It's Reaping Day. Prim's first, and I can feel her hand trembling in mine as I lead her into the square. She only has her name in once, which makes her as safe as she can be, but Prim's not stupid. She knows that one is all it takes, and there isn't really such a thing as "safe" when it comes to the Reaping and the Hunger Games. Still, though, I'm counting on the odds being in her favor today.
I lead her to the section of the square reserved for the twelve-year olds and give her one last reassuring squeeze.
"You'll be fine, Prim. Be brave," I say, and kiss the top of her head. "I'll come find you after."
She just nods at me mutely, and I can see the tears she's fighting to hold back shimmering in her eyes. It kills me that I can't protect her from this. I can protect her from starvation, cold, and schoolyard bullies, but not this. I hate hate hate feeling so powerless. It's moments like these that make my hatred for the Capitol burn bright. But there's nothing I can do.
Resigned, I make my way over to my fellow sixteen-year olds. A few of us give each other terse nods, but other than that we are silent. This is not a day for idle chit-chat.
The clock strikes two and Mayor Undersee stands to give us the history of Panem, which we've all heard countless times before. Then he reads the list of past District Twelve victors, which consists of two whole names. Only one is still living—Haymitch Abernathy, who is not only our sole surviving Victor, but also the town drunk. At present he is lolling drunkenly in his chair on stage, and he waves his hand lazily in response to the scattered applause.
Then Effie Trinket, a ridiculous woman from the Capitol who wears a bright pink wig and shoes I can't believe she can actually walk in, takes the stage. It's time to draw the names of the tributes, and my body grows tenser.
As always, it's "ladies first!" Before I really have time to hope for my and Prim's safety, Effie Trinket is calling out "Oriana Kimmar!" I feel my shoulders relax before it hits me—little Ana Kimmar is one of Prim's friends from school. She's only twelve! An unsettled murmur rises from the crowd as Ana makes her way to the stage.
Ana is a Seam girl like me—dark hair, grey eyes, and a small skinny body that has never had quite enough food. Despite her diminutive size, though, she stands straight and unblinking beside Effie as the call for volunteers goes out. To nobody's surprise, no one speaks up. Ana is the oldest in her family, and even if she weren't, well, District Twelve never has volunteers. Who would volunteer for almost certain death?
I look back over my shoulder to see that Prim is crying quietly. These games are going to be especially hard for her—it's the first time she'll be watching someone she knows personally. And probably not the last.
Now it is time for the boy's name to be called. I find my friend, Gale Hawthorne, in the crowd ahead where he is standing with the other eighteen-year olds. I fear greatly for him—his name is in there 42 times. But he's eighteen—if he can just get through today he'll be safe. He glances back at me briefly as Effie crosses the stage and I give him what I hope is an encouraging smile before he turns back around.
Effie reaches into the bowl and pulls out a slip of paper. She crosses back to the microphone, and I hear her voice call out the name, "Peeta Mellark."
My heart sinks.
No, I think. Not him!
I have never actually spoken to Peeta Mellark, but I owe him a debt I will never be able to repay. He saved my life once, and I have never thanked him. I've always meant to do it, someday, but it never seemed the right time. Now I'll never get the chance.
I watch as Peeta slowly climbs the steps up to the stage. He looks shocked, but like Ana he manages to keep his composure. Again Effie calls for volunteers and again is met with silence. I know Peeta has two older brothers, and at least one of them is eligible to volunteer, but nobody expects it of him. Including Peeta himself, I am sure.
The Mayor comes back to the microphone and starts reading the dreary Treaty of Treason. I can't help watching Peeta as he stands there, doomed. I notice that his eyes are moving around rapidly as though he is searching for a particular face in the crowd. His brothers, maybe, or his father. Certainly it can't be his witch of a mother.
