There's a game the boys in his year used to play at recess.
One boy was picked to be "it," and he'd cover his eyes while the others hid around the schoolyard. When he was done counting, he could start hunting for them, but he could only take them from their hiding place into "custody" if his daemon could pin down theirs. The older they got, the harder this became; the two daemons flitting in and out of shapes with ease of practice, the "hunter" trying to predict what shape the "prey" would take next and counter it with something bigger, speedier, or toothier.
Girls' daemons almost always settle before the boys' do, but at age twelve, Peeta Mellark becomes the first boy in his year who has to sit out the tag-game. The other boys gather tight around him, fixing Jazz with curious, intrusive stares until she hides her face in the back of Peeta's neck, whispering, "I don't like it, why won't they go away?"
Peeta doesn't even have to ask, because usually, boys' daemons stop changing at fourteen or fifteen. Sixteen was late, and if you were seventeen and your daemon hadn't settled, it was just considered downright unnatural. But twelve was early for a boy. At least half the girls in their year hadn't even picked something yet.
"What's it like?" one boy asks, finally, breaking the stalemate. It's Mikale -- he's practically family, a Peacekeeper's son whose strong-minded sister had been courting Peeta's older brother before anyone (even the brother) figured out what was going on. They're thinking about getting married, but they want to put it off until he's passed his nineteenth birthday, when he'll be safe from the reaping. (Being Peacekeeper's children, she and Mikale aren't even in the drawing.)
He thinks about it, absently stroking Jazz's tail where it's draped down over his chest. "It's good," he decides on. He'll get better with words later, but right now he still has to fumble with them like everyone else. "It feels like your birthday and summer and a hot stew dinner in winter all come at once. It's really good."
He meets Katniss Everdeen's eyes on the way back in from the schoolyard -- a look that stings like catching against something too hot, and they both look away again, embarrassed, retreating to separate ends of the hall. They won't speak to each other for another four years.
He only ever figures it out in hindsight, but it was probably at that moment that Peeta realized his daemon and Katniss's must have settled at the same time.
For a second after Effie Trinket calls Prim's name, there's only silence. It's a beat of time in which all the girls in the pin take a dizzy breath, realizing that it wasn't their name, not this year. A beat where the adults who have children of reaping age all breathe in sharply in relief and those who place bets click their tongues in disbelief, because those odds were impossible. And then the reality of who, exactly, was drawn sinks in.
"Oh, no," whisper Jazz, the tail she has nervously wrapped around his neck tightening for a moment in her distress. "No, not Prim."
Judging by the horrified murmur that runs through the crowd, the consensus is the same. Peeta catches sight of the girl herself as she steps past the pin where the year sixteens are; right here, right now, she just looks like a skinny thing from the Seam in a threadbare dress, nothing honorable or sacrificial about her. The braid that swings against her spine is a child's white-blonde shade, and at her side, her daemon is valiantly trying to keep to one shape, because the cameras are all focused on them in this moment, but he can't: he flickers from a burly dog to a goat to a calico housecat, and the murmuring grows louder like the approaching sound of thunder.
Which is when the shriek from the sky silences it.
It's a bloodcurdling noise; there's really no other way to describe it. Peeta doesn't even have to look to know where it comes from -- he doubts anybody does, because Katniss is already hurtling herself out of the pin, seizing fistfuls of her sister's clothes and hauling her back. "I volunteer!" she calls out, the same high, painful cry her daemon had made. The falcon himself cuts wheels in the sky above the sisters' heads, clearing a swath as all other bird daemons retreat closer to the ground.
Effie splutters, looking first to her stork daemon and then over to the mayor, who looks a little heartbroken underneath his make-up.
"No," says Jazz again, low, mournful, and hurt, and no one's looking at them, so Peeta catches her in his hands, hiding his face away into her soft, golden fur, just for a moment. She rubs her head against his temple, and there's nothing they can say.
"Are you sure that this is what Jasminder has chosen?" his father had asked him, doubtful, when Peeta came back in from the rain that night when he was twelve. The rest of the family was there, too, all gathered around with the ovens glowing warm on their faces; his mother was the only one not looking at him, her jaw clenched, but his father and brothers just looked faintly perplexed. This he could understand: all the men in his family have always had cat daemons. It's been a tradition for as long as there have been Mellarks in District 12. Why would Jazz want to settle as anything else?
As children, the two of them used to pull the covers over their heads and talk about who she wanted to be more like: his father's soot-colored puma, easily the largest in the household, if not the neighborhood; she could maybe even give the smith's gorilla daemon a run for her money! Or maybe she wanted to be like his eldest brother's lynx, who moved around upstairs like a ghost on silent paws; or even something slim and sleek, like the middle brother's Siamese.
Looking from them to Jazz that night, face still stinging from a blow and ears fresh with the sound his daemon had made as she lashed out at his mother's snapping turtle daemon, he saw what they saw: an animal of little more standing than a rodent, like something that Katniss's dad used to bring to their backdoor from the woods.
