The Conspiracy

Chapter XXIX: Happiness

I burst through the trees and head for the Cornucopia. My hands are empty. I stuck the first mutt that got within throwing distance with my spear and tied the sword to me as I ran. 12 are standing there, 23 with an arrow aimed at my chest. It tears a hole in my jacket but just glances off my armor. I don't know how far behind the mutts are but I'm too scared to stop and look or even to attempt to take out either of my competitors. I just push past them, sprint the length of the plain, and begin to scramble up the side of the Cornucopia. I reach the top, double over and begin to cough. Running so hard for so long as given me a murderous stitch in my side and the sudden stop has brought on enough chest pain and muscle tension to temporarily immobilize me.

I cough and try to catch my breath before 12 get up here with me. I'm watching them from my position. 23 is far ahead of 24 and it's not until she reaches the Cornucopia, until she's that far from the danger, that she turns to look for him. He's still very far behind her. He fought me to protect her and that's why he's slow now and now she'll run before she fights to save him? I don't have the energy to hate her or him, but I can't help the rush of bitterness I feel as I realize this. I did everything I could to save Clove and she did the same for me. Clove and I risked everything for each other always and 23 will run before she even looks around for 24? It isn't fair that these two still have each other.

24's leg is still injured from my sword. Apparently the damage I did wasn't entirely fixed by the medicine they sent in for him. Well, good. At least we weren't the only team that feast didn't help.

I don't blame them for all that's happened, even if I am, somewhat childishly, bitter. I finally understand that all of this is solely the Capitol's fault. I wonder if all tributes realize that at some point.

Scraping sounds, much worse than nails on a blackboard reach my ears. The mutts are in two groups now, organizing themselves for the attack. I forget for a moment that we're adversaries and view 12 for a moment as two scared kids just like me, climbing up the side of the Cornucopia to get to safety. If they were within reach right now, this instant, I might even pull them up here. My voice is, again, not working properly as I try to yell down to them, "Can they climb it?"

"What?" 23 calls back to me. Even if we're supposed to be killing each other, we're all in danger from these creatures. If they have information I don't, they might as well tell me. I've given them all the information I have, even provided them with the idea to climb the Cornucopia for some safety, but they don't answer.

As they climb, 23 aims an arrow at me, but then gets distracted by a mutt with blond fur. She shoots it in the throat then I see her lips move, forming the words "It's them! It's the other tributes!" How can she know that? These things have been chasing me for hours and I never noticed that, but of course I was in the dark, under cover of the trees. I crawl to the edge of the horn looking over the edge for her mutt. I know I've got at least another thirty seconds before 12 are up here with me. They chose a bad spot to climb.

I understand immediately what 23 sees in the mutts, how she figured it out. I see 21, small but still deadly looking, her curly black hair tangling together as she runs for the Cornucopia beside 2's mutt. 22 is there too. I feel nothing for him. No more guilt, no more hesitation, no anything...I can't even bring myself to hate him. I hate the Capitol and only the Capitol. And I miss Clove. And I'm numb to anything else, raw from the events of the last few days. I see her, snarling and leaping up to scratch the sides of the Cornucopia. I hate the Capitol for what they've done to her, to all of us.

Fury brings me to my feet and I turn as 12 reach the summit of the horn. I get 24 in a death grip, his shoulders parallel with mine, both of us facing 23, my arm wrapped around to the back of his head. "Do it!" I tell her. "Then we both go down and you win." She doesn't. She does nothing. I can't hurt her friend though. She'll shoot if I do. I'm provoking her, yes, but I don't want her to shoot. I'm still planning to go home. "Go on! I'm dead anyway. I always was, right?" Yes, there is still a boy called Cato standing here choking another boy, but the person I was before I volunteered died as soon as I entered the arena as soon as the Bloodbath started, maybe even as soon as I left home. If I'm dead and Clove's dead, what am I going back to? But I must try still. That was the unspoken promise I made her when I left her with 23's arrows in her hand. But I can't help it. I want the Capitol to know what they've done to all of us. All the tributes, all the victors. "No?" I'm angry with her for her hesitation. "Because I could still do this." I tighten my arm around 24's neck. "I could still do this." I don't feel like I'm winning, but I force a triumphant smile onto my features. She'd better make her decision quickly because 24's going to choke to death here in a matter of minutes. I can't do anything until she acts or he dies.

24's been scrabbling half-heartedly at my arms as I've yelled at 23. I say half-heartedly because he's also been trying to stem the flow of blood from his leg. Now he raises his hands again to my hands and his fingers, coated in blood, draw as X on the back of my hand. The grin falters as, for a second, I ponder what he did that for. And then 23's fingers loose the arrow and a second after that, it's sticking into my skin. I yell and let go of 24. I've never been shot before, certainly not from less than thirty feet by a weapon designed to shoot over fifty yards yards. It strikes me with so much force that the barbed head of the arrow passes directly through my hand.

Instinctively, I back up a step, drawing away from her, but this is a mistake. I was only a foot or so from the curved edge of the horn and my feet slip in 24's blood and I go crashing to the ground.

