myself wishing I could tell Peeta about the flowers I put on Rue. That I now understand what he was trying to say on the roof. Perhaps if he wins the Games, he’ll see me on victor’s night, when they replay the highlights of the Games on a screen over the stage where we did our interviews. The winner sits in a place of honor on the platform, surrounded by their support crew.
But I told Rue I’d be there. For both of us. And somehow that seems even more important than the vow I gave Prim. I really think I stand a chance of doing it now. Winning. It’s not just having the arrows or outsmarting the Careers a few times, although those things help. Something happened when I was holding Rue’s hand, watching the life drain out of her. Now I am determined to revenge her, to make her loss unforgettable, and I can only do that by winning and thereby making myself unforgettable. I overcook the birds hoping someone will show up to shoot, but no one does. Maybe the other tributes are out there beating one another senseless. Which would be fine, Ever since the bloodbath, I’ve been featured on screens most than I care. Eventually, I wrap up my food and go back to the stream to replenish my water and gather some. But the heaviness from the morning drapes back over me and even though it’s only early evening, I climb a tree and settle in for the night. My brain begins to replay the events from yesterday. I keep seeing Rue speared, my arrow piercing the boy’s neck. I don’t know why I should even care about the boy.
Then I realize… he was my first kill.
Along with other statistics they report to help people place their bets, every tribute has a list of kills. I guess technically I’d get credited for Glimmer and the girl from District 4, too, for dumping that nest on them. But the boy from District 1 was the first person I knew would die because of my actions. Numerous animals have lost their lives at my hands, but only one human. I hear Gale saying, “How different can it be, really?”
Amazingly similar in the execution. A bow pulled, an arrow shot. Entirely different in the aftermath. I killed a boy whose name I don’t even know. Somewhere his family is weeping for him. His friends call for my blood. Maybe he had a girlfriend who really believed he would come back…
But then I think of Rue’s still body and I’m able to banish the boy from my mind. At least, for now.
It’s been an uneventful day according to the sky. No deaths. I wonder how long we’ll get until the next catastrophe drives us back together. If it’s going to be tonight, I want to get some sleep first. I cover my good ear to block out the strains of the anthem, but then I hear the trumpets and sit straight up in anticipation. For the most part, the only communication the tributes get from outside the arena is the nightly death toll. But occasionally, there will be trumpets followed by an announcement. Usually, this will be a call to a feast. When food is scarce, the Gamemakers will invite the players to a banquet, somewhere known to all like the Cornucopia, as an inducement to gather and fight. Sometimes there is a feast and sometimes there’s nothing but a loaf of stale bread for the tributes to compete for. I wouldn’t go in for the food, but this could be an ideal time to take out a few competitors.
Claudius Templesmith’s voice booms down from overhead, congratulating the six of us who remain. But he is not inviting us to a feast. He’s saying something very confusing. There’s been a rule change in the Games. A rule change! That in itself is mind bending since we don’t really have any rules to speak of except don’t step off your circle for sixty seconds and the unspoken rule about not eating one another. Under the new rule, both tributes from the same district will be declared winners if they are the last two alive. Claudius pauses, as if he knows we’re not getting it, and repeats the change again. The news sinks in. Two tributes can win this year. If they’re from the same district. Both can live. Both of us can live. Before I can stop myself, I call out Peeta’s name.
I clap my hands over my mouth, but the sound has already escaped. The sky goes black and I hear a chorus of frogs begin to sing. Stupid! I tell myself. What a stupid thing to do! I wait, frozen, for the woods to come alive with assailants. Then I remember there’s almost no one left. Peeta, who’s been wounded, is now my ally. Whatever doubts I’ve had about him dissipate because if either of us took the other’s life now we’d be pariahs when we returned to District 12. In fact, I know if I was watching I’d loathe any tribute who didn’t immediately ally with their district partner. Besides, it just makes sense to protect each other. And in my case—being one of the star-crossed lovers from District 12
—it’s an absolute requirement if I want any more help from sympathetic sponsors.
The star-crossed lovers… Peeta must have been playing that angle all along. Why else would the Gamemakers have made this unprecedented change in the rules? For two tributes to have a shot at winning, our “romance” must be so popular with the audience that condemning it would jeopardize the success of the Games. No thanks to me. All I’ve done is managed not to kill Peeta. But whatever he’s done in the arena, he must have the audience convinced it was to keep me alive. Shaking his head to keep me from running to the Cornucopia. Fighting Cato to let me escape. Even hooking up with the Careers must have been a move to protect me. Peeta, it turns out, has never been a danger to me.
The thought makes me smile. I drop my hands and hold my face up to the moonlight so the cameras can be sure to catch it. So, who is there left to be afraid of? Foxface? The boy tribute from her district is dead. She’s operating alone, at night. And her strategy has been to evade, not attack. I don’t really think that, even if she heard my voice, she’d do anything but hope someone else would kill me.
