Primrose Everdeen is the fourth tribute to die in the 74th annual Hunger Games. As it begins, twenty-three children sprint wildly, some to the Cornucopia and some to the woods - all but the girl from District 12, who stands frozen atop her platform. By the time she makes a run for it, it's too late. An arrow enters her back, rips through the delicate muscles and bones, bursts through her chest.
It's a quick death, the best someone so small and weak and timid could have hoped for, notes Claudius Templesmith as she fades off the screen.
Despite his atypically humble origins, most viewers agree that Peeta Mellark is one of the more forgettable victors in recent history. After a few near misses with the allied tributes from Districts 1 and 2 he paints himself into a riverbank and waits, subsisting on moss and berries, as the others whittle each other away. A flash flood drives him to confrontation with his final three competitors - Glimmer drowns, but Peeta clings to a tree branch and manages to stay above water. Cato cuts Marvel so deeply through the thigh that the blood spurts into his eyes, blinding him just long enough for Peeta to smash a rock into the back of his skull.
But Peeta doesn't - he goes for the lower back instead, and succeeds only in throwing his rival off balance. A tussle of arms and legs ensues, a flash of metal, and suddenly it's a simple matter of who will bleed out the fastest.
Cato, true to form, wins the final race of his life.
In some ways Peeta is more nervous returning to District 12 than he was leaving it. At least he knew without a doubt what awaited him in the arena: death.
But coming home is different. Will they love him, the boy whose victory will fill their bellies until two more of their children are chosen? Will they embrace him at first but slowly fall away, knowing in their hearts that anyone who lives while twenty-three die can't be trusted?
The train ride is endless. Effie is beside herself with excitement, can't understand why he doesn't finish his meals, why he's not practicing his speech, why he shuts off the television every time the hosts circle back to the Games, which is often. She thanks him - this might even get her promoted to a better district next year.
He hardly sees Haymitch, who stays mostly holed up in his room. This time next year, they'll be mentors together.
Peeta's family were the only ones to say goodbye after the Reaping, and as he sat crying in the little room, alone, waiting for the Peacekeepers to take him away, he could hear screaming just outside the door.
It was Katniss. "Take me instead," she pleaded, choked, trembling. "Please! I want to volunteer!"
He couldn't hear their answers but he could guess what they'd say: The crowds are already leaving, we can't reenact the whole event, what good is a volunteer without a reaction shot from the audience?
Still, even the thought of facing Katniss Everdeen in the arena was enough to send him to the edge of panic. For weeks he couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't over - that somehow, Katniss would be there in the dark forest, gathering hearts and limbs to bring her sister back to life. During those nights in the riverbed, he would dream of Katniss moving over him, pinning his arms to the ground with arrows as he died in silence, still too afraid to speak to the girl he'd watched for over half of his brief, cowardly life.
There are flowers freshly planted outside his new house in the Victor's Village, and he recognizes the primrose bush - the same little flowers they'd weaved through Prim's hair the night of her interview.
Prim's interview itself was a blur in his mind. His own had started well, Caesar so encouraging and supportive and warm that for a moment Peeta could almost forget that this was just one last pause in his inevitable slide towards the end. But then he had to bring up the one thing that Peeta couldn’t joke about, not like this.
"So tell me Peeta," Caesar had smiled, shifting closer, conspiratorially. "Is there a special girl waiting for you back home?"
"No," he'd answered, but it was only half the truth - there was a girl waiting for him to come home, and she was praying he would do it in a box.
Now he's here, heart and lungs still pumping as he kneels down to dig the bush out of the ground. The sun is just rising, but he doesn't worry about being found - his family all left for the bakery an hour ago. He misses the bakery, the steady weight of the flour sacks and the steadiness he feels in himself when he's kneading dough into a perfect loaf. But "victors don't bake cakes," his mother had told him, and he hasn't been back.
He finds a bowl in the kitchen and places the flowers in it, patting the dirt down carefully. There's not much room for the roots to grow, but this is just a temporary home.
