New idea in anticipation of the movie. I like it, and I hope to continue it to practice my writing skills, if nothing else. The Games will probably be a big piece of this fic, so fingers crossed and here we go!
The distant sound of the town bell chimes, letting me know that it is noon. The spring sun shines down on me, burning my golden hair, making me squint against the power of the rays. I should go back home to my mother—I've been out hunting all morning and she'll be bitter if I don't return with my kills soon—but I tell myself it's okay to wait five more minutes. She'll—the Wicked Witch, for lack of better terms—survive.
My best friend Gale is in the same dilemma as me, only his mother isn't a hag like mine. He lounges with me under the sparse tree, it's leaves just beginning to show themselves to the glory of the afternoon. I know that he's rolling his eyes at me, though I can't see anything but his dark hair. He always rolls his eyes at me when I wait at the apple tree just beyond her backyard.
"You know you're whipped, don't you?" he says, glancing over his shoulder, tense. Gale is always tense when I drag him into town; he hates it here. I can't say that I blame him, because most of the townies are just underprivileged snobs. They aren't all that much better than those of us from the Seam, though they all think they sit on a pedestal.
If they do, it's not much of one—dirty and sooty, covered in coal. A pedestal fit for desperate, famished dogs. The Capitol makes sure of that.
"I'm not whipped," I snap back at him, leaning my shoulder into the tree trunk. "I'm just. . .curious." The branches catch in my hair, tangling it. He twists his body so that he's looking at me and raises an eyebrow in question.
"Then you're always curious. She's not worth your time," he says in low voice, ducking his head. "She turns her nose up at you every single time she walks by. Every single time. You should just forget about her, Peeta."
Forget about her? How can I forget about her when she's all I've been able to coherently think of since I was five years old? She's a part of me, whether she—or Gale—knows it. Her existence has wedged itself into the dirt forever lodged under my fingernails, the sound the scraggly tree makes as its branches scratch against my bedroom wall, the chiming of the noon bell, even the smell of the fires I start in the evening. To forget her would be to forget a piece of myself, and I can't do that without becoming a different person entirely.
I sigh because I want to counter his statement, but it's true. "It's not her fault," I struggle to reason. All in all, it's really not. Her fault, I mean. I'm the one that needs to grow a pair to talk to her; of course she turns her nose up at me. She's the baker's daughter from town. I'm the drunken hag's boy from the Seam. Our worlds exist in two different spheres that do not touch.
"Whatever you say, man," Gale says, shaking his head slightly. "I've gotta get home; I promise Posy I'd be back for lunch." He pushes himself away from the tree, and frowns at me, probably because I'm a masochistic idiot and he's wondering why he ever befriended me in the first place. I'm sure these ponderings flit through his head on a daily basis, and he struggles to understand me, but he never confronts me outright about my ridiculous infatuation. Smart of him; as stupidly smitten as I am, I'd probably bite his head off if he said something about her that offended me.
"Alright," I say, trying to manage a smile. He never smiles, so one of us has to be able to do the job. Besides, anytime I'm not home, I'm relatively happy and smiling is almost easy. The Seam isn't a breeding ground for joy per say, and though most of us there are clinging to life by mere fingers, Gale and I do what we can for the people like us—coal miners—to make sure that starvation isn't the one sickness to take us out.
We've been successful. As a boy, my father and Gale's taught the two of us the art of hunting out in the woods beyond the fences of District 12. For as long as I can remember, we've been a part of something good in 12, something that we'd be killed for by the Capitol in an instant if they knew. Only, some of the Peacekeepers are only just scraping by, and by helping them, they keep things quiet for us.
They turn their eyes away from our efforts to keep food on the table for the people of the Seam and in return, Gale and I keep them happy with meat as fine as any that you could buy in the butcher's shop. It used to be a flourishing business, our hunting thing, and starvation was almost unheard of anymore until the day that the mines exploded. It killed my two older brothers and my father in the blast, along with Gale's.
Since then, we've become more tightly knit, a joined family because we need each other more than ever. My mother may be a witch, and I may hate her with every bone in my body, but she's the only family I have left. Love really isn't a factor when life or death is on the line; love is the last thing on your mind.
In fact, love seems like an absurd, frivolous concept until I remember her. The darker skin of the Seam reflected from her mother's side, the stormy gray eyes, the way the wind blows stray pieces of her braided hair around a fierce, sharp face. Her slender hands, scarred by the fire, her clothes smelling of fresh baked bread, her full-shaped mouth pressed into a solitary line. It's all so beautiful that sometimes I swear I can't breathe when I see her.