The Mayor finishes his reading and motions for Peeta and Ana to shake hands. As they do so, the anthem of Panem starts to play. I can see that Peeta is still searching the crowd, and then just as the anthem finishes and the Peacekeepers move to take the tributes into custody, his eyes lock onto mine. It only lasts for a second, because one of the Peacekeepers puts his hand on Peeta's shoulder and turns him around, leading him into the Justice Building behind.
And that's it—that is the last time I will ever see Peeta Mellark in person.
The Reaping is over now and we are free to go. Prim comes running through the crowd to me, still crying. She throws herself into my arms and I try to comfort her as best I can. I feel bad for Ana, of course, and her family, too, but mostly I just feel relief that it wasn't Prim, and guilt for feeling that way. I hold my sister even tighter to me.
I look over Prim's shoulder and see Gale approaching with his little brother Rory in tow. It was Rory's first Reaping, too, and I notice he looks a little pale. I know Gale had been as worried about him as I was about Prim. It has been a lucky day for us Everdeens and Hawthornes. We have another whole year together before we have to worry again, and Gale is safe from the Hunger Games forever.
Somehow, though, I do not feel as happy as I ought to.
The four of us walk over to where the rest of our families are waiting. Prim hugs our mother tightly, while Gale and Rory are both engulfed by their own mother and two younger siblings. I stand somewhat awkwardly to the side until my mother detaches herself from Prim and comes to embrace me briefly. I return the hug awkwardly—not wanting to reject her but still feeling uncomfortable accepting her affection.
"Come on," she says. "Let's go home."
We all join the throngs of people filing through the streets on the way back to the Seam. Mom and Hazelle Hawthorne are talking quietly, planning our families' usual celebratory dinner together that evening. Gale has his baby sister Posy on his shoulders as he walks beside me. Prim and Rory have paired off, and I know they are talking about Ana. As usual, Vick Hawthorne, the youngest Hawthorne son, is walking alone, lost in his own little world.
Gale is talking to me—something about Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy, but I can't concentrate on his words. I can't stop thinking about Peeta, and the debt I owe him, and the look on his face when our eyes had met for that one moment. I know I will never forgive myself for never having at least said thank you. We are almost halfway home when it dawns on me that maybe I can still have one last chance if I can only find the courage.
I stop in my tracks and everyone turns to look at me.
"I have to…" I say, gesturing over my shoulder, and then I realize I don't have time to explain. "You guys go ahead. I'll catch up later," I say, and then I turn and start in the other direction.
"Katniss!" I hear Gale call after me, but I pretend I don't hear him as I start to run. I can only hope I'm not too late.
By the time I make it back to the square it's almost completely deserted. I'm almost to the Justice Building when the front door opens, and out comes Peeta's family. Mrs. Mellark is first, her face stony as she ignores my presence. Next comes Mr. Mellark, the baker, with his arms around the shoulders of his two oldest sons. All three of them have tears in their eyes. They have just said goodbye to Peeta for the last time.
I freeze, not knowing what to say or do, but Mr. Mellark is the only one to even notice me standing there. He simply gives me a small, sad smile and a nod, which I return.
Then they are gone around the corner and I realize the clock is still ticking. I hurry up the steps and through the door. I find myself in a long hallway which is empty except for two pairs of Peacekeepers standing in front of a door on either side. I recognize the Peacekeeper standing closest to me on the left. His name is Darius, and he's one of my best customers at the Hob. I'd almost call him a friend if it weren't for the uniform he wears.
"Darius," I say, out of breath. "I need to see Peeta Mellark. Is there still time? Where is he?"
"Sorry, Katniss," Darius says. "He's in here, but he's got a group of friends visiting him, and unless they leave really soon, you're not going to have time. We've got to get him leaving for the train at precisely 3:30."
I check the clock hanging over a door at the other end of the hallway. There's eight minutes left.
"Can I wait?"
I make my way over to a bench and sit down to wait. I watch the clock constantly, my knee bouncing nervously and my mouth chewing away at my nails. I try to think out what I'm going to say to Peeta, but my brain is so muddled I eventually decide to just figure it out when I get in there.
