The Conspiracy

Chapter VII: We're a Team

"You nervous?" Cato asks me quietly as we sit amongst the group of us who will form the Alliance in the arena, waiting to be called into the gym for our individual sessions with the Gamemakers on the afternoon of the third day of training.

"No. This is all still the easy part," I reply. 1 left a while ago so it'll be Cato's turn soon. He pushes me with his shoulder.

"You and your vast testing abilities."

"Are you nervous?"

He shakes his head. "I'm Cato of District 2, remember?"

I roll my eyes. Since when has he identified with any label given to him by the Capitol?

He ignores my incredulity. In fact I sincerely doubt he noticed, because he continues talking without pausing. "And if it weren't for you, I'd be slated to win this." I stare at him. He realizes what he's just said and backpedals. "That wasn't what I..."

He can't start talking like that. Joking or not, there's no one to impress right now, no cameras to play rivals for. The only tribute I'd bet is paying attention right now is the fox-faced female, 9. What he just said is true and we both know it. If I weren't here, he'd have a simple shot at winning. We're both bitter about the way the Reaping turned out, but there's nothing we can do about it.

"You don't have to, you know? I don't want to be the only reason you don't get home." I realize we're having this argument in front of several other Tributes, but we're being quiet and they're not listening anyway. They'll never know what's going on.

"Clove –," he begins.

"No," I snap. "You're either in or you're not." I push my chair back, stand up, and walk around the table. Cato's staring at me as I lean against the wall opposite him.

"Cato Armstrong, District 2!" calls the woman from the door. He doesn't stand up right away, but continues to stare at me instead. I nod at him, telling him to go.

"Good luck." I don't want him to go in there distracted. "Go on," I mouth at him. Then he stands. I watch him cross the room and enter the gym.

Maybe twenty minutes later, the woman reappears and calls my name. I follow her into the gym. I show off for the Gamemakers. I throw spears, knives, axes. I destroy several of the dummies from across the room. They're still attentive as I'm only the fourth one in here. Identifying berries, camouflaging myself, and tying knots would be boring for them to watch and all the Careers know it, which is why no one ever gets a twelve. Twelves are for people proficient in everything, and none of us ever shows off expertise in painting. Eleven and twelve are target numbers anyway.

At the end, they clap and dismiss me. I exit and head up to the District 2 quarters. Cato's there waiting for me outside the elevator. I exhale forcefully. There's no need to conceal my annoyance or be quiet now. Our sessions are over. I pass him and head to my room. He follows me to the doorway but doesn't come inside. "What did you say that for?" I burst out, wheeling around to face him.

"I'm in this with you. There's still going to be 'Cato and Clove' in the arena. But you never should have volunteered this year." Maybe that was what he wanted to say earlier but the words got tangled in his head. "It's made this more complicated. That's all I meant. It just got mixed up in my head."

"Oh. It sounded like you were talking like we're competing."

"Of course not."

"Oh," I say again, feeling stupid. Now that I understand what he meant, I feel bad for freaking out and I'm worried I messed him up. "How was your session with the Gamemeakers? Did I distract you? I'm sorry if-"

"Don't. Quit being sorry for everything," he says. "It's fine. I was distracted until I got in there. I figured they need to remember us. They need to want to see us again so I just told myself we'd talk when you got back here.

This only makes me feel worse, but I smile anyway.

"You weren't kidding," I tease, referring to the fact that he had again waited outside a door for me, determined to make me talk to him.

"We're okay then?" he asks, but he knows we are because he steps over the threshold and comes to stand in front of me.

"If you're over me overreacting, I'm over you getting tongue-tied."

"Deal." He hugs me tightly, then lifts my feet off the ground and spins me around, making me so dizzy that when he sets me down again, I cling to his arms to keep from falling. When I've regained balance, I back up, brace myself, and run at him from half an arm's length away. He didn't expect me to continue playing so this catches him off his guard and we fall to the floor. 1 are probably wondering what on earth we're up to right now.

We spend the rest of the day playing around. We go out on the large balcony of our floor of the Training Center. There are people below but when we lean our heads out to see them more clearly, something zaps us and we both fall backward onto the ground. I land hard with one hand on my head and one behind me to break my fall. Both the zap and the fall hurt but not terribly. Cato shakes his head and looks back at the edge of the balcony, obviously confused, which makes me laugh. He looks like the typical Career who's had too many blows to the head. He looks back at me. "What?" I ask him.

