The Hunger Games / Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three


23

Every cell in my body wants me to dig into the stew and cram it, handful by handful into my mouth. But Peeta's voice stops me. "We better take it slow on that stew. Remember the first night on the train? The rich food made me sick and I wasn't even starving then."

"You're right. And I could just inhale the whole thing!" I say regretfully. But I don't. We are quite sensible. We each have a roll, half an apple, and an egg-size serving of stew and rice. I make myself eat the stew in tiny spoonfuls  -  they even sent us silverware and plates  -  savoring each bite. When we finish, I stare longingly at the dish. "I want more."

"Me, too. Tell you what. We wait an hour, if it stays down, then we get another serving," Peeta says.

"Agreed," I say. "It's going to be a long hour."

"Maybe not that long," says Peeta. "What was that you were saying just before the food arrived? Something about me. no competition. best thing that ever happened to you. "

"I don't remember that last part," I say, hoping it's too dim in here for the cameras to pick up my blush.

"Oh, that's right. That's what I was thinking," he says. "Scoot over, I'm freezing."

I make room for him in the sleeping bag. We lean back against the cave wall, my head on his shoulder, his arms wrapped around me. I can feel Haymitch nudging me to keep up the act. "So, since we were five, you never even noticed any other girls?" I ask him.

"No, I noticed just about every girl, but none of them made a lasting impression but you," he says.

"I'm sure that would thrill your parents, you liking a girl from the Seam," I say.

"Hardly. But I couldn't care less. Anyway, if we make it back, you won't be a girl from the Seam, you'll be a girl from the Victor's Village," he says.

That's right. If we win, we'll each get a house in the part of town reserved for Hunger Games' victors. Long ago, when the Games began, the Capitol had built a dozen fine houses in each district. Of course, in ours only one is occupied. Most of the others have never been lived in at all.

A disturbing thought hits me. "But then, our only neighbor will be Haymitch!"

"Ah, that'll be nice," says Peeta, tightening his arms around me. "You and me and Haymitch. Very cozy. Picnics, birthdays, long winter nights around the fire retelling old Hunger Games' tales."

"I told you, he hates me!" I say, but I can't help laughing at the image of Haymitch becoming my new pal.

"Only sometimes. When he's sober, I've never heard him say one negative thing about you," says Peeta.

"He's never sober!" I protest.

"That's right. Who am I thinking of? Oh, I know. It's Cinna who likes you. But that's mainly because you didn't try to run when he set you on fire," says Peeta. "On the other hand, Haymitch. well, if I were you, I'd avoid Haymitch completely. He hates you."

"I thought you said I was his favorite," I say.

"He hates me more," says Peeta. "I don't think people in general are his sort of thing."

I know the audience will enjoy our having fun at Haymitch's expense. He has been around so long, he's practically an old friend to some of them. And after his head-dive off the stage at the reaping, everybody knows him. By this time, they'll have dragged him out of the control room for interviews about us. No telling what sort of lies he's made up. He's at something of a disadvantage because most mentors have a partner, another victor to help them whereas Haymitch has to be ready to go into action at any moment. Kind of like me when I was alone in the arena. I wonder how he's holding up, with the drinking, the attention, and the stress of trying to keep us alive.

It's funny. Haymitch and I don't get along well in person, but maybe Peeta is right about us being alike because he seems able to communicate with me by the timing of his gifts. Like how I knew I must be close to water when he withheld it and how I knew the sleep syrup just wasn't something to ease Peeta's pain and how I know now that I have to play up the romance. He hasn't made much effort to connect with Peeta really. Perhaps he thinks a bowl of broth would just be a bowl of broth to Peeta, whereas I'll see the strings attached to it.

A thought hits me, and I'm amazed the question's taken so long to surface. Maybe it's because I've only recently begun to view Haymitch with a degree of curiosity. "How do you think he did it?"

"Who? Did what?" Peeta asks.

"Haymitch. How do you think he won the Games?" I say.