Finally, when there are only four minutes left, the door behind Darius and his partner opens. I spring to my feet and watch as three teenage boys come out. They're Peeta's friends—I recognize them from school. None of them even glance my way as they file silently down the hallway and out the front door.
I rush up to Darius, silently asking for entrance, but he looks dubious.
"Katniss, no…there's only a few minutes left. There's not time."
Darius glances at his partner, who shrugs with indifference.
"All right," he relents, looking back at me. "You can go in. But you get three minutes and that's it, do you understand? It'll be my hide if you stay any longer than that."
"I understand. That's all I need. Thank you," I say quickly. We're wasting time, here.
Darius reaches out to open the door for me. I take a deep breath and walk inside.
After my friends leave, I wander over to the window. Soon I'm going to be leaving District Twelve forever, and I want to imprint as much of it in my mind as possible. Unfortunately, the view from this window is rather bleak—I'm staring out over the dusty town square, surrounded by empty, bare merchants' shops. The sky above is blue and empty. Everything is empty, including me.
I don't want to die. I'm only sixteen—I have so many things I still want to do in this life. But it seems that like with so many things, I'm not going to have a choice in the matter. There's no way I can win—I know that. I'm strong, but other than that I have nothing. The kids from the lower districts—the Careers—have been training their entire lives for this. I don't stand a chance.
I'm not sure I even would want to win if I could. To kill other children? I'm not sure I'll be able to do it, or live with it afterwards if I could. Look at Haymitch Abernathy—I'm pretty sure he doesn't drink like that for no reason. And what's to come back for, really, that would make it worth it? My family doesn't need me. My mother, I suspect, outright dislikes me, and my father, as much as I know he loves me, has two other sons to carry on the family business and name. There's nobody who needs me.
I think of Katniss and feel a pang of regret. She doesn't need me. She doesn't even know me. But she's the one person I really wish did. I should have told her sooner. Now I'll never…but at least I got to look at her one last time, even if it was only for a second.
My thoughts are interrupted by the opening of the door. I'm expecting a Peacekeeper coming to escort me to the train, so it's no surprise my mouth falls open with shock when I see who it is standing there.
"Three minutes," the Peacekeeper behind her says sternly, and then closes the door.
I can't believe it—Katniss Everdeen has come to see me. I didn't even think she knew I existed. And now I have exactly three minutes to work up the courage to tell her I love her. This is my last chance, and I'm lucky to have it.
"Hi," she says. She seems nervous.
I realize I'm just standing there with my mouth hanging open. I shut it quickly and force my feet to move, coming to stand a few feet away from her in the center of the room. Even under these circumstances I can't help but admire her beauty. She's wearing a blue dress—I hardly ever get to see her in a dress. Instead of her usual single long braid, her hair is coiled up at the back of her head. Just once I wish I could have gotten to see it hanging loose. But her grey eyes are the same as ever…breathtaking.
"Hi," I say.
There. The first words ever spoken between us. I wait for her to continue—she must have come for a reason.
"I know this must seem weird," she says awkwardly. "But there's something I needed to tell you before you…go. I'm Katniss Everdeen, by the way."
For the first time since Effie Trinket called out my name, I honestly want to laugh. If she only knew!
"I know," I say simply, containing my mirth. "What did you want to tell me?"
"Um, I just wanted to say thank you. For the bread when we were kids. You probably don't remember…"
"I remember," I interrupt quickly. Like I could ever forget. It was only one of the defining moments of my life, that's all.
"Well," says Katniss. "I had to come and tell you now…I just thought, maybe it would help if you knew…you saved our lives that day."
"Really?" I ask doubtfully. It had only been a couple loaves of bread. Burnt bread, at that.
"Yes," she nods. "That bread…it gave me the strength to remember the things my father had taught me…how to gather plants for food, how to hunt. It gave me hope."
I can feel my heart swelling at her words. I had never known I'd had such an impact on her life. At least I'll have this to cling to in the days to come.