"Thank you?" For being amused at your discomfort? No problem. He looks back at the edge, now clearly thinking, not just confused. "Want to throw things at it?"

I laugh again, which he apparently takes as a yes. He puts an arm around my waist and pulls me to my feet, lingering a second longer than necessary to be sure I'm steady. "Come on."

We ask an Avox to bring us some grapes and nuts and small snack foods and then we take them out onto the balcony. We sit with our backs against the wall and throw them. They bounce off the transparent stinging shield that's meant to keep us in the Training Center and we try to catch them in our mouths. Sometimes we hit each other with them and it's funny.

Our meetings were fairly early in the afternoon and the airing of the scores isn't until this evening, so we spend nearly six hours doing nothing. Sometimes we just sit and talk or sit and are silent. Sometimes when we hit each other with food we push each other around again, wrestle. It's one of these times, where I'm pinning him down for once, that someone knocks on the door. We jump apart. I'm four feet away from him of my own volition without knowing how I did it by the time the door opens.

"What's going on?" asks Brutus.

"Hand to hand combat practice," Cato answers instantly, and launches himself across the space between us and pins me to the ground. Not fair.

"I told her she wouldn't want to end up in the arena with you." He laughs and closes the door. I'm still looking at the door when I feel something tickling the side of my face. Cato's head is very close to mine and the short hair on his forehead is touching me. What? I put a hand over his face and push him off me.

Brutus is still in here and we look at him, having almost forgotten he was here. Cato and I are slightly awkward as my hand is still over his face. Brutus gives us a half-amused, half-puzzled look before continuing. "Interviews are tomorrow, so stop practicing and go to the television room. Scram, 3." He addresses me by the number I'd have if Cato and I weren't going into this as 2, District 2, partners. I almost called Cato 4 today because calling him by his name would have been strange in front of all the other tributes, but figured it might've made him perform worse in the private sessions.

Right, the numbers system: Each Tribute has two numbers. One of the numbers they share with their fellow Tribute from their District. For example, Glimmer and Marvel, the District 1 Tributes, are collectively known as 1. Separately, Glimmer is 1 and Marvel is 2. Girls are odd numbers, boys are even. If we talk about both Tributes from one District, we call them by the number of their District. If we're just discussing one of them, we call them by their assigned odd or even number. It's a little confusing, but Cato and I keep it straight. It's easier to kill people you only know as numbers. But when we're alone together, we call each other by our names. Cato, not 4. Clove, not 3. We're different.

"Aren't we gonna watch the scores together?" I ask.

"We'll meet you out there. I want to talk to my tribute. Get out."

I make a disgruntled noise to show that I'm annoyed. I don't just want to get up and leave without putting up a fight, but there's not much I can do.

I enter the TV room to find everybody there, the whole team of District 2. Alaia, my prep team, Enobaria, Tuuli, Cato's stylist Sunny, and his prep team. We're only missing Cato and Brutus. I take a seat at the end of the couch and watch some ad on TV. A few images of us, all the tributes at the City Circle, a recap of our names and the announcement that the revealing of the scores will begin in 4 minutes. Of course there's a countdown: This is a mandatory viewing for the entire country of Panem.

Cato and Brutus come out and Cato takes a seat right next to me on the arm of the couch. I look up at him quizzically. "Want to switch?" It'll be easier for me to perch than it is for him because I'm smaller. He shrugs and I stand up, then take his seat when he slides down onto the cushion. Brutus is looking daggers at him and I wonder what that's all about before I notice that Enobaria is pointedly ignoring me. What do they have to be annoyed about? I'll ask Cato what's going on after the scores.

We watch as the scores flash up on the screen, accompanied by a picture of the tribute who earned them. 1 are first with 1 followed by 2. Two nines. Cato and I don't memorize the scores but make mental notes of the tributes who earn noteworthy ones. Cato's first. Ten. Good. High enough to get him noticed by sponsors but not so high that someone like 22 will target him. "Nice," I tell him, holding out my hand, palm up. He hits it and holds on, waiting for my score. Another ten.

"Brilliant." He kisses the back of my hand. This is a new thing for him, and it's especially weird that he's used this gesture twice in four days. We kiss each other on the forehead, and sometimes we kiss our own fingers and touch them to each other's fingers, but that's all. He's changed fairly quickly since we got here. He's acting smarter, more thoughtful, and he's kissed the back of my hand twice in four days. I don't understand.

