BOOK I - ALLEGATION
Allegation - A claim or assertion that someone has done something illegal or wrong, typically one made without proof
My father looks up at me from his position behind the big display case and smiles. "Thank you, son. Put that rack on top."
"Yes, Poppa," I mutter, sidling in behind him, then turning and squatting down, all the while balancing the rack, laden with freshly glazed pastries, in my two oven-mittened hands. The pastries smell wonderful - icing melting into every nook and cranny, the scent of cinnamon hanging in the air. Normally pastries this extravagant would be displayed in only one small section of the case, but today is no normal day.
Today is Reaping Day.
Despite the grim business that will take place in the District Square in a little more that eight hours, Reaping Day had a certain...well, festive quality to it. It was, after all, one of only two days a year when the mines were actually shut down - the other being the Harvest Day festival, conveniently held on the same day that the Hunger Games Victory Tour made its stop here in District Twelve - and most businesses didn't even bother opening on either day. Unless, of course, you sold food or drink.
That's why I'm working this Sunday morning, baking frantically before the sun even makes its appearance for the day. Our family bakery usually does great business on Reaping Day. The early rush will be the camera crews and officials from the Capitol, as well as the District Twelve Escort, Effie Trinket, who never fails to totter in on her ridiculously high heels sometime around nine to buy a single cinnamon bun. The Capitol rush will be followed by the Peacekeepers, many of whom are in a bad mood to begin with, with the entire District Twelve Peacekeeper force on duty on Reaping Day.
The bakery usually gets quiet starting at around noon, as every family with children of Reaping age is home getting ready to head to the Square. Actually, everyone was required to attend Reaping, if only just to watch the spectacle. From noon until two, every kid of Reaping age in the district will check in at the Square and take their place, sorted by age, in the waiting areas. Promptly at two the Reaping will start, and, mercifully, it's usually short - fifteen minutes, tops.
Following the Reaping, there's usually a lull of twenty to thirty minutes where all but two families breath a sigh of relief that their children were spared yet again - then the final rush of the day begins, as the rich and the poor, Merchant and Seam, anyone with a little extra coin in their pocket and a reason to celebrate, descend on the bakery one last time that day to buy something special for their Reaping Feast. And that's why I, a sixteen year old District Twelve Merchant boy, has to work when all of my friends are sleeping in.
My name is Peeta Mellark, and this is my fifth Reaping.
My father and I are working in the front, arranging pastries, breads, and cakes on their racks in the display case, when we both hear a furtive knocking on the back door.
I glance at my father quizzically as we both stand up simultaneously. Who could be knocking at this hour? The sun is barely peeking above the horizon, and we won't be open for hours - and it's much too early for deliveries. My two older brothers are still busy in the kitchen so I know it's not them...and my mother is probably not even out of bed yet...not that she would knock anyway.
"I'll get it, Peeta," my father says hastily, brushing past me as he wipes his hands on his apron. I shrug and continue to arrange our goods in the display case. It's only when I can hear my father talking with whoever was knocking that my curiosity gets the better of me.
As I walk casually into the back, I can hear my father clearly. "Good morning, Gale," he says warmly. "Happy Hunger Games to you."
Gale? As in...Gale Hawthorne? What is he doing here this early? And - more importantly - was he alone?
"Thank you, sir," Gale replies. "Happy Hunger Games to you as well."
I enter the pantry just in time to hear my father say, "What do you have for me today?"
"Just this," Gale replies, glancing at me in surprise. I can see he's holding up a single fat squirrel by the tale. I can also see that he's alone. Somehow that knowledge relieves me.
My father, alerted by Gale's shifted gaze and surprised expression, turns his head to see me standing behind him. A brief guilty look flashes over his face as he turns back to Gale and takes the proffered squirrel from him.
"Nice and fat," my father says appreciatively. "Would you like coin or trade this morning?"
"Trade, sir, if you can spare something," Gale replies, still regarding me impassively.
"Of course. One moment." My father turns away, carefully placing the squirrel on a cutting board, then quickly brushing past me into the bakery, leaving me standing there awkwardly with Gale Hawthorne.
"Hey," I finally manage to say. I doubt if I've ever said more than half a dozen words to him in my life. I see his eyes narrow slightly. Can he see into me? Does he know...or suspect...how I feel about Katniss Everdeen - his best friend and hunting partner?
"Hey," he finally replies in an even tone. I guess that's as good as it will ever get between Gale and I. His loathing for the Merchant class is well known, although, it seems, he's not above doing business with one of them.
"I hope this will do," my father says, brushing past me and handing Gale a fragrant loaf of freshly baked bread. My eyes widen in surprise and I can see the surprise on Gale's face as well. An entire loaf would usually be worth at least three squirrels in trade. The old man must be feeling sentimental this morning, I say to myself.
"Yes, sir," Gale says earnestly. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," my father says with a smile as Gale turns to leave. "And Gale? Good luck today."
"Thanks again, Mr. Mellark," Gale says. His eyes catch mine and for a moment I think he's going to say something to me as well...then he spins on his heel and quickly strides away.
"Can you finish up front, Peeta?" My father asks. "I'd like to clean this fat fellow up and put the meat on ice for later."
"Yes, Poppa," I reply, and turn to go, only to be stopped by my father's hand on my shoulder.
I turn back towards Poppa. "It might be best not to mention my trade to your mother," he says softly. "She wouldn't understand."
I smile. "What trade?" I ask innocently. Poppa claps me on the shoulder and laughs.
"Exactly," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
I stand with the rest of the sixteen year old boys, sweating under a suddenly brutal mid-afternoon sun. I make a little small talk with some of the other boys...out of nervousness, mostly...as I nonchalantly scan the girls' side for one particular young woman.
There! I feel my heart skip a beat as Katniss Everdeen makes her way into the crowd of sixteen year old girls. Even from a distance I notice that she's freshly scrubbed - well, we all are, for that matter - and wearing a pretty short-sleeved blue dress that seems to hug her slim form. I can feel my mouth going dry as I try not to stare - and fail miserably.
My reverie is broken by a rude nudge from behind me, followed by a hoarse whisper in my left ear. "Mmm mmm mmm...Everdeen's lookin' pretty hot today!"
I stiffen at the voice. "Fuck you, Udo," I mutter, not bothering to even turn around. Udo Donner is Madge Undersee's second cousin. The Donner family owns the sweet shop. Udo's main job is to be a pain in the ass to as many people as possible. Even Madge can't stand him for very long, and he's the one person that Delly Cartwright, who's been my friend forever and loves everyone, hates with a passion.
Udo's only reply is to laugh unpleasantly. I sigh and stare straight ahead, stealing glimpses of Katniss out of the corner of my eye. Only a select handful of people know how I feel about Katniss Everdeen, although many more - Udo included - suspect.
Thankfully, the Reaping Day ceremony begins, effectively shutting Udo up for the time being. Mayor Undersee - Madge's father - steps to the microphone and reads from the same script that he's used as far back as I can remember. The history of Panem, how our country rose from the ashes of the Catastrophes that destroyed a place once known as North America. How the Capitol presided over the thirteen original districts, and how those districts rebelled during the Dark Days. How the Capitol defeated the districts during the ensuing war, completely destroying District Thirteen in the process. And how the surviving twelve districts, defeated and war-weary, agreed to end the war by signing the Treaty of Treason.
The Treaty of Treason gave us two things - new laws to ensure that the Dark Days never happen again, and the Hunger Games, where each district, once a year, was required to offer up in tribute one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, to fight to the death in a huge outdoor arena until only one survivor remained. This was the ultimate display of power and authority by the Capitol over the districts.
To be sure, the Capitol rewarded the Victors very handsomely. Each district had an area set aside known as "Victor's Village," a grouping of twelve huge mansions, that the Victor, as well as the Victor's family (if they had a family, that is), would live in. Victors were also paid enormous sums of money by the Capitol and became celebrities in their own right, making television appearances and gracing the covers of Capitol magazines. In addition, the Victor's district would receive special parcels every month for a year following the victory, containing not only staples and necessities, but luxury goods and gourmet foods rarely, if ever, seen in the outer districts, such as District Twelve.
District Twelve could boast a grand total of two Victors - in seventy-three years.
In fact, our one surviving Victor (the first died years before I was born), Haymitch Abernathy, was supposed to be here during the Reaping. The empty chair on the stage where Mayor Undersee was, at this very moment, wrapping up his speech, was for him. I didn't know Haymitch very well. A reclusive drunk, he mostly keeps to himself, but would, on occasion, stumble into the bakery to place an order. My father would almost always be the one to help him.
Haymitch Abernathy chooses that very moment to make his appearance, staggering onto the stage as the Mayor concludes his remarks, falling into his chair and trying to give Effie Trinket a big hug as a smattering of applause from the crowd greets him.
Even from a distance I can tell that the Mayor is not happy with Haymitch's entrance. I feel for him. Madge had once told me that her father had very little real authority - true authority was reserved for the Capitol Liaison and the Peacekeepers - and that his sole job seemed to consist of being blamed for whatever went wrong in District Twelve. And, as the Reapings were televised all over Panem, I'm sure that someone in the Capitol will have something to say to Mayor Undersee regarding Haymitch's behavior once the Reaping is over.
Gratefully, Mayor Undersee turns to the microphone one final time, and announces, "Now, may I please present, the District Twelve Escort, Miss Effie Trinket."
The Mayor brushes past Effie as she literally bounces to the podium, as upbeat and bubbly as she always is. As the Mayor sinks wearily into his chair, Effie taps the microphone once and says, "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be evah in your fav-uh!"
I can't help but smile at her affected Capitol accent, so different from the soft drawl of Twelve. Effie continues on, seemingly unaware that her pink wig is listing slightly to one side following her brief tussle with Haymitch, "And what an honor it is to be here, on this absolutely gorgeous day! But let's get on with it, shall we?" Effie pauses for a moment, then trills, "Ladies first!"
I can feel my stomach knot up as it always does as Effie crosses over to the large glass bowl containing the girls' names. She dips her hand into the bowl, swirling it around a couple of times, then plunges deep, extracting a slip of paper with a flourish. As she crosses back over to the microphone, I begin my silent mantra. Oh please, not her. Oh please, not her! Oh Please, Not Her! OH PLEASE, NOT HER!
Effie opens the slip and makes a production out of smoothing it out. Just get on with it and read the fucking name! I want to scream at her. I tense as she opens her mouth and reads -
I know who she is. Katniss's twelve year old sister. A murmur goes up from the crowd, one that I add to, as it always does when a twelve year olds' name is called. Everyone hates the Games, but a twelve! I just heard Effie Trinket read a death warrant, not a Reaping. Primrose Everdeen has zero chance...and everyone here knows it.
I notice the Peacekeepers shift subtlety, reacting to the crowd's displeasure, as, out of the corner of my eye, I see a small, blonde girl, twin braids falling down her back, walking toward the stage with stiff, tiny steps. I don't blame her. She knows that she might as well be walking to her gallows.
What must it be like to be twelve years old, and in the space of two words, suddenly realize that your life expectancy can now be measured in days rather than decades? I feel bile rising in my throat and I choke it back down. Katniss. The name suddenly flashes through my mind. What about Katniss? My eyes flicker over the area across from me where the sixteen year old girls are assembled. I can't see her! Where -
There she is! "Prim!" I hear her strangled cry as she bursts from the crowd, the other girls making a clear path for her as she rushes towards her sister.
"Prim!" I hear Katniss shout again. Katniss reaches her sister just as she's about to mount the steps. I see her push Primrose behind her with a single sweep of her arm, and then Katniss Everdeen shocks everyone.
"I volunteer!" She gasps. No! "I volunteer as Tribute!"
No one present can ever remember anyone in District Twelve volunteering. But Katniss has done just that. "No..." I moan softly. I don't care if anyone hears me or not.
"Lovely!" I glance back up at the stage, where Effie Trinket is talking. "But I believe there's a small matter of introducing the Reaping winner -" Winner...now that would be funny, if I didn't already feel like throwing up "- and then asking for volunteers, and if one does come forth, then we, um..."
Effie Trinket is confused. She has no idea what to do when someone volunteers. Well, this is new ground for everyone here.
"What does it matter?" Mayor Undersee says from his seat. He stands and takes a step forward. "What does it matter?" He snaps again. "Let her come forward."
I'm only dimly aware of Primrose Everdeen screaming hysterically, clutching Katniss from behind, and Katniss saying something to her, but I'm too far away to make out individual words. Primrose has a death grip on Katniss, until I see a boy step out from the eighteens and gently, but firmly, grab Primrose and pry her arms off of Katniss.
It's Gale Hawthorne.
I see Gale say something to Katniss, who nods slightly and turns back toward the stage as Gale carries the kicking, screaming girl off toward the back of the crowd. Technically, leaving his assembly area is a breach of protocol, but I don't see a single Peacekeeper move to stop him.
Effie Trinket, in the meantime, has regained her composure. "Well, bravo! That's the spirit of the Games!" This stupid bitch actually sounds happy! I would gladly strangle her, right here, right now. "What's your name?" She asks Katniss.
"Katniss Everdeen." Her voice is steady, never wavering once.
"I bet my buttons that was your sister," Effie gushes. "Don't want her to steal all the glory, do we? Come on, everybody! Let's give a big round of applause to our newest Tribute!"