"She's perfect," he said, curling his hands around her protectively, and his brothers raised their eyebrows, because it was the first time Peeta'd ever displayed much of a backbone to any of them.
After the reaping, they let his family come in to say good-bye to him. He isn't surprised to see that his mother isn't there -- somebody needs to keep an eye on the pastries they'll sell later at the Peacekeeper-enforced celebration, after all. But his brothers clap him on the back hard enough to make his shoulders hurt, their faces pale and mouths tight with things they aren't saying, and his father gathers him up in his arms like he could maybe scoop him up and tuck him into bed like he used to when Peeta was little, and he holds on long enough that Peeta feels like he's going to shake apart no matter how tight the hug gets. Their daemons take turns pinning Jazz down between their paws, nuzzling her and licking her cheeks and leaning against each other for support.
Outside, somebody's whistling a tune -- Madge, he thinks, and her little mockingbird daemon, and their song is cheerful, upbeat, and if anyone asks later, what the tune was, they'll tell them the story about going to the meadow on a summer's day, warm and sunshine bright, to sleep beneath the quiet trees.
It's a song they always play in District 12 at funerals, but nobody needs to mention that part.
On the train, he catches Katniss studying him, eyes slimmed to thoughtful slits. She seems to come to a decision, because she crosses the room and takes the chair next to him at the dining table. A second later, her falcon daemon lands with a whumph at the place setting at her elbow, making the silverware rattle.
"This is Donner," she goes, her tone somewhere between angry and belligerent, like she's just waiting for him to stand up and find some way to use this against her. "He's a peregrine falcon."
With something bordering on surprise, Peeta realizes that he's about the same size Jazz is, although from across classrooms and the Market, he's always seemed looming and large against Katniss's slim shoulders, with hooked beak and talons that could slice a squirrel open from throat to gut.
"Jasminder," he offers in return, reaching up to uncoil Jazz's tail from around his neck and setting her down on the table. "But I call her Jazz. She's a kinkajou."
Donner ducks his head close to Katniss, saying something for her ears only, and she snorts with laughter, unbidden and undignified. Peeta makes a questioning noise, and she starts to shake her head, but aborts the movement, like letting someone in on a joke is something she has to think about.
"He said, that's confusing, because normally there isn't an animal in the world the kinkajou couldn't charm."
Jazz chitters indignantly, bolting from the table back to her spot on the back of his chair, and Peeta grins. "Well, we'll get right on that charming and schmoozing, you'll just have to wait until we stop shaking." He holds out his hands to show how unsteady they still are.
When Katniss laughs this time, it's the closest to genuine he's ever heard, and this, he thinks, is the first time they've been anything close to friends.
He's seen it happen year after year on the giant television screens in the square, but it still takes him by surprise, the caustic way the Capitol officials dissect him and his daemon.
They put their hands on her, the three men, wearing white gloves like it makes it any less of a violation; they pull her off of him and spread her out on an examining table the same time a small army of similarly-dressed professionals do the same to Peeta. He doesn't really care about the poking and the prodding he's undergoing, because they're measuring Jazz from snout to tail, ground to shoulder, the size of her teeth and her claws to determine if she's been altered in any way that'll give her an advantage over other daemons in the arena.
There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do to another person's daemon in the Hunger Games, of course, because to let it be a free-for-all would be an insult to the principles of any civilized person, but for what actually happens in the arena ... well, nobody can truly predict what kind of savage children the barbarians in the districts raise, after all. Name any atrocity, and Peeta's probably seen it committed in the Games: tributes who'd slowly torture another's daemons by cutting their limbs off one by one until their human counterparts went mad. There was even one year when a deaf boy from District 8 won because nobody could see the approach of his widow spider daemon until she'd already delivered a fatal bite.
The noise Jazz makes when they inject the tracking chip right between her shoulder blades is horrible, but Haymitch told them to bear it, so Peeta closes his eyes and grits his teeth and wills it to be over.
Later, when he hears that Katniss broke the jaw of her medical examiner, he isn't altogether surprised. Haymitch makes exasperated noises and Effie clucks her tongue, but when their backs are turned, Peeta has Jazz carry another roll down the table to her. Katniss looks startled, but flashes him a grin.
(She shoots an arrow at the Gamemakers the next day. Jazz brings two rolls for that one.)
One of the things the Capitol tries its hardest to downplay is how many tributes aren't old enough to have daemons in settled shapes yet. There are three of them this year: both tributes from District 9, and the girl from District 11, Rue. It's too easy to remember, sometimes, that the tributes are just children, and if there's one thing the Gamemakers want to avoid, it's that the audience in the Capitol start thinking of the tributes the way they think of their own children; happy, carefree things with shapeshifting daemons.
So while some of the tributes they linger on, the most intimidating and admirable ones -- Cato, the boy from District 2, and his muscular black sun bear daemon; the boy from District 3 with the lame foot and the nimble-fingered marmoset daemon; the slant-eyed and clever-faced girl from District 5 whose orange-spotted bug daemon seemed innocuous and harmless in her palm until she mentioned that it was a gravedigger beetle -- they move on quