The Hunger Games
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The Hunger Games - Part 3 "The Victor" - Chapter 24


       

It takes a while to explain the situation to Peeta. How Foxface stole the food from the supply pile before I blew it up, how she tried to take enough to stay alive but not enough that anyone would notice it, how she wouldn’t question the safety of berries we were preparing to eat ourselves.

“I wonder how she found us,” says Peeta. “My fault, I guess, if I’m as loud as you say.”

We were about as hard to follow as a herd of cattle, but I try to be kind. “And she’s very clever, Peeta. Well, she was. Until you outfoxed her.”

“Not on purpose. Doesn’t seem fair somehow. I mean, we would have both been dead, too, if she hadn’t eaten the berries first.” He checks himself. “No, of course, we wouldn’t. You recognized them, didn’t you?”

I give a nod. “We call them nightlock.”

“Even the name sounds deadly,” he says. “I’m sorry, Katniss. I really thought they were the same ones you’d gathered.”

“Don’t apologize. It just means we’re one step closer to home, right?” I ask.

“I’ll get rid of the rest,” Peeta says. He gathers up the sheet of blue plastic, careful to trap the berries inside, and goes to toss them into the woods.

“Wait!” I cry. I find the leather pouch that belonged to the boy from District 1 and fill it with a few handfuls of berries from the plastic. “If they fooled Foxface, maybe they can fool Cato as well. If he’s chasing us or something, we can act like we accidentally drop the pouch and if he eats them —”

“Then hello District Twelve,” says Peeta.

“That’s it,” I say, securing the pouch to my belt.

“He’ll know where we are now,” says Peeta. “If he was anywhere nearby and saw that hovercraft, he’ll know we killed her and come after us.”

Peeta’s right. This could be just the opportunity Cato’s been waiting for. But even if we run now, there’s the meat to cook and our fire will be another sign of our whereabouts. “Let’s make a fire. Right now.” I begin to gather branches and brush.

“Are you ready to face him?” Peeta asks.

“I’m ready to eat. Better to cook our food while we have the chance. If he knows we’re here, he knows. But he also knows there’s two of us and probably assumes we were hunting Foxface. That means you’re recovered. And the fire means we’re not hiding, we’re inviting him here. Would you show up?” I ask.

“Maybe not,” he says.

Peeta’s a whiz with fires, coaxing a blaze out of the damp wood. In no time, I have the rabbits and squirrel roasting, the roots, wrapped in leaves, baking in the coals. We take turns gathering greens and keeping a careful watch for Cato, but as I anticipated, he doesn’t make an appearance.

When the food’s cooked, I pack most of it up, leaving us each a rabbit’s leg to eat as we walk.

I want to move higher into the woods, climb a good tree, and make camp for the night, but Peeta resists. “I can’t climb like you, Katniss, especially with my leg, and I don’t think I could ever fall asleep fifty feet above the ground.”

“It’s not safe to stay in the open, Peeta,” I say.

“Can’t we go back to the cave?” he asks. “It’s near water and easy to defend.”

I sigh. Several more hours of walking — or should I say crashing — through the woods to reach an area we’ll just have to leave in the morning to hunt. But Peeta doesn’t ask for much. He’s followed my instructions all day and I’m sure if things were reversed, he wouldn’t make me spend the night in a tree. It dawns on me that I haven’t been very nice to Peeta today. Nagging him about how loud he was, screaming at him over disappearing. The playful romance we had sustained in the cave has disappeared out in the open, under the hot sun, with the threat of Cato looming over us. Haymitch has probably just about had it with me. And as for the audience . . .



I reach up and give him a kiss. “Sure. Let’s go back to the cave.”

He looks pleased and relieved. “Well, that was easy.”

I work my arrow out of the oak, careful not to damage the shaft. These arrows are food, safety, and life itself now.

We toss a bunch more wood on the fire. It should be sending off smoke for a few more hours, although I doubt Cato assumes anything at this point. When we reach the stream, I see the water has dropped considerably and moves at its old leisurely pace, so I suggest we walk back in it. Peeta’s happy to oblige and since he’s a lot quieter in water than on land, it’s a doubly good idea. It’s a long walk back to the cave though, even going downward, even with the rabbit to give us a boost. We’re both exhausted by our hike today and still way too underfed. I keep my bow loaded, both for Cato and any fish I might see, but the stream seems strangely empty of creatures.

