The Conspiracy

Chapter III: 12

Peacekeepers usher us off the train, through the station and down into one of the lower floors of the Training Center where we meet our prep teams and stylists. The minute we exit the elevator, they separate Cato and me, put us in separate rooms with different sets of three people.

My team puts hot wax on strips of paper and pulls up the stubble on my legs and every other bit of hair on my body that isn't on my head. That's really the worst of it. Then they put me in a bath of strange smelling gel, get me out, rub my skin down with grainy soap, then another bath. They wash my hair for me in a sink, which feels nice until I realize how very heavy wet hair is, but once dried it's light again, dark brown, and falls to just above my elbows. Then I sit in a thin robe while they file and paint my fingernails and toenails, shine a bright light on my teeth, pluck some stray hairs I never even noticed from my eyebrows, and curl my lashes. There's some naked standing around with them looking at me. They taught us to be like machines in every sense of the word in 2. We had so many doctors looking at us to make sure we were in perfect health that eventually we grew used to being naked in front of people. Privacy and personal space were commodities afforded only to victors, Peacekeepers, and high officials. We didn't run around naked everywhere, in fact nowhere, but we were taught not to be self-conscious of our bodies and therefore I can stand here like a mannequin. Do your worst, slaves of the Capitol.

Now I meet my stylist, a woman with flowing blue hair and matching eyes, and by matching I do mean wearing bright blue contact lenses so her hair and eyes literally match.

"Hello, my dear! Congratulations! I saw you at the reaping. Very impressive. My name is Alaia! " she gushes upon entering, "Come into the light. Let me look at you."

Even I notice her strong Capitol accent, though I know my own accent is probably closer to hers than to those of 11 or 12. Those tributes will be laughing if they're not too dead scared already to laugh. Alaia takes my hand and guides me over to stand directly under the overhead light.

"You have lovely posture." She beams, walking around me only an arm's length away.

Posture? Who comments on peoples' posture?

"And I hope you don't object to us leaving your hair long like this?"

Do stylists often ask for the tributes' opinions? She raises her blue eyebrows at me.

I nod. "That's fine."

"Excellent! I've met your fellow tribute and had a word with his stylist. You two are going to be stunning!" She proceeds to tell me energetically about my costume for the procession into the City Circle and I listen, wishing Cato were here.

Once I finish lunch Alaia gives me back to the prep team. They tie up my hair, braid it back, paint my nails with color this time as opposed to clear coating, and do the rest of my makeup. It smells strange, oddly sweet, and I try not to breathe in the soft powder, remembering the unfortunate occasion, namely this morning, when I inhaled powdered sugar off of a sneakily stolen doughnut.

Alaia returns and helps me into the costume itself, which is heavy, much heavier than my day clothes, almost like Peacekeeper uniforms, but softer and clearly not meant to withstand a physical attack. No, no, that's for me to deal with, not my clothes.

When I approach the chariot, Cato drops to one knee, so his head is level with my chest, takes one hand and kisses the back of it. He looks nice too and this strange greeting means he's playing up the costume, pretending to be this character. We match. We're wearing gold, shiny gladiator costumes, both with heavy gold helmets on our heads. Symbolic, probably of the fact that more victors have come from 2 than anywhere else. Maybe Alaia told me that already. Hmm. His arms are entirely exposed, which I've only ever seen when we swam together. This was probably an idea of his stylist. You can see every muscle from his shoulder to his wrist. When standing, he looks strong and intimidating, powerful. I wonder if I do too.

"You look the part," he tells me reassuringly, looking up. "Don't be nervous."

"Thank you," I say very quietly as he stands back up. We, our stylists, and prep teams are the only ones in the room, so none of the other tributes or their people see this breach in typical tribute character. We can grin at each other excitedly without worrying.

"Did you hear about 1?" Cato asks as I step into the chariot, liking the feeling of being taller than him for once. I shake my head and lean over the side of the chariot, emphasizing the height difference, which is only a couple of inches because he's so tall on his own. "Relax," he tells me, shaking his head. "So 1," he continues, "had this ring I guess, my prep team was talking about it, and they confiscated it. When they checked her, they found this thing and the stone turned. There was a spike in it and when they tested it they said there was poison on it."

"Did they bust her?"

"Are you kidding? What do they care? I bet they regret finding it. It would've made a good surprise weapon. But they just said they couldn't prove she knew about it. She's going in with us." I shake my head.

"Aren't you two just the third and fourth most attractive tributes District 2 has ever seen?" calls a voice from across the room. Our mentors are crossing the hall to meet us.

"Is this why District 2 people win?" I ask Cato before they get to us, "Our egos?" He shrugs as his mentor puts an arm around his shoulders.

"Listen, we've got a plan for you two, at least before you get into the arena," says my mentor. "Stick sort of close to each other. It's good for both of you, promise. Cato looks huge in comparison to you and you're both sure to attract attention."

"How does that benefit her?" Cato asks.

"She's pretty but she looks like she's here on business." I raise my eyebrows at her. "You're threatening, intimidating; even if you're small." Thanks for the update. "You can thank your performance at the reaping for that."

"It's time!" says Cato's stylist, bounding forward looking excited.

Cato steps onto the chariot next to me, using the bar on my left, and holding on to the wood of the chariot in front of him until he gets his balance. He looks down at me, grins as best he can, gives my shoulder a squeeze and then stands stock still for the thirty seconds before we move out into the street. Once we're out he's funny though, grinning for no reason in particular. The girls seem to like him a lot, screaming his name and ignoring the boys from 1 and 3 almost immediately. I can't help but crack a smile at that. I wave, getting a fair amount of recognition from the crowds myself. They're cheering, yelling our names as we roll past.

It's not until we're very far out in the city that we hear the real roaring start. I look up at the television screen and see 12 standing on their chariot, apparently literally on fire, but smiling. 23 is blowing kisses at the crowd and holding 24's hand. Some of the crowd, distracted by the distant noise and the image they're now seeing on the giant screen, stops screaming for us and begins to chant 12's names. Cato and I glance at each other, irritated immediately at the fact that we are now being ignored.

It's not until we're back on the ground, off the chariot, that I think where this might lead them. Presenting themselves as a team, holding hands, smiling, laughing, and talking while riding around the Capitol is unheard of in these Games. You go in as one person and you come out or you die as one person and it's now that it hits me how very real that is. I thought about it on the train, but I've just witnessed it in the way the other tributes acted. Cato and I will not be returning side by side from these games no matter what Caleb said. He's a threat to me in the arena. I look at Cato for no other reason than that as I get off the chariot.

12 comes in three or four minutes after us because they were farthest away from the entrance. By the time they enter, everyone else is off their chariots and many of them are glaring at 12, Cato included. I'm looking at them, probably glaring without realizing it, but I'm thinking, too, that if the Capitol likes them as a couple, some of us could use that to our advantage. There's a brief moment of hope as I realize this. It's a desperate person's hope, but aren't all 24 of us desperate?


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