Peeta considers this quite a while before he answers. Haymitch is sturdily built, but no physical wonder like Cato or Thresh. He's not particularly handsome. Not in the way that causes sponsors to rain gifts on you. And he's so surly, it's hard to imagine anyone teaming up with him. There's only one way Haymitch could have won, and Peeta says it just as I'm reaching this conclusion myself.

"He outsmarted the others," says Peeta.

I nod, then let the conversation drop. But secretly I'm wondering if Haymitch sobered up long enough to help Peeta and me because he thought we just might have the wits to survive. Maybe he wasn't always a drunk. Maybe, in the beginning, he tried to help the tributes. But then it got unbearable. It must be hell to mentor two kids and then watch them die. Year after year after year. I realize that if I get out of here, that will become my job. To mentor the girl from District 12. The idea is so repellent, I thrust it from my mind.

About half an hour has passed before I decide I have to eat again. Peeta's too hungry himself to put up an argument. While I'm dishing up two more small servings of lamb stew and rice, we hear the anthem begin to play. Peeta presses his eyes against a crack in the rocks to watch the sky.

"There won't be anything to see tonight," I say, far more interested in the stew than the sky. "Nothing's happened or we would've heard a cannon."

"Katniss," Peeta says quietly.

"What? Should we split another roll, too?" I ask.

"Katniss," he repeats, but I find myself wanting to ignore him.

"I'm going to split one. But I'll save the cheese for tomorrow," I say. I see Peeta staring at me. "What?"

"Thresh is dead," says Peeta.

"He can't be," I say.

"They must have fired the cannon during the thunder and we missed it," says Peeta.

"Are you sure? I mean, it's pouring buckets out there. I don't know how you can see anything," I say. I push him away from the rocks and squint out into the dark, rainy sky. For about ten seconds, I catch a distorted glimpse of Thresh's picture and then he's gone. Just like that.

I slump down against the rocks, momentarily forgetting about the task at hand. Thresh dead. I should be happy, right? One less tribute to face. And a powerful one, too. But I'm not happy. All I can think about is Thresh letting me go, letting me run because of Rue, who died with that spear in her stomach.

"You all right?" asks Peeta.

I give a noncommittal shrug and cup my elbows in my hands, hugging them close to my body. I have to bury the real pain because who's going to bet on a tribute who keeps sniveling over the deaths of her opponents. Rue was one thing. We were allies. She was so young. But no one will understand my sorrow at Thresh's murder. The word pulls me up short. Murder! Thankfully, I didn't say it aloud. That's not going to win me any points in the arena. What I do say is, "It's just. if we didn't win. I wanted Thresh to. Because he let me go. And because of Rue."

"Yeah, I know," says Peeta. "But this means we're one step closer to District Twelve." He nudges a plate of foot into my hands. "Eat. It's still warm."

I take a bite of the stew to show I don't really care, but it's like glue in my mouth and takes a lot of effort to swallow. "It also means Cato will be back hunting us."

"And he's got supplies again," says Peeta.

"He'll be wounded, I bet," I say.

"What makes you say that?" Peeta asks.

"Because Thresh would have never gone down without a fight. He's so strong, I mean, he was. And they were in his territory," I say.

"Good," says Peeta. "The more wounded Cato is the better. I wonder how Foxface is making out."

"Oh, she's fine," I say peevishly. I'm still angry she thought of hiding in the Cornucopia and I didn't. "Probably be easier to catch Cato than her."

"Maybe they'll catch each other and we can just go home," says Peeta. "But we better be extra careful about the watches. I dozed off a few times."

"Me, too," I admit. "But not tonight."

We finish our food in silence and then Peeta offers to take the first watch. I burrow down in the sleeping bag next to him, pulling my hood up over my face to hide it from the cameras. I just need a few moments of privacy where I can let any emotion cross my face without being seen. Under the hood, I silently say good-bye to Thresh and thank him for my life. I promise to remember him and, if I can, do something to help his family and Rue's, if I win. Then I escape into sleep, comforted by a full belly and the steady warmth of Peeta beside me.

When Peeta wakes me later, the first thing I register is the smell of goat cheese. He's holding out half a roll spread with the creamy white stuff and topped with apple slices. "Don't be mad," he says. "I had to eat again. Here's your half."