I can think of three good things about this situation:

1. The fall broke the shaft of the arrow and I'm able to pull the rest out,

2. 23 hit my left hand, but I'm stronger with my right,

3. I tied my sword to my belt.

Everything else though is very very bad. As on the day we first found 23, I land hard on my back and immediately feel as if I'll never breathe again. But I force myself to inhale and I yell, with both rage and fear, as I get to my feet. If I can't get back on the Cornucopia I'm a goner. I swipe with the sword and keep my mouth tight shut as blood spatters my face. 1's mutt's body is on the ground, the arrow in her throat. There are three more bodies lying farther away from me. But somehow my brain noted that 23 shot a fifth arrow. Where did it go? I don't have time to wonder because 21's mutt launches herself at me. Clove didn't want her hurt and even if this isn't her, as a tribute to her to both of them really, instead of burying my sword in this things's chest, I reach up and turn her head. Her teeth latch onto my arm, which is still protected by the body armor, but they loosen immediately with the cracks.

I don't know whether or not to be thankful for this armor or resent it. I feel parts of it tearing and I yell louder, as if to scare these things away, but they know they're winning. They smell fear, or maybe they see it, or maybe they hear it in the way that my voice is no longer a roar but an actual scream as I feel teeth tearing my skin. I feel blood on my arm and look. It's Clove's mutt. I recognize her eyes. Survive, Cato. She wanted you to get out of here. For a split second, I give up. I can't kill this thing. I could never hurt her. I can't kill something that looks so like her. I recognize her eyes! Then I remember, this is not her. It's nothing like her. She'd never do this. Maybe that's why my heart is stinging like this as I take a second to look at the mutt. The Capitol is doing this and even if I'm to die, I'll honor Clove's memory by trying with everything in me to survive. I will not let this monster replace her.

The natural human instinct to stay alive kicks in and overrides the fear that who I was before the arena is already dead. I don't care. If I can get out of here, I can ... I don't know what I can do but that doesn't mean I don't want to try. I bring my sword under my damaged arm and drive it through the monster's chest. It roars as I do and I push against it. Both of us fall to the ground. I feel its jaw loosen, then it goes limp. Something grabs me around the shoulders. I put my foot on the first mutt's chest, holding it still, and wrench the sword out. This giant dark mutt with brown eyes flecked with gold and short coarse hair throws me and I land on my back. I know who this is supposed to simulate. 22. He's bleeding already and has the last arrow in his ribs but still he's protecting her, avenging her because she's already dead. Despite the irony of the situation, I'm furious. It lets itself fall on top of me, also on top of the sword. I feel its dead weight pressing the handle into my thumb and index finger. "You're 22!" I snarl into the dead creature's ear. "The other was Thresh!" There! Let the Capitol know that we see each other as people too. Not numbers.

One of the others knocks his form aside and with it my sword. I scramble for it but they catch me and the armor, the indestructible armor, continues to tear. I don't care about honoring my district anymore, about dying with dignity. Anyone in my position would say the same. I'm screaming in terror and pain and I don't know how long for. Maybe it's hours, maybe it's minutes. I know when the remaining eight mutts finally bring me to the ground and drag me into the mouth of the Cornucopia that The Capitol didn't change the rules for us. They never intended Clove and me to make it home alive and whole. From the moment 24 said he was in love with 23 in the interview, they were destined to be victors together. Killing them wouldn't have changed anything for Clove and me. The Capitol had no interest in any emotion we felt for each other.

My eyes are closed but I know dawn is approaching. I don't even bother to assess my injuries. No body, not even one especially honed for combat, can come back from abuse like this. My mouth is full of blood and stays that way no matter how often I try to clear it; my nose is burning with the scent of it. Other parts of my body burn as well, hot to the point where I can no longer feel them. The worst injuries are numb. Yes, some still sting, but my own brain is saving me from the Capitol.

I know my eyes are closed because I can't see the mutts even though they must still be here, but even with that knowledge, I do begin to see some things. Light. Sunlight. Grass. Trees. A silhouette. No mutts. No tributes. No Capitol. The person kneels beside me and I can make out her features. Whole, healthy and uninjured Clove. Just as I remember her from home. She rests her hand on the side of my head and I hear her voice, the same voice I've heard for nearly ten years. "You didn't know." I know exactly what she means. I didn't know what would happen to her at the feast. She's absolving me of any guilt I've felt over her death. "I'd have told you, but I never thought of it." It never occurred to her. She waits a moment for this to sink in before she continues, "It'll be over soon. All of it. The Games. The Capitol." She pauses and looks up at something I can't see. It's warm where her hand is but I can't quite feel her touch. "You were right to kill them, those mutts," she says, her eyes back on my face. "That was really brave."

"Please," In my voice I hear the agony I can't feel. I'm begging her without having known I was going to.

She knows what I mean though. Not just 'Please. I'm in pain and I know I'm not going to make it and I just want to die'. We wanted to go together. 'Please take me with you. I'll live in the woods with you wherever you are and we'll be away from the Capitol and the Games, and the mutts. We'll hike and skip rocks and sleep under stars.' She takes my hand in one of hers, giving me something to hold onto. It's comforting. My last few seconds, which should be agony, are happy as I think of her. Her voice, her laugh, her smile, her talent, her fearlessness, her optimism. The way her fingers felt on my skin, her lips on mine. Genuine happiness. She smiles at me.

Now there's more warmth under the hand touching my head, then heat, then for the briefest of moments: softness. The softness of humanity, compassion, sympathy from 23. No. Katniss. Katniss has ended this for me. I thank her silently for her part in our plan and for what she's just done for me. I wish her and Peeta the years I can't have, the years we can't have.

Then the softness of skin. Clove. And then death.

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