Author's Note— As a few of my other WIPs are winding down, I've been working on this new WIP. I have to say that I'm having a lot of fun writing this. Kiera Cass's Selection trilogy was basically marketed as "THG meets the Bachelor" but I wanted to do an Everlark twist and explore a lot of ideas that I thought fell flat in those novels. I hope you'll enjoy it.

As always, the reason this idea even left my head is iLoveRynMar, who not only recommended the Cass series to me, but who encouraged this and wouldn't let the idea of Prince Peeta go. Thank you, my love. Thank you also to HGRomance, who pre-read this first chapter when I submitted to F4LLS last summer. And many thanks to the talented Ro for her gorgeous cover.

And thank you to all the readers who continue to support me. I appreciate it so much. Look for more updates soon.

~Chapter 1-The Envelope~

"Katniss! It came! It's here!" Prim's blue eyes dance with excitement, and her braids whip around as she slams the front door and waves something in my face, her hand moving as rapidly as a hummingbird's wings. My stomach does a swan dive.

I don't even need a closer look at the cream-colored envelope or the elegant embossed script to know what lies inside. I can see the familiar crest in the upper left-hand corner. There's been a tempered buzz droning through the district in recent days just waiting to erupt into feverish pandemonium.

And now that the envelopes have gone out, I guess we have to brace for the unavoidable chaos that will descend on all of Panem like a Hovercraft: the Reaping is upon us. An event eighteen years in the making. An event that fate has already tinkered with several times over. An event that I have no choice but to submit to no thanks to Fate, that fickle bitch.

I stare at the envelope. Twenty-four days. Twenty-four days made all the difference. Twenty-four lousy, measly days and my name would not be waltzing across the flawless ecru cardstock, like some kind of interloper. But there it is: Lady Katniss, House of Everdeen. That makes me laugh. House of Everdeen. Like our modest little cottage is some kind of royal dwelling.

I suppose it really was naïve of me to think anything could derail the inevitable. Or that somehow my name would have gotten left off a list, or my envelope lost in the mail, or…

"It's here!" My mother breezes into the room, a facsimile of my younger sister, her youthful face alight with glee. "Oh, Katniss, open it, dear. What are you waiting for?"

I shrug. "I know what's inside."

My mother huffs and snatches the envelope from my hand, her eyes glazing over a bit as she stares at my name on the front. She looks dreamy and dazed, like one of her patients on morphling, as she crosses to the antique stationery desk that used to be my grandfather's. She grabs the letter opener from the top drawer and swiftly slits open the envelope, the sharp hiss sucking all the air from the room, and from my lungs. It's like Pandora's box—all the bad stuff escaping at once, except this time, I don't think there's any hope left behind. Hope is a fickle bitch too. She and Fate could start a club.

Prim bounds back into the room, her decrepit old tabby cat, Buttercup, in her arms. "Katniss, why do you look as though you've been sucking on a lemon? You should be happy! I wish I were old enough for the Reaping."

I sigh. And here I was, wishing my mother had kept me inside the security of her womb for just three-and-a-half more weeks. She may have nurtured me and protected me for eight months, but those precious 24 days have left me exposed now, sixteen years later.

My parents had married young, and I had been somewhat of an unexpected surprise. I had not been due until the fourth of June, but as the story goes (and they tell it every year on my birthday, so I've heard it no fewer than fifteen times) I was an impatient, impulsive baby from conception, and I was not willing to wait that long. I couldn't even wait for my mother to finish assisting in the delivery of Gisele Fontaine, and I was born shortly after her, in the Fontaines' living room, on May the eighth. (Mrs. Fontaine had labored for nearly two days with Gisele; I, by contrast, took just twelve minutes.)

And thus, my premature entry into the world is the very reason why my mother is presently pulling out the contents of the envelope, her dreamy smile yielding to one that borders on maniacal.

"Oh, it even smells divine!" Prim croons, her eyes closing as she takes a deep whiff of the stiff paper. "What is that? Rose? Orchid?"

"Desperation," I mutter under my breath.

