Author's note: I know there are a few AU stories out there that follow the plot line of "What if Peeta went in to the games alone?" ("The Other Perspective" and "Reaping" are the first two I can think of; check them out). And the ones I've read are all good, but I typically hesitate on stories that remove Katniss as the main protagonist of "The Hunger Games" and the ultimate catalyst for the revolution. I enjoy having a female character serve as the protagonist, and I feel kind of guilty eliminating Katniss' role in the 74th Hunger Games. But I got a particular scene in my head for this AU, and I just couldn't shake it. So I went ahead and wrote it. I love the character of Katniss, but I do think Peeta is my favorite. Since we never really see his thoughts or his motivations, I think there's just a goldmine of things to explore with his character. I've always been interested in the reasoning behind a lot of his decisions and actions in the games, things we can only guess at through the the eyes of Katniss, who's a pretty unreliable narrator. I do hope to (and plan to) keep Katniss as an integral part of the plot and eventual revolution, but this will be a Peeta-heavy fic.

I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

I. And me fresh out of rope

The summer sun beat down on her unbearably, and a bead of sweat meandered down her neck, trickling down her back to pool at her tailbone. The heat alone was bad enough, but being herded into the square with all the other kids, everyone trying to keep their limbs from touching each other more than necessary as they shuffled to their designated spots to await their fate, made the air even more stifling.

Katniss Everdeen surveyed the crowd, eyes meeting mostly the crowns of heads as she was too short to peer over most of the teenagers in her age group. The kids' faces to her left and right mirrored the dread and fear she was sure were etched in the lines of her own face. Like lambs to a slaughter, she thought as they all filed to the pit before the stage. She eyed the two bowls that adorned the stage, her gaze lingering on the one she knew to hold all the names of the girls in town, ages 12 to 18—and then some. She mentally counted the number of slips bearing the name Katniss Everdeen: 20. Then, with an added sense of trepidation, she thought of the one, lone slip bearing her little sister's name. Primrose Everdeen.

Twenty-one slips among thousands, probably tens of thousands. District 12 was a small town, but she knew many Seam kids, like herself and her best friend, Gale Hawthorne, had to enter their names into the reaping additional times every year in exchange for more tesserae, just to be able to eat. The odds were in her favor, she knew, but the thought did little to quell the anxiety knotting her stomach.

Finally, she heard a commotion on stage and watched as the one-woman Capitol circus, known as Effie Trinket, teetered up to the podium in her garish mint green garb and a ridiculous pink wig; the loud colors contrasted painfully with the coal-muted drab of her surroundings. Mayor Undersee followed the Capitol escort to the microphone, appearing solemn. Katniss knew the reaping was tough for him too; his daughter, Madge—Katniss' only friend outside of Gale—was also among the crowd. As the mayor began his speech, the same one he gave every year, Katniss scanned the crowd for her friend but couldn't spot her; there were many blond heads, the mark of the Merchant class, in the sea of dark-colored Seam hair. She saw Prim, though, her two pigtails and short stature easy to spot. As if sensing her stare, Prim craned her neck around and locked eyes with her sister; she tried to smile, but Katniss could see the fearful quiver of her chin, so she smiled as warmly as she could, nodding her head at the stage to tell her to pay attention. Prim ducked her head and faced forward, the tail of her too-big shirt wriggling loose from the back of her skirt. The sight squeezed at her heart, and Katniss swallowed against the lump in her throat.

The mayor finished his speech and took a seat next to Haymitch Abernathy, the only surviving Twelve victor of the Hunger Games—and the town drunk. Katniss' mouth twisted into a scowl, but her attention was drawn back to the podium when the speakers screeched as Effie fumbled with the mic.

She launched into her usual spiel about her duties as District 12's escort, concluding with a laughable throwaway line about being honored to represent their small coal town. "Happy Hunger Games!" she chirped, her bubbly excitement meeting a wall of stoicism from the crowd. "And may the odds be ever in your favor! Now, ladies first!"

As Effie wobbled over to the bowl, Katniss nearly doubled over from the terror knotting in her stomach; it felt like the entire crowd was holding its breath. Not me, not me, not me, she pleaded silently, adding, not Prim.

"Coralie Langley!"

