Effie Trinket smiles widely, as if picking children to die is her favorite thing. It might well be.
"Ladies first!" she says cheerfully. Her fingers hover over the folded names as the audience holds its breath. She selects one, pulling it out and holding it up for everyone to see.
"Well, well," she says. She breaks the seal and reads out the name.
Katniss glances around, like everyone else, searching for the dark haired girl. She remembers her only vaguely from school.
"Well, come on up!" Effie says, as if she's offering the girl a particularly nice treat. "Where are you, dear?"
Shell-shocked, Sarajane stumbles forward. In the back, her mother has started sobbing. Peacekeepers usher the girl onto the stage, where she stands gawking at the crowd while her hands twist in the skirt of her dress.
Katniss barely hears Effie announce the boy – Peeta Mellark – because she's too busy looking at Sarajane's eyes. The tributes' eyes are always the worst. They know they're not coming back. If it were her on that stage, she wouldn't be standing so calmly. It is only when Peeta climbs the stairs to join the slight brunette girl on the stage that Katniss snaps out of her dark thoughts. A pang goes through her. She liked Peeta. He kept her alive once, but now there's nothing she can do for him. The unfairness of it burns like acid in her throat.
"Here we are then," Effie says, her voice overly bright. "The tributes from District 12!"
Effie looks annoyed, but ushers the two tributes into the Justice Building all the same. The crowd begins to disperse.
Katniss lets out a breath she didn't know she was holding, and goes to find Prim. She's with the other little kids, fiddling with her braids. Her shirt has come untucked again.
"Told you," Katniss says, putting her arm around her sister's shoulders.
Prim looks up at her with watery blue eyes.
"Can we go home now?"
Her eyes scan the crowd, grazing over the solemn faces until she finds the one she's looking for. Gale's smile steadies her.
They meet in the usual spot that evening. The Games won't start for another week, so for now they're released from their obligation to watch anything on the television. Gale gets there first. He lies down on the grass and stretches out, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths of the clean forest air. It smells like sunshine and growing things. He hears Katniss sit down beside him, but doesn't open his eyes.
"It was stupid," she says, without preliminaries. "Her name's only in there once. There's no way they could have called her. But I was still so scared."
"I know," Gale says. "It was Rory's first year too. And Vick is next. I don't know what I'd do if he got called."
Katniss looks down at Gale's still face, his blue eyes under the dark fringe of hair.
"That's you done though. You're 19 next year. They can never have you."
Gale laughs hollowly.
"They'll always have me, Catnip," he says, opening his eyes to look up at the stretches of blue in between the shifting green leaves. "No matter what, they always have us."
Katniss scoots over and lies down beside him so that her arm touches his where they lie at their sides. She's heard this rant before. She heard it only this morning.
"There's nothing we can do about it," she reminds him.
"I wasn't kidding when I said we could run away. We know how to feed ourselves. We could live in the woods, and we'd never have to be afraid for Prim or Rory or Vick or any of them again."
Katniss shakes her head.
"That's not how it works, Gale."
"It could be," he replies.
They lie silently side by side until the encroaching darkness forces them to go home.
"I don't want to watch this year," Katniss says, turning away from the flickering screen.
Mrs. Everdeen sighs.
"Katniss, sit down," she says, pushing golden hair out of her wan face.
They have this argument every year.
Mrs. Everdeen glances at Gale for support, but he just shrugs. He'd rather not watch either. But they don't really have a choice.
"Siddown, Catnip. It'll be over soon," he advises.
Katniss slumps sullenly in the chair as the music cues up and tribute parade begins. The Hawthorns and the Everdeens always watch together. The more people are in a house, the less chance of peacekeepers noticing if the little ones aren't watching.
"You're the one who thinks we should stop watching," she hisses at him, her breath warm on his arm.
Gale doesn't say anything. It's best not to talk about such things outside of the safety of the forest. The forest doesn't have ears like the town does.
Katniss gets a grumpy look on her face, and clams up too.
The tributes come out all dolled up, and Gale can't help but think it's like trussing up lambs for the slaughter. His gut twists at how sick it is. He glances over at Katniss, to reassure himself that at least she is safe. He expects her to be staring at the floor or picking at her fingernails, like she usually is during these things, but her eyes are riveted to the screen. He looks at the screen and sees why.
The tributes from District 12 are last. And they are on fire. There are flames winding around Sarajane's dark hair, and billowing out of Peeta's cloak. They are stunning. The camera pans in on Peeta's lit-up face, and Katniss draws a sharp breath.
Gale is starting to have an inkling why this Reaping is bothering her so much. And he doesn't like it one bit.
