PARTNERS

The girl carefully nocks an arrow to her bow and eyes her target - a pine cone perched carefully on a mound of earth. A tree stump sits directly behind the mound and pine cone. The girl has learned from painful experience to have a backstop for her targets.

Arrows are too difficult to make to waste in target practice, and each miss usually results in a twenty to thirty minute search for each arrow...if they can be found at all.

The girl moves her game bag aside with her foot before taking her first shot. The bag is pleasantly heavy with the results of today's forage - wild onion, katniss root, and dandelion greens - even three fish that she managed to catch at the lake. This will make a decent dinner tonight when combined with bread from her first Tesserae grain.

Tonight she, her sister, and her mother eat. The girl doesn't think about tomorrow.

The girl shakes her head and raises the bow. She takes a deep breath and draws the arrow back, feeling her arm muscles quiver from the strain. She aims high and, like her father taught her, brings the arrow down to her target, smoothly releasing the string when the pine cone appeared down the arrow shaft.

Thunk. The girl sighs in frustration as she sees the arrow quivering in the tree stump, a hands breadth above and to the right of the pine cone. Setting her mouth in frustration, she pulls another arrow from the quiver, nocks it, draws, aims, and fires again.

Thunk. Dead center but half a hands breadth from the cone. I'm pulling to the right. Why? The girl says to herself as she allows herself to relax. What am I doing wrong, Dad? The girl blinks her eyes, fighting off the tears. No time for that. The girl forces herself to take a few deep breaths before continuing. She pulls another arrow, nocks, and draws - then stops. She relaxes, turns her body slightly to the left and, as she draws back the arrow again, twists her wrist slightly to keep the bow in line with her body. The girl draws, aims, and fires.

Thunk. The cone is driven against the stump by the force of the arrow striking it, toppling over, the arrow sticking straight up. The girl grins with satisfaction as she jogs down to the stump, carefully extracting both arrows protruding from the rotting wood, then doing the same with the arrow sticking out of the cone. Quickly she places a new cone on the mound and returns to her firing position.

Thunk. Another arrow thuds into the cone. The girl can see the cone clearly against the mound of earth. Thunk. She quickly puts a second arrow into the cone. The girl grins and quickly grabs another arrow out of the quiver. Thunk. A third arrow sprouts from the cone, now nearly split in half. The girl jogs back to the stump and retrieves her arrows.

The girl glances up at the sky. Early afternoon. Time to start heading back to the fence.

On her walk back, the girl pauses at a hollow log and carefully wraps the bow and quiver of arrows in a bit of waterproof cloth, then hides both in the log. She finishes her walk with a slight spring in her step.

Pine cones today - squirrels tomorrow. Time to actually start hunting for real.


"Mom? Prim? I'm home!" The girl calls out as she enters the small, ramshackle house.

"Katniss!" A small girl darts from the back of the house and flies into the arms of the older girl. The older girl - Katniss - returns the younger girls hug with enthusiasm and affection.

"What did you get?" The younger girl asks excitedly, taking the game bag off Katniss's shoulder.

"Some fish and wild plants," Katniss replies. "Where's Mom?"

The younger girl pauses while emptying the game bag on the rough wooden table. "In back," she says quietly. "She's...she's having a bad day."

"What else is new?" Katniss mutters, brushing past the younger girl and striding to the back of the house. She stops up short when she sees and older woman - blonde, like the younger girl, and definitely unlike Katniss's own thick, dark brown hair - sitting in a rocking chair, staring vacantly at the far wall.

"Mom," Katniss says. "Mom!" This time her voice is louder, more strident. The woman stirs slightly, her head turning slowly towards the sound of Katniss's voice, and she blinks rapidly, willing her eyes to focus on the girl. A slow smile of recognition spreads over her face.

"Oh, Katniss," she says softly. "You're back. Where's your sister?"

"Up front," Katniss replies evenly, "emptying out my game bag."

"How...how did you do today?" her mother asks.

Katniss hesitates for a moment before answering. "We'll eat tonight. I'm gonna go show Prim how to clean the fish." Katniss spins on her heel and starts to walk back to the front of the house, but not before she says, "No guarantees that we'll eat tomorrow, though."

"Katniss." Her mother's soft voice causes her to stop. "I...I'm trying. I really am."

Katniss doesn't turn around. "I know," she replies in the same soft voice, then quickly walks back to the front of the house to show her sister how to clean the fish.


Twang! The snap of the bow string is followed almost immediately by a high-pitched, almost inaudible squeaking sound. Katniss watches in satisfaction as the squirrel drops out of the tree, an arrow skewering its neck.

Katniss trots over to the squirrel and picks it up, carefully pulling the arrow from the small, furry body. "That's four," she says in satisfaction, adding the squirrel to three others in the game bag. Four squirrels and not a single lost arrow. Carefully she cleans the blood off the arrow with a handful of leaves. More wild onion, dandelion greens, and katniss root lay in the bag as well. Time to go home.