Then there’s Thresh. All right, he’s a distinct threat. But I haven’t seen him, not once, since the Games began. I think about how Foxface grew alarmed when she heard a sound at the site of the explosion. But she didn’t turn to the Woods, she turned to whatever lies across from it. To that area of the arena that drops off into I don’t know what. I feel almost certain that the person she ran from was Thresh and that is his domain. He’d never have heard me from there and, even if he did, I’m up too high for someone his size to reach. So that leaves Cato and the girl from District 2, who are now surely celebrating the new rule. They’re the only ones left who benefit from it besides Peeta and myself. Do I run from them now, on the chance they heard me call Peeta’s name? No, I think. Let them come. Let them come with their night-vision glasses and their heavy, branch-breaking bodies. Right into the range of my arrows. But I know they won’t. If they didn’t come in daylight to my fire, they won’t risk what could be another trap at night. When they come, it will be on their own terms, not because I’ve let them know my whereabouts. Stay put and get some sleep, Katniss, I instruct myself, although I wish I could start tracking Peeta now. Tomorrow, you’ll find him.
I do sleep, but in the morning I’m extra-cautious, thinking that while the Careers might hesitate to attack me in a tree, they’re completely capable of setting an ambush for me. I make sure to fully prepare myself for the day—eating a big breakfast, securing my pack, readying my weapons—before I descend. But all seems peaceful and undisturbed on the ground.
Today I’ll have to be scrupulously careful. The Careers will know I’m trying to locate Peeta. They may well want to wait until I do before they move in. If he’s as badly wounded as Cato thinks, I’d be in the position of having to defend us both without any assistance. But if he’s that incapacitated, how has he managed to stay alive? And how on earth will I find him?
I try to think of anything Peeta ever said that might give me an indication as to where he’s hiding out, but nothing rings a bell. So I go back to the last moment I saw him sparkling in the sunlight, yelling at me to run. Then Cato appeared, his sword drawn. And after I was gone, he wounded Peeta. But how did Peeta get away? Maybe he’d held out better against the tracker jacker poison than Cato. Maybe that was the variable that allowed him to escape. But he’d been stung, too. So how far could he have gotten, stabbed and filled with venom? And how has he stayed alive all these days since? If the wound and the stingers haven’t killed him, surely thirst would have taken him by now. And that’s when I get my first clue to his whereabouts. He couldn’t have survived without water. I know that from my first few days here. He must be hidden somewhere near a source. There’s the lake, but I find that an unlikely option since it’s so close to the Careers’ base camp. A few spring-fed pools. But you’d really be a sitting duck at one of those. And the stream. The one that leads from the camp Rue and I made all the way down near the lake and beyond. If he stuck to the stream, he could change his location and always be near water. He could walk in the current and erase any tracks. He might even be able to get a fish or two.
Well, it’s a place to start, anyway.
To confuse my enemies’ minds, I start a fire with plenty of green wood. Even if they think it’s a ruse, I hope they’ll decide I’m hidden somewhere near it. While in reality, I’ll be tracking Peeta.
The sun burns off the morning haze almost immediately and I can tell the day will be hotter than usual. The waters cool and pleasant on my bare feet as I head downstream. I’m tempted to call out Peeta’s name as I go but decide against it. I will have to find him with my eyes and one good ear or he will have to find me. But he’ll know I’ll be looking, right? He won’t have so low of an opinion of me as to think I’d ignore the new rule and keep to myself. Would he? He’s very hard to predict, which might be interesting under different circumstances, but at the moment only provides an extra obstacle. It doesn’t take long to reach the spot where I peeled off to go the Careers’ camp. There’s been no sign of Peeta, but this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been up and down this stretch three times since the tracker jacker incident. If he were nearby, surely I’d have had some suspicion of it. The stream begins to curve to the left into a part of the woods that’s new to me. Muddy banks covered in tangled water plants lead to large rocks that increase in size until I begin to feel somewhat trapped. It would be no small matter to escape the stream now. Fighting off Cato or Thresh as I climbed over this rocky terrain. In fact, I’ve just about decided I’m on the wrong track entirely, that a wounded boy would be unable to navigate getting to and from this water source, when I see the bloody streak going down the curve of a boulder. It’s long dried now, but the smeary lines running side to side suggest someone—who perhaps was not fully in control of his mental faculties—tried to wipe it away.
Hugging the rocks, I move slowly in the direction of the blood, searching for him. I find a few more bloodstains, one with a few threads of fabric glued to it, but no sign of life. I break down and say his name in a hushed voice. “Peeta! Peeta!” Then a mockingjay lands on a scruffy tree and begins to mimic my tones so I stop. I give up and climb back down to the stream thinking, He must have moved on. Somewhere farther down.
