Peeta was surprised when the knock came on the door.
Who else would have bothered to visit him? Certainly not his family: his father, his brothers—they’d all sat awkwardly around the couch, trying to find the right words to say, only to settle on several variations of, “Good luck”; and then, there had been his mother, much better with words than they, but using her talent only to cut into him one last time by making sure he knew what she thought his chances were of winning this thing. None.
Maybe it was her coming back to apologize—not likely, thought Peeta—or maybe she just wanted to get in a few more digs that she failed to get in the first time. Maybe it was Delly Cartwright coming to say goodbye. She always was a nice girl, and he had a feeling that maybe she even liked him, although she had never actually said so. He could relate.
Instead, it was someone he hadn’t been expecting at all. It was Katniss Everdeen’s little sister.
The door had opened up only slightly, just enough for her to peer her head in and silently ask him for permission to enter. Peeta saw that her eyes were swollen and rimmed in scarlet; she must have just left Katniss’s room. He gave her a small smile and nodded, but she still seemed to be hesitating, so he waved her in and said, “Hey there. It’s all right, you can come in.”
She brightened immediately, all traces of shyness leaving her. There was little resemblance between her and her sister, but Peeta couldn’t help but notice that they had the same smile, and he felt his breath hitch.
“You’re Prim Everdeen, right?” he said, even though he knew exactly who she was. “My father buys your cheese.”
She nodded, then her eyes lowered, avoiding his. “My sister… she’s… she’s the one who…”
Peeta swallowed hard. He’d been bracing himself for this. “I know,” he said softly.
He knew why she was here. If it were some other boy who’d gotten reaped, he might have even been here with her. Doing the same thing she was about to do.
“Please, just… watch out for her in there,” she said. “Maybe if someone else is looking after her, then…”
Her voice caught. For a moment, he was tempted to reach out to her and embrace her, but he wasn’t sure if she’d welcome the gesture. What right did he have to be comforting Katniss Everdeen’s little sister, anyway?
Even if they both loved her.
“I know it’s asking a lot,” she said. “But… I’ve seen the way you look at her.”
Peeta felt his lungs trap the air he’d just taken in. She’d raised her eyes again to meet his gaze, and all of sudden, he was the one who wanted to break it. To keep her from seeing that it was true.
“It’s the same way Gale looks at her.”
Gale Hawthorne. It was like a punch to the gut to hear his name. Like some sort of confirmation of what he’d always suspected. Inside, his heart clenched, slid into his stomach. There was no way he was going to meet Prim’s eyes now.
“I just thought that… I mean, if you care about her…”
She couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud, Peeta realized. She seemed like a gentle, delicate flower, hardly capable of bringing harm to anyone, and yet here she was, essentially asking him to give up his own life in order to spare her sister’s.
He wondered if either of his brothers would have bothered to bargain for his life like this, but he knew the answer to that one. And the answer hurt too much anyway, so he shoved the thought out of his mind.
“I won’t let anything happen to her,” he said. “I promise.”
He made himself look at her again, to have her look into his eyes and see that he meant every word. That she could trust him to save her sister’s life, even if it meant sacrificing his own.
Tears pooled in her eyes. Her shoulders hiked up with a shaky intake of air, then she said simply, “Thank you.”
Her hand closed around the door handle, but she was still looking at him, regarding him one last time. One last look at the boy to whom she was entrusting her beloved sister. One last look at the only ally she could count on in the arena.
“Prim?” he said, as she pulled the door open and was about to step outside.
She turned to look at him.
“When she makes it back… could you just… could you tell her that I…”
Prim smiled. She understood what he was trying to ask, he knew it.
“I’ll make sure she knows.”
She let go of the door and before he could react, she threw her arms around him, gripping him tightly, then let go and raced out the door.
“Thank you, Prim,” he whispered.