They sit in the woods, feasting on the bread he says he "shot" earlier that morning. The baker gave it to him for luck, and she knows that, but she still likes that he's taking so much time to make her smile. He does too much of it, and she doesn't do it enough, but he assures her that her smile is enough payment, so she tries to smile a lot around him. They've been best friends for years, and he always takes the time to make sure she's happy, to make sure she's got enough to eat, to make sure she's okay. She'd never admit it to him, but she likes that someone is actually looking out for her.
He'd never admit it to her, but he loves her, and he doesn't mind taking care of her like he minds taking care of his family. Feeding his family is an obligation, a responsibility he wasn't really ready for, but she is independent, she doesn't need him to feed her. All she needs from him is the reassurance that he's still there, that he's always there. And he always is.
It's reaping day, and she's terrified for him and her sister. It's Prim's first year, his last. She'll finally be able to stop worrying about him, but she'll never stop worrying about Prim. She's been worried about this day for years, actually. The day her worry doubles, the day she starts worrying about them both. She'd never tell him, but she'll always worry about him. Because after today, if he isn't reaped, he goes into the mines. And she knows he'd almost rather go into the Hunger Games than the mines.
And to be honest, she'd almost rather him go to the games too. At least he's big and strong, and he knows how to fight and hunt. The mines would kill his spirit, break his back, take away his smile and the twinkle in his eye. At least the games would kill him instantly, the mines would take almost thirty years before they finally killed him. And if he did live through the games, he probably wouldn't be the same, but he'd be alive, he'd never have to worry about food again. But she'd never tell him that. He's scared enough as it is.
They sit overlooking the valley, and he remembers their first reaping day together, he was only 14, and it was her first year at 12. She tried her best not to show any emotion, but in the woods she didn't have to wear a mask, and he saw right through her. He had held her close, and told her she would be okay, he'd survived two years with twice as many slips as she had today.
Tesserae, what a joke, he thinks to himself. Just another way to ensure the rich and the poor hate each other.
But today, he has 42 slips of paper in that bowl. He's worried, sure, but he's more worried about 25 other slips in the bowl of girl names. 24 for her, and one for Prim. Those slips are really what matters to him, because he knows if he is reaped, she will wait for him. He will do everything to win, but she will be safe. That's what matters. But if she or her sister are selected, she will volunteer, and she will probably die.
And that's something he just can't live through.
He could always volunteer, he thinks. But then he'd leave both families without a provider, and they swore they'd take care of each other's families years ago. But could he live with himself, if she died on a TV screen in front of him? Could he live with her dying in his arms in the arena?
She rambles about some thing she saw in the woods, some thing that's really unimportant to him, when she suddenly just drops her sentence. He senses her looking at him, so he turns his head and looks at her. Her eyes are grey with a little blue mixed in, and he could stare at them all day. She's told him that his grey eyes cloud up like a storm when he's thinking deeply, so he has no doubt that they're clouding up now. He breaks the eye contact and looks over the valley, "We could do it, you know. Run away, live in the woods. You and me, we could make it."
She sighs and looks down at the grasses, "We couldn't. We have so many children. We couldn't run away."
They aren't really their kids, it's the brothers and sisters, she means. But no one can bear to leave them, no one can bear to watch them starve. He smirks at her, "Rory's been learning how to hunt. We could always come back for them too."
She is uneasy, he can tell the plan doesn't sit right with her, that she doesn't know if she could walk away from them. His face perks up, a plan forming, "What if we took Rory and Prim? Rory could help us hunt, and my mother's laundry business could provide enough for her, Posy, and Vick. In a few months, when we're ready, we could come back for them."
She looks up at him and smiles, "How many months?"
"So you're agreeing?" His smirk makes her feel safe, it always has. She nods, and he keeps going with some plans he hasn't really thought through, "Just long enough to make them think we're dead. They probably wouldn't even notice we were gone, honestly."
"What if they call our names?" she asks.
He shakes his head, "How many times have I told you, Catnip? We aren't going to get selected." She giggles at his nickname for her, it never fails to make her smile, just like his smirk. "So what do you say? Can we go?" He's never felt so happy in his entire life. She nods, and he feels as if he could fly. She is agreeing to letting him save her.
He jumps up and gives her a list of things to bring in preparation.
The square is filled with people dressed in their best clothes. Hazelle looks down and holds the hands of Vick and Posy. Neither of them know where their brothers are, but she still feels the need to be protective. Gale and Rory told her that they'd forgotten something and would be along soon, but she saw the look in Gale's eyes. They're leaving today, she's sure of it. She knows her son better than anyone, except maybe Katniss. She knows what they're doing. She can't let on, but Hazelle is a smart woman, she's figured them out.
The clock strikes noon in the square, and all the children ages 12-18 begin filling into their places. The woman from the Capitol is wearing a disgusting shade of pink, and Hazelle wonders how many meals she could give her children with the money that woman spent on her outfit alone. She introduces herself as Effie Trinket, same as every year, but no one bothers to remember her name, it isn't important. Haymitch Abernathy is also introduced along with Mayor Undersee.
Ms. Trinket calls for the crowd's silence and plays the anthem of Panem, and a lovely little voice over tells the people about the dark days of the first rebellion 74 years ago. Hazelle hates this stupid video, they show it every single year and she knows most of the words by heart. Out of habit, she searches the crowd for Gale and for Katniss, but somehow, she knows she won't find either of them there.
When the video ends, Ms. Trinket, with her bubbling and smiling voice, calls for "Ladies first." Hazelle looks around, having a terrible feeling about what is about to happen. It would be a great honor for someone from the district to win, and the entire district would get food once a month for an entire year, and that is something that no one can pass up. Her heart pangs, and Hazelle almost wishes Katniss or Gale would go in, just so they could win and get all the money and food for the district. But if one of them went, the other would too, and you can't have two victors.
She reaches into the bowl and pulls out a slip of paper and calls out the name. Hazelle exhales, no one will notice their absences if their names aren't called. Ms. Trinket walks back to the microphone, smiling proudly, as if she's proud that she sends children to their deaths. She unfolds the paper, "Katniss Everdeen."
The crowd gasps, Katniss is one of the most loved in the district. But as Ms. Trinket calls the name again, people start looking around them wildly. Katniss wouldn't be afraid, she'd come forward with her head held tall. Hazelle looks around to see the Peacekeepers stiffening with their guns. She pulls Posy and Vick closely to her as she realizes her worst fears were realized.
Effie looks to the mayor, who shrugs his shoulders, and Haymitch just starts laughing and tells her to keep going. To hell with it, she thinks, and she smiles like she is supposed to.
"And now for the boys," Ms. Trinket says. She puts her hand into the bowl, and Posy, who still thinks Gale is present, squeezes her mother's hand tightly. She pulls out the paper and pauses before reading the name.
But he is nowhere to be found. He is not here. Surely there is some kind of mistake. People buzz around, looking for the strikingly dark haired man. Effie looks to the mayor, who shrugs and mentions for her to pull out another name. Effie shakes her head and walks back into the Justice Building to make a phone call. What the hell is going on? What will Panem do with no District 12 tribute? And where the hell is Gale Hawthorne and Katniss Everdeen? Effie thinks.
She knows one thing for sure, the President is going to be madder than her sister was when she tattooed her skin green and a week later it went out of style.