Good thing Dad taught me how to clean game and fish before he - Try as she might, Katniss could not help but think of her father every time she went past the fence into the forest. He had taught her so much - and still had had so much to teach her still.

As Katniss walks back to the fence, she sees something out of the corner of her eye. She stops, turns, and focuses until she realizes what she was looking at.

A rabbit - dangling a meter and a half above the ground.

Curious, Katniss jogs over to the animal. As she nears, she sees that it's very obviously dead, a thin length of wire looped around the animals neck. She realizes immediately what it is she's looking at.

A snare.

Her father had been teaching her how to make snares, explaining that a good snare line could bring home more meat than a day's hunting might be able to do. He hadn't gotten very far in his lessons. Katniss had still not attempted her own snares. But this - a rabbit has more meat than all four squirrels Katniss had in her game bag.

Next time, she says to herself, leaving the snare and the fat rabbit behind for their rightful owner. For now she has to get home with her kills. Tonight she'll go through the lengths of wire and thin filament line that her father had left.

Katniss doesn't notice the pair of eyes that follows her every movement out of the forest.


He's doing it again! Katniss turns her head quickly, just in time to see the baker's son quickly avert his eyes. Katniss sighs and turns back to the girl sharing her lunch table with her.

He's probably thinking how awful I am for not thanking him for the bread last month, she says to herself. It takes her a few moments to realize that the girl sitting with her is smirking at her.

"What, Madge?" Katniss asks irritably.

"Oh, nothing," the blonde girl replies. Her gaze softens as she says, "His name is Peeta. Peeta Mellark."

Katniss can feel her own ears and neck start to redden. Damn Merchant girls, anyway! "Who?" she asks innocently.

Madge sighs in frustration. "The boy that keeps looking at you. His name is Peeta Mellark. If you like, I can intro -"

"No." Katniss says flatly. "I'm sure he's not looking at me." Now that's a HUGE lie. "A Merchant boy and a Seam girl? Please, Madge!" Katniss shakes her head in disgust.

"I wouldn't be so sure, Katniss," Madge mutters, then says, "So do you have anything to trade in your lunch today?"


Katniss carefully sets the hook snare and steps back, eyeing her handiwork with a critical eye. This was the fifth snare that she has set today. She had wracked her brain trying to remember all the things that Dad had told her - find signs that rabbits are in the area, bait your snares with a bit of katniss root or dandelion greens, look for spoor such as droppings - but she's sure she's missed something. She stands up and wipes her hands on her pants, then checks the position of the sun in the sky.

Late morning. I still have time. Maybe bag a few squirrels if I'm lucky.

Katniss shoulders her game bag and trots away. With luck, tomorrow morning she'll have some nice fat rabbits to bring home.

Katniss forages while she hunts, picking various edible plants as she moves. She stays out much later than she had originally intended to, with only three scrawny squirrels to show for her days' work.

As Katniss makes her way back to the fence she tries to ignore the rumbling in her stomach.


"What did you get today?" Prim asks excitedly.

Dejectedly, Katniss dumps the game bag on the table. "Not much," she sighs. "Three squirrels and some plants."

Prim starts pulling squirrels and plants from the game bag. "At least it's something," she says. "Are you gonna clean the squirrels, Katniss?" Prim looks at her sister hopefully.

Katniss laughs and sits down at the table. "Okay, but you do the clean up tonight!"

"Deal!" Prim says as she begins to sort through the plants.

The girls work in silence for a few minutes. Katniss works quickly, cleaning and skinning the squirrels with a practiced hand. She glances quickly at the sack of Tesserae grain, noting with alarm at how much they had already eaten.

At this rate, we'll be out of grain over a week before I can pick up more, Katniss says to herself. We have to slow down!

Preoccupied with her worries about the grain, Katniss doesn't hear the soft footfalls behind her.

"Katniss."

Katniss jumps a little in spite of herself at the sound of her mother's voice. Prim looks at her sister and giggles at Katniss's surprise. Katniss gives her sister a baleful glance but doesn't turn around.

"Yes?"

"You were out much too late today," her mother says. "You really need to come home earlier than you did today. The forest is not a safe place for a young girl. I would hate to see you stuck out there at night. Why were you so late?"

"I spent the morning setting snares," Katniss replies flatly, "Hoping that I could catch something a little meatier than squirrel. You know, so we can eat."

Prim stares wide-eyed at her sister. She had never heard anger like that in Katniss's voice before today.

"Please don't take that tone with me," her mother says softly. "I know we need food...and money. On Monday I'm going in to town...I'm going to try to sell -"

Katniss slams her knife on the table and stands up so suddenly that her chair topples over. She spins around and faces her mother, her face reddened with anger.

