When I wake, I have a brief, delicious feeling of happiness that is somehow connected with Peeta. Happiness, of course, is a complete absurdity at this point, since at the rate things are going, I'll be dead in a day. And that's the best-case scenario, if I'm able to eliminate the rest of the field, including myself, and get Peeta crowned as the winner of the Quarter Quell. Still, the sensation's so unexpected and sweet I cling to it, if only for a few moments. Before the gritty sand, the hot sun, and my itching skin demand a return to reality.
Everyone's already up and watching the descent of a parachute to the beach. I join them for another delivery of bread. It's identical to the one we received the night before. Twenty-four rolls from District 3. That gives us thirty-three in all. We each take five, leaving eight in reserve. No one says it, but eight will divide up perfectly after the next death. Somehow, in the light of day, joking about who will be around to eat the rolls has lost its humor.
How long can we keep this alliance? I don't think anyone expected the number of tributes to drop so quickly. What if I am wrong about the others protecting Peeta? If things were simply coincidental, or it's all been a strategy to win our trust to make us easy prey, or I don't understand what's actually going on? Wait, there's no ifs about that. I don't understand what's going on. And if I don't, it's time for Peeta and me to clear out of here.
I sit next to Peeta on the sand to eat my rolls. For some reason, it's difficult to look at him. Maybe it was all that kissing last night, although the two of us kissing isn't anything new. It might not even have felt any different for him. Maybe it's knowing the brief amount of time we have left. And how we're working at such cross-purposes when it comes to who should survive these Games.
After we eat, I take his hand and tug him toward the water. "Come on. I'll teach you how to swim." I need to get him away from the others where we can discuss breaking away. It will be tricky, because once they realize we're severing the alliance, we'll be instant targets.
If I was really teaching him to swim, I'd make him take off the belt since it keeps him afloat, but what does it matter now? So I just show him the basic stroke and let him practice going back and forth in waist-high water. At first, I notice Johanna keeping a careful eye on us, but eventually she loses interest and goes to take a nap. Finnick's weaving a new net out of vines and Beetee plays with his wire. I know the time has come.
While Peeta has been swimming, I've discovered something. My remaining scabs are starting to peel off. By gently rubbing a handful of sand up and down my arm, I clean off the rest of the scales, revealing fresh new skin underneath.
I stop Peeta's practice, on the pretext of showing him how to rid himself of the itchy scabs, and as we scrub ourselves, I bring up our escape.
"Look, the pool is down to eight. I think it's time we took off," I say under my breath, although I doubt any of the tributes can hear me.
Peeta nods, and I can see him considering my proposition. Weighing if the odds will be in our favor. "Tell you what," he says. "Let's stick around until Brutus and Enobaria are dead. I think Beetee's trying to put together some kind of trap for them now. Then, I promise, we'll go."
I'm not entirely convinced. But if we leave now, we'll have two sets of adversaries after us. Maybe three, because who knows what Chaff's up to? Plus the clock to contend with. And then there's Beetee to think of. Johanna only brought him for me, and if we leave she'll surely kill him. Then I remember. I can't protect Beetee, too. There can only be one victor and it has to be Peeta. I must accept this. I must make decisions based on his survival only.
"All right," I say. "We'll stay until the Careers are dead. But that's the end of it." I turn and wave to Finnick. "Hey, Finnick, come on in! We figured out how to make you pretty again!"
The three of us scour all the scabs from our bodies, helping with the others' backs, and come out the same pink as the sky. We apply another round of medicine because the skin seems too delicate for the sunlight, but it doesn't look half as bad on smooth skin and will be good camouflage in the jungle.
Beetee calls us over, and it turns out that during all those hours of fiddling with wire, he has indeed come up with a plan. "I think we'll all agree our next job is to kill Brutus and Enobaria," he says mildly. "I doubt they'll attack us openly again, now that they're so outnumbered. We could track them down, I suppose, but it's dangerous, exhausting work."
