Everybody hates reaping days. That everybody has to be dressed at their best serves to make it even worse and more uncomfortable. It's a visible marker why all of this is a lie. The districts have to visibly celebrate the reaping with everyone dressed up at the ceremony as if it's a happy occasion for anyone here. But nobody ever looks happy about it. Not in in this district. Not even those who have nothing to lose, those who are hardened enough to bet on the outcome of the reaping, who gamble when children's lives are ended when their names are picked out of a bowl; nobody, not even those who don't looks, sad, scared or angry, look anything more than indifferent.
The people here can all put on what passes as pretty clothes in District 12 and wash and brush their hair until it shines, but this will never feel like celebration. It's obvious even on TV, although the presenters always take the time to emphasize how that's because 12 is this gloomy, very poor and unremarkable district; the poorest and most unremarkable of them all.
Which is partly why whoever gets chosen for the games today will hardly stand a chance of coming back alive.
Who the hell cares for a kid from 12? Certainly not the rich sponsors in the Capital.
His father, who always is a quiet man, is even more silent today. His mother, who is rarely affectionate with them, pulls at his shirt and straightens his collar in an attempt to make him look even more presentable, while not really looking at him, avoiding to meet his gaze. They're all avoiding eye contact, as if that makes things less real, less dangerous, less disconcerting. She doesn't say anything, and Peeta is keeping still and doesn't speak either, because there's just nothing to say. Then she turns and starts fussing over his brother.
This is as much openly shown worry as he's going to get from her and in a way the normalcy of it is comforting. They are all nervous, but it's not the way of this family to share their worries with each other.
Their preparation for the reaping is a mostly silent affair. His oldest brother no longer has anything to worry about, but this family still has two sons whose names go in the bowl.
Peeta's name is only going to be on one tiny slip of white paper, but that doesn't mean that the odds can't turn against him. Anyone could be send off to the games today.
They leave home as family, although everyone is still so caught up in their own thoughts that they might just as well be all alone.
A friend nods at him when they come across him and his family on the way, and he nods back, sees other people from his year at school walk with their families, none of them smiling. People are holding hands, reluctant to let go of their children, brothers and sisters. He asks himself if he looks as nervous and pale as the others – and the answer is obvious.
Only two will be chosen today, but it still feels like everyone is going to their doom.
In 12 the odds are simply never in your favor.
Then he catches sight of her. As always he can't look at away, watches her walk, an arm wound around her little sister, stroking a streak of blonde hair out of her brow. Her own dark hair is braided up and looks beautiful, simply lovely, but like the rest of them she doesn't look happy. She rarely smiles anyway, but today her expression is one of nervous worry. All members of the little family, mother and the two sisters, look nervous and subdued like everybody else, but there is so much caring and love for her sister in that little gesture, in the way she strokes her back, calming her down, that his heart aches a little.
Katniss Everdeen – the girl he's never even properly talked to. He swallows and looks in front of himself. He's going to be brave enough one day to just walk up to her and say hello. He'll say hello and maybe, maybe, she'll look him right in the eye and remember him next time they see each other, and then they'll have a real conversation for once. Maybe he should try to talk to her when she brings game to the house, but for some reason she only comes when she knows his father is in and he's not around.
She's obviously smart enough to know which parent will do business with her. Why should she care about one of the sons if it's the father who buys her squirrels?
But, damn, he wants her to talk to him, to remember him – selfishly, egoistically wants her to remember his name one day. Not just the boy who was too cowardly to come over and give her bread when she was starving, or too awkward to ever apologize for just throwing it at her in the rain, but him, Peeta, who really wants to know her, who watches her from afar.
He's not the only one, he knows, and he's not even thinking about her hunting companion. A few boys at school are watching her, too, afraid to talk to her, mostly scared that Gale Hawthorne is more than just her friend from the Seam, and will put down anyone who tries to talk to her the moment they muster up the courage. The girls, too, are all whispering about the handsome boy who they claim is related to Katniss.
Katniss, who apart from her friendship with Gale and Madge Undersee keeps to herself... These days, since her fathers death, only her sister makes her really smile the real smiles.
He has seen her smile like that, with the happiness actually reaching her eyes, has even sketched it once after he'd seen them together in front of the shop. Then he had imagined giving the little scrawly sketch to her, making her smile again. But it really wasn't any good, so he threw the sketch away before anyone found it. It hadn't captured any of the real energy or emotion of that moment anyway, and he still feels silly for even doing it.
Surely, she would think him weird if she knew.
