He was terrified.
Fear coursed through his body, leaving every limb trembling uncontrollably, every breath sharp and ragged, every heartbeat pounding in his ears. Of course, that made him exactly no different to every other twelve-year old in the makeshift pen.
He glanced across to the group of girls his own age and quickly found her. Arms crossed, face blank, he wished he possessed even an ounce of her steadfast courage. He had no doubt that the same terror ran through her veins, but watched in admiration the way in which she rose above it, refused to let it drown her. As if he wasn't already besotted...
The neon woman on stage interrupted his reverie. As she cleared her throat, ready to announce the first name, he felt all traces of air leave his lungs. It was the worst possible fate he could imagine: sitting at home in front of the television, forced to watch her bleed out, in pain, dying alone. The instant the first syllable left the woman's lips, the utter relief that flowed over him was almost tangible.
It wasn't her. She was ok. She was safe.
It was hours later, as he warmed his feet by the fiery oven, that it finally hit him. He had no idea whose was the second name called. He had been so consumed with relief that she had been spared, he had forgotten to fear for his own life. Suddenly, the full force of realisation came crashing down on him: it could be him. He could so easily be the one forced to die alone, she the one left behind to watch. Terror rippled through his body at the thought, at the realisation that this day would repeat itself another four, five, six times – each with worse and worse odds.
If the next 365 days were all that they were guaranteed, he was determined to make the most of them.
Tomorrow, he promised himself, tomorrow I'm going to talk to her.
And so it began.
Every day, when the nerves got the better of him, and every year, when the terror subsided and they were granted another reprieve, he made the same resolution.
Tomorrow I'll talk to her. Tomorrow...
But tomorrow inevitably turned into today, and words were nowhere to be found.
He had come close, once. It had been their sixteenth year. The year he had added the tiny blonde girl to the plea he whispered desperately under his breath. It hurt to imagine just how quickly she would break if her beloved sister were snatched away.
Not me, not her, not Prim. Not me, not her, not Prim.
The reaping had been eventful that year. The staggering mentor had been more inebriated than usual and tackled the effervescent Capitol woman, knocking the candy floss wig clear off her head. After its retrieval, she had returned to the platform flustered and mortified. Her trembling fingers fumbled, dropping the first few names she attempted to draw from each bowl.
After the two unfortunate children had been whisked away, after the relieved crowd had retreated, he saw her. Across the square, he watched as she comforted her still-shaking sister. Words flooded into his mind. The impassioned speeches he practised silently at night, the ones that vanished like mist at the sight of her in the daylight, remained clear and vivid today.
He was three, maybe four, steps away when a tall figure materialised in front of him, embracing the two girls solidly. A joke was made, smiles shared, and the three walked off together.
He would never wish the torment of the Games on anyone, but... No. He pushed the thought from his head. If dark hair and grey eyes could make her happy, then how dare he fantasise about his disappearance?
It didn't make the silent, solitary walks home from school any easier though...
Every year it was the same. Familiar names - from the Seam, from the town. And every year, he never forgot that the relief felt at not hearing Mellark or Everdeen boom out from the stage was only temporary. There would always be next year. Until finally...they were eighteen.
Their final reaping passed in a daze. His uncontainable joy at never again having to fear losing her to the arena was mingled with sorrow as the blonde girl with the shiny gold pin fastened to her elegant dress stood bravely on the stage, her father weeping silently behind her.
That afternoon, every fibre of his being wanted to embrace her, to mourn the loss of a friend, to rejoice the end of their mortal jeopardy. But without looking he knew there was already another set of arms wrapped around her.
Adult life began that day. He spent his days in the bakery, not the schoolyard, and the less she occupied his vision, the more she occupied his thoughts.
From time to time he saw her. Across the square. Outside the Hob. Crossing the Meadow. Walking home from the mines.
Always with him.
His favourite moments were when he caught a glimpse of her through the store window, smiling sadly at her sister gazing longingly at his cakes.
Every day he was certain that today would be the day, but the right time never seemed to arise.
One day he saw the whole lot of them. Two widows, six children. Gathered together around the cobbler's stall, each being fitted for a pair of sturdy boots. He wondered how much game they were trading for them. How many squirrels equalled a pair of boots? What was the going rate on berries? Yet another aspect of her life he longed to know more about.
Maybe I can ask her. Offer to make some sort of trade... Tomorrow.
But by tomorrow, they were gone.
Word spread quickly, but he refused to believe it until he saw it for himself: the two ramshackle houses, entirely empty and utterly abandoned. Every soul in District 12 had their own theory as to what exactly had happened to the Hawthorne and Everdeen families, but he had no doubt at all as to where she now was.
As he stared at the ragged iron fence, now permanently electrified, he heard the distinct cry of a mockingjay. Its song rang out strong and clear, filling the air with a vaguely familiar melody. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it vanished, taking with it the last fragment of hope that maybe, finally...today.