I watch him as he makes his way toward the stage. Medium height, stocky build,ashy blond hair that falls in waves over his forehead. The shock of the moment is registering on his face, you can see his struggle to remain emotionless, but his blue eyes show the alarm I’ve seen so often in prey. Yet he climbs steadily onto the stage and takes his place.
Why him? I think. Then I try to convince myself it doesn’t matter. Peeta Mellark and I are not friends. Not even neighbors. We don’t speak. Our only real interaction happened years ago. He’s probably forgotten it. But I haven’t and I know I never will. . . .
On the afternoon of my encounter with Peeta Mellark, the rain was falling in relentless icy sheets.
As I carefully replaced the lid and backed away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother’s back. I’d seen him at school. He was in my year, but I didn’t know his name. He stuck with the town kids, so how would I?
Feet sloshed toward me through the mud and I thought, It’s her. She’s coming to drive me away with a stick. But it wasn’t her. It was the boy. In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire because the crusts were scorched black.
The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because of the red weal that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with?
The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back on the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed, and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tightly behind him.
At school, I passed the boy in the hall, his cheek had swelled up and his eye had blackened. He was with his friends and didn’t acknowledge me in any way[..] I found him staring at me from across the school yard. Our eyes met for only a second, then he turned his head away. I dropped my gaze, embarrassed,and that’s when I saw it. The first dandelion of the year.
To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed. And more than once, I have turned in the school hallway and caught his eyes trained on me, only to quickly flit away. I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people.
The mayor finishes the dreary Treaty of Treason and motions for Peeta and me to shake hands. His are as solid and warm as those loaves of bread. Peeta looks me right in the eye and gives my hand what I think is meant to be a reassuring squeeze. Maybe it’s just a nervous spasm.
Peeta Mellark, on the other hand, has obviously been crying and interestingly enough does not seem to be trying to cover it up.
I understand how Peeta feels. I can’t stand the sight of the Capitol people myself. But making them deal with Haymitch might be a small form of revenge.So I’m pondering the reason why he insists on taking care of Haymitch and all of a sudden I think, It’s because he’s being kind. Just as he was kind to give me the bread. The idea pulls me up short.A kind Peeta Mellark is far more dangerous to me than an unkind one. Kind people have a way of working their way inside me and rooting there. And I can’t let Peeta do this. Not where we’re going.
“So, you’re supposed to give us advice,” I say to Haymitch.
“Here’s some advice. Stay alive,” says Haymitch, and then bursts out laughing. I exchange a look with Peeta before I remember I’m having nothing more to do with him. I’m surprised to see the hardness in his eyes. He generally seems so mild.
“That’s very funny,” says Peeta. Suddenly he lashes out at the glass in Haymitch’s hand. It hatters on the floor, sending the bloodred liquid running toward the back of the train. “Only not to us.”
Haymitch considers this a moment, then punches Peeta in the jaw, knocking him from his chair.
Peeta holds his ground, actually waving and smiling at the gawking crowd. He only stops when the train pulls into the station, blocking us from their view. He sees me staring at him and shrugs. “Who knows?” he says. “One of them may be rich.”
All of the pieces are still fitting together, but I sense he has a plan forming. He hasn’t accepted his death. He is already fighting hard to stay alive. Which also means that kind Peeta Mellark, the boy who gave me the bread, is fighting hard to kill me.
Despite this morning’s revelation about Peeta’s character, I’m actually relieved when he shows up, dressed in an identical costume. He should know about fire, being a baker’s son and all.
“What do you think?” I whisper to Peeta. “About the fire?”
“I’ll rip off your cape if you’ll rip off mine,” he says through gritted teeth.
“Deal,” I say.
“Where is Haymitch, anyway? Isn’t he supposed to protect us from this sort of thing?” says Peeta.
“With all that alcohol in him, it’s probably not advisable to have him around an open flame,” I say.
And suddenly we’re both laughing.
“What’s he saying?” I ask Peeta. For the first time, I look at him and realize that ablaze with the fake flames, he is dazzling. And I must be, too. “I think he said for us to hold hands,” says Peeta. He grabs my right hand in his left, and we look to Cinna for confirmation.He nods and gives a thumbs-up, and that’s the last thing I see before we enter the city.
I lift my chin a bit higher, puton my most winning smile, and wave with my free hand. I’m glad now I have Peeta to clutch for balance, he is so steady, solid as a rock.