It is weird. And it's stupid.
He steals another glance at her, before she and her sister step up to the guards and sign in. Her face has closed off, a cold and hard expression, the face that she's been showing to the world since her father died. The little girl looks uneasy and afraid to let go of her sister, holds on for a moment longer, grasping her arm desperately, before they have to separate and take their places with the other kids their age.
After this reaping he will finally find a way to talk to her. He will.
She faces life so bravely. So if he wants to know her, he has to stop to be so nervous about it.
When he throws a final glance into her direction and makes a silent promise to himself to no longer be a coward, she is looking over at Hawthorne, who is standing in another age group, and Peeta bites his lips, feeling like the odds are already against him whatever he does now.
A merchant daughter, who stands near Katniss and probably thinks he was looking at her, nods at him and smiles, nervous; Cally Rofheart, he knows her from school. Peeta nods back tersely and, even more nervous now, looks to the stage where the two bowls, from which the names of the unlucky two will be drawn, stand, widely visible and shiny. He asks himself how many slips of paper have “Katniss Everdeen” written on them, how many “Gale Hawthorne”, how big the odds are for himself or his brother to be chosen in comparison.
He takes a deep breath and tries to not think about it, tries not to look at her or over at the place where his brother is standing close to the edge of his age group. But when he looks over anyway and sees his brother's pale face, teeth worrying his bottom lip, he feels a little better. He's afraid like everybody else. Nothing to be ashamed about.
Effie Trinket is moving around on the stage and the streak of color, her colorful hair, so out of place in the gloom of the occasion that for everyone who isn't her feels like a funeral service. It's hateful, and Peeta has to look away, meets Cally's eyes again and looks away into another direction, catching a glimpse of her just at the corner of his vision.
The mayor starts his speech and the silence around him becomes even more suffocating.
The sound of his voice, the tension - it's all too much. He tunes it all out, staring in front of himself, sweating in the stale heat of the afternoon. It should be raining, he thinks and envisions a gray sky and faces wet with rain, just like the teardrops that all of them should be weeping. When Effie Trinket takes the stage again the tension gets nearly unbearable. Nobody wants to be the one who is sent off to the slaughter.
“Ladies first!” Effie calls and time freezes, then crawls along painfully, his heart thumping in his chest, when she reaches into the bowl to grab one of the little slips of paper.
Don't let it be her, he thinks. When this is over I'll talk to her. I'll smile at her little sister and step up to her and say hello, exactly like I've always imagined, he thinks. And she'll remember the weird boy who threw bread at her in the rain. Her sister will laugh and she'll like me. For a tiny little fraction of a second he wishes that they would choose the boy first, so he'd know, then thinks that it really doesn't matter all that much.
And then Effie holds the little piece of paper and reads it out, and it is worse than he could have imagined. It's her sister. He knows that. Everdeen. The name is still ringing in his ears.
The crowd reacts and when he looks a boy and girl are reaching for Katniss, as if she was about to fall.
As the little pale girl walks forward, the people murmuring unhappily around her, Katniss pushes forward, calls her sisters name – Prim –, panic in her voice that makes him even more nauseous than he's already feeling. He has the crazy panic-stricken thought that she will attack someone, that she is going crazy with grief, because they all know that a twelve year old won't stand a chance in the games. He doesn't even think about volunteering until he hears her shout it out loud, panicked and not sounding at all like the girl who'd loved to sing in school.
His heart is thundering in his ears, and he's only slowly realizing what this means.
He has waited too long. She has just volunteered to die for her sister. She's going to the games. For her sister. She's going for her sister. She's going to the games.
Maybe he has stopped breathing – is he holding his breath? He feels so light headed and numb.
The girl is fighting, holds on to her - and Peeta can only imagine what living in a family like that would be like, with sisters who love each other enough to volunteer to protect each other, sees her friend step up and pull the little girl away, as if in a dream, a bad, bad dream, sees Katniss reach the top of the stage, sees her there, nervous and pale but so strong and beautiful.
Colors are all gray to him. Dark spots are dancing in front of his eyes. He breathes in and out slowly, can't look, but can't look away either. So brave and strong. Then suddenly one of the adults in the crowd starts it and everyone takes it up: saluting her. Brave, brave Katniss, brave girl from the Seam. As Peeta raises his own arm to touch his fingers to his lips and holds his hand out to her, nobody around him can know how he feels, can know how much it hurts to say good-bye to someone who never even knew you were afraid to properly introduce yourself to them.
