A/N: Published: 7/10/12, edited 22/12/14.
Firstly, before you dive in to this, I want to thank everyone who has reviewed and favourited and followed this story. It means the world to me, and I owe you an edited version that's less shit. I'm not taking anything out (not anything significant, at least) but just tidying it up before it makes me cringe any more than it already does and haunts me to my grave.
Thank you for reading, and enjoy!
Chapter 1: The Trouble Starts
I stretch my limbs under the thin blanket that covers me and sigh, my joints cracking. It's the middle of August. Even with all the windows thrown open and only a raggedy blanket covering me to keep the mosquitoes away, the summer heat is still searing me. I feel sticky and sweaty. The icy chill of winter almost sounds appealing.
Looking to my left, I see Prim curled up beside Mom, her normally pale cheeks flushed with the heat. Buttercup sits at her feet, his yellow eyes fixed on me and his tattered ears pointing forward. He's never liked me and I've never liked him.
"What do you want?" I hiss as I swing my legs over the edge of the mattress and slip on my hunting boots. Within seconds I can feel sweat beginning to form between the leather, my socks, and my feet. Buttercup's ears twitch but he remains still, watching me leave the room. I hear the sound of springs creaking and roll my eyes. That damn cat may act like he's indifferent, but I know that he sleeps on my side of the bed when I'm gone.
The kitchen is only marginally cooler. I splash some cold water onto my face to wake me and cool me down and begin braiding my hair into a neater plait. As I pass the kitchen table an upturned wooden bowl catches my eye. Pausing, I lift the bowl to find a slither of goat's cheese wrapped in basil leaves from Prim. I smile to myself and slip the cheese into my bag, before stepping out into the glare of the morning sun. It'll be blazing by midday.
District 12 is quiet. Underfoot golden grass crunches, and dust flies up around me as I walk. The usual bands of men and women I should see aren't around. They are in bed, like everyone else, Merchant and Seam alike. The only soul I see on my walk to the meadow is a young woman walking along one of the many paths that wind through the grass, worn down by man over time so that the grass knows that trying to grow there is futile, with a basket of laundry on her hip. We nod our heads in greeting as we pass each other but say nothing. No one wants to disturb the quiet. The only sounds to be heard are birds singing, the occasional barking dog or crying baby, and the trees rustling. It's nice not to have the daily grinding and whirring and clanking sounds of the mines filling the air.
As per usual, the fence surrounding the district is silent. I slide under the gap and enter the forest, my skin finally protected from the sun by the canopy of leaves above my head. I find my bow and arrows and sling the quiver over my shoulder. Although the trees do give me shade, it's still hot. And the sun is barely over the mountains. My footsteps are louder than usual on the dry, cracked earth but I'm not worried about scaring prey away. All the animals are hiding in the cool. The occasional bird flies above me and sometimes I catch a rabbit's white tail flashing as it scampers past, but other than that, I'm very much alone.
I sigh, my shoulders slumping, when I think of how hot it's going to be at school. The building is falling down in some places, and when it rains heavily enough, the roof leaks. In the winter it's frigid and everybody wraps up warm with hats and scarves even though we're inside. Despite it's difficulties with food, winter is much more bearable than summer. The classrooms heat up like greenhouses from May to early September leaving us sitting there, glued to our seats, unable to concentrate at all. Merchant girls bring in expensive-looking paper fans to flutter and wear cotton dresses way too short to be really appropriate with their makeup running down their cheeks.
Seam kids, on the other hand, have learnt how to cope from the stifling heat. Firstly, you don't sit by a window unless there's a breeze or a tree right outside. Second, always wear light clothing. Thirdly, don't wear makeup. The third rule is ignored by some girls. They wear lipstick or a black coating on their eyelashes, but most go without. Then, at least, you don't look like you've melted in the sun at the end of the day.
"Hey Catnip," Gale greets me when I reach our meeting place – a rocky ledge overlooking the valley.
"Hi Gale," I reply, leaning back against the rock.