My foot has just broken the surface of the water when I hear a voice.
“You here to finish me off, sweetheart?”
I whip around. It’s come from the left, so I can’t pick it up very well. And the voice was hoarse and weak. Still, it must have been Peeta. Who else in the arena would call me sweetheart? My eyes peruse the bank, but there’s nothing. Just mud, the plants, the base of the rocks.
“Peeta?” I whisper. “Where are you?” There’s no answer. Could I just have imagined it? No, I’m certain it was real and very close at hand, too. “Peeta?” I creep along the bank.
“Well, don’t step on me.”
I jump back. His voice was right under my feet. Still there’s nothing. Then his eyes open, unmistakably blue in the brown mud and green leaves. I gasp and am rewarded with a hint of white teeth as he laughs.
It’s the final word in camouflage. Forget chucking weights around. Peeta should have gone into his private session with the Gamemakers and painted himself into a tree. Or a boulder. Or a muddy bank full of weeds.
“Close your eyes again,” I order. He does, and his mouth, too, and completely disappears. Most of what I judge to be his body is actually under a layer of mud and plants. His face and arms are so artfully disguised as to be invisible. I kneel beside him. “I guess all those hours decorating cakes paid off.”
Peeta smiles. “Yes, frosting. The final defense of the dying.”
“You’re not going to die,” I tell him firmly. “Says who?” His voice is so ragged. “Says me. We’re on the same team now, you know,” I tell him.
His eyes open. “So, I heard. Nice of you to find what’s left of me.”
I pull out my water bottle and give him a drink. “Did Cato cut you?” I ask.
“Left leg. Up high,” he answers.
“Let’s get you in the stream, wash you off so I can see what kind of wounds you’ve got,” I say.
“Lean down a minute first,” he says. “Need to tell you something.” I lean over and put my good ear to his lips, which tickle as he whispers. “Remember, we’re madly in love, so it’s all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it.”
I jerk my head back but end up laughing. “Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind.” At least, he’s still able to joke around. But when I start to help him to the stream, all the levity disappears. It’s only two feet away, how hard can it be? Very hard when I realize he’s unable to move an inch on his own. He’s so weak that the best he can do is not to resist. I try to drag him, but despite the fact that I know he’s doing all he can to keep quiet, sharp cries of pain escape him. The mud and plants seem to have imprisoned him and I finally have to give a gigantic tug to break him from their clutches. He’s still two feet from the water, lying there, teeth gritted, tears cutting trails in the dirt on his face.
“Look, Peeta, I’m going to roll you into the stream. It’s very shallow here, okay?” I say.
“Excellent,” he says.
I crouch down beside him. No matter what happens, I tell myself, don’t stop until he’s in the water. “On three,” I say.
“One, two, three!” I can only manage one full roll before I have to stop because of the horrible sound he’s making. Now he’s on the edge of the stream. Maybe this is better anyway.
“Okay, change of plans. I’m not going to put you all the way in,” I tell him. Besides, if I get him in, who knows if I’d ever be able to get him out?
“No more rolling?” he asks.
“That’s all done. Let’s get you cleaned up. Keep an eye on the woods for me, okay?” I say. It’s hard to know where to start. He so caked with mud and matted leaves, I can’t even see his clothes. If he’s wearing clothes. The thought makes me hesitate a moment, but then I plunge in. Naked bodies are no big deal in the arena, right?
I’ve got two water bottles and Rue’s water skin. I prop them against rocks in the stream so that two are always filling while I pour the third over Peeta’s body. It takes a while, but I finally get rid of enough mud to find his clothes. I gently unzip his jacket, unbutton his shirt and ease them off him. His undershirt is so plastered into his wounds I have to cut it away with my knife and drench him again to work it loose. He’s badly bruised with a long burn across his chest and four tracker jacker stings, if you count the one under his ear. But I feel a bit better. This much I can fix. I decide to take care of his upper body first, to alleviate some pain, before I tackle whatever damage Cato did to his leg.
Since treating his wounds seems pointless when he’s lying in what’s become a mud puddle, I manage to prop him up against a boulder. He sits there, uncomplaining, while I wash away all the traces of dirt from his hair and skin. His flesh is very pale in the sunlight and he no longer looks strong and stocky. I have to dig the stingers out of his tracker jacker lumps, which causes him to wince, but the minute I apply the leaves he sighs in relief. While he dries in the sun, I wash his filthy shirt and jacket and spread them over boulders. Then I apply the burn cream to his chest. This is when I notice how hot his skin is becoming. The layer of mud and the bottles of water have disguised the fact that he’s