The first person Katniss ever voted for was Peeta Mellark.
It was 1996, and while the rest of the country tried to decide between Clinton and Dole, Katniss was torn between Peeta Mellark or Madge Undersee. Ms. Trinkett's 4th grade presidential election was a tight race. Madge, the mayor's daughter, always sat with her at lunch. Surely the vote should have gone to her friend. But as Katniss stood at the cardboard box, her Lisa Frank pencil in one hand, a blank slip of paper in the other, she knew in her heart that she wanted Peeta to win. So she wrote his name in carefully practiced cursive and never told another soul.
Peeta was elected by one vote.
She had known Peeta since kindergarten, and then watched from the sidelines as he grew from a sweet child into a driven young man. He was the senior class president in high school, a national debate tournament champion in college, and a wunderkind with the local government, working as a speech writer before he even held any degrees.
She'd always admired his work ethic and easy popularity, but it was how he had gone out of his way to help Prim a few years ago that won her vote now. He was in law school and working for former State Representative Patricia Paylor at the time; when Prim had shown up at the headquarters, clutching her FAFSA and nearly in tears with worry, Peeta took care of it. He sat with her for hours and tracked down every scholarship and grant Prim qualified for, and then sent her home that day with a definitive plan of action and a priceless bit of hope.
Next year, Prim would be a college graduate. This year, Peeta Mellark was running for state representative.
As a teacher, Katniss has a vested interest in politics herself. It was her livelihood on the line, after all. But she'd never volunteered her time before. She'd never felt so dedicated to a candidate before. Suddenly the Mellark sign in her front yard just wasn't enough.
She showed up at the old office building next to Peeta's parents' bakery and wearily entered the room lined with long tables and telephones. She wasn't sure if Peeta would be there that day (probably not, she reasoned) but her palms were slick with sweat as she took a seat to begin. It was early in the morning, and she was nervous about making unsolicited calls to strangers. On a Saturday, no less.
"It gets easier every time you do it," the old woman next to her assured. She had short white hair and a friendly face, and her reading glasses dangled from the strand of pearls around her neck. "Trail mix?"
Katniss politely declined the proffered snack, and the woman shrugged. "It helps my nerves."
Sometimes she was hung up on. Sometimes she was sworn at. But sometimes the person listened to what she had to say, and even thanked her for the information. Sometimes it felt like she was actually making a difference.
She graduated to door-to-door canvassing the next month, and Mags, the woman she had met that first day, walked with her. "Trail mix?" she'd offer again each morning before they started, and Katniss would shake her head no and Mags would put the Ziplock bag back into her coat pocket.
Peeta was at the campaign headquarters more often than Katniss had ever anticipated, and she didn't understand why she felt like she couldn't breathe whenever he brushed past her chair to enter his back office (though the room was pretty small). She didn't understand why her face would flush if his eyes ever met hers as he addressed the volunteers (though the room was pretty hot). And she also didn't understand why her mouth would water whenever he'd enter the building, slip off his wool overcoat, and roll up the sleeves of his dress shirt before getting started. She didn't even have an excuse for that reaction.
He never talked to her, though. He was obviously grateful for everyone's time, and profusely thanked the room at the end of the day, but he never singled her out like he seemed to do with everyone else. He would hug Mags. He would joke with Gale Hawthorne. He would fist bump Finnick Odair. But he never offered anything to Katniss but a tight smile, and she was too grateful for the reprieve to mind.
"It's close with Snow," Mags told her one day. "But I think we've got the edge."
"You really think he could win this?" Katniss asked. She was growing more nervous as Election Day neared. Peeta was only 25, and his opponent, Coriolanus Snow, was an intimidating force.
Mags proudly nodded. "It's only up from here, my dear."
In the last week, the still undecided voters or nonvoters proved a frustrating cause. "What the hell does it even matter?" one woman asked, a small child perched on her hip as she leaned against the door frame. "They're all crooked anyhow." Katniss stammered on about Peeta's educational platform, her eyes on the little boy and not his mother. "It's not gonna make a damn difference," the woman said, and then shut the door in Katniss's face.
"Do you think that's true?" Katniss asked Mags later, back at headquarters. Peeta was across the small room, talking with Finn and Annie Cresta, smiling beautifully, and Katniss watched him unabashed. She didn't think Peeta was crooked. She wouldn't be here if she did. But what if it ruined him? What if all the naysayers were right, and all the work was ultimately for nothing?
"Don't you go falling for that cynicism, darling," Mags said. "Or, worse yet, the apathy. We've got to believe things can get better. We've got to hope that good people will get power. And that boy," she pointedly looked at Peeta, "is a good one."
On the morning of November 6th, Katniss took a personal day and was in the front of the line when the polls opened at 7 a.m. After she cast her ballot, she stood outside of the fire hall and continued to campaign for Peeta. There was a record turnout, but most were voting primarily for the presidential election. Katniss hoped that pens and mini-notebooks and business cards, all with Mellark 2012 emblazoned on them, might somehow make a difference when the person got to the booth. She smiled at every voter in line and handed out the gifts. It was all she could really do, now.
Later that night, she retreated back to the headquarters with all the other volunteers. Peeta was holed up in his office at the moment. Haymitch Abernathy, an obnoxious drunk but effective campaign manager, manned the chaos.