My mother shoots me a poisonous look, then straightens up and clears her throat. She begins to read from the starched sheet in her hand. "Greetings, Honored Daughter of Panem! What good fortune you have to be the recipient of an application for the Reaping!"

"What's all the excitement about in here?" My father's voice is a welcome intrusion, and I appeal to him with my eyes as his gaze roams from me to Prim, from Prim to Mom, and back to me.

"Katniss got her Reaping application!" Prim shrieks. Buttercup leaps from her arms and slinks under the couch. There is no love lost between me and that mangy cat, but right now I'd be content to squash in beside him beneath the sofa.

His expression is hard to read. While my mother has made no secret of her feelings about this whole Reaping business, my father has never voiced an opinion, not that I can remember. I'd like to think no matter what he feels about it he'd be sympathetic to my plight.

"So the prince is eighteen now, is he?"

"Prince Peeta was eighteen three months ago!" Prim interjects, as if she's some sort of resident expert on the royal family and we're all peons for not knowing the inane details of their lives like Prince Peeta's birthdate or his favorite color. "Today is June 1st, Papa."

"Ah, June the first," he echoes. "How could I have forgotten?"

Prim gives him a dubious look, and he laughs airily and tugs one of her braids. Then he comes to stand beside me, his arm winding around me, tethering me close like an anchor— my anchor. My father always knows how to steady me, and I immediately feel my spirits lift a tiny bit.

"Shall I continue?" my mother intones, irritation and impatience edging her words. She doesn't wait for any of us to offer a protest. "Having turned sixteen years of age by today, June 1st, and being no older than twenty years of age as of this date, you are required by the law of the nation of Panem to complete the enclosed application and deliver it in person to your district's Justice Building one week henceforth."

I've known this was coming practically all my life, but to hear it all confirmed in my mother's barely restrained gleeful tone hits me like a punch to the gut. My shoulders sag a little, and I know my father feels it, because he squeezes me a little tighter.

It's not that I'm truly worried about being chosen for the Reaping. Just thirty-six girls will be selected, three from each of Panem's twelve districts. From the submitted applications, the king and queen get to choose twelve, Prince Peeta gets to choose twelve, and the final twelve are drawn at random. While I'm not ugly by any stretch of the imagination, I'm not glamorous, and I'm far from the traditional princesses that appear in storybooks and fairy tales. My only real chance is being the one girl randomly selected to represent District 12, because there is just no good reason why King Wheaton and Queen Aster would choose me, and there are far more beautiful girls that will catch Prince Peeta's eye. The odds are in my favor that my application will go unnoticed, and I'll be free to live my life here in Twelve.

My irritation comes from the principle of the matter. I shouldn't have to fill out the silly application and even submit myself to this archaic process. How has the royal family not come up with a better way to find Prince Peeta a wife than a glorified contest? Can't the poor guy find a girl on his own? And must they force all of Panem to be witness to every last little step as he chooses his future queen?

Plus, let's be honest. We all know how it's going to work. Prince Peeta is looking for a trophy, and that's who he's going to pick: someone glittery and gorgeous who will stand by his side and smile and wave to their adoring subjects and give him lots of babies—maybe finally the girl that Panem has been waiting for. It's been four generations since the Mellark line birthed an actual princess.

"I want to go to the Justice Building with you!" Prim dances around me. "Say I can go to the Justice Building when you hand in your application, Katniss, please?"

"Primrose, hush," my mother chides, eyes still scanning the letter. A gleam enters them, her face breaking into a wide grin. "Listen, Katniss. 'Your application indicates your willingness to offer yourself as a potential—"

"Offer myself?" I exclaim. "They make it sound like a damn sacrifice! Are we back before the Dark Days?"

"Katniss!" my mother says sharply. She composes herself and resumes reading. "As I was saying, 'your application indicates your willingness to offer yourself as a potential bride for our beloved Prince Peeta. If you are one of the lucky tributes selected, you will be escorted to the palace in the Capitol where you will reside for as long as Prince Peeta retains you as a viable candidate for his princess."