It’s not until we enter the City Circle that I realize I must have completely stopped the circulation in Peeta’s hand. That’s how tightly I’ve been holding it. I look down at our linked fingers as I loosen my grasp, but he regains his grip on me. “No, don’t let go of me,” he says. The firelight flickers off his blue eyes. “Please. I might fall out of this thing.” “Okay,” I say. So I keep holding on, but I can’t help feeling strange about the way Cinna has linked us together.
“Thanks for keeping hold of me. I was getting a little shaky there,” says Peeta.
“It didn’t show,” I tell him. “I’m sure no one noticed.”
“I’m sure they didn’t notice anything but you. You should wear flames more often,” he says. “They suit you.” And then he gives me a smile that seems so genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness that unexpected warmth rushes through me.
I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on his bruise.
Peeta snaps his fingers. “Delly Cartwright. That’s who it is. I kept thinking she looked familiar as well. Then I realized she’s a dead ringer for Delly.”
Delly Cartwright is a pasty-faced, lumpy girl with yellowish hair who looks about as much like our server as a beetle does a butterfly [...]But I jump on Peeta’s suggestion gratefully. “Of course, that’s who I was thinking of. It must be the hair,” I say.
“Something about the eyes, too,” says Peeta.
“You’re shivering,” says Peeta.The wind and the story have blown all the warmth from my body. The girl’s scream. Had it been her last? Peeta takes off his jacket and wraps it around my shoulders. I start to take a step back, but then I let him, deciding for a moment to accept both his jacket and his kindness. A friend would do that, right?
“It’s getting chilly. We better go in,” he says. Inside the dome, it’s warm and bright. His tone is conversational. “Your friend Gale. He’s the one who took your sister away at the reaping?”
“Yes. Do you know him?” I ask.
“Not really. I hear the girls talk about him a lot. I thought he was your cousin or something. You favor each other,” he says.
“No, we’re not related,” I say.
Peeta nods, unreadable. “Did he come to say good-bye to you?”
“Yes,” I say, observing him carefully.</b>
“I don’t have any secret skills,” he says. “And I already know what yours is, right? I mean, I’ve eaten enough of your squirrels.”
“I can’t do anything,” says Peeta. “Unless you count baking bread.”
“Sorry, I don’t. Katniss. I already know you’re handy with a knife,” says Haymitch.
“Not really. But I can hunt,” I say. “With a bow and arrow.”
“And you’re good?”asks Haymitch.
I have to think about it.[...] “I’m all right,” I say.
“She’s excellent,” says Peeta. “My father buys her squirrels. He always comments on how the arrows never pierce the body. She hits every one in the eye. It’s the same with the rabbits she sells the butcher. She can even bring down deer.”
“What are you doing?” I ask him suspiciously.
“What are you doing? If he’s going to help you, he has to know what you’re capable of. Don’t underrate yourself,” says Peeta.
“What about you? I’ve seen you in the market. You can lift hundredpound bags of flour,” I snap at him. “Tell him that. That’s not nothing.”
“He can wrestle,” I tell Haymitch. “He came in second in our school competition last year, only after his brother.”
“There’s always hand-to-hand combat. All you need is to come up with a knife, and you’ll at least stand a chance. If I get jumped, I’m dead!” I can hear my voice rising in anger.
“But you won’t! You’ll be living up in some tree eating raw squirrels and picking off people with arrows. You know what my mother said to me when she came to say good-bye, as if to cheer me up, she says maybe District Twelve will finally have a winner. Then I realized, she didn’t mean me, she meant you!” bursts out Peeta.
“She said, ‘She’s a survivor, that one.’ She is,” says Peeta.
That pulls me up short.[...]Suddenly I’m behind the bakery and I can feel the chill of the rain running down my back, the hollowness in my belly. I sound eleven years old when I speak. “But only because someone helped me.”
Peeta’s eyes flicker down to the roll in my hands, and I know he remembers that day, too. But he just shrugs. “People will help you in the arena. They’ll be tripping over each other to sponsor you.”
“No more than you,” I say.
Peeta rolls his eyes at Haymitch. “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”
I hear Peeta’s voice in my head. She has no idea. The effect she can have. Obviously meant to demean me. Right? but a tiny part of me wonders if this was a compliment. That he meant I was appealing in some way. It’s weird, how much he’s noticed me. Like the attention he’s paid to my hunting. And apparently, I have not been as oblivious to him as I imagined, either. The flour. The wrestling. I have kept track of the boy with the bread.