"Sell?!" Katniss shouts. "Sell what? There's nothing left to sell, Mom! We've sold everything that could be sold weeks ago! We would have nothing to eat if I didn't take out Tesserae and hunt for food in the forest!"

Katniss clenches and unclenches her bloody hands, all the while glaring at her mother, who says nothing, stunned by her daughters outburst. Suddenly Katniss pushes past her mother and throws the front door open, slipping through and slamming it shut behind her.

Katniss stands outside in the lengthening, late afternoon shadows for a moment, her chest heaving, her hands clenched at her sides. Finally she stumbles forward to the hand pump and works the handle quickly, letting the cool, rusty water splash over first one hand, then the other. She rubs her hands together vigorously, trying to remove the last traces of squirrel blood. As she washes her hands, she feels her anger subside, to be immediately replaced by a different feeling.

Despair.

Wearily she leans against a tree, sliding down the trunk until she's sitting on the hard-packed ground, and leans her head back against the rough bark.

I can't do this. How can I keep feeding Mom and Prim? We're always hungry. No matter what I do, we're always hungry...


Katniss sighs in disgust, eyeing her fifth - and last - snare. All five snares were still set. Not one of them had captured an unwary rabbit.

It's still early enough, she tells herself. I can still get in some hunting today. Maybe even fish a little.

She decides to leave the snares set, hoping that something will wander in to one of them. Katniss then carefully nocks an arrow to her bowstring, then sets off toward the lake. On the way to the lake she manages to kill four squirrels, but loses an arrow when, overconfident, she tries a difficult shot and misses.

An arrow is worth far more than four measly squirrels.

Still, meat is meat. Katniss has equal luck fishing, hooking four nice fat lake trout to go with the squirrels and the wild plants that she foraged for on the way to the lake. There was even some wild blackberries today, picked from a bush that Katniss had never seen before today.

Prim will love these berries, she says to herself with a smile. She makes a mental note on the location of the bush so she will be able to find it again.

Katniss looks at the sun. Time to head on back. As she does, she makes it a point to head toward her snare line again. Hoping against hope, she checks one snare after another.

Still empty.

Another disgusted sigh as she makes her way toward the fence. What am I doing wrong? Katniss is still pondering this when she stumbles across another tripped snare, the rabbit dangling enticingly off the ground and out of reach of the smaller woodland predators.

Katniss stops, staring at the snare. Slowly, she sets her game bag on the ground, then steps forward, examining the snare. As near as she can tell, it looks identical to the ones that she's set. She grabs the sapling - the "engine," her father had called it - and slowly bends it forward, feeling the satisfying weight of the dead rabbit dangling from the end. She runs her fingers over the wire, bringing it close to her face. If I can just figure out -

"Hey!" Katniss jumps at the sound of a voice, shouting at her. While this snare was certainly proof that others from the district hunted out here, the only other voice she had ever heard in the forest had been her fathers. Guiltily, she jerks her hands away from the snare, causing the sapling to snap back upright again, the dead rabbit dancing in its noose.

Katniss spins around just in time to see a tall, dark haired, olive skinned boy, somewhat older than her own twelve years, come jogging up to the snare. "What do you think you're doing?" The boy asks angrily.

"Nothing," Katniss replies, her voice barely above a whisper. She can feel her ears and the back of her neck redden with embarrassment as she averts her eyes from his, looking down at the ground instead.

"What?" The boy asks as he stops in front of her.

"Nothing, I said," Katniss replies, a little louder. She still refuses to meet his gaze.

"You were stealing, weren't you?" The boy demands. Without waiting for a reply, he continues, "You know, theft is a capital offense!"

Katniss shakes her head emphatically. "No. No, I wasn't!" Stealing poached game? And what's the penalty for poaching on Capitol land? Katniss feels her anger rising as she looks at the boy's face for the first time.

"You weren't, huh?" The boy looks at her intently as recognition dawns in his eyes. "What's your name?"

The question takes her by surprise. "Katniss," she mutters in a near whisper.

"'Catnip?'" The boy says in a teasing tone. "What kind of a name is 'Catnip?'"

"Kat-niss, not 'Catnip!" Katniss snaps angrily. "My name is Katniss. Katniss Everdeen."

"You look familiar," the boy says. He examines her face intently, then snaps his fingers. "January. Your dad was a miner. So was mine."

Recognition blooms in Katniss's mind as the boy speaks. Shivering on a stage in the District Square, her arm firmly around Prim's shoulders as the Mayor reads a proclamation honoring the bravery of two miners killed in a horrific mining accident just days before. This boy stood on the same stage with his two younger brothers. Their fathers had died together.

"Yeah, he was," Katniss says quietly.

"I thought so," the boy says, then hesitatingly sticks out his hand. "Gale Hawthorne."