But this is for her and not about him. For the girl who has always put her family before herself. He will find a way to look out for little Prim now, maybe sneak out bread for her. If Katniss goes to the games to protect her, than her sister shouldn't be left to starve on her own.
He takes a deep breath, promising her silently to finally do something after today, even if it's too late for what he really wants to do. If he can't finally become her friend, maybe he can at least be a friend to her family, to the sister who'll be left behind. He can do it for her, because he's never been brave enough before.
What was he so afraid of to begin with? His mother? Katniss rejecting him? Of course, she would have been suspicious and dismissive at first... It's her way. She's been distant, and fending for herself for so long, but surely they could have been friends at least. His father always talks fondly of her when his mother's back is turned. They could have so easily known each other...
Haymitch throws his arms around her, falls of the stage, disgraceful drunk Haymitch.
I would have talked to her when all this was over. Should I go and say good-bye, before she leaves? What would I say? I should go and see her. Will she be confused? Should I not go? I shouldn't. This is not about me.
He's really selfish. He knows that. But he wants her to know him, before she goes.
Suddenly, he has obviously lost track of time, he hears his name and when he focuses he realizes that Effie Trinket just read his name out loud, sees the paper in her hand and understands what just happened. For a moment dread is the only thing that is left of his existence; fear, painfully taking hold of his body; the beat of his own heart the only thing he can hear. He steps forward slowly, still not sure this is really happening.
His brother looks away when he looks over.
That lets the world snap back into focus.
Suddenly he's aware of the cameras, the silence.
Nobody is going to volunteer for him.
He's going to the games.
He's going to the games.
He's going to die in the Hunger Games.
And suddenly he is calm.
I'm not going to beak down.
I'm not going to fall.
Don't be a coward.
Not in front of her.
Not in front of the girl who just bravely volunteered.
And when he raises his head, features schooled into an expression that he hopes is not giving away the fear, the sudden shock and the anger, Katniss is looking at him. And there, for the barest, briefest moment he sees the tiniest glimmer of recognition, that he thinks he's occasionally seen before at school.
She remembers something about him at least.
I'm going to die, he thinks.
He shakes her hand – his own is sweaty and too hot, her's is slender but strong – and thinks that this is the closest to a real introduction they'll ever come and wishes he would still have a chance to just step up to her and the little girl in the street, smile at her sister and talk to her like that's how it's always been.
But that's impossible now. They're from the same district, but in the Hunger Games everybody stands alone.
The odds are entirely against him.
* * *
It takes him a minute of taking in even breaths until his stomach settles down and he feels strong enough to look around again. His knees are still weak anyway and he can't think clearly; everything is coming back to the fact that this is the beginning of the end.
He's waiting for people to come and say their last good-byes, waiting to be shipped off to fight for his life, to be thrown into the arena with Katniss Everdeen as one of the other contestants. He had wanted a chance for them to speak, to know each other. But not like this. Never like this. How cruel could fate be that the odds had been so irrevocably against him today? How likely is it that his life will be ended by an arrow?
The door opens and his parents step into the room, looking even more out of place here then Peeta probably does. His father doesn't say anything when he puts a hand on Peeta's shoulder. His mother just takes a seat on the couch and waits for him to sit down beside her. She doesn't reach out to him, just watches him critically and Peeta suddenly knows nothing but relief and bitterness that his bothers aren't here now. Tears are streaming down his face, tears he's been holding back since the reaping. “It's unfair,” he says.
His father looks pale and upset, and knowing him he's probably embarrassed at Peeta's tears. He just nods and clumsily pats him on the shoulder once more. He nearly chokes on his own sobs, suddenly not able to stop crying.
“Don't cry,” his mother says. There is a flicker of something in her eyes that Peeta doesn't understand. “There's nothing to be done now.” She sighs, like there's a heavy burden on her shoulders. Will she cry when I die on screen? Peeta asks himself and tries to quench the thought again, before he has time to get angry.
They sit in silence for a while; the only sound in the room are Peeta's muffled sobs. He hides his face in his hands, because he just can't seem to stop now. Is Katniss sitting next door crying? Probably not. She's going to be strong for her family, worried about her sister and her mother who still grieves for her beloved husband, has never really stopped grieving. How is she going to deal with this? Her sister will be so upset – and all alone soon.
He can imagine her telling Primrose not to be sad, not to be worried, that she volunteered because her chances of coming back are better than hers. Is that what they talk about?
Surely they're not just sitting there together in numb silence.