“I hope that’s how people interpret the four I’ll probably get,” says Peeta. “If that. Really, is anything less impressive than watching a person pick up a heavy ball and throw it a couple of yards. One almost landed on my foot.”
District 12 comes up last, as usual. Peeta pulls an eight so at least a couple of the Gamemakers must have been watching him. I dig my fingernails into my palms as my face comes up,expecting the worst. Then they’re flashing the number eleven on the screen.
I can’t help comparing what I have with Gale to what I’m pretending to have with Peeta. How I never question Gale’s motives while I do nothing but doubt the latter’s. It’s not a fair comparison really. Gale and I were thrown together by a mutual need to survive. Peeta and I know the other’s survival means our own death. How do you sidestep that?
But the boy who risked a beating to give me bread, the one who steadied me in the chariot, who covered for me with the redheaded Avox girl, who insisted Haymitch know my hunting skills . . . was there some part of me that couldn’t help trusting him?
“Handsome lad like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what’s her name?”says Caesar.
Peeta sighs. “Well, there is this one girl. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the reaping.”
“I don’t think it’s going to work out. Winning . . . won’t help in my case,” says Peeta.
“Why ever not?” says Caesar, mystified.
Peeta blushes beet red and stammers out. “Because . . . because. . . she came here with me.”
I can see my face, mouth half open in a mix of surprise and protest, magnified on every screen as I realize, Me! He means me!
Peeta has absolutely wiped the rest of us off the map with his declaration of love for me. When the audience finally settles down, he chokes out a quiet “Thank you” and returns to his seat.
Peeta has only just stepped from his car when I slam my palms into his chest. He loses his balance and crashes into an ugly urn [...]Peeta lands in the shards, and blood immediately flows from his hands. “What was that for?” he says, aghast.
“You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!” I shout at him.
“This was your idea, wasn’t it? Turning me into some kind of fool in front of the entire country?” I answer.
“It was my idea,” says Peeta, wincing as he pulls spikes of pottery from his palms. “Haymitch just helped me with it.”
“She’s just worried about her boyfriend,” says Peeta gruffly, tossing away a bloody piece of the urn.
My cheeks burn again at the thought of Gale. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Whatever,” says Peeta. “But I bet he’s smart enough to know a bluff when he sees it. Besides you didn’t say you loved me. So what does it matter?”
“It doesn’t matter, Katniss,” he says. “I’ve never been a contender in these Games anyway.”
“That’s no way to be thinking,” I say.
“Why not? It’s true. My best hope is to not disgrace myself and . . .” He hesitates.
“And what?” I say.
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only . . . I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to . . . to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
“I do. I mean, what else am I allowed to care about at this point?” he asks angrily.
He’s locked those blue eyes on mine now, demanding an answer. I take a step back. “Care about what Haymitch said. About staying alive.”
Peeta smiles at me, sad and mocking. “Okay. Thanks for the tip, sweetheart.”
I wonder about Peeta. Has he lasted through the day? [...]All of a sudden, I’m overwhelmed by the thought that Peeta may be already lost, bled white, collected, and in the process of being transported back to the Capitol to be cleaned up, redressed, and shipped in a simple wooden box back to District 12. No longer here. Heading home. I try hard to remember if I saw him once the action started. But the last image I can conjure up is Peeta shaking his head as the gong rang out.
I’m relieved Peeta’s alive. I tell myself again that if I get killed, his winning will benefit my mother and Prim the most. This is what I tell myself to explain the conflicting emotions that arise when I think of Peeta. The gratitude that he gave me an edge by professing his love for me in the interview. The anger at his superiority on the roof. The dread that we may come face-to-face at any moment in this arena.
The shock on Peeta’s face makes no sense to me. I wait for the blow. Instead his arm drops to his side.“What are you still doing here?” he hisses at me. I stare uncomprehendingly as a trickle of water drips off a sting under his ear. His whole body starts sparkling as if he’s been dipped in dew. “Are you mad?” He’s prodding me with the shaft of the spear now. “Get up! Get up!” I rise, but he’s still pushing at me. What? What is going on? He shoves me away from him hard. “Run!” he screams. “Run!”
Sick and disoriented, I’m able to form only one thought: Peeta Mellark just saved my life.
And suddenly, I’m not thinking of Gale but of Peeta and . . . Peeta! He saved my life! I think. Because by the time we met up, I couldn’t tell what was real and what the tracker jacker venom had caused me to imagine. But if he did, and my instincts tell me he did, what for? Is he simply working the Lover Boy angle he initiated at the interview? Or was he actually trying to protect me? And if he was, what was he doing with those Careers in the first place? None of it makes sense.
