Then he looks in on Peeta, who's running toward it full tilt.
I understand two things immediately. The first is that he's going for the bow and arrows for Katniss. The second is that he's too late. The girl from District One, Glimmer, has already claimed the weapon.
Either Peeta doesn't see this or he thinks he can get it away from her. He rushes pell-mell across the hard-packed dirt. He kills no one, but he's not the gentle boy I know, either. He throws off running tributes, jabs a boy in the elbow to grab his knife, and is grappling with Chiron Gibbs from Six when Charlotte runs into the fray. She has picked up a spear, and it goes all the way through Chiron, ripping open Peeta's arm on the other side.
"Sorry!" she yells. "You're with us."
"No way!" Cato shouts from where he's fighting with Blight's tribute, Otto. "I told you no!"
"You're with us," Charlotte says, coming in close. "Watch my back."
Peeta falls into a defensive position as they move in toward the Cornucopia.
Glimmer draws back the bow. She's not very good, but she's also only about five feet from her target -- the District Five boy, Tesla. He goes down with an arrow in his gut. She goes in, pulls out the arrow, and jabs it into his throat, then pulls it out and puts it back in the quiver, letting him bleed out.
There's a scream, and Finnick yells as his tribute falls to the ground. Winnie Andrus from Seven makes the mistake of raising her arms to give a wild yell of either triumph or horror. Char shouts and spears her. At Seven's table, Johanna is swearing a blue streak, and I guess she told Winnie to stay back from the fight.
"We lost Garvey!" Char shouts to Cato. "We need Twelve!"
Cato answers by drawing his knife across Otto's throat, taking District Seven out of the running in the first five minutes of the Games. He stalks over and raises his knife at Char. "We can do without him or you."
Peeta shoves her out of the way and brings his knife up to meet Cato's. Cato has thirty pounds on him, but Peeta's no slouch. He attacks furiously, pushing Cato back, giving him no chance to find his feet. Peeta's knife flashes in the sun, and there's a line of blood on Cato's hand.
Cato's knife falls to the ground, and Peeta picks it up.
He kicks Cato out of the way and rushes on Clove, who's barely paying attention. She's found a stash of knives, and killed Gazar Donnecker from Eight and Nonni Gesh from Three, bring her total to three after Gershom. She looses a fourth knife, but before it hits its target (Gershom's district partner, Polly Keys), Peeta grabs her from behind and pulls her back roughly, putting the Cornucopia at his back and Clove between himself and Cato. He holds his knives over her wrists, the flats pressing against the arteries. All he has to do is turn them and pull down.
"I'm with you," he says coldly. He's speaking to Cato, but I see him looking beyond, toward Glimmer.
Toward the bow that was clearly meant for Katniss.
Clove thrusts her head backward, smashing it into Peeta's face, but he doesn't let go. He turns one of the knives enough to open a small cut, but not enough to reach the arteries.
"I don't think you have the balls to really cut her," Cato says.
"I have the brains not to," Peeta tells him calmly. "I want you as allies. Killing one of my strongest allies would be stupid. But if you're not up for an alliance, I won't have a choice."
Cato narrows his eyes. "What about your girlfriend?"
"If we find her, I think you'll find that she'd be a useful ally, too."
In the Viewing Center, Chaff leans over to me. "What's your boy think he's doing, Haymitch?"
I know exactly what he thinks he's doing, but there are so many ways this could go south that I can't even speak.
"Get real, Cato," Char says in the arena. "You saw him with the knives in training. I'd rather have him on our side than off it."
Cato comes over. He moves with a strange, quiet speed. He grabs Peeta's wrists and jams his thumb into the deep cut on Peeta's arm.
The knives fall to the ground.
Cato pulls Clove away. Peeta is unarmed and backed up against the Cornucopia. If Cato is going to kill him, it's going to be now, and I'll have to face Danny in a few minutes, to explain how his beloved child wound up dead in the dirt on the first day of the Games.
"I don't trust you," Cato says. "And if you step out of line, you're dead." He looks at Peeta with distaste. "You're dead anyway, sooner or later, but trust me when I tell you, if you're working an angle, I'll make sure it's sooner."
The two boys stare each other down.
Then Glimmer, apparently bored by the whole scene now that no one else is left moving at the Cornucopia, says, "If you boys are done measuring your spears, maybe we should go set up camp."
