The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 12

Cai can't help a twinge of pleasure and pride at how much care she's showing towards the injured pair. He feels an equally uncontainable burst of loathing for Gaspar. Sure, the damage done to the Careers had been much worse, especially after he had talked Iristina's top sponsor into contributing towards Seeder's fund for Winnow's medicine. However, the whole thing was a fiasco and if one of his allies had done that, he wouldn't have just shoved them into sand. he wouldn't have just shoved them into the ground. Yes, Gaspar should be glad it isn't Cai with whom he's sharing the arena. Indeed, he wouldn't want to put money on how long the boy would survive, if he's the one to make it out of the arena, not Iristina.

“I'll take the first watch,” Gaspar growls at her like it's an insult. Maybe he means it as one, she reflects, but she doesn't have the energy to care. She has just settled the two walking wounded in one of the tents he pitched and had been hoping for a quiet moment. Part of her desperately wants to kill him – has done for years – but she knows she needs him just as much as Winnow and Renatus, if they are going to defeat the Career Pack. It's loathsome to admit but, at the moment, he's their best defence. However, she still hates his attitude and wishes she could slit his throat here and now.

“If you want,” she gripes in response. “I won't be sleeping either way. I'm gonna stay up and look after them two.”

“Why?” he shoots back with a sneer. “They wouldn't–“

“Yes… They did,” she roars back at him, remembering only half-way through the second word that they didn't want give away their location, that they were no longer an invincible force.

“Say what you mean, Tina!”

“Come on, Gazzer! I'm your best friend, I was 'dying'” – she sketches air-quotes as she says it – “and you spent all day sniping at Winnow and Renatus?” Her point is to remind him how it looks to the sponsors, not to chastise him for a lack of fictional care. She, personally, couldn't care less if he nursed her when she was sick and injured – in fact, the idea of his hands on her when she's vulnerable makes her skin crawl – but the sponsors do.

“Fine! You take the first watch. I can't take anymore of your self-righteous sermonising.” He disappears into the second tent and leaves her sitting alone on a tree-stump, the bitter wind blowing through her.

“And, there, we – and the tributes – see Bess Lipscomb, who places 14th but was 5th in the betting until her debilitating injury this morning,” explains Templesmith, trying to sound enthusiastic rather than exhausted.

“As the tributes go to bed,” intones Flickerman's purring voice, while the screen splits in four to show the various camps. “Let's watch that death again.” The screen is once again filled with the huddled figure, trying to hide in the roots of a massive tree, in a pool of blood under the midday sun.

“It's horrible,” murmurs Daria. “The way they raced to help Tadia and no-one did anything for her.”

“That's the Games, my dear,” points out Amina. “I mean, with half her leg missing, she had no chance of winning.”

“Yes… that Renatus lad… he be very good with thicky axe,” muses Gaius as the camera pulls back to show the dead girl and her killer. “Our girl better be a-watching her back.” The editors have imposed a black circle around the assailant, who had concealed herself well within the foliage in spite of Bess' inability to run or fight. The tribute's stature makes it very clear that the assailant is Viatrix, Renatus' district-partner. “He should never'n allowed her ta get that there bow.” The girl, indeed, proves to be deadly with the bow and arrows she took from the Cornucopia. On the screen, she notches and draws the arrow smoothly and it thuds into her victim's neck. It cleanly severs the spinal chord – as they show in the second re-run where Bess is shown as an image of magnetic resonance – and kills her instantly.

“Those other tributes better watch out,” chuckles Templesmith. “That little girl is armed and dangerous. Now, let's review how the betting stands.”

She doesn't wake Gaspar. She watches the whole night, alone. It's not difficult; the tents are well-camouflaged, there's no fire (not even a banked up one) and no-one seems to be moving in their part of the island. She wakes the patients at what should be the end of each watch and makes them drink water, gives Winnow her medicine and forces painkillers on Renatus.

“I thought this was my job,” he grins at her as she supports his head to tip water down his throat.

“Not tonight, it's not,” she smiles back at him.

“Are you taking something for your pain?” queries Winnow.

“I'm fine,” she protests, lightly. They both force themselves up and stare at her.

“This time yesterday, you couldn't walk,” Renatus reminds her with a stern look. “I like the way you're treating me like a kid but I just got a cut to the leg. She almost smashed your skull in.” She rolls her eyes at the two hard stares facing her but, grudgingly, swallows down two of the painkiller tablets.

“There. You happy?” They smirk at her and she rolls her eyes. “Go to sleep. It'll be dawn in a couple of hours.”