"Oh, good," I say, immediately taking a huge bite. The strong fatty cheese tastes just like the kind Prim makes, the apples are sweet and crunchy. "Mm."

"We make a goat cheese and apple tart at the bakery," he says.

"Bet that's expensive," I say.

"Too expensive for my family to eat. Unless it's gone very stale. Of course, practically everything we eat is stale," says Peeta, pulling the sleeping bag up around him. In less than a minute, he's snoring.

Huh. I always assumed the shopkeepers live a soft life.

And it's true, Peeta has always had enough to eat. But there's something kind of depressing about living your life on stale bread, the hard, dry loaves that no one else wanted. One thing about us, since I bring our food home on a daily basis, most of it is so fresh you have to make sure it isn't going to make a run for it.

Somewhere during my shift, the rain stops not gradually but all at once. The downpour ends and there's only the residual drippings of water from branches, the rush of the now overflowing stream below us. A full, beautiful moon emerges, and even without the glasses I can see outside. I can't decide if the moon is real or merely a projection of the Gamemakers. I know it was full shortly before I left home. Gale and I watched it rise as we hunted into the late hours.

How long have I been gone? I'm guessing it's been about two weeks in the arena, and there was that week of preparation in the Capitol. Maybe the moon has completed its cycle. For some reason, I badly want it to be my moon, the same one I see from the woods around District 12. That would give me something to cling to in the surreal world of the arena where the authenticity of everything is to be doubted.

Four of us left.

For the first time, I allow myself to truly think about the possibility that I might make it home. To fame. To wealth. To my own house in the Victor's Village. My mother and Prim would live there with me. No more fear of hunger. A new kind of freedom. But then. what? What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food. Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is. The idea scares me some. I think of Haymitch, with all his money. What did his life become? He lives alone, no wife or children, most of his waking hours drunk. I don't want to end up like that.

"But you won't be alone," I whisper to myself. I have my mother and Prim. Well, for the time being. And then. I don't want to think about then, when Prim has grown up, my mother passed away. I know I'll never marry, never risk bringing a child into the world. Because if there's one thing being a victor doesn't guarantee, it's your children's safety. My kids' names would go right into the reaping balls with everyone else's. And I swear I'll never let that happen.

The sun eventually rises, its light slipping through the cracks and illuminating Peeta's face. Who will he transform into if we make it home? This perplexing, good-natured boy who can spin out lies so convincingly the whole of Panem believes him to be hopelessly in love with me, and I'll admit it, there are moments when he makes me believe it myself? At least, we'll be friends, I think. Nothing will change the fact that we've saved each other's lives in here. And beyond that, he will always be the boy with the bread. Good friends. Anything beyond that though. and I feel Gale's gray eyes watching me watching Peeta, all the way from District 12.

Discomfort causes me to move. I scoot over and shake Peeta's shoulder. His eyes open sleepily and when they focus on me, he pulls me down for a long kiss.

"We're wasting hunting time," I say when I finally break away.

"I wouldn't call it wasting," he says giving a big stretch as he sits up. "So do we hunt on empty stomachs to give us an edge?"

"Not us," I say. "We stuff ourselves to give us staying power."

"Count me in," Peeta says. But I can see he's surprised when I divide the rest of the stew and rice and hand a heaping plate to him. "All this?"

"We'll earn it back today," I say, and we both plow into our plates. Even cold, it's one of the best things I've ever tasted. I abandon my fork and scrape up the last dabs of gravy with my finger. "I can feel Effie Trinket shuddering at my manners."

"Hey, Effie, watch this!" says Peeta. He tosses his fork over his shoulder and literally licks his plate clean with his tongue making loud, satisfied sounds. Then he blows a kiss out to her in general and calls, "We miss you, Effie!"

I cover his mouth with my hand, but I'm laughing. "Stop! Cato could be right outside our cave."

He grabs my hand away. "What do I care? I've got you to protect me now," says Peeta, pulling me to him.