Katniss takes his hand in hers and shakes firmly. "I know. I've seen you around school."

Gale eyes Katniss's game bag. "What's in the bag?"

Katniss looks at him warily before replying. "Squirrels, fish, some plants."

"How many squirrels and fish?" Gale asks, reaching down for the bag.

Katniss is quicker. She snatches the bag off the ground, looping the strap around her shoulder. "None of your business," she snaps.

Gale backs up, hands raised in surrender. "Okay, okay, Catnip," he says in the same teasing voice as before. "Calm down! I was just curious, that's all!"

"Uh huh, sure you were," Katniss replies warily, her grip tight on the strap. "And my name's 'Katniss.'"

"So what were you doing, poking around my snare?" Gale asks, ignoring her last comment.

Katniss relaxes a little bit. "Trying to see what you do different," she replies. "Mine haven't caught anything."

"Hmmph," Gale grunts. "So, if your snares don't work, how'd you get the squirrels?"

"I shot 'em," Katniss replies matter-of-factly.

Gale raises one eyebrow at this revelation. "You did? With what?"

"My bow," Katniss replies. "It's stashed away in a hiding place now."

"You have a bow?" Gale asks incredulously.

"Yeah. So what?" Katniss replies defiantly.

"So...my Dad left me a couple of bows, but I never spent a lot of time learning how to use them," Gale replies. "He mostly worked with me on snares." He points to the bag. "Can I see your squirrels? Please?"

Reluctantly, Katniss puts her game bag down and pulls out the four dead squirrels. Gale squats down and examines each one in turn.

"Good shooting, for the most part," he says, "except for this one. Right through the body. Messes up a lot of meat that way."

"I know," Katniss says in irritation.

"You have fish also?" Gale asks, ignoring her tone.

Wordlessly, Katniss lays out the four fish. Gale looks each one over, then straightens up. "Would you be interested in a trade?"

"Depends," Katniss replies, eyeing Gale closely.

Gale deftly removes the rabbit from the snare and drops it to the ground. "This rabbit for your squirrels and the fish."

The rabbit was nice and fat. Katniss can feel her resolve wavering, but - "No. Straight up. Squirrels for the rabbit."

Gale looks at her in amazement. "Are you kidding? Those squirrels are scrawny!"

Katniss stares at him stubbornly. "That's my deal. Take it or leave it."

Gale bends down and picks up the largest trout, then brings it to his nose and sniffs before tossing it down. He reaches down for his own game bag, reaching inside and pulling out a second, smaller rabbit. He tosses the second rabbit down by the first. "Two rabbits for the squirrels and the fish."

Katniss rubs her chin thoughtfully before replying. "How many more rabbits do you have?"

Now it's Gale's turn to eye her warily. "Three."

"Any as big as that one?" Katniss asks, pointing at the rabbit that Gale had just removed from the snare.

"See for yourself." Gale empties his game bag and lays all five rabbits side by side. The last kill was by far the largest, with the other four all being roughly the same size.

Katniss can feel her mouth start to water at the thought of roast rabbit for dinner. She carefully looks over each rabbit in turn, then stands up. "Six for two," she announces.

"What?" Gale asks in confusion.

"Six for two," Katniss repeats. "Four squirrels and two fish, or two squirrels and four fish, or three of each for your big rabbit and one of the others."

Gale hesitates for a moment. "My choice of fish?"

"Your choice," Katniss nods.

Gale sticks out his hand. "Deal. The squirrels and two fish."

"Deal," Katniss says, shaking his hand.


Later on, Katniss and Gale pause at the fence after they cross back into the district. "I've been thinking," Gale begins.

"About what?" Katniss asks.

"Another trade," Gale replies. "I'll teach you snares, and how to make yours actually catch something...and you teach me the bow."

Katniss doesn't hesitate. "Deal."

Gale grins. "Good." He crawls under the fence, then waits as Katniss does the same. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, then."

"But...there's school tomorrow," Katniss says.

"Not until eight, right?" Gale asks.

"Yeah, so?"

"So, see you here at five, then." Katniss still looks doubtful. "Look, Catnip, you can't run a snare line only on the weekends. You gotta check it every day. Got it?"

"Yeah, I got it," Katniss snaps. "And my name is 'Katniss,' not 'Catnip.'"

Gale grins again. "Okay, fine, Catnip. See you tomorrow!"

Katniss can only glare at Gale's retreating back as he jogs off. Only later does she realize that he didn't head toward the Seam.


Katniss shivers in the pre-dawn gloom as she and Gale slip through the fence and head toward the forest.

"Where did you go yesterday?" Katniss asks.

"Go? Go when?" Gale replies innocently.

"You know," Katniss says, a hint of exasperation creeping into her voice. "After we slipped through the fence. You didn't head back to the Seam."

"Oh, that," Gale says nonchalantly. "I went to the Hob."