"Are you sure there isn't anyone back home?" Caesar asks slyly, winking at Peeta. "I bet all the girls are heartbroken, eh?"
Peeta smiles ruefully.
"Alright, so there is this one girl."
"Ahah!" Caesar crows. "I knew it, handsome boy like you. Tell us about her."
Peeta shakes his head self-depreciatingly.
"She doesn't even know I'm alive."
"Well, she does now! And when you win this thing, she'll have to go on a date with you!" Caesar jokes, to the laughter of the crowd.
Peeta grins for the camera.
"Yeah, I guess she won't turn me down then," he replies easily.
"Do you have anything to say to her?" Caesar prompts. "Anything at all?"
Peeta turns directly to the camera. His face is serious now.
"I'd say 'I wish I'd gone out in the rain and handed the bread to you'," he says. "And, 'I'm sorry for everything.' And 'I fell in love with you that day'."
The audience sighs, and Caesar makes another comment.
But Katniss can't hear it. All she can hear is the ringing in her ears.
Peeta gets a 9, which isn't too shabby, all things considered. They give Sarajane a 6. Gale already knows she's not going to last long. He feels ashamed at his relief that at least it isn't Katniss up there.
The first day of the Games is always the worst.
When Gale finally catches up with her, she's already bagged two birds and a squirrel.
"Think you got enough, Catnip?" he calls.
Katniss releases a breath and another bird falls to the ground, stone dead with the arrow through its eye.
"Shut up," she says.
Gale sighs. With Katniss it's better to be direct than to beat around the bush.
"Do you have a crush on Peeta Mellark?"
Katniss strings her bow over her shoulder, and stalks after her bird.
"You don't understand anything."
"I understand that he admitted to being in love with a District 12 girl, and you took it awful hard," Gale bites out, trying to mask his own hurt.
"You don't understand anything," He can practically hear her grinding her teeth. He grabs her arm and tugs her around so she's facing him. He's sick of talking to her back.
"Maybe I don't understand anything because you're not telling me anything."
"I'm the one," Katniss snaps. "I'm the one he should have gone out in the rain for. I was starving and he threw me the bread. And now he says he loves me? What kind of a boy loves a girl and doesn't tell her for five years?"
Gale swallows, because he's thinking the kind of boy who's standing right in front of you. The kind of boy who doesn't want to lose his best friend.
"And now…" Katniss swallows. "And now he's going to die, and I'll never get to say thank you for saving my life that day. I hate this. I hate the Capitol for doing this. I hate everything." Her hands are balled into tight fists.
He slings an arm around Katniss's thin shoulders.
"Come on, Catnip," he says. "Let's go home."
"Hob first," Katniss says, retrieving her game bag.
Gale smothers a smile.
"Hob first," he agrees.
Katniss can't watch it for long. She drifts between the television screen in the Hawthorn house, and watching Gale mend nets for snares. It's day four, and half the Tributes are already dead. Most died in the first hour, at the Cornucopia. She didn't watch that day.
Sarajane dies on Day 3. The girl from Two catches her at the river. At least the knife to the throat is quick and clean. She is dead within a minute.
Peeta is still alive though. Katniss can't help watching when he's on. He's managed to wrangle his way into a pack of Careers, so he should be safe for now. It's like some sort of train wreck: horrible, but she can't seem to look away. All she can see is his face through the rain, throwing that burnt bread down on the ground.
"Stop pacing," Prim says, stroking Buttercup. "You're making me dizzy."
"I hate this," Katniss says. "It's not fair."
On the screen, the little girl from District 11 nods to Peeta, and starts sawing at a branch heavy with a tracker jacker nest. She's a tiny thing, but she's whip smart. Katniss hopes she doesn't die. She feels a wash of relief that he and the little girl are teaming up. Safety in numbers.
Then Katniss remembers that only one can come back. It's either this little girl or the boy who saved her life. She bites the inside of her cheek to stop herself from screaming at the unfairness of it. Maybe Gale was right about the Capitol all along.
The wound is gaping from his stomach, and the blood is gushing all over her small hands as she tries to hold it in.
"I'm sorry," he chokes out. "I wanted to keep you safe."
Rue can barely see him through the tears in her eyes.
"Don't talk," she says. "It's ok. You're going to be fine. You have to get back to that girl, remember?"
Peeta laughs sharply, which turns into a gurgling cough.
"I'm never going home. But Rue, you have to. Tell her… Tell Katniss…"
Rue puts a finger to his lips.
"Tell her yourself, dummy," she says. Her tears drip off her cheeks and splash in his hair.