Then his mother says: “Maybe this year District 12 will finally have a winner.”
The words sink in and Peeta's head snaps up, surprised, and he stares at her.
But she adds: “She's a survivor, that one.”
That hurts. It's like someone has reached into his chest and is now squeezing. He feels sick again, but sits up and leans back and finally looks at his mother. Suddenly the world, is sharp an clear again, like the pain pulls him out of the haze of passive resignation that he's been in all day.
Anger, so hot and searing, grips him that he just can't cry anymore. When he speaks, he sounds calm, but the calm is only on the surface: “She is.” No thanks to you, he thinks, remembers the way she screamed at her once to not let herself be seen in front of the shop again, remembers himself throwing her the bread and being afraid to be caught in the act, remembers his mother muttering under her breath about his father having a soft spot for the little squirrel hunter and how he always fails to strike good bargains with her. He knows his father has a soft spot for both girls; for Katniss, because she brings him squirrels, for Prim, because she's so much like her mother. They all know it, because he never seriously tries to trade with Katniss, always gives her more than he should. It's been the root of more than a few of his parents' frequent arguments lately. They rarely speak of it, but Peeta knows his father still has a soft spot for the mother, too, even though she never comes by. Very rarely his father talks about her.
“Brave girl,” his father mumbles. He looks tired and defeated, gives Peeta a long, long look, but doesn't say anything else.
Peeta thinks that his father at least will miss him. And her.
His mother gets up, leans over to embrace him. He lets it happen, but doesn't bother to hold on to her. She even kisses his cheek, and he has to think of the way she straightened out the collar of his shirt just this morning. Maybe in her own sad way, she will miss him too.
Life hasn't been kind to her either.
She walks to the door, without even bothering to wait for his father who remains seated.
Peeta feels tears rolling down his face again. The click of the door as it falls closed – and that's probably the last time he sees his mother. How anticlimactic.
His father pulls a little bag out of his coat pocket and puts it on the desk between them. Peeta knows it's going to be his favorite type of sweet bread in there. Because this is how he and his father communicate.
Under normal circumstances this is enough between them, but today it all seems so unbearable. Today of all days it would have been nice to have someone to actually talk to.
“I'm not going to kill her,” he finally says between sobs.
His father looks at him gravely and nods. “I know.”
And it's as complicated an answer as Peeta would have expected. His father has always been ready to tell Peeta about the girl he once upon a time was so very much in love with, never directly saying anything about the family he could have had instead of the family he ended up with. In turn Peeta has never bothered to hide the questions about said girl who was now a woman with a daughter – two daughters – of her own, never bothered to hide the questions about Katniss. Maybe they simply have an understanding and his father has known all along, understands this tragedy as nobody else can.
The door opens. Their time is up and now that there's at least a possibility that someone understands what he's feeling right now, he's glad that they're not going to say anything more about it. This is his own tragedy, his secret, and maybe his father understands that. And if he doesn't, then maybe it's even better that they aren't talking about it.
His father stands and puts a hand on his shoulder, just for a short moment, squeezes, and then walks out without looking back at him.
Life will go on here.
It's only Peeta who will end up dying. Well, and the girl out there in another room, saying her own good-byes.
Right then the thought of her death is even more unbearable than anything else; sorrow makes him remember that for that instant before he was chosen his fear was all for her and not for himself. The only thing he can hold on to is the wish to not have her die in front of him.
The anger is back now and makes it part of himself, doesn't let it go. Anger gives him strength.
The door opens and he raises his head confused, until he recognizes two friends from school, faces grave and pale, recognizes Mal, who Peeta knows is one of the boys who's also been watching Katniss, too. Not as long as he's been watching, but somehow he's always felt that the length of time he's spent watching her without ever doing anything about it, is not something that will make him look favorable; not in her eyes. It shouldn't matter now. After all, they're friends and Mal has come here to say good-bye.
Peeta shouldn't feel angry at Mal now.
He swallows down the contempt he feels for them, who will go on and fall in love again and live, while he goes to the arena to die - with the girl he never wants to see killed. At least he knows he won't be the one to kill her. He'd rather be the one killed by her then ever do that.
In a way his mother was right. Peeta has no chance to win this, but Katniss might very well be good enough with a bow, with survival, to be the first victor this district has seen since Haymitch.
When he finally sees her again, it's on the platform. The train is already waiting to depart. Monitors broadcast their arrival and their final moments in their home district. Katniss is holding her head high and her face doesn't give anything away. She's good at being unreadable – has been since her father died. Sometimes it makes her seem cold and indifferent, hard, but today Peeta thinks it makes her seem strong. People will notice that.