The District One boy, Marvel, laughs nervously, and Char takes Peeta by the arm, marching him away from Cato. They start bundling up supplies. Every instinct in my body tells me to get Peeta out of there, but there's nothing I can do.
"We're keeping Twelve?" Clove asks quietly, coming up to Cato. The main Games screen follows them. "After that?"
Cato wrinkles his nose. "For now. Maybe he'll get us to the girl."
"What, are we taking her in, too?"
"Not on my watch," Cato says. "But I don't like having someone who scored an eleven out there where we can't see her. He gets us to her, we kill them both."
I'm not worried about this. I know they mean it, but I'm at least reasonably sure that Peeta knows it, too. The District Two contingent has never exactly been a brain trust, and I doubt their subtle plans will escape his notice. The question is whether he can think his way out of an attack when it comes. If he can't, all I can do is hope that Katniss will have the element of surprise, like Maysilee did when she saved me.
A Capitol Dreams runner comes to the table. She's staring at both of my screens in awe, even though at the moment, Katniss is just walking through the woods and Peeta looks like he's helping pack for a camping trip. She looks up at me. "Mr. Emmett says you need to move your table to join the rest of the group."
I've never moved our table for an alliance before. Since one side of it is free, our allies have generally come down here.
Of course, District One has a side free as well, and they never move, either. I don't think there's ever been an alliance between Twelve and One.
I glance at Effie, who shrugs and starts to pack up our things.
"You don't actually have to go over," Chaff says.
"Yeah, I do," I say. "Peeta asked me to fix things for him if he had to take Char up on her invitation."
Chaff shakes his head slowly. "Good luck, then. I know how much you and Brutus enjoy each other's company."
I disconnect the table from its power source and wheel it across the semi-circle to the Career tables. Cashmere makes a few adjustments and points me to a new outlet. I wheel the table into the little tracks around it, toe the activator, and the energy stream connects. My screens come back to life. There's been no change in the forty-three seconds they inform me that they've been off, though I'm offered an opportunity for a repeat of the action on a split screen with the live feed. I decide I can live without it.
"If Loverboy pulls any tricks," Brutus says without looking at me, "you're a dead man, too."
"He means 'Welcome aboard,'" Finnick says dryly, coming back from the communications booths, where I assume he's been talking to Garvey's family. The calls to the families are the only time he loses his manic cheer. It will be back soon enough. "Get some manners, Brutus."
"I like him," Annie says, smiling shakily. "Your boy, Haymitch. He seems nice."
Enobaria gives a humorless laugh. "Right. Nothing says 'nice' like grabbing a girl fifty pounds lighter than he is and threatening to cut her wrists."
I look up at the screen, where the Gamemakers are starting to put up the tally from the bloodbath. "Want to check your stats, Eno? I think your girl can handle herself."
In fact, with four kills in the bloodbath, Clove is easily in first place, in terms of Games scores. Char killed the two I saw. Cato killed Otto, and a girl I missed early on, by the name of Nancy Lawtie, from District Ten. Nancy had somehow killed the District Six girl, Tamora Foya, before she died, and of course Winnie killed Garvey and Glimmer killed Tesla. None of this will be official until they gather up the bodies. I don't know why it takes them so long. The bloodbath is quick and brutal, and there's no doubt that any of these kids are dead. You don't take a knife to the spinal cord and walk away from it.
They know it, too. That's why they feel perfectly comfortable giving the scores before the death toll is official. I think they just wait to sound the cannon to see if anyone goes back.
"Oh, look," Brutus sneers. "District Twelve is getting maudlin. What a surprise. Want a drink, Abernathy?"
I do want a drink, but I'm not going to give Brutus the satisfaction of seeing me take one. I see Effie gearing up to offer one, but I shake my head.
She nods. She seems nervous around the Careers. This may be because Brutus is baring his teeth at her in a way that I doubt even she could interpret as an actual smile. He looks like a cat contemplating toying with a trapped mouse. "The official sponsors are starting to register in our account," she says. "I'll… I'll just go to the escort office and get everything tallied. You know I'm better with numbers when I'm not distracted."
"That's good. And see if the Daughters came through. They were meeting about it, last I knew."
She smiles and heads away.
