The sound of rain drumming on the roof of our house gently pulls me toward consciousness. I fight to return to sleep though, wrapped in a warm cocoon of blankets, safe at home. I'm vaguely aware that my head aches. Possibly I have the flu and this is why I'm allowed to stay in bed, even though I can tell I've been asleep a long time. My mother's hand strokes my cheek and I don't push it away as I would in wakefulness, never wanting her to know how much I crave that gentle touch. How much I miss her even though I still don't trust her. Then there's a voice, the wrong voice, not my mother's, and I'm scared.
"Katniss," it says. "Katniss, can you hear me?"
My eyes open and the sense of security vanishes. I'm not home, not with my mother. I'm in a dim, chilly cave, my bare feet freezing despite the cover, the air tainted with the unmistakable smell of blood. The haggard, pale face of a boy slides into view, and after an initial jolt of alarm, I feel better. "Peeta."
"Hey," he says. "Good to see your eyes again."
"How long have I been out?" I ask.
"Not sure. I woke up yesterday evening and you were lying next to me in a very scary pool of blood," he says. "I think it's stopped finally, but I wouldn't sit up or anything."
I gingerly lift my hand to my head and find it bandaged. This simple gesture leaves me weak and dizzy. Peeta holds a bottle to my lips and I drink thirstily.
"You're better," I say.
"Much better. Whatever you shot into my arm did the trick," he says. "By this morning, almost all the swelling in my leg was gone."
He doesn't seem angry about my tricking him, drugging him, and running off to the feast. Maybe I'm just too beat-up and I'll hear about it later when I'm stronger. But for the moment, he's all gentleness.
"Did you eat?" I ask.
"I'm sorry to say I gobbled down three pieces of that groosling before I realized it might have to last a while. Don't worry, I'm back on a strict diet," he says.
"No, it's good. You need to eat. I'll go hunting soon," I say.
"Not too soon, all right?" he says. "You just let me take care of you for a while."
I don't really seem to have much choice. Peeta feeds me bites of groosling and raisins and makes me drink plenty of water. He rubs some warmth back into my feet and wraps them in his jacket before tucking the sleeping bag back up around my chin.
"Your boots and socks are still damp and the weather's not helping much," he says. There's a clap of thunder, and I see lightning electrify the sky through an opening in the rocks. Rain drips through several holes in the ceiling, but Peeta has built a sort of canopy over my head an upper body by wedging the square of plastic into the rock above me.
"I wonder what brought on this storm? I mean, who's the target?" says Peeta.
"Cato and Thresh," I say without thinking. "Foxface will be in her den somewhere, and Clove. she cut me an then. " My voice trails off.
"I know Clove's dead. I saw it in the sky last night," h says. "Did you kill her?"
"No. Thresh broke her skull with a rock," I say.
"Lucky he didn't catch you, too," says Peeta.
The memory of the feast returns full-force and I feel sick. "He did. But he let me go." Then, of course, I have to tell him. About things I've kept to myself because he was too sick to ask and I wasn't ready to relive anyway. Like the explosion and my ear and Rue's dying and the boy from District 1 and the bread. All of which leads to what happened with Thresh and how he was paying off a debt of sorts.
"He let you go because he didn't want to owe you anything?" asks Peeta in disbelief.
"Yes. I don't expect you to understand it. You've always had enough. But if you'd lived in the Seam, I wouldn't have to explain," I say.
"And don't try. Obviously I'm too dim to get it."
"It's like the bread. How I never seem to get over owing you for that," I say.
"The bread? What? From when we were kids?" he says. "I think we can let that go. I mean, you just brought me back from the dead."
"But you didn't know me. We had never even spoken. Besides, it's the first gift that's always the hardest to pay back. I wouldn't even have been here to do it if you hadn't helped me then," I say. "Why did you, anyway?"
"Why? You know why," Peeta says. I give my head a slight, painful shake. "Haymitch said you would take a lot of convincing."
"Haymitch?" I ask. "What's he got to do with it?"
"Nothing," Peeta says. "So, Cato and Thresh, huh? I guess it's too much to hope that they'll simultaneously destroy each other?"
But the thought only upsets me. "I think we would like Thresh. I think he'd be our friend back in District Twelve," I say.
"Then let's hope Cato kills him, so we don't have to," says Peeta grimly.
I don't want Cato to kill Thresh at all. I don't want anyone else to die. But this is absolutely not the kind of thing that victors go around saying in the arena. Despite my best efforts, I can feel tears starting to pool in my eyes.
Peeta looks at me in concern. "What is it? Are you in a lot of pain?"
I give him another answer, because it is equally true but can be taken as a brief moment of weakness instead of a terminal one. "I want to go home, Peeta," I say plaintively, like a small child.
"You will. I promise," he says, and bends over to give me a kiss.
"I want to go home now," I say.
"Tell you what. You go back to sleep and dream of home. And you'll be there for real before you know it," lie says. "Okay?"
"Okay," I whisper. "Wake me if you need me to keep watch."
"I'm good and rested, thanks to you and Haymitch. Besides, who knows how long this will last?" he says.
What does he mean? The storm? The brief respite ii brings us? The Games themselves? I don't know, but I'm ion sad and tired to ask.
It's evening when Peeta wakes me again. The rain has turned to a downpour, sending streams of water through our ceiling where earlier there had been only drips. Peeta has placed the broth pot under the worst one and repositioned the plastic to deflect most of it from me. I feel a bit better, able to sit up without getting too dizzy, and I'm absolutely famished. So is Peeta. It's clear he's been waiting for me to wake up to eat and is eager to get started.
There's not much left. Two pieces of groosling, a small mishmash of roots, and a handful of dried fruit.
"Should we try and ration it?" Peeta asks.
"No, let's just finish it. The groosling's getting old anyway, and the last thing we need is to get sick off spoiled food," I say, dividing the food into two equal piles. We try and eat slowly, but we're both so hungry were done in a couple of minutes. My stomach is in no way satisfied. "Tomorrow's a hunting day," I say.
"I won't be much help with that," Peeta says. "I've never hunted before."
"I'll kill and you cook," I say. "And you can always gather."
"I wish there was some sort of bread bush out there," says Peeta.
"The bread they sent me from District Eleven was still warm," I say with a sigh. "Here, chew these." I hand him a couple of mint leaves and pop a few in my own mouth.
It's hard to even see the projection in the sky, but it's clear enough to know there were no more deaths today. So Cato and Thresh haven't had it out yet.
"Where did Thresh go? I mean, what's on the far side of the circle?" I ask Peeta.
"A field. As far as you can see it's full of grasses as high as my shoulders. I don't know, maybe some of them are grain. There are patches of different colors. But there are no paths," says Peeta.
"I bet some of them are grain. I bet Thresh knows which ones, too," I say. "Did you go in there?"
"No. Nobody really wanted to track Thresh down in that grass. It has a sinister feeling to it. Every time I look at that field, all I can think of are hidden things. Snakes, and rabid animals, and quicksand," Peeta says. "There could be anything in there."
I don't say so but Peeta's words remind me of the warnings they give us about not going beyond the fence in District 12. I can't help, for a moment, comparing him with Gale, who would see that field as a potential source of food as well as a threat. Thresh certainly did. It's not that Peeta's soft exactly, and he's proved he's not a coward. But there are things you don't question too much, I guess, when your home always smells like baking bread, whereas Gale questions everything. What would Peeta think of the irreverent banter that passes between us as we break the law each day? Would it shock him? The things we say about Panem? Gale's tirades against the Capitol?
"Maybe there is a bread bush in that field," I say. "Maybe that's why Thresh looks better fed now than when we started the Games."
"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."