He catches a glimpse of the both of them, when they are ushered to stand together in front of the closed doors of the train. While she looks calm, collected and sure of herself, he looks lost and tired. His face is still red from crying earlier, but he makes no attempt to hide it. Let them see that they are taking away my life, he thinks. I don't care, what anyone thinks. Why should I? I'm going to die anyway.
But when he sees Katniss throw a look towards their broadcasted images, he sees himself through her eyes. And that matters. There is nothing else left that matters but that.
Once more it's what he needs for the world to come back into focus.
Effie Trinket stands behind them and motions for them to get on the train.
Nobody speaks, and nobody is there to see them off, of course. The goodbyes are made in private for a reason; to avoid embarrassing scenes to play out here and now in front of the cameras; scenes that could make it seem like families aren't feeling honored by sending their children off to death for Panem's entertainment.
The doors close behind them and Effie ushers them forward, Katniss still beside him. Something inside of him yearns to reach out to her, until he remembers that they're not in this together, but are supposed to be rivals. But when she looks around, follows Effie to the room she indicates and doesn't even look back at him, suddenly looking less collected and simply overwhelmed, he realizes something. It won't stop mattering to him what Katniss thinks of him. Maybe they won't be friends, won't ever be more than friends now, but he has a few precious days fir them to get to know each other.
His luck has run out and the only thing he can do now is try an make the best of the rest of his life. Nobody can take that away from him.
He can at least go down with a fight.
He gets dressed in clothes he finds in his room, makes sure he looks presentable, goes looking for Haymitch, isn't surprised when he's brushed off, sits for a while staring out a window until Effie appears to call him to supper. Katniss takes his breath away when she appears in the doorway, dressed in new clothes, and they have their first real conversation over food, that is so delicious and overwhelmingly rich, like nothing either of them has tasted before.
When Effie's comments about last year's tributes and their table manners and Katniss reacts by putting away her fork and eating with her fingers, he smiles. It shouldn't be so lovely, watching her clean her greasy fingers on tablecloth but it is. She's defiant and something in him answers to that. There's so much fire in her. Peeta feels weak at the thought of this fire going out in the arena without making a difference. Of course, he can't tell her that. Whatever has changed since this morning, she's still the girl who can turn his head and he's still the boy she doesn't know much about. He still is nervous in her presence, but now that they have a reason to interact she is surprisingly easy to talk to.
Maybe they're in this together after all. In a twisted, defiant way.
It's a dangerous thought, but for the first time since the reaping he feels like he can face what's to come and be strong.
Defiant Peeta doesn't care about the danger. The games are taking everything away. But what they can't take away are his silly hopes and dreams.
* * *
Katniss, with her skill and indomitable nature, will turn some heads and get sponsors. Maybe, just maybe, that will give her a fighting chance.
He's okay with that, even when he feels a pang of bitterness about all of it.
She doesn't trust him, holds back, is angry, surly and sometimes outright rude. From school he knows that she usually keeps to herself, that only very few people get close enough to be her friend, and tries not to take it personally. Which is hard. Maybe she is plotting his death already, but when he looks at her blank face and hard eyes, staring at him with a slightly speculating look he hopes that she sees more than just someone who could be a danger to her.
Talking to her can be frustrating; she's stubborn and always convinced to know what's best for herself.
His mother was right: She's a survivor and she'll not rely on anybody but herself.
And maybe that's for the best.
But Peeta, who has watched her for years, knows her a little, and has seen some of the confusion underneath it all. He can relate. The situation isn't easy for him either and it's hard to think about anything but getting through it. When she is too busy with her own thoughts, then a glimpse of the real Katniss comes through. He's only seen that Katniss a few times – at home when she was younger – and here only in the few moments when she opened up to him on the roof and told him about the Avox girl.
Since then she has closed up even harder than before, and he really wants to know what it was he said or did after everything that made her distrust him even more. Katniss really works hard at not letting people in. But then Peeta has seen the look in her eyes when she sneaks a glance at Rue, the little girl from 11 that is so different from her sister in looks, but so similar to her in everything else.
He nearly says something about it, but she's already impatient and short-tempered and he doesn't want to make her dread spending time with him even more.