"I see they assigned you a real genius, genius," Brutus says. "Of course, I'm guessing it's not her brain that keeps your attention."
"You don't get to make comments about Effie," I tell him. "She's off-limits."
He makes an unpleasant-looking gesture of fake surrender.
While Peeta and the other kids bundle up the supplies and head for a spot on the lake shore, I get settled in. After twenty-three years, it's very strange seeing this room from a different angle.
Brutus and Enobaria largely ignore me for the next twenty minutes, which mirrors what their tributes are doing to Peeta in the arena. Gloss and Cashmere give me cool, polite smiles that tell me they aren't much more interested in my presence than I am in theirs.
Even though Finnick lost his tribute, he seems to be as involved with Char as Annie is. He moves their table over to mine.
"Don't worry," he says. "The first day of school is always hard, but you'll make friends soon."
"Solid proof that you didn't know me in school."
He grins. "I bet you were friends with all the nice old, single teachers who wanted to straighten up your hair."
"Most of the nice old ladies in Twelve were pretty convinced that I had things living in my hair."
"You weren't at the top of the social ladder? With your famously personable nature?"
I make a rude gesture in his direction, then point at the screen. "That kid's dad was one of the few people who treated me like a human being."
He winces. "Sorry."
"It's okay." I look around him at Annie, who is giving a tentative smile. "How are you, Annie? Getting settled in?"
"I'll be all right." Something crashes at the bar, and she nearly jumps out of her skin.
Finnick puts an arm around her. "It's okay. Just the bartender tripping over something."
"I know. I…" She puts her hands up in surrender. He grabs one and kisses it.
There are no cameras in the Viewing Center -- not since Finnick's first year as a mentor -- so I guess no one's going to stop him being affectionate with her here. I've never been able to pick up just when Annie went from being a tribute he was fond of to being the most important person in his life. I think it's something that's just happened gradually over the last three years. It's been good for her, certainly, to have him helping her out. It's also been good for him. Every time I've seen him, he's become more of the man I think he's going to end up being. A good man, a loyal man. A family man.
An adult, who doesn't drink himself into oblivion and embarrass his district in front of the whole country.
There are worse things to be, especially given the people he might have ended up emulating.
I look back at my screens. Katniss is still wandering in the woods. She's passed close to a few other tributes, but there haven't been any fights since she got away from Gershom Squires. Peeta and the others have settled down at the lake, and are starting their inventory of supplies. He discovers a box of bandages and wraps one around the gash in his arm. I can see his hands close up. There are still faint red lines from the broken vase, but they're clearly not bothering him. His face is puffed up at the moment from Clove's struggles to free herself, but nothing seems to be permanently wrong.
Except that he's in the arena, of course, where a whole lot of things end up being permanent.
I look up at the main screen. Now that the bloodbath is over, they're going from tribute to tribute, catching up with them. Katniss is moving down a slope in the woods. On the arena map, I can see that she's headed toward either a large creek or a small river, but she's not really near it yet. Judging from the speed she's moving and how little of the map her trail covers, it's a huge arena. We, of course, are not given anything as useful as a scale to measure it by, though this year, they're at least letting us see where the other tributes are. I guess they've decided we can't really tell our charges anything so specific.
She's going to need water, but she's far too close to four other tributes -- Kersey Green from Eight, Finch Adams from Five, Onnisey Verd from Three, and Rue McKissack from Eleven -- to risk sending her a parachute. It would be like putting a flaming arrow in the sky and saying, "Your prey is here."
I don't think any of them are likely to attack Katniss. They all seem to be going the survival route. But I'm not taking chances. All I can do is hope that Katniss will turn toward a tiny pond I see that should be in striking distance, if she doesn’t go too far off course.
Kersey looks utterly spooked by the woods. It's not surprising. There are woods around District Eight, but unlike District Twelve, they have no presence in the city at all. Whatever was left of the natural environment has long been buried there. It's one of my least favorite places to visit on my unapproved travels. Cecelia and Woof are always hospitable (well, Woof was, until he hit his head a few years ago; now he's just confused a lot), but meetings have to be in the city itself, and the city is frankly even more depressing than home. Loud, smelly factories, broken-down warehouses, and people piled on top of each other in crumbling tenements, with wet laundry strung between them to dry. The river passes by on the east side of town. It's far up on the Mississippi. It stinks, and just downstream from the factories, it's so toxic from the chemicals that you can get sick by falling in. Many of these chemicals are dyes, and the locals call it the "rainbow water."
