A/N: This story was written for the Fandom for LLS fundraiser earlier this year, and I'm excited finally to be able to post it for everyone to see! The title and the lyrics featured in the story are from Imagine Dragons's "Demons." And I owe a huge thank you to my friend, Kristen, who proofread this for me at the very last minute!
When your dreams all fail,
And the ones we hail,
Are the worst of all.
And the blood's run stale,
I want to hide the truth,
I want to shelter you,
But with the beast inside,
There's nowhere we can hide.
The academy committee chooses her, and she swallows the bile that rises in her throat.
They don't ask whether or not Katniss wants to do it, whether she accepts, whether this is something she would choose for herself. It isn't about what she wants. She smiles and thanks the committee for the privilege to represent the district in the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games.
It doesn't take long for news to spread.
As she walks down the street, Glint Hawthorne falls into step beside her.
He is her best friend, the only person at the academy who doesn't make her feel as murderous as she is supposed to feel. The very first day they were trained, Glimmer Greystone taunted Katniss about her name, and Glint charged to her rescue, shoving Glimmer, kicking her stomach, making the trainers laugh in delight at the five-year-old boy who was already chomping at the bit to fight.
Glint asked Katniss what her name was, and she stuttered out the answer.
Her father likes exotic flowers, she tried to explain.
And Glint grinned, calling her "Catnip." He wouldn't listen when she tried to correct him, and she stopped trying as weeks passed, as they become friends, as they were trained, and he surpassed every other boy in brute strength and she turned deadly with her bow, hitting the heart every time.
"I suppose you've heard," Katniss says, rounding the corner.
Glint nods, and he slings his arm around her shoulders. "Are you ready to slaughter everyone?" he asks, and she glances up at him, towering over her, two years older. The stupid boy was desperate to fight in the Games for years, and he was finally picked to be the male tribute this year. His face is familiar to her, is handsome, sparkling eyes and confident smiles. But he isn't who he used to be.
(Or maybe he was this way the entire time, and she never wanted to realize it.)
Katniss shrugs his arm off her shoulders, and he laughs.
"Don't worry," he says, swiftly pinning her against the nearest wall, and the bakery bricks are sharp against her shoulder blades. "I'll make your death as painless as I can," he tells her, smirking.
She rolls her eyes, twisting her leg around his too quickly for him to stop and forcing him to his knees. Anger flashes across his face, but she stalks off, and she hears him start to chuckle. He likes that she is as fierce as he is; it's probably why they've stayed friends over the years, to be honest.
The sun is sinking, the sky pink, and everything sparkles, dazzling to behold.
It's blinding at noon, when the sun reflects off the glass fountains, off the diamond dust that twinkles in the benches, off the opals that line shop doors painted with a shimmering pearly sheen.
But dusk is simply pretty, the whole world seemingly softer.
The sun is about to drop behind the mountains when Katniss reaches the plaza apartments. The doorman tips his hat to her, and she doesn't cower as she crosses over marble floors and under crystal chandeliers, taking the carped lift to the twenty-eighth floor. Her family might not be as wealthy as those who live in the plaza apartments, but she won't be ashamed that her father works.
The entire twenty-eighth floor is for the Mellark family, and Katniss finds Pyrite in his bedroom, a room larger than the entire basement apartment where her family lives. A window stretches across the whole wall behind his bed, making the room glow with the sunset. The other walls are painted with diamond dust to look like the mountains, but his own drawings are papered over everything.
The television is tuned to another cooking competition, and Katniss rolls her eyes as she flops onto the bed. It draws his attention, and Pyrite turns to look at her. "I heard," he says, voice soft, but she doesn't try to explain, not when her eyes land on the purpling bruise that marks his swelling cheek.
Sometimes, she wishes she could kill Mrs. Mellark.
"Don't," Pyrite whispers, as though he can see her thoughts. "Don't, Katniss."
She bristles. "I hate that you let her hurt you," she tells him.
"And I hate the look in your eyes," he replies.
Katniss shakes her head. "I can't help being angry that you don't stand up for yourself!"
"What am I supposed to do?" he asks. "I'm not about to attack my mother." He is defensive, shoulders tight. "I'm sorry I'm not as violent as Glint Hawthorne, but I'm not going to hurt her."
His stares, unwavering, white blonde curls sweeping across his forehead.
And her fury starts to settle in her stomach, because he isn't violent, and she loves him for it, this sweet, lovely boy who is among the wealthiest in the district but never bets on the Games, who is as strong as Glint and Marvel but is among the few boys who are happy not to be at the academy.
Her sweet, sweet boy, as pretty as the glittering stones for which his mother named him.
She crooks her finger at him, making the smile spread slowly across his face.
He crawls onto the bed, onto her, his hands running over her thighs, and she touches his unmarked cheek, holds his face with her hand as she presses feathery kisses against his bruised skin. His fingers fumble with the drawstrings on her training trousers, and she cards her fingers through his hair when he starts to press hot, open-mouthed kisses to her throat. He nips at her pulse point.
She lifts her hips to help him take off her trousers. Her hands slide under his cashmere shirt.
And she starts to melts under him, his steady hands shaping her flesh to make her softer than she really is, his kisses as sweet as can possibly be, trying to undo everything the academy teaches her.
Afterward, her body flushed and boneless beneath him, his head resting between her breasts, he says it. "I don't want you to be the tribute, Katniss," he whispers, breath warm against her breast.
His oldest brother was trained at the academy. He was selected for the Games. He died.
She ghosts her fingers absently over his bare shoulder. "The committee selected me," she says.
"But the rules say that you have to volunteer," he insists. "Don't. Stay silent, and someone else won't be able to stop herself. Think about it. I bet Glimmer would leap at the chance to volunteer."
She bites her lip. "I've been trained my entire life for this," she says.
He tilts his head to look at her, his chin on her breastbone. "It's not like you asked to be plucked from school when you were five," he tells her. "And you don't want to be the tribute, do you?" His eyes are earnest, because he believes with absolute certainty that she isn't as cruel as Glimmer, as violent as Glint, as bloodthirsty as everyone else they've trained. She wants to believe he is right.
She isn't as convinced as he, though.
"No," she says. "I don't." She brushes his curls from his forehead.
He smiles crookedly. The swelling in his cheek isn't as bad. "I'll be finished with school in two years," he says, "and I'll have my inheritance. I can open my own bakery, and we can marry —"
She smirks. "I'm sure your mother would love that," she says.
The only thing Mrs. Mellark hates more than his ambitions to bake is his affection for Katniss.
"I don't care," he declares. "I like pastries, and I love you."
And she laughs at him. She can't help it. He leans up to kiss her, smiling. And he catches her gaze, his nose brushing hers as he raises his eyebrows at her. "Okay," she agrees. "I won't volunteer."
It's dark out when she leaves, and she passes his mother in the foyer; the woman glares hatefully at Katniss, a girl from the mining class who is audacious enough to try to snare a boy from the merchant class. Katniss sneers at Mrs. Mellark, meeting her hatred with hatred, and slams the door.
She walks across the town, every step familiar, until the shiny, pretty world starts to fade.
It isn't as pleasant outside the town square, away from the academy, away from the mansions that border the Capitol, away from the plaza apartments; it's dingier, the diamond dust faded, rust peaking out behind opals that lost their luster years ago. It's where Katniss is most comfortable.
The Reaping is the very next week.
Her father kisses her cheek, his eyes sad. He doesn't know that she doesn't plan to volunteer. It'll be an embarrassment to the academy when she doesn't, but her father will be pleased. Her mother helps her with her hair, pinning the braids up with her own beloved diamond beret. And Prim takes her hand, forehead pinched. "I don't want you to volunteer," she admits. Katniss kisses her cheek.
"Don't worry, Little Duck," she says, adding at a whisper, "I won't." She winks, and Prim beams.
She really intends not to volunteer. But her heart stops when they say it. Primrose Everdeen.
And she panics, because her sister is twelve, isn't trained, wouldn't survive the very first night, and Katniss needs to volunteer, because someone else might not, and Prim would be sent into the Games. Katniss screams the words before her sister reaches the stage. It isn't how someone volunteers, and everyone is confused, some disapproving, others amused, but Katniss doesn't care.
She hugs her sister, and she walks to the stage, waiting for everything to be settled.
It doesn't take long, and she is officially the tribute for District 1. She stares out at the crowd. Her eyes water at the dazzling spectacle that is the town square. But maybe it's better, because she doesn't want to see Pyrite. Doesn't want to see his reaction. He needs to understand. He will. Her stomach drops, though, when she realizes that he is going to watch her kill on national television.
He will see that she is like every other child trained at the academy.
Cold. Deadly. Heartless.
Another name is read, the male tribute. Katniss doesn't recognize it.
She waits for Glint to volunteer, but someone else beats him to it. She gapes, stunned.
Glint looks furious, but Pyrite stalks towards the stage, undeterred, everyone else silent. He wasn't trained. The committee didn't select him. This isn't how it works. Katniss expects Glint to start something, expects everyone to argue, but no one says anything as her sweet boy takes the stage.
Because, for the first time, Pyrite Mellark looks ready to kill.
Her father dies in the quarry mines when she is six. The accident killed three dozen men, and the entire village suffers for it, too many women widowed, too many children made fatherless. And most manage to find their feet, living off government subsidies until they can support themselves.
But Mrs. Everdeen can't recover, and the man from the council comes to their small, thatched house. He looks at Prim, feverish and fussy, dying, and he looks at Katniss, bones protruding from sallow skin, sickly and unwashed. And, unsurprisingly, he takes them from their mother.
Katniss wants to run away. She wants to escape the dilapidated village and the looming quarries.
She imagines running into the magnificent mountains that loom over them, pretty and purple, dusted with snow. She tries as soon as she thinks Prim can handle the woods, but they're caught.
It takes weeks for the bruises to fade.
But another man comes to see Katniss.
He looks at the raised welts on her arms, and he looks at the snarl on her face, and he smiles.
She kicks and screams and bites, but they take her away from Prim. "Learn to fight," the man tells her, scraggly white mustache falling into his mouth, "and nobody will be able to touch your sister."
A boy comes to see her at the training barracks.
They stand with the tall, wrought iron gates between them, and he smiles sweetly at her.
It's snowing, fluffy flakes falling into his thick blonde hair, making his pale cheeks glow pink. She recognizes him, but she can't remember his name. "I'm from your village," he tells her. "My name is Peeta." She nods. She remembers. His father is the baker in their small, muddy village, isn't he?
"What do you want?" she asks.
He shifts, shoving his hands into his pockets. "My father sent me about your sister, Prim." Her heart stops, but he must see her panic, because he shakes his head quickly, his eyes wide. "It's nothing bad!" he says. "The orphanage had a fire, and everyone in town took in the kids for a few nights. My family took in your sister, and, well, my dad wants her to stay with us. For good."
Katniss gapes at him. "But — what about your mother?" she asks, because she thought —
"I won't let my mother hurt her," Peeta says, earnest, stepping closer, his gloved fingers curling around the iron bars. "I'll look after her, I promise, Katniss. I — I know how much you love her."
She nods. "Okay."
And he starts to root through his pocket for something. It must be bread, she realizes, wrapped in wrinkled paper, warm against her frozen fingers. "They're your favorites, right?" he asks, smiling.
"I can't," she says. "I should be giving you something, not —"
His fingers brush hers, and he closes her hand around the bun. "I want you to have it."
She nods, leaving him at the gate. But she glances over her shoulder before she disappears into her barrack, and she sees Peeta right where she left him, watching her. He waves, and she ducks into the barrack. It's a cheese bun, and it is her favorite. The cheese melts in her mouth, and she licks her fingers clean. She is tempted to skip evening training, but she'll be penalized for it. She doesn't.
The training was hard at first, exhausting her, wearing her to the bone, but she learns to run faster, to lift more weight, to shoot straight, hitting the target with perfect precision. They're kept on a strict schedule, but she starts to spend her free hours with Clove Harper, who is as handy with a knife as Katniss is with a bow, who never smiles, preferring to smirk, who is as cold as they come.
(It's easier to stick to your gender; there isn't the chance you'll have to kill each other in the Games.)
And Clove is from the quarry mines.
That's really why they're friends, the shared lives they've left behind.
The others who are training are from the wealthiest families in District 2, from the commander class, and they have older siblings who've fought in the Games, who've actually won the Games.
They think they're superior to everyone else for it.
But Clove was raised in the smallest village in District 2. She shared her bed with three sisters, living without running water. Her father works in the quarry mine. Katniss never questions her solidarity with Clove, and she simply shoves the other girl when Clove taunts her about Peeta.
He comes to the barracks often as the months pass, bringing her bread and stories about Prim.
It makes her stomach ache for her awful village. She looks at Peeta, stone dust threaded into his clothes, and she wishes the training barracks didn't smell clean and cold, like perfection and precision. She wishes she could smell wet quarry stone, or feel dry, dusty dirt cake her bare legs.
She wishes the vicious cat that Prim adores would hiss at her.
She wishes she could smell sleep sour breath as Prim curled up against Katniss in bed.
But she can't have anything she wishes, and she settles for cheese buns and silly stories.
They're released from training for the Games every year. They're allowed outside the training center for the Reaping itself, for the night after, and for the next few days, as the tributes in the Games are prepped and trained and interviewed. As soon as the Games themselves start, they're expected to be watching with their trainers. After all, they can learn from every mistake that every tribute makes.
It's the only time each year that Katniss can see Prim.
The night after the Reaping when they're fourteen, Katniss finds herself with Clove at the lake.
They aren't alone; others from the training center have come, too, as well as kids from the closest villages. A moment before she plunges into the water, Katniss sees Peeta smile at her. The water freezes her breath in her chest, making her limbs numb, heavy, sluggish, but she pumps her arms and legs, heating her blood as she surges upward to resurface, and she feels on fire from the cold.
Katniss abandons the quarry lake when people start to jump from the ledges into the cool water; that's how they'll kill themselves, she thinks, smashing their heads open on the abandoned quarry stones. She rolls her eyes when she sees Clove throwing her knives with perfect aim, showing off.
It's dark, and her body is trembling from the cold, but she stretches against the ground, warm from the summer sun that hid behind the mountains only hours ago. She hears footsteps, and someone moves to sit on the ground beside her. She can feel the heat radiate off him as his arm brushes hers.
"How's Prim?" she asks.
Peeta doesn't say anything, and she tilts her head to look at him, opening her eyes. "She's fine," he tells her. "She wants to be a healer." And she can hear the fondness in his voice, making her smile.
"She would make a good healer," Katniss murmurs.
He nods. "She wanted to come tonight," he says. "To see you. But I told her she couldn't."
"I'll visit her at the bakery tomorrow," Katniss says.
It's quiet, and Katniss lets her eyes flicker closed. But she feels Peeta turn towards her, his breath warm against her face, and she opens her eyes. His cheeks are pink, water clinging to his eyelashes, and he whispers the words. "Katniss, can I kiss you?" His eyes stare intently into hers.
She is startled, but she can't really deny him anything, not when he looks after her sister.