But willingly or not, here they are again, dressed in matching outfits, taking their lunch together, surrounded by other kids, who will try to take them out as soon as the games have started, talking and smiling at each other as Haymitch has told them to do. And although they only exchange inconsequential stories that don't touch on any of the important bits and pieces of their lives, he feels he's learning more and more about her by the minute.
And he loves it all.
There's the way she pushes her hair back when it gets in the way, the way she puts errand strands behind her ear with one simple gesture, how she purses her lips when she listens to instructions and how she watches the careers from the corner of her eyes nearly all of the time, always aware of their whereabouts. He watches her finger move across the table nervously. She always eats like this will be the last time she sees any food – and under these circumstances that's not even all that astounding, but it still tells him so many things about her life before this.
She laughs when he jokes about Effie and he stops in mid sentence, just staring. His mouth is dry suddenly and he holds his breath. She's breathtakingly beautiful and he knows he's not the only one who sees, but she's completely unaware of the fact. His heart beats a little faster and Games or no Games – he knows he's in love and it will only make things more complicated. He already has nightmares. He's afraid of dying, but he's even more afraid to come upon her broken, bleeding body, watching her choke on her own blood.
He nearly chokes on the next lungful of air and hides his trembling hands under the table before anyone can see. When she focuses back on him, smile still on her lips and a cheerful, slightly mischievous light in her eyes, he knows he's in trouble.
She smiles again and he smiles back this time, catches himself and stops staring. He would like to reach for her hand, but knows she will only be bewildered and difficult about it. But hopes that when he dies it will be this smile that will be the last thing he'll be thinking of.
“My turn to talk,” she says and frowns a little, thinking. It's so hard by now to come up with safe topics and he's just glad that it's not his turn any more. Because he feels like if he has to say another word now, he'll just tell her how beautiful she is.
And then she will look at him with disbelief and loose her temper.
He swallows down the words and the emotions that are raging in his chest and nods at whatever it is she is saying and makes a decisions. He won't die without telling her, but he can't do it here in front of the other tributes and not before the Gamemakers have seen them perform.
But then when?
* * *
“Can I come in?” he asks, already halfway inside and closing the door behind him.
“Nothing's stopping you, it seems,” Haymitch mumbles, not looking up. He's sitting in an armchair, holding a glass of auburn liquid. Peeta can guess at its contents, but doesn't comment on it. “So what is it?” Haymitch asks, not impatient, but not friendly either.
“I won't kill her.”
Haymitch laughs. It's not a nice sound, and Peeta steps towards him with a glare to make it clear that he's not here to joke around. “I know the arena changes people, but I won't kill her. I couldn't.”
“Of course not,” Haymitch says, glaring back. “I'm not dense, boy. Everyone can see what's going on.”
He freezes mid step. Has it been this obvious? But then he simply says: “She doesn't.” Because he knows it to be true. At this point he's sure she won't believe him even if he tells her, because to her he is just another competitor, someone she has to guard herself against. That's how life works for Katniss Everdeen, even more so now that she's going to fight to the death.
“Right. Little sweetheart has guts, but she's blind to other people's feelings. You said so yourself. She has no idea what people see when they look at her. Can't act for shit either.”
Peeta narrows his eyes and suddenly has no idea what to say. Why did he even think Haymitch would know how to handle a situation like this? “I just wanted you to know that there's no use in keeping me alive, because I will do anything I can to protect her. Her chances are much better than mine anyway.”
“Are you telling me what I think you are telling me, Peeta?” Haymitch's voice is rough and suddenly very serious. He doesn't tell him to think of himself and take his chances.
“I'm sure. I could never do that. I have nightmares of her dying and I can't stand it. But I don't want to just give up. I want to do what I can do to give her better odds. Can we do that?”
“She won't like it.”
“She'll hate it,” Peeta agrees. He's learned enough about her to know that. She pulls through alone. She doesn't rely on people.
Haymitch looks tired suddenly and gestures for Peeta to sit down in a chair at a nearby writing desk. “Sit down. And start at the beginning, why don't you? Let's see what we can do about it.”
He listens, face grave, as Peeta explains how he has been watching Katniss from afar through all of their childhood, how she had always been a part of his life, as classmate or as the person who provided squirrels for dinner, how she has no idea about it.
“Maybe,” Haymitch says, “we can work with this. But she can't know what we're going to do. She's headstrong that one. And she won't agree.” He looks at him hard then and asks one final time: “Are you sure you want to do this, Peeta? If we go this route now there will be no turning back. She'll know. And she won't thank you for it. She'll kill you herself, if she gets angry enough”
The thoughts are racing through his head. He stares at his hands, looks up to meet Haymitch's hard and unflinching stare. “It's better than not telling her at all.” He'd wanted to tell her before, had wanted to at least talk to her and be her friend. He can still try at least.
