A/N: Okay so this came about because I wanted to try my hand at the AU world as well as a multi-chapter story. The plan is for this to be 10 chapters but I guess that could change. I'm really fascinated with AU, especially when it's done right because I think it is so fun and interesting to put these characters into different worlds. This takes place in Panem without the Hunger Games. Given that, I felt like it made sense for there to be slight differences in personality for the characters since they don't live in a world where they have to worry about that. ALSO! one of my favorite fics got taken down today because of this whole cracking down on M rated chapters so PLEASE if you want to continue reading my work go to my profile page and bookmark my LiveJournal page where all my work is posted - I'd hate to lose all you guys! Especially since I have a VERY smutty one-shot in the works and want you guys to be able to read it :) Lastly, I know you all know I'm a review whore by now but please leave me some feedback - hits/favorites/alerts are great, but I don't know how you actually felt about the work without a review! Also, future chapters might already be done and I may just be waiting until a certain # of reviews to post so get on it! ;) I'll shut up now...enjoy!
There are two things I notice when I first walk into the school's multi-purpose room.
The first is that I am the only girl who showed up to this thing. The second is that Peeta Mellark is apparently in charge of running this whole program.
Neither thought is very encouraging.
I hover over in the corner, trying to blend in and go unnoticed among the crowd of boys who are talking loudly and gesturing excitedly. I'm already so good at being quiet and staying out of the way at school it's not hard to keep it up here.
The Capitol has decided to hold a month long competition among the 11th and 12th year students at each school in every district. It's in an effort to promote district pride and build the strength of the nation's youth. There will be weeks of training followed by the actual competitions and skill assessments that will determine a victor. The victor will be rewarded with food, clothes, and money until all children in the victor's household come of age. It will test strength and survival skills and is open to all eligible students.
Usually I turn my nose up at any propaganda program the Capitol promotes in the name of 'making the lives better for their citizens'. They make us live in poverty, make us slaves to their system, and try and make us believe they care about our quality of life.
The food and money would be nice, but I am managing okay bringing in our meals from the woods. The real appeal is that winning this competition would mean Prim will be taken care of until she leaves home or gets a job. This way, when I finish school the year after next and I have to get a job and I can't keep hunting like I normally do, I can rest assured that Prim will have a full stomach and clothes on her back. My mother is still just as useless as ever and I can't rely on her to take care of Prim when I can't anymore.
I don't know how this thing will work or what to expect.
I figured there wouldn't be too many girls, but being the only one here makes me stick out like a sore thumb and I hate that kind of attention.
I wish Gale was still in school and I could at least have him by my side through this thing. He probably wishes he was here showing these Town kids how to shoot an arrow or set a snare instead of down in the mines, too.
I let my eyes drift past the crowd of boys, across the room, and settle on Peeta Mellark.
He is talking to Haymitch Abernathy, the Capitol's proxy for all their propaganda programs here in District 12. He is notorious for hating his job, his breath always smelling of alcohol, and for being so awful at running these things that we continually have the lowest turnout rate among the districts.
My stomach twists uncomfortably as Peeta Mellark's blue eyes flicker over Haymitch's shoulder and connect with my own. I immediately stare down at my shoes and feel the heat rush to my cheeks.
Peeta Mellark is a year older than me. He is a wrestling champion in the district and the baker's son. He is also the reason I'm standing here today.
It was that awful rainy day 5 years ago when I was ready to just give up, when I was certain that I would simply sit down in the mud outside the baker's house and slip away, that I had my first ever encounter with Peeta Mellark.
He threw me the bread that saved my life and I have watched him silently from afar ever since.
He is popular and handsome and athletically gifted. He is among the privilege class of Town residents, never really wanting for anything.
He makes me feel inadequate in so many ways. He is kind and charming and at ease around people. He is everything I am not.
I also feel hopelessly out of sorts at just the sight of him. When I pass him in the hallway or stand near him in the cafeteria my mind ceases to work properly. My stomach turns to knots and I feel like I have no control over myself.