She nods, and his tongue darts out to lick his lips. And, suddenly, he leans forward, pressing his lips to hers, but he is nervous, she can tell. He kisses her cheek more than her lips, his nose brushing hers, hurried, shy. His face is a blazing red. "Sorry," he mutters. "I'm being stupid —"
And she kisses him, a proper kiss on his lips.
His hand curls around her elbow as they turn towards each others. This is her first kiss, and she suspects it's his, too. It's warm and strange, but she likes the feeling that tugs at her stomach. She touches his face, cups his jaw with her palm. His lips part; she plunges her tongue into his mouth.
Someone screams, and her entire body coils, ready to spring into action, trained to fight.
She scrambles to her feet, and her eyes catch on the panicked crowd, everyone surging to the lake.
It shouldn't concern her, but people start to look at her. They glance over their shoulders, searching, and their eyes land on Katniss. Her heart seizes, and she starts towards the lake. She isn't sure what she suspects. Someone jumped, people say, and hit the stones lying in wait. No, others whisper, someone fell. The girl didn't jump. And someone else murmurs, "No, he tossed her in, I saw him."
It must be Clove.
Her stomach starts to revolt. Her only friend could be dead.
But when she reaches the lake, she sees Clove dragging someone else from the water.
A limp body with messy blonde hair, and Katniss feels the world tilt under her. She sprints forward blindly, shoving people aside, and she sinks to her knees as Clove pounds Prim on the chest. Her sister doesn't react, pale and motionless, her leg bloodied and bent at the wrong angle.
Katniss lets out the sob that was caught in her throat, reaching forward to clutch her sister.
"Send for help!" Clove snarls, her voice deadly, as though daring anyone to refuse her demand.
It's useless. Prim is dead.
Someone finds the Peacekeepers at the closest village, and the doctors follow. It doesn't matter. Prim is dead. She hit the quarry stones, and she drowned in the freezing water. She must've come to the lake to see Katniss, and she died for it. The man at the morgue puts Prim in a pretty dress, fixes her leg, and powders color into her face, making Prim look as though she were simply asleep.
Peeta tries to talk to Katniss, but she ignores him. A few days later, she returns to training.
No one is punished for what happened, because everyone knows who did it.
And no one will punish a boy with the potential to win the Games for District 2.
Cato picked Prim up and tossed her into the water. It was an accident, a stupid joke, because Cato loves bullying people who are littler than him, loves proving what happens when little boys are trained to be killers. "I didn't mean to kill her, Katniss," Cato says, brushing her off, unapologetic.
And Katniss decides at that exact moment what she plans to do.
She pours herself into her training, and Clove starts to help her.
(After all, Clove can volunteer another year, but Katniss needs to be ready when Cato is.)
She teaches Katniss how to throw knives, and she helps Katniss with her practice interviews, coaching Katniss on how to appear deadly as well as charming. She bullies Katniss during wind sprints, pushing her to be faster. She isn't ready the next year, but, luckily, Cato isn't ready, either.
And she is ready for the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games.
It is usually contested, who will volunteer. But Clove starts to strangle the only girl who contests Katniss when she volunteers, and Katniss is chosen as the female tribute. Cato is the male tribute.
Her mother comes to see her in the justice hall. Katniss doesn't believe it. She thought her mother was dead. She turns away from the pathetic woman, and Mrs. Everdeen leaves a few minutes later.
And Peeta comes to see her. He doesn't look the way she remembers. He is thinner, tired.
"I know you hate me," he murmurs, staring at the ground. "But, um, try to win, okay?" This isn't about winning, but she stays quiet. And he manages to look at her. "Prim would want you to win."
Her jaw locks, and he turns away from her, starting for the door.
"Peeta." He glances at her. "I don't hate you." It's odd, but she doesn't.
He loved Prim, too, didn't he? A ghost of a smile crosses his lips, and he leaves.
A few weeks later, she finally avenges her sister.
She thrusts the arrow into him for the third time, feeling more warm blood splatter against her wrist. His mouth is rimmed in red as he stares at her, his eyes unfocused. "Do you know why I volunteered?" she asks him. "It wasn't for fame." She sneers. "I volunteered for you. To kill you."
She shouldn't talk about it on camera, but she doesn't care that the whole world is watching.
"A few people told me that it wasn't your fault," she says. "They told me that you were taught to be cruel, raised to kill. They told me it was an accident when you tossed my baby sister in the quarry to impress your friends. It was an accident, everyone said, when you murdered her. But it wasn't."
She pulls out the arrow, and she plunges it into his neck. He chokes on the blood.
She staggers to her feet. He is dead. She feels her own tears, hot against her cheeks.
And she hears soft footsteps. She turns to see Rue, edging nervously towards Katniss. Her little ally, the same age as Prim should be. "Katniss, you're not going to kill me, are you?" It isn't fear in her voice. It's a startling realization, because Rue understands, and she steps closer to Katniss.
"No, Rue," Katniss says softly, "I'm not going to kill you."
She remembers Peeta, telling her that she needs to try to win.
He wants her to win. But he wouldn't want her to kill Rue. He is better than that, better than Cato, better than Katniss, better than anyone from District 2. She sinks to her knees, ready to be finished.
A moment later, thin, dark arms wrap around her shoulders. "What happens next?" Rue whispers. They're the last two tributes. "I don't want you to die." And Katniss isn't about to murder tiny Rue.
What happens next? "I don't know," she whispers.
She remembers the nightlock.
It would be an easy way for Katniss to die.
He looks as though he might cry, a pencil wedged between his bandaged fingers.
She watches his hand tremble as he tries to hold the pencil to the paper, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrates, but he can't seem to accomplish whatever it is he wants to do, and he clenches his jaw, squeezing his eyes shut. And she shouldn't bother him, but she can't help herself.
"Do you need help?" she asks.
His face snaps to her, and he flushes. "I'm —I'm trying to draw," he admits.
She steps into the kitchen, hesitant, but he manages to smile, and she sits beside him, looking over his arm to see his attempts to draw. "That doesn't look bad," she says, but he shakes his head at her. "It looks better than anything I could draw," she corrects, and his smile is a little more genuine.
"I used to be really good," he says, "but. . . ." He looks at his fingers, or at what's left.
It isn't uncommon, people losing fingers in the factories; some people lose worse, in fact.
Her mother is the healer, and people come to her for help, often dragging along the severed finger or hand or arm, as though she might be able to stitch the lost limb onto the bloody stub, but the best she can do is try to stem the bleeding, clean the wound, and offer them something for the pain.
It's what she did for Petric Mellark, the fingers on his right hand severed clean off at the knuckles.
But that was three days ago, and Katniss thinks he must be at her house today to have her mother check his bandage. Mrs. Everdeen is across town, though, with Mrs. Hawthorne, who is about to have another baby. She must've asked Petric to wait. He stares at his terrible drawing, clearly upset.
And he starts fumble through his pocket with his left hand.
He pulls out the small, folded paper. "Here."
She takes the paper, unfolding it, saving him the effort. And she gasps. He can draw. "This is amazing," she breathes. It's the town square, every angle perfect, as though he photographed the buildings. She looks at him, and he seems flushed with pleasure, pushing his glasses up his nose.
He looks like most boys in District 3, with thin, pale arms, shoulders round and slumped, already forced to wear glasses from squinting at his work. He must've started picking up factory shifts after school at least two or three years ago, she thinks. He doesn't have the dark hair that most people have, though; his is blonde, almost white, and as curly as can be, making him look sweet.
His eyes are the brightest blue, too, and, at that moment, they're downcast.
He stares at his awful attempt to draw with his disfigured, bandaged hand, and she watches the emotions play out on his face. "Do you think you could draw with your left hand?" she suggests.
"I've never tried," he says, momentarily excited.
But she watches the frustrations wash over him as he fails to draw anything with his left hand.
"It'll take practice," she says, trying to be encouraging. It's what her father would say, and her father always knows what to say to raise her spirits. Petric nods, but he doesn't look encouraged.
He tosses aside the pencil. "I can't draw," he mutters, "and I won't be able to work, either. I help slice the wires, that's what I do. But I sliced my own hand on accident, and that's it. I'm useless."
"I bet you could find something to do at the shops in town," she says. And, before he can tell her how unlikely that is, she surges to her feet. "I'm not any good at drawing, but I want to show you something." She leads him to her bedroom, she uses the screwdriver she keeps in her pocket to unscrew the loose nails in the floorboard, and she kneels on the ground, beckoning him to her.
He sits beside her as she pulls out her treasures. "Are those music boxes?" Petric says, awed.
She nods. "I started in the factories when I was six, and I used to collect scraps. Once every few months, we would make music boxes for the Capitol, and I loved them. These aren't as pretty as those boxes, but I picked the tunes myself. I mean, I made them up." She blushes, winding one up.
The tinny sound trickles out, and she looks nervously at Petric. He grins, and she quickly picks up another to play for him. She sneaks whatever tiny scraps she can from the factory, and she makes her music boxes whenever she can. Her eyes are sharp, and she can work without very much light.
"How did you learn to make them?" Petric asks. "Did you figure them out yourself?"
She isn't sure she should share the secret, but she thinks she can trust him.
"Beetee Schrober helped me," she admits.
He came to their school to talk about electric wiring, and he must've realized she wasn't doing the assignment with everyone else, because he came to kneel at her desk. She was trying to figure out how to fit together the last few tiny pieces; it wasn't truly difficult, but it seemed an impossible task to a six-year-old. She panicked when Beetee asked what she was doing, but she didn't lie to him.
She showed him the pieces, murmuring an explanation. "I like music," she defended, nervous.
And Beetee smiled. "Me, too," he admitted, and he bent over her work. He helped her with it.
She looks at Petric. "He was really nice," she says. "I liked him."
She plays another box, the very first that she made with Beetee, and she sings along with it, not really thinking. But she stops when she realizes that Petric is staring at her, and she starts to blush.
They're eleven, and it's the first time Katniss feels something strange flutter in her stomach.
"I've never heard anybody sing like that," he tells her, and her blush deepens.
She nods, flustered. "Here." She thrusts the box at him. "I want you to have it."
Across the hall, she hears the front door open, and her mother calls for her.
Petric puts the music box in his pocket, and Katniss hides the rest.
It doesn't take long for Petric to become her best friend. They sit together in class, share their lunches, spend as much time as they can hidden away from the rest of the world, and he practices drawing with his left hand while she fiddles with her music boxes, inventing tune after tune.
A few months later, he finds work.
It's in town. At the shops. She gapes, amazed. "I talked the baker into it!" he exclaims.
He isn't allowed to eat anything from the bakery, but Katniss likes how he starts to smell like rosemary and nutmeg. As soon as her shift ends at the factory, she runs to the shops to meet him, and they walk through town towards the housing developments together, looking into the shops.
She loves the flower shop.
It's the prettiest thing in the entire district, she thinks, with vines growing on the grey stone wall, every different color in the window blooming from flowers she can't begin to name. The whole district is grey stone wall, is shabby apartments and colorless factories sending smoke into the air.
Someday, Katniss imagines, she will run into the mountains. She will climb huge trees, and she will wiggle her toes in dark, wet dirt, and she will pick more flowers than she can possibly count.
Her dreams fade away as she takes another shift at the factory, though, because she can see every rib in her body, and tiny Prim looks tinier than ever. Her father hates how much she works, but it's what the family needs. And as long as Katniss can work two shifts, Prim won't have to work any.
On her thirteenth birthday, Petric meets her outside the factory to present her with flowers.
"I couldn't afford anything from the florist," he says, "but I saw these peaking out in the sidewalks. I tried to find as many as I could. And, I mean, they're weeds, but I thought they were pretty —"
She throws her arms around him, making him laugh. They're beautiful, she tells him. He is large enough to spin her around, and they receive disapproving looks from the closest shopkeepers, but Katniss doesn't care. She lets Prim string the dandelions into necklaces; they wear them to school.
Another year, and Petric is strong, his shoulders broad, his arms as thick as telephone poles. She watches him toss flour sacks over his head, and he beams at her, freckles on his face from the sun.
And, the next year, Peter Brighton is Reaped.
Her heart stops when the name is read, because for the briefest moment, for the most terrible, awful moment, she thinks the name will be Petric Mellark. She finds her friend as soon as she can, and she acts on impulse, grasping his shoulders and pushing herself up to kiss him right on the mouth.
Prim giggles into her hand.
Katniss is mortified, staring at Petric, but he starts to grin, and suddenly his arms are around her, lifting her off her feet, and he kisses her soundly, stealing her breath. "I've loved you since we were eleven," he breathes, "since I first heard you sing, Katniss, I've loved you." She is stunned.
But she curls her fingers into his shirt, and she kisses and kisses him.
Peter Brighton is beheaded during the bloodbath at the cornucopia.
Prim has nightmares for two months, and Katniss isn't surprised when the nightmares return almost a year later, as the next Reaping approaches. Prim is old enough to be Reaped. But it won't happen, Katniss swears. It won't. The night before the Reaping, Katniss sneaks out to meet Petric.
He makes the same promise to her.
"She won't be reaped," he whispers into her hair. "Neither will you. And I won't, either. It'll be okay, Katniss. We'll be fine." She kisses the scars on his hand, and she makes herself believe him.
It happens before she can think about it. She volunteers, because she can't let her sister die. Her legs are shaky beneath her as she walks onto the stage, and she glances at Beetee Shrober. His smile is sad, and she wonders whether or not he recognizes her. It doesn't matter. She stares out at the silent crowed, terrified. Her heart plummets into her stomach when the male tribute is selected.
He looks as though he might cry, but she clasps his fingerless hand tightly in hers.
She sees the selector, and she panics. He isn't looking at her, is he?
"Finnick," she says, abandoning her knots, "Finnick, the selector is lookin' at me!"
She runs across the boat to him as fast as her five-year-old legs can carry her.
He is hauling his catch onto the boat, his hands tangled in the net, but she tugs on his shorts, and he glances at her. His eyes travel to the selector. His jaw clenches, and he yanks the net onto the boat deck, bringing up at least four dozen fish. The selector turns away, and Katniss watches him.
Finnick frees his hands, wipes the sweat from his forehead, and scoops Katniss up.
She wraps her arms around his neck.
"He wasn't looking at you, Catfish," Finnick tells her. "I promise."
She starts to protest, but he pushes up her cotton dress, and his fingers strum against her belly.
She squeals, squirming in his arms, her hands slipping on his sweaty shoulders.
And he laughs, tossing her into the air, catching her, and blowing raspberries into her stomach.
She loves Finnick. She likes to tell people he is her older brother; after all, they have the very same green eyes and the very same golden skin, never mind that neither are uncommon in District 4. He is a deckhand for her father, who is the best fisherman in the entire district, or at least she thinks so.
Her cousin Annie waves from the dock, and Katniss forgets about the selector.
Annie promised to teach Katniss how to make the knot she uses to catch crabs. She scrambles away from Finnick, who laughs as Katniss dives off the boat and swims to the dock and to Annie.