"Who wrote this? It sounds so clinical, so…ugh!" It's so stupid that I can't even find words to describe it.

My mother ignores me. "And as a measure of gratitude for your time and your service to Panem, your family will be generously compensated."

Prim squeals and claps her hands. "I want to see the palace! I bet the chandeliers drip diamonds and the toilets have gold handles. Real gold! Katniss, you have to make it far enough that we get to come and visit you!"

"Prim, you realize that the odds of me actually getting reaped—"

"Are as good as anyone else's!" she chirps, her optimism bordering on nauseating.

Really, it should be my sister filling out this application and going off to compete for Prince Peeta's heart. Prim is everything a princess should be: patient, diplomatic, selfless, beautiful. She's like a beacon of light; when she walks into a room, everything is illuminated. And she's been eating up this royal crap since she was old enough to clomp around in my mother's oversized heels, cupping her hand and giving us mock princess waves as she toddled through the house.

I'm sure there's a part of my mother who wishes it was Prim who was of age, too.

"I think you should take this up to your room and get started," my mother says. She thrusts the application towards me, and I wrinkle my nose as my fingers reluctantly graze the thin paper. She narrows her eyes at me. I sigh and grab the sheet, tamping down my irritation when I see the thing is two-sided and single-spaced. There must be a hundred questions!

But I listen to my mother. At least I do partially. I go up to my room and close the door behind me. I cross to my dresser and promptly jerk open my top drawer. I lift up the bras and camisoles and panties and bury the stupid application beneath my underwear. Then I slam the drawer shut with a satisfying bang.

And then I grab my boots from underneath my bed, jam my feet into them, and climb out my window.

The woods are my sanctuary. I can feel the tension melting away with every springy step of my boots on the plush carpet of moss that blankets the forest floor nearest to the glen. My muscles relax, and my heart lifts. The fresh air fills my lungs with more than oxygen; with every deep breath I inhale independence.

When Prim was born this was where my father brought me. I was never one of those kids who exhibited any kind of jealousy about the new baby; I remember being really excited to have a brother or sister. But my father wanted me to know that I wasn't going to be any less special in his eyes now that he had two little girls. Through the years, it became our place though he can no longer come out here with me. He taught me how to hunt, and how to fish, and how to identify the edible nuts and berries scattered among the foliage. Those skills come in handy when times get tough, which seems to be more often than not lately.

This afternoon I duck through low-hanging branches and step carefully to avoid crushing the wildflowers that fleck the grassy tableau like paint splotches. I reach the creek and remove my boots and socks, settling on a large rock. The crystal clear water is a shock to my system at first, but I quickly adjust to the temperature and flick my toes back and forth, gazing up through the canopy.

Wisps of white clouds drift lazily across the sky. One particular cluster of them looks like the turrets of a castle, and in spite of my better efforts, I find myself thinking about the Reaping.

There's a small part of me that wishes I could be more receptive to the whole thing. Most girls of reaping age are probably eagerly filling out their applications, already anxiously counting down the minutes until we can file them next week. They're agonizing over their answers, vacillating back and forth between telling the truth and writing down what they think the king and queen and Prince Peeta want to hear.

Well, I'll be telling the truth. I'd never want to be anyone but myself. If and when I give my heart to a boy, he'll love me for me. I wouldn't want someone who doesn't want me for who I am. Besides I'm not dumb enough to think that I'm princess material. Not that I harbor any belief that I'll be among the girls Prince Peeta chooses from, but if by some crazy twist of fate I'm reaped, I suspect I'd be among the first to politely be shown the doors.

I tear my eyes away from the sky and scan the water. A flash of quicksilver catches my attention, and something compels me to lean forward and plunge my hand down and snatch at it. My fist closes around a minnow; I smile triumphantly and release the wriggling fish back into the creek. My reflexes have sharpened since I was a child.

After a while I retreat back into the open field. I weave some daisies into a chain, and I blow some dandelion seeds into the light breeze. The sun drapes me in a delicious warmth, and I lie down, closing my eyes for just a second—a second that quite evidently becomes hours. When I open my eyes again the sun is slipping down the horizon like a runny egg yolk, and dusk beckons. Dammit!

