“Either that or he’s got very generous sponsors,” says Peeta. “I wonder what we’d have to do to get Haymitch to send us some bread.”
I raise my eyebrows before I remember he doesn’t know about the message Haymitch sent us a couple of nights ago. One kiss equals one pot of broth. It’s not the sort of thing I can blurt out, either. To say my thoughts aloud would be tipping off the audience that the romance has been fabricated to play on their sympathies and that would result in no food at all. Somehow, believably, I’ve got to get things back on track. Something simple to start with. I reach out and take his hand.
“Well, he probably used up a lot of resources helping me knock you out,” I say mischievously.
“Yeah, about that,” says Peeta, entwining his fingers in mine. “Don’t try something like that again.”
“Or what?” I ask.
“Or… or…” He can’t think of anything good. “Just give me a minute.”
“What’s the problem?” I say with a grin.
“The problem is we’re both still alive. Which only reinforces the idea in your mind that you did the right thing,” says Peeta.
“I did do the right thing,” I say.
“No! Just don’t, Katniss!” His grip tightens, hurting my hand, and there’s real anger in his voice. “Don’t die for me. You won’t be doing me any favors. All right?”
I’m startled by his intensity but recognize an excellent opportunity for getting food, so I try to keep up. “Maybe I did it for myself, Peeta, did you ever think of that? Maybe you aren’t the only one who… who worries about… what it would be like if…”
I fumble. I’m not as smooth with words as Peeta. And while I was talking, the idea of actually losing Peeta hit me again and I realized how much I don’t want him to die. And it’s not about the sponsors. And it’s not about what will happen back home. And it’s not just that I don’t want to be alone. It’s him. I do not want to lose the boy with the bread.
“If what, Katniss?” he says softly.
I wish I could pull the shutters closed, blocking out this moment from the prying eyes of Panem. Even if it means losing food. Whatever I’m feeling, it’s no one’s business but mine. “That’s exactly the kind of topic Haymitch told me to steer clear of,” I say evasively, although Haymitch never said anything of the kind. In fact, he’s probably cursing me out right now for dropping the ball during such an emotionally charged moment. But Peeta somehow catches it.
“Then I’ll just have to fill in the blanks myself,” he says, and moves in to me.
This is the first kiss that we’re both fully aware of. Neither of us hobbled by sickness or pain or simply unconscious. Our lips neither burning with fever or icy cold. This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. This is the first kiss that makes me want another. But I don’t get it. Well, I do get a second kiss, but it’s just a light one on the tip of my nose because Peeta’s been distracted. “I think your wound is bleeding again. Come on, lie down, it’s bedtime anyway,” he says.
My socks are dry enough to wear now. I make Peeta put his jacket back on. The damp cold seems to cut right down to my bones, so he must be half frozen. I insist on taking the first watch, too, although neither of us think it’s likely anyone will come in this weather. But he won’t agree unless I’m in the bag, too, and I’m shivering so hard that it’s pointless to object. In stark contrast to two nights ago, when I felt Peeta was a million miles away, I’m struck by his immediacy now. As we settle in, he pulls my head down to use his arm as a pillow, the other rests protectively over me even when he goes to sleep. No one has held me like this in such a long time. Since my father died and I stopped trusting my mother, no one else’s arms have made me feel this safe.