She forgets about the selector, but she remembers him, two years later, when Finnick volunteers for the Sixty-Fifth Hunger Games. Katniss is terrified, ready to run to his rescue, but Annie wraps her arms tightly around Katniss. "It isn't really his choice," she whispers. "They selected him."
Katniss cries herself to sleep.
Her father refuses to hire another hand for the boat.
He can handle everything as long as Katniss and Annie help. And Finnick will return, he says.
Katniss doesn't watch the Games, not really. She curls up against her father, hiding her face in his neck, lets him cradle her in tan, weathered arms as though she were as little as Prim. And, a few weeks later, Finnick returns. He is beloved, the beautiful warrior who caught and speared tributes.
But he is different. His laughter sounds strange, his skin is smooth, and his smiles aren't his.
Her father hires another boy to help out. Peeta Mellark.
His family owns the bakery, but he is the youngest son, and he needs another trade. His skin is too pale for the sun, and he looks like cooked lobster. Katniss can't help laughing at him. He grins, and she helps him rub seaweed salve onto his shoulders to keep his skin from peeling. She likes Peeta.
She misses Finnick, though.
It seems to fade, whatever was wrong with him, as the months pass. He walks her from school to the docks, he jokes with Peeta, he tugs on her braids and calls her "Catfish," and she convinces herself that he is the same Finnick he used to be. The Games were hard for him, but he survived.
And, as months melt into years, her memories soften around the edges.
She grins to herself when she thinks about the time she shoved Peeta overboard, and she forgets about Finnick tickling her tummy; she learns how to spear fish alongside Peeta, and she doesn't remember learning to swim with Finnick floating at her side, promising that he won't let her drown.
Somehow, it almost seems unreal that Finnick used to work on the boat with her father.
She turns twelve, and the ground is hot and dry beneath her bare feet as she shuffles into the town square for the Reaping, the sun beating on her shoulders and making her dress cling to her with sweat. She is terrified. But Finnick winks at her, and she feels herself relax. She won't be picked.
She isn't. Annie is.
The Games are awful to watch.
Peeta tries to make Katniss look away from the screen when Annie starts to scream, but she doesn't. She can't. She watches the madness wrap around her cousin, sink its teeth into her skin.
Annie wins. Katniss almost wishes she hadn't, and she hates herself for it.
Her cousin dives into the water three days after she arrives home, and she doesn't resurface.
"Is she okay?" Peeta asks, frowning.
Katniss stares at the softly lapping waves, and she breathes it. "No." She doesn't think as she dives after Annie, and she finds her cousin floating beneath the waves, eyes open, staring unseeingly at nothing. She wraps her arms around Annie and pumps her legs, gasping when she reaches the surface. Annie coughs, curling her arms around Katniss. Peeta helps Katniss pull her onto the boat.
Katniss collapses on the deck, and Annie starts to sob softly against her.
The sun dries their skin, and Annie falls asleep as Katniss braids her hair.
"She probably hasn't really slept since before the Games started," Peeta says. Katniss nods.
She is almost asleep herself, the sky dyed orange from the sinking sun, when Finnick arrives.
She blinks sleepily at him, and she can feel the sadness in his eyes.
"Look at you," he whispers, and Katniss doesn't understand. "When did you grow up?"
She stares at him. She grew up while he was spearing children with his trident. She grew up as she watched Annie lose her mind. But she doesn't say anything, looking at Annie. It's hard to tell where Katniss ends and Annie begins; they're tangled golden limbs, two identical brown braids, the same dark eyelashes sweeping over the same freckled cheeks. But Annie is like splintered glass, as pretty as can be, yet ready to break entirely at any moment, delicate to hold in your hands.
And, with each passing day, Katniss feels more and more like weathered stone.
"I won't let anything happen to you, Catfish," Finnick murmurs. "I won't make the same mistake."
At the next Reaping, Annie trembles like a leaf the entire time she sits on the stage.
She starts to rock, too, and Katniss doubts the cameras look at her broken, battered cousin.
Annie is told that she needn't come to the Capitol; other victors can mentor. But Finnick leaves, of course, and Katniss feels bile rise in her throat when she watches him flirt with outrageous woman on the screen. He doesn't look like himself, and she can't watch. She can't. She makes fish hooks with Annie, who likes to keep her hands busy. Annie starts to hum, and Katniss picks up the tune.
She sings, and Annie smiles, a real smile that reaches her eyes and warms something in Katniss.
The Games end, but Finnick doesn't return for another three months.
He comes onto the boat, and he watches Peeta and her father haul up the latest catch. He smiles at Katniss, and he starts to ask her where Annie is. "She is teaching Prim how to make seaweed dolls," Katniss says, not looking at him. He comes to stand beside her, and he smells ridiculous.
She thinks he might be wearing perfume. It's foul.
"I can't let anything else happen to her," he tells her softly. "Or to you."
She nods, and he turns to leave, sighing. "Finnick," she says, "you smell terrible."
He smiles sadly. "I know, Catfish."
"But I'm glad you're home," she adds.
And he tugs on her braid. "Me, too."
A few days later, as she is returning from the market, she catches him with Annie.
They're kissing, her hands in his hair, his hands on her hips, and Katniss can't believe it. But she sees Annie smile as the kiss ends, laughing a moment later when Finnick picks her up and spins her around. Smiling, Katniss retreats to let them have the boat. But it puts the thought into her head.
She wonders about it. Kissing.
As they wade out into the water, spears in hand, waiting for the fish to swim past, she can't help it.
"Peeta, you haven't ever kissed anyone, have you?" she asks.
His head snaps to her, and he looks comical, his arm raised, ready to strike with his spear, his eyes as wide as clams. "I — what, um — no, I haven't. No." His mouth opens and closes. "Have you?"
She shakes her head. "I want to try it." She starts towards him, scaring away the fish.
He gapes at her, and she bites her lip, amused. "Katniss," he starts, "are you —?"
"Do you mind?" she asks, planting her spear in the mud and putting her hands on his shoulders.
He shakes his head, and her heart starts to pound as she leans in. "I don't really know what I'm doing," she warns, and she presses her lips to his. His eyes have slipped closed, but they flicker open when she looks at him. They stare at each other. His eyelashes are blonde, too, she realizes.
She leans forward, and she kisses him, really kisses him. His shaking hands find her hips.
His skin is warm, baking in the sun, when she wraps her arms around his shoulders, surging closer to him. His tongue flicks across her lips, startling her, parting her lips, and his tongue brushes over hers. She tries to deepen the kiss, and his nose jams into hers, but she tilts her head.
It's awkward, too much spit and teeth, with fumbling tongues and shaky laughter, but she likes it.
And it seems, for a very short while, that everything is right in the world.
Annie is happy, laughing brightly, the emptiness fading from her eyes, and Katniss sees Finnick teaching knots to Prim. Her hands remember those knots with ease, but her mind barely remembers the hours that he spent teaching her. Prim beams up at Finnick, and he smiles sweetly down at her.
Katniss finds Peeta on the beach, looking for sea glass to sell, and she tackles him into the sand.
They don't talk about their relationship, but she suspects Peeta is her best friend, and she likes kissing him. She doesn't see why anything needs to change; he is her best friend who kisses her.
Her bright, happy world comes tumbling down, of course.
Finnick is told to return to the Capitol. Annie starts fighting insomnia. Katniss sees the selector.
She panics. He isn't looking at her, is he?
No, he is looking past her. She follows his gaze, and her eyes fall on Peeta. Her heart leaps. No.
She understands how it works. The selectors weave through the streets, keeping an eye out for kids that are strong, that can throw spears with deadly accuracy, that can lift huge crates, for kids that are attractive, charming, kids that would fetch sponsors. The selectors weave through the streets, and they pick out who to train for the Games. They pick out who to force to volunteer.
And, once they pick someone, it's impossible to refuse.
Some want the honor, others do anything they can to avoid it. But no one refuses, because it's your family that suffers for it, that finds themselves without work, losing their home. It's impossible to refuse. Finnick couldn't refuse. Katniss looks between the selector and her strong, attractive Peeta.
"Drop it," she hisses.
Peeta glances at her. "What? Is something the matter?" Sweat is dripping into his eyes.
"Drop the net," Katniss tells him. "Drop it. Quickly."
It's too late. The net is already on the deck, the fish flopping around. And the selector turns away, having seen what he wanted to see. Peeta tells Katniss when someone comes to talk to him. They want him to train for the Games. He can't refuse. His lips trembles, and she starts to pepper butterfly kisses to his face. "I can talk to Finnick," she says. "He'll convince them not to train you."
Finnick doesn't have the power to do that, though.
But she can't lose Peeta the way she lost Finnick, the way she lost Annie, the way everyone is lost to the Games. No one survives the Games, not really, not with heart and head totally intact, and she can't lose Peeta, too. The resolve starts to solidify in her mind. She'll find some way to protect him.
She keeps her plans to herself.
The night before the Reaping for the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games, Katniss meets Peeta out on the boat. It's dark out, the harbor empty, and the boat rocks gently underneath them as they fumble with their clothes. It's unbearably hot out, and her fingers glide through the sweat that coats his skin as he kisses her, making her feel achingly hollow between her thighs. And he pushes into her.
The pressure is almost unbearable, but the pain fades as he starts to move.
Something else builds.
They don't kiss; they stare at each other, and he thrusts in and out, sticky skin slapping sticky skin.
"I love you," he says. "I've loved you forever. For as long as I can remember, I've loved you."
His curls stick to his forehead with sweat, and she arches into him as she feels herself falling. It's sharp and sweet, stretching her out like linen put up to dry, making her cry his name, and his thrusts are jerkier. He finishes when she breathes the words, brushing her fingers through his damp curls. "I love you, too," she says, and he slams into her, groaning against her breast, spent.
She doesn't let him pull out or roll away, not for a little while.
She clings to him as tightly as she can, wishing the night would never end.
(This is how it is supposed to be, Katniss and Peeta, together, blanketed under hot, salty summer air, the only air that she knows how to breathe. She hopes the arena isn't cold. She hates the cold.)
She hugs her father tightly the morning of the Reaping, and she tells Prim not to worry.
"It won't be you." Katniss is absolutely positive. Her sister won't be Reaped. And she isn't.
Gilly Jackson is, and Martina Glasson is supposed to volunteer, but Katniss doesn't let her.
She volunteers, and she takes the stage as everyone gapes at her.
Finnick is staring at her with strangely terrified eyes, and her stomach revolts. She stands as tall as she can, though, and she doesn't look at Finnick. A few minutes later, having volunteered as he was expected to do, Peeta stands on the stage beside her. They shake hands, and the Reaping ends.
As soon as the justice hall doors shut, Peeta pounces.
"Katniss, what are you doing?" he exclaims, grabbing her arms. "Why did you volunteer?"
She shakes her head. "I had to," she tells him.
"No, you didn't," he says, shaking his head. "Katniss, I can't — I can't kill you." His voice breaks.
But she reaches up, cupping his face, holding his gaze. "I volunteered for you, Peeta. The Games have twisted and tortured the people that I love, and I can't lose you, too. I'm going to protect you."
"What about you?" he asks. "Do you think I want you to end up like Annie?"
Someone knocks on the door. Katniss ignores it. "I won't," she says.
"What's the plan?" he asks. "Are you planning to die, Katniss?" He doesn't let her answer, and she can see the resolve turning his eyes into ice. "I'm not going to let you die," he tells her, voice hard.
"I'm not going to let you die," she replies.
The door opens, but Katniss doesn't pay any attention. Peeta slides his hands up her arms, pulling her against his chest, hugging her, and she presses her face into his neck. She squeezes her eyes shut, clinging to him, to her sweet, precious boy. He kisses her temple, and he breathes the words.
"I guess we'll have to protect each other."
"And, thus, using water as your conduit, you can harness electricity in almost any environment."
The professor pulls on his rubber gloves, and Katniss watches, slightly fascinated, as he takes the wriggling lizard, pinned against the cork block, and uses the water basin, the small metal pin, and the electric power grid to fry the creature. His dead body smokes, and the professor beams at them.
He claps his hands together. "Do we have any questions?" His eyes dart from student to student.
No one says anything; it isn't a complicated experiment.
"Excellent," he says. "Supplies are under your desk. Hop to it."
Katniss pulls out the plastic container, setting out each supply, the water basin, the lizard, pinned to his board, the metal pin to electrocute the lizard, and the wire to connect the electricity to the water. The power grids are built into their desks; after all, students need power for most every experiment.
And they keep their own fitted rubber gloves in their school bags, of course.
She starts to connect everything, glancing over at Joulene when she smells burnt lizard.
"How are you already finished?" she asks.
Joulene looks at Katniss with raised eyebrows. "I could do this in my sleep. So could you."
Katniss nods, and she electrocutes her lizard. This isn't really meant to teach them anything about electricity; no, this is about putting more survival advice into their heads. No one can predict what supplies the tributes might find, or what environment the arena will involve, but this lesson might be able to help someone who finds wire, comes across a river, and hears lightening in the distance.
The survival lessons, their purpose disguised, start the moment children enter the classroom, and the lessons stay scattered in the curriculum throughout secondary school. It starts with simple tips littered in their other lessons. They're taught that electricity produces heat, which is useful for several reasons; for example, it's important to boil water that comes from an unknown source.
And, as they grow older, the little tips turn into actual lessons. Some are less cleverly disguised than others, of course; electricity needs to be wired differently for different climates, and who can identify which berries come from which climates? Also, which berries might be safe for you to eat?
No one wants to be sent into the Games.
But as long as someone must be, it's only rational that teachers ought to prepare everyone for it.
("And, remember," the professors whisper, "die your own death, no matter what.")
Class is dismissed when the last lizard is dead, and they stream out through the atrium. Half the students head for the power plants, which requires the most apprentices, but Katniss and Joulene turn in the opposite direction towards the geology division where they were assigned to work.
Children are tested when they're twelve, assigned to careers according to their talents.
Joulene and Katniss were assigned to sector four within the geology division, working to develop more efficient mining techniques. They arrive at the lab to find Peeta bent over his work, his forehead pinched. Katniss smiles at the sight, touching his shoulder and kissing the top of his head.
The lab is quiet as they work. They have their assignments to focus on, after all.
Katniss loves it, the silence, the work itself.
The sector four leader comes in to look over the work, and she nods, approving, at what she finds.
They're released, and they walk to the housing grid.
Joulene lives at the front, close to the town square as well as to the schools, the offices, and the labs. The houses are identical, but those at the front are in good condition, as the wealthiest occupy them, and Joulene is wealthy; her parents are system analysts. Katniss lives on the outskirts in a shabby house. Her parents work in the power plants, receiving terrible pay despite the risks for chemical injuries, hearing impairments, and electrocution. But it isn't the worst job in the district.
As far as Katniss is concerned, working in the muttation labs at the district border is worse.
Mrs. Mellark works at the muttation labs.
The pay is excellent, and Peeta lives in the heart of the housing grid, where the newest houses are.
Mrs. Mellark hates Katniss, and she doesn't try to hide it.
She is a tiny woman, mean as a snake, finding every excuse to smack her sons or to belittle her husband. Peeta takes it without complaint, which makes Katniss seethe, but she can't do anything about it, not as long as Peeta insists that she shouldn't bother to be upset over it. She can't help it.