“Have you been to sleep?” persists Winnow, her eyes full of concern but glazed.

“It's fine. I couldn't sleep, I was worrying about you two.” Now, it's Renatus' turn to roll his eyes; Winnow would probably have joined him but her eyes are once again shut.

“And what about Gaspar?” She gives him a meaningful look and the boy sighs. “Are you going to kill him?” he whispers, not wanting the question to carry to the neighbouring tent.

“Can't afford to kill any of you yet,” she deflects with a grin. “We've still got Careers to kill.” They high-five and she wriggles back out of the tent.

“It's not exactly guard duty, if you're not out here to see an attack coming,” her district-partner says from behind her. She swivels, still crouching, and sees that he is weapon-less. More, he's standing there with his hands in his pockets, looking out to sea.

“What do you want, Gaspar?” she asks, feeling the whole weariness of the sleepless night and the years of constant struggle to stay alive.

“A straight answer to the boy's question?” he suggests, turning those piercing grey eyes on her.

“His name is Renatus,” she rebukes as she gets to her feet. “And I thought that was the general idea… your idea?”

“So why didn't you just say that?”

“Maybe, because, at the moment, I couldn't admit that without wanting to act on it. Immediately,” she snarls at him. To her surprise, his face cracks into a broad grin.

“Get some sleep, Ares. I'll take the last watch.” She sighs and allows a reluctant smile to break through the exhaustion; that is, until she catches the glint in his eye. So, she gets into the tent, crawls into the sleeping-bag he had so recently vacated but doesn't zip it up or even let herself drift towards sleep. She doesn't have to wait long. Less than an hour after she left him, he pushes the tent-flap aside and launches himself at her, his hands unerringly finding her throat. She jams her knife into his left bicep and his hands' compulsive release gives her enough of an opening to roll the pair of them over. She ends up straddling his waist, some of the sleeping-bag still between them, with the bloodied knife dripping onto the spot where his heart should be.

What did I tell you on the train?” she sighs, sounding bored.

“That you be a better fighter'n me,” he growls, through gritted teeth.

“Just needed ta test the theory, did ya?” she queries, raising an eyebrow. “Again?”

“Get off me, you bitch!” he snarls and she sneers back.

“I think you need another reminder.” She carefully inserts the tip of the knife into the corner of his eye and rips it away towards his ear before his hand catches her wrist. He bellows in pain. “Get outta here! Go get yerself cleaned up.” She rolls off of him, pulling the sleeping-bag after her and he scrambles out. She still can't let herself go to sleep but she does allow her body to drift into a restorative torpor.

“What ever happened to his eye?!” gasps Daria, when the screen at the end of their dining-room finally shows Ares and her gang.

“He didn't have that last night,” whispers Amina.

“And there's something wrong with his arm,” observes Adolphus. The four tributes are sat around a smoky pile of embers, eating the last of their food.

“We'll need to go foraging today,” his girl comments, taking a nonchalant swallow of water. Renatus looks at each of the District 9 tributes in turn before answering and, when his eyes light on Gaspar, Cai spots a slight smirk twitching his lips upward.

“I think the other boy might have done it,” he comments.

“That sounds like a plan,” Renatus concurs, the smirk blossoming into a grin. “But what's Gaspar gonna do? It's not like he can look for plants or animals.” The two girls each bite their lip to keep from laughing and Gaspar glares at the younger boy, although it is much less effective with a padded bandage over one eye.

“According to Ares, she is the one responsible for Gaspar Barjon's new injury,” Templesmith's voice-over explains as the tributes' conversation carries on, silent to the audience. Then, the camera shot changes to one of the two presenters behind their desk. “So, both alliances are heading into the forest. Do you think we can expect another battle, Caesar?”

“I don't know, Claudius,” laughs the old hack. “Tadia Incantatores has been left at base-camp and the other alliance aren't looking for a fight. And they were the ones to initiate things yesterday.”

“But there will be another death, don't you think?” grins Templesmith.

“Oh, yes! Maybe our favourite forester will catch someone else with an arrow. Let's see how she's getting on…”

They have packed up camp, all taken a fresh dose of painkillers and are ready to start searching for food by the fourth hour after dawn. Gaspar carries the lightest pack as the plan is for him to carry the gathered food. Iristina and Renatus have a brief fight over who will carry the heaviest one, which she wins by dint of superior age and having no wounds to any load-bearing portion of her body.

“Let us begin at a brook,” suggests Winnow and the others consent, so they begin their trek latitudinally around the beach. After 20 minutes, they hit the mouth of a swift-flowing stream with cliff-like banks.