Her breath escaped her, and she closed her eyes in gratitude. Another year safe. She immediately felt a twinge of guilt as she watched Coralie Langley make her way to the stage. No, it wasn't her or Prim, but it was still someone she knew, someone from the Seam. Coralie was a girl in her grade; they had never spoken, but they had a few classes together over the years. She seemed nice enough, but Katniss knew, noting the girl's small frame and the tears streaming down her face, she didn't have a ghost of a chance in the games.

Once Coralie stood next to Effie, the pink-haired woman congratulated the poor girl and asked for any volunteers to take her place. No one in the crowd moved or spoke. After an awkward silence, Effie trotted to the second glass bowl, trying to drum up excitement for the boy tribute. When she pulled out a white slip, Katniss sent out a silent prayer for Gale's safety, closing her eyes in anticipation.

"Peeta Mellark!"

Her eyes snapped open, and her heart dropped to her stomach. Peeta Mellark! She watched her fellow classmate, with his stocky build and his curly blond hair, as he moved stiffly to the stage. How? How could his name have been chosen? He was Merchant, the baker's son, who had his fair share to eat every day. At 16, his name could only have been in there five times. Peeta Mellark, the boy who saved her life five years ago with a couple loaves of bread, thrown to her in secret. The bread had come at the lowest point in Katniss' life, only a few months after her father's death in the coal mines, when she was certain she and Prim were simply going to starve to death because their mother was too sick and depressed to work or move or even talk. She could still picture the angry welt on his cheek and the black eye he had received from his mother for burning those loaves so he could toss them to her in the rain. The act had stirred something in her, uncovering nearly forgotten knowledge of plants and hunting tips passed down by her father; from that moment on, Katniss knew what she could do to feed herself and Prim. That bread had literally saved her life.

She had never thanked him for his kindness, too embarrassed to confront him in school, too confused as to why he never acknowledged her beyond a cursory or lingering glance in school. And now, she'd likely never get the chance to thank him. It wasn't fair. It wasn't. She felt the blood rushing in her ears with the shame and anger of knowing this debt she owed him would go unpaid.

Glancing up at the stage, her eyes focused on him as he stopped in front of Effie. She felt dizzy and lightheaded all of a sudden, and before she knew it, a sound ripped from her throat. "No!"

Everything went impossibly silent as everyone's heads swiveled toward the source of the strangled cry; she felt every single pair of eyes on her, and her face flushed angrily. She couldn't breathe. She hadn't meant to say anything; the word had slipped out of her before she could think. She couldn't even remember the last time there had been an outburst like this at a reaping. Never, she would venture. Any kind of disturbance would be met with swift punishment by the Peacekeepers stationed around the square. Most kids were too relieved to have not been chosen to offer any kind of disapproval about the tributes chosen, even if it was a friend; even family members stayed eerily quiet, aside from slight disgruntlement when a 12- or 13-year old was chosen. She imagined parents started saying goodbye to their children the day they were born, knowing the potentially gruesome death that awaited them in mere years.

Unbidden, her eyes locked with Peeta's. He stared at her, mystified, his lips parted slightly and his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. He must think her an absolute fool. Mortified, Katniss tore her eyes away from his face, but she dared not look at anyone in the crowd—she was certain she felt Gale's piercing gaze on the back of her head—so she desperately sought something else to train her eyes on. Unfortunately, that something else was Haymitch Abernathy, who, despite earlier had been slumped down in his seat snoring, was now looking at her keenly, suddenly very interested in the proceedings as he leaned forward in his chair.

"Oh, my!" Effie trilled, trying to break the tension that had settled over the square. She wrapped a finely manicured hand around Peeta's wrist and pulled him closer. "It sounds like you have a fan, Peeta Mellark! And who might that be, hmm? A girlfriend? A secret admirer?" she asked conspiratorially and shoved the microphone in his face, smiling suggestively at the crowd and at the cameras.

Peeta's mouth fell open, a choked sound lodging in his throat, but to his credit, he didn't respond. Focusing her eyes on the flag of Panem that draped over the Justice Building, Katniss forced herself to hold her head high. She trained her face into a mask of indifference, even though she wanted to curl up and disappear. No, this wasn't fair at all.