"You went where?" Katniss asks incredulously.

"The Hob, Catnip," Gale repeats. "What, did you think my family was gonna eat all that by themselves?"

They would if they're as hungry as me, Prim, and Mom are, Katniss says to herself. To Gale she says, "So you went there to trade."

"You're smarter than I thought," Gale says, earning a dirty look from Katniss. "Yeah, I went there to trade."

"I've only been there once," Katniss says softly, "with my Dad."

"Enough talk," Gale says abruptly. "Show me where your snare line is."

Katniss nods, understanding the need for quiet. She beckons Gale to follow her and leads him to the snare line.

Gale walks around the first snare, eyeing it critically in the dim light. "Hmmph," he grunts, "looks to be alright." He picks up a stick and slides it through the noose, pulling slightly on one side of the circle of wire. The trigger suddenly gives way and the sapling springs upright, snatching the stick from his hands.

"Works okay," he says thoughtfully, then examines the area around the snare. "Tell me what made you decide to put this here."

"I couldn't see a trail," Katniss explains, "so I baited it with some dandelion. And I found rabbit droppings...over here."

"Hmmm," Gale says, dropping to one knee and looking at the small pile of rabbit droppings. "You're on the right track...but you gotta look for fresh droppings. These are old."

"They looked fine to me," Katniss says defensively.

"C'mere," Gale says, beckoning the girl over. Katniss kneels next to him. "You gotta check to see if it's fresh," he explains. He picks up a small handful of droppings. "Grab some and I'll show you."

"Some of...that?" Katniss asks with distaste, pointing at the droppings.

"Shit," Gale mutters in disgust, grabbing Katniss's hand suddenly and plunging it into the pile of droppings. "Yes, that. Stop being such a girl!"

Katniss complies, wrinkling her nose up. Gale watches her with amusement. "Okay," he says, "Take a few pellets and squeeze them between your fingers, like this." Gale demonstrates and, after a moment, Katniss mimics the action.

"Kinda dry and crumbly, huh?" Gale asks.

"Yeah," Katniss replies.

"Fresh droppings are moist," Gale explains. "Squeeze 'em and your fingers'll get a little wet." Gale drops the rabbit scat and brushes his hands against each other, then grabs a handful of leaves to finish cleaning off. "Come on," he says, "Let's collect up your snares and move them to a better place."

Katniss and Gale quickly gather up Katniss's snares and move off into the forest. They walk for perhaps fifteen minutes when Gale puts up a hand. He beckons Katniss forward and together they kneel on the ground.

"Check these out," Gale says, pointing at a pile of rabbit droppings. Reluctantly Katniss picks up a few pellets and squeezes them between her fingers.

"They're wet," Katniss says, extending her soiled fingers to Gale.

"Good," Gale says with a grin. "Over here. See the trail?"

Katniss looks where he's pointing, squinting as she tries to make out the trail. "Not really," she admits.

"It's not like a deer trail," he explains. "Look. See how the grass is all laying down in the same direction over here?"

Suddenly, it's clear to Katniss. "Yeah," she says slowly. "Going into this bush."

"That's it," Gale says. "Let's run your line starting right here, heading in that direction." He points to indicate the direction of the snare line.

As they work setting up the snares, Katniss asks, "Why this direction?"

"Remember that little creek we jumped across? It's a water source around here...and all animals need water." The pair work quickly and soon have the snare line set. Gale glances toward the East as the sun begins to peek over the mountains.

"We better head back," he says. "We'll come out this afternoon after school, to check your snares and to give me some shooting lessons."

Katniss stands up, brushing her hands off, and together they begin to walk back toward the fence.

"I wouldn't have to mess with stupid snares if I actually saw a rabbit every now and then," she grouses.

"You'll never see a rabbit, as noisy as you are," Gale says with a grin.

"I am not noisy!" Katniss protests loudly.

"No?" Gale laughs. "I was always able to stay outta your way when you would come out to hunt by yourself, you're so loud!"

"Hmmph!" Katniss grunts disgustedly. They walk the rest of the way to the fence in silence.

After they slip through the fence and walk back to the Seam, Gale says, "Don't forget. After school. You give me some pointers on the bow, and I'll show you how to move through the woods quietly."

Katniss just nods. She glances at the sun. With luck, she'll even have time for a little breakfast before school.


"Come on, Catnip," Gale says insistently. "Look, it's just the Hob. We have a good haul today. That turkey you shot'll bring a good price."

It better, Katniss says to herself, it cost me another lost arrow!

Katniss reluctantly follows Gale through the open door into the dark, smoky interior of the District Twelve black market known as the Hob - and immediately freezes at the sight of a pair of white-uniformed Peacekeepers standing near the entrance.

"Gale!" Katniss hisses, inclining her head toward the Peacekeepers.