His breath is shallow. It won't be long now.
"Can you sing?" he breathes.
Rue nods. Her voice high and reedy at first, but stronger as she goes on. The mockingjays take up her song, echoing it a hundredfold around the clearing. She should be concerned about other tributes hearing it and being drawn to their spot, but all she cares about right now is the boy dying in her arms.
When she finishes, she looks down to see if he wants another one, but he won't want anything again. She closes his eyes with a sweep of her fingers.
Rue slides out from underneath the dead boy, scrambling to her feet and staring down at the dead boy's crumpled form.
She touches her three fingers to her lips, and holds them up in the air.
She's gone, but Gale knows where to find her. She's huddled up near the old oak, her knees pulled up to her chin. It's not until he gets closer that he realizes she's shaking with the force of her sobs.
"Oh, Katniss," he says, sliding down beside her. He puts an arm around her and tugs, and to his surprise she comes without resistance. She sobs into his shoulder, his shirt getting more and more damp as time progresses. He rubs gentle circles on her back, knowing that sooner or later she'll run out of tears.
"I never got to tell him," she gasps. "I never got to say thank you for saving my life. He was so stupid."
"He saved that little girl's life, jumped in front of that spear for her," Gale reminds her.
"For what? It was so pointless. It's all pointless," her replies are muffled by his shirt. "He should have just…"
"Let her die?" Gale suggests.
Katniss shakes her head against him.
"it should never have happened in the first place. Never. We can't let them do this to us any more, Gale."
Katniss pulls away, and her tearstained face is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. With the pad of his thumb, he brushes away the tear tracks.
"Peeta was brave. Not many of us can say we died bravely."
"We shouldn't have to," Katniss says. "You're right. If we all stopped watching, there'd be no show."
Gale can't help himself. He knows that he shouldn't, that it's not the right time, that he's taking advantage of her. But hearing her say the things he's had in his heart for so long now, hearing her echo his thoughts, he can't help it. He gives her plenty of time to pull away, to go back to just being friends. But she stays where she is, her big gray eyes like rain clouds on a stormy day just staring into his. He leans forward slowly, and presses his lips to hers.
After a moment, he tries to pull away, but Katniss's lips follow him. Her hands grab handfuls of his damp shirt and pull him closer. Automatically his hands go to her hair, swiftly unbraiding it so he can bury his fingers in it like he's been dreaming about for years now.
He can taste the salt of her tears on her lips. She's crying again. He rests his forehead against hers, and strokes her hair.
"Don't you ever leave me, Gale Hawthorn," she whispers, her eyes closed. "Don't you ever leave."
Gale pulls her closer, so close it's as if they're merging into one being.
"Never," he promises. But he knows that the world is too uncertain to ever let him keep that promise. For now she is safe in his arms, and that's all that matters.
Katniss lets out a shaky breath, and rests her head on Gale's shoulder. Her whole world has shifted. This morning Gale was her best friend. Now, he's something else, something more. She never thought about him this way before. But then he kissed her, and it was so obvious. She's hurting and angry about Peeta, angry that he didn't stay alive long enough for her to thank him, angry that he loved her and she never knew. But it's Gale she's meant to be with. Of course. There never was anyone else. It's as obvious as the fact that the sun is shining, or that plants need rain. Katniss and Gale. And he's right, he's right about everything. The Games have to stop.
She draws away from him, far enough to look into his eyes but not far enough to be out of contact with him. She feels like she needs him, like she needs to feel him near her to assure herself that he's still here.
"I think… I think I…" she stumbles over her words.
Gale smiles slightly.
"I know," he says. "I've always known. You and me, we belong together."
Their fingers entwine, and it just feels right. Despite everything, Katniss smiles.
She traces the familiar planes of his face with the pad of her finger.
"Run away with me," she echoes his words from before the Reaping. "Anywhere. Just as long as it's far away from anyone who can hurt us."
"You were right before, Catnip," he says. "We can't run and leave our families behind. That's not the answer."
Katniss knows it's true. But she wants more than anything to get away from the iron rule of the Capitol, and right now living in the forest with Gale seems like heaven.
"We can't let them do this any more," she says. "They can't keep killing good people like Peeta. It has to stop."
"What do you want to do about it?" Gale asks.
Katniss is looking at him, but seeing Peeta, the boy who kept her from starving, who gave her the courage to live. And she's seeing Prim's white face the morning of the Reaping, terrified that it was going to be her. And she's seeing the District 11 girl, Rue, singing to Peeta as he drifts away. And there's iron in those gray eyes of hers.
"We're going to stop watching," she says.