By the time we reach our destination, our feet are dragging and the sun sits low on the horizon. We fill up our water bottles and climb the little slope to our den. It’s not much, but out here in the wilderness, it’s the closest thing we have to a home. It will be warmer than a tree, too, because it provides some shelter from the wind that has begun to blow steadily in from the west. I set a good dinner out, but halfway through Peeta begins to nod off. After days of inactivity, the hunt has taken its toll. I order him into the sleeping bag and set aside the rest of his food for when he wakes. He drops off immediately. I pull the sleeping bag up to his chin and kiss his forehead, not for the audience, but for me. Because I’m so grateful that he’s still here, not dead by the stream as I’d thought. So glad that I don’t have to face Cato alone.

Brutal, bloody Cato who can snap a neck with a twist of his arm, who had the power to overcome Thresh, who has had it out for me since the beginning. He probably has had a special hatred for me ever since I outscored him in training. A boy like Peeta would simply shrug that off. But I have a feeling it drove Cato to distraction. Which is not that hard. I think of his ridiculous reaction to finding the supplies blown up. The others were upset, of course, but he was completely unhinged. I wonder now if Cato might not be entirely sane.

The sky lights up with the seal, and I watch Foxface shine in the sky and then disappear from the world forever. He hasn’t said it, but I don’t think Peeta felt good about killing her, even if it was essential. I can’t pretend I’ll miss her, but I have to admire her. My guess is if they had given us some sort of test, she would have been the smartest of all the tributes. If, in fact, we had been setting a trap for her, I bet she’d have sensed it and avoided the berries. It was Peeta’s own ignorance that brought her down. I’ve spent so much time making sure I don’t underestimate my opponents that I’ve forgotten it’s just as dangerous to overestimate them as well.

That brings me back to Cato. But while I think I had a sense of Foxface, who she was and how she operated, he’s a little more slippery. Powerful, well trained, but smart? I don’t know. Not like she was. And utterly lacking in the control Foxface demonstrated. I believe Cato could easily lose his judgment in a fit of temper. Not that I can feel superior on that point. I think of the moment I sent the arrow flying into the apple in the pig’s mouth when I was so enraged. Maybe I do understand Cato better than I think.

Despite the fatigue in my body, my mind’s alert, so I let Peeta sleep long past our usual switch. In fact, a soft gray day has begun when I shake his shoulder. He looks out, almost in alarm. “I slept the whole night. That’s not fair, Katniss, you should have woken me.”

I stretch and burrow down into the bag. “I’ll sleep now. Wake me if anything interesting happens.”

Apparently nothing does, because when I open my eyes, bright hot afternoon light gleams through the rocks. “Any sign of our friend?” I ask.

Peeta shakes his head. “No, he’s keeping a disturbingly low profile.”

“How long do you think we’ll have before the Gamemakers drive us together?” I ask.

“Well, Foxface died almost a day ago, so there’s been plenty of time for the audience to place bets and get bored. I guess it could happen at any moment,” says Peeta.



“Yeah, I have a feeling today’s the day,” I say. I sit up and look out at the peaceful terrain. “I wonder how they’ll do it.”

Peeta remains silent. There’s not really any good answer.

“Well, until they do, no sense in wasting a hunting day. But we should probably eat as much as we can hold just in case we run into trouble,” I say.

Peeta packs up our gear while I lay out a big meal. The rest of the rabbits, roots, greens, the rolls spread with the last bit of cheese. The only thing I leave in reserve is the squirrel and the apple.

By the time we’re done, all that’s left is a pile of rabbit bones. My hands are greasy, which only adds to my growing feeling of grubbiness. Maybe we don’t bathe daily in the Seam, but we keep cleaner than I have of late. Except for my feet, which have walked in the stream, I’m covered in a layer of grime.

Leaving the cave has a sense of finality about it. I don’t think there will be another night in the arena somehow. One way or the other, dead or alive, I have the feeling I’ll escape it today. I give the rocks a pat good-bye and we head down to the stream to wash up. I can feel my skin, itching for the cool water. I may do my hair and braid it back wet. I’m wondering if we might even be able to give our clothes a quick scrub when we reach the stream. Or what used to be the stream. Now there’s only a bone-dry bed. I put my hand down to feel it.

“Not even a little damp. They must have drained it while we slept,” I say. A fear of the cracked tongue, aching body and fuzzy mind brought on by my previous dehydration creeps into my consciousness. Our bottles and skin are fairly full, but with two drinking and this hot sun it won’t take long to deplete them.

“The lake,” says Peeta. “That’s where they want us to go.”

“Maybe the ponds still have some,” I say hopefully.

