Peeta drops the sheath and buries his knife into the monkey's back, stabbing it again and again until it releases its jaw. He kicks the mutt away, bracing for more. I have his arrows now, a loaded bow, and Finnick at my back, breathing hard but not actively engaged.
"Come on, then! Come on!" shouts Peeta, panting with rage. But something has happened to the monkeys. They are withdrawing, backing up trees, fading into the jungle, as if some unheard voice calls them away. A Gamemaker's voice, telling them this is enough.
"Get her," I say to Peeta. "We'll cover you."
Peeta gently lifts up the morphling and carries her the last few yards to the beach while Finnick and I keep our weapons at the ready. But except for the orange carcasses on the ground, the monkeys are gone. Peeta lays the morphling on the sand. I cut away the material over her chest, revealing the four deep puncture wounds. Blood slowly trickles from them, making them look far less deadly than they are. The real damage is inside. By the position of the openings, I feel certain the beast ruptured something vital, a lung, maybe even her heart.
She lies on the sand, gasping like a fish out of water. Sagging skin, sickly green, her ribs as prominent as a child's dead of starvation. Surely she could afford food, but turned to the morphling just as Haymitch turned to drink, I guess. Everything about her speaks of waste - her body, her life, the vacant look in her eyes. I hold one of her twitching hands, unclear whether it moves from the poison that affected our nerves, the shock of the attack, or withdrawal from the drug that was her sustenance. There is nothing we can do. Nothing but stay with her while she dies.
"I'll watch the trees," Finnick says before walking away. I'd like to walk away, too, but she grips my hand so tightly I would have to pry off her fingers, and I don't have the strength for that kind of cruelty. I think of Rue, how maybe I could sing a song or something. But I don't even know the morphling's name, let alone if she likes songs. I just know she's dying.
Peeta crouches down on the other side of her and strokes her hair. When he begins to speak in a soft voice, it seems almost nonsensical, but the words aren't for me. "With my paint box at home, I can make every color imaginable. Pink. As pale as a baby's skin. Or as deep as rhubarb. Green like spring grass. Blue that shimmers like ice on water."
The morphling stares into Peeta's eyes, hanging on to his words.
"One time, I spent three days mixing paint until I found the right shade for sunlight on white fur. You see, I kept thinking it was yellow, but it was much more than that. Layers of all sorts of color. One by one," says Peeta.
The morphling's breathing is slowing into shallow catch-breaths. Her free hand dabbles in the blood on her chest, making the tiny swirling motions she so loved to paint with.
"I haven't figured out a rainbow yet. They come so quickly and leave so soon. I never have enough time to capture them. Just a bit of blue here or purple there. And then they fade away again. Back into the air," says Peeta.
The morphling seems mesmerized by Peeta's words. Entranced. She lifts up a trembling hand and paints what I think might be a flower on Peeta's cheek.
"Thank you," he whispers. "That looks beautiful."
For a moment, the morphling's face lights up in a grin and she makes a small squeaking sound. Then her blood-dappled hand falls back onto her chest, she gives one last huff of air, and the cannon fires. The grip on my hand releases.
Peeta carries her out into the water. He returns and sits beside me. The morphling floats out toward the Cornucopia for a while, then the hovercraft appears and a four-pronged claw drops, encases her, carries her into the night sky, and she's gone.
Finnick rejoins us, his fist full of my arrows still wet with monkey blood. He drops them beside me on the sand. "Thought you might want these."
"Thanks," I say. I wade into the water and wash off the gore, from my weapons, my wounds. By the time I return to the jungle to gather some moss to dry them, all the monkeys' bodies have vanished.
"Where did they go?" I ask.
"We don't know exactly. The vines shifted and they were gone," says Finnick.
We stare at the jungle, numb and exhausted. In the quiet, I notice that the spots where the fog droplets touched my skin have scabbed over. They've stopped hurting and begun to itch. Intensely. I try to think of this as a good sign. That they are healing. I glance over at Peeta, at Finnick, and see they're both scratching at their damaged faces. Yes, even Finnick's beauty has been marred by this night.
"Don't scratch," I say, wanting badly to scratch myself. But I know it's the advice my mother would give. "You'll only bring infection. Think it's safe to try for the water again?"
We make our way back to the tree Peeta was tapping. Finnick and I stand with our weapons poised while he works the spile in, but no threat appears. Peeta's found a good vein and the water begins to gush from the spile. We slake our thirst, let the warm water pour over our itching bodies. We fill a handful of shells with drinking water and go back to the beach.
It's still night, though dawn can't be too many hours away. Unless the Gamemakers want it to be. "Why don't you two get some rest?" I say. "I'll watch for a while."
"No, Katniss, I'd rather," says Finnick. I look in his eyes, at his face, and realize he's barely holding back tears. Mags. The least I can do is give him the privacy to mourn her.