He knows he's selfish. But he's a dying man, so he should be allowed that much.
Haymitch shakes his head. “These are the Hunger Games, boy. Nothing is ever as easy as that. If she gets through, she'll know, and will have to live with the memory. Nobody ever forgets their Games. Nobody is every allowed to forget. But you'll be dead.” He takes a long swig, swirling the glass afterward and staring into it. His mouth is a hard line. “You're in love and there is a good chance that neither of you will survive the arena anyway. So it's up to you. Your call.”
“I know,” Peeta explains. “But I hate this. I hate that a slip of paper is all it takes to take my life away and now my last days are all dictated by how they want me to play this game. They want me to be a good little tribute who will play their game following their rules.” He takes a deep breath. “I'll do it. Give them a show. But I won't betray myself. And I won't betray her. I don't need her to like me. But if I have to be killed off for other people's entertainment than I want to do it on my terms. I want to help her. Even if she will never believe it or trust me.”
“She's not dense. She just doesn't have much reason to trust people. One day she might believe it. Have you thought about how she'll feel about this then?” His face must have shown his distress then, because Haymitch goes on: “No? I thought so.” Haymitch, Peeta remembers, is a victor too. He's survived and now lives with the memories. There's a reason he's who he is today and why a drink is always the first thing on his mind.
“I don't want her to die.”
The truth is he doesn't want to die either. If he had a choice none of them would die and all of it would just end; not just Katniss would live, but all the tributes would simply go home. He is sure he'll feel differently as soon as the first one has actually tried to kill him – maybe it'll be her he thinks – but at the moment he doesn't want anyone to die – especially not Katniss.
“Look, I know this is a stupid thing to say, but I'm sick of all of it. We're being shoved around told what to do, what to expect, how to kill. Alliances will happen like they happen every year, but in the end only one of us can leave the arena alive. I don't want to die. I don't want to kill. But it's not like anyone is giving me that option here. I'm not good enough to be a contender. She is. And I want her to have a chance.” He sighs. “I was never brave enough to even be her friend at home, but I'll not let the Capital take this from me. I won't go in there with murder on my mind. I'd rather I die as stupid idiot who was in love with a girl who never really knew him, than die as a boy who allowed all of it to be taken out of his hands and become a killer, even though he doesn't stand a chance.”
Haymitch doesn't say anything, takes another sip and stares at the floor for a very long time. It's never easy to read him, but this time Peeta feels Haymitch is actually being a mentor. He's planning. “Then lets do it. Tomorrow we'll talk about your interview.” He pauses. “And, of course, we can't let her know what's going on. We'll need our own strategy”
He nods, knows what this means and how she won't be happy when she hears about it. Suddenly he feels tired. It's all been one continuous fight and the real fighting hasn't even begun yet.
“Go get some rest,” Haymitch tells him. “Tomorrow we'll talk this through and make a plan.”
Peeta gets up and moves towards the door. His thoughts are racing through his mind and he knows he'll need the rest, but at least he feels that now he'll have a strategy, take some of his fate back into his own hands, odds be damned.
* * *
He stays behind to talk to Portia, who embraces him him before she leaves. “Good night, Peeta,” she whispers. “Try to sleep. You'll need every bit of your strength tomorrow.” Then she looks at him sadly. “I'll be there. So this isn't goodbye just yet.”
There's a knot forming in his throat and he just nods.
Something in his eyes must have called out to her, because she leans forward and closes her arms around him again. “I am so sorry, Peeta,” she whispers. And somehow she manages to express everything in these few words: How sorry she is for him to be in the games, how sorry she is that he will likely die, that he's in love with a girl who doesn't love him, and that he'll never have a chance with her, because only one of them could come back from this anyway.
Then she lets him go, nods at him, composing herself and walks out. He hopes he can be like that, hopes that way of holding himself will come to him during the Hunger Games.
When he looks up, Haymitch is still sitting in a chair behind him. He gives him some more instructions. Apparently he has talked to the mentors of the careers. Peeta knows that Haymith isn't wrong when he warns him about this, that there's a chance that he will be killed before any alliance is formed. He isn't sure how he feels about all this, doesn't feel scared, just numb, but it's obvious that he'll be of more use if he falls in with the pack. And with his ratings and the buzz created by the interview there is even a chance that they will take him – at least for a while. Long enough to get to Katniss. Or for him to keep Katniss safe.