"It's only for a few more years," Peeta insists. "Another two years, and I'll be out from under her."
He wants to move into his own house as soon as he is finished with school. He needs to be married to be assigned his own home, of course, but somewhere along the way he decided that he would marry Katniss, and they've never really discussed it. He loves her, and she loves him.
They'll finish school, and they'll marry. That's that. No reason to discuss it.
(She can't have kids, though. A world where children are put into arenas to kill each other isn't a world where she can have children. She knows that Peeta wants kids, but he avoids the topic when she tries to talk about it. Another day, she tells herself. Another day, they'll figure out what to do.)
Mrs. Mellark constantly tries to change his mind.
"Have you spent any time with the pretty girl in your lab?" she asks Peeta when Katniss is around for dinner. It's obvious the pretty girl is Joulene. Mrs. Mellark doesn't think Katniss is a pretty girl.
Katniss is aware that she isn't the most attractive girl. She is as colorless as they come.
As a general rule, the people in District 5 are colorless. They're thin, with unexpressive eyes, with faces that are easily forgotten. It's rare to find a girl with hair that isn't wispy or a boy whose curls don't start to thin on top the moment he reaches puberty. But, as luck would have it, Joulene possess lovely, thick red hair, and Peeta, whose hair started to recede years ago, is blessed with uncommonly brilliant blue eyes. Her best friends are among the most colorful people in the district.
She, on the other hand, is, in every possible way, entirely unextraordinary.
It's something Mrs. Mellark loves to remind Katniss. Her son could do better than someone with thin hair, pale eyes, and pointed, unattractive features, she says. And, to be honest, Katniss agrees.
She tells Peeta as much when he walks her home from dinner, but he refuses to hear it.
"Don't," he says, turning to brush his fingers against her cheek, and his thumb ghosts against her eyelashes. "Don't say you're not beautiful. Don't you dare." She smiles despite herself, and he kisses the dimple in her chin, playful. His fingers snake into her tightly braided hair, coiled neatly on her head, and she rolls her eyes when he starts to murmur nonsense about how silky her hair is.
She silences him with a kiss, making him smile against her lips.
They manage to make their way to her house eventually, though.
"I'll see you at the Reaping," Peeta murmurs.
Katniss nods. The house is silent, everyone asleep. She curls up beside Prim, who will surely wake during the night with nightmares. She is twelve. She can be Reaped. Katniss can't stand the thought, and she presses closer to her sweet sister. It won't be Prim, she thinks. It can't be Prim.
The worry keeps Katniss awake throughout the night.
Her face is paler than usual, purple smudges under her eyes, when she arrives at the Reaping.
She isn't the only person who didn't sleep; exhaustion surrounds her, seeping from everyone. She isn't surprised. They're orderly, sensible people, and the Hunger Games are chaotic and senseless.
The mayor comes on stage to speak, and Katniss schools her features, respectful.
A few minutes later, they read the name for the female tribute. It isn't Katniss, and it isn't Prim.
But Katniss gapes, disbelief strumming through her, as Joulene walks towards the stage.
Her face is blank as she stares out at everyone.
She doesn't cry when Katniss and Peeta come to see her in the justice hall.
It wouldn't do any good to cry, and she knows it. Peeta starts to remind Joulene everything they've learned. Be careful what you eat, he says, avoid the bloodbath, assess your environment, make fires only during the daylight. She nods. "I know what to do," she tells him, but her hands tremble.
Peeta hugs her. "Stay rational," he murmurs, the words catching in his throat.
"I will," Joulene says, swallowing thickly. And she reaches for Katniss.
Katniss clutches her. She wants to tell Joulene to stay alive, wants to beg her to win, please, but she can't ask something from her friend that she can't reasonably expect to do. She hugs her tightly, and she says the words that everyone in the district knows. "Die your own death," she breathes.
The Capitol can take your life. Don't let them have your death, too. It's yours. Own it.
Joulene nods, and Peacekeepers call for Peeta and Katniss. That's it.
Katniss watches the Games with her utmost attention, afraid to look away, to miss a moment.
Joulene is the smartest tribute, and she survives day after day, hiding in the shadows.
She can win it, Katniss thinks. Sure, everyone is enamored with the star-crossed lovers from District 12, Gale Hawthorne and Madge Undersee, but Joulene is smarter, and she can survive.
The other tributes call her Foxface, and Katniss frowns at the stupid name. Idiots, the whole lot.
Joulene realizes the truth before Katniss is willing to admit it.
Peeta intertwines their fingers, seeing it. "No," Katniss whispers.
Joulene is up against the impossible, though. Stay rational, Peeta told her.
She looks at the nightlock berries for an impossibly long moment, longer than she needs to identify what they are. Mr. Everdeen said the tributes from District 12 are flirting with rebellion. But when Joulene eats the berries, dying on the spot, Katniss can't care less about the lovers. After all, District 5 started to rebel years ago, the moment the first person whispered, die your own death.
But everyone always forgets the clever, colorless people from District 5.
Her mother hates Prim.
It takes several years for Katniss to understand why. Her sister is pretty and sweet, always trying to please their parents, but her eyes are bright green, and people in District 6 don't have green eyes.
It doesn't matter whether you're working class or merchant class; your eyes should be brown.
Her yellow hair is curly as can be, and she is a small, slight girl. The people in District 6 are dark, large people, and Prim doesn't fit. She is six when she asks Katniss why she doesn't look like anyone else, and Katniss starts to think about it. Her sister doesn't look like anyone, because she isn't entirely from District 6. She doesn't look like Katniss, because Katniss takes after her father.
And Prim isn't his daughter.
She never asks her mother about it.
She doesn't want to find out what happened. It doesn't matter, not really. Her sister is the only person in the whole world that Katniss is certain she loves. The terrible truth doesn't change that.
And someone needs to look after Prim; it's not as though their parents are up for it.
They weren't up for raising Katniss, and she was forced to raise herself. She can raise Prim, too.
She remembers, when she was very little, that her father used to sing to her. Sometimes, she swears she can recall his voice, and she imagines she can remember his smile, too. A real smile, when his eyes were clear, when his blood was clean. But his real smile was lost years ago, and Katniss looks at her father with disgust. His smile is drugged. His eyes aren't clear. His blood isn't clean. His skin is sickly, tinted yellow, sagging loosely over his bony face. He isn't who he was.
He used to be attractive. Her mother was, too.
Nobody who uses morphling as often as her parents do, however, remains attractive.
"Katniss," her mother says, grasping her shoulder with sharp, bony fingers. "I need —"
She shakes her mother off. "As soon as Prim is dressed, we're going into town. I'll pick it up."
"Good. Thank you." Her mother smiles at her with glossy eyes. "What would I do without you?" She looks as fragile as a child, her dark hair wispy around her hollow cheeks, trembling where she stands, because she needs her drugs. Katniss turns away from her and calls up the stairs to Prim.
And Prim comes running down, beaming at Katniss, her curly hair threatening to break free from her braid. Their mother slinks off, and Katniss walks into town with Prim skipping at her side. She loves how, despite everything, Prim remains bright and bubbly, smiling at everyone on the street.
The smiles fades from her face, though, when they come into the town square to see someone strung up at the pole. "Come on," Katniss says, immediately steering Prim away from the sight.
But she can't really stop Prim from hearing the snap of the whip against bare flesh.
She slips into an alleyway, and she drags her sister from the town square as quickly as she can.
They reach the unloading station. Katniss wants to tell Prim to wait at the benches, but Prim is holding her hand tightly, terrified, and Katniss doesn't have the heart to leave her sister by herself.
A mechanic tips his hat at Katniss, as though she is someone who deserves his respect.
She hates it, the way people treat her. Her parents have enough wealth to drown her in cashmere from District 1 and diamonds from District 2. But Katniss wears the cotton dresses that she buys at the market, and she never tries to attract attention, yet she can't escape it, because her parents are among the most famous people in District 6. Her father won the Hunger Games. And, three years later, he helped her mother win the Games, telling the world that she was pregnant with his child.
She lost the child in the Games, sadly, but they were married after she won, and Katniss was born.
The Capitol adored Alder Everdeen, the handsome victor who cried when the girl from his district was killed, only to strangle every single career, winning the Games. And, when he admitted how he was madly in love with Acacia Evans, the Capitol fell in love with her, too, and helped her win.
It should be sweet, the story that led to Katniss being born. It isn't, not as far as she is concerned.
And she hates the mechanic who tips his hat to her, to the most famous child in Panem.
She hates everyone, because she doesn't know how not to hate.
(No, she doesn't hate everyone. She loves Prim. She loves her more than anything in the world.)
"I'm here to pick up medicine for my mother," Katniss says.
Another mechanic shouts for the baggage carrier, who appears with the small, brown box. He tips his hat as he hands it to Katniss, and she smiles tightly at him. "Thank you." He waits, and she roots through her pocket for change to give him. They don't ask for tips from everybody, but they can't help asking for them from those who can afford it, and she doesn't really blame them for it.
She glances at Prim. "Do you want ice cream?" she asks, desperate to make her smile.
It works, and Prim tugs Katniss towards town. The whipping should be finished, Katniss thinks.
She glances over her shoulder, and Porter Mellark bounds up to them.
He looks like most every boy in the district; his hair is black, thick on his head, his shoulders are bulky and broad, and his eyes are dark in his tanned, square face. But, somehow, perhaps because he smiles as often as Prim, he seems different to Katniss, and he manages to stand out in her mind.
"Porter!" Prim greets, delighted. "What are you doing right now?"
Katniss bites her tongue.
"I'm actually about to finish my shift," he says. "I need to help unload the last few cars, that's it."
And Katniss already knows what her sister will say.
"Do you want to have ice cream with us?" Prim asks, excited, eyes bright at the prospect.
Porter hesitates, looking thoughtful, probably counting coins in his head. But it's only for a moment. He smiles. "I would love to." His eyes dart to Katniss. "Do you mind waiting for me?"
"No, of course not!" Prim says. "We'll sit on the benches."
They don't have to wait long, and Porter makes Prim giggle madly at his jokes as they eat the ice cream. It melts quickly, dripping onto their clothes, and Porter turns red as a cardinal when he tells Katniss that, "you have a little — a little — on your cheek — a little ice cream right — right there."
He wipes the ice cream from her cheek, and Katniss frowns, annoyed.
The house is quiet when they return, leaving Porter as the sun started to set, but their mother appears silently at the top of the stairs, blinking owlishly at them. "Do you have it?" she asks, voice slurred, and Katniss shoves the box into her thin, eager arms. She puts Prim to bed, and she leaves.
She isn't up for sleeping. The Reaping is tomorrow, and Katniss knows what to expect.
She kicks off her shoes as she cuts across the yard; she likes to feel the grass tickle her feet. She isn't sure where she intends to go, but she ends up crossing over the meadow to the abandoned train cars, those that are deemed too slow for the Capitol. They are rusted and dented, their valuable parts stripped away years ago to use as heaters, to be traded for food. She likes the damaged cars.
The Capitol chewed them up and spat them out.
Katniss snorts to herself at her imaginary solidarity with the cars.
"Are you okay?"
Her head snaps to the voice, to Porter, looking at her with soft, concerned eyes. She doesn't answer; she looks at the scrap metal in his hands. His fingers are bleeding. He must've peeled that metal off the cars. "Foraging?" she asks. She doubts that his loot is worth very much, though.
"I like to do it at twilight," he says, hauling himself up to sit beside her in the empty car, their legs dangling off side by side. "The Peacekeepers don't come around to catch people until it's dark out."
Katniss nods. "I'm sorry my sister made you buy ice cream."
"She didn't make me," Porter starts.
"I would've paid for it," Katniss continues, "but I wasn't sure you wanted me to."
"I wouldn't have wanted you to," he admits. It's quiet. "Are you nervous for the Reaping?"
She shakes her head. "Nope."
"I guess your name isn't in very many times," he says. He smiles. "I'm glad."
She looks at him. "It doesn't matter how many times my name is in it. I'll be Reaped." She smiles darkly to herself, looking out at nothing. "Prim is convinced that we won't be Reaped, because our parents are beloved in the Capitol. They're not beloved. They were, but nobody wants to love addicts. And, either way, my name was always going to be pulled, and this is the year. I know it."
"Why would — why would they purposely pick your name?" he asks.
She shrugs. "Why don't they simply shoot two kids from every district? Because," she says, "they love having a good show." She isn't upset about it. She came to terms with everything a long time ago, when she realized how the Capitol works, when she realized why she was allowed to be born.
"But maybe they won't pick your name," Porter says. "They might not, you don't know."
"No, my name will be pulled," she says, sour. "And I'll step off the plate as soon as I can."
Porter frowns. "Step off the plate?" he repeats.
She nods. "They send you into the arena," she says "and they make you wait for sixty seconds, staring at the others, right? Staring at the people you're supposed to kill. Well, as soon as they put me in the arena, as soon as the countdown starts, I'll step off my plate. I'll blow myself to bits."
"No!" he exclaims, startling her. "No, you can't — you can't do that!" His voice is choked.
She looks at him, at his wide, terrified eyes. "And what's the alternative?" she asks. "I would be murdered with a brick to the head or a spear to the heart. Or I might survive. I might kill enough people to be made into an icon. And I can be paraded around like an animal, and I can be sold to the highest bidder, raped, and forced to raise the child, using morphling to forget my terrible life."
He looks as though she smacked him across the face.
She shakes her head. "No, I don't want that. I would rather blow myself to bits."
She doesn't want to talk about it. She hops off the empty car, feeling the gravel bite into her feet.
"Maybe you won't be Reaped," Porter insists, sounding desperate.
She glances over her shoulder. "No, I will be. I guarantee it." She starts to leave, but she can't help herself. "Keep an eye on my sister, okay?" she asks, not looking at him. "She doesn't deserve this."
"Neither do you," he says.
"I would finish up with your foraging if I were you," she murmurs, nodding at the scraps beside him. "I'm sure the Peacekeepers won't hesitate to skin you, Reaping day or not." She heads home.
The next morning, her mother's inane prep team ambush Katniss in her bedroom, and they braid her hair, pluck her eyebrows, and coo over how pretty she is. "A few years, and you'll be as beautiful as your mother!" one exclaims. "I mean, look at those silver eyes! Absolutely beautiful!"
And Katniss rolls her absolutely beautiful eyes.
She wonders whether the prep team knows she will be Reaped.
As the escort starts to pull her name from the bowl, Katniss looks across the crowds to Porter.
She wants to see his face when he is forced to admit that she was right. The name is read.
But it isn't her name. She gapes, stunned, paralyzed for an instant. And, an instant later, she starts to scream the words. "I volunteer!" She pushes her way towards the stage. "I volunteer as tribute!"
She can't let them put Prim into the Games. She can't.
The Capitol must be loving this, she thinks, as the escort applauds for her. The sweet, pretty child born to victors is Reaped, and her older sister volunteers to save her. Katniss sways on stage, looking out at the crowd, suddenly terrified for the first time in years. She is going into the Games.