"All right, Finnick, thanks," I say. I lie down on the sand with Peeta, who drifts off at once. I stare into the night, thinking of what a difference a day makes. How yesterday morning, Finnick was on my kill list, and now I'm willing to sleep with him as my guard. He saved Peeta and let Mags die and I don't know why. Only that I can never settle the balance owed between us. All I can do at the moment is go to sleep and let him grieve in peace. And so I do.
It's midmorning when I open my eyes again. Peeta's still out beside me. Above us, a mat of grass suspended on branches shields our faces from the sunlight. I sit up and see that Finnick's hands have not been idle. Two woven bowls are filled with fresh water. A third holds a mess of shellfish.
Finnick sits on the sand, cracking them open with a stone. "They're better fresh," he says, ripping a chunk of flesh from a shell and popping it into his mouth. His eyes are still puffy but I pretend not to notice.
My stomach begins to growl at the smell of food and I reach for one. The sight of my fingernails, caked with blood, stops me. I've been scratching my skin raw in my sleep.
"You know, if you scratch you'll bring on infection," says Finnick.
"That's what I've heard," I say. I go into the saltwater and wash off the blood, trying to decide which I hate more, pain or itching. Fed up, I stomp back onto the beach, turn my face upward, and snap, "Hey, Haymitch, if you're not too drunk, we could use a little something for our skin."
It's almost funny how quickly the parachute appears above me. I reach up and the tube lands squarely in my open hand. "About time," I say, but I can't keep the scowl on my face. Haymitch. What I wouldn't give for five minutes of conversation with him.
I plunk down on the sand next to Finnick and screw the lid off the tube. Inside is a thick, dark ointment with a pungent smell, a combination of tar and pine needles. I wrinkle my nose as I squeeze a glob of the medicine onto my palm and begin to massage it into my leg. A sound of pleasure slips out of my mouth as the stuff eradicates my itching. It also stains my scabby skin a ghastly gray-green. As I start on the second leg I toss the tube to Finnick, who eyes me doubtfully.
"It's like you're decomposing," says Finnick. But I guess the itching wins out, because after a minute Finnick begins to treat his own skin, too. Really, the combination of the scabs and the ointment looks hideous. I can't help enjoying his distress.
"Poor Finnick. Is this the first time in your life you haven't looked pretty?" I say.
"It must be. The sensation's completely new. How have you managed it all these years?" he asks.
"Just avoid mirrors. You'll forget about it," I say.
"Not if I keep looking at you," he says.
We slather ourselves down, even taking turns rubbing the ointment into each other's backs where the undershirts don't protect our skin. "I'm going to wake Peeta," I say.
"No, wait," says Finnick. "Let's do it together. Put our faces right in front of his."
Well, there's so little opportunity for fun left in my life, I agree. We position ourselves on either side of Peeta, lean over until our faces are inches from his nose, and give him a shake. "Peeta. Peeta, wake up," I say in a soft, singsong voice.
His eyelids flutter open and then he jumps like we've stabbed him. "Aa!"
Finnick and I fall back in the sand, laughing our heads off. Every time we try to stop, we look at Peeta's attempt to maintain a disdainful expression and it sets us off again. By the time we pull ourselves together, I'm thinking that maybe Finnick Odair is all right. At least not as vain or self-important as I'd thought. Not so bad at all, really. And just as I've come to this conclusion, a parachute lands next to us with a fresh loaf of bread. Remembering from last year how Haymitch's gifts are often timed to send a message, I make a note to myself. Be friends with Finnick. You'll get food.
Finnick turns the bread over in his hands, examining the crust. A bit too possessively. It's not necessary. It's got that green tint from seaweed that the bread from District 4 always has. We all know it's his. Maybe he's just realized how precious it is, and that he may never see another loaf again. Maybe some memory of Mags is associated with the crust. But all he says is, "This will go well with the shellfish."
While I help Peeta coat his skin with the ointment, Finnick deftly cleans the meat from the shellfish. We gather round and eat the delicious sweet flesh with the salty bread from District 4.
We all look monstrous - the ointment seems to be causing some of the scabs to peel - but I'm glad for the medicine. Not just because it gives relief from the itching, but also because it acts as protection from that blazing white sun in the pink sky. By its position, I estimate it must be going on ten o'clock, that we've been in the arena for about a day. Eleven of us are dead. Thirteen alive. Somewhere in the jungle, ten are concealed. Three or four are the Careers. I don't really feel like trying to remember who the others are.