At this moment, Haymitch belched loudly and comically, breaking the discomfort of the moment. Katniss wondered briefly if he had done it on purpose. Effie shot Haymich a nasty look and cleared her throat, asking the obligatory request for boy volunteers. As expected, no one raised their hand, and Effie encouraged Peeta and Coralie to shake hands, which they obliged dutifully; Katniss noticed Peeta offer Coralie a small smile, but Coralie was too busy wiping snot from her nose to return it.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a round of applause for our District 12 tributes, Coralie Langley and Peeta Mellark!" Effie cried into the microphone, clapping excitedly. But she was the only one, and when she realized this, she made an indignant sound, her face pinched, and she dropped her hands. Spinning on her impractically high heels, she ushered the tributes into the Justice Building with Haymitch, the mayor and the other officials following them inside.

As if on cue, everyone in the crowd began to disperse, moving slowly as they gave silent thanks they had survived another reaping. The kids located their families in the groups of spectators, hugging their parents, and the insufferably somber atmosphere lifted as relief settled in its place.

So, that was it. The spectacle was over, the tributes were chosen, and now Katniss would never see Peeta again. Not in person, at least. She would still see him on TV, as he was paraded around to the amusement of the Capitol and then as he died some horrible, painful death in the Hunger Games arena.

Her mouth felt dry; as she moved her tongue around, she became aware of her surroundings again. Prim was suddenly in front of her, reaching her arms out, and Katniss pulled her into a hug, momentarily grateful for her sister's safety. "You're okay, Little Duck," she said hoarsely. "Let's go find Mom."

They found Mrs. Everdeen standing next to the Hawthornes; Gale had already rounded up his brothers Vick and Rory, who were hugging their mother, Hazel, and affectionately rustling 4-year-old Posy's hair. Squeezing Prim's hand, Katniss tried to smile at Gale like nothing had happened, but although his mouth twitched in kind, he still squinted at her suspiciously.

"I didn't know you knew Peeta Mellark," he said almost accusingly as Prim dropped her hand and launched herself into Mrs. Everdeen's arms.

Katniss hoped her face didn't give her away, but she felt the corners of her mouth spasm. "I didn't—I don't," she said, trying to casually nod at Hazel and her other sons. "I just, I heard the name wrong." It was a stupid lie, and Gale didn't buy it, but he thankfully didn't push the issue.

"He's the baker's son," Prim offered helpfully; her eyes were sorrowful. "He decorates the cakes. He's nice."

This information startled Katniss; how did Prim know so much about him? They often stopped to stare at the beautiful cakes in the bakery window, mostly for Prim's sake, but Katniss just assumed the baker frosted them. How did Prim find this out? Had she talked to Peeta at the bakery or at school, when Katniss hadn't been around? It unsettled her that her little sister had possibly said more words to the baker's son than she herself had, and she was still going to let him march off to his death without so much as a "Thanks for saving my life." Was she really that stubborn and heartless?

"I—" she had started to say before she knew what she wanted to say. She licked her lips and started over, cautiously, "I know the girl, though. Coralie. We have—had classes together. We helped each other with homework a lot. I should say goodbye to her." Another lie. This one came out easier, but she doubted it was any more believable. She tugged on one of Prim's braid, smiling at her. "I'll meet you two back at the house, okay?"

Her mother gave her a strange look but nodded nonetheless. Katniss waved at the Hawthornes, purposefully glazing past Gale's stony face, and walked quickly back in the direction of the Justice Building. The tributes got an hour to say goodbye to family and friends before they were put on the train to be shuttled to the Capitol. She bounded up the steps and was about to turn down the main hall, but she halted in her tracks when she saw Peeta's family walking toward her.

Shocked, Katniss quickly jumped out of the way, pressing her back against the stone wall of the building. But his mother saw her, and when his family stepped outside, Mrs. Mellark sized her up with a scowl. "You—" she snarled, but Mr. Mellark pushed his wife forward.

"Let's go home," he said gruffly, but he offered Katniss a weak smile. His red-rimmed eyes looked haunted. Glowering at her, Mrs. Mellark eventually snapped her head forward and hurried off. Her husband and Peeta's two older brothers followed behind her, shuffling down the steps in grim resignation.