[...]But he’s not there. Maybe he did save you and had to run.” I don’t answer. If, in fact, Peeta did save me, I’m in his debt again. And this can’t be paid back. “If he did, it was all probably just part of his act. You know, to make people think he’s in love with me.”
“Oh,” says Rue thoughtfully. “I didn’t think that was an act.”
I find my thoughts preoccupied with unanswered questions, most of which concern Peeta.
Two tributes can win this year. If they’re from the same district. Both can live. Both of us can live. Before I can stop myself, I call out Peeta’s name.
Peeta, it turns out, has never been a danger to me. The thought makes me smile. I drop my hands and hold my face up to the moonlight so the cameras can be sure to catch it.
“You here to finish me off, sweetheart?”
“I guess all those hours decorating cakes paid off.”
Peeta smiles. “Yes, frosting. The final defense of the dying.”
“Lean down a minute first,” he says. “Need to tell you something.”
I lean over and put my good ear to his lips, which tickle as he whispers. “Remember, we’re madly in love, so it’s all right to kiss me anytime you feel like it.”
I’ve left on Peeta’s undershorts because they’re not in bad shape and I don’t want to pull them over the swollen thigh and, all right, maybe the idea of him being naked makes me uncomfortable.
“Katniss?” Peeta says. I meet his eyes, knowing my face must be some shade of green. He mouths the words. “How about that kiss?”
“How do you hunt?” he asks.
“Trust me. Killing things is much easier than this,” I say. “Although for all I know, I am killing you.”
“Can you speed it up a little?” he asks.
“No. Shut up and eat your pears,” I say.
“Here, cover yourself with this and I’ll wash your shorts.”
“Oh, I don’t care if you see me,” says Peeta.
“You’re just like the rest of my family,” I say. “I care, all right?”
“Katniss,” he says. I go over to him and brush the hair back from his eyes. “Thanks for finding me.”
Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words. This is probably overdue anyway since he’s right, we are supposed to be madly in love. It’s the first time I’ve ever kissed a boy, which should make some sort of impression I guess, but all I can register is how unnaturally hot his lips are from the fever. I break away and pull the edge of the sleeping
bag up around him. “You’re not going to die. I forbid it. All right?”
He’s dozed off again, but I kiss him awake, which seems to startle him. Then he smiles as if he’d be happy to lie there gazing at me forever. He’s great at this stuff.
“I woke up and you were gone,” he says. “I was worried about you.”
“Better than yesterday. This is an enormous improvement over the mud,” he says. “Clean clothes and medicine and a sleeping bag . . . and you.”
“Go to sleep,” he says softly. His hand brushes the loose strands of my hair off my forehead. Unlike the staged kisses and caresses so far, this gesture seems natural and comforting. I don’t want him to stop and he doesn’t. He’s still stroking my hair when I fall asleep.
I lay next to Peeta in the bag, trying to absorb every bit of his fever heat. It’s strange to be so physically close to someone who’s so distant.
“You just let me take care of you for a while.”
I don’t really seem to have much choice. Peeta feeds me bites of groosling and raisins and makes me drink plenty of water. He rubs some warmth back into my feet and wraps them in his jacket before tucking the sleeping bag back up around my chin.
“Yes. I don’t expect you to understand it. You’ve always had enough. But if you’d lived in the Seam, I wouldn’t have to explain,” I say.
“And don’t try. Obviously I’m too dim to get it.”
“It’s like the bread. How I never seem to get over owing you for that,” I say.
“The bread? What? From when we were kids?” he says. “I think we can let that go. I mean, you just brought me back from the dead.”
“But you didn’t know me. We had never even spoken. Besides, it’s the first gift that’s always the hardest to pay back. I wouldn’t even have been here to do it if you hadn’t helped me then,” I say. “Why did you, anyway?”
“Why? You know why,” Peeta says. I give my head a slight, painful shake. “Haymitch said you would take a lot of convincing.”
“Maybe I did it for myself, Peeta, did you ever think of that? Maybe you aren’t the only one who . . . who worries about . . . what it would be like if. . .” I fumble. I’m not as smooth with words as Peeta. And while I was talking, the idea of actually losing Peeta hit me again and I realized how much I don’t want him to die.