For me, the jungle has quickly evolved from a place of protection to a sinister trap. I know at some point we'll be forced to reenter its depths, either to hunt or be hunted, but for right now I'm planning to stick to our little beach. And I don't hear Peeta or Finnick suggesting we do otherwise. For a while the jungle seems almost static, humming, shimmering, but not flaunting its dangers. Then, in the distance, comes screaming. Across from us, a wedge of the jungle begins to vibrate. An enormous wave crests high on the hill, topping the trees and roaring down the slope. It hits the existing seawater with such force that, even though we're as far as we can get from it, the surf bubbles up around our knees, setting our few possessions afloat. Among the three of us, we manage to collect everything before it's carried off, except for our chemical-riddled jumpsuits, which are so eaten away no one cares if we lose them.
A cannon fires. We see the hovercraft appear over the area where the wave began and pluck a body from the trees. Twelve, I think.
The circle of water slowly calms down, having absorbed the giant wave. We rearrange our things back on the wet sand and are about to settle down when I see them. Three figures, about two spokes away, stumbling onto the beach. "There," I say quietly, nodding in the newcomers' direction. Peeta and Finnick follow my gaze. As if by previous agreement, we all fade back into the shadows of the jungle.
The trio's in bad shape - you can see that right off. One is being practically dragged out by a second, and the third wanders in loopy circles, as if deranged. They're a solid brick-red color, as if they've been dipped in paint and left out to dry.
"Who is that?" asks Peeta. "Or what? Muttations?"
I draw back an arrow, readying for an attack. But all that happens is that the one who was being dragged collapses on the beach. The dragger stamps the ground in frustration and, in an apparent fit of temper, turns and shoves the circling, deranged one over.
Finnick's face lights up. "Johanna!" he calls, and runs for the red things.
"Finnick!" I hear Johanna's voice reply.
I exchange a look with Peeta. "What now?" I ask.
"We can't really leave Finnick," he says.
"Guess not. Come on, then," I say grouchily, because even if I'd had a list of allies, Johanna Mason would definitely not have been on it. The two of us tromp down the beach to where Finnick and Johanna are just meeting up. As we move in closer, I see her companions, and confusion sets in. That's Beetee on the ground on his back and Wiress who's regained her feet to continue making loops. "She's got Wiress and Beetee."
"Nuts and Volts?" says Peeta, equally puzzled. "I've got to hear how this happened."
When we reach them, Johanna's gesturing toward the jungle and talking very fast to Finnick. "We thought it was rain, you know, because of the lightning, and we were all so thirsty. But when it started coming down, it turned out to be blood. Thick, hot blood. You couldn't see, you couldn't speak without getting a mouthful. We just staggered around, trying to get out of it. That's when Blight hit the force field."
"I'm sorry, Johanna," says Finnick. It takes a moment to place Blight. I think he was Johanna's male counterpart from District 7, but I hardly remember seeing him. Come to think of it, I don't even think he showed up for training.
"Yeah, well, he wasn't much, but he was from home," she says. "And he left me alone with these two." She nudges Beetee, who's barely conscious, with her shoe. "He got a knife in the back at the Cornucopia. And her - "
We all look over at Wiress, who's circling around, coated in dried blood, and murmuring, "Tick, tock. Tick, tock."
"Yeah, we know. Tick, tock. Nuts is in shock," says Johanna. This seems to draw Wiress in her direction and she careens into Johanna, who harshly shoves her to the beach. "Just stay down, will you?"
"Lay off her," I snap.
Johanna narrows her brown eyes at me in hatred. "Lay off her?" she hisses. She steps forward before I can react and slaps me so hard I see stars. "Who do you think got them out of that bleeding jungle for you? You - " Finnick tosses her writhing body over his shoulder and carries her out into the water and repeatedly dunks her while she screams a lot of really insulting things at me. But I don't shoot. Because she's with Finnick and because of what she said, about getting them for me.
"What did she mean? She got them for me?" I ask Peeta.
"I don't know. You did want them originally," he reminds me.
"Yeah, I did. Originally." But that answers nothing. I look down at Beetee's inert body. "But I won't have them long unless we do something."
Peeta lifts Beetee up in his arms and I take Wiress by the hand and we go back to our little beach camp. I sit Wiress in the shallows so she can get washed up a bit, but she just clutches her hands together and occasionally mumbles, "Tick, tock." I unhook Beetee's belt and find a heavy metal cylinder attached to the side with a rope of vines. I can't tell what it is, but if he thought it was worth saving, I'm not going to be the one who loses it. I toss it up on the sand. Beetee's clothes are glued to him with blood, so Peeta holds him in the water while I loosen them. It takes some time to get the jumpsuit off, and then we find his undergarments are saturated with blood as well. There's no choice but to strip him naked to get him clean, but I have to say this doesn't make much of an impression on me anymore. Our kitchen table's been full of so many naked men this year. You kind of get used to it after a while.
We put down Finnick's mat and lay Beetee on his stomach so we can examine his back. There's a gash about six inches long running from his shoulder blade to below his ribs. Fortunately it's not too deep. He's lost a lot of blood, though - you can tell by the pallor of his skin - and it's still oozing out of the wound.