Her heart was racing. She wasn't sure what she had done to incur Mrs. Mellark's wrath, but she figured it had to do with her being from the Seam. She remembered the insults the baker's wife had hurled at her that fateful night as Katniss scurried away from the bakery's trash cans and collapsed out of hunger and exhaustion, before Peeta threw her the bread.

Her nerves rattled, Katniss lingered outside the building as other people, mostly kids from school, periodically filed out of the Justice Building. She could guess, by the number of fair-skinned, light-haired kids leaving, how many were there to see Peeta. He was popular at school, she knew, well-liked among their peers. She felt her confidence deflate; Peeta had a lot of friends in his life, people who surely occupied his mind more than some Seam girl he gave bread to once years ago. She couldn't even be sure he remembered.

One girl passed her, crying freely. Katniss recognized her—Delly Cartwright, another girl in her grade. The blonde was often in Peeta's company, and Katniss assumed she was Peeta's best friend. Girlfriend, maybe, judging by how hard she was crying. Her brother was at her side, trying to console her as he led her away.

Katniss was surprised by the next girl who passed by her. "Madge!" she called out before she could stop herself. The mayor's daughter turned to her, her eyebrows lifting in surprise. Unlike Delly, Madge was not crying, but her mouth was set in a stern line. Her lips quirked in a slight smile in greeting as she approached. "Who…?" Katniss didn't know how to ask what she wanted to know, but Madge picked up on her question.


"I didn't know you knew him," she said, echoing Gale's words. Madge's shoulder lifted in a shrug.

"We used to be closer, in grade school," she said, her face softening. "I used to call him my boyfriend when we were 8. I tried to kiss him once, but he politely turned me down, saying he didn't want to ruin our friendship. He was always the diplomat." She smiled sardonically.

"Oh." Katniss didn't know what to say. She and Madge were friends, though they didn't usually talk much when they hung out, but she was still surprised by how little she knew about the girl who sat with her at lunch every day.

"I wanted to give him my pin," Madge continued. Katniss recalled the gold pin Madge had been wearing earlier that day when she and Gale had sold her some strawberries. "They allow tributes to take a token with them, from home, into the arena. I just thought he might like to have something that he can look at and think of home when he's—away."

"Oh," she said again stupidly. Madge looked up at the clock tower in the square and glanced back at Katniss with a knowing smile.

"If you want to say goodbye, you should do it now. There's not much time left." With a small wave, Madge walked away.

Knowing she couldn't waste any more time, Katniss gritted her teeth and slipped into the Justice Building. Ahead, a kid her age she vaguely recognized as a friend of Peeta's walked out of a room, shutting the door behind him. He didn't even acknowledge her as he passed. Katniss paused outside the door, and the Peacekeeper guarding the room gave her a pointed look. "You've got three minutes," he said, nodding her in. "We have to wrap this up and get him on the train."

Tentatively, Katniss twisted the doorknob and pushed it open. His blue eyes were immediately on her. For a moment, she stood dumbly in the doorway before she forced herself to take a step inside and shut the door behind her. Peeta stood up from the couch, but neither of them spoke yet. Finally, he stepped toward her, then stopped. She noticed the tear tracks on his cheeks, and she wasn't sure why she was so startled to see he had been crying. "Katniss," he said, his voice soft. She realized suddenly that was the first word he had ever said to her. "You came."

Had he expected her? Of course, after her outburst, he was probably curious why a surly, standoffish girl from the Seam who had never spoken to him would cry out when his name was chosen. But his voice sounded so…happy. There was something else in the depths of his startlingly blue eyes that she couldn't decipher either.

She finally found her voice. "I wanted—" No, that wasn't right. "I needed to—to…I came to thank you. For the bread." She hoped he would remember, so she wouldn't have to endure the shame of retelling the story to him.

He blinked. His mouth seemed to curve into a frown. "Oh. The bread." He sighed, shoving his hands into his pockets. "You don't have to thank me for that. It was the right thing to do. And I couldn't stand—" he stopped himself though, and what he couldn't stand, she guessed she would never know.