Gale and I have been friends for just over five years now. Well, we've known each other for five years, but only friends for four. We didn't trust each other enough that first year to do anything on our hunting trips except for hunt. We're often mistaken as being brother and sister; our dark hair and grey eyes (signature attributes of the Seam, really, showing that any of us could be seen as related) but we're just friends. Hawthorne and Everdeen are two names that are put together a lot. They seem right by now.
"Look what I shot," Gale smirks. He holds up a load of bread with one of my arrows stuck through the middle. I twist around and check my quiver, and sure enough, there's one missing. The heat must really be messing with me for me to miss that.
"This is real bakery bread, Gale!" I exclaim in surprise, taking the still-warm load in my hands and bringing it to my nose, inhaling the delicious scent. He must have been at the bakery at the turn of the open/close sign to trade, and up even earlier to catch whatever he traded it for. "How much did this cost?"
"Only a squirrel," he shrugs, taking it from me and removing the arrow. "I think Mr Mellark was feeling sentimental this morning."
"Prim brought us cheese," I interject. Gale smiles.
"Thank you, Prim. We'll have a feast to start this momentous day."
I duck away to pluck a handful of berries from the bushes growing nearby while he slices the bread and spreads the goat's cheese. My stomach rumbles. I can't believe Gale got bakery bread. The last time I had some was when I bought a cheese bun for Prim on her birthday. It cost me four squirrels, but the tiny slice I had was so delicious that it was worth it. Once the bread is gone, I lay back in the sun to let my food digests, my mouth open to catch the berries Gale is throwing at my face.
"Why was Mr Mellark feeling sentimental?" I ask, turning my head to face him, only to get hit in the eye by a flying berry. Gale snorts. I throw it back at him and it smacks against his forehead, leaving behind a red splat on his tanned skin.
"Haven't they told you?" he asks, wiping at the berry juice.
"Who has told me what?"
"Oh, Catnip," he says, tucking his arms behind his head. "I hardly believe they didn't tell you…" he chuckles to himself. "You obviously don't listen to the morning announcements."
"I always listen," I retort. Gale gives me a knowing look. "Fine. You know I don't listen to them. They aren't exactly riveting."
"Today is the best day of your life. It's Baby Day!"
"No it isn't."
"Not today!" I say, wracking my brain for any memory of those two fateful words being spoken. I come up with nothing but droning lectures about coal. "It can't be today!"
"It's the same day as it is every year…" Gale says, obviously enjoying my confusion. I hide my face in my palm. Fuck. This is what happens when I don't listen.
Baby Day is the first day of a school project. Exclusive to Twelve, it's the school's way of teaching us how to be good parents. It's also the teachers' opportunity to watch their pupils suffer for months on end. The actual project is called The Baby Games. Each student is paired up with a peer and this couple has to look after a sack of flour for approximately nine months. Each duo is set various tasks, and, at the end of the nine months, if the flour bag has been damaged, lost, or used in food, you fail. And since the stupid thing accounts for 80% of my final grade this year, failure means retaking every single exam.
Unless you couldn't already tell, I hate the damn thing. The reason for doing it still escapes me.
"I remember my own games," Gale suddenly interrupts my thoughts.
"If you're going to get all 'when I was sixteen…' on me I'm going to leave right now," I warn. Gale just grins.
"When I was sixteen," he says, mocking me, "I was paired with Lydia Whesters. You know, the blacksmith's daughter.
"Doesn't she have a younger brother?"
"Yeah, Bron. In your year," Gale nods his head. "Maybe you'll get paired with him," he adds, winking and nudging me in the ribs.
"No thanks," I scoff, picturing the mousey-haired boy who once dipped my braids into the inkwell on his desk. "Remind me of what this day entails, please," I say sarcastically.
Gale replies with equal jest. "You'll find out soon enough, grasshopper."
I punch him on the arm. "Asshole."
"You're just going to have to wait," he says, standing and brushing off his pants.
"Why are you so unhelpful? This is the worst project in Panem and you won't prepare me!"
"It really isn't that bad," Gale says. I roll my eyes and stand. "Lydia was really fun to work with and it's a laugh."