"Do you think they've figured out about the clock?" I ask.
"If they haven't, they'll figure it out soon enough. Perhaps not as specifically as we have. But they must know that at least some of the zones are wired for attacks and that they're reoccurring in a circular fashion. Also, the fact that our last fight was cut off by Gamemaker intervention will not have gone unnoticed by them. We know it was an attempt to disorient us, but they must be asking themselves why it was done, and this, too, may lead them to the realization that the arena's a clock," says Beetee. "So I think our best bet will be setting our own trap."
"Wait, let me get Johanna up," says Finnick. "She'll be rabid if she thinks she missed something this important."
"Or not," I mutter, since she's always pretty much rabid, but I don't stop him, because I'd be angry myself if I was excluded from a plan at this point.
When she's joined us, Beetee shoos us all back a bit so he can have room to work in the sand. He swiftly draws a circle and divides it into twelve wedges. It's the arena, not rendered in-Peeta's precise strokes but in the rough lines of a man whose mind is occupied by other, far more complex things. "If you were Brutus and Enobaria, knowing what you do now about the jungle, where would you feel safest?" Beetee asks. There's nothing patronizing in his voice, and yet I can't help thinking he reminds me of a schoolteacher about to ease children into a lesson. Perhaps it's the age difference, or simply that Beetee is probably about a million times smarter than the rest of us.
"Where we are now. On the beach," says Peeta. "It's the safest place."
"So why aren't they on the beach?" says Beetee.
"Because we're here," says Johanna impatiently.
"Exactly. We're here, claiming the beach. Now where would you go?" says Beetee.
I think about the deadly jungle, the occupied beach. "I'd hide just at the edge of the jungle. So I could escape if an attack came. And so I could spy on us."
"Also to eat," Finnick says. "The jungle's full of strange creatures and plants. But by watching us, I'd know the seafood's safe."
Beetee smiles at us as if we've exceeded his expectations. "Yes, good. You do see. Now here's what I propose: a twelve o'clock strike. What happens exactly at noon and at midnight?"
"The lightning bolt hits the tree," I say.
"Yes. So what I'm suggesting is that after the bolt hits at noon, but before it hits at midnight, we run my wire from that tree all the way down into the saltwater, which is, of course, highly conductive. When the bolt strikes, the electricity will travel down the wire and into not only the water but also the surrounding beach, which will still be damp from the ten o'clock wave. Anyone in contact with those surfaces at that moment will be electrocuted," says Beetee.
There's a long pause while we all digest Beetee's plan. It seems a bit fantastical to me, impossible even. But why? I've set thousands of snares. Isn't this just a larger snare with a more scientific component? Could it work? How can we even question it, we tributes trained to gather fish and lumber and coal? What do we know about harnessing power from the sky?
Peeta takes a stab at it. "Will that wire really be able to conduct that much power, Beetee? It looks so fragile, like it would just burn up."
"Oh, it will. But not until the current has passed through it. It will act something like a fuse, in fact. Except the electricity will travel along it," says Beetee.
"How do you know?" asks Johanna, clearly not convinced.
"Because I invented it," says Beetee, as if slightly surprised. "It's not actually wire in the usual sense. Nor is the lightning natural lightning nor the tree a real tree. You know trees better than any of us, Johanna. It would be destroyed by now, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," she says glumly.
"Don't worry about the wire - it will do just what I say," Beetee assures us.
"And where will we be when this happens?" asks Finnick.
"Far enough up in the jungle to be safe," Beetee replies.
"The Careers will be safe, too, then, unless they're in the vicinity of the water," I point out. "That's right," says Beetee.
"But all the seafood will be cooked," says Peeta.
"Probably more than cooked," says Beetee. "We will most likely be eliminating that as a food source for good. But you found other edible things in the jungle, right, Katniss?"
"Yes. Nuts and rats," I say. "And we have sponsors."