"Come on," I say in exasperation, extricating myself from his grasp but not before he gets in another kiss.

Once we're packed up and standing outside our cave, our mood shifts to serious. It's as though for the last few days, sheltered by the rocks and the rain and Cato's preoccupation with Thresh, we were given a respite, a holiday of sorts. Now, although the day is sunny and warm, we both sense we're really back in the Games. I hand Peeta my knife, since whatever weapons he once had are long gone, and he slips it into his belt. My last seven arrows  -  of the twelve I sacrificed three in the explosion, two at the feast  -  rattle a bit too loosely in the quiver. I can't afford to lose any more.

"He'll be hunting us by now," says Peeta. "Cato isn't one to wait for his prey to wander by."

"If he's wounded  - " I begin.

"It won't matter," Peeta breaks in. "If he can move, he's coming."

With all the rain, the stream has overrun its banks by several feet on either side. We stop there to replenish our water. I check the snares I set days ago and come up empty. Not surprising with the weather. Besides, I haven't seen many animals or signs of them in this area.

"If we want food, we better head back up to my old hunting grounds," I say.

"Your call. Just tell me what you need me to do," Peeta says.

"Keep an eye out," I say. "Stay on the rocks as much as possible, no sense in leaving him tracks to follow. And listen for both of us." It's clear, at this point, that the explosion destroyed the hearing in my left ear for good.

I'd walk in the water to cover our tracks completely, but I'm not sure Peeta's leg could take the current. Although the drugs have erased the infection, he's still pretty weak. My forehead hurts along the knife cut, but after three days the bleeding has stopped. I wear a bandage around my head though, just in case physical exertion should bring it back.

As we head up alongside the stream, we pass the place where I found Peeta camouflaged in the weeds and mud. One good thing, between the downpour and the flooded banks, all signs of his hiding place have been wiped out. That means that, if need be, we can come back to our cave. Otherwise, I wouldn't risk it with Cato after us.

The boulders diminish to rocks that eventually turn to pebbles, and then, to my relief, we're back on pine needles and the gentle incline of the forest floor. For the first time, I realize we have a problem. Navigating the rocky terrain with a bad leg  -  well, you're naturally going to make some noise. But even on the smooth bed of needles, Peeta is loud. And I mean loud loud, as if he's stomping his feet or something. I turn and look at him.

"What?" he asks.

"You've got to move more quietly," I say. "Forget about Cato, you're chasing off every rabbit in a ten-mile radius."

"Really?" he says. "Sorry, I didn't know."

So, we start up again and he's a tiny bit better, but even with only one working ear, he's making me jump.

"Can you take your boots off?" I suggest.

"Here?" he asks in disbelief, as if I'd asked him to walk barefoot on hot coals or something. I have to remind myself that he's still not used to the woods, that it's the scary, forbidden place beyond the fences of District 12. I think of Gale, with his velvet tread. It's eerie how little sound he makes, even when the leaves have fallen and it's a challenge to move at all without chasing off the game. I feel certain he's laughing back home.

"Yes," I say patiently. "I will, too. That way we'll both be quieter." Like I was making any noise. So we both strip off our boots and socks and, while there's some improvement, I could swear he's making an effort to snap every branch we encounter.

Needless to say, although it takes several hours to reach my old camp with Rue, I've shot nothing. If the stream would settle down, fish might be an option, but the current is still too strong. As we stop to rest and drink water, I try to work out a solution. Ideally, I'd dump Peeta now with some simple root-gathering chore and go hunt, but then he'd be left with only a knife to defend himself against Cato's spears and superior strength. So what I'd really like is to try and conceal him somewhere safe, then go hunt, and come back and collect him. But I have a feeling his ego isn't going to go for that suggestion.

"Katniss," he says. "We need to split up. I know I'm chasing away the game."

"Only because your leg's hurt," I say generously, because really, you can tell that's only a small part of the problem.

"I know," he says. "So, why don't you go on? Show me some plants to gather and that way we'll both be useful."

"Not if Cato comes and kills you." I tried to say it in a nice way, but it still sounds like I think he's a weakling.