"What?" Gale says with a laugh. "Don't worry about them. Peacekeepers are some of the best customers in here."

Katniss feels a cold knot of fear deep inside her belly as the pair of Peacekeepers notice her and Gale, and begin to walk towards them slowly.

"They're coming over here," she whispers urgently.

Gale doesn't answer, but instead turns back to the two Peacekeepers. "Hello, officers," he says cheerfully.

"You be the Hawthorne kid, right?" The older of the two Peacekeepers asks gruffly.

"Yes, sir," Gale replies respectfully.

The older Peacekeeper inclines his head toward Katniss. "And you, girl?"

"Katniss Everdeen, sir," Katniss manages to stammer out.

The Peacekeeper grunts and points to the turkey hanging from the outside of Katniss's game bag. "That bird for sale?"

Katniss can only nod fearfully.

"How much?" the Peacekeeper asks gruffly.

How much? How should I know? Help me out here, Gale!

Gale quickly names a price. The Peacekeeper looks at his companion, who nods once, then turns back to Katniss, digging into a pouch on the side of his uniform and extracting a handful of coins.

"Here ya go, girl," he says, dropping the coins with a clink into her hand. Katniss numbly closes her hand around the coins and unties the turkey with the other, handing the bird to the older Peacekeeper with a mumbled, "Thank you, sir."

The Peacekeeper hefts the bird appreciatively. "No, thank you, girl!" The pair of Peacekeepers wanders off.

Katniss stares at the handful of coins gleaming in her hand. "Not in the Hob five minutes and you already score a sale," Gale says approvingly. "Not bad...for a beginner."

Katniss quickly selects two coins from the pile and presses them into Gale's hand, pocketing the rest. "Here," she says. "Your cut. You made that sale, not me."

Gale grins. "I knew bringing you here was a good idea. Come on, I want to introduce you to Miz Sae."

"Who?" Katniss asks as they walk further into the Hob.

"Everyone knows her as Greasy Sae," Gale explains. "But my Dad always said to call her Miz Sae outta respect. She has a food stand in here. Come on!" Gale reaches down and grabs Katniss's hand to pull her along.

In a few moments they stop in front of a stall, virtually identical to the other stalls flanking it. Katniss can see an old woman dressed in threadbare castoffs busily cutting up a piece of unidentifiable meat.

"Miz Sae?" Gale says softly.

"Yes?" The woman turns around. Katniss remembers that she has seen her before, in the Square on occassion - and here in the Hob last winter, when she had come in with her father.

The old woman smiles when she sees Gale. "Gale Hawthorne! You're always a welcome sight for my old eyes!" Sae turns her attention to Katniss. "And you've brought a friend today."

"We're not friends," Katniss blurts.

"Oh?" Sae says with a smile. "Then what are you?"

Gale looks at Katniss, confusion on his face. I did it again, Katniss says to herself. Spoke without thinking. But what exactly is Gale? Is he my friend?

"Well," Katniss stammers, "we're...uhh..."

"Partners," Gale says firmly. "We're partners. Hunting partners."

Katniss looks sharply at Gale. Partners? Was that it? I guess that's as good a description as any. I don't think friends would argue and bicker about dividing up kills they way we do.

Katniss looks back at Sae. "Yeah," she says. "We're partners."

"I've seen you in here before, haven't I, girl?" Sae asks softly. "With your Daddy."

"Yes, ma'am," Katniss replies. "Once. Last winter. I'm Katniss. Katniss Everdeen."

"I thought so." Sae reaches back and grabs two bowls, carefully ladling a small portion of stew in each one. "Here, you two," she says, handing both Katniss and Gale a bowl, "try this."

Reluctantly, the pair take the offered bowls. Katniss fumbles in her pocket with her free hand, her fingers closing around a small coin. She pulls it out and extends her hand to Sae.

"Put your money away, child!" Sae says sternly. "I ain't feedin' you! I want your opinions on the stew!"

Both Katniss and Gale feel relief wash over them. Neither wanted to spend any of their hard-earned coins on a small bowl of stew. And, if Sae wanted their opinions, then it really wasn't charity, either...

Katniss finds herself eagerly downing the stew, reveling in the rich broth with its perfectly seasoned vegetables and meat. In no time her bowl is empty. She slowly hands the bowl back to Sae, debating on whether or not to actually buy a larger helping.

A moment later, Sae takes Gale's bowl and puts both bowls in a pot of boiling water. "Well?" she says.

"Delicious!" Katniss admits, even as Gale says, "Wonderful!"

Sae beams as she stirs the stew with a large wooden spoon. "You liked the meat?"

"It was really good," Katniss says enthusiastically. "Was it chicken?"

Sae smiles and leans forward conspiratorially. "It was rattlesnake."

"Really?" Gale asks.