I scramble to my feet and take off running. As I reach town I keep to the alleys between buildings, taking a shortcut through the Hob. My house comes into view, and when I stop below my window I pause to gulp in much needed oxygen then grab hold of the lowest hanging branch and swing myself up to lunge for my window.

"Now see, this is where I could imagine that the Palace of Panem would present you with some difficulties. Those walls would be quite the challenge to scale." My father's voice startles me enough that my boot catches on the ledge of the windowsill, and I start to plummet forward into my room. His strong arm grips my elbow and he hauls me up before I can face-plant on the carpet. His lips are set in a determined line, but his eyes dance with mirth as I straighten up and give him a sheepish grin.

"It's past curfew," he says quietly.

"I fell asleep in the meadow—" I start to explain, but my father holds up a hand.

"You weren't feeling well when it was time for dinner." He winks conspiratorially and produces a napkin. I accept it gratefully and unwrap a small pocket of pastry. Then his face gets solemn. "Your mother sent me up here to get you for The Capitol Report."

I groan inwardly. I completely forgot. The Capitol Report is an inane entertainment news program that Prim devours like ambrosia. Of course tonight of all nights there will be a special edition focusing on the Reaping, and the highlight will be an interview with the royal family. It's mandatory viewing. And it begins promptly at eight. Dinner I can miss. The Capitol Report I cannot.

"How long ago was that?" I ask, bracing myself for the answer.

He arches a brow at me. "Twenty minutes. You cut it awfully close."

"Sorry." I cast my eyes down at the floor. I can't stand disappointing my father.

But he lifts my chin and forces me to look into his eyes, mirrors of my own. "Just be sure you watch the time when you're out there, kitten." Then he reaches up and plucks something from my hair. He shows me the aspen leaf, shakes his head, and winks. "I'll tell your mother you'll be down in a minute."

"Thanks, Dad." I give him a fierce hug. He closes my door behind him.

I kick off my boots and shove them back under my bed, debating whether I should change into my pajamas now or after the program. I decide to wait, but I do tug off the elastic band fastening my braid into place and unravel it, combing out my long tresses with my fingers. I take a moment and stare into the mirror. There's a flush to my cheeks from being outside for so long, and the wavy kinks in my hair give it a rippling effect. I crack a half-smile. I've never given much thought to my looks, but when I think about it and truly study my reflection, I guess I can say I'm pretty. Nothing special, but pretty enough.

My mother and Prim are curled together on the couch when I enter the living room, while my father's nose is buried in a book in his armchair. I slump onto the far corner of the couch, stretching my legs out in front of me, resigning myself for a mind-numbing hour of trivial chatter.

Prim squeals when the opening theme of The Capitol Report plays, and Caesar Flickerman's garish face looms on the screen. His skin has an orange tone to it tonight. His hair is dyed a deep purple, tied back with a satiny silver ribbon. His teeth gleam, blinding as freshly fallen snow.

"Good evening Panem! Welcome to a very special Capitol Report. This is the night you've been waiting for. Can you feel the excitement? I'm coming to you live from—" He pauses dramatically. Then the camera pans back and he gesticulates wildly. "—the Palace of Panem. Do you see this magnificence? Such grandeur! Such beauty! Do you want to go inside? Do you? Let's go, shall we?"

I shake my head and pick at a cuticle. Does he realize what a dolt he sounds like, rattling off these rhetorical questions to himself? But then I glance over at my mother and my sister, who are both gazing at the television in a trance, grinning and nodding as if Caesar himself can see them. I roll my eyes.

Caesar practically struts up the palace steps, and it's blatantly obvious that this is all staged, because there are only two guards flanking the doors, but when they pull the doors open, the camera fades to black, and the seal of Panem appears, accompanied by our national anthem. By the time he reappears the scene has changed entirely, and he's in a small, opulent room, bathed in bright light and tastefully decorated. He introduces some pre-packaged clip that's all black and white and somber, detailing the history of Panem, and how our 'brave kingdom' rose out of the ashes of the former United States of America. It's the same propaganda that our social studies textbooks are filled with. I've heard it all before.

