that's around Cato's chest and I'm fairly certain he's awake, but he feigns sleep and lets me keep kissing him. Morning breath after nothing but water and peppermint leaves to wash out raw squirrel should put us off kissing, but it doesn't. Eventually though, he must remember why we need to get up. He presses his lips against mine and when I pull away and look down at him, his eyes are open. "Good morning to you too." He picks his head up and kisses me again and I smile.

"We gotta go," I tell him quietly, wishing we didn't. The smile falls from my features. This, combined with our last two days has got to be pretty entertaining for the Capitol, right How often do tributes do this? Definitely not twice per Games. Or maybe they do and the Capitol just doesn't show it to the Districts. I mean, we are all teenagers locked in an arena of death. Who knows? Maybe people think, 'Forget it. I want to do something with someone before I die even if that only means stealing a few kisses.' Wouldn't that be miserable? 'I want to before I die. I want to do whatever it is with you, fellow tribute. The fact that you might be the one to kill me is massively unfortunate.' Cato puts the hand that was around my shoulders on the back of my head and pulls me down so he can whisper in my ear. Some of my untied hair falls down on his face, covering his lips so the cameras won't see.

"We could just let them fight it out." Wouldn't want a microphone to hear that.

I shake my head. "Someone would take whatever they sent us."

"What do we need?" Maybe everything that we lost in the fire? Though a small, strangely romantic part of me understands this to mean 'What do we need? We have each other.' Even the part of me that knows we have to go to the feast recognizes that there's some truth in this. Cato and I as an inseparable team would be unbeatable even without supplies. "Plus," he continues, "the others will guess that we're there. They'd be afraid we'd chase them down if they took our stuff. We could go get it later."

"You got a bad feeling about this?" I tease him, grinning. "Nervous?" I pull back from whispering in his ear and grin at him. He gives me a look for a split second that should give me a warning, but it doesn't register in my head and before I know what's happened he's flipped over and is looking down at me.

"Course not. I'd just rather stay here." He whispers in my ear.

"Me too," I agree, turning very slightly and kissing his cheek. He moves too and continues kissing me. My hands go from his biceps, which are tense from holding himself up, to around his neck. He drops to his forearms and his fingers find and play with my hair. What I wouldn't give to stay like this all day! Avoid the feast, the other tributes, the pods, the cameras, the prying eyes of the Capitol and the Districts, everything. For several minutes we continue until I remember that staying like this right now will not ensure that we go home to safety. Quite the opposite, it will most likelyresult in our untimely deaths.

I put my hands on his chest and push up gently. He doesn't sit up immediately, probably because I don't stop kissing him until he actually moves. When he does, he offers me his hand and pulls me up into a sitting position. "We'll be back soon," I reassure him. He nods.

"Maybe I do have a bad feeling about this," he admits.

"Everybody does when they go to these things. It's what entertains the Capitol."

He's fidgeting with his hands and I wonder why until he holds his fist out to me and says, "Take this. Keep it with you." I hold out my hand and he drops his district token, the silver ring with the onyx stone, into it. I look up at him, slightly surprised. "I'm not asking you to marry me. I just want you to have it."

"We'll trade," I say, taking off my ring and holding it out to him. His ring is too big for my fingers and there's no practical way for him to carry mine either so we pocket them both and make sure they're secure. Ok. Time to go.

We stand up, make sure all our remaining weapons are secure and walk back toward the Cornucopia. I take his hand on the way there. We're tense, but focused, prepared for the feast.

"I'll take 22," Cato says as the Cornucopia comes into view through the leaves. "I'll find him. 23 is yours."

"9?" I ask.

"Don't worry about her. We'll track her later."

I nod. We crouch down and keep our eyes on the Cornucopia. Our hands still tight together. Minutes after we arrive, the ground opens up and a white table emerges. On it are four packs, two relatively large, one tiny, one in the middle. Suddenly, a flash of red hair and the medium sized pack is gone. 9 is tearing off in the other direction. There's a break, a pause of maybe thirty tense seconds and then 23 is racing toward the table. "See you after," I squeeze his hand, then push off from my crouch and sprint after her, drawing a knife from my sleeve as I go. I aim slightly to her right, having had enough of the 'knife in the back' thing at the Bloodbath. I don't know how she knows it's there, but she brings her bow up and knocks the knife off course. Then she turns and, with skill no one but she knew she had, sends an arrow straight toward me. I step to my right to avoid taking the weapon directly to the chest but I misjudged its angle and it ends up sticking hard into my upper left arm. I hear myself make a noise of pain with the impact, but I can't slow down. Knowing it's not proper procedure, I grab hold of the arrow, as close to its entrance point in my arm as I can, and pull it backward. The pain that follows is absolutely murderous and I would gladly curl up on the ground, but I can't. Tough it out.

I grit my teeth as 23 reaches the table, and slips the tiny bag around her wrist. I draw a second knife, aim again to her right, higher this time and let fly. Ouch. She turned into it. Fool! I just threw to your right, why would you turn that way? But in all honesty, I feel no sympathy what with the gaping wound in my own arm. Her bow was already loaded and even with blood in her eye she fires another arrow.

This time I'm ready and definitely unwilling to take a second arrow to any part of my person so I dodge and know the arrow sticks in the ground. Then with all my momentum, strength, weight, and fury, I slam into her, bring her hard to the ground and pin her with my knees, very similarly to what I did to 1 on the first day in here. 23 struggles, tries to throw me off but I'm heavier and stronger than she is and I know what I'm doing. I'm furious with her for the damage she's just done to my arm and I want to scare her. "Where's Lover Boy?" I ask quietly.

"He's out there now, hunting Cato," she snaps back at me. Then she screams 24's name and I shut her up with a fist to her throat. But she's reminded me of where I am now. I turn my head quickly from side to side, scanning the trees for any sign of movement. If 24 is out there and 22 is around and they're both watching this fight or they're both hunting Cato, we're at a distinct disadvantage. Then I remember how badly hurt 24 was when I saw him at the stream. That cut can't have healed properly. He's not here.

"Liar," I snarl at her. "He's nearly dead. Cato knows where he cut him. You've probably got him strapped up in some tree while you try to keep his heart going. What's in the pretty little backpack? That medicine for Lover Boy? Too bad he'll never get it." I taunt her, say something about making a promise to Cato to mess her up (which is obviously untrue), something about her not going home, something about 21. I use 21's name, Rue, just to get under 23's skin. She struggles furiously at that. Good. Nobody threatens Cato. Not in front of me. Not even if it's an empty threat. I ignore my moral protestation against the use of 21's death as a weapon.

Then I reveal the knives I've collected from the Cornucopia. I want her scared, not necessarily tortured, but it is undeniable that she must die. There's no way they let three or four of us out of here alive. I almost wish I could tell her that, thank her for her roll in Cato's and my plan, and then my heart beats again, sending blood through my veins, sending some more dripping down from the wound in my arm, and I remember that she would just as easily see Cato and me killed. What would it matter to her? I forget any concern for her mental well-being. I do intend to give the Capitol a show only now because I've said it, but I don't intend it to be inhumanely painful. Thin shallow cuts guaranteed to draw blood.

I've just cut the corner of her top lip (see what I mean? There's a huge difference between losing the tip or your nose, the lobe of an ear and getting your lip nicked. All three are painful but one is significantly less so than the other two. The Capitol won't care as long as they see blood) when I feel myself lifted off her. Someone's arms are tight around my waist, pinning my arms to my sides. I scream and struggle, feeling trapped and defenseless. I can't so much as throw an elbow in his face. He throws me, literally throws me, away from 23. I land on my feet but my ankle twists violently beneath me. There's a crack and instant pain follows, radiating up my leg from what feels like a broken bone. There's only one person who could lift me like that. 22.

"What did you do to that little girl?" 22 snarls at me. I thought I was the only one capable of talking like that. He always seemed so calm, composed, fearless even and this new side of him shocks me. "You kill her?"

"No," I answer quickly, too quickly for it to be the me that I know, but my voice is still my own. Fear has registered, but hasn't yet progressed to outright panic. I've got knives on me. I can defend myself, even if I doubt my ankle will support me if I choose to run. Cato will come soon. Wait? Fear has registered? Waiting for Cato to come protect me? No. No. I can't be scared in here. They always warned us at training that if we're scared, we're sure not to make it home. What have I got to fear in here besides not returning? Nothing. And as far as waiting for rescue, that's out as well. We're supposed to be entirely self-sufficient. The fact that both of those thoughts have just formed in my head is even more distressing. No, Clove. You do this. You solve it. Don't let him hurt you. Kill him. Kill him. But even that voice sounds a little shaky.

"I heard you say her name! I heard you!" He steps closer to me and I feel my eyes widen as fear morphs into panic. I see a stone stone in his hand, about twenty inches long by four wide by four deep. My parents are masons. I know how dangerous the quarries can be when things become unstable and rocks slide down the slopes. I try not to, but I remember the accounts and the funeals of people killed in the quarries and feel my heart beat harder against my ribs, "You cut her up like you were gonna cut up this girl here?" He gestures to 23 with the stone.

"No! No it wasn't me!" I sound as terrified as I am. I shake my head and slide myself backward over the grass as he advances on me, dragging my injured leg and gritting my teeth against the pain in my arm. 23 hasn't moved. I wish she would. "Cato!" I scream, looking back over my shoulder at the spot where we had been hiding minutes ago. I hear him answer, but his voice isn't coming from where we were. He's moved. He sounds far away, but that could just be because of the blood pounding in my ears. He'll come. He'll come and kill 22 and hopefully 23 as well and 24 will die wherever he is and then we'll just have to find 9. He'll come and stop this hallucination from becoming reality and then we'll be homeward bound just like we said last night.

22's looking livid, not scared as I hoped. He knows before I do that Cato isn't coming, not quickly enough. I can't believe this might really be about to happen. Can I really be about to go from Relatively unharmed to Dying in a matter of seconds? I find the answer is yes as 22 raises his stone. I disregard honoring my District and scream for the one person who is my only hope of rescue now. "Cato!" I'm desperate and I know I'm done if he's not here in the next three seconds. I look back at 22 and barely have time to draw breath for more than a terrified squeak before his stone comes down.

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