"We could do it, you know. Why don't we do it? We could live out here, in the woods," Hank tells her. It isn't the first time he's said such a thing, but this time it's Reaping day.
This time it's Prim's first year eligible, and this time Raven looks at her bow and quiver on the grass beside them and their haul of the morning and thinks about it for longer than usual. They could. They could live out here, but…
"We couldn't take our families with us. They wouldn't make it out here, even with us. They don't know how."
"We could teach them."
"We wouldn't be able to teach them enough before that big of a group drew attention. They'd find us."
And that, of course, settles it, like it always does. Until the next time he brings it up, anyway.
And then Prim's name is drawn and Raven panics and volunteers, and she knows they should have taken everyone and left anyway.
If they'd left neither she nor her sister would be a tribute now, wouldn't be something less than a person as far as the Capitol is concerned. She wouldn't be on a train, hurtling toward the center of Panem to be one more body in The Hunger Games. She wouldn't be going there with the one other boy in District 12 besides Hank that she would really rather not see die.
Everyone thinks Erik is tough. He isn't a miner's son like everyone else—he's a baker's son. Everyone always seemed to expect him to overcompensate and he did it anyway, even though he didn't care. It was easy; his height and his chiseled face and his toothy grin that was apparently somewhat menacing no matter what he did helped.
Part of him thinks he would rather have friends than be feared, even though it's kept him safe, but it doesn't matter now. It became a pattern he was trapped in and now he'll never have the chance to get out of it. He may be strong but he isn't trained. He never really ended up in an actual fight with anyone. He can't win The Hunger Games.
Even his fellow District 12 tribute knows more of how to survive than he does. Everyone who isn't a Peacekeeper knows Raven hunts.
He remembers her. Of course he does. He's never had the nerve to talk to her but he remembers that day in the rain, outside the bakery. He doesn't know if she remembers him. It was more than four years ago, now. They're 16 now. And they're both probably going to die, but if one of them lives he knows it will be Raven.
He hopes it's Raven. If anyone from District 12 deserves to win, she does.
Moira is in tears when she comes to him, and Charles knows she didn't cry in front of her little sister. She would have volunteered if she weren't 19. She would have taken Jean's place. But she can't, and he couldn't because though he's 17 and eligible he's male and there has to be one of each. A boy can't volunteer for a girl, nor vice versa. Then he was chosen anyway. All he can do is hold his closet friend and promise he'll do everything he can to keep her sister alive.
Charles knows he isn't skilled at much, but he knows he'll do everything in his power to protect Jean. If he has anything to say about it, Moira will only have to lose one of them. He'll keep Jean with him and kill himself in the end, if he has to.
He doesn't tell her all of it, but Moira knows him. She knows he'll do it, and she's grateful and heartbroken at once, and so is he. She kisses him firmly even though they have never had that sort of relationship and would never desire to. It's a thank-you. It's a final farewell.
They say goodbye knowing for certain they will never see each other again.
Raven is wary of him from the beginning, and Erik wishes it didn't have to be that way but he knows it's only logical. Only one of them can live, after all. If either of them. He supposes, too, that she doesn't remember him. So much the better, perhaps. It will make it easier for her to kill him if she has to, and he won't stop her.
She has more to live for than he does.
They have somewhat friendly conversations aboard the train, but otherwise avoid each other. She seems ticked off that Haymitch appears to like him better, gives him more advice.
Erik's opinion is that Haymitch is sorry for him because he knows Raven has a much better chance. As far as Erik is concerned, that's the only reason for the extra bit of attention.
Not that Haymitch has much attention to give, even when he isn't drunk.
When they arrive in the Capitol they are cleaned and buffed and polished and polished again. Erik isn't sure how many layers of skin he loses. He doesn't particularly care. He's busy enough staring at his prep team and the other outlandishly-decorated people if the Capitol and wondering what sort of ridiculous coal mining outfit he and Raven will be forced into. It's always coal mining outfits for District 12, or something like it.
Then it isn't. Not this year. Portia, his stylist, tells him they're working closely with Raven's stylist Cinna and that this year will be much different. No one will overlook District 12 this year.
Of course not. They'll be wearing fire. Erik tells himself it must be safe. Surely Cinna and Portia know what they're doing. It can't be real fire. He tells himself that as he and Raven are brought to the stable at the bottom level of the Remake Center—the staging area for the parade of tributes that will begin the opening ceremonies of the Games. He tries not to pull at the black leotard or tug at the cape.
Raven is a little more talkative now. Maybe they're both just nervous, but they make whispered jokes about the fire plan, sure they're both going to burn to death. Erik is wishing again that he'd been able to talk to her since that day in the rain, but then again it's probably best he didn't now.