The first clip yields to a second glossier production celebrating the shift in government from the democracy that used to govern America to the monarchy that supplanted it when the Mellark family assumed power. I zone out somewhere around the part where Bannock Mellark, American hero of the third World War, makes an impassioned plea that the world was less violent when kings and queens assumed all sovereignty and civilians didn't 'muddy the waters of reason.' In my opinion, Bannock Mellark was a pompous windbag, and a lot of dumb people bought the shit he shoveled. There were plenty of wars and bloodshed in the Dark Days. Kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers are no less human and flawed than the rest of us.

"Oh my gosh, look at that dress! It's exquisite!" Prim's fan-girling brings me back to reality, and when I look to the screen I see Caesar sitting in an elaborate, high-backed chair. His outlandish outfit nearly clashes with the upholstery, and I have to bite back a laugh. Seated across from him on a couch are King Wheaton and Queen Aster.

Queen Aster is the very picture of elegance, with her blonde hair swept into a tight chignon, not a strand out of place. The glossy locks catch the light and gleam brightly. Most people gush over her beauty, but I've always found her features harsh, severe, and she comes off a little cold to me. Her smile never quite reaches those clear blue eyes. Prim is right, though. Her dress is embroidered with what must be a million tiny jewels, and the deep azure hue complements her porcelain skin and accentuates her eyes.

King Wheaton, on the other hand, exudes warmth. His dark blue eyes are creased with laugh lines, and he's rarely without a smile.

Caesar rambles with some sycophantic greeting, really laying it on thick about how the whole country has been waiting a lifetime for this day to come. He summarizes the Reaping process, I guess for those one or two citizens of Panem who might have spent the last few months living under a rock.

The king and queen both beam, and she makes some long-winded statement about the honor of the Reaping. She's an eloquent enough speaker, but there is something so…artificial about her that once she starts going on and on about knowing 'how every young woman in Panem feels tonight,' I can't buy her words as sincere. Yes, Queen Aster was the victor of the last Reaping nearly thirty years ago, and yes, she won the crown, as well as King Wheaton's heart, so I guess she speaks from experience. But I've just never seen any evidence of that great love between them.

Caesar's eyes twinkle with merriment and his wide smile is as bright as a camera bulb's flash when the subject then turns to the "man of the hour." King Wheaton emanates pride when he begins to speak of Prince Peeta, but he only gets in a few words before Queen Aster hijacks the conversation and steers it towards the impending competition.

"This day has been something I have looked forward to since the day the prince was born," she explains. Her blue eyes well with unshed tears and her face becomes somber. "It's a little bittersweet, of course, because if things were different, well…" Her voice trembles, and King Wheaton reaches over and pats her hand comfortingly. It's the first time I see them touch.

Prince Peeta is an only child, but he is not the king and queen's firstborn son. Nor is he their second born. He had two elder brothers, both of whom passed away under tragic circumstances. Prince Marcus contracted bacterial meningitis and died two weeks shy of his fifth birthday, and six years ago, Prince Stefan perished in a hovercraft crash that also killed his nanny and two royal guards.

"There there, Your Majesty," Caesar wheedles, his face a mask of sympathy and sorrow. But then as if a switch is flipped, he tosses his head and grins broadly. "Perhaps your handsome son can put a smile back on your lovely face. What do you say, Panem? Shall we bring out Prince Peeta?"

"Yes! Yes!" Prim says breathlessly. I stifle a snort and sneak another glimpse at my father. He's closed his book for this part; his grey eyes are focused on the screen.

A dramatic swell of music precedes the national anthem of Panem. Lights flash, and then Prince Peeta strides into the room. The camera zooms in on his smiling face as he crosses to where his parents are seated.

I've never paid much attention to Prince Peeta before. It's always seemed foolish to me to make such a big deal about someone, just because they were lucky enough to be born to the right parents. I've seen him on television doing ceremonial things, like visiting the national cemetery on Remembrance Day. He always appears picture-perfect, but I don't think I've ever heard him speak. Maybe that's preserved some sort of air of mystery to him. Still, if you'd asked me my opinion of the prince I'd be hard pressed to really have anything to say.