"Well, then. I don't see that as a problem," says Beetee. "But as we are allies and this will require all our efforts, the decision of whether or not to attempt it is up to you four."
We are like schoolchildren. Completely unable to dispute his theory with anything but the most elementary concerns. Most of which don't even have anything to do with his actual plan. I look at the others' disconcerted faces. "Why not?" I say. "If it fails, there's no harm done. If it works, there's a decent chance we'll kill them. And even if we don't and just kill the seafood, Brutus and Enobaria lose it as a food source, too."
"I say we try it," says Peeta. "Katniss is right."
Finnick looks at Johanna and raises his eyebrows. He will not go forward without her. "All right," she says finally. "It's better than hunting them down in the jungle, anyway. And I doubt they'll figure out our plan, since we can barely understand it ourselves."
Beetee wants to inspect the lightning tree before he has to rig it. Judging by the sun, it's about nine in the morning. We have to leave our beach soon, anyway. So we break camp, walk over to the beach that borders the lightning section, and head into the jungle. Beetee's still too weak to hike up the slope on his own, so Finnick and Peeta take turns carrying him. I let Johanna lead because it's a pretty straight shot up to the tree, and I figure she can't get us too lost. Besides, I can do a lot more damage with a sheath of arrows than she can with two axes, so I'm the best one to bring up the rear.
The dense, muggy air weighs on me. There's been no break from it since the Games began. I wish Haymitch would stop sending us that District 3 bread and get us some more of that District 4 stuff, because I've sweated out buckets in the last two days, and even though I've had the fish, I'm craving salt. A piece of ice would be another good idea. Or a cold drink of water. I'm grateful for the fluid from the trees, but it's the same temperature as the seawater and the air and the other tributes and me. We're all just one big, warm stew.
As we near the tree, Finnick suggests I take the lead. "Katniss can hear the force field," he explains to Beetee and Johanna.
"Hear it?" asks Beetee.
"Only with the ear the Capitol reconstructed," I say. Guess who I'm not fooling with that story? Beetee. Because surely he remembers that he showed me how to spot a force field, and probably it's impossible to hear force fields, anyway. But, for whatever reason, he doesn't question my claim.
"Then by all means, let Katniss go first," he says, pausing a moment to wipe the steam off his glasses. "Force fields are nothing to play around with."
The lightning tree's unmistakable as it towers so high above the others. I find a bunch of nuts and make everybody wait while I move slowly up the slope, tossing the nuts ahead of me. But I see the force field almost immediately, even before a nut hits it, because it's only about fifteen yards away. My eyes, which are sweeping the greenery before me, catch sight of the rippled square high up and to my right. I throw a nut directly in front of me and hear it sizzle in confirmation.
"Just stay below the lightning tree," I tell the others.
We divide up duties. Finnick guards Beetee while he examines the tree, Johanna taps for water, Peeta gathers nuts, and I hunt nearby. The tree rats don't seem to have any fear of humans, so I take down three easily. The sound of the ten o'clock wave reminds me I should get back, and I return to the others and clean my kill. Then I draw a line in the dirt a few feet from the force field as a reminder to keep back, and Peeta and I settle down to roast nuts and sear cubes of rat.
Beetee is still messing around the tree, doing I don't know what, taking measurements and such. At one point he snaps off a sliver of bark, joins us, and throws it against the force field. It bounces back and lands on the ground, glowing. In a few moments it returns to its original color. "Well, that explains a lot," says Beetee. I look at Peeta and can't help biting my lip to keep from laughing since it explains absolutely nothing to anyone but Beetee.
About this time we hear the sound of clicks rising from the sector adjacent to us. That means it's eleven o'clock. It's far louder in the jungle than it was on the beach last night. We all listen intently.
"It's not mechanical," Beetee says decidedly.
"I'd guess insects," I say. "Maybe beetles."
"Something with pincers," adds Finnick.