I sit back on my heels, trying to think. What do I have to work with? Seawater? I feel like my mother when her first line of defense for treating everything was snow. I look over at the jungle. I bet there's a whole pharmacy in there if I knew how to use it. But these aren't my plants. Then I think about the moss Mags gave me to blow my nose. "Be right back," I tell Peeta. Fortunately the stuff seems to be pretty common in the jungle. I rip an armful from the nearby trees and carry it back to the beach. I make a thick pad out of the moss, place it on Beetee's cut, and secure it by tying vines around his body. We get some water into him and then pull him into the shade at the edge of the jungle.
"I think that's all we can do," I say.
"It's good. You're good with this healing stuff," he says. "It's in your blood."
"No," I say, shaking my head. "I got my father's blood." The kind that quickens during a hunt, not an epidemic. "I'm going to see about Wiress."
I take a handful of the moss to use as a rag and join Wiress in the shallows. She doesn't resist as I work off her clothing, scrub the blood from her skin. But her eyes are dilated with fear, and when I speak, she doesn't respond except to say with ever-increasing urgency, "Tick, tock." She does seem to be trying to tell me something, but with no Beetee to explain her thoughts, I'm at a loss.
"Yes, tick, tock. Tick, tock," I say. This seems to calm her down a little. I wash out her jumpsuit until there's hardly a trace of blood, and help her back into it. It's not damaged like ours were. Her belt's fine, so I fasten that on, too. Then I pin her undergarments, along with Beetee's, under some rocks and let them soak.
By the time I've rinsed out Beetee's jumpsuit, a shiny clean Johanna and peeling Finnick have joined us. For a while, Johanna gulps water and stuffs herself with shellfish while I try to coax something into Wiress. Finnick tells about the fog and the monkeys in a detached, almost clinical voice, avoiding the most important detail of the story.
Everybody offers to guard while the others rest, but in the end, it's Johanna and I who stay up. Me because I'm really rested, she because she simply refuses to lie down. The two of us sit in silence on the beach until the others have gone to sleep.
Johanna glances over at Finnick, to be sure, then turns to me. "How'd you lose Mags?"
"In the fog. Finnick had Peeta. I had Mags for a while. Then I couldn't lift her. Finnick said he couldn't take them both. She kissed him and walked right into the poison," I say.
"She was Finnick's mentor, you know," Johanna says accusingly.
"No, I didn't," I say.
"She was half his family," she says a few moments later, but there's less venom behind it.
We watch the water lap up over the undergarments. "So what were you doing with Nuts and Volts?" I ask.
"I told you - I got them for you. Haymitch said if we were to be allies I had to bring them to you," says Johanna. "That's what you told him, right?"
No, I think. But I nod my head in assent. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"I hope so." She gives me a look filled with loathing, like I'm the biggest drag possible on her life. I wonder if this is what it's like to have an older sister who really hates you.
"Tick, tock," I hear behind me. I turn and see Wiress has crawled over. Her eyes are focused on the jungle.
"Oh, goody, she's back. Okay, I'm going to sleep. You and Nuts can guard together," Johanna says. She goes over and flings herself down beside Finnick.
"Tick, tock," whispers Wiress. I guide her in front of me and get her to lie down, stroking her arm to soothe her. She drifts off, stirring restlessly, occasionally sighing out her phrase. "Tick, tock."
"Tick, tock," I agree softly. "It's time for bed. Tick, tock. Go to sleep."
The sun rises in the sky until it's directly over us. It must be noon, I think absently. Not that it matters. Across the water, off to the right, I see the enormous flash as the lightning bolt hits the tree and the electrical storm begins again. Right in the same area it did last night. Someone must have moved into its range, triggered the attack. I sit for a while watching the lightning, keeping Wiress calm, lulled into a sort of peacefulness by the lapping of the water. I think of last night, how the lightning began just after the bell tolled. Twelve bongs.
"Tick, tock," Wiress says, surfacing to consciousness for a moment and then going back under.
Twelve bongs last night. Like it was midnight. Then lightning. The sun overhead now. Like it's noon. And lightning.
Slowly I rise up and survey the arena. The lightning there. In the next pie wedge over came the blood rain, where Johanna, Wiress, and Beetee were caught. We would have been in the third section, right next to that, when the fog appeared. And as soon as it was sucked away, the monkeys began to gather in the fourth. Tick, tock. My head snaps to the other side. A couple of hours ago, at around ten, that wave came out of the second section to the left of where the lightning strikes now. At noon. At midnight. At noon.
"Tick, tock," Wiress says in her sleep. As the lightning ceases and the blood rain begins just to the right of it, her words suddenly make sense.
"Oh," I say under my breath. "Tick, tock." My eyes sweep around the full circle of the arena and I know she's right. "Tick, tock. This is a clock."
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