It’s still early but he doesn’t want to be seen, so he carries the primrose bush through the back streets and alleys until he finally reaches the Seam, where he’s less familiar with his surroundings. He does know which house is the Everdeen’s, though, and he walks towards it briskly, just wanting to get this over with because he suddenly realizes how completely stupid it is.
Peeta stops at the door. He could knock, wake Katniss and her mother, tell them I am so sorry. I should have protected her. I shouldn’t have run. And it will mean nothing, because he’s still here, which means she can’t be. It will mean nothing because in the end, they all know he wouldn’t have died for her.
He sets the bowl carefully by the door and walks away. Katniss is probably out hunting, anyway, he tells himself.
After a few weeks the cameras are gone, the Capitol focused on its next bright, shiny toy (until he begins his Victory Tour, at least.) His mother relents and he returns to the bakery one morning, where finally he can fill his mind with something other than guilt and fear and the faces of dead children in the night sky.
There is a knock at the door to the alleyway and Peeta rolls his eyes. His brother is always sneaking out to meet with girls their mother doesn’t approve of, then forgetting his key to the back door.
He opens it, and it’s Katniss, a bag in her hand. Squirrels. The squirrels she trades with his father for bread, the squirrels she shoots so perfectly, straight through the eye so they never even have the chance to freeze in fear.
There are a million things he wants to say but all he can do is stare at her. It’s clear she wasn’t expecting Peeta, either, and for a moment he thinks she’s going to run. But her eyes flutter shut for a moment and he can see her making a decision. She opens them again. “Is your father here?”
Peeta swallows hard. “No, he’s at the house” – it’s not really a home, where he eats and sleeps now – “I’m filling in on his day off.”
She won’t look at him, her eyes staring past him into the kitchen as she thrusts the bag forward. “There’s four squirrels in here, good sized. He’d give me two loaves of the sourdough and a half dozen rolls for these.”
“Of course.” Peeta accepts the bag and looks around the messy kitchen. He grabs an empty flour sack and places three loaves of bread inside, then slides a tray of rolls in after them. “Here, take extra. Your squirrels are really – great,” he stammers.
“That’s not the deal,” she says flatly. “Two loaves, six rolls.”
“It’s okay. I’ve been making extra today, it’s not –“ It’s not like we need them anyway, I’m drowning in food, you know, that food I won for living while your sister died? “It’s not a big deal.”
She sighs, and doesn't move. Peeta isn't sure what to do, so he just stands there, the bag of bread hanging awkwardly at his side. “You said my name,” she says abruptly, finally meeting his eyes. “On tv. Why did you do that?”
At first he has no idea what she’s talking about. When Caesar had asked him that question, the one about a girl, her name had run through his head like a flood: katnisskatnisskatniss. But he'd shut down, simply answered no, because he didn't trust himself to hold it in. The interview had ended in an uncomfortable silence, as Peeta felt the slim chance of sponsorship slip away.
But suddenly, he knows. His heart seizes up, his face grows hot: the dreams. His brothers have always teased him for talking in his sleep. And he’d dreamed of her in the arena, every night, of her gray eyes whispering I need you, I need your heart as she carved a hole into his chest and Prim watched from the treetops.
Peeta looks at the girl he most loves, the girl he most fears, and knows that whatever he says right now, it won’t matter. His life changed the moment his name was clasped between Effie Trinket’s gold-tipped fingers – just one of five slips among thousands – and at some point his dreams will have to change, too. He's been nurturing these roots for years, but now there's nowhere for them to take hold and grow.
“Please take the bread, Katniss,” he says softly, holding it out for her.
She takes it. He thinks she understands. And then she runs, her long braid chasing after her.
Peeta never goes back to check on the primrose bush, whether she planted it in the garden or dumped it somewhere for the goat to eat. But he imagines it growing like a vine up the side of her house, spiraling past the windows up onto the roof, yellow flowers glowing warm like the sun – and a girl learning to love them.