"Really," Sae replies. She reaches under her counter and grabs an object that she tosses to Gale. "Here ya go."

Gale instinctively catches the object, then opens his hand and looks down. Curious, Katniss peers into Gales open hand.

In Gale's open hand is a rattlesnake rattle, fully half the length of his hand.

"For you, boy," Sae says with a wink.

Gale quickly pockets the rattle. "Thanks, Miz Sae!"

"My payment to you for endorsing my stew," Sae replies with a laugh. "Now, anything to sell or trade today?"


"Where are we going, Katniss?" Prim asks excitedly as the two girls walk through the Square.

"You'll see," Katniss says with a smile. Soon the girls approach the Bakery and Prim squeals with delight.

"The Bakery? Oh, Katniss, I just love looking at the cakes in the window!"

"I know," Katniss says fondly, "But today, we're not just standing outside." Katniss pulls the door open firmly and the two girls step inside.

Both girls stop as soon as they were inside the bakery, deeply inhaling the heady aromas of baking bread. Neither one immediately notices the hatchet-faced woman approach the counter.

"You! Seam trash!" The woman barks at Katniss and Prim, causing both girls to jump. "Get out! Now! Or I call the Peacekeepers!"

Both Katniss and Prim stand frozen to the spot, reeling from the torrent of verbal abuse spewing from the mouth of this hateful woman. Katniss protectively wraps her arm around Prim's narrow shoulders, feeling the younger girl trembling with fright. Katniss can feel her lips compress with anger at the treatment they are getting from this awful woman.

"We - I mean, I..." Katniss stammers, "That is, I have money."

"I'll handle this, dear," a man's calm voice says. Katniss watches as the baker comes in from the back, a kindly smile on his face. "I think the boys need you in back, anyway."

The woman casts a final, baleful glare at Katniss and Prim before turning on her heel and stomping off to the back. The baker watches her go, an impassive expression on his face, then turns back to the two girls.

"How can I help you girls today?" He asks with a smile.

Katniss digs in her pocket and pulls out a coin. She deliberately lays it on the countertop in front of the baker. "How much bread will that buy?"

The baker picks up the large coin and examines it thoughtfully. "Young lady," he says kindly, "where did you get this?"

"I...I earned it," Katniss explains. "I...sold a tur- something. To a Peacekeeper."

"I see," the baker says, turning the coin over in his hands. "Well, this will buy quite a lot of bread. You couldn't possibly eat it all before it would mold."

"Oh," Katniss says softly. "I didn't think of that."

"How much bread do you need?" The baker asks.

"Umm...enough for three people for a week," Katniss replies after some thought.

The baker smiles and turns to a rack holding several loaves of bread. He carefully selects three and slides the loaves into individual paper bags. He then removes a tray from the display case and carefully counts out a dozen buns, placing each one in a box.

"I think you'll like these," he says with a smile. "They're cheese buns. My boy made them fresh this morning."

"Katniss, they smell so good!" Prim whispers.

The baker smiles as he opens up a cash box and carefully counts out change. "Now you girls need to take your change and go up the street to the grocer, and tell him that I sent you to buy some butter and cheese for your bread. Okay?" He hands Katniss her change and both girls scoop up the bags of bread and the box of cheese buns.

"Okay," Katniss replies softly. "Thank you, Mister Mellark."

"You're welcome," he says with a smile, then, "Wait! I almost forgot." He hands each girl a small paper bag. Katniss peers into the bag to see a single exquisitely decorated cookie.

"Just a little something extra," the baker says with a grin, "that I only give to my best customers."

"I...thank you, sir," Katniss stammers.

"You're welcome, Miss Everdeen," the baker replies. "And I don't know if I mentioned this before - but I happen to like squirrel."

Katniss looks up at the baker sharply. He gives her a knowing nod. After a moment's hesitation, she gives him a small nod in return.

Later that evening, after dinner, Katniss examines her cookie closely before eating it. It was decorated with a single flower.

A dandelion.


Katniss and Gale sit on a flat rock ledge overlooking the valley, each lost in their own thoughts. They had found the ledge a couple of weeks before and, during their longer hunting excursions on the weekends, had started taking breaks there.

Gale speaks first. "Don't worry. They won't pick you. How many entries do you have?"

"Four," Katniss says in a small voice. "How about you?"

"Eighteen," Gale replies flatly. He turns to face Katniss suddenly. "Hey, don't worry about it, Catnip. It's your first Reaping. Everyone's nervous the first time out."

"Were you?" Katniss asks.

"Yeah," Gale admits.

"Are you now?" Katniss asks.

"Yeah," Gale says softly, then stands up. "We better be getting back. It's not good if you're late to the Reaping."

They walk back to the fence in silence. Gale helps Katniss through the hole first, then slides under the fence after her. They both walk through the Meadow together, each lost in their own thoughts.

