The Conspiracy

Chapter II: On the Train

Cato doesn't talk to me for a while, several hours in fact. I say his name, unable to bear the silence anymore. "You shouldn't be here." His voice is low but not dangerous, just quiet and distracted. "You're not even qualified for this. It isn't your year. You should've let the other girl have it."

"I thought if I volunteered, you wouldn't," I admit.

"As if I'd let them take Caleb."

"I didn't think about that."

"That much is obvious," he mutters. He's silent for a minute before he says, "I shouldn't have told you."

I leave. I sit in my quarters for a while, thinking. I sit long enough for the tension to die down, then I return to stand in front of him. "I'm not afraid of you," I tell him. "I never have been and I'm not now."

"I know you're not. Why are you telling me?"

I should be. "I don't know. But it doesn't matter. I just wanted you to know that so you know that what next comes out of my mouth is genuine, not just being said so you'll spare me or something. I'm not trying to mess with you."

When I say 'spare me' his eyes go wider for a split second before he blinks and his face returns to normal. I don't think he expected me to put it so bluntly.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't mention it."

But I need to mention it. "I should've known they'd bait you. And we both know he doesn't belong in the arena. You had to take his place." Of course, he could've let someone else take his brother's place, but I understand why action feels better than passiveness. In the same way I fought desperately to get to the stage, so did he. In that moment, nothing else mattered but getting Caleb off that stage, never mind the fact that I was up there, too. I pause, then nod, unsure of what else there is to say.

He sees that in my face and takes the pressure from me. "Come here, Tiny. We can sit and watch TV like at home."

Yeah, all those times we watched TV. I wish they had a piano here. That would feel much more natural. "Okay." I guess we can play pretend for a while. I sit beside him and he puts an arm around my shoulders.

When I look at him quizzically, he says, "What? You hugged me on a mountain and I can't put my arm around you on a train?" My mood changes from puzzled to amused. I tell him I guess it's fine and we sit for a while, watching TV 'like old times'.

I've never been to the Capitol and I've only ever seen the tribute train from the outside. District 2's not bad. We've got electricity most of the time, TV that brainwashes us, and we've got food. Not quality food like they must have in the Capitol, 1, 4, and maybe even 10, and 11 but edible food that we don't usually have to work too hard to obtain. Eating dust on top of it is miserable, but people don't usually starve. The teressae and the extra food rations from Peacekeeper training are all that really keep us feeling healthy. The lavish...well everything around me reminds me why I hate this, hate Panem, hate the Capitol, even the tributes for playing along. That the Capitol can live like this while kids in 12 starve is outrageous, worse than that: It's an atrocity! I know that most of the Capitol doesn't even realize what goes on in the outer districts, but that doesn't change the fact that the government most certainly does. Snow knows, and his people know, and they let it happen, they intend it to happen, like they intend the beastly deaths in the Games. Twenty-three children dead every year. Talk about population control.

"What are you thinking about?" Cato asks. It's kind of a game we play, asking the other out of nowhere what he/she is thinking about and always getting an honest answer. Maybe we'll never speak of that discussion again.

"The Games. And really, how sick this all is-"

His head snaps around to look at me. Talking like that at home is one thing, in the safety of his house or mine or wandering around secret places we shouldn't go, but here I must remember not to run my mouth. I must not endanger his family or mine.

I quickly backpedal, force myself to halt my train of thought and do my best to swallow my anger. "Nothing."

"I wish we had something to read," he says. "Something real, not this Capitol nonsense."

"You realized why I stopped talking, right?" He can't seriously be continuing this tone on this train going to this location for this purpose. Really? Where's Caleb when you need him?

"They expect tributes to be interested in this kind of crap?" He snatches a magazine from a basket and reads, "'Ten Cheap Household Items to Keep Your Skin Looking Bright'" He shows me the cover, which depicts a woman with dark blue skin with little white dots glistening in it, making her look like she's been sprinkled with stars. "No! I'm a tribute from District 2! I want to see some gore! I want a last minute cramming session before this gets going!" He throws the magazine across the compartment and crosses his strong arms over his chest. I'm trying not to crack a smile but I fail when he glances at me, grinning, and we both laugh, knowing the Capitol is taunting us, reminding us who we are. Laughing back at them is a much better use of our time than rising to their bait and becoming lonely or homesick or wishing we could live like they do.