Just a few hour ago Haymitch asked him if this is really what he wants to do.
And Peeta knows now that as altruistic and love struck as all of it sounds, this isn't all about Katniss. He' going to be useful and he's going to defy the rules that dictate that in the arena you only fight for your own survival. And he's not just going to do it for her. He's going to do it for himself.
“Do as I say. Try to get away and find water. It will take a while until a true alliance is possible. Just get away first. Survive.”
He nods and leaves as if he's in a daze.
In his room he cleans himself up haphazardly, but he doesn't even bother to go to bed. Instead he steps out into the hallway and makes his way up to the roof. The open patio is dark at this time, but he can hear loud music and the sounds of people shouting in the distance all at the same time. Car horns are blaring. So he steps closer to the edge and sits down and watched.
The Capitol is celebrating the start of the Hunger Games.
That's what celebrating the Games looks like.
He remembers the day of the reaping and what celebrating the Games looks like at home.
This is the way the Capitol salutes them for giving up their lives for entertainment and punishment. This is the way the Capitol celebrates them – and says goodbye, hoping that after a few days or maybe weeks of entertainment a new star will join the ranks of victors.
It's disgusting, but he can't look away. It'slife. It's unfair. It's cruel. But full of color and movement. Disgusting and glittering.
In fact staring down at all the commotion is strangely soothing. He breathes the sweet night air, feeling calm and determined, watches people dance in the street.
This is their send off and he's the only one really seeing it.
All these people know his name now. But he doesn't want to feel like he's just their plaything. Haymitch made him realize that he can use them, too, will have to manipulate to get sponsors, so he can live longer and fight back. He's not a survivor, not victor material, but at least he can choose to die as Peeta Mellark.
He's lost in his own contemplations, when a voice behind him says: “You should be getting some sleep.”
He startles. It's so hard to read her and they haven't exactly had a good day today.
She walks up to him, looks over the railing down to the crowd and frowns.
By all rights he should be mad at her, but somehow her being up here and his being not sure about how he's supposed to ever understand what's going through her head is just part of their lives. It's clear what she thinks about the people in the streets, though, even before she says something.
In this they are united at least.
* * *
“Remember your strategy?” Portia asks.
“Get away, find water,” Peeta repeats, sure that he has a chance to at least survive the first day. He wants to live. Somewhere in District 12 his family is watching and he wants them to at least see him try. His friends will be watching, too, marveling at all the things he's said in the interview. What is Cally Rofheart thinking of him now?
What is Gale Hawthorne thinking? Is he already wishing for his death, because Peeta confessed his love for his girlfriend? Is she even his girlfriend? She say she isn't... He tries to stop the line of thought and focus back on the task ahead: staying alive, keep her alive.
“Prepare for launch,” a female voice announces via the speakers. When Peeta stands his knees feel weak, but with every step he feels the determination return. This isn't the game he would have chosen to play, which doesn't mean he can't make up his own rules. He's decided to protect Katniss, defying the need that dictates that everyone should wish everyone else dead.
He's glad he'd seen her again yesterday on the roof, while they were still normal people and not contestants in the Hunger Games arena. He wants to remember her like that, because who knows what unspeakable things he may see her do in the arena.
Portia accompanies him to the plate that will raise him into the arena and then hugs him, pulls him hard against her chest and presses a kiss to his cheek. “Good luck, Peeta. We've done what we could to give you a chance, now make the best of it.”
He inclines his head to show that he knows all that and that he wants to, but he's too nervous to say much. “Thank you,” he croaks and steps onto the platform.
“May the odds be in your favor,” Portia whispers with a sad expression. They've come to like each other and it's fitting that his final moment with her would be more emotional than the one he's had with his family. He swallows and looks up when a glass cylinder is lowered down around him and the platform starts to move. Darkness around him suddenly, his heart beating so hard that he can hear the blood rushing in his ears, then light again and he gets the first glimpse of the arena, blends out the announcement and tries to focus on the people around him, tries to decide which way to run any second, his muscles tense and ready to propel him away.
He knows what to do, keeps in mind where the careers are. He has a plan. Haymithch had given him clear instructions.
And there she is, far away, but close enough that he can get a final glimpse. A final memory of her, clean and breathtakingly beautiful.
He shakes his head, when she stares at the bow.
Like him she has to run. She can't survive here.
And the gong sounds.
The Hunger Games are on. And Peeta knows what he has to do.