As a hunter I need to be in charge of how I react to my surroundings, I need to be able to be calm and relaxed.
I don't know what it is about him that makes me feel like I've lost my balance and am about to slip from a high tree branch, but it is unnerving.
I am not intimidated by anything or anyone. I've spent the last 5 years hunting illegally outside of the district boundaries, what is it about him that affects me so much?
I shake my head to clear my thoughts and glance back up in his direction, but he is already moved on to setting up some padded mats on the floor and placing weights around it.
After a few moments he comes towards the group of boys that are crowded together near me.
He clears his throat and all the talking eventually quiets down as everyone turns to face him.
"I'm Peeta Mellark and I'm going to be leading you all in the first part of the Capitol Competition. It will consist of two weeks of training that will prepare you for the actual battles and assessments that will determine a victor later on."
The room has turned completely silent. I look around and see most of the boys are in my grade and only a few are older.
"We will start with strength training and combat skills for the first couple of days and then move on from there," he explains, scanning his eyes across the room, sizing all of us up.
"I highly advise only continuing from this point if you are a serious about competing in this program. It will be extremely difficult and challenging."
No one says anything and after a moment he claps his hands together and moves towards the weights on the floor. "Okay, then follow me."
We follow him and each stand behind a long metal rod with weights on each side.
I count that there are 14 of us.
To my left, about 3 people over, a boy with dark greasy hair is eyeing me and smirking to himself. He leans over to his friend on his left and whispers something and they share a laugh.
I avoid their eyes and focus on the weights in front of me.
"We're just going to do some light lifting today to prepare you for the more intense combat fighting coming up," Peeta explains, walking across the mats between us all. "Lift with your knees and go slow," he orders and everyone starts to pick up their weights.
I breathe deeply and reach down for the metal bar. I can barely lift one side an inch off the floor.
I huff with annoyance and try again, turning red with frustration and embarrassment when it still won't budge.
My eyes flicker over to the boy with greasy hair nearby who is watching me with amusement. "You need some help with that, sweetheart?" He asks and his friend joins him in loud, obnoxious laughter.
I turn red and return my gaze to my feet, feeling the fury and anger build up inside me.
"You'd do well to focus on yourself in this competition," I hear Peeta's voice address the boys, "putting others down won't help you any."
I swallow thickly and look up when I realize he is standing right in front of me.
"Sorry," he says, gesturing to the weights, "I'll make yours more appropriate for your size."
"I can do it," a childish impulse inside me responds right away, not wanting to admit defeat.
He smiles, a crooked, genuine smile that makes something inside me that I can neither control or deny respond.
"I know you can," he says, still leaning down to switch the weights. "It's just everyone's weights should correspond with their size and it doesn't make sense for you to try and lift double your own body weight."
He stands up after finishing and dusts his hands off. "There, now try that."
I reach down and get a firm grip on bar. It's still heavy, really heavy, but I manage to lift it up to my waist before bringing it back down to the floor.
"Not bad," he nods with approval. "You're going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else here," he comments casually, his deep blue eyes looking straight through me. "I think you can handle it though."
And with that he turns on his heel and is gone, moving across the room to watch everyone else lifting their weights.
I shake my head to clear it and try to ignore the fact his presence is going to make it twice as hard for me to focus and actually compete in this thing as it already was going to be.
When the training session is finally over I glimpse outside the windows and notice the sun has already begun to set. I frown, realizing this competition is going to really cut into my hunting time. I'll have to stay out twice as long as normal tomorrow to make up for it.
After the weight lifting we worked on fighting techniques with punching bags and then finished by lifting oversized tires across the width of the room.
I am sweaty and exhausted and now fully aware at just what a disadvantage I have in terms of strength in a group full of boys.
We gather around Peeta and Haymitch before they release us for the day.