Surprisingly, he just laughs. "Look, I can handle Cato. I fought him before, didn't I?"

Yeah, and that turned out great. You ended up dying in a mud bank. That's what I want to say, but I can't. He did save my life by taking on Cato after all. I try another tactic. "What if you climbed up in a tree and acted as a lookout while I hunted?" I say, trying to make it sound like very important work.

"What if you show me what's edible around here and go get us some meat?" he says, mimicking my tone. "Just don't go far, in case you need help."

I sigh and show him some roots to dig. We do need food, no question. One apple, two rolls, and a blob of cheese the size of a plum won't last long. I'll just go a short distance and hope Cato is a long way off.

I teach him a bird whistle  -  not a melody like Rue's but a simple two-note whistle  -  which we can use to communicate that we're all right. Fortunately, he's good at this. Leaving him with the pack, I head off.

I feel like I'm eleven again, tethered not to the safety of the fence but to Peeta, allowing myself twenty, maybe thirty yards of hunting space. Away from him though, the woods come alive with animal sounds. Reassured by his periodic whistles, I allow myself to drift farther away, and soon have two rabbits and a fat squirrel to show for it. I decide it's enough. I can set snares and maybe get some fish. With Peeta's roots, this will be enough for now.

As I travel the short distance back, I realize we haven't exchanged signals in a while. When my whistle receives no response, I run. In no time, I find the pack, a neat pile of roots beside it. The sheet of plastic has been laid on the ground where the sun can reach the single layer of berries that covers it. But where is he?

"Peeta!" I call out in a panic. "Peeta!" I turn to the rustle of brush and almost send an arrow through him. Fortunately, I pull my bow at the last second and it sticks in an oak trunk to his left. He jumps back, flinging a handful of berries into the foliage.

My fear comes out as anger. "What are you doing? You're supposed to be here, not running around in the woods!"

"I found some berries down by the stream," he says, clearly confused by my outburst.

"I whistled. Why didn't you whistle back?" I snap at him.

"I didn't hear. The water's too loud, I guess," he says. He crosses and puts his hands on my shoulders. That's when I feel that I'm trembling.

"I thought Cato killed you!" I almost shout.

"No, I'm fine." Peeta wraps his arms around me, but I don't respond. "Katniss?"

I push away, trying to sort out my feelings. "If two people agree on a signal, they stay in range. Because if one of them doesn't answer, they're in trouble, all right?"

"All right!" he says.

"All right. Because that's what happened with Rue, and I watched her die!" I say. I turn away from him, go to the pack and open a fresh bottle of water, although I still have some in mine. But I'm not ready to forgive him. I notice the food. The rolls and apples are untouched, but someone's definitely picked away part of the cheese. "And you ate without me!" I really don't care, I just want something else to be mad about.

"What? No, I didn't," Peeta says.

"Oh, and I suppose the apples ate the cheese," I say.

"I don't know what ate the cheese," Peeta says slowly and distinctly, as if trying not to lose his temper, "but it wasn't me. I've been down by the stream collecting berries. Would you care for some?"

I would actually, but I don't want to relent too soon. I do walk over and look at them. I've never seen this type before. No, I have. But not in the arena. These aren't Rue's berries, although they resemble them. Nor do they match any I learned about in training. I lean down and scoop up a few, rolling them between my fingers.

My father's voice comes back to me. "Not these, Katniss. Never these. They're nightlock. You'll be dead before they reach your stomach."

Just then, the cannon fires. I whip around, expecting Peeta to collapse to the ground, but he only raises his eyebrows. The hovercraft appears a hundred yards or so away. What's left of Foxface's emaciated body is lifted into the air. I can see the red glint of her hair in the sunlight.

I should have known the moment I saw the missing cheese.

Peeta has me by the arm, pushing me toward a tree. "Climb. He'll be here in a second. We'll stand a better chance fighting him from above."

I stop him, suddenly calm. "No, Peeta, she's your kill, not Cato's."

"What? I haven't even seen her since the first day," he says. "How could I have killed her?"

In answer, I hold out the berries.


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