“We can check,” he says, but he’s just humoring me. I’m humoring myself because I know what I’ll find when we return to the pond where I soaked my leg. A dusty, gaping mouth of a hole. But we make the trip anyway just to confirm what we already know.

“You’re right. They’re driving us to the lake,” I say. Where there’s no cover. Where they’re guaranteed a bloody fight to the death with nothing to block their view. “Do you want to go straightaway or wait until the water’s tapped out?”

“Let’s go now, while we’ve had food and rest. Let’s just go end this thing,” he says.

I nod. It’s funny. I feel almost as if it’s the first day of the Games again. That I’m in the same position. Twenty-one tributes are dead, but I still have yet to kill Cato. And really, wasn’t he always the one to kill? Now it seems the other tributes were just minor obstacles, distractions, keeping us from the real battle of the Games. Cato and me.

But no, there’s the boy waiting beside me. I feel his arms wrap around me.

“Two against one. Should be a piece of cake,” he says.

“Next time we eat, it will be in the Capitol,” I answer.

“You bet it will,” he says.

We stand there a while, locked in an embrace, feeling each other, the sunlight, the rustle of the leaves at our feet. Then without a word, we break apart and head for the lake.

I don’t care now that Peeta’s footfalls send rodents scurrying, make birds take wing. We have to fight Cato and I’d just as soon do it here as on the plain. But I doubt I’ll have that choice. If the Gamemakers want us in the open, then in the open we will be.

We stop to rest for a few moments under the tree where the Careers trapped me. The husk of the tracker jacker nest, beaten to a pulp by the heavy rains and dried in the burning sun, confirms the location. I touch it with the tip of my boot, and it dissolves into dust that is quickly carried off by the breeze. I can’t help looking up in the tree where Rue secretly perched, waiting to save my life. Tracker jackers. Glimmer’s bloated body. The terrifying hallucinations . . .

“Let’s move on,” I say, wanting to escape the darkness that surrounds this place. Peeta doesn’t object.

Given our late start to the day, when we reach the plain it’s already early evening. There’s no sign of Cato. No sign of anything except the gold Cornucopia glowing in the slanting sun rays. Just in case Cato decided to pull a Foxface on us, we circle the Cornucopia to make sure it’s empty. Then obediently, as if following instructions, we cross to the lake and fill our water containers.

I frown at the shrinking sun. “We don’t want to fight him after dark. There’s only the one pair of glasses.”

Peeta carefully squeezes drops of iodine into the water. “Maybe that’s what he’s waiting for. What do you want to do? Go back to the cave?”

“Either that or find a tree. But let’s give him another half an hour or so. Then we’ll take cover,” I answer.

We sit by the lake, in full sight. There’s no point in hiding now. In the trees at the edge of the plain, I can see the mockingjays flitting about. Bouncing melodies back and forth between them like brightly colored balls. I open my mouth and sing out Rue’s four-note run. I can feel them pause curiously at the sound of my voice, listening for more. I repeat the notes in the silence. First one mockingjay trills the tune back, then another. Then the whole world comes alive with the sound.

“Just like your father,” says Peeta.

My fingers find the pin on my shirt. “That’s Rue’s song,” I say. “I think they remember it.”

The music swells and I recognize the brilliance of it. As the notes overlap, they compliment one another, forming a lovely, unearthly harmony. It was this sound then, thanks to Rue, that sent the orchard workers of District 11 home each night. Does someone start it at quitting time, I wonder, now that she is dead?

For a while, I just close my eyes and listen, mesmerized by the beauty of the song. Then something begins to disrupt the music. Runs cut off in jagged, imperfect lines. Dissonant notes intersperse with the melody. The mockingjays’ voices rise up in a shrieking cry of alarm.

We’re on our feet, Peeta wielding his knife, me poised to shoot, when Cato smashes through the trees and bears down on us. He has no spear. In fact, his hands are empty, yet he runs straight for us. My first arrow hits his chest and inexplicably falls aside.

“He’s got some kind of body armor!” I shout to Peeta.

Just in time, too, because Cato is upon us. I brace myself, but he rockets right between us with no attempt to check his speed. I can tell from his panting, the sweat pouring off his purplish face, that he’s been running hard a long time. Not toward us. From something. But what?

My eyes scan the woods just in time to see the first creature leap onto the plain. As I’m turning away, I see another half dozen join it. Then I am stumbling blindly after Cato with no thought of anything but to save myself.


       
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Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6
Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18
Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24
Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27