A few days, and she'll be dead.
The name for the boys is read, and, before anyone can react, Porter Mellark volunteers. She doesn't know what shocks her more, the fact that he volunteered, or the way her stomach drops when he comes to stand beside her, because someone as sweet as Porter Mellark can't be put in the Games.
He was supposed to look after Prim. He wasn't supposed to throw away his life.
The moment they enter the justice hall, she pounces, shoving him against the wall.
"What've you done?" she hisses.
He meets her gaze, unflinching. "I can't survive these Games on my own," he says. "I'm going to need your help. I'm going to need you to stay alive long enough to help me." He doesn't bat an eye.
He volunteered to try to save her. She shakes her head. "Why?" she demands.
His whole face softens. "Do you really not know, Katniss?" he asks, touching her cheek.
She jerks away from his hand. "I can't believe you're being this stupid," she snaps.
"Believe it," he replies, straightening. "So. Are you going to blow yourself to bits, or help me?"
She dies in the winter, snow falling softly outside, her older sister in the Capitol.
It's terrifying when Mr. Undersee bursts suddenly into the room where Madge and Katie are playing with their wooden dolls. He looks at Katie, and she will never forget his expression, the terror in his eyes as he run a trembling hand over his balding head. "Come with me, Kat," he whispers, and he takes her hand, blocking her from the window and leading her to the closet.
"What's the matter, Papa?" Madge asked.
Mr. Undersee kneels to look Katie in the eye. "I need you to hide, Kat. Don't make a sound, do you understand? No matter what you hear, I want you to stay inside the closet until I open the door. Don't make any noise, and I will explain everything when it's safe. Do you understand me?"
She nods, and he nudges her towards the closet. It's damp and dark, and she draws her knees to her chest, squeezing her eyes shut as he closes the door. She doesn't understand, and she is terrified, but she trusts Mr. Undersee, and she isn't going to disobey him. She curls up, silent.
"Madge," Mr. Undersee says, voice muffled through the door, "I need you to listen carefully to me. Katie went home over an hour ago. She isn't at the house. She hasn't been for over an hour."
It seems like days before Katie hears someone knock on the front door.
She hears footsteps. She hears unfamiliar voices. She hears her name. Someone is looking for her.
"She went home," Madge says. "Papa told her she needed to help her mother with dinner."
The strangers leave, the closet door opens, and Mr. Undersee explains what happened.
A little while ago, he says, a fire caught in her house. Her family is dead.
Her parents are dead. Her little sister, Primrose, is dead. Her older sister, Mary, is dead.
And Mr. Undersee starts to explain that he doesn't think the fire was an accident. He thinks someone wanted to hurt her family, and no one can find out that she wasn't at the house, that she is alive. She starts to shake, panicking. "What about Johanna?" she whispers. He shakes his head.
He doesn't know. Her oldest sister is in the Capitol, and he doesn't know what's happened to her.
They sneak out in the dark, threading through the snowy forest, silent, on and on, until Katie starts to stumble, exhausted. But they reach the fence, and Mr. Undersee crawls under, helping Katie follow. He leads her to a cabin, and he explains that she needs to stay out in the woods for a while.
"We need everyone to believe you're dead," he says.
She is terrified to be left alone, but he can't stay. "I'll visit you as soon as I can," he says. "It won't be for long. As soon as the dust settles, I'll take you to another town, somewhere nobody will recognize you, and you'll be safe, I promise. I won't let anything happen to you, Kat. I promise."
She doesn't sleep her first night alone in the cabin, snow falling outside the frosted window.
She is nine years old, and the world is collapsing under her.
(She thought her life was ruined when Johanna was Reaped, but it wasn't. It was ruined tonight.)
She is hungry, cold, and terrified when Mr. Undersee comes the next day. But he brings food, bundles her up in clothes that smell like Madge, and tells her that Johanna is alive. She survived.
Katie can't leave the woods, though.
And, as she discovers in the weeks to come, Katie never leaves the forest.
Katie Mason dies.
A month later, however, a girl named Katniss Everdeen arrives at the orphanage. It's miles from her destroyed home, from her friends who believe her to be dead, from her entire life, and nobody recognizes her. The orphanage is terrible. The whole building seems to shake when the wind howls, rattling the rafters in the leaky roof, and Katniss Everdeen cries herself to sleep every night.
It's eight months until she sees her.
She is helping plant seeds, the sky cloudy overhead, when someone whispers her name. "Kat."
Her eyes fly up at the endearment, landing on Johanna.
The seeds in her hand scatter over the ground as she stumbles to her sister.
Johanna hugs her tightly, and she showers Katniss with kisses on her cheek and her nose and her forehead, stroking her hair and touching her arm, smiling, crying, laughing, and clutching Katniss.
Katniss wipes her eyes. "I've missed you," she whispers.
"I've missed you, too, Katbug," Johanna breathes, tearful. "And I'm sorry. I never thought —"
Her head snaps around, eyes scanning the trees.
"What's the matter?" Katniss asks, frightened.
"Someone's coming," Johanna says. She looks at Katniss, touches her cheek, and sprints off.
It's as though she melts into the trees, as though she was never there to start, and Mrs. Redwood appears, frowning when she sees the scattered seeds. "Are you going to pay for the seeds you've wasted?" she hisses at Katniss. Mrs. Redwood is the mean, stout woman who runs the orphanage.
"I'm sorry," Katniss mumbles.
Mrs. Redwood raises her eyebrows.
Katniss swallows thickly, desperate for Johanna to return. "I'm sorry, ma'am," she corrects.
"I'm afraid sorry don't do anyone any good, Katniss. Collect the seeds, and finish your work."
She nods. "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Redwood stalks off to snap at someone else, but Johanna doesn't reappear. A week passes, and Katniss admits to herself what Mr. Undersee explained. The world believes her to be dead. No one can find out she isn't, which means Johanna isn't about to whisk her away from the orphanage.
This is her life.
She finds ways to make herself happy. She doesn't let herself dream about Johanna coming to save her, but she lets herself practice with the throwing star that used to belong to her father, lets herself wear the sweaters that belonged to Madge, lets herself sing to the birds as she works in the woods.
It's how she meets Peeta Mellark, the baker's son.
"They're quiet when you sing," he says, startling her.
His smile is shy and sweet, his curly blonde hair falling into his eyes, and she is suspicious. He isn't an orphan, and he doesn't look as thin as most boys. He says his name is Peeta, but she doesn't really want to talk, and she finds an excuse to run off. Peeta finds her another day, though.
He wants to be her friend, and he wins her over.
The children from the orphanage don't attend school, and they aren't taught trades; they do the work that no one else wants to do, and that's how they earn their keep. Her least favorite is when they're sent out to collect dung to help fertilize fields for new trees to be planted, but it's a common chore.
Her arms are smeared with the dung, her fingernails black with it, when Peeta finds her and pulls something from his pocket. It's wrapped up, but she can smell it, and her stomach jumps in delight.
It's fresh bread. She can't believe it. She barely remembers the taste.
"It's my birthday," he explains. "My papa let me have my own raisin cranberry loaf."
And he wants to share it with her. She hasn't tasted anything as wonderful in her entire life, and he doesn't care about how dirty she is, or how smelly she is. He calls her Kat. She wants to hug him.
She doesn't, of course, because that would be gross, but she smiles, and he blushes.
As the years pass, Katniss grows tall, wiry, and strong, and she doesn't need the orphanage to assign her work; she finds work herself, helping the lumberjacks to fell trees. She isn't as bulky as most, but she is tough, and it's her job to climb up the trees to saw off the very topmost limbs.
She stays friends with Peeta. He might be her only friend, in fact.
She hasn't seen Madge since before her second life started, and she doesn't see Johanna, not really.
Her sister is at the Reaping every year, but they can't talk.
Katniss stands in the crowd, silent, staring at Johanna for the few brief minutes she is allowed the luxury. Her sister never looks at her. Katniss understands. Johanna must be careful not to acknowledge Katniss, and Katniss must be careful not to draw any unwanted attention to herself. No one can realize that she hasn't checked in with the Peacekeepers, that she isn't in the system.
After all, according to the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen doesn't exist.
And she needs to make sure nobody who grew up with Katie Mason recognizes her, either.
She is fifteen when, at the bakery, Peeta finds out she can't read or write.
He is stunned, and she feels her face start to burn. "How would I have learned?" she snaps.
She was taught the alphabet when she was little, and she understands crude basics, but the orphanage doesn't bother to send the children to school or to try teaching them. She doesn't come around to the bakery often, not wanting to risk running into Mrs. Mellark, and she wishes she hadn't come today, hadn't let Peeta realize she is as stupid as she is poor. She won't look at him.
"I can teach you," he offers.
She shrugs. "Why? I don't need to know how to read."
He persists, though, as weeks pass. It's his way, Peeta Mellark. Always persisting, no matter what she says. He makes her copy letters on scrap paper, and he teaches her silly songs about spelling, and he turns everything into another lesson. She is surprised at how much she wants to please him.
It starts to work.
He writes sentences in the flour on the counter, and she responds.
He isn't looking when she starts to write her name. Katie Mason. But it isn't her name, because Katie Mason died. She swipes the name aside, and she writes another. Katniss Everdeen. She stares at it, and she swipes through it. Her fingers form the next name before her mind catches up.
She doesn't know why she writes it. Kat Mellark. She brushes the name away, annoyed at herself.
She is outside the fence, setting snares to catch whatever dinner she can, when someone clears her throat, and Katniss whirls around, heart pounding, because the Peacekeepers would send her to the whipping pole the moment they found her outside the fence, and she doesn't have time to try to run.
But it isn't a Peacekeeper. It's Johanna, starting at Katniss with soft, sad eyes.
Katniss surges forward before she thinks about it, wrapping her arms around her sister.
Johanna takes a deep breath, seeming to shudder against Katniss.
They haven't talked in years, but they sit, and Katniss tells Johanna everything. She talks about Mr. Undersee and hiding beyond the fence and arriving at the orphanage. She talks about Mrs. Redwood and growing up and how Peeta taught her to read. She talks about working for the lumberjacks. She tells Johanna that she sneaks out beyond the fence as often as she can for food.
"It won't always be like this, Katbug," Johanna says. "Someday, we'll end it."
Katniss feels shy around her sad, beautiful sister. They're strangers, really, as much as she hates it.
Johanna reaches out, touching her braid. "I taught you how to braid your hair," she murmurs.
"I remember," Katniss says.
And Johanna pulls Katniss into another hug. "Someday, we'll tear the Capitol to the ground," she whispers, "and I'll never spend another single second without my baby sister. I swear it, Katbug."
Katniss clutches her. She doesn't like hopeful promises, doesn't like to imagine pretty futures when the present is as terrible as it is. But this is her sister, the one person in the world who loves her unconditionally, because that's what sisters do, and she will trust her sister until the day she dies.
The next day, Peeta mentions seeing Johanna Mason in town.
Katniss bites her cheek and changes the subject.
It starts to weigh on her mind, though, that she keeps this secret from her best friend. She didn't used to think about it, because of course she wouldn't tell him who she really is; tell anyone, Mr. Undersee told her, and she would be killed. But things change, and she trusts Peeta. She wants to tell him the truth. She trusts him. She decides three days before the Reaping that she will tell him.
She takes him beyond the fence.
It's her favorite place in the world, the only place that truly feels like home.
The woods are what she knows best; saplings small enough to snap under her foot, trees that tower above her, old as the earth itself, they're home. But she hates the woods within District 7, trees in rows, planted to be chopped down, and she hates the Peacekeepers that pace the rows, looking for people to catch, people to punish, people to beat. The Peacekeepers don't venture beyond the fence.
The forest beyond the fence is free, and she climbs the trees, sleeps in the branches, pins squirrels to the ground with her throwing star and cooks them over the spit she builds with sticks and grass.
She sits Peeta beside the pine tree where she spoke with her sister, and she tells him.
"My name isn't really Katniss Everdeen," she says. "It's Katie Mason, and everyone thinks I died six years ago." She starts to explain everything, and he doesn't interrupt as she stumbles through it.
The words catch in her throat as she finishes, afraid for his reaction.
He rises to his knees, leans over, and kisses her.
His lips press against hers, soft and sweet, and he smells like nutmeg.
"I've wanted to do that for a long time," he whispers. "I know who you are, Kat. It doesn't matter what your name is or isn't. I know who you are, and I love — who you are." And he smiles at her.
She is tempted to cup his face and to kiss him, really kiss him, but he moves to his feet, holding out his hand for her, and maybe that's for the best. She isn't sure what she's feeling, but her whole stomach is in knots from having to explain the truth to him. She needs to figure everything out.
But, when the Reaping comes, she wishes she'd done it. Kissed him.
Because she doesn't know the girl who is Reaped, but, for the second time in her life, the world tilts under her when Peeta Mellark is Reaped to be the male tribute for the Seventy-Fourth Games.
His family sees him in the justice hall, and Katniss waits. And waits. And waits.
The moment she is allowed to visit him, is allowed three minutes to say goodbye, she does it. She kisses him, holding his face in her hands, trying to pour everything she can't say into the kiss, and his hands find her waist, pulling her flush against him. The kiss ends, and he pants against her lips, his forehead pressed to hers, his eyelashes fluttering. His jaw clenches. "I love you," he tells her.
"Johanna won't let you die," she replies. "She won't. She'll help you. Save you."
She shouldn't talk about it, she knows; somebody might be listening. She can't help it.
The Peacekeepers are at the door. Her three minutes are finished, and they start to tug her out.
"Peeta," she says, "I need you to win. I need you, please." She grasps the door. "I love you, too!"
They pull her out, and the door slams shut, hiding his teary eyes from her. Her sister will save him, she tells herself. He'll win the Games, and she won't lose him, too. And, someday, they'll end it.
They'll destroy the Capitol.
And they'll be together. A proper family, and no one will be able to hurt them. Someday.
A small, awful part in Katniss looks forward to the Games.
She can't sleep the night before the Reaping, and she hates having to watch the tributes try to not to cry as they're carted off to die. She hides her face from the bloodbath, unable to watch it, and she waits desperately for the Games to end, for the brutality to be finished. But, afterward, when everything is over, her mind lingers on the arena itself, on the skies and the forests and the fields.
It isn't every Games, not those built in ruins, or those that were in a terrible maze underground.
But she remembers the lush, snowy forest during the Games when she was young, and she remembers how she put her fingers on the screen, trying to touch the pine trees, trying to feel the wet, spongy grass between her fingers. And the Games that were in the desert were particularly awful, but the sky overhead fascinated her, and she stared longingly at the bright, navy blue every night, twinkling brightly with beautiful, white pinpricks. Stars. She wishes she could see stars.
It's impossible to see the night sky in District 8.
The fumes from the factory hang over the district like heavy rain clouds, shading everything, blocking out the sun and the stars and the world outside barren gray streets and tall gray factories.
