I grin at him and realize that I'm starving. I cut off a piece of pork, dunk it in mashed potatoes, and start eating. It's okay. My family is safe. And if they are safe, no real harm has been done.
After dinner, we go to sitting room to watch the scores announced on television. First they show a photo of the tribute, then flash their score below it. The Career Tributes naturally get in the eight-to-ten range. Most of the other players average a five. Surprisingly, little Rue comes up with a seven. I don't know what she showed the judges, but she's so tiny it must have been impressive.
District 12 comes up last, as usual. Peeta pulls an eight so at least a couple of the Gamemakers must have been watching him. I dig my fingernails into my palms as my face comes up, expecting the worst. Then they're flashing the number eleven on the screen.
Effie Trinket lets out a squeal, and everybody is slapping me on the back and cheering and congratulating me. But it doesn't seem real.
"There must be a mistake. How. how could that happen?" I ask Haymitch.
"Guess they liked your temper," he says. "They've got a show to put on. They need some players with some heat."
"Katniss, the girl who was on fire," says Cinna and gives me a hug. "Oh, wait until you see your interview dress." "More flames?" I ask. "Of a sort," he says mischievously.
Peeta and I congratulate each other, another awkward moment. We've both done well, but what does that mean for the other? I escape to my room as quickly as possible and burrow down under the covers. The stress of the day, particularly the crying, has worn me out. I drift off, reprieved, relieved, and with the number eleven still flashing behind my eyelids.
At dawn, I lie in bed for a while, watching the sun come up on a beautiful morning. It's Sunday. A day off at home. I wonder if Gale is in the woods yet. Usually we devote all of Sunday to stocking up for the week. Rising early, hunting and gathering, then trading at the Hob. I think of Gale without me. Both of us can hunt alone, but we're better as a pair. Particularly if we're trying for bigger game. But also in the littler things, having a partner lightened the load, could even make the arduous task of filling my family's table enjoyable.
I had been struggling along on my own for about six months when I first ran into Gale in the woods. It was a Sunday in October, the air cool and pungent with dying things. I'd spent the morning competing with the squirrels for nuts and the slightly warmer afternoon wading in shallow ponds harvesting Katniss. The only meat I'd shot was a squirrel that had practically run over my toes in its quest for acorns, but the animals would still be afoot when the snow buried my other food sources. Having strayed farther afield than usual, I was hurrying back home, lugging my burlap sacks when I came across a dead rabbit. It was hanging by its neck in a thin wire a foot above my head. About fifteen yards away was another. I recognized the twitch-up snares because my father had used them. When the prey is caught, it's yanked into the air out of the reach of other hungry animals. I'd been trying to use snares all summer with no success, so I couldn't help dropping my sacks to examine this one. My fingers were just on the wire above one of the rabbits when a voice rang out. "That's dangerous."
I jumped back several feet as Gale materialized from behind a tree. He must have been watching me the whole time. He was only fourteen, but he cleared six feet and was as good as an adult to me. I'd seen him around the Seam and at school. And one other time. He'd lost his father in the same blast that killed mine. In January, I'd stood by while he received his medal of valor in the Justice Building, another oldest child with no father. I remembered his two little brothers clutching his mother, a woman whose swollen belly announced she was just days away from giving birth.
"What's your name?" he said, coming over and disengaging the rabbit from the snare. He had another three hanging from his belt.
"Katniss," I said, barely audible.
"Well, Catnip, stealing's punishable by death, or hadn't you heard?" he said.
"Katniss," I said louder. "And I wasn't stealing it. I just wanted to look at your snare. Mine never catch anything."
He scowled at me, not convinced. "So where'd you get the squirrel?"
"I shot it." I pulled my bow off my shoulder. I was still using the small version my father had made me, but I'd been practicing with the full-size one when I could. I was hoping that by spring I might be able to bring down some bigger game.
Gale's eyes fastened on the bow. "Can I see that?" I handed it over. "Just remember, stealing's punishable by death."
That was the first time I ever saw him smile. It transformed him from someone menacing to someone you wished you knew. But it took several months before I returned that smile.
We talked hunting then. I told him I might be able to get him a bow if he had something to trade. Not food. I wanted knowledge. I wanted to set my own snares that caught a belt of fat rabbits in one day. He agreed something might be worked out. As the seasons went by, we grudgingly began to share our knowledge, our weapons, our secret places that were thick with wild plums or turkeys. He taught me snares and fishing. I showed him what plants to eat and eventually gave him one of our precious bows. And then one day, without either of us saying it, we became a team. Dividing the work and the spoils. Making sure that both our families had food.
Gale gave me a sense of security I'd lacked since my father's death. His companionship replaced the long solitary hours in the woods. I became a much better hunter when I didn't have to look over my shoulder constantly, when someone was watching my back. But he turned into so much more than a hunting partner. He became my confidante, someone with whom I could share thoughts I could never voice inside the fence. In exchange, he trusted me with his. Being out in the woods with Gale. sometimes I was actually happy.
I call him my friend, but in the last year it's seemed too casual a word for what Gale is to me. A pang of longing shoots through my chest. If only he was with me now! But, of course, I don't want that. I don't want him in the arena where he'd be dead in a few days. I just. I just miss him. And I hate being so alone. Does he miss me? He must.
I think of the eleven flashing under my name last night. I know exactly what he'd say to me. "Well, there's some room for improvement there." And then he'd give me a smile and I'd return it without hesitating now.
I can't help comparing what I have with Gale to what I'm pretending to have with Peeta. How I never question Gale's motives while I do nothing but doubt the latter's. It's not a fair comparison really. Gale and I were thrown together by a mutual need to survive. Peeta and I know the other's survival means our own death. How do you sidestep that?