"I'm dreading the entire thing. Especially the reaping," I sigh, following Gale into the forest.
"Because it's just an excuse for Merchants to show off their nice clothes and for Seam kids to be embarrassed by going onto the stage in front of everyone."
"The reaping definitely isn't the worst part."
"What is then?"
I'd even go as far as saying that it is the easiest," Gale says, stopping by a towering oak tree and crouching down to reset a trap. "The worst part is the interviews. And the lessons. They're tedious and make everyone feel like stabbing themselves."
"The lessons?" I ask. "What can they possibly teach us that we couldn't find out for ourselves?"
"I'm not telling you anymore," Gale says with a laugh. "You've already tricked me into saying too much."
Over the next two hours we manage to add more wood to the pile we're collecting for storage over the winter when there is no dry wood left behind, Gale finds two rabbits in his snares, and I shoot four fat pigeons down from their roost. After trading at the hob, we go our separate ways. A tub of water waits for me when I arrive home and I scrub myself clean, washing away the dirt and grease from my hair.
"Why is this stupid thing got everyone so excited?" I grumble to my mother over lunch, tugging at the intricate braided hairstyle she styled it in not ten minutes ago, strands of hair pulling uncomfortably at my scalp.
"The government sees it as a way of bringing students together, creating bonds between members of the district, and preparing the teenage pupils for the future," Mom explains, so serious that I can't help the laugh that escapes me. "It's also an excuse for celebration!"
I pick at the food on my plate. "Celebrating what?"
"Oh honestly, Katniss," my mother scolds. "Are you really going to turn down an excuse to have a good time with your friends?" I look away. What friends? Mom sips her water. "That's what I thought."
"Primrose, could you put the dishes in the sink?" she asks. Prim nods and quickly collects our plates, moving away to wash them. Mom faces me, her arm jerking for a second as if she was going to take my hand, but she stops herself. "I know you've had to grow up way too fast, Katniss," she says. I bite my tongue. "And I'm sorry. I know it's my fault… for zoning out."
"You were grieving," I force out. "You had every right-"
"No I didn't," Mom says fiercely. "I had no right to abandon my daughters. If I had done something sooner we would have savings. A better life," she pauses, and reaches forward to smooth down a part of my hair that has become undone.
"Mom…" I say, feeling uncomfortable in this sudden display of motherly affection.
"Listen to me, please," she interrupts. "I want you to go to school with a smile on your face. I want you to enjoy the games, even if you think it's dumb. You'll get good memories out of it and I want you to be a teenager for once."
"I am a teenager."
"Not a normal one," my mother says sadly, her tone soft. "And that isn't fair. The next nine months will fly past, I promise. And afterwards, everything will have changed for the better, you'll see."
For a long moment we're silent. I stare at the wooden table in front of me. Mom sighs.
"I love you, Mom," I whisper, the words foreign on my tongue.
"I love you too," she smiles, just as Prim walks back over with her schoolbag. She acts as if nothing has happened, resuming the task of sewing up an old blouse.
"See you later," Prim says, kissing her on the cheeks. I pick up my own bag and follow her out the door. I don't smile.
The reaping commences at 2pm sharp. All students, whether they are at First or Second School, are expected to be at school at 12pm so that everyone can be present and prepared for us to be paired. You'd think every single person in the district would be in bed, sleeping in. It isn't often that the mines are closed. People around here take what they can get.
But not us. Not the Mellark family.
Without fail, Mom wakes me up along with my brothers at 6am with a shout of:
"Get up you lazy good-for-nothings! Be in the kitchen in fifteen minutes!"
I groan and roll over onto my stomach, hiding my head under my pillow. My father knocks gently on my bedroom door and pushes it open. I stay hidden.
"Come on Peet. Get up," he says. "You don't want to be late."
"The one day school starts at midday and I'm not allowed to sleep in," I complain, my words slightly muffled by the pillow.
"You have a responsibility to help out," my father reminds me.
