(I keep living this day like the next will never come)
Astrid Mullen - fifteen years old with long, wavy brown hair and brown eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across her round cheeks - is District 12's female tribute for the 76th Hunger Games, which means that I am not. I never will be.
It means I'm done. It means I'm free. It means I'll live.
I find Prim as soon as we're permitted to leave the square, wrapping her tightly in my arms. She's fourteen now, too old to hold my hand as we walk to school in the morning or greet me with a hug in the lunchroom. But today is Reaping Day, my very last, and so she embraces me fiercely, her thin arms like a vise around my middle.
"You made it, Katniss," she chokes into my shoulder. As I pull away, I realize she's shaking.
"Do you know her?" I whisper, and Prim's sweet face crumples. She nods.
"We've been partners all year in science class."
"You can still say goodbye," I tell her gently, scanning the small crowd outside the Justice Building, where the tributes are taken each year so their friends and family can bid them farewell. I've never done it, myself; I don't have many friends.
Prim hesitates, and I hug her quickly again. "I'm sure she'd like to see you. I'll wait for you right here." My heart clenches as I watch her run towards the gathering of Peacekeepers and mourning families. My eligibility for the Games has come and gone, but Prim's got four more years ahead of her.
Footsteps crunch on the gravel behind me, and I turn. It's my mother. Her hand reaches out to smooth back my hair as she reaches my side. "Congratulations, honey," she says quietly, her eyes wrinkling at the corners with the hint of a smile. She follows my gaze towards the Justice Building, where Prim has just reached the line. "Oh, no," she murmurs. "Was Prim friends with the girl?"
"Yeah," I say, suddenly distracted by the group of rowdy boys behind my mother's shoulder. They're jumping around, punching one another on the arm and shouting, and one even has his friend in a headlock. They're boys from my year, and while normally I'd roll my eyes at their antics, today they have something realto celebrate. A little smile creeps its way onto my face before I can stop it, and then one of them - the one in the headlock - makes eye contact. I look away, turning back towards the Justice Building abruptly.
Too late. "Hi Katniss," Peeta Mellark says breathlessly, walking towards us with one hand in the pocket of his navy blue slacks. "Hi, Mrs. Everdeen."
"Hello, Peeta," she answers. I didn't even know my mother knew who Peeta was - I've definitely never mentioned his name at home.
"Hi," I say, craning my neck back around to see if Prim's on her way back yet. She's next in line.
"So, congratulations," he says, gesturing towards me with his free hand. It's strange, how we all resort to the same word when this happens: congratulations, like it's some kind of victory and not sheer dumb luck that Effie Trinket never plucked our names from her blown glass bowls. "You must be really relieved it's all over now."
"My sister's only fourteen," I say, and feel a little bad when his face turns pink in response.
Peeta scratches at the back of his head awkwardly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean - of course it's not over, I just meant, since you're aged out now, and everything." He pauses. "Well, anyway, I wanted to let you know that Delly Cartwright is having a picnic sort of thing at her house tomorrow, for all the kids in our year. It's called a potluck, and everybody brings a dish to share - I'm bringing sugar cookies, probably."
I try not to roll my eyes. In the Seam, a potluck is pretty much the only kind of party there is - no one can afford to feed a room full of guests on their own. "I know what a potluck is."
"Oh." Peeta's face has reached a full-on blush now, and his hand fidgets in his pocket. "Sorry, I didn't know what one was until Delly told me. But, I just wanted to let you know you should come. It'll be fun."
"It sounds like fun," my mother chimes in. I stare at her. She knows I'm not going to this party.
"I actually think I have plans tomorrow night," I say, shrugging apologetically. "But thank you for inviting me."
"Oh. Okay." Peeta shoves his other hand into his pocket, looking sheepish. "Well, if you change your mind, you're welcome to come." He pauses for a moment, kicking halfheartedly at a stone near his foot. "Oh, and...I really like your dress. You look pretty...see you around, Katniss."
He's already halfway back to his friends before I can cross my arms over my chest in response. I've been wearing this dress to the Reaping for the past three years, and each year it's grown tighter around my hips and my chest. If there's one thing I don't need, it's Peeta Mellark developing an appreciation for my...developments.
"That was nice of him," my mother says mildly. "Do you have plans with Gale tomorrow?"
"Yes," I lie. "He realized there were a few snares he forgot to check last week in the woods, and he wants to go check them again before the meat goes bad." In fact, Gale and I already checked all of his snares early this morning, but she wouldn't know because she was still asleep when I slipped quietly back into bed.
"You two have been spending a lot of time together lately."
I frown. Is that true? If we have, it's because it's late spring and game is plentiful. I even brought down a deer last week, and ended up having to leave a few rabbits behind just so we could carry it all. It was almost physically painful for me to waste so much perfectly good meat. "I guess. Hunting's been good lately."
We stand in silence and watch as Prim finally makes her way back to us, shoulders slumped. Our mother hugs her gently, and wipes a tear off her cheek with her thumb. I'm glad that years later, she's capable of this again - of being our mother - but a part of me just thinks too little, too late.
I take Prim's cold, trembling fingers in my own and squeeze them when she doesn't pull away. "Let's go home."
Gale must have seen me coming through the window, because when he opens the door his arms are around me before I even get a glimpse of his face.
"You're done, Catnip," he says into my hair, and for the first time since the Reaping today I feel a smile crack along my face. I am done.