She's not like most townies. Her best friend is the mayor's daughter, Madge, and both of them are quiet and reserved; they keep to themselves. Across the room at lunch during school hours is when I can watch her best without being caught. Gale teases me about it, but it can't last long because some pretty girl has either caught his attention or he's caught hers. I'm generally left alone; the town recluse. Everyone is afraid of a boy who's mother is all but insane.
Gale stares at me for a moment and then starts to back away. "See you at school tomorrow."
I nod his way, my eyes automatically cutting back to her front porch where I know any minute she'll appear with a basket of rolls she's been tasked with taking to the mayor's home.
He laughs at my distracted gaze and shakes his head, hurrying back toward the invisible boundary between the Seam and town. He'll have to go through the city square, and inside I'm smiling about it. If there's one thing Gale hates, its those townies who always hang out at the square.
I suppose Gale has a right to doubt me. Every day we don't have school I come to this apple tree at noon and stand here, trying to muster up the courage to talk to her. It's insane that I have the nerve to slink under the fence, hunt in the woods, and risk death every day to feed hungry, demanding mouths, yet sidling up to a girl to say "Hi" and introduce myself would require the most daring kind of bravery that existed. To date, it seems that that bravery escapes me.
Today is the day though. The last time I had any contact with her was just before my father died, when her little sister Prim had wandered off. She'd been frantic, running through the streets calling her sister's name when I heard her.
"Prim!" she was screaming, her braid flying behind her, her normally reserved expression desperate and vulnerable. Gale had gone out hunting with our fathers that day because I'd had to stay home with the Wicked Witch, who was so sick she had trouble keeping down water. I'd been outside at the pump, filling a cracked vase full of water when I heard her.
I said nothing as I ditched the water pump and joined her in the street. She looked at me with her wide, gray eyes a part of her confused and bewildered at my sudden presence, but she said nothing to me.
"Prim!" I yelled as I trotted along beside her. We kept pace together, looking for her sister, not so much as a word passing between us. I was scared as hell to actually say anything, but she was in pain at the prospect of losing her sister, and I didn't want her to hurt. She was so beautiful that she should never be hurt.
We found Prim in the Meadow by the fence, where I usually enter the woods from. She was plucking dandelions and feeding them to a stray goat she kept calling Lady, grinning madly when we found her. Prim is just as lovely as her older sister, only with the look of a townie that originated from her father with blonde hair and blue eyes.
I left before I could be given attention because though I'd spent the last half an hour with a girl I wanted so badly to be mine, I couldn't bring myself to face her, to hear her ask who I was and why I helped. Too many questions I wouldn't be willing to answer openly.
The back door of the bakery opens and I straighten against the apple tree, my heart thudding in my chest. I feel as if I am on a hunt, exhilarated by the feel of the woods—wild and free—around me. But of course, this is not the woods. It's merely her, doing the kinds of things to my insides that I've given up on explaining.
The wicker basket of rolls swings at her elbow, Prim holding her free hand. Today she is breathtaking with her braid gone, her dark hair shining in the sunlight, being twisted by gentle spring breezes. I take a deep breath and then I'm walking toward her because I can do this. Because I have to do this.
My hands a sweaty. I wipe them off. If she wants to shake my hand, I'm not giving her a sweaty palm. My breath feels too short, but it's difficult to lengthen them. Nerves tighten at my stomach, but that's just another side effect of her presence. Can't back down now.
I'm twenty feet behind her. If I bail out, the Wicked Witch will be waiting at home with a whipping stick and a flask anyways. Ten feet now. The wind blows the smell of bakery bread to me and my stomach growls, making me aware that I haven't eaten anything today. Her hair looks so silky, I wonder if it's as soft as it looks. Five feet. Prim laughs and swings their held hands.
"Katniss," I blurt out. Not very tactfully, I might add. She pauses mid-step and then turns her head just enough to look over her shoulder at me. I'm immediately blustered and I wrack my head for all of those illusions I've ever dreamt of; me saying something witty and her laughing. Instead, I'm empty and speechless as ever, looking into those eyes, gray as ever. "Hi."
Her eyebrows furrow and Prim covers her mouth with her hand, her blue eyes darting up at me with a visible smile in them. "Hello," Katniss says.