The sound swells, as if alerted by our quiet words to the proximity of live flesh. Whatever is making that clicking, I bet it could strip us to the bone in seconds.
"We should get out of here, anyway," says Johanna. "There's less than an hour before the lightning starts."
We don't go that far, though. Only to the identical tree in the blood-rain section. We have a picnic of sorts, squatting on the ground, eating our jungle food, waiting for the bolt that signals noon. At Beetee's request, I climb up into the canopy as the clicking begins to fade out. When the lightning strikes, it's dazzling, even from here, even in this bright sunlight. It completely encompasses the distant tree, making it glow a hot blue-white and causing the surrounding air to crackle with electricity. I swing down and report my findings to Beetee, who seems satisfied, even if I'm not terribly scientific.
We take a circuitous route back to the ten o'clock beach. The sand is smooth and damp, swept clean by the recent wave. Beetee essentially gives us the afternoon off while he works with the wire. Since it's his weapon and the rest of us have to defer to his knowledge so entirely, there's the odd feeling of being let out of school early. At first we take turns having naps in the shadowy edge of the jungle, but by late afternoon everyone is awake and restless. We decide, since this might be our last chance for seafood, to make a sort of feast of it. Under Finnick's guidance we spear fish and gather shellfish, even dive for oysters. I like this last part best, not because I have any great appetite for oysters. I only ever tasted them once, in the Capitol, and I couldn't get around the sliminess. But it's lovely, deep down under the water, like being in a different world. The water's very clear, and schools of bright-hued fish and strange sea flowers decorate the sand floor.
Johanna keeps watch while Finnick, Peeta, and I clean and lay out the seafood. Peeta's just pried open an oyster when I hear him give a laugh. "Hey, look at this!" He holds up a glistening, perfect pearl about the size of a pea. "You know, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns to pearls," he says earnestly to Finnick.
"No, it doesn't," says Finnick dismissively. But I crack up, remembering that's how a clueless Effie Trinket presented us to the people of the Capitol last year, before anyone knew us. As coal pressured into pearls by our weighty existence. Beauty that arose out of pain.
Peeta rinses the pearl off in the water and hands it to me. "For you." I hold it out on my palm and examine its iridescent surface in the sunlight. Yes, I will keep it. For the few remaining hours of my life I will keep it close. This last gift from Peeta. The only one I can really accept. Perhaps it will give me strength in the final moments.
"Thanks," I say, closing my fist around it. I look coolly into the blue eyes of the person who is now my greatest opponent, the person who would keep me alive at his own expense. And I promise myself I will defeat his plan.
The laughter drains from those eyes, and they are staring so intensely into mine, it's like they can read my thoughts. "The locket didn't work, did it?" Peeta says, even though Finnick is right there. Even though everyone can hear him. "Katniss?"
"It worked," I say.
"But not the way I wanted it to," he says, averting his glance. After that he will look at nothing but oysters.
Just as we're about to eat, a parachute appears bearing two supplements to our meal. A small pot of spicy red sauce and yet another round of rolls from District 3. Finnick, of course, immediately counts them. "Twenty-four again," he says.
Thirty-two rolls, then. So we each take five, leaving seven, which will never divide equally. It's bread for only one.
The salty fish flesh, the succulent shellfish. Even the oysters seem tasty, vastly improved by the sauce. We gorge ourselves until no one can hold another bite, and even then there are leftovers. They won't keep, though, so we toss all the remaining food back into the water so the Careers won't get it when we leave. No one bothers about the shells. The wave should clear those away.
There's nothing to do now but wait. Peeta and I sit at the edge of the water, hand in hand, wordless. He gave his speech last night but it didn't change my mind, and nothing I can say will change his. The time for persuasive gifts is over.
I have the pearl, though, secured in a parachute with the spile and the medicine at my waist. I hope it makes it back to District 12.
Surely my mother and Prim will know to return it to Peeta before they bury my body.
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