They all watched the news with bated breath. The focus was on Obama and Romney, or the local senate race. But all their eyes were transfixed to the bottom of the screen, on that scrolling ticker. The latest info had Peeta behind, though only a small number were reporting. Still, a sigh echoed throughout the room.
Phones rang in the background. On the television, analysts prattled on about the candidates. "Trail mix?" Mags asked, and Katniss didn't take her eyes off the flat screen as she grabbed a handful and shoved it into her mouth.
"Now, now, people, calm down! Damn!" Haymitch hollered into the crowd, though the room was mostly quiet and still. "We expected this. We knew these first ones were going Snow. It ain't over yet, so tell your fat mamas to keep their mouths shut!"
Katniss rolled her eyes, and it was the only time they weren't focused solely on the results.
At around 9:30 p.m., Peeta emerged. He looked flustered, his blond hair disheveled, a sure sign that he'd been running his hand through it nervously. "I just wanted to thank you all again for your time and dedication. No matter what happens tonight, I want you to know that I think of you all as friends. Really."
Their 12th district representative race results flashed again on the screen behind him. And Peeta was in the lead.
They all allowed themselves a moment of joy. As the room erupted into cheers, Haymitch grinned and slapped Peeta on the back. But he could only stare at the results with disbelief.
But the percentage next to Peeta's name only went up and up, and by 11 o'clock, with 87% reporting, Peeta had a commanding lead.
And then it was official. State Representative Peeta Mellark of District 12. Mags wiped a tear from her eye as Katniss beamed. It worked. His work, their work…it worked.
It wouldn't be for nothing, now Katniss was sure. As she watched everyone embrace, Peeta's face still a picture of elation and shock, Katniss knew that it could be good again.
All around them, people were laughing and hugging and reveling in the victory. When Katniss looked over at Peeta, his eyes were on her. She smiled, and he smiled back. But it was a new smile. Relaxed and hopeful and something else she couldn't quite figure out.
She had to be in school the next morning, so she put on her coat to leave. She was about to head for the door when she suddenly stopped. She'd never outright thanked Peeta for what he did for Prim so long ago, but she would at least congratulate him now, even if the thought of doing so made her heart race.
But when she turned to head back in his direction, she nearly smacked her face off of his chest. "Hi," he said, the first words he'd ever actually spoken to her.
"Hi." She stepped back nervously, all of her resolve now in the bottom of her stomach, right next to her heart.
"I…I wanted to thank you," he said, and she bobbed her head in acknowledgement.
"And I wanted to congratulate you," she said.
"Do you have a minute, maybe?" he asked, nodding in the direction of his office. "I wanted to talk to you about something, if that's okay."
She agreed and allowed him to lead her back to the small room. They somehow slipped through the crowd unnoticed as everyone continued with the celebration, and the noise was silenced immediately with a closed door.
He was looking down at the floor, his hands in his pockets. "Um, I wanted to thank you."
Her brow furrowed in confusion. Didn't he already do that?
"You're welcome," she told him. "I'm really glad you won. I think you'll do a great job."
"Really?" he asked breathlessly, his eyes finally meeting hers.
He took a deep breath, running his hand through his hair and messing it all up again. "I was wondering if, ah, maybe…maybe sometime, if you're not busy, um…"
She watched him worriedly. This didn't look anything like the Peeta Mellark she was used to.
"Um," he stumbled again, his train of thought lost. "I was wondering…"
The next words out of his mouth were so rushed and indistinguishable that she could only manage a dumbfounded Huh? in response. He paused, and then said them again. Deliberately. Slowly.
"Would you like to go out with me sometime?"
"Huh?" she repeated.
"I…like you. And I'm hoping maybe you like me? Or could?
"You like me?" She tried to think of a specific moment with the campaign that could have triggered this reaction, but nothing came to mind. He barely acknowledged her existence before tonight.
He chuckled nervously. "Since kindergarten."
"And you want to go out with me?" She must've sound like a moron, but she needed to wrap her head around what was happening.
"Yes." But he said it all low and breathy and it was actually kind of hot.
"Okay," she agreed, sure that her acceptance didn't sound as cool or calm as she'd hoped.
"Really?" his smile was so wide and so sweet, and she agreed again, happier and more assured than before.
"Wow, this is a really great night. Wow. I really didn't-"
The door burst open before he could finish his sentence, and Haymitch, drunk off of the thrill of victory and a half bottle of vodka, leaned against the frame. "The bastard is actually calling to concede!"
"Haymitch," Peeta growled in warning.
Haymitch's eyes darted between Katniss and Peeta, and then he smirked knowingly. "That's all right. I'll just tell him to suck it for you." He made to leave when Peeta lunged forward, trying to stop him. "Haymitch! Don't!" He turned back to Katniss, his eyes wide and frantic. "I…I need to stop him."
She slid past him to start out the door herself. "Yeah, you should go."
"So Friday night?" he asked. "Saturday night? Any night?"
"Friday. At 7? I'll meet you here."
He grinned, then remembered his predicament and pushed off the wall to chase after Haymitch. "I'll see you Friday. At 7. Here," he called out over his shoulder.
She stood in his office, her eyes scanning the room. Mellark 2012 signs and other paraphernalia littered every available space. She smiled to herself, quietly closing the door behind her. It really was a great night.