The Conspiracy

Chapter I: Our Brave Tributes: Careers

"Let's hear it for our brave tributes, Clove Harper and Cato Armstrong!" announces the woman who we must now think of as our escort. I nod curtly as the half audience gives a deafening roar while the other half claps politely for Cato and me. We turn and shake hands.

The Peacekepers, most of whom Cato and I know by name, hurry us dutifully to the Justice Building where we await our friends and family for final goodbyes. "Good luck," the head trainer of accelerated training tells me, holding out a hand to shake. We aren't particularly close and hugs are too sentimental for either of us so a handshake it is. Even for us though, he's stiff. It couldn't be clearer that he doesn't expect me to come out of this with Cato as my counterpart. "See you after?"

"Count on it," I answer, trying to deny the feeling I'm getting from him.

"Take this," he holds out the tribute token for me. "You weren't supposed to have it until next year but I guess you changed the plan." The district pays for the tokens to be made. Every tribute gets one and they're all different. Mine is a small gold ring, set with a diamond. "It's engraved. Look." He turns the ring so I can see the engraving on the inside. "Stay safe, Tiny." Sometimes they call me Tiny. It's kind of a joke. I'm one of the smallest trainees but also one of the very best.

"I didn't know you made these things so far in advance," I tell him. Why does he have my ring a year before I was set to go?

"We knew you'd try to get in this year so we had it made in case you succeeded." I just look at him, but I can't help feeling annoyed. If they already had my ring made, why did they tell Cato it was his turn to volunteer? Why not just let me go and kick the successive winner plan? No, they planned this. They don't care about any attachment Cato and I might have to each other. We should be able to turn those off for the honor of our district, right? They don't care that we're going in at the same time as long as one of us comes home. "We didn't want you to. We wanted you two to win one after the other." He repeats as if this will make me believe him.

"I'm not an idiot." My voice reflects my mood. He's trained me to be as dangerous as I am, but he never expected it to turn on him. He'd better hope I'm not the one to come home because if I have to kill Cato to get back, they'll all be in for it.

He blinks at me. I grind my teeth, waiting for his response. "Watch your tone in your interview. Control yourself." He puts his hands on my shoulders, then slides them down my arms to grip my wrists tightly. "And yes you are. You deviated, not us. This is on you." I see red and if he hadn't just reminded me to control myself, I'd destroy him for that. Instead I stand still, making him feel foolish for preventatively holding my wrists. "Alright," he grins at me and claps me on the shoulder. "See you soon?"

"Count on it," I repeat. It's a threat.

He leaves and I force myself to calm down before my family comes in. When my mother arrives she throws her arms around my neck. She and my father mine granite in the quarries and they never approved of the Capitol's games, nor of my decision to train as a Peacekeeper, but now they have no choice to accept both. She cries. My father waits his turn, looking determined not to cry, but there are tears in his eyes.

My parents stay with me but I can't help thinking that the person I would have spent the rest of this hour with is in the other room, saying his goodbyes as well. When his family comes in to hug me and whisper words of comfort and encouragement, mine goes to say goodbye to Cato.

"That was insane." Caleb tells me the minute he's hugging me.

"I should've known they'd fix it," I tell him. "I shouldn't have volunteered, but I couldn't have watched knowing he was in it."

"How do you think I feel?" He's trying to smile, trying to make this easier but it only makes me feel worse. I hug him tighter. It's always been Cato and me and him against the whole world and now it's Cato against me and Caleb at home unable to help. What on earth was I thinking, volunteering? The Hunger Games are a one man sport. That was why Cato and I were intended to be successive winners. First him, then me. We were never supposed to be in the arena together. "Trust him," Caleb tells me as he holds onto me. It's probably getting a little excessive now, even for a goodbye hug. "Just trust him. You work best together anyway. Try to get both of you back here alive." They're very different, Caleb and Cato. Cato's like me, smart but quick to become angry, strong and fit but clearly for one purpose, and mean, even if part of that is magnified by an act. Caleb is quieter, more tame, thoughtful, built exactly like his brother but using his strength and genetic advantage for other pursuits. He's smart. He's so smart the coaches and trainers would never have thought to put him in the arena. He's more useful here at home becoming an engineer and a pilot. He knows everything about every hovercraft we have here, having helped build parts for all of them. If he thinks there's a way we can both get back here, then there must be hope, or else he's just being kind. I choose not to weigh the likelihood of these options.

More Peacekeepers enter and escort me to the tribute train. I meet Cato there and we sit beside each other on one of the comfortable couches, facing the direction we're traveling. Our escort enters, beaming as they always do, congratulates us again, gives us a brief rundown of our schedule, then leaves. We don't know who our mentors are, (they presented themselves but I wasn't paying attention, guess why) but we certainly know them from training. Even though we were technically training to become Peacekeepers, the victors from 2 were always there.

There was a special section for those of us actually preparing for the Games that peeled off from standard training at five in the evening. There they taught us everything about survival that the Peacekeepers left out. What to eat and what not to eat, how to tie different knots, make nets, trap, hunt, gather. They taught us hand to hand combat, spear and knife throwing, sword fighting, mace wielding, and archery. We beat brutality and ferocity into each other, and then thought our way around guilt and sympathy later. Everything necessary for survival in the arena.

Cato and I have trained together for as long as either of us has wanted to be in the Games. We helped each other, pointed out flaws, corrected them, helped hone natural talents to be used as deadly weapons. He's strong, excellent at hand-to-hand combat and a master swordsman. I'm handy with a knife and don't usually waste my time with brutality. I just get the job done. I'd rather be farther away, that is, I'm more comfortable throwing than I am stabbing or slicing, but I'm not bad at hand-to-hand myself. In my case, strength came in a small package, but speed is my naturally deadly weapon. As far as everything else, we're Careers and we can handle it if no one else in the arena can.

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