You could hear a pin drop. It was that quiet. Then, it happens.
I don't know who started it, or from where, but one person after another kisses the three middle fingers of their left hand, then extends those fingers up and out towards Katniss. It's an incredibly old gesture, rarely used anymore. Sometimes you see it at funerals. It's a gesture of respect, admiration...and farewell. Good-bye to someone you love. And my fingers are raised along with everyone else's.
The spell is broken by none other than Haymitch Abernathy, who lurches from his seat and staggers across the stage, drunkenly draping his arm around Katniss's shoulders. "Look at her!" he shouts to the cameras. "Look at this one! I like her!" He's wavering back and forth as he continues his tirade at the cameras. "Lots of..." he squints and tries to plant his feet firmly. "Spunk!" He finally shouts, letting go of Katniss to stagger to the very front of the stage, wagging his finger at the cameras. "More than you!" He shouts drunkenly. "More than you!" He repeats, then, to a gasp from the crowd, he plummets off the stage and lands in a boneless heap at the base of the steps.
Through all of this, Katniss stands calmly, hands clasped behind her back. You're beautiful. A hand roughly claps across my shoulders and I groan. Udo Donner again?
"The old drunks' got some balls, I'll say that much for him!" Udo cackles softly.
"Fuck you, Udo," I say again, tiredly, as I watch Haymitch loaded onto a stretcher to be carted off...somewhere. I return my attention to the stage, where Effie Trinket is making a noble attempt to straighten her wig, even as she says, "What an exciting day! But more excitement to come! It's time to choose our boy Tribute!" Effie, one hand planted firmly on her wig, quickly crosses over to the glass ball containing the boys' names and jams her hand into the mass of paper, grabbing the first slip that she touches, and totters back to the microphone to read the name of the poor bastard that will, in all probability, be dead in about two weeks.
Effie opens the paper and smoothes it out. Suddenly, I'm exhausted. I just want to sit down. I just -
I look up and blink twice. Did I just hear right? My worst fears are confirmed when I hear Udo Donner mutter two words from behind me.
I steel myself and walk through the crowd, the boys parting for me as if by magic. Of course. No one wants to touch - or be touched - by the unlucky soul that has just been Reaped. It might rub off, after all.
I walk slowly up to the stage, my legs wooden. I know that everyone here can hear my heart pounding in my chest. I see Katniss loom, ever closer, with each step. She's staring over my head at some object across the square, steadfastly ignoring me. I stop at the base of the steps, then mount them one at a time, slowly, until I'm standing on the stage. I take my place next to Katniss, clenching my hands into fists so no one can see them trembling.
"Wonderful!" Effie trills, smiling at me. I think I manage a ghost of a smile in return. At least I could feel my mouth moving.
"Well!" Effie continues, "Before we introduce our newest Tribute, I must ask...are there any volunteers?"
I try to count heartbeats through the deafening silence, wondering how many I have left, when lightning strikes twice in the same spot.
"Me," a deep voice says evenly. "I mean, I volunteer. I volunteer as Tribute."
A shocked gasp rises from the crowd as the volunteer steps forward. My eyes widen as I clearly see my benefactor for the first time, and I realize that I had just spoken to him mere hours before.
"Gale!" Katniss hisses. "No! You can't!"
Gale Hawthorne mounts the steps to the stage nonchalantly, giving Katniss a crooked grin as he does so. I feel a hand on my shoulder and twist my head around to see Mayor Undersee standing directly behind me. He gently but firmly pulls me back as Gale Hawthorne steps into my place. Only then does he turn and face Katniss.
"I'm your partner, Catnip," he says firmly. "In everything."
"Come on, son," the Mayor says gently. I numbly allow him to lead me back to the group of seats behind where Katniss, Effie, and Gale were now standing. The Mayor gently pushes me into the chair that Haymitch had been sitting in, then sits down next to me.
"Well!" I hear Effie say. "How absolutely thrilling! We're seeing history made today! Two volunteers! And what is your name?"
"Gale Hawthorne." Gale's voice is firm and unwavering.
"And I'm to assume that you and Katniss know each other?" Effie asks.
"Yes," Gale replies. "Katniss is my best friend."
"Was, you mean," Katniss snaps. "Gale, what the fuck were you thinking?"
Effie blanches a bit as Katniss's expletive is broadcast live over all of Panem, but she recovers quickly. "And now Mayor Undersee will read the Treaty of Treason."
The Mayor stands up, gives my shoulder a squeeze, then steps forward to the podium and begins to read the Treaty of Treason. As he reads, Effie slips back to where I'm sitting and perches on a chair next to me.