But seeing him on our television screen right now…I can kind of see what all the fuss is about. Even I cannot deny that he is incredibly handsome. He's dressed all in white, the lone splash of color being a gold handkerchief—real gold it appears—tucked in the left breast pocket of his jacket. His blond hair is the color of wheat and perfectly styled, not a flaxen strand out of place. His fair skin has a glow to it, and my eyes are drawn to the lines of his cheekbones and his jaw, strong and so masculine. When the camera pans in for a close up, as he settles beside his mother, he looks directly into the lens and smiles. His eyes are bluer than the sky on a summer day.

My throat is suddenly like a desert. When I try to swallow, it's gritty and hot and takes effort. I need a glass of water.

"He's so gorgeous, Katniss! Imagine…" Prim trails off dreamily, a goofy smile on her face.

I won't imagine. I can't allow myself to think like that. Gorgeous or not, there's more to a guy than good looks and a fancy title. A pretty package can conceal something far less pretty on the inside.

This whole thing still sucks.

"My, my, my!" Caesar howls. "Prince Peeta! How are you this evening?"

Prince Peeta gives another dazzling smile and replies, "I'm good, Caesar, thank you. How are you?"

Caesar laughs. "Oh, no one wants to hear about me, your Highness. We are here for you. There are thousands of young ladies watching you at this very moment, waiting on pins and needles to hear from you on this momentous occasion. Tell us, how are you feeling?"

"To tell you the truth, Caesar, I'm feeling a little unwell at the moment." He pauses and allows for Caesar to look appropriately alarmed, and then Prince Peeta laughs good-naturedly. "Oh, nothing serious. A healthy dose of nerves does not mix well with two servings of our very talented cook's lamb stew."

"Ohhhh does that sound delicious!" Caesar croons.

Prince Peeta's eyes sparkle as he nods in agreement. "There is something about the mint and the plums that…"

I don't hear the rest of his explanation over the loud rumble of my stomach. Of course the royal family would eat more indulgent meals than the rest of Panem, especially those of us in the outer districts, where food is not always plentiful and it's definitely never varied. Food exists for subsistence, not for decadence. I imagine the Reaped will eat better than most of them have ever eaten before. I'm a little envious of those girls who will be chosen for that simple reason alone.

By the time I return my attention to the television Prince Peeta is offering a very diplomatic answer about the tradition of the Reaping and how he's honored to be part of the process that brought his parents—and his grandparents—together. He speaks with a quiet confidence that I guess comes from living his life in the very public eye.

"Now tell me, Prince Peeta." Caesar lowers his voice and leans forward just a little, as if he and the prince are old friends about to share some kind of sordid secret. "What is it that you are most looking for in your future bride?"

"Caesar, you know if I tell you that I'd have to have you caned, don't you?" The teasing edge to his voice betrays the seriousness of what he's implying. Caning is one of the many public punishments the districts are threatened with to keep us in line, but that particular one is usually reserved for traitors and acts of treason.

"What's 'caned' mean?" Prim pipes up.

"Oh, don't you worry about that, my little duck." My father reaches across the space between his chair and the couch to rub Prim's hand reassuringly. "The prince is joking."

"He's not allowed to divulge any of his preferences," my mother explains. "It would taint the applications if girls tried to alter their answers to match his wishes."

Caesar and Prince Peeta continue their banter for a few minutes. The host tries to goad the prince into revealing the tiniest of personal details, but beyond knowing what he had for dinner, Prince Peeta is a closed book. And yet he manages to be charming and charismatic, and I can just imagine girls all over Panem gazing at their television sets with glazed eyes, slack jaws, and wildly beating hearts—much the way Prim looks at the moment, actually.