"Guess I'll see you later, then," Gale says as they reach the Seam.

"Yeah," Katniss says softly. At least I hope I do. Katniss turns without another word and starts walking to her house.

"Catnip," Gale calls out. Katniss stops and turns to see Gale still standing in the same spot.

"Happy Hunger Games," he says with a wry grin.

Katniss hesitates for a moment, then returns his grin with one of her own. "And may the odds be evah in your fav-uh!"

"You too, Catnip," Gale says as he turns to walk home.


The Reaping is over. Katniss irritably tucks the back of her blouse back into her skirt, then turns to Madge Undersee.

"Did you know the girl, Madge?" Katniss asks. For the first time, she notices a pin on Madge's blouse. It's a Mockingjay. It's really pretty!

Madge nods. "Her parents own the watch and clock shop. I didn't know her very well. She's eighteen. This was her last Reaping."

"In that case, she didn't have far to walk to get to the stage," Gale says, appearing next to Katniss. "Feel better now, Catnip?"

"It's so much worse having to stand here wondering if your name will be called," Katniss admits. "But yeah. I feel better."

"Good!" Gale says cheerily, then turns to Madge. "First Reaping for you too, Miss Capitol? Well, nothing for you to worry about! You had what, one whole slip in the bowl?"

Madge says nothing, but her compressed lips and blush were easy enough to read. "I have to find my Mom and sister, Gale. I'll see you at school, Madge."

"Bye, Katniss," Madge says, then spins and hurries away.

"Was it something I said?" Gale says with a smirk.

Katniss roughly punches the older boy on the shoulder. "That was really mean, Gale!"

"Oww!" Gale exclaims, rubbing his shoulder. "And what was mean about it, Catnip? You and I both know that she has no chance of her name ever being drawn. None of these Townies do!"

"Oh, really!" Katniss says angrily. "Well, why don't you tell that to the parents of the girl that was just Reaped, the next time you're in the clock shop!"

"Well...I mean, sure, it happens every now and then," Gale admits. "But still, for every Townie there's probably ten Seam!"

"Forget it," Katniss snaps. "I see my mother and sister."

Without another glance behind her, Katniss hurries over to her mother and sister, who both hug her tightly. As her mother hugs her, the older woman glances up, steps back, and says, "Oh...hello."

Katniss whirls around to see Gale standing directly behind her. What are you doing here? Go find your family!

"Hi," Gale says awkwardly. "I...uhh...anyway, I ran into Thom. He said that my baby sister got sick during the Reaping so as soon as it was done my Mom took the kids home with her."

"Oh," Katniss says quietly. "Uhh - Mom, Prim. This is Gale. Gale Hawthorne."

"Hello, ma'am," Gale says, then turns to Prim. "So you're Catnip's little sister?"

Prim giggles. "You're right, Katniss. He does call you 'Catnip!'"

Katniss rolls her eyes as her mother says, "A pleasure to finally meet you, Gale. Katniss has talked of you often."

"Really?" Gale asks in surprise.

"Oh, yes," the older woman continues, oblivious to Katniss's growing embarrassment. "It's so nice that she's found a new friend."

"We're not friends," Katniss and Gale say in unison.

Both Prim and their mother frown in confusion. "I don't understand. Then what are you?"

"Partners," Katniss says firmly.

Gale nods in agreement. "Yes," he says, "Partners. That's all we are."

"Well," the older woman says, "We should be getting home. And Gale, please tell your mother that if your sister is sick tomorrow to bring her by to see me." Katniss stares in amazement at her mother, who continues, "I am a healer, you know. Just a little out of practice, is all."

"I...I'll do that, ma'am, thank you," Gale stammers, then turns to Katniss. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow, Catn-I mean, 'Katniss.'" With that, Gale turns and hurries away.

Katniss finds herself watching him until he's lost in the crowd, then slowly turns back to her mother and sister.

Katniss is quiet as they walk back to the Seam. As soon as they arrive home, she grabs a t-shirt and comfortable pants and quickly changes out of the blouse and skirt that her mother had selected for her to wear to Reaping today. By the time that she finishes changing, her mother is once again settled into her rocking chair, her brief flirtation with the real world behind her once again.

Katniss sits Prim at the table, her battered spelling book laid out in front of her, and sternly admonishes her to practice her Monday spelling words on the slate that both girls share for homework, then, with a curt "I'll be right outside," slips through the front door and takes a seat on a nearby tree stump.

Idly she draws doodling designs in the coal-dust blackened dirt in the front yard with a stick that she had picked up, trying to ignore the rumbling in her empty stomach. Dinner was still several hours away.

I don't even like him all that much, she says to herself. We argue over everything. And he was mean to Madge today for no good reason. He's just a good hunting partner, nothing more.

That's all we are. We aren't friends. We're just partners. That's it.

Partners.

THE END