"I'm so sorry," she begins. Sorry? For what? Me not having to die? "I'm not at all sure what the protocol is for you. Perhaps you should just stay here until after the anthem. Yes, that's it. You can leave by the steps on the side of the stage, over there." Effie points off to the side at the steps that she and the Mayor - and, presumably, Haymitch Abernathy as well - used to ascend to the stage.
The Mayor finishes the reading of the Treaty of Treason, then turns to Katniss and Gale. "Go ahead and shake hands, you two," he instructs. Gale immediately sticks his hand out. Katniss glares, first at him, then his hand, then back at him as she finally takes his hand for a split second then drops it immediately. The National Anthem of Panem begins to play. Effie and I both rise to our feet. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Effie mouthing the lyrics to the song.
As soon as the song is over, a pair of Peacekeepers flanks Katniss as another pair steps up to Gale. Even as the Mayor is announcing the conclusion of the Reaping, the Peacekeepers hustle Katniss and Gale into the Justice Building. They brush by me as they enter. Gale acts like he doesn't even notice me standing there, but Katniss shoots me a look of pure rage as she walks by. Effie and the Mayor follow them inside. Only then do I turn and walk slowly off the stage.
I feel an overwhelming sense of relief - but, at the same time, I feel...cheated somehow. And guilty. Guilty that Gale Hawthorne has just volunteered to die in my place.
And I have no idea why.
I'm mobbed by family and friends within a minute after stepping off the stage. Madge, Delly, the guys from the school wrestling team, my father and brothers - even my mother managed to give me a brief hug.
After a few emotional moments, my father takes me aside. "Peeta, do you have any idea why Gale Hawthorne would volunteer for you?"
"None," I answer truthfully.
"Did you two talk this morning when he stopped by?" My father asks.
"We just said hello to each other," I reply. "That's it."
"It's a miracle," he says softly, then, "I better hurry if I'm gonna get on their Visitor lists."
My father had a tradition of giving Tributes a small bag of cookies. He started it long before he had inherited the bakery. He said that at one Reaping, when he was fifteen, both Tributes were Reaped from the Community Home. He said that no one came to say goodbye to them. They both died during the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Since then, my father was determined that every Tribute from District Twelve would have someone come see them to say goodbye...to show them that at least one person in the district cared. And that gave me an idea.
"Poppa," I ask, "Could I do the visits this year?"
My father hesitates for a moment before answering. "Peeta - doing these visits is...difficult. More so since you personally know Gale. Are you sure?"
I didn't want to correct him and say that I don't know Gale, not really anyway. But I did want answers. "I'm sure, Poppa."
My father smiles wistfully at me, then pulls two small paper-wrapped packages from his jacket pockets and hands both to me.
"Here," he says as he hands me the small paper packages. "Better hurry. I'll...we'll see you at home, Son." Poppa suddenly pulls me into a tight embrace, then releases me and walks off quickly.
I clutch the two small packages tightly as I slowly walk toward the Justice Building. What am I gonna say to them? I ask myself, suddenly having second thoughts. Good luck? I'm sorry? What can I possibly say to two people that, in all probability, will be dead in two weeks?
I'm still fretting as I pull open the doors to the Justice Building and step into the dark interior.
I pause and let my eyes adjust. The main lobby is spacious and high-ceilinged. I realize that this is the first time I've ever been in here, even though I've walked by this building literally thousands of times.
Roughly in the center of the lobby I spot Effie Trinket, standing with a pair of Peacekeepers. I also notice two groups of people standing near a pair of doors. I spot Madge Undersee standing near one door and realize that she must be here to see Katniss - aside from Gale Hawthorne, Madge is the closest thing that Katniss has to a friend. Two Seam kids, a boy and a girl about Gale's age, are standing near the other door. They see me and both glare in my direction, then pointedly ignore me.
"Young man," Effie's voice comes from behind me. I turn to see her looking at me curiously. "What are you doing here? You've been excused!"
"I -" She's right. What am I doing here? The paper packages in my hands remind me. My father has been doing this for years. If he can, I can. I take a deep breath. "I've come to visit my...the Tributes."
"Oh," Effie says, obviously surprised. "I wasn't aware that you knew them."
"I don't," I admit. "It's...it's a tradition. With my family. My father comes after every Reaping to give the Tributes these." I hold up the packages.