"Alright," I mumble, yanking the pillow free and sitting up, scrubbing my face with my hands. "I'll be down in a minute." Dad nods and shut the door again. My room is fairly cool as it is north facing so I get the least sunlight, which is brilliant this time of year but horrendous during the winter. Even then the ovens can't keep me warm. Rye tells me to close my windows and not be a fucking twat but he knows as well as I do that I can't sleep unless they're open.
I have the smallest room in the house with just about enough space for a single bed, a wardrobe, chair and sink built into the wall, but I'm happy. It's my own space and means I don't have to share with my siblings which I appreciate. I head to the sink and wash my face. There isn't enough time for showers in the mornings, not for me. Fen and Rye battle to see who'll get in there first, so I don't even bother trying. Once my face is dry I pull on a clean shirt and my pants from the day before that have flour ingrained into the fabric, drag a comb through my hair, and dart downstairs.
"Hurry up Peet," Fen says when I enter the kitchen.
"I know, I know," I say, grabbing my apron and tying it around my waist.
"You're normally the first one down here."
"And Rye's always the last," I retort. Fen shakes his head and smiles. "As long as that tradition doesn't change, we're fine," I begin washing my hands. "Getting up on a day like this is just annoying, is all."
"A day like this?" my oldest brother asks, stoking the fire. "Brother, there's only going to be one day like this in your entire life!"
Rye barrels into the room, barely dressed. "It's Reaping day, Peet!" he says, ruffling my hair. "It's time for the games!"
"I know," I say, reading the 'bake' list by the door and pulling together the ingredients I need. "It was in the announcements at school."
"I guess so… but I don't know much about it. The teachers aren't helpful at all."
"Well, to be honest, it's-" Fen starts to explain.
"Just one big party," Rye finishes. Fen rolls his eyes. "You get to 'marry' some chick and cart around a sack of flour. It's all a big joke."
"The person you get reaped with. You're 'married' to them," Fen says, forming quotation marks with his fingers. "And you're taught useless information and then have an exam about it."
"What were your games like?"
"Mine – for one – was amazing," Rye boasts. "Every single girl – and boy – wanted to be paired with me. And it was easy to pass."
"You were one point away from failing," Fen snorts.
"Well, it isn't fair that I got marked down for taping the damn flour bag together."
"I told you to use a new bag from the bakery," Fen grins. "That's what I did. Our games, however, were the last of their kind. You-" he points at me. "- have got the updated books and rules."
"We got it easy," Rye smirks.
"Should I be worried?" I ask. I don't want to be retaking anything next summer.
"You'll be fine," Fen tells me.
"But here are a few words of advice though," says Rye, an evil glint in his eyes. "Don't take it the wrong way if you're partnered with a guy."
"Why would I-?"
"There isn't an equal male to female ratio. There's a chance you'll be put with a guy."
I duck my head. It's a well-known fact that girls are less privileged in this district, more so in the Seam. People want sons to carry on their family name or business. A girl is more hassle than a boy because you have to marry them off in order to decrease how many mouths you need to feed. The orphanage is mostly girls, and they don't get to go to school.
"Well, at least with a guy you don't have to knock them up," Fen says with a laugh. "I mean, you can try… but if I've learnt anything from biology classes, it's pretty much impossible to do it."
"It's completely impossible, dumbass," Rye retorts.
"Remember those dudes from the Capitol?"
"One of them used to be a woman!"
Fen frowns. "Oh yeah. I forgot about that."
"How could you-"
I stare at my brothers. With a guy you don't have to knock them up?! "What the hell are you talking about?" I ask, cutting them off. They both give me confused looks.
"Peet, remember that guy from the Capitol? The one who claimed to be the first man to become pregnant and there was this shit storm until he admitted he was born-"
"Not that!" I exclaim. "What do you mean by 'knock them up'?!"
Fen's face falls. He looks at Rye.
"Peeta," he says slowly. "You have to have a baby with the person you're reaped with."
"No you don't. You're messing with me," I say, shaking my head.
"I promise you we aren't."
I fold my arms over my chest. "If that's true, where are your kids?"
