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.
I nod, then let the conversation drop. But secretly I'm wondering if Haymitch sobered up long enough to help Peeta and me because he thought we just might have the wits to survive. Maybe he wasn't always a drunk. Maybe, in the beginning, he tried to help the tributes. But then it got unbearable. It must be hell to mentor two kids and then watch them die. Year after year after year. I realize that if I get out of here, that will become my job. To mentor the girl from District 12. The idea is so repellent, I thrust it from my mind.
About half an hour has passed before I decide I have to eat again. Peeta's too hungry himself to put up an argument. While I'm dishing up two more small servings of lamb stew and rice, we hear the anthem begin to play. Peeta presses his eyes against a crack in the rocks to watch the sky.