With the aid of the glasses, I lie watching the drips of water splatter on the cave floor. Rhythmic and lulling. Several times, I drift off briefly and then snap awake, guilty and angry with myself. After three or four hours, I can’t help it, I have to rouse Peeta because I can’t keep my eyes open. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“Tomorrow, when it’s dry, I’ll find us a place so high in the trees we can both sleep in peace,” I promise as I drift off. But tomorrow is no better in terms of weather. The deluge continues as if the Gamemakers are intent on washing us all away. The thunder’s so powerful it seems to shake the ground. Peeta’s considering heading out anyway to scavenge for food, but I tell him in this storm it would be pointless. He won’t be able to see three feet in front of his face and he’ll only end up getting soaked to the skin for his troubles. He knows I’m right, but the gnawing in our stomachs is becoming painful. The day drags on turning into evening and there’s no break in the weather. Haymitch is our only hope, but nothing is forthcoming, either from lack of money—everything will cost an exorbitant amount—or because he’s dissatisfied with our performance. Probably the latter. I’d be the first to admit we’re not exactly riveting today. Starving, weak from injuries, trying not to reopen wounds. We’re sitting huddled together wrapped in the sleeping bag, yes, but mostly to keep warm. The most exciting thing either of us does is nap. I’m not really sure how to ramp up the romance. The kiss last night was nice, but working up to another will take some forethought. There are girls in the Seam, some of the merchant girls, too, who navigate these waters so easily. But I’ve never had much time or use for it. Anyway, just a kiss isn’t enough anymore clearly because if it was we’d have gotten food last night. My instincts tell me Haymitch isn’t just looking for physical affection, he wants something more personal. The sort of stuff he was trying to get me to tell about myself when we were practicing for the interview. I’m rotten at it, but Peeta’s not. Maybe the best approach is to get him talking.
“Peeta,” I say lightly. “You said at the interview you’d had a crush on me forever. When did forever start?”
“Oh, let’s see. I guess the first day of school. We were five. You had on a red plaid dress and your hair… it was in two braids instead of one. My father pointed you out when we were waiting to line up,” Peeta says.
“Your father? Why?” I ask.
“He said, ‘See that little girl? I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner,’” Peeta says.
“What? You’re making that up!” I exclaim.
“No, true story,” Peeta says. “And I said, ‘A coal miner? Why did she want a coal miner if she could’ve had you?’ And he said, ‘Because when he sings… even the birds stop to listen.’”
“That’s true. They do. I mean, they did,” I say. I’m stunned and surprisingly moved, thinking of the baker telling this to Peeta. It strikes me that my own reluctance to sing, my own dismissal of music might not really be that I think it’s a waste of time. It might be because it reminds me too much of my father.
“So that day, in music assembly, the teacher asked who knew the valley song. Your hand shot right up in the air. She stood you up on a stool and had you sing it for us. And I swear, every bird outside the windows fell silent,” Peeta says.
“Oh, please,” I say, laughing.
“No, it happened. And right when your song ended, I knew—just like your mother—I was a goner,” Peeta says. “Then for the next eleven years, I tried to work up the nerve to talk to you.”
“Without success,” I add.
“Without success. So, in a way, my name being drawn in the reaping was a real piece of luck,” says Peeta. For a moment, I’m almost foolishly happy and then confusion sweeps over me. Because we’re supposed to be making up this stuff, playing at being in love not actually being in love. But Peeta’s story has a ring of truth to it. That part about my father and the birds. And I did sing the first day of school, although I don’t remember the song. And that red plaid dress… there was one, a hand-me-down to Prim that got washed to rags after my father’s death.
It would explain another thing, too. Why Peeta took a beating to give me the bread on that awful hollow day. So, if those details are true… could it all be true?
“You have a… remarkable memory,” I say haltingly. “I remember everything about you,” says Peeta, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “You’re the one who wasn’t paying attention.”
“I am now,” I say.
“Well, I don’t have much competition here,” he says. I want to draw away, to close those shutters again, but I know I can’t. It’s as if I can hear Haymitch whispering in my ear, “Say it! Say it!”
I swallow hard and get the words out. “You don’t have much competition anywhere.” And this time, it’s me who leans in.
Our lips have just barely touched when the clunk outside makes us jump. My bow comes up, the arrow ready to fly, but there’s no other sound. Peeta peers through the rocks and then gives a whoop. Before I can stop him, lie’s out in the rain, then handing something in to me. A silver parachute attached to a basket. I rip it open at once and inside there’s a feast-fresh rolls, goat cheese, apples, and best of all, a tureen of that incredible lamb stew on wild rice. The very dish I told Caesar Flickerman was the most impressive thing the Capitol had to offer.
Peeta wriggles back inside, his face lit up like the sun. “I guess Haymitch finally got tired of watching us starve.”
“I guess so,” I answer.
But in my head I can hear Haymitch’s smug, if slightly exasperated, words, “Yes, that’s what I’m looking lot, sweetheart.”
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.