"We both had male partners."
"I don't believe you."
"They can't do that!" I splutter.
"Sure they can," Fen says. "The government needs to control the population somehow."
"Why else would they spend so long teaching us about childcare?" Rye adds. "You never know, this year may be the year the Mellark curse is broken."
"I'm not going to do… that," I say, my stomach rolling.
"You have to. It's not that bad. I mean, us three are products of the games," Fen says solemnly. I grit my teeth. This can't be real. I'd have known about it. I should've know about it, right?
"They can't!" I mumble.
My brothers simultaneously burst out laughing.
"We're fucking with you, Peeta!" howls Rye, clutching at his side.
"I can't believe you fell for it!" roars Fen, high-fiving Rye. I slump against the countertop. I can't believe I fell for it.
"Never do that to me again," I say.
"Oh my God," Rye wheezes. Fen is now red in the face as he tries to compose himself.
"What are you lot laughing about?" asks Dad upon entering the room. "I don't pay you to mess about."
"We got him and we got him good," Fen reports.
"Ah, the old 'Mellark curse' eh?" Dad chuckles, slapping me on the back. "It's a tradition, don't worry about it."
I raise a wary eyebrow. "Do I have to tell my kids the same thing?"
"You're only sixteen, son. Don't get any ideas," Dad says, glancing around at all three of us. It's silent for a split second before I speak.
"I hate you. All of you," I say, and everyone starts to laugh again. I'm fighting a grin of my own. "You just wait and see. I'm going to get you too."
"We're terrified, Peet," Rye says, waggling his fingers in my face.
Later than day I walk down the street to school, running my hand through my hair to free it from the combed down style Mom enforces before I get anywhere near the school gates.
"Peeta!" Mitch calls, waving his hand at me when I enter the courtyard in front of the school building. I walk over to join my friends, who are huddled around in a group.
"What's going on?" I ask, peering into the throng of people. Bron Whesters is sat on a tree stump in the middle, shuffling coins on a board balanced precariously on his knees, and scribbingly down names and numbers onto a piece of paper.
"Everyone's betting on who's getting partnered with who," explains Mitch.
"Have you put anything in?"
"On you," my friend says.
"Who did you bet on?" I query, narrowing my eyes.
Mitch smirks. "That you'd get with a Seam kid."
"My mom will be furious if she hears."
"What are odds that you'll get picked?" he says, trying to reason with me. "Everyone knows Merchants go with Merchants."
"But there's still a fifty-fifty chance," I point out. Mitch just shrugs.
"Are you going to bet or talk yourself out of it?" he challenges, and I rummage into my pockets and pull out a coin.
"I'll bet on you," I start. "That you'll get paired with another guy or Kaytee Crick."
"I'd rather get paired with a guy than Kaytee Crick," Mitch grimaces. He hates Kaytee Crick with passion. He says she's a stuck up slut who thinks she can do what she wants when she wants to just because he parents work at the Justice Building. I agree with him. Not necessarily about the slut part, because who am I to judge someone by how promiscuous they are, but definitely how stuck up she is. She uses the little power she has as often as she can.
"I bet you'd get on well given the chance," I tease, and Mitch mimes shooting himself. I hand Bron my money and he writes me down just before the bells rings. Bron packs away the money and the board.
"May the odds be ever in you favour," he grins, before disappearing into the crowds.
I look around the school hall as more and more people filter in, wondering whether the patched-up roof will fall in while we're all here like sitting ducks. Even then I doubt we'd get the funding to fix the place. To distract myself, I look around the room. I could be paired with anyone. In less than twenty minutes, my name will be pulled from one of the glass bowls along with someone else's. I swallow nervously, running my hand through my hair. Glancing over to the girl's side, my eyes drift to one person as if on autopilot.
Katniss Everdeen. Her long dark hair is in her trademark braid, her olive skin is tanned – evidence of hours spent in the sun. She scans the ground with a scowl. A smile plays at my lips as I watch her. I've never had the courage to talk to her despite my crush. She's kind of intimidating. I'm sure she'll be the one wearing the pants in the relationship over the next nine months.