It's the last time he wishes such a thing so strongly. It's the last time Raven is the center of what's left of his universe, because when they reach the stable everything in his world shifts.
Jean is trying to keep him in good spirits. Of course she is, bless the girl. She's always been like that. To others she may seem quiet and shy but Charles knows otherwise. He's known her since she was born. Such a sense of humor and happiness and mischief he has never seen in any other girl of 12 years old. Certainly not in anyone at all from District 11.
She dances around the chariot and the horses while they wait for the parade to start and makes him laugh. He can't help but move enough at least to stay in close proximity, even if he doesn't dance himself. Her mood is infectious. She feels pretty. She feels like dancing. Though maybe only because she's choosing not think of what comes later. But she's 12. She's allowed to do that.
Charles is the one who will be protecting her. He can't do that. He has to think about all of it. He tries to smile for her but he isn't sure how well he succeeds.
And then behind them the District 12 tributes make their way to their chariot, and the boy from 12 accidently meets his eyes.
There is something there, something that shoots through Charles when their gazes meet, and the other boy seems to be taking in Jean and Charles's face and everything else and suddenly Charles is sure the boy knows exactly how he feels.
For a moment he is frozen. He can't breathe. From a handsome face gray eyes stare into his before breaking away to turn to the stylists gathering near their charges, but the connection isn't broken when line of sight is.
Charles feels the tingle in his spine long after.
Sapphire eyes. Chocolate hair in gentle waves and a kind face. Erik saw the boy from District 11 in the coverage of the other Reapings they watched on the train but he's even more beautiful in person. It's a strange thing to think, considering that for years he's been rather sure he wanted something to happen between himself and Raven if he would ever just speak up, but…
Those eyes meet his and it feels like they see right to his soul. The little girl from District 11 is dancing around him, trying to goad the other boy into her game, to cheer him up, it seems, and the pain behind the blue eyes and the small forced smile take Erik's breath away.
He remembers that Reaping. He doesn't remember much of the others but he remembers that one. It was the only one besides their own that did not go as per usual. The girl was chosen first, and she stood silently and stoically like so many do, looking so much like Raven's little sister it broke his heart when no one was willing to volunteer for her.
Then the boy. Charles, if he remembers the name correctly. It's one of the only names he remembers. They called him and he went up, stunned at first as everyone is, but he shook it off much faster than most do. He strode quickly toward the girl and she ran into his arms. They didn't remain in the embrace for long—they straightened and faced the crowd almost definatly—but they held hands after that, for as long as they were on the stage.
They know each other. They must have known each other for a long time. Watching them, meeting the other boy's eyes, Erik is sure that Charles will do anything he can to protect the girl from his district. He's resigned himself to death.
They have something fundamental in common, then. Erik has too. It reverberates between them in that brief locked gaze but there is more to it than that and Erik doesn't have time to make sense of it. The boy from 11 nervously licks his full lips and swallows, and then Portia and Cinna are there to give them last minute instructions and Erik has to turn away. Soon enough the parade has begun and the first chariots are pulling out of the stable.
Erik is already forcing a smile of his own for the crowd. Cinna tells Raven to smile. Their costumes are lighted and they do not, in fact, burn up. Whatever the stuff really is that looks like fire, it works wonderfully. It frames them and in the dimming evening Raven looks radiant, beautiful ringed by the flames, and an hour ago Erik would have fallen even harder.
Now, he doesn't know what's happened to him. He still cares what happens to her but the feeling isn't the same as before. It's shifted. It isn't the center of his thoughts anymore. Melancholy sapphire eyes occupy that place now.
Over the roar of the crowd outside Cinna yells something at them before they're brought out of the stable. He's telling them to hold hands. Raven looks from Cinna to Erik uncertainly, but he obediently takes her hand. One thing Haymitch did tell them was to listen to their stylists.
"Might as well. On the TV coverage it seemed to get the District 11 tributes lots of attention when they did it on stage. Attention can be good."
"Yeah, yeah, it can mean sponsors," Raven mumbles back. She squeezes his hand and then they're moving into the parade, and soon enough she's giving in to waving and smiling at the crowd and blowing kisses.
Everyone loves them—the fire, the united front, all of it. They're calling both of their names, but Erik knows everyone is really looking at Raven. The girl on fire, Cinna called her. Erik hopes it helps her.
But even as he holds her hand through the chariot ride, he can't help watching the chariot in front of them and the boy from 11 with his arm around the shoulders of the little girl beside him. Erik can't help wishing he were holding one of those hands instead.