"Besides, he's our best chance of finding her."
It takes me a moment to register that the "her" they're referring to is me.
"Why? You think she bought into that sappy romance stuff?"
"She might have. Seemed pretty simpleminded to me. Every time I think about her spinning around in that dress, I want to puke."
"Wish we knew how she got that eleven."
"Bet you Lover Boy knows."
The sound of Peeta returning silences them.
"Was she dead?" asks the boy from District 2.
"No. But she is now," says Peeta. Just then, the cannon fires. "Ready to move on?"
The Career pack sets off at a run just as dawn begins to break, and birdsong fills the air. I remain in my awkward position, muscles trembling with exertion for a while longer, then hoist myself back onto my branch. I need to get down, to get going, but for a moment I lie there, digesting what I've heard. Not only is Peeta with the Careers, he's helping them find me. The simpleminded girl who has to be taken seriously because of her eleven. Because she can use a bow and arrow. Which Peeta knows better than anyone.
But he hasn't told them yet. Is he saving that information because he knows it's all that keeps him alive? Is he still pretending to love me for the audience? What is going on in his head?
Suddenly, the birds fall silent. Then one gives a high-pitched warning call. A single note. Just like the one Gale and I heard when the redheaded Avox girl was caught. High above the dying campfire a hovercraft materializes. A set of huge metal teeth drops down. Slowly, gently, the dead tribute girl is lifted into the hovercraft. Then it vanishes. The birds resume their song.
"Move," I whisper to myself. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag, roll it up, and place it in the pack. I take a deep breath. While I've been concealed by darkness and the sleeping bag and the willow branches, it has probably been difficult for the cameras to get a good shot of me. I know they must be tracking me now though. The minute I hit the ground, I'm guaranteed a close-up.
The audience will have been beside themselves, knowing I was in the tree, that I overheard the Careers talking, that I discovered Peeta was with them. Until I work out exactly how I want to play that, I'd better at least act on top of things. Not perplexed. Certainly not confused or frightened.
No, I need to look one step ahead of the game.
So as I slide out of the foliage and into the dawn light, I pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me. Then I c**k my head slightly to the side and give a knowing smile. There! Let them figure out what that means!
I'm about to take off when I think of my snares. Maybe it's imprudent to check them with the others so close. But have to. Too many years of hunting, I guess. And the lure of possible meat. I'm rewarded with one fine rabbit. In no time, I've cleaned and gutted the animal, leaving the head, feet, tail, skin, and innards, under a pile of leaves. I'm wishing for a fire - eating raw rabbit can give you rabbit fever, a lesson I learned the hard way - when I think of the dead tribute. I hurry back to her camp. Sure enough, the coals of her dying fire are still hot. I cut up the rabbit, fashion a spit out of branches, and set it over the coals.
I'm glad for the cameras now. I want sponsors to see I can hunt, that I'm a good bet because I won't be lured into traps as easily as the others will by hunger. While the rabbit cooks, I grind up part of a charred branch and set about camouflaging my orange pack. The black tones it down, but I feel a layer of mud would definitely help. Of course, to have mud, I'd need water.
I pull on my gear, grab my spit, kick some dirt over the coals, and take off in the opposite direction the Careers went. I eat half the rabbit as I go, then wrap up the leftovers in my plastic for later. The meat stops the grumbling in my stomach but does little to quench my thirst. Water is my top priority now.
As I hike along, I feel certain I'm still holding the screen in the Capitol, so I'm careful to continue to hide my emotions. But what a good time Claudius Templesmith must be having with his guest commentators, dissecting Peeta's behavior, my reaction. What to make of it all? Has Peeta revealed his true colors? How does this affect the betting odds? Will we lose sponsors? Do we even have sponsors? Yes, I feel certain we do, or at least did.
Certainly Peeta has thrown a wrench into our star-crossed lover dynamic. Or has he? Maybe, since he hasn't spoken much about me, we can still get some mileage out of it. Maybe people will think it's something we plotted together if I seem like it amuses me now.
The sun rises in the sky and even through the canopy it seems overly bright. I coat my lips in some grease from the rabbit and try to keep from panting, but it's no use. It's only been a day and I'm dehydrating fast. I try and think of everything I know about finding water. It runs downhill, so, in fact, continuing down into this valley isn't a bad thing. If I could just locate a game trail or spot a particularly green patch of vegetation, these might help me along, but nothing seems to change. There's just the slight gradual slope, the birds, the sameness to the trees.
As the day wears on, I know I'm headed for trouble. What little urine I've been able to pass is a dark brown, my head is aching, and there's a dry patch on my tongue that refuses to moisten. The sun hurts my eyes so I dig out my sunglasses, but when I put them on they do something funny to my vision, so I just stuff them back in my pack.
It's late afternoon when I think I've found help. I spot a cluster of berry bushes and hurry to strip the fruit, to suck the sweet juices from the skins. But just as I'm holding them to my lips, I get a hard look at them. What I thought were blueberries have a slightly different shape, and when I break one open the insides are bloodred. I don't recognize these berries, perhaps they are edible, but I'm guessing this is some evil trick on the part of the Gamemakers. Even the plant instructor in the Training Center made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless you were 100 percent sure they weren't toxic. Something I already knew, but I'm so thirsty it takes her reminder to give me the strength to fling them away.
Fatigue is beginning to settle on me, but it's not the usual tiredness that follows a long hike. I have to stop and rest frequently, although I know the only cure for what ails me requires continued searching. I try a new tactic - climbing a tree as high as I dare in my shaky state - to look for any signs of water. But as far as I can see in any direction, there's the same unrelenting stretch of forest.
Determined to go on until nightfall, I walk until I'm stumbling over my own feet.
Exhausted, I haul myself up into a tree and belt myself in. I've no appetite, but I suck on a rabbit bone just to give my mouth something to do. Night falls, the anthem plays, and high in the sky I see the picture of the girl, who was apparently from District 8. The one Peeta went back to finish off.