"Settle down, please," the headmaster suddenly shouts, trying to corral the crowd but being totally ignored.
"OI!" a gruff voice bellows from the back of the hall. "SHUT YOUR GOD DAMN MOUTHS!" Everyone does as he instructs. I don't need to look around to know who it is.
"Thank you, uh, Mr Abernathy," the headmaster says rather shakily, tapping on the microphone, causing the student body to wince and cower as a high pitched wail echoes around the room. "Good afternoon, students, and welcome to the start of this year's Baby Games!" he begins clapping half-heartedly, but quickly stops when no one joins in. "Now I'll hand right over to Effie Trinket, game coordinator," he mumbles, practically diving off the stage.
A woman dressed in pink from head to toe replaces him, her shoes loud on the floorboards, her smile dazzling.
"Welcome, welcome," she warbles, her Capitol accent still heavy in her voice, even though she was moved to Twelve many years ago. "I'd like to welcome you to the first day of a fantastic new year!" she gasps excitedly, leaping to the glass bowls like a child in the candy shop even in heels as tall as her calves. "I won't keep you waiting! Let's get started, shall we? Ladies first!"
The crowd waits with baited breath as her manicured hand disappears into the slips of paper.
"Kaytee Crick!" she announces. Kaytee climbs onto stage. Beside me, Mitch freezes. He glances at me with wide eyes. I press my lips together. I don't really want him to be paired with Kaytee. I don't mind losing my money. It was only a coin. Effie moves to the other bowl and selects another slip of paper. Kaytee leans forward, waiting eagerly.
"Davis Clapton!" Effie cries. Mitch exhales loudly. Davis Clapton, a tall, blonde boy, steps up onto the stage, shakes Kaytee's hand, and they leave together to sit down. The reaping continues with Mitch being paired with another Merchant girl. Meanwhile, I watch the crowd of people growing smaller, the girls' side diminishing faster. I clasp my hand behind my back and look around. There are twenty boys left but just sixteen girls. Someone, possibly me, could be paired with someone of the same gender. And while I don't mind it really, I'd much rather be paired with a girl.
Effie picks another name out. And another and another and another. And each time it isn't me.
"Katniss Everdeen!" she reads out and my head snaps up. "Come on up, dear!"
Katniss walks steadily onto the stage, betraying no emotions. I can feel my palms sweating, and it's not because of the heat. I wonder who she'll be paired with. She could be paired with Bron or Dale or Sammy. Maybe she'll be with another Seam kid. She'd probably prefer that to being with a townie.
"Peeta Mellark!" Effie proclaims. I catch my jaw just in time before it hits the floor. From the side of the hall Mitch mouths I won at me and grins. I shake myself back into reality and join Katniss on the stage. She doesn't look at me but stares into the distance, her grey eyes wide. When she does finally look at me it's when our hands makes contact. I clasp her thin cold one in my large, clammy one (what a way to make an impression) and squeeze it reassuringly. She gives me a confused look and lets my hand go sooner than I had hoped.
"Off you go," Effie says, placing a hand on my shoulder. "To the side of the hall."
Katniss jumps down the steps, jittery and flighty, and stands at the side of the room, a few meters from the other pairs. I shove my hands in my pockets and lean against the bricks, keeping a foot between us, desperately trying to think of what I could say or do to start our partnership off on a good footing but my heart is racing and my brain has turned to mush and-
"I'm sorry," her voice is soft, barely audible, but I still jump. She looks up at me, fiddling with her braid.
"Huh?" I ask, mesmerised by her eyes.
"I'm sorry you're paired with me."
"Why would – it's alright. I don't mind," Katniss raises an eyebrow. "I didn't mean it like that," I backtrack, flushing.
"I think I know what you meant," she cuts me off, offering a barely-there smile before focusing on Effie, who's organising the last names.
I stare at her. I've been reaped with Katniss Everdeen. I lean back, my head against the wall as I try to process this fact. I can't believe this.
Let the games begin.