It suddenly occurs to me that she might have no idea whatsoever who I am and I feel even more of an idiot. I'm so glad that Gale didn't stay to witness this; as it is, I'll probably never live it down. "I'm Peeta Mellark."
Now she looks amused, though it is deep and hidden. Anyone who hadn't stared at her during a lunch period for years might not have caught it, but I do. "I know. My dad buys your squirrels."
"They're always very good," says Prim, removing her hand and smiling at me sweetly. "We put them in stew and eat them with bread."
My stomach growls at the prospect and Katniss shoots her sister a warning look, but I can hardly process any of it because my mind is racing a million miles a minute. What do I say to this girl whom I have loved my entire life? Anything that comes to mind is far too heavy material for small talk and I don't want to burden her. Somehow, "I love you" seems like too much.
"I'm glad you like it," I say, my tongue thick, managing a smile at Prim. I turn my expression toward Katniss, who's face is unreadable.
"We don't have much time," she says, gesturing toward the basket at her elbow. "Errands to run. Is there something you wanted to trade for? Prim could go fetch my mother."
"No," I respond, shaking my head. "No."
"Alright." She purses her lips and continues to stare at me, as if I'm the one that needs to be deciphered. Can she not see it on my face? How fully and completely she executes power over me? Gale was right; I'm whipped.
"Would you like to go for a walk with us?" Prim asks, somewhat shyly. I look down at her young face, as fresh as spring itself and find myself smiling at her again. I've never known Prim really—just from what I've been able to pick up through Katniss's actions—but I get the feeling she's just the type of person a guy has to smile at.
"You don't have to, if you don't want to," Katniss speaks up. She's watching me closely, mystified by my approach.
I shrug and step up beside her. "It's a nice day."
She hesitates but I smile at her and then there is no more hesitation. We walk, Prim supplying the conversation with more than enough words for the three of us, and I'm left to wonder if Katniss remembers the day Prim went missing as clearly as I do. Her hand swings dangerously close to mind and I have to force myself to keep my eyes on Prim.
The town is in full swing at this time of day. Sunday afternoons are normally busy because most shops are closed, and those that aren't are relaxed. Girls and boys about Prim's age kick a flat rubber ball up and down the street, cheering and laughing. I watch them and remember when Gale and I used to kick a ball around before the burden of supplying food for the Seam was placed upon our shoulders.
The ball at one point comes sailing toward Katniss' bread basket but I jerk my leg out so that it bounces off my knee before I expertly kick it back at the kids. They all cheer and give me a thumbs up before running down a different street.
"Whoa!" Prim exclaims, giggling, eyes wide. "That was a close one, Katniss. Lucky Peeta was here to save you."
My heart nearly stops when Katniss murmurs, "Yeah. Lucky." I don't know if she's being sarcastic or not, but I'll take what I can get.
The rest of the walk is too short. I feel like Prim and I are friends by the time we have dropped the rolls off at the mayor's house and are on the way back to the bakery. Katniss doesn't really say much, but I can feel her eyes on me, watching. I try not to let on that I know, that it's impossible not to feel the way her gaze sweeps across the planes of my pale face and the windswept blonde hair. Features from the Wicked Witch's townie blood.
Too short, too short, too short. I'm standing at the back door of the bakery while Katniss and Prim mount the steps.
"Thank you for coming with us, Peeta," Prim says with a bright smile. "It was lots of fun. Maybe we can do the same thing next week?"
I grin at her, unable to help myself. "I would love that," I tell her. She waves enthusiastically and then darts inside. Katniss pauses with her hand on the doorknob and looks back at me.
"Are you ever going to give me a proper explanation for what just happened?" she asks, the words she didn't want to say in front of her sister.
I run my hand through my hair and shrug. "Maybe."
She closes the door and takes a step closer to me, squinting at me through the afternoon light. "I don't get it. I thought you Seam people hated us."
"I don't hate anyone," I tell her superiorly, "I merely tend to like some more than others." I read her expression and sigh because there are so many things I want to tell her that I can't. Besides, tensions are running high now, which is probably why she looks so agitated with my answers. Reaping day is in just a week, a thought I've been trying to keep out of my head all day. A thought only kept at bay because of Katniss.
She stares at me for a moment before turning for the door. "Goodbye, Peeta."
When the door shuts behind her, all I can think is how beautiful she is when she says my name.