"You need to fill out these forms and bring them back for our next session, the day after next. We meet three times a week, same time, same place," Haymitch mumbles, taking a sip of his flask that some have speculated might actually be glued to his hand.
He burps loudly and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You need to attend every training session to be able to compete in the final competitions in 2 weeks. No exceptions," he adds and then looks to Peeta.
"Good first day, everyone," Peeta says, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "Remember what we worked on for next time. Any questions?"
Everyone is quiet and it's clear people just want to be excused, but something is gnawing away at me.
I remember reading on the flyer they handed out that there was an incentive for at least coming to the first meeting. They said there would be full meals given out to all participants just for showing up.
I bite my lip as I think about our dwindling food supply back at home. I haven't brought home a good haul in a few days and spending my afternoon here instead of the woods has cut into that supply even more.
I hate sounding desperate, I don't want to look weak, but I'm not sure we'll have enough for a real dinner tonight.
Weakly, I raise my hand and clear my throat to get Peeta's attention.
He looks at me in surprise, "Katniss?"
"I um...the flyer said something about meals for people who showed up to the first day?" I cringe, feeling the blush creep up my cheeks and everyone's eyes focus on me. I sound pathetic. I sound like a little girl who only came to this for the free handout.
"That's not till the end of the week sweetheart," Haymitch responds and the same nickname the greasy hair boy used from earlier sets me on edge. "They want to make sure you're serious about this first."
I nod without looking at him and try to pretend it doesn't matter, like it doesn't mean Prim and I will be chewing on mint leaves tonight.
"Okay everyone, we'll see you next time," Peeta announces and the crowd of boys make their way towards the exit.
I grab my bag from the tables along the side of the room and try and weave my way past the slow walking group of boys near the exit.
I make my way outside and take the back way to the Seam, avoiding the front of the school and the Town where all the boys are headed.
I walk quickly, my head down and my bag slung over my shoulders.
Maybe if I make it home fast enough I can see if we have anything I can bring over to the hob to trade for a decent night's meal.
I'm so lost in my own thoughts I don't hear the footsteps coming from behind me or the voice shouting my name until he is practically beside me.
"Katniss, wait up!" Peeta calls as I whip around to see him running up to me holding a brown paper bag.
He stops a few feet away from me, clearly out of breath.
He shakes the blonde waves that fall over his forehead away from his eyes.
"I um...got this for you," he mutters, looking down at the brown bag in his hands that he holds out to me.
I look at him in confusion and hesitantly take the bag from his hands. I open it to find 3 loaves of bread and 2 apples.
I glance back up at him in stunned silence.
I can't form any words and when he sees I'm struggling to ask the where and how and why of this he responds.
"It's leftover from my lunch," he shrugs, looking away from me, "figured you could use it more than me."
I pause, still unable to voice my thoughts out loud. I highly doubt this was his lunch. And I feel uncomfortable taking his charity. At the same time I think of our bare cupboards back home and realize I can't turn this down, it wouldn't be fair to Prim.
"If you're sure you don't want it," I say quietly, suddenly feeling like I could cry because I would have gone hungry tonight without this.
"No, it's all yours," he says and for the first time since he caught up with me we actually make eye contact.
The blue of his eyes makes me feel like I'm drowning. My breath hitches, my stomach flops, and every inch of me is alive with excitement. I blush and look away, tucking my hair behind my ears.
"Well, thank you," I murmur, staring at the ground, his t-shirt, anywhere but his eyes.
"Of course," he smiles and backs away a few steps. "I'll see you next time, Katniss," he adds and then turns and heads back towards school.
I watch him go for a while until he is completely out of sight.
When I turn and continue my walk home I think of the kindness he demonstrated towards me today, helping me with the weights, giving me this food. His kindness is nothing new, I've known that about him since that day in the rain 5 years ago. I think of the uneasiness I feel around him, how I feel so unlike myself, off balanced and out of control. And then I think about how he followed me down the back way to the Seam, a route Town kids never go on, and I wonder how he knew where to find me.