They fell silent again, staring at each other. Katniss grew increasingly uncomfortable under his gaze; he was looking at her like he was sad he was never going to see her again, like she was the one who was being shipped off to her death and not him. How ludicrous. "You saved my life," she blurted, surprising even herself, but she had wanted to shake off the unsettling feeling beginning to take hold in her chest. "And Prim's. You saved our lives. With the bread. It mattered a, a great deal…to us."

He smiled sadly then, dipping his head. "I'm glad then."

She stared at the blond curls on the top of his head, noticing the scattering of golden brown locks amidst all the white yellow strands. "I should go now," she said tremulously, clenching her fists.

His head snapped back up, his eyes wide. "Wait! Wait. You can't go yet," he begged, stepping closer toward her as he pulled his hands out of his pockets. "I need to tell you…I need to tell you that I—"

"Don't!" she snapped, suddenly seized with fear, and her hand shot out to halt him. She could see it in his eyes, what he needed to say, etched all over the honest planes of his face, and she just couldn't bear to hear it. He looked at her, dumbstruck. "Don't you dare! I can't…That's not fair! You can't do this to me right now, when you…" Her voice cracked, and she couldn't finish.

Peeta swallowed thickly, and he nodded in defeat. "Okay." He looked away, his eyes swimming.

She stared at him quietly for a moment, then held out her hand to him for a handshake. Confused, he considered her hand before slowly grasping it in his own. His hand was warm, soft; kneading dough must have kept his hands pretty pliable. She suddenly felt self-conscious about her own calloused, bony hands. "Just…try to win," she told him, meeting his eyes again. "And…when you come back, you can tell me then."

She meant it. She didn't understand why, but she realized then how desperately she wanted him to come back home. He was the boy with the bread. He was somebody important. To her, at least.

Something flickered in his eyes, and he smiled sadly at her, giving her hand a tiny squeeze before letting her go. "I'll try," he whispered.

Just then, the Peacekeeper opened the door, causing her to jump. "Time's up," he said gruffly, putting a hand on her shoulder to steer her out of the room. The roughness of his touch sent a peal of fear and desperation down her spine.

"You're strong!" she exclaimed suddenly, stumbling backward as the Peacekeeper pulled her out of the room. "I've seen you with the flour bags at the bakery, and—and you came in second in the wrestling competition. Make sure they know that!"

Stunned, Peeta watched her leave, straining his neck to peer around the Peacekeeper. "Katniss—"

But the Peacekeeper slammed the door shut once Katniss was in the hallway. She huffed at the guard, but his hand tightened around his gun threateningly, so she looked at the wooden door that now separated her and Peeta one last time, before she turned around—and nearly collided with Haymitch. She gasped but immediately clamped her mouth shut, pushing her shoulders back to stand up tall.

He squinted at her for a moment, the fumes he emitted nearly choking her. "What's your name, sweetheart?" he asked finally, pulling a flask out of his crumpled jacket and twisting the cap off to take a sip.

Katniss wrinkled her nose as he drank, but she answered him, "Katniss Everdeen."

He seemed to consider this. "Everdeen, eh? Silas Everdeen's daughter." The mention of her father startled her, and she blinked at him, her mouth twisting into a frown. "Good man," he said solemnly, surprising her yet again. She couldn't imagine her father ever consorting with the likes of Haymitch Abernathy. "I've seen you trading at the Hob, yeah?"

The hair stood up on the back of her neck, and she stiffened, glancing back at the Peacekeeper. He wasn't looking at them, but Haymitch picked up on her concern and guided her back toward the square. He continued, his voice low, "I've seen the squirrels you bring to Greasy Sae. Clean shot through the eye every time. You must be pretty good with a bow."

If she weren't so paranoid about a Peacekeeper or some kind of Capitol attendant overhearing him, she would be flattered by his compliment. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said coolly, eager to leave his presence and his stench.

Haymitch laughed, and they stopped outside of the Justice Building. He gave her one more look, seeming to size her up. "I bet you'd do pretty well in the games," he said, almost to himself. With another pull from his flask, he turned to walk back into the building.

Watching his retreating form, she called after him, "You better help him."

He turned around slowly, the look on his face unreadable. Then, he smirked at her. "Don't worry, sweetheart. I got plans for Peeta Mellark."

She didn't know why, but his words sent chills down her back.

Disclaimer: I like to use song lyrics for titles.

Reviews much appreciated!