"Yup." I disentangle myself and wave at his brother Vick, who's chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Most families have a nice meal on Reaping Day to celebrate another year of disaster averted - nicer than usual, anyway. The Hawthornes have been a lot better off since Gale started working in the mines two years ago, bringing in a much steadier income than his mother makes washing laundry for folks in town, but fresh zucchini and tomatoes are about as fancy as they'll get tonight.
Or maybe not. "You want to run by the bakery with me?" Gale asks, leaning against the kitchen counter, his long legs crossed at the ankle before him. "We're getting a loaf of bread tonight. Big spenders," he says with a grin.
I think of Peeta Mellark, who's almost definitely working the counter at his family's bakery right now - it's one of the busiest days of the year. "No thanks," I say, playing with the end of my braid. "I should get home soon, I just wanted to come say hi."
"You sure? I could walk you home after," he offers. Vick snorts, and Gale punches him in the arm. I sigh internally. I know why Gale wants to walk me home, and I don't want to deal with it right now.
"That's okay. Prim's upset...she knew the girl. Astrid," I add. It's almost too easy to slip into pronouns and generalities once the tributes have been chosen. In the Capitol they're treated like celebrities, their names and faces plastered on every surface, but here we just want a head start on forgetting. We already know they're not coming back.
"Me too." The voice of Gale's youngest brother, Rory, carries from the room next to us, where I hadn't seen him lying on the lumpy sofa with a book. "She was really nice." Is nice, I want to correct him, but he's right - it's only a matter of days until the past tense will settle like a thick fog over all of our conversations about the tributes.
We're all quiet for a long moment, and somehow I know we're all thinking about the same thing: the children we knew who were reaped, who were really nice, who sat behind us in math class or played kickball after school, who died shivering and shaking and starving on a television screen while thousands of people watched. For me it was Lann Harwood, a blond boy from town who walked me to the school nurse one day when we were ten and I sprained my ankle during recess. He made it five days in the arena before a Career tracked him down and slit his throat in the moonlight. He was thirteen. I remember the announcers complaining that it was too dark to properly see the whole "battle," and for the rest of those Games the sun never fully set at night again.
"I'll see you later," I tell Gale, and leave before he can pull me into another hug.
Most years it takes just a few days for District 12 to settle back into the low-grade hum of business as usual, and this one is no exception. The morning after the opening ceremonies I head to the town square and find it like any other Thursday in late spring: a few children chasing each other down the street, a few Merchants shopping for weekend groceries, and a few people like me, approaching the job board outside the Justice Building in the hopes that something new's been posted since the last time we looked.
I can tell from fifty feet away that the board is exactly the way I left it just a few days ago: full of jobs no one will hire me to do. I'm not strong enough to lay bricks. I'm not smart enough to tutor schoolchildren. I'm not friendly enough to sell things in a shop.
If hunting were legal, I'd be all set: I could set up a stand at the Hob and peddle cuts of meat every morning. But it's not legal; it's punishable by death, so instead I trade my haul at back doors and back alleys, underpaid for the risk I'm taking because my customers know I'm too desperate to refuse.
Gale says there's always a place for me in the mines, but I can't. I can't descend into the earth each day, deep into the belly of the hole that devoured my father when I was only eleven. I can't imagine anything worse. I had told him that, and he'd gone cold.
"That's what I thought, too, until Posy got old enough to ask me why her stomach made funny noises when she got hungry." That was a month ago, and we haven't talked about it since.
I walk up to the board anyway and scan the sheets of paper carefully. Maybe there's something I missed last week, or something new that slipped behind an old one in the breeze. Maybe there's -
"Hey Katniss." Maybe there's Peeta Mellark, standing behind me, watching me run my fingers over the job postings like a crazy person.
Peeta moves to my side, and I can feel that his eyes are on me, not the board. "Are you looking for a job?"
"I amlooking at the job board," I say, glancing at him.
"Well, we're hiring at the bakery." I hadn't noticed, but he's got a bright yellow sheet of paper in his hand. "You should apply."
I shake my head. "I don't know how to bake." Not to mention, a girl from the Seam working in a Merchant shop - it's not unheard of, but it's unusual.
"That's okay, it's not a baking job. We need someone to run the register up front."
I frown. "Isn't that your job?"
"It was," he nods. "My brother's getting married, though, so my dad needs another set of hands in the kitchen." Peeta grins a little and holds up his hands, wiggling his fingers slightly. "And it just so happens I have very talented hands."
I feel a flush rising in my cheeks, so I grab his job ad and hold it in front of my face, skimming over the details. The pay isn't great, but it's not bad. There's only one bakery in District 12, so I won't scare away too many customers - they'll have nowhere else to go. Most importantly, it's above ground.
"How would I apply?" I ask, handing the paper back to him.
He shrugs. "You can come talk to my dad right now if you want."
I hesitate, looking back at the board. It's been weeks and I'm still unemployed. I'm too old for tesserae, and I'd rather die than let Prim add extra slips into the Reaping bowl.
"Alright," I say. It's not until we're halfway there that I notice Peeta never tacked up the yellow job flyer - it's crumpled in his fist.
Thanks for reading!
So, the last time I wrote a multi-chapter fic was probably over a decade ago when I was around 13 and lost interest after a couple chapters. My attention span is SLIGHTLY better nowadays, so I don't think I'll have that problem again! Nonetheless, writing anything other than a one-shot is still pretty new for me, and I really hope you enjoy/want to read more.
I'm also rating it M because I intend to have that kind of content somewhere down the line, but that won't pop up for a while, I think.