"I'm glad," I say. "Thank you for telling me that."
"I should have thanked you sooner. I don't know why I didn't…."
"No," I say. "You didn't need to thank me. I never expected that."
"But I'll never be able to repay you now."
"You just did," I say. "Just by coming here today."
Katniss nods and looks down at her feet. "I wish I could do more," she says softly. Then, "I guess I better go…"
"No, wait! Please."
I can't let her go yet. Not yet. I need to tell her. She turns back to look at me.
"I have something I wanted to tell you, too," I say.
"Really?" I see confusion in her eyes. No wonder—when she came in here she didn't even think I knew her name. Wait until she hears what I have to say next. If I can work up the nerve, that is…
"Yes," I say. "Katniss, I…"
The words stick in my throat and I want to scream with frustration.
Say it! I tell myself. It doesn't matter what she says or what she thinks—you'll be dead in a few days either way and at least it will be one less regret to die with…this is your last chance!
The silence stretches out and now Katniss is looking at me strangely. Time is running out.
Say it, dammit!
"Katniss, I…I love you."
I'm so relieved to have finally gotten the words out that for a moment I forget to watch for her reaction. When I do look all I see is shock.
"What?" she practically whispers, her grey eyes wide.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I know it's out of the blue. I never meant for it to be this way, but I just needed you to know…once…before I die."
"Peeta…I don't…I don't know what to say," she stammers. "We don't even know each other."
"I know," I say, disappointed despite all common sense. "You don't have to say anything. I know you better than you'd think, but I also know that's going to be hard for you to understand. But I just needed to get it out there."
She nods, and I expect her to say goodbye and leave then, but she doesn't. Instead she just looks at me thoughtfully. We stand there in silence for a few moments, and then I can see on her face that she's come to some kind of decision. Now it's her turn to shock me.
"Peeta, come here," she says quietly and takes a step forward.
"What?" I stammer, unnerved by her proximity.
"Come here," she says again but by this time her command is useless because she's standing inches in front of me now. My heart stops and then all of a sudden her lips are on mine.
The kiss is chaste, sweet—our lips are the only things touching. I close my eyes, determined to treasure every moment. Her lips are soft, and she smells heavenly, just like I always knew she would.
Suddenly she's already pulling away. It's too fast—it can't be over yet! Without thinking I reach up to cup her face and gently pull her back. To my surprise she doesn't resist. Our lips meet again, and this time I am ready. I press my lips more firmly to hers, and when our mouths open I could swear it was like she was melting into me. I wrap my arms around her and hold her as close to me as I can. Her arms come up around my neck; her hands are in my hair.
I pour everything into this kiss—all the years of watching and yearning and wanting. I try to make her understand how much I love her—how much I wish things could be different, that we had more time. This one kiss has to make up for the lifetime of kisses I had wanted to share with her.
Somewhere in the background I hear the door open and someone clears his throat. I just tighten my arms around Katniss again and ignore it.
Not yet. Just a little longer. Please.
"Come on, guys. Three minutes is up. Time to go."
Now I expect Katniss to pull herself away, but she doesn't—she just goes on kissing me. I think I'm in heaven.
But then they are tearing her away from me. We try to hold on to one another, but they are too strong. One of the Peacekeepers pries her fingers from my hands while the other grabs her around the waist and lifts her up and away.
I know it's pointless to resist, but my heart is breaking. I follow as close as I can as they carry her across the room. Katniss is still struggling against them, her eyes locked on mine.
"Peeta!" she cries. "Promise me!"
"Anything," I tell her quickly.
They're at the door now, and Katniss grabs onto the doorframe. One of the Peacekeepers starts working to pry her fingers loose again.
"Dammit, Darius!" she yells. "Peeta, come home! Do you hear me?"
Her fingers are loose now, and they're pulling her back.
"Promise me you'll come home!" I hear her say one last time before the door slams shut between us.
I cannot believe that just happened.
AN: Please review!