A single, huge lake is featured in the Games when she is thirteen, and she dunks her head under the water in the tenement tub and tries to imagine that she is in cool fresh lake water, the sun glinting off the surface. It doesn't really work. The world smells awful, and her elbows knock against the tub. She comes up for air, and the sun doesn't greet her; buzzing industrial lights do.
She watched the female tribute from District 8 held under the water in the lake until the girl drowned, yet Katniss sits in the dirty water in the rusted tenement tub and dreams about that lake.
It seems like punishment when Primrose Everdeen is Reaped.
Katniss feels the breath leave her lungs in a rush, and no new air comes in. She can't breathe.
Her sister is twelve. Her name was on a single slip. She can't have been picked.
Katniss stumbles from the neat, orderly lines, screaming for her sister, and she volunteers, desperate to do anything she can to stop her sister from standing on that stage, from becoming another brutally murdered child among hundreds. "I volunteer as tribute!" she screams, and she winds up on stage, looking out at pale, hollow faces that stay silent in solidarity with Katniss.
A boy named Patchrick Mellark is Reaped.
She doesn't know him, but he looks like he could survive. His jaw is locked in his square face, his dusty brown hair falling into his pinched forehead, shadowing his cloudy brown eyes. He is attractive, and that counts for something in the Games, and he looks strong enough to fight, too.
He could snap her neck, she thinks.
They're separated in the justice hall, and Katniss is left alone in a silent, empty room. Her hands are trembling, and she clenches them into the fists. A moment later, the door flies open, and Prim races to Katniss, their parents at her heels. Her mother is crying, tears silently streaming over her cheeks, and Prim clutches Katniss around the waist and begs her to win, please, Katniss, try to win, please.
"Don't forget how smart you are," her father says. His hands are trembling, too, when he touches her cheek. "Run, find shelter, and hide for as long as you can. Boil your water, and don't eat anything unless you're positive you know what it is." He tries to smile. She surges into his arms.
She doesn't have any chance in the arena, she knows it.
She is small, arms as thin as string, and she can't stomach blood; her mother is a healer, and she tried to teach Katniss, but it was useless. Katniss was useless. And she tried to help her mother make sew custom dresses for the merchants, but her fingers fumbled uselessly with the needle.
The only work Katniss is cut out for is factory work. She doesn't stand a chance.
Her family is herded from the room, and her eyes burn with tears.
But she wipes her eyes hastily when the door starts to open. It's Quiltora Paylor, smiling sadly at Katniss. She closes the door quietly, crosses the room in three quick strides, and pulls Katniss into a tight hug. Quiltora works at the factory where Katniss picks up a shift after school, and she used to whisper to Katniss about the lies the Capitol tells. She thinks District 13 wasn't really destroyed.
It doesn't matter, of course, the secret thoughts Quiltora used to whisper to Katniss.
After all, District 13 isn't about to save her.
"I'm sorry that this happened to you," she says, drawing away to look at Katniss. "But you can do this." She shakes her head when Katniss starts to protest. "No, you can, I promise. I know you can, because, Katniss, you've never had the chance to see it, but you are stronger than you realize."
"Quil, unless the arena is a giant factory, I don't stand a chance."
She doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry at her own words. She used to stare wistfully at the scenery in the Games, yet her only chance to survive is if, miraculously, the arena turns out to be as bleak and awful as the only life she knows, filled with humming machines and industrial fumes.
Quiltora shakes her head at Katniss, and she takes her hands.
"I need you to promise me that you won't give up at the start. Try, Katniss."
And there's something in her eyes, as though she knows things that Katniss doesn't.
"I'll try," Katniss whispers, nodding, and Quiltora pulls her into another hug.
Quiltora kisses her cheeks. "And listen to your mentors. Do what they say, okay?"
The Peacekeepers are at the door, ready to drag Quiltora away, and that's it. Katniss is ushered onto a train as the escort from the Capitol chatters excitedly about how excited she is for Patchrick and Katniss. She doesn't look out the window as the train lurches away from District 8. She can't look.
It doesn't take long for their mentors to find them.
Cecelia touches Katniss on the shoulder, eyes sympathetic, and Woof tells Patchrick and Katniss that they ought to head to their rooms to sleep. But, a moment later, he puts his finger on his lips, and he beckons them to follow. Katniss is confused, but Cecelia squeezes her shoulder, smiling.
He leads them to an empty compartment, shutting the door quietly and turning around to face them.
"I'm sorry," he says, "but we can't risk letting the Capitol overhear us. We've checked this compartment, and we destroyed the bug we found. This is the only place where we can speak."
"Speak about what?" Patchrick asks.
Cecelia sits beside him. "About how we're going to save you." She glances at Katniss. "It's something that we've talked about for years, but this is the first year we've thought maybe we could do it, because you two are — well, we think you're perfect for it." She smiles, encouraging.
"It's risky," Woof says, "but it's a plan that would let you both walk from the arena alive."
Katniss frowns. "No, that's impossible. Only one person makes it out." She can't look at Patchrick.
"We know," Cecelia says, "and that's why it's risky. We can't promise that it would work, or that anything would play out the way we think it would. And, well, if everything did play out the way we think it would, you both would survive, but you wouldn't be safe from the Capitol, not really."
Katniss doesn't understand, and Patchrick doesn't look like he does, either.
"It would start a revolution," Woof explains, "and you would be at the heart of it."
It's quiet. Katniss doesn't know what to say, and she can't believe this is real. She can't believe that Prim was Reaped, that Katniss ended up on this train, that the two most famous people in District 8 are telling her that they have a plan to save her life and to start a revolution using her. She can't —
"I'm in," Patchrick says. "I'll do it, whatever it is."
Woof nods, turning to look at Katniss.
"We won't blame you if you don't want any part of it, Katniss," Cecelia says.
Katniss thinks about Prim, begging her to try to win. She thinks about her father, trying to give her advice despite knowing that she can't survive. She thinks about Quiltora Paylor, telling her to listen to her mentors. Try, she told Katniss. Listen to your mentors, she said. Do what they say.
Katniss nods. "I'm in, too," she whispers. "I'll do it, too."
Cecelia reaches out, grasping her hand. "Okay. Thank you."
"So what is it?" Patchrick asks. "What's the plan?" He looks between Cecelia and Woof.
Woof runs a hand through his hair. "First, do you have a girlfriend, Patchrick?"
"Or a girl you're serious about?" Cecelia asks.
Patchrick frowns. "No. I mean, I've dated girls, but there isn't anyone special. Is that important?"
Woof looks at Katniss. "What about you, Katniss? Any special someone in your life?"
She shakes her head. She glances at Patchrick, who looks as confused, frustrated, and anxious as she feels. "I don't understand," he says. "I mean, what do our love lives have do with anything?"
And Cecelia smiles. "Actually," she says, "your love lives have everything to do with it."
"My brother told me that boys and girls are different between their legs."
They're in the greenery at the florist shop, arranging flowers in bouquets, because Katniss likes making the bouquets, picking which flowers look prettiest next to which flowers, choosing which silky ribbon to tie neatly around the stems, and her granddaddy says she possesses an eye for it.
He sets out the flowers that should be in each bouquet, and she puts them together.
And Peeta is with her, of course, because Peeta is always with her.
"I knew that," Katniss tells him, her fingers sticky with sap as she wipes the sweat that beads on her forehead. She hears the older girls who come into the shop talk about stuff. "It's why girls sit when they pee and boys stand," she says, straightening proudly with the knowledge, "and it's why you need a girl and a boy to make babies." She puts the last tulip in place and looks at the ribbons.
She thinks a pink ribbon would be especially pretty with the tulips.
But Peeta gapes at her. "Do you mean peeing makes babies?" he exclaims, eyes wide.
"No!" she says, scrunching up her nose. She hesitates. "I don't think it's peeing that makes them."
Peeta bites his lip. "So what it is?"
She thinks about it, trying to remember every word she's ever overheard.
A few minutes later, her granddaddy comes into collect her finished bouquets. He finds Peeta and Katniss standing two feet apart, face to face, staring at each other, naked from the waist down, her dress pulled up to her chin, his trousers pooled at his feet, and their underwear around their ankles.
As red as a poinsettia, Peeta falls over in his attempt to pull up his trousers, but Katniss blinks shamelessly at her granddaddy. "We were trying to figure out how you make babies," she explains.
"Six years old, and you're ready to make yourself a baby," he says, shaking his head, scooping Katniss into his arms, and telling Peeta to skedaddle. He kisses the dimple in her cheek, amused.
Her granddaddy is never mad at Katniss, and he loves Peeta, too. He is the best granddaddy in the world, as far as she is concerned. He is tall as a pine tree, his hair the very same yellow as hers, and his beard is thick, tickling her and making her squeal when he blows raspberries on her belly.
She adores him, and it takes her years to understand why he doesn't like her father.
Her grandaddy is the florist, and her mother is his only child, the daughter he raised alone after his wife died. And, as Katniss learns when she is older, her grandfather never understood why his daughter fell in love with a field hand, someone who lives in the rickey wooden houses outside town, a man with dirt under his fingernails, skin tanned and weathered from working in the fields.
His daughter married beneath the merchant class, and he was never able to accept it.
He wasn't about to disown her, to resign her to a harder life; no, she continued to work at the florist shop he owned, but her husband was never asked to work with them. He continued to work in the fields, and Katniss was born with a foot in either world. She spends one day running barefoot through the grain fields with her father holding her hand, teaching her how to sing, and she spends another day in the florist shop, tying silky ribbons around pretty flowers as her granddaddy smiles.
Katniss likes her life.
She adores her little sister, and Peeta Mellark is her best friend from the start.
She can't remember any time when they weren't friends. He is the baker's son, and they look very much the same; they've the same pale skin, tinted like cream colored amaryllis flowers, and they've the same thick, curly blonde hair. But his eyes are as blue as they come, prettier than any flower she can name, and her eyes aren't anything special, amber, as though a real color were fading away.
"I like your eyes," Peeta says.
Katniss kicks his leg out from under him. "Don't be stupid."
She marks the way time passes with the different days that come around.
Her birthday is the best, of course.
Always, on her birthday, Peeta bakes bread especially for her, her father finds her strawberries from the vines that grow, tangled, over the district fence, and her granddaddy buys fresh butter from the market. She doesn't think anything tastes as wonderful in the world as strawberries and butter smeared on warm bread, and she thinks it's the only day every year that she feels full.
Some days aren't good or bad; they're simply tradition, something dependable to count on.
The same day every year, when snow is falling fast, Gale Hawthorne comes into the shop.
Her granddaddy despises Gale Hawthorne, and Katniss comes to realize that he is convinced someone like Gale will steal her heart the way her father won over her mother. It's his worst fear.
And someone like Gale is worse than someone like her father, because Gale isn't a field hand.
He doesn't work in the grain fields that stretch on endlessly in the south, doesn't live in the small, wooden houses as brown as the dirt on which they stand. He doesn't live in town, either, among the shops that trade goods and sell wares. He works in the factories in the north, where the snow is the worst, where they live in cold, colorless tenements, where the poorest people in the district are.
(She can't imagine having less to eat; it's not as though they have enough, not really. Her stomach aches with hunger on the worst nights in winter, and she can count her ribs when spring arrives. She doesn't understand how someone is supposed to survive with less. Some don't, she realizes.)
Katniss likes Gale.
He is taller than her grandfather, and he stoops when he comes into the shop, snow melting in his dark hair, his cheeks pink from the cold. He looks her in the eye, unlike most people from the north who come into the shop, and he asks for some pretty flowers to give his mother for her birthday.
Katniss thinks it's sweet, and she starts to put together the prettiest bouquets she can for him.
"I made this especially for your mother," she tells him the winter she's thirteen.
He frowns. "It looks expensive," he replies.
And it should be, because she included larkspur to add purple, and she couldn't help including roses to soften the sharp angles in the poinsettias, but she doesn't care, and her granddaddy isn't around. "It isn't," she says. "I figured out how much you usually spend, and I picked the prettiest flowers I could using the price range." She adds pride to her voice, perfecting her tiny untruth.
"The ribbon doesn't cost extra, does it?" he asks, suspicious.
"No, of course not," she says, as though he is silly. It does, but he doesn't need to know that.
He nods. "Okay. It looks really pretty." He clear his throat. "Thank you." And he pays for it.
She knows he trades meat at the other shops, squirrels for bread, rabbits for cloth, but he must have found out that her granddaddy refuses to trade for food, and he needs to use his pay from the factories to buy flowers. She wants to trade with him, but she can't exactly defy her grandfather.
Some days that come around ever year are truly bad days.
She hates the Reaping. Her granddaddy won't let her put her name in more times for food, and she is grateful for that, but she feels sick to her stomach every year, afraid that her name will be picked, or Peeta will be picked, or someone else from the shops or from school, someone she calls her friend. And, when another child from the fields or the factories is picked, Katniss feels relieved, only to lose her breakfast in the toilet a few hours later, disgusted with herself for being relieved.
"It's okay to feel relieved," Peeta says. "I feel relieved every time another girl walks onto the stage, and you're safe until next year." He smiles sadly at her, and she wraps her arms around his neck, clinging to him, wishing she could hide in his arms and not surface until the Games were finished.
It's the same every year, the awful, desperate wait for the Games to end.
But, of course, some things change.
Peeta changes. She blinks, and he is taller than her, his shoulders broad, and she doesn't really think about it, think about how she changes, too, until she hears the whispers around school about herself, about Peeta, about them. They're together, a couple, look at how Katniss wipes the jam off his face, look at how he wraps his arm around her shoulder as they walk, look, look, look at them.
It seems silly to Katniss how the fact that they're best friends means they kiss behind the bakery every night, or the fact that Peeta pokes her arm with his nose when they're studying because he is bored, his head in her lap, means they're sleeping together, or the fact that she likes to toy with his curls, softer and silkier than hers, means she intends to marry him and to make babies with him.
He is Peeta, her best friend. That's it. She doesn't care what anyone else wants to think.
They're fifteen when he starts to say things that he shouldn't.
It's Sunday, the day neither works, and he is drawing while she reads, but he sighs suddenly and declares forlornly he can never draw her properly without color. Someday, he'll buy himself paint.
"Do you really need to draw me?" she asks, rolling her eyes.
He shrugs. "I like drawing you, but I hate that I can't draw your eyes right."
"My eyes aren't that special," she says. "Stop drawing me, Peeta, I mean it."
"I love your eyes," he declares, childish.
She looks up from her book. "They're yellow. I look like a cat."
"Amber," he corrects.
She rolls her amber eyes. "They're colored like grain," she says.
"But that's why I like them," he tells her. "They're amber like — like the sun at dawn, like bread when it's baked perfectly, like the grain fields. I look at you," he says, earnest, "and I see home."
She stares, her heart pounding strangely.
But she shakes her head at him. "I swear, you say the most ridiculous things." As the months pass, she finds better ways to change the subject when he says things he shouldn't. Peeta is her best friend, and Katniss doesn't see why that needs to change. She doesn't want anything to change.
It doesn't matter what she wants, though. The Capitol doesn't care what she wants, and everything starts to change. Prim is Reaped. Katniss volunteers, stumbling forward, desperate and terrified, and she stands on the stage, looking at the silent crowd. She wants to cry, but she won't let herself.