It's no wonder Kersey looks out of place in a verdant, healthy forest.
Rue, on the other hand, looks entirely at home, almost happy as she climbs the trees. She's able to crawl out far enough on the long branches to travel tree to tree, like a little squirrel, a tiny bird.
Finch has spotted Onnisey. She's keeping her distance, but staying close. He's sitting on a rock, his hand over his forehead, thinking something out.
"Is he a problem solver?" I ask Beetee.
Beetee nods. "He's an engineering student. He's probably trying to figure out how to make a weapon."
I raise my voice enough to reach Farraday Sykes at the District Five table. "What about your girl? What's she like?"
Farraday, who has never especially cared for me, puts on a falsely enthusiastic smile and says, "I guess you'll find out, won't you?"
Beetee rolls his eyes.
I turn my attention back to my own alliance, if you can really call it that -- we all know that Peeta and Cato are far from allies.
"So," I say, "who's bringing what to the table?"
"Is Loverboy bringing anything?" Brutus asks. "What did he do to get an eight? Show the Gamemakers how well he can moon over a girl?"
Finnick pretends to consider this. "I know some of them. I know a few, you know. Of course, I doubt they'd be all that impressed with how an inexperienced sixteen year old would follow through."
Enobaria and Cashmere both give bitter laughs, and I guess they know a few Gamemakers, too.
"Seneca Crane might," Cashmere says. "I know… a colleague of his. Says he's a romantic."
"A romantic head Gamemaker," Enobaria muses. "That's got to be a first."
It probably is. And Peeta's picked a romance story to tell. My brain picks up these two pieces, and tries to make them fit together. I push it out of conscious thought. My brain will tell me if it comes up with anything.
"Peeta's strong," I say. "He showed them how much he can lift and throw. He's also smart, and can play the cameras. What can yours do, other than spear girls and strut around like a kid playing soldier?"
Brutus glares at me. Apparently, no one is supposed to question his tribute.
But it gets the conversation moving. Cato is a weapons expert and a hand-to-hand fighter. His best weapon is the sword. He's also strong (and without any "distractions," as Brutus puts it), and clever, and good in school. And as to camera readiness, he may not be able to "cheat" by following Caesar's sentimental claptrap, but, in case I hadn't noticed, his face hasn't been compromised, and he looks much better than my little pretty boy. Only very little girls would possibly like someone like Peeta. "He's non-threatening," Brutus says. "Safe. I'm sure he'll be very popular among people who are still afraid of real men. But, unfortunately for him, the Hunger Games are for real men."
"Wow," Finnick says. "That's great news. You mean that someday, I'll grow up and be a jackass , too?"
Enobaria raises an eyebrow. "Personally, I just keep checking to see if I've turned into a man yet." She pulls out the front of her blouse and looks down at her breasts. "Nope. Still got what I came with. Which is good. My clothes wouldn't fit right otherwise."
The others laugh, and we settle into a more reasonable conversation about the tributes. Clove, we've seen a great deal of. Her skill with a knife is unsurpassed, but obviously, she'll have issues if a bigger tribute grabs her. ("Also," Enobaria says, "she's a little crazy. That should be helpful.") Cashmere clearly does not like Glimmer very well, but says she can fight, and she's willing to fight dirty if she has to. Gloss is actually fond of Marvel, who he says is a good boy who doesn’t have the slightest real idea what the arena is.
"He's strong enough, and he's got a great spear arm, but I don't think he really appreciates… what really happens in the arena."
No one answers this. No one who hasn't already been in the arena really appreciates what happens there, or what it means. There's us and there's them, as my mentor, Drake, once told me. Victors and everyone else. We know what it means. The tributes who die in the arena know what it means. The people who've never been in there? All they have is a theory.
After we establish who we're dealing with, we get down to the business end of things. Even with all the pledges Effie's off confirming, Districts One and Two have more than I do. Enobaria and Gloss are in a high dudgeon about the progressive rates on the supplies, which they say is unfair to them, after they've worked harder to cultivate sponsors. I point out that we're sitting on a huge pile of supplies from the Cornucopia -- I don't know what they think they're going to need. Annie is not popular with the sponsors, and Char only got a handful, but Finnick worked his connections for Garvey, and got all of them to agree to transfer to Char if Garvey died first. Between them, they're about on a level with Katniss and Peeta's sponsors, or will be when my pledges are confirmed.