“Let's follow it up. It might flatten out higher up,” Renatus points out.

“Who put you in charge, dip-shit?” snarls Gaspar, shoving the younger boy.

“Do you wanna keep those hands?” Renatus retorts, the pain making his eyes water. “Well, then, keep them off me or– or I'll cut them off.” He raises his axe, trying to seem menacing but, knocked onto the back foot and tears filling his eyes, he looks nothing more than a little boy in a man's world.

“Well, Adolphus did put me in charge and I say we're going to follow this sodding stream until we actually have a chance of getting fish out of it. And, unless you want me to make your eyes match again, I'd move that butt of yours, Gazzer.” He looks ready to launch himself at her again but Winnow's spear appears between them to block his way. Iristina grins at her disgruntled district-partner and turns to lead the way up the riverbank.

“I thought they were best friends,” whines Galene, sipping on her violet virgin cocktail.

“They were,” Cai assures her, soothingly. “Before the arena. But… Well, you've seen the way he's been treating her. Don't tell me you'd let a friend of yours treat you that way?”

“No,” she admits, uncertainly. “Well… maybe if he was as handsome as Gaspar.” He re-evaluates. He had thought this meeting was about Ares – Galene is well-known for fancying female victors, in every sense – but it seems that Gaspar's auburn hair and grey eyes, which match her own current look, has turned the septuagenarian's head.

“Well,” he begins, turning up the charm and sliding closer to her on the vinyl sofa. “You could always send him some medicine and then he could remove that horrible bandage. And, maybe, they'd even be friendlier to each other.” He just hopes they'll have a friendly moment he can reward with the medicine.

“Oh, yes!” she gasps and claps her hands like a pleased child. “How clever. I would never have thought of that.”

“I'm not just a pretty face, you know?” he says and tips the repulsive old crone a broad wink. How he hates this job.

“OK!” laughs Gaspar as Renatus and Iristina dump another netful of fish at his feet. “I think that's enough.” The sun is an hour past its zenith and the older boy has been loosening up, sitting on a warm rock to gut the fish.

“Yes. I am believing we will be unable to carry all of this,” adds Winnow with her own, sweeter smile.

“Alright,” grins the other girl.

“I'm gonna go root around for… roots.” Renatus shrugs and laughs at himself before turning for the tree-line.

“Do you want me to build the fire or should I take over here?” she asks Gaspar, offering her own conversational olive-branch.

“You get the fire. We don't want it to smoke and I'm too wet. See?” He goes after her with his gooey fingers and she gives a shriek of laughter and stumbles backwards, away from him. It doesn't take her many steps to realise he's chasing her towards the stream. The banks might not be as steep here as where they first found it but, if she fell into the water, she might still break her leg. So much for rebuilding their partnership.

“Hey! What's that?!” she shrieks, spotting a flash of silver in a tree above Winnow's head.

“Very good,” he drawls at her. “But you won't–“

“It's a parachute!” calls the other girl and Gaspar spins around. He sprints back to where they started, while she collapses against a broken tree-stump. Her district-partner gives a 'whoop' and she looks up to see him clawing the bandage away from his damaged eye. The gel he scoops out of the pot is a dark grey and he slathers it onto the ragged cut she made that morning. He puts his head back, closed eyes to the sun, and gives a deep groan of contentment. The sound has her thoughts flying to a hundred nights with Krill and she shivers. She shudders again at the thought that the pot of medicine was sent as a reward for their friendly behaviour, friendly behaviour that she suspects was aimed at getting her leg broken.

BOOM! It's a cannon and, at once, she's running for the forest. She forces herself not to scream his name, not to give away their location, but she runs hell for leather in the direction that Renatus took off. She pulls out two throwing blades as she runs and almost stabs him when he barrels into her, pulling her into a tight hug.

“Thank the gods, thank the gods, thank the…” he keeps murmuring into her hair, over and over. “And the others?” he asks, finally drawing back from her.

“They're fine. We're all fine,” she croaks. To cover her upset, she drops to her haunches to collect the knives she dropped. “Come on. Let's get back to the others.” They walk side by side in silence and find the other two waiting for them.

“Good,” grunts Gaspar and then turns back to gutting the fish. Winnow comes forward with another parachute in her hands.

“I think this is belonging to you,” she says and hands it to Renatus. Inside, there is a large pale loaf of bread.

“Yes, it's from my district!” he grins. “Should keep us going a while, don't ya think, Ares?” The boy knocks her shoulder and grins at her. In that moment, she realises that they are more than just allies; in fact, she fears that, in his mind, they are something more than friends.

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