She is going to be killed. She knows it. She doesn't have any survival skills.
A boy is picked, and she looks at his tall, wiry frame. Not him, she thinks.
They're told to shake hands, and they're herded towards the justice hall. She starts to stumble.
But she doesn't fall, because Gale Hawthorne reaches out and grasps her hand.
Sometimes, Katniss despises her friends.
They're the girls who were raised with her; their mothers are friends with her mother, and their fathers work at the same hog ranch as hers. But they can say the most awful things, her friends, and she wishes she could make friends with people who don't look and talk exactly the same as each other, who don't think anyone who isn't exactly the same as them is somehow beneath them.
She stays silent when Marigold Miller starts to talk about the way the kids from the Basin talk.
But she can't be silent when Agatha Troyer puts her fingers on her temples and pulls to stretch her eyes into slits. The other girls giggle, and Katniss catches two girls from the Basin watching them. She shoves away from the table, clenching her jaw as she gathers her lunch with trembling hands.
"Something the matter, Katniss?" Agatha asks, amused
Katniss doesn't answer as she stalks away from the table to sit at an empty one.
"Oh, come on, Kitty!" Marigold calls. "We were only teasing. Don't be sore about it!"
She hates when they call her Kitty. It's stupid. She ignores her friends, pulling out her sandwich and staring at the table. A moment later, Delly Cartwight sits beside her. "I'm sorry they were being awful, Katniss," she says. "I told them off for talking about the kids from the Basin that way. It was terrible, and you were right to be mad. But, you know, I heard that Agatha likes to tease them because she was crazy for Peeta Mellark, and his friend Gale told her that Peeta didn't like her."
Katniss nods, and she glances up to smile at Delly.
All her friends aren't terrible. Delly is the sweetest girl in the district.
Delly starts to rummage through her lunch tin, and Katniss risks glancing around the school yard.
Her eyes land on the two girls from the Basin, laughing loudly at something, and one spies Katniss; she smiles, and Katniss smiles, too, looking away, shy. Her eyes find someone else. Him.
Peeta Mellark, staring at her.
She drops her eyes to the table, embarrassed.
Katniss adores everything about him, from his soft, sweet brown eyes and his untidy black hair to the way he jokes easily with everybody, always friendly, always kind. He works after school in pork processing plant three, he is the best wrestler at the school, and he seems to have a different girl at his side every month. And Katniss Everdeen is completely, utterly, hopelessly mad for him.
(She isn't nearly as pretty as the girls he dates; she looks like every other merchant girl, small and pale, curly brown hair to her shoulders and plain hazel eyes set too far apart on her thin, long face.)
She doesn't know when she started to like him. It was probably the moment she met him.
But she hasn't had the courage to speak to him since the day she gave him the sweetbread.
It was years ago, when they were twelve.
She was in the kitchen, washing the dishes her mother left out for her to clean, when she heard Mrs. Abbott snarling at someone in the yard, and she peaked out the window, curious. Her breath caught when she saw that Peeta Mellark was her victim, standing in the rain, flinching as Mrs. Abbott shouted at him. Katniss dried her hands, crept to the backdoor, and quietly stepped outside.
"I have a permit to grow my tomatoes, boy!" Mrs. Abbott snarled at him.
His hands were clenched in fists. "I wasn't stealing your tomatoes, ma'am. I was —"
But Mrs. Abbott wasn't listening to him. "Don't sass me! I could have you whipped for —"
"Peeta!" Katniss exclaimed, bounding into the drizzling rain. "I was starting to think you weren't coming to help me." She smiled brightly at him, and her eyes bounced to Mrs. Abbott. "Peeta promised to help me with my arithmetic. I'm truly terrible at it, and Peeta is the best in our class."
Mrs. Abbott pursed her lips, looking between them. "Fine, dear. I would keep an eye on him."
And she stalked into her house, slamming the door shut behind herself.
Peeta didn't move, and Katniss lowered her voice. "I think you better come in," she said. "I bet she is looking out the window right at this minute." She bit her lip, suddenly shy, but he nodded and started across the yard towards her. She led him into the house, pulling dry wash clothes out for them to use. She wasn't very wet, but he was dripping from the rain. She handed him three towels.
"Thanks," he said, smiling sweetly, making her blush.
She nodded, flustered, and told him that he could sit. She started to gather the courage to ask —
"I wasn't trying to steal her tomatoes," he said. "I wasn't." His jaw was locked.
She tucked her hair nervously behind her ear. "I know you weren't," she told him. It was quiet, and her eyes ran over him, across his bony wrists, up his thin arms, to how his eyes seemed sunken in his starved face. He was starving, his clothes hanging loosely off his thin fame. Katniss felt sick to her stomach looking at him, at his sallow, sickly skin, because he was starving to death, wasn't he?
"It's Katniss Everdeen, right?" he asked.
She nodded. "Um, I —" She turned on her heel, heading to the refrigerator, because she needed to find something for him. She scanned the shelves, unable to find anything that would be enough to help him, surely making him more and more uncomfortable with her odd behavior as every second passed. And her eyes landed on the sweetbread her mother cooked and breaded that very morning.
It was already wrapped. Perfect.
She pulled it out, snapped the fridge closed, and offered the food to him. "Here."
He frowned. "Katniss, I —"
"It's sweetbread," she said. "It's really good. I mean, I think it is. But most people don't like it, and it's hard to sell. I want you to have it." She swallowed thickly, because she didn't know how to explain the way his gaunt frame made her ache. "I want you to take it, please," she insisted softly.
Hesitantly, he accepted it. "Thanks, Katniss. Really. Thank you." He tucked it into his jacket, offering her another sweet smile. "So. This might be stupid, but I feel like I've heard about katniss, the thing, but I don't actually know what the thing is. Is it something, or am I completely crazy?"
She smiled. "No, you're not crazy. It's a thing. A plant, actually. My papa loves plants." She bit her lip. "What about Peeta? Do your parents really love bread?" She hoped he wasn't offended.
"My mother was the baker's daughter," he explained, "which means, yes, she really loves bread."
And she felt his smile from her head to her toes, felt silly with it.
The moment was ruined, though, when her mother walked into the room, looking hassled, because her mother wouldn't know how not to look hassled. She didn't notice Peeta as she opened the fridge. "I'm on my way to drop off deliveries at the mayor's house," she told Katniss. "Do you want to come along to see Madge?" She pulled out the ham steaks saved especially for the mayor.
"I need to finish the dishes," Katniss said.
Her mother nodded. "As you like. Katniss, did your father do something with the sweetbread?"
Katniss panicked. "Um, no — no, I don't think he —"
"I promised the mayor I would have sweetbread for him." She slammed the fridge shut.
Peeta opened his mouth, and Katniss blurted it out. "I ate it, Mother." Her mother turned, raising her eyebrows, hand flying to her hip, and Katniss wanted to disappear. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize why you made it, and I was hungry after school, and I thought — I'm really sorry, Mother, I am."
Her mother stared, face pinching. "Dammit, Katniss!" she snapped.
But she noticed Peeta, and whatever else she was about to shout died in her throat. She smiled tightly at him, picked up the ham steaks, and turned to Katniss. "I hope you enjoyed your dinner."
She stalked out, and the kitchen was painfully silent.
"Katniss," Peeta started, "you shouldn't have —"
"I, um, I need to finish with these dishes," Katniss said. "And you can probably leave. I doubt Mrs. Abbott will fuss about it." She tried to smile, turning to the sink to continue with the dishes.
He left, and that was it.
She watched from afar as the angles started to fade from his face, as starvation fled from him, as though the sweetbread was enough to help him. But they never spoke about it. They never spoke about anything. Katniss glances up from her lunch, and he isn't looking at her. He is talking with Gale Hawthorne and a pretty girl from the Basin whose name she doesn't know, and Katniss sighs.
She finishes her lunch, indulging Delly as her friend gossips, and class resumes.
She thinks about talking to him in class. He sits a seat ahead in the row over. But no matter how many conversations she starts in her head, she can't make herself actually say anything to him. It's the same every day, every week, every month, every year. She tells herself as she walks home with Prim that she'll talk to him the next time she sees him alone in the school yard. She nods, resolved.
It takes two weeks, but she spies him sitting alone as he eats, and this is it.
He glances up, and she looks away as quickly as she can. She doesn't go over to talk to him.
The rainy weeks start, but it's pleasant out on Reaping day, as though the Capitol controls the weather, too. Katniss puts on her best dress, ties a matching ribbon in her hair, and waits to see whether this is the year her name is picked. It isn't in the ball too many times, but her mother has made her take out tesserae three times, and having a single slip with her name on it is enough to make Katniss feel panicky. Her heart pounds as the mayor starts to talk. She wants it to be over.
It's torture to make everyone wait to find out who is about to be killed.
And this is Prim's first year, too.
The District 10 escort is tall and tan with spiky white hair and spidery fingers, and he beams at them with large, shinning teeth as he pulls out the slip for the female tribute, taking his time with it.
"Congratulations," he says, waving his hand with a flourish, "Ms. Katniss Everdeen!"
The world seems to slow around her, and everything is strangely quiet.
She wants to sink into the ground, but people start to part around her, and someone nudges her arm. She takes one shaky step after another, and she finds herself standing on the stage, where the escort pets her arm and asks her whether she is thrilled or absolutely thrilled. Her throat closes.
He laughs, saying something about how she is shocked with delight. He struts to the other bowl.
"And," he starts, wildly waving another slip in the air, "congratulations, Mr. Rye Mellark!"
Katniss is stunned. It's Peeta's older brother, the one with the crippled foot. He won't survive two minutes in the Games. The color drains from his face as he sways on the spot, stunned. He steps towards the stage, and someone shouts. Peeta. "Rye, no. Wait! I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!"
The escort is hopping around with excitement, beckoning Peeta to the stage, but everyone else is silent, because someone in their district was courageous enough to volunteer to protect his crippled brother, and District 10 isn't used to courage. Peeta takes the stage, and the district is quiet for him.
It's the best they can do.
He shakes her hand, and she can see the resolve starting to form in his eyes.
She doesn't have any chance in the Games, but he might.
And maybe, somehow, someway, she can find a way to help him do it.
The first sting makes her lose her footing on the branch, the pain stealing her breath.
Her leg scrapes against the tree, the bark biting into her skin, but she catches herself; a fall from this height would kill her. She spots the nest, and her stomach drops, because those aren't wasps, or honey bees. Those are tracker jackers. She looks at the bite on her hand; it's already swelling.
She needs to reach the ground. She grasps the branch, twisting, jumping, and landing on the next lowest, but her movement shakes the tree, and another sharp, terribly painful bite sears her, this time on her shoulder. She can't believe she climbed right to the nest. She clenches her jaw, and she hops to the next branch, tensing for another sing, but it doesn't come, and she lets out a shaky sigh.
"What is it?" Peat hollers, shielding his eyes from the sun to look up at her.
She steadies herself on another branch. "Tracker jacker nest!" she shouts.
She reaches the ground and stumbles into him, her head pounding with the pain. Peat must've said something to Thresh, because the other boy appears suddenly with the leaves, already chewed, and he rubs the salve on her two stings, making her shudder with relief, and Katniss sinks against Peat.
She isn't a stranger to tracker jackers, but she's never been stung herself.
It doesn't take long for others to arrive, Peacekeepers included, but she explains the nest. The tallest Peacekeeper, greasy blonde hair falling into his face, the sun reflecting off his white uniform and blinding Katniss, takes her arm. He will escort her home to rest. She wishes Peat or Thresh was allowed to walk her through the fields, but they're expected to continue picking peaches, of course.
Her vision is swimming when they arrive at the houses, small shacks with thatched, slanted roofs, and his vice grip on her arm loosens. "Return to work as soon as you can," he says. "Someone will be around to check on you every morning you aren't in the fields to assess that you're still injured."
She nods, biting her cheek to keep from snapping that she is twelve, not stupid.
She stumbles to her house, three rows in, and the shack is wonderfully cool, inviting her to collapse on the cot that she used to share with Prim. She hates the summer. She hates scaling trees to pick peaches. She hates the heat and the days that last impossibly long, and she is already desperate for the few, cold months when they're in school, when she isn't forced into the fields.
But, of course, during the winter, she wakes up hungry, spends the day hungry, and goes to sleep hungry, only to have her dreams consumed with how hungry she is. No, the winter is terrible, too.
She starts to hear laughter. She recognizes it; the eighteen-year-old tribute from District 2 who murdered the thirteen-year-old tribute from District 11 during the Games two weeks ago laughed insanely after every kill, pleased with the blood that splattered along his arms. Katniss hated it.
He isn't in the room, she tells herself. It's the tracker jacker venom. A hallucination.
She passes out, and she wakes up to find her mother curled against her, sleeping. She smiles.
Another day passes, but she recovers during the night, and she joins the throngs heading out to the fields the next morning; she isn't about to be dragged out. Thresh nods at her, and Peat smiles, his fingers dancing over her hand and her shoulder, as though to be certain that the stings have healed.
They reach the fields, fanning out, and the hot, humid day starts to pass as any other would.
"Did you hallucinate?" Peat asks her.
She nods. "A little, I think. Mainly about gruesome stuff from the Games."
She doesn't want to talk about it, and Peat doesn't ask anything else.
They've been friends since they were little; she was raised with Peat and Thresh, and they're as close to family as friends can come, the brothers she never had. As they grow older, she sees them less and less, though, because she continues to do the work relegated to children and to women, planting seeds, picking cotton, collecting fruit, while Peat and Thresh start to help work the plows and harvest the wheat with the men; they're tall, her friends, and strong, towering over Katniss.
She is fifteen, and her best friends are giants.
But the less time she spends with them, the more time she spends with Rue.
The girl is tiny, flying between the trees, whistling signals at everyone, beloved.
Katniss takes a shine to her, and they teach each other songs, singing softly as they work, too softly for the Peacekeepers to catch, too softly for birds to carry the tune; they sing for themselves.
She doesn't realize how fond she is of Rue until her tiny friend makes a mistake.
They're on their way from the fields to spend another night watching the Hunger Games, but everyone is moving slowly, and Katniss realizes that the Peacekeepers are checking for stolen food. It happens a few times every month, sometimes two days in a row, other times weeks apart.
And Rue panics, looking at Katniss with eyes. Her hands tremble.
"No," Katniss breathes, horrified. "No, Rue, you didn't."
"My little brother," Rue whispers, "your mama says he is dying, 'cause he needs to eat —"
She doesn't really remember when her father was whipped, or when Prim died.
It was during the hottest summer in years, when crops were dying under the unrelenting heat, when people were passing out from exhaustion in the fields, others found dead from heat stroke in their homes. And the entire district seemed to catch fever, starvation picking them off like flies.
Her little sister caught something. She was two years old, and she was sick, starving to death.
And, desperate, their father tried to steal food for her. He was caught, of course, because it's impossible not to be caught. He was whipped in the town square, and the nightmares haunted Katniss for months. She thought he was going to die from it, the way he lay on the kitchen table, sweating through his bloody bandages, nothing for his pain. He didn't die, though. He recovered.