Of course, I don't plan on telling Brutus about anything that's not already registering in my account. I'm reasonably sure he's keeping secrets, too. More to the point, Peeta was pretty clear that he wanted money to go to Katniss, so I can't share it with the Careers.
By the time we finish, it's afternoon, and we finish our conversation (without discussing it) when they start sounding the cannons. Annie props a picture of Garvey up on Finnick's blank screen.
In the arena, the kids have set up a serviceable camp by the lake. Charlotte has caught fish for everyone, and Peeta's building a fire while she guts them. Cato is merciless with his jokes about the parade costumes, but Peeta takes it in good humor, even holding aloft a flaming stick and posing for the camera.
"Was that real fire?" Glimmer asks. "I mean… that must have been hot."
Peeta sits down and pokes the stick into the campfire. "Yeah, Glimmer. My stylist was trying to kill me. She said I deserved it, making my preps work with the curls."
Char sits down by the fire and tries to arrange three swords (apparently deemed superfluous) into a makeshift grill. "Seriously, Peeta, what was it? Was it actually hot?"
"It's just a plasma."
"Flames can be plasma," Marvel says. "They aren't always, but when they're really hot, they can be." He smiles sheepishly. "I like chemistry. I was going to work in the perfumery."
"Oh." Peeta shrugs. "I don't know what it was. But it felt kind of like wind tugging on the cape."
Char carefully lays the first fish down on the swords and seems pleased that they hold. She picks up the second. "It looked great. Next year, District Four should have water costumes."
"Yeah," Clove says. "That's a headline. District Four's all wet."
"It could mean something else. Like an unstoppable flood of vict--OW!" Char yelps and jumps away from the fire. The second fish bumped the swords just wrong, and a flame came out and licked at her hand.
"Char-broiled!" Cato yells, capering around. "To go with the boy on fire here."
Peeta rolls his eyes and picks up the fish. "I know how to cook on fires," he says. "And don't worry about that little burn. It'll sting a little, and then you'll forget about it."
They go on talking about nothing of consequence.
Meanwhile, Katniss has finally settled down long enough to examine what she came away from the Cornucopia with. It's nothing like the bounty Peeta's allies have got, but she hasn't done too badly. She has a sleeping bag, night-vision goggles (though I doubt she knows what they are, given her casual dismissal of them), the usual Games fare of crackers and dried beef, matches, and a water bottle. She repacks and moves on.
The main Games screen has caught her a few times -- more than is really warranted by her long, meandering walk through the woods -- but of course, they like to find allies after the bloodbath. This year's bloodbath was worse than usual, taking almost half the field. Six of the remaining thirteen tributes are in the Career pack. Five of the others (Katniss, Rue, Thresh, Kersey, and Spicer Daby from Ten) are determinedly alone. The last two tributes, Onnisey and Finch, must have spotted each other while I was talking to my new best friends. They seem to be in a cautious alliance. With District Four sitting in the Career pack, Beetee and Farraday have just pushed their tables together. Wiress, her tribute dead, has gone off to do business in the Capitol, or maybe just to work in one of the labs. She does that a lot after she loses tributes.
At any rate, Onnisey and Finch have made their way back up to the Cornucopia. They're not too far from the Careers, and they keep their voices very low.
"Anything left?" Onnisey whispers.
Finch moves carefully around the Cornucopia, searching the ground, then comes back. "No. Picked clean. Like usual."
Onnisey sits down on a rock. "It's not fair," he says. "There's got to be something for us."
"Platforms and landmines," Finch says.
"How do you know?"
"No one blew up."
Onnisey waves this off. "Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean they're dead. I wonder what the detonators look like."
"What if we could block their way to their supplies?"
Finch shakes her head. "You might be able to make it work, but they're never going to leave the camp alone long enough for you to bury them."
"They might." He goes to one of the platforms and starts digging the hard packed dirt with his hands.
Finch hands him a flat rock. "This'll make it easier -- if you don't get blown up for it."
He nods, and keeps digging. From the District Three table, Beetee smiles coolly at us.