We watch Capitol TV, which includes a recap of the reapings, for most of the duration of the ride. Both of us notice how Effie Trinket's wig seems to be sliding around on her shiny bald head and we laugh with schadenfreude when Haymitch plummets off the stage in 12. It's an awkward, funny-looking fall and we know he can't possibly feel it because he's so gone. We'll talk strategy (just because we can't be Cato and Clove the Team anymore doesn't mean we can't be Careers) when we're in our quarters in the Training Center. The girl from 11, who will probably be known as 21 from here on, has earned my sympathy and if I have any say in the matter (which I certainly will) she'll have as quick and easy a death as her killer can think of, or they'll answer to Cato and me. I don't want to see a twelve-year-old tortured. Atrocious.

Cato and I sleep in the TV room. We have quarters of our own, but by the time we decide to sleep we're too tired to go to them. I tell him to get off the couch and he does, though I bet he didn't need telling. I toss him down a blanket and some fluffy pillows and curl up to sleep.

I'm woken a few hours later by a soft voice.

"Come on sleepyhead, get up. Our escort's about to lose it." Cato's shaking my shoulder gently and I blink in the sunlight now pushing its way rudely through the window.

"What?"

"Come on. They're freaking out. We gotta get breakfast and tell them we're still here."

"I'd rather listen to them freak out." I pull my blanket up over my head.

"Only because you'll tune them out. I on the other hand will have to listen to them, which I don't want, so get up or I'll...I'll-"

"Good," I say dismissively, "Keep doing that."

"I'll touch your foot."

That gets me up in a big hurry. I hate that! I don't know why. "Do that and you die!" I remind myself of the thoughts I had yesterday, about how Cato and I know everything about each others' strengths and weaknesses. He knows exactly what to say to get me up.

"Good. You're up."

"And you're smug."

"And also..." He acts as if I haven't spoken (the audacity!) "Engaging in combat is totally illegal at this point."

I mutter something obscene as I throw a pillow at him. He laughs as it hits him and even smiles as I straighten up and push my hair away from my face. "We're in here, guys," Cato says to our escort and mentors in the hall.

The escort buzzes around, raving about how we nearly gave her a heart attack before I remind her that the train is surrounded by an electrical force-field that will prevent us from jumping from it. Cato looks at me, but I ignore him, knowing why I'm getting that look, and sit down for breakfast.

They don't have to explain actual technique to us anymore. Cato's and my jobs are to go in, find useful allies, maybe make a few fake allies, allies we can align ourselves with and kill off quickly so we don't have to track them down, and scare the ones we know won't ally themselves with us. As for tonight at the opening ceremony, my mentor tells me to leave my attitude on the train.

"You'll be on camera from here until they bring you home." The words 'alive or in a box' seem to hang in the air, though maybe only I feel their presence. "It'll help if the audience likes you. You'll get sponsors that way."

"Why kill people in their sleep in the arena? People don't like that." They would rather see a fight.

"That's for show. Little bit of blood now and then and little bit of ruthlessness to show you mean business." Excellent. Fits right in with my moral code. You'd better ditch that in the arena. Oh wait that's- is she still talking? "...leave it to Cato. Just tell him to do it."

"I'm the boss," I joke.

"Your sponsors are your bosses, so make them like you. You'll have to be sweet in Capitol, but let them see that you mean to win this thing." I nod. So, none of my sarcasm, all of my sweet (right) and a sprinkling of brutal District 2. Got it. "And don't take off with Cato until you're in the arena. I don't care what you two do privately but I don't want to deal with Tuuli."

"We don't do anything privately," I say, maybe a little too defensively, though it's perfectly true. I don't even want to consider that.

She laughs at me, claps me on the shoulder and walks away. "Make sure you're ready to go. We'll be getting off soon." Fine. I'll play along with her next time.

We pass under the tunnels that tell us we're approaching the Capitol. "Nervous?" Cato asks as we stand shoulder to shoulder facing the window.

"We live for this, remember?"

"Ironic, isn't it?"

That we've waited our whole lives for a 1 in 24 chance to return home?

Yes.


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