I find it a total waste of an hour. Most of the remaining program focuses on the king and queen and their own Reaping 25 years ago. The final ten minutes is a pre-taped segment, with Caesar talking to Claudius Templesmith, the pre-eminent royal adviser, and they speculate on some of the girls who might be chosen by the king or queen. I yawn. It's no mystery that among their twelve selections will be girls with influential parents and ties to foreign nations. I'd wager anything that 12's is Madge Undersee, the mayor's daughter. She's blonde, pretty, and quiet—the perfect trophy wife.

I'm relieved when Caesar gushes his farewells, and promises to see us all in two weeks' time—the night the Reaped will be revealed to the kingdom. The last notes of the anthem play and the screen fades to black. I can tell my mother wants to discuss the program, but my father suggests we all turn in early tonight. Prim protests, but Dad holds firm. My father locks the front door, and we all trudge upstairs.

After I wash my face and scrub my teeth clean, I retreat to our room and close the door. Prim has already changed into her nightgown and sits on my bed with her hairbrush in her lap. Since she was a toddler brushing her hair for her has been part of our nightly ritual.

"How come you're not more excited about the Reaping?" she asks.

I sigh and pull the brush through her long blonde hair with careful strokes. "I don't know, Prim."

"But Prince Peeta…he's so handsome. And he seems so nice!"

"He does seem nice, yes," I concur. I can't deny that the prince was very pleasant in his interview.

She whips around, nearly taking the brush and a chunk of her hair with it. "You don't think he's handsome?" She looks incredulous, practically aghast.

I close my eyes and conjure up the image of Prince Peeta's very handsome face. A little ripple wends through my belly before I quickly open my eyes and fight the heat rising up my neck. "I didn't say he wasn't handsome," I say carefully. "But that's part of my problem with the Reaping, Prim. The entire thing begins with girls being judged solely on their looks."

Prim counters, "That's why they have the applications!" She argues how the girls' answers to those questions reveal things like beliefs and interests—things that would prove compatibility with the prince. I toss out my theory that no one is entirely honest on those questionnaires, but I keep my other thought—the one that ultimately the winner of the Reaping will be a girl who has no real opinions and can just smile and look pretty on Prince Peeta's arm—to myself.

Prim shrugs dismissively and snatches the brush from my hand. "Then that's the point of you all living in the palace and Prince Peeta courting you and why there are such strict rules for how he eliminates girls and how long the competition lasts. He has to get to know the real person behind the fancy portrait and puffed-up answers."

I scoff and climb off Prim's bed and start for my own bed. Turning down my comforter I say, "You say "you" like it's some kind of given that I'm going to be reaped, Prim."

Prim hops down and comes to stand beside me, placing her arm on my shoulder. I straighten and face her. Her blue eyes shine and she fixes me with a look of pure determination. "You would be an amazing princess, Katniss. You do so much for Mom and Dad, and me, and you're selfless, and you're loyal, and—"

"And I'm very happy here in 12. This is my home, Prim. With you, and Mom and Dad."

Prim shakes her head. "You're sixteen. This isn't going to be your home forever. Once the names are reaped, the girls who aren't selected are free to be courted. There are boys all over Panem waiting for the chance to finally get to start their lives. You're crazy if you think you'll never have to marry and start a family."

I press my lips together and give my sister a faint smile. "Let's go to sleep," I suggest, sweeping her words away as if they were a clump of dust bunnies. She's giving me far too much to consider right before bed.

As I slide beneath my sheets, I hear Prim rustling to get comfortable in her bed. Soon a steady mingling of her breathing and faint snores come from her corner of the room. But I lie awake staring at the ceiling, Prim's words resurfacing like bad reflux.

Perhaps it's not only the Reaping I'm disgusted with. Prim is right. Well, she's not right in her misguided confidence that I will be headed to Panem Palace to vie for Prince Peeta's hand in marriage. She's right that when I'm not chosen to be one of the reaped the other boys here in 12 will be allowed to visit my parents and ask for the right to date me. No matter what happens in the next week, reaped or not, I have very little say in my own future.

I drift off to sleep, a sour taste in my mouth, as I try not to think about the fact that my life is about to radically change—and not in a way I want or am fully prepared for.