But, a few weeks later, Prim died.
Her mother seemed lost to the world in the months that followed, but their lives carried on.
And Katniss doesn't really remember the details, but she sees the scars on her daddy, the thick, fleshy raised scars that cut through his brown skin, and she panics, taking the fruit from Rue, because someone as small and slight as Rue can't survive being whipped the way her father was.
She tries to return to the fields, to abandon the food that Rue stole, but she can't. She is caught.
The Peacekeeper with the awful scar twisting his nose twists her arm, spitting "thief" at her, and she finds herself in town square within minutes, hands tied, her dress torn to let the whip hit flesh.
"No!" Rue squeals, trying to reach Katniss, "no, it wasn't her!" But someone stops Rue, Peat or Thresh or someone else, and the whip bites into her skin, the sudden pain making her gasp, making her eyes burn with tears. She is glad to be kneeling, because her knees would've buckled under it.
Another strike, and she bites her tongue, tasting blood as the third lash hits.
She loses count, and she must pass out.
And she opens tired eyes to see her daddy, smiling softly, his hand stroking her hair. She comes entirely to, feeling the table beneath her and the throbbing pain that seems to strum through her whole body. She tries to smile at him, but she feels drugged, and she wonders who found drugs for her. Her father must be able to read what she wants in her eyes, though, because he starts to sing softly to her, telling her that here is the place where I love you, and she drifts off to his voice.
The house is empty and quiet when she wakes, and the sun is beaming outside.
Everyone is at work. She tries to sit up, and her stomach rolls with the pain. She shifts, and her sweaty cheek sticks to something; it's paper. The only person who would leave paper on the table is Peat. He tears pages from their workbooks at school, carefully stowing them away in his pockets to use for his sketches. It's left for her, she realizes; the drawing on it is finished, meant for her to find. A squirrel is soaring from tree to tree, and her little head is adorned with curls. It's Katniss.
Peat drew Katniss as a squirrel. She rolls her eyes, but she stares at the silly drawing until the sweat that creeps beneath her bandages stings her cuts badly enough to make her faint from pain.
She hears voices, and she opens her eyes to see Peat. She smiles.
"Do you really think I look like a squirrel?" she asks dryly, raising her eyebrows.
He glances at the drawing and grins, dimples peaking out. "I saw one yesterday, real skinny thing, and I was talking and talking to it for, oh, I don't know, ten minutes before I realized it wasn't you."
She reaches out to hit his stomach, but he catches her wrist, laughing.
Her attempt tears at her fresh cuts, though, and she can't hide her wince.
His hand brushes her cheek. "Are you okay?" he asks, forehead creased. "Rue went to Miss Seeder, and she found morphling for you, but we've already given you the three vials she had."
"I'm fine," Katniss says. "Rue shouldn't have bothered Miss Seeder."
"She was desperate to do something for you," he murmurs.
Katniss drops his gaze. "I had to do it, Peat. Rue was trying to help her baby siblings. She was desperate to keep them from starving, and I couldn't let them kill her over it. I had to take the fall."
He strokes her hair, leaning over to kiss her forehead.
As he shifts away, his nose brushes hers, and his eyes are impossibly close to hers. His breath washes against her skin, making her flush at the warmth, and she can feel his lips tremble where they happen to touch her cheek. "Katniss," he breathes, almost pleading, making her heart jump.
And he kisses her on the mouth.
"Thresh told me," she whispers. "A long time ago, he said that you looked at me as though —"
His hand brushes over her curls and slips between her cheek and the table to cradle her head.
"Why?" she asks, searching his face. She doesn't understand. She grew up with Peat and Thresh, learned to read and to write with them, picked fruit from the tallest trees with them, watched Games with them, cried with them, starved with them, survived with them. They're her friends, yet Peat looks at her the way that her father looks at her mother. She doesn't understand it. "I don't. . . ."
He smiles at her as though she were a child. "Because," he says.
"Tell me, Peat," she pushes.
"It's because — because, Katniss. Because you're — you're beautiful and loyal and willing to do anything to protect the people you love, and — and you don't realize it, but most people can't say the same, and — and you scrunched up your nose every time you had to squish another worm under your foot the summer we picked cotton, and you — you make these judgmental faces —"
He isn't making any sense, and he laughs, because he knows it.
"Because, Katniss," he says, sighing.
She nods. It doesn't really explain anything, but — "Okay."
He knows what he wants, and he moves to his feet. "I'll tell your mama you're awake. They're making you something special for dinner on the outside fire pit; everybody is helping out with it."
He leaves her to think.
Dinner is wonderful, stew with potato and peppers. "Miss Seeder helped out, too," her mama admits, helping Katniss eat her share. It isn't the season for stew, but Katniss doesn't really care.
Rue comes to talk to her, and she apologizes until she is in tears.
"Don't apologize for trying to help your family," Katniss says, waiting for Rue to nod.
Rue wipes her eyes. "I love you, Katniss," she says, and something about the words, simple as they are, makes Katniss feel her own eyes burn with tears, and she smiles at Rue.
"I love you, too." She clears her throat. "How's Ash?" He is two, the same age Prim was.
Rue smiles. "Better," she says. "I didn't need to. . . ."
Katniss touches her chin. "What did I say?" she asks.
"Don't apologize," Rue repeats, and she surges forward to kiss Katniss on the cheek.
Her mother cleans her cuts, making Katniss cry, puts on fresh, clean bandages, and her daddy carries her carefully to her cot, pulling the blankets gently over her. She doesn't really sleep that night, though. She can't. She thinks about Thresh. He said Peat looks at her as though she is his whole world. She thinks about the way her mother looks at her father. She thinks about brown eyes that follow her as she works in the field, about how his lips were chapped against hers.
Her daddy puts her on the table the next morning, and the Peacekeepers allow her another day.
But she makes her daddy swear to find Peat and to bring him over at sunset. They need to talk.
She is sitting up, melting together soap slivers for her mama, when Peat arrives. Her dress is hanging on her shoulders, opened to let the cuts breathe, but she moves to her feet, beckoning him.
"Kiss me," she tells him.
He doesn't hesitate. His hands hover over his arms, and he presses his lips to hers. His body seems to radiate heat from his day under the sun, and she is overwhelmed at his familiar smell. His tongue traces her lips, startling her, making her gasp, and she curls her fingers into his cotton shirt when his tongue tentatively touches hers. She surges closer to him, warmth starting to pool in her belly.
This is how it works, isn't it?
It isn't like the older girls say; it's not as though you see someone across the street and your whole world changes. It's not like someone says something sweet and you melt, madly in love with him. No, it's slow, creeping up on you, a friendly smile, a stupid joke, a hug that comforts you. The littlest moments seep into your skin, wrapping around your heart when you're not paying attention.
The kiss ends, and Peat looks at her with large, happy eyes. And he grins widely.
"Did you spend your entire day thinking about me?" he asks.
She glares at him, and he laughs, surging forward for another kiss.
(And she doesn't know how this will work, but she doesn't want to think about the future, about the children that Peat wants and she doesn't, about whether she is setting herself up for pain; she isn't the sort who dwells in the past or looks to the future, because the present needs her attention.)
She returns to work the next day, but it takes months for her cuts to heal. Her mama fusses about infection, and the wounds are opened again and again, every time sweat sticks her bandages to them, and her mother is forced to peel off the bandages. But her daddy survived it, and Katniss survives it, too. And, as the hot, sticky months approach, she starts to spend her nights with Peat.
They work from sunrise to sunset, but the nights are their own, and they find ways to hide from the world. Her parents help, disappearing to visit friends. Peat tells her stupid jokes, her head in his lap, and they play checkers with the old set her father made her. She snakes her hand under his shirt, and he smiles, kissing her neck, and the cot squeaks under them as he pushes up her dress.
She laughs at the noise, or maybe at his fingers ghosting over her ticklish skin; it doesn't matter, because her laughter fades into gasps, and he kisses her parted lips, slipping his finger inside her.
It's like a whole new world, loving Peat.
Rue asks her what it's like to kiss a boy, giggling when Katniss makes a funny face at her.
Thresh say it's strange how much she smiles, laughing when she shoves him.
But her whole new world doesn't last long, because nothing good can last.
She starts to steel herself for the Reaping, knowing that her name is on over thirty slips in that bowl, and Peat's name is, too, and she is afraid to ask Thresh how many times his name is in it.
The ditzy escort pulls out the slip for the female tribute, and Katniss clenches her hands into fists.
She steeled herself to be Reaped. But she didn't steel herself for Rue to be Reaped.
Rue, her tiny friend, sweet as can be. Katniss is stunned, trying to remember how to think, how to move, desperate to stop Rue from walking towards the stage. Her eyes find the little girl, watching as Rue trips over her own feet. She stumbles, barely stopping herself from falling flat on her face.
Katniss finds her feet moving before she thinks about it, and she screams the words.
"Tell us, tell us," the escort simpers, shoving the microphone at Katniss. "Ms. Everdeen, tell us, dear, why have you volunteered?" The woman, her skin tinted sickly green, is absolutely delighted.
But Katniss doesn't know what to say. "Because," she whispers. "She is my friend."
It's the best she can do, but it isn't enough. Some things, you can't explain.
She doesn't allow herself to show any emotions, though, until the name for the boys is read.
No matter what Katniss does, someone she loves suffers. It's how the Capitol works. She can't protect everyone she loves. His face is stony as he stands beside her on the stage, but he turns to her when they're in the justice hall. "What do we do, Katniss?" he asks, his voice low and rough.
She shakes her head. "I don't know. I don't have any idea."
They study the different districts in school.
It's called cultural studies, and Katniss loves it. History class is slanted, she can tell; slanted to disparage the Capitol in exactly the way President Coin wants to disparage it, slanted to serve as the perfect platform on which to build when the districts decide to revolt against the Capitol.
But cultural studies is exactly what it's supposed to be, and she spends her scheduled two hours for study time with Peeta in an empty compartment, flipping through her cultural studies book and reading interesting passages as he works on whatever assignment they're actually supposed to do.
"They have crystal fountains in District 1," she tells him, "actual crystal fountains."
He sighs, wistful. "I can't imagine what that must look like under the sun."
"It would probably blind you," she replies. "I bet you my dinner roll everyone in the district stumbles around, blind as bats." He starts to laugh, but her eyes widen. "And, okay, they decorate everything with diamond dust. Unbelievable. They have people mine diamonds because they want to decorate everything with diamond dust. I would murder the merchants in their diamond beds."
He smirks. "It's a good thing you don't live in District 1," he tells her.
"It's a good thing for them, yeah," she mutters, flipping to another chapter.
He shifts, making the mattress squeak under him as he pushes aside his math textbook.
It's strange to think that this is where someone will live, will raise children, will feel safest, when at this moment it's nothing more than three empty rooms with bare furniture covered in sheets, easy for two teenagers to break into to have somewhere to study without nosy adults looking on. It's strange to think that when Katniss and Peeta are married, they could be assigned to live right here.
No, it isn't strange. It's sad. Katniss wants to go somewhere different, see the world.
As absurd as it sounds, she wants to see crystal fountains and diamond dust.
She wants to find out how cold the water in flooded quarry mines really is, she wants to see the sea stretch out endlessly, and she wants to feel the sun shine on her skin through the glass in an atrium. She wants to taste snow and feel sticky sap from towering trees between her fingers. She wants to see an actual cow, watch the sun rise, and start to sweat through her clothes from the summer heat.
"Okay, you don't want to live in District 1," Peeta says. "How about District 2?"
She thinks about it. "No. It says that, on average, sixty-eight people die in quarry accidents every year. I'll pass, thanks. And I don't think I could live in District 3. Or District 8. Or District 5. Too industrial." She tilts her head, smiling at him, and he stretches out to lie beside her on the mattress.
"How about District 4?" Peeta asks. "I've always wanted to try an oyster."
"Ooh, we could learn to swim," she says, "and we could try lobster. I really want to eat lobster."
Peeta puts his hands behind his head. "I think I would try any fish. Anything new." He looks at her. "Is that it? Have we decided to move to District 4?" He smiles sweetly at her, his eyes bright.
"Mmm, no," she says. "Our pale, pasty skin wouldn't last two weeks. We'd burn. Badly."
He nods. "Sounds about right. We could try District 7. It's cloudy. And it isn't too industrial."
"I think I would freeze to death," she says, making a face.
He snorts. "Too hot, too cold — you're impossible to please, aren't you? I think District 7 sounds great. I'm moving to District 7, and you can sit in this compartment. How's that?" He grins at her.
She pinches his side, sitting up to straddle his stomach, her hands on his chest.
"Don't try to pretend you could survive ten minutes without me," she says. "Come on. Admit it. No matter what, wherever I am, you'll have to be, too, or the world wouldn't keep turning, right?"
They've been friends since they were little, when the pox started to spread. They were confined to compartments with others who weren't yet affected and left to their own devices. It was the first time in her life that Katniss wasn't expected to do exactly what she was told exactly when she was told to do it, and she was never able to return fully to following the schedule tattooed on her arm.
And Peeta, as much as he would probably like to follow his schedule, can't help but disregard his tattoo, going wherever Katniss is, because that's the way they've always done it. Katniss and Peeta, together, never mind anything or anyone else. It's how Katniss and Peeta are supposed to be.
He runs his hands up her thighs, resting them on her hips. "Fine. How about District 11?"
She considers it. "I think I would love peaches," she says. "And it wouldn't be cold."
"Sounds perfect," he declares.
She shakes her head. "I want snow, too — the thick, fluffy kind and the wet, sticky kind. Both."
"Good point," he says. "I can't paint snow without seeing the stuff. What about District 10?"
"I want to see some cows, not smell them. The place stinks, Peeta." She wrinkles her nose, and he protests, saying the textbook doesn't really say anything about how the district smells. "Its industry is livestock. Obviously, it reeks. We're not moving to District 10. It's time to let the dream die."
He chuckles. "Fine. What's left?"
"A few," she says, "but I've picked out what I want." She runs her hands up to his shoulders, leaning over him, her hair forming a curtain around their faces, and she smiles against his mouth.
"I'm surprised you picked one," he says. "Well, let's hear it. What's the perfect place for us to live?"
She kisses him. "Someday, when the districts revolt and President Coin takes down the Capitol, we're going to leave District 13 as fast as we possibly can, and we're going to move to District 12."
His chest rumbles with laughter. "I should've known you secretly wanted to be a coal miner."
She bites his lip, annoyed. "Are you coming with me, or aren't you?" she asks.
He slides his hands over her arms, reaching up to hold her face, his fingers sipping into her unruly hair, and he kisses her sweetly, gently, the way he likes to do to remind her that he loves her, as though she might forget. She smiles, brushing her nose affectionately against his as the kiss ends.
"I can't wait to live in District 12 with you, Katniss Everdeen."
They say it's what you make,
I say it's up to fate.
It's woven in my soul,
I need to let you go.
Your eyes, they shine so bright,
I want to save their light.
I can't escape this now,
Unless you show me how