Katniss is nineteen when Prim is reaped for the 74th Hunger Games. Too old to volunteer, too helpless to stop it, too useless to do anything but bite her tongue until it bleeds as her sister walks with a pale face up the steps and onto the stage to be congratulated about her impending murder.
Her mother is even paler than Prim, swaying like she might fall any moment, but Katniss can’t spare her a thought. There’s a scream lodged in her throat, clawing at her chest, and her hands are bunched in the fabric of her dress to keep from forming fists. She doesn’t think she’ll be able to stop herself from using them, if she lets her hands prepare for violence.
Gale reaches out, rests a hand on her shoulder, and she flinches. She doesn’t look at him, but doesn’t shake him off. Her eyes are locked with her sister’s, hopelessness and love exchanged in equal measure, and she doesn’t stop looking until Prim is led off the stage and the tribute’s families are summoned for final goodbyes.
Prim clings to her, her small body vibrating with tension and unshed tears, and Gale has to pry Katniss off her when the peacekeeper says it’s time to go.
Katniss presses her pin into Prim’s hand, the only pretty thing she’s ever owned. “You’re small, and smart, and fast, and they’ll underestimate you,” Katniss tells her, her voice shaking, fear and guilt and preemptive grief and yet more guilt knotting her stomach as Prim stares back at her with too-wide blue eyes before nodding.
“I love you, Katniss.”
“I love you too, little duck,” she chokes out and then Prim’s gone, gone to die, and that scream finally breaks loose, muffled by Gale’s chest as Katniss collapses.
They took her sister and she couldn’t stop them.
She didn’t even try.
The parade is the first time Prim smiles, pretending the flames around her are the visible evidence of her sister’s love, the intensity of the gaze she is sure is watching her.
She keeps that smile during her first interview with Caesar, her cheeks brushed with the lightest dusting of pink, pure and innocent under the lights of the studio.
She even manages a giggle, kicking her feet under her dress. “Cinna’s amazing. I don’t even know how to keep my shirts tucked in; my sister always calls me her little duck.”
“How sweet,” Caesar says, somehow sincere without sounding patronizing. “She must love you very much.”
Prim nods, still smiling, all her tears spent safely away from the cameras. “She does.”
“And how have you enjoyed the Capitol so far, is there anything you would share with her?”
“The food,” she says promptly, dimpling at the audience. “Katniss would never admit it, but she has a sweet tooth, and they have these cookies shaped like little flowers? I know she would love them.”
Caesar laughs along with the audience, warm and joyous. “I don’t think I’ve seen those before; I’ll have to try them.”
She also doesn’t want to reveal how good she is with plants, so she focuses on the survival stations—fire making, knot-tying, camoflauge, and the climbing nets, where a bright-eyed girl from 11, the only other tribute her age, helps her master the knack of securing herself with an elbow and a hooked ankle.
Later, in the cafeteria, Prim shares her cookies with Rue. They know this fragile friendship can’t last, but it makes the day more bearable, and Prim goes straight to her side the next morning, Rue welcoming her with a smile.
The arena is the closest thing she has to an advantage.
She knows more about plants than anyone else here. She knows what she can eat, what can help keep her alive if she gets sick or injured, and what could kill her quickly if it comes to that. She doesn’t have Katniss’s skill in the woods, wouldn’t know what to do with an animal even if she figured out how to catch one, but she’s small and nimble and she thinks she can hide pretty well. She’s not a threat, no one should be looking for her specifically until there are a lot more dead, and maybe she can somehow win just by hiding until they’ve all killed each other.
It’s happened before.
She doesn’t want to have hope, doesn’t want to think she can live, because it’s one of the only things that can make this whole horrible nightmare worse. But she doesn’t know how to stop, doesn’t know how to turn it off, and when the countdown ends, she ignores every scream and sprints toward the woods as fast as her feet can carry her.
They go down to the forest floor as rarely as possible and only for food, or to scavenge from the corpse of a tribute who ran afoul of a tracker jacker hive. They whisper secrets to each other, knowing the cameras are watching and choosing not care. Prim shows Rue her mockingjay pin and Rue tells her about the little sisters who made her necklace.
They hear the Career pack pass beneath them one night, crowing about their kills, and huddle together for more than warmth until the bloodstained teens are long gone.
The next time they see another tribute, they are running, a wall of fire chasing them from the peaceful refuge of the trees, and only the river saves them. It’s too late for the boy from 7 and his screams linger in Prim’s ears long after the burnt husk of his body has crumpled to the dirt.