It's about the time that we're watching 12's (that is, the boy from District 6) score flash on the screen that I realize he never let go of my hand. I look down and see my fingers curled around the side of his own. I glance at Brutus, who looks annoyed and uncomfortable. He's now adopted Enobaria's technique of ignoring us. Maybe they don't like that we're still friends here. Maybe that's why we're being so particularly unfriendly. I go back to watching the scores, gripping his hand tighter.

"Eleven!" Cato exclaims when 23's score flashes up. He lets go of my hand and jumps up, fuming. "Eleven!"

She only beat us by one, but still, she's eclipsed us again. That puts all of us, the entire field, at a disadvantage. I'm angry with her too. This means that she'll be most likely to get sponsors and she'll be targeted from the beginning, which makes everything more difficult for Cato and me because we need her and 24 alive at the very least until the final four. I get up off the arm of the couch and walk back to my room. I shut the door and go lay down on my bed, still fully dressed. Enobaria comes in as I lay down. I sit back up and watch her as she closes the door.

"You okay?" she asks.

"Fine," I answer rather coldly.

"Do you have anything you need me to know? Any new developments with the others? I'm here to give you advice."

"Just... just, do what you can from here. It's on me now to get through."

"Good," she replies, "We're going to train you two separately for your interviews. Wouldn't want you two to look like you're copying 12." I stare at her. "As long as you know that it might not work out, I'll do what I can for you and him."

"How did you-?" I ask.

"We thought by now you two would realize you've got a very slim chance and that you'd take the traditional route. As you haven't asked to be trained separately and you seem to still be close, if we want to help one of you, we'll have to help you both," she answers.

"And you're okay with this?"

"It's not my choice. It's on you two to get through. It's your Games, not mine."

"Brutus is mad about it though?"

"He doesn't want to lose. That's all. He's afraid that you two would be better off in a normal alliance. He's tense too."

"Why don't you see it like that?"

"He doesn't either, really; it's just his excuse. He knows you two are better as a team, but he's worried that the Gamemakers will go after you if you look too much like a team. But you're good separately, the best we've seen, and even better together. You always have been." I lift my head and smile at her. "I'll send Cato in here. He probably wants to talk to you."

"Thanks," I say. She leaves, pulling the door shut. Fifteen seconds later Cato enters, looking concerned.

"What's up?" he asks. I kneel up on my bed. Our eyes are not quite level but I can put my arms around his neck easily and hold onto him.

"I'm fine," I tell him. "I just realized that they're making it impossible..."

"We're Careers," he corrects me, "and we're in this together. Nothing's impossible, not even in the Games."

We head back onto the balcony, grab the bowls we had earlier and throw more food at the barrier. We talk about 12 and how they're making this incredibly difficult and reassure each other that, contrary to what every other tribute has said, we're on the same side. I tell him what Enobaria told me and he tells me that Brutus said almost exactly the opposite. Hm. Well, of our trainers, coaches, and potential mentors, I always liked him least.

We don't realize how tired we are until my head falls onto his shoulder after several minutes of silence. I sit up again immediately, push my hair off my face, mutter a quick, "Sorry. I'm tired. See you in the morning," and return to my room. I change and crawl into bed, pushing the top blanket down to my knees as usual. Twenty minutes later, Cato comes in from the balcony through the sliding glass door in my room. I sit up when I hear him.

He turns to face me and I cock my head to the side, wondering what he's up to. He could just as easily have entered into his room. "I brought you a strawberry," he offers as an explanation.

"What?" That wasn't a sleepy 'what?'; I'm genuinely confused.

"Here." He sits down on the side of my bed and holds out a single strawberry. We hadn't had strawberries earlier. What is he doing?

"Thanks," I say, knowing that's proper social protocol.

"We're a team. You like strawberries."

I smile and bite into it, holding one hand under my mouth so the juice doesn't fall onto the bed. It's good. Refreshing and sweet, but not as cold on my teeth as they usually are.

"You could sleep on my shoulder, you know," he tells me. "It's okay."

"Is that why you came in here? To tell me that?"

"I just wanted to give you a proper goodnight," I nod and take another bite of strawberry. "So... goodnight."

"Goodnight," I answer, "See you in the morning."


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