“Then I’ll just have to fill in the blanks myself,” he says, and moves in to me. This is the first kiss that we’re both fully aware of. Neither of us hobbled by sickness or pain or simply unconscious. Our lips neither burning with fever or icy cold. This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. This is the first kiss that makes me want another.
In stark contrast to two nights ago, when I felt Peeta was a million miles away, I’m struck by his immediacy now. As we settle in, he pulls my head down to use his arm as a pillow, the other rests protectively over me even when he goes to sleep. No one has held me like this in such a long time. Since my father died and I stopped trusting my mother, no one else’s arms have made me feel this safe.
“Peeta,” I say lightly. “You said at the interview you’d had a crush on me forever. When did forever start?”
“Oh, let’s see. I guess the first day of school. We were five. You had on a red plaid dress and your hair . . . it was in two braids instead of one. My father pointed you out when we were waiting to line up,” Peeta says.
“So that day, in music assembly, the teacher asked who knew the valley song. Your hand shot right up in the air. She stood you up on a stool and had you sing it for us. And I swear, every bird outside the windows fell silent,” Peeta says.
For a moment, I’m almost foolishly happy and then confusion sweeps over me. Because we’re supposed to be making up this stuff, playing at being in love not actually being in love.
“I remember everything about you,” says Peeta, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “You’re the one who wasn’t paying attention.”
“What was that you were saying just before the food arrived? Something about me . . . no competition . . . best thing that ever happened to you . . .”
“What was that you were saying just before the food arrived? Something about me . . . no competition . . . best thing that ever happened to you . . .”
"I noticed just about every girl, but none of them made a lasting impression but you"
The sun eventually rises, its light slipping through the cracks and illuminating Peeta’s face. Who will he transform into if we make it home? This perplexing, good-natured boy who can spin out lies so convincingly the whole of Panem believes him to be hopelessly in love with me, and I’ll admit it, there are moments when he makes me believe it myself? At least, we’ll be friends, I think.
“What do I care? I’ve got you to protect me now,” says Peeta, pulling me to him.
I feel like I’m eleven again, tethered not to the safety of the fence but to Peeta, allowing myself twenty, maybe thirty yards of hunting space.
“Can’t we go back to the cave?” he asks. “It’s near water and easy to defend.”[...]I reach up and give him a kiss. “Sure. Let’s go back to the cave.” He looks pleased and relieved. “Well, that was easy.”
I open my mouth and sing out Rue’s four-note run. I can feel them pause curiously at the sound of my voice, listening for more. I repeat the notes in the silence. First one mockingjay trills the tune back, then another. Then the whole world comes alive with the sound. “Just like your father,” says Peeta.
I drop my weapons and take a step back, my face burning in what can only be shame. “No,” he says. “Do it.” Peeta limps toward me and thrusts the weapons back in my hands.“I can’t", I say. “I won’t.”
“No, you can’t kill yourself,” I say. I’m on my knees, desperately plastering the bandage back onto his wound.
“You’re not leaving me here alone,”
I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a goodbye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two.” Maybe they don’t care if we both die. “Three!”
The next thing I know we’ve landed back on the roof of the Training Center and they’re taking Peeta but leaving me behind the door. I start hurling myself against the glass
“Did you tell Peeta this?” “Don’t have to,” says Haymitch. “He’s already there.”
“Don’t have to. He’s already there.” Already thinking ahead of me in the Games again and well aware of the danger we’re in? Or . . . already desperately in love? I don’t know. I haven’t even begun to separate out my feelings about Peeta. It’s too complicated.
Then there’s Peeta just a few yards away. He looks so clean and healthy and beautiful, I can hardly recognize him. But his smile is the same whether in mud or in the Capitol and when I see it, I take about three steps and fling myself into his arms.
“Maybe . . . because for the first time . . . there was a chance I could keep him,” I say.
“So now that you’ve got me, what are you going to do with me?” I turn in to him. “Put you somewhere you can’t get hurt.” And when he kisses me, people in the room actually sigh.
“I don’t know, I just . . . couldn’t bear the thought of .. . being without him.”
“Coaching you? But not me,” says Peeta.
“He knew you were smart enough to get it right,” I say.
“I didn’t know there was anything to get right,” says Peeta.
“Katniss?” He drops my hand and I take a
step, as if to catch my balance.
“It was all for the Games,” Peeta says. “How you acted.”
“Not all of it,” I say, tightly holding onto my flowers.
I want to tell him that he’s not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena. That I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do have feelings for him, it doesn’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children. And how can he? How can he after what we’ve just been through? I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part
Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.