Some of Rue’s hair burned, and Prim’s legs are scraped up, but they’re alive. The sky that night shows them who is not, and Prim doesn’t know how to feel when she realizes there are only five tributes left besides them: the girl and boy from two, the girl from five, the boy from ten, and Thresh, from Rue’s district.
The girls stare at each other long after the last face flickers away. Prim won’t kill Rue. She knows that. She knows Rue won’t kill her either. And they are the weakest targets left, only escaping violence this long because they weren’t big enough threats to warrant hunting.
They don’t bother setting shifts that night; neither of them can sleep, and their restless anxiety is the only thing that saves them when the mutts come.
The not-quite-human voices make Prim want to vomit as they race away from the twisted hounds, terrified whimpers leaking from her lips without permission. One is snapping at her heels when the girl from 5 veers out of the trees, chased by a separate pack, and stumbles. Prim doesn’t allow herself to look back when she screams, never losing sight of the small, dark form in front of her.
Another cannon sounded while they ran, and only three other tributes remain when they reach the golden horn: Cato, Clove, and Thresh. Clove is clinging to Thresh’s back, vicious little dagger raised high, until he flings her into the side of the cornucopia so hard Prim can hear her neck snap.
Cato and Thresh start towards each other, then turn in unison, eyes widening, as Prim and Rue race past them. They’re too short, and the metal sides are too slick, and Prim thinks its over, they’re done, until strong hands boost them upwards. Thresh flashes Rue a quick smile as they gasp for breath and Prim wants to cry for reasons besides fear for the first time since the reaping.
Cato snarls, as vicious as the mutts, climbing toward them until Thresh grabs his ankle and yanks downward. Cato’s sword finds Thresh’s throat, but it’s too late, the mutts are there, and both boys disappear in a tangle of flesh and fangs until there’s nothing left but chunks of meat.
The pack swirls beneath their feet for a while, lunging and snapping at the air, before slinking into the trees as the sun rises.
The arena is silent, more silent than it has ever been, and the girls don’t come down until the hovercrafts have come for the remains.
“There can only be one victor,” a booming voice reminds them, as if they’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to do.
Prim and Rue just look at each other, tired and aching. They sit down, side by side in the grass, less than ten feet from where Cato and Thresh’s blood stains the ground. There are daisies in the grass, petals white and centers the sunny yellow that is Prim’s favorite color. She picks all the ones she can reach, making a loose pile in front of her. Rue starts to steal them, tying the stems together until she has enough to make a crown. She sets it on Prim’s head and they smile at each other.
They haven’t said a word since the announcement and Prim knows the watchers in the Capitol, so eager for more blood, must be losing it. She makes a circlet for Rue, settling the flowers carefully on her tight, dark curls, fingers brushing delicately over the singed portion.
“They’ll send more mutts,” she says, finally.
“Or fire,” Rue agrees.
Prim reaches for her bag, carefully packed with every edible and medicinal plant she could find. Wrapped in thick, waxy leaves, are a handful of dark purple berries. They are as lovely as the daisies, and as deadly as Cato’s discarded sword, gleaming red in the grass.
“You have siblings, little ones, who need you,” she tells Rue, her heart breaking as she imagines Katniss’s face, as she wonders if her mother has gone catatonic yet.
Rue shakes her head, her sweet face hard with determination. “We both have families. People who love us. And you’re my best friend.”
Prim blinks back tears and then divides the berries in half, carefully pouring them into Rue’s outstretched palm. “You’re my best friend too.”
She doesn’t look around, needs no reminders of the cornucopia, or the half-burnt forest, or the long grasses where Thresh had lurked before he saved them. She stares at Rue, memorizing her face, her bright eyes, the way her daisy crown catches the sunlight. Prim knew she was going to die the moment Effie called out her name. And there are far worse ways to go than this; she’s seen them, heard them, smelt them.
They lift their hands at the same time, tipping them towards their mouths, and then a frantic voice is yelling at them to stop and Prim starts to cry.
Rue smiles back at her, eyes bright despite the fear Prim can feel in the trembling of her hand. “I feel the same way. Prim is my friend. My best friend. It wasn’t hard at all, to decide to die rather than try to kill her.”
Caesar coos at them and the audience swoons.
If it wasn’t for their mentors’ tight expressions, they could almost feel relief.
But they were quick learners, those sweet little girls from 11 and 12, and when their districts burned to the ground, they marched, hand in hand with wings on their backs, at the front of an army.