"Ahh," Effie says, understanding brightening her face. "You're the baker's son! Peeta, right?" I nod. Effie smiles and continues, "I thought so! Your father is a good man, Peeta. Well...let me add your name to the list. You'll visit whomever becomes available first, alright?"
"Yes, ma'am," I say softly, suddenly nervous. What am I gonna say to them? I hear a door open behind me and a Peacekeeper say, "You have five minutes." I turn to see what door I should go to first - and find myself staring straight into the face of Mrs. Hawthorne.
She's standing an arms length away from me, her face set in a frozen mask, her Seam-gray eyes glaring at me. Behind her I can see her other children - two skinny boys and a skinny little girl. The oldest boy is mirroring his mothers expression as he, too, glares at me.
I take several deep breaths before speaking. "Mrs. Hawthorne, I -"
"Save it, boy," she spits. "You've some gall coming in here. Come to gloat, did you? Fucking Merchant scum!" As she speaks, her voice rises steadily until she's shouting, a look of pure hate on her face. "Get out! It should be you in that room, not my Gale! Not my boy!"
I can do nothing but stand there and take it as Mrs. Hawthorne - Hazelle, I finally remember is her first name - screams out her hate and grief at me. Effie is frozen in place, a shocked look on her face. The Peacekeepers standing near Effie step forward and hustle the Hawthornes out of the Justice Building, with Mrs. Hawthorne screaming at me every step of the way.
Effie turns to me, finally able to move following Mrs. Hawthorne's tirade. "I'm so sorry. She's wrong."
"Is she?" I ask bitterly. "Her sons name wasn't called. Mine was. By you."
Effie says nothing for a moment, then points toward the two doors. "Which - whichever one is available first," she says quietly. I glance over at the doors. No one's waiting outside either one. I turn back toward Effie.
"Thanks," I mutter, then I turn and walk toward the doors, positioning myself between them. I don't have long to wait. One door opens and Madge Undersee walks out. She says nothing but gives me a small smile as she walks past.
"You," a voice says. I turn and see a Peacekeeper beckoning me over. As I enter the door he says, "Five minutes." I realize that I'm standing in an alcove. The Peacekeeper closes the door then reaches over toward a second door, turning the knob and pushing it open. He beckons me forward and, stiff-legged, my heart pounding, I walk through the door. The Peacekeeper closes it firmly behind me and I'm suddenly standing face to face with Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss stares at me for a moment, incomprehension on her face, then sighs and turns away, arms folded across her chest, as she stares out the dirty window.
"Well?" she snaps.
"I...uhh, I mean, my father...he - every year, he -"
"Your father?" She asks incredulously. "You came in here to tell me about your father? Please tell me why I should give a shit about your father?!"
I can feel my ears and neck redden and I hate myself for my embarrassment. "He...he visits the Trib - that is to say, after the Reap - he comes every year to say - to tell them good -"
"Good luck?" Katniss snaps. "Happy Hunger Games? May the odds be evah in your fav-uh?"
"N-no," I stammer. I thrust a paper-wrapped package of cookies at her. "Here."
Katniss frowns and slowly reaches out to take the package from me. "What -"
"They're cookies," I explain, finally finding my voice. "My Pop...father, he does this every year. He started it when he was sixteen."
"But not this year," Katniss says in a more subdued tone.
"I asked him if I could," I explain quietly.
"Why?" Katniss asks.
"Because I -" I hesitate. How the hell do I answer that? Because I love you, Katniss? "Because I felt I should," I finish lamely.
Surprisingly, Katniss seems to accept that. "Oh. I see," she says, hefting the package.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak. Katniss sniffs the package, then looks up at me. "They - smell good."
"I'm sorry," I blurt. Katniss looks at me sharply, her eyes narrowed...then her features soften a bit.
"Yeah," she finally says. "I know."
"It should've been me instead of him," I find myself saying.
"It should've, but it's not," Katniss replies. "Can't change that now."
"No," I say. "No, I can't."
"I heard yelling earlier," Katniss says suddenly. "When Madge was in here with me. Was that Hazelle Hawthorne?"
"Yes," I softly admit. "It was."
"Yelling at you," Katniss says. It wasn't a question.
"Yeah," I say, looking at the floor, feelings of guilt washing over me.
"Oh," Katniss says. "She was wrong to do that."
"It's okay," I say. "I understand why."
The Peacekeeper opens the door and pokes his head in. "Time," he says.
"Okay," I say to the Peacekeeper, then turn back to Katniss. "It's time. Good -"
"Don't say it," Katniss blurts. "Don't say good luck or goodbye. I don't believe in luck, and you only say goodbye to people that are never coming back."
"See you later, then," I say, trying to keep my voice from trembling.
Katniss is amazingly calm as she responds, "Okay," even as the door closes between us. One more visit to go. I eye the other door warily, even as a Peacekeeper sticks his head out, spots me, and says, "Come on!"
I take a deep breath, walk forward, and go through the door to face Gale Hawthorne.
I enter the room to find Gale standing with his back to the door, arms folded across his chest, staring out his own dirty window at the world outside. He doesn't turn around, even when the door closes behind me.
I stand in silence for a few moments before speaking. "Gale -"
"Stop," he says quietly. "I'll say this once. If I hear the words 'thank you' or 'I'm sorry' come out of your mouth, I guarantee you'll be spitting out teeth."
"Fair enough." I extend my hand, the one holding the paper wrapped package of cookies, toward him. "Here."
Gale's head swivels around and he frowns when he sees the package. "What is it?"
"From my father," I explain. "He does this every year. Has since he was sixteen. Take it."
Gale slowly turns and reaches out, taking the package from me. Like Katniss, he puts the paper to his nose and sniffs. To my surprise, his face cracks into a smile.
"They smell good," he says. "I can't remember the last time I had a cookie."
"Katniss liked how they smell too," I say.
"I bet," Gale says, hefting the bag. "Your father's a good guy. Thanks."
"I need to ask you something," I blurt.
"Why?" He asks. I nod. "You of all people should know the answer to that one."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask.
Gale laughs. He actually laughs. "Come off it, Mellark," he finally says. "You'd have to be half blind not to see how you moon after her."
Once again, I can feel myself blushing. "See?" Gale says. "Look at you. Beet red."
"So why should I know the answer to why?" I ask defensively. Gale just stares at me and slowly crosses his arms in front of his chest. The realization of what he said suddenly hits me like a sledgehammer.
"You," I say in almost a whisper. "You...love her? Too?"
Gale sighs heavily. "Pathetic, ain't it?" He asks. "And to answer your next question...no, she has no idea, and no, I'm not telling her."
"She looked pretty pissed when you volunteered," I say.
"You don't know the half of it," he says. "But it ain't the first time she's been pissed at me. Still, it's a good thing that the Games don't start right away. The way she feels right now she just may be tempted to kill me herself."
"So what are you gonna do?" I ask.
"Simple," he replies. "Keep her alive. Get her a bow. If she has a bow she'll be unstoppable."
"And what about you?" I find myself asking.
Gale shrugs. "My mother asked me the same question. She also screamed at me and called me 'selfish' and 'idiot.' I heard her yelling at you, by the way. She shouldn't have taken it out on you. But this isn't about me. It's about her. She wins and she takes care of my family for life."
"What happens if...she doesn't?" I ask, feeling my stomach churn at the thought.
Gales features harden. "Then I'll win and take care of her mother and sister. That's all there is to it."
If only it was that easy, I say to myself. "I just want you to know that I would've gone. I was ready to go."
"And would you've protected her?" Gale asks, then shakes his head. "Never mind. You would've tried...and died trying."
I bristle a little at the insinuation that I wouldn't be capable of protecting Katniss...but, then again, he's probably right. I know absolutely nothing about the woods, or hunting, fishing, or trapping. They do.
"Time," a Peacekeeper calls out, poking his head in the room.
I stick out my hand. After a moment, Gale takes it. We shake firmly. I want to say something - anything - but words don't seem adequate. Finally, I turn to go.
My hand is on the door handle when Gale speaks. "Peeta," he says softy. "She's coming home."
I just nod, not trusting myself to speak, then I slip through the door, shutting it firmly behind me. It was only then that I realize that Gale called me by my first name.
The Square is mostly empty now. A work crew is busy tearing down the stage - carefully, as it will be used again next year. I notice that they leave up the huge Holo-TV projector.
Many people come to the Square for Mandatory Viewing during the Games.
There won't be any Mandatory Viewing until later on tonight, when the recap of the Reapings is shown. I jam my hands into my pockets and wander aimlessly around the Square. I just don't feel like going home yet.
I find myself wandering near the train station. On an impulse, I enter the terminal. Through the glass doors I can see the platform, and, beyond that, the gleaming Tribute Train, there to take Katniss and Gale - and almost me - to the Capitol. They'll be accompanied by Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy.
I'm on the platform before I know it. There's a handful of people out here...mostly Capitol film crews, some Peacekeepers, and people from the Capitol Liaison office here in Twelve. And the Everdeen and Hawthorne families, here hoping for a last glimpse, a last word before the trail whisks Katniss and Gale off to the Capitol.
Quickly, I slip behind a pillar on the far side of the platform, hoping against hope that no one saw me. What am I doing here? I ask myself...but I already know the answer.
Guilt that Gale Hawthorne is the one going to the Capitol. Guilt that he will almost certainly die - he's already said as much, his goal is to keep Katniss alive. I sigh heavily. I find myself hoping that he's successful - even knowing that it means that Gale Hawthorne must die.
The doors at the far end of the platform suddenly slide open and I catch sight of a squad of Peacekeepers hustling Katniss and Gale onto the train, followed by Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy. It won't be long now.
I should go home. Neither Katniss or Gale will be allowed anywhere near the observation car windows...not that they would have wanted to put themselves through that torture anyway. But I can see the Everdeens and Hawthornes still standing on the platform, so I stay, if for no reason than to not let them see me leaving. I don't want a repeat of the Justice Building screaming match.
As it turns out, I'm in the only position to see what happens next. I hear a bathroom window slide open on the train. These windows only open a few centimeters so there's no risk of someone trying to climb through to make an escape attempt. Curious, I watch as a feminine arm, clad in blue short sleeves, extends out from the window and drops a small white bundle on the tracks below, then quickly disappear inside the train. Seconds later, the train begins to move, quickly gaining speed until it disappears from view completely.
I stay hidden until the Hawthornes and Everdeens leave the platform, then I emerge from behind the pillar...but I don't go back into the terminal. Instead, I walk to the end of the platform and jump down, walking toward the small white bundle laying next to the tracks.
I feel my heart rise in my throat as I draw near and squat down next to the bundle. It burst open when it hit the ground. Already I see hundreds of ants wheeling excitedly over the contents.
It was the paper wrapped package of cookies that I had given Katniss.
Later on, I sit listlessly in our tiny living room, watching the end of the Mandatory Viewing broadcast of the Reapings.
"Look at you!" My brother Quinn says with a laugh as he watches me climb the steps onto the stage. "You look like you're gonna piss your pants!"
"That's enough, Quinn!" My father barks. Quinn is the closest to me in age. At eighteen, this had been his last Reaping.
"Yeah, well, I didn't see you jumping up to volunteer, asshole," I mutter, drawing a sharp rebuke from my father. No doubt about it, tensions in the Mellark household are quite high tonight.
Quinn opens his mouth to say something, but before he can say a word, there's a loud "thump" on our front door, immediately followed by a man's voice yelling, "Fucking coward!" We can all hear the sounds of several people running off.
"What the hell?" My father gets up from his chair and walks to the front door, Quinn and I close behind. Poppa opens the door and recoils immediately as a moist, brownish, stinking lump slowly slides down the door. He slams the door quickly before the mass can drip onto the floor. My father turns and looks at my brother and I.
"I don't believe it," he mutters.
"Was that -" I begin, before Quinn cuts me off.
"Shit," Quinn says grimly. "Someone threw a handful of dog shit on our door!"
"Why?" Poppa mutters. "Why would anyone do such a thing?"
I had no idea, but I am sure it has something to do with me.
A few minutes later, Quinn and I are outside, scrubbing the remnants of the dog shit off of our front door, and trying desperately not to gag in the process, when I get an unexpected guest. Delly Cartwright, my lifelong friend, appears out of the darkness, standing in the dim light of our small porch lamp. It's an oil lamp...once Mandatory Viewing was over, the electricity was promptly shut off.
"Peeta!" She gasps. "Are you okay?"
"What are you doing out after curfew, Delly?" I hiss. "If the Peacekeepers catch you -"
"They won't," Delly says firmly. "Besides, I only live three doors away. Remember? Besides, I came over to ask you if it's true...although I know it just can't be!"
I look at her in exasperation. Quinn is looking at her with open curiosity. "What the hell are you talking about, Delly?" Quinn asks.
Delly looks at Quinn, then back at me, then at the mess we're cleaning up. "It's started," she whispers.
"Delly, please start making sense!" I snap.
Delly turns to face me. I can tell that she's on the verge of tears. "There's...there's a rumor going around that started this afternoon, right after the Reaping."
"What rumor, Delly?" I ask, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it somehow involves me...and Gale.
"I know it can't be true, Peeta," Delly says, losing the battle with her tears. "But the rumor is...that you made some sort of deal with Gale, and you and your family paid him off to volunteer for you if your name was called."
I turn and sink down on the front steps of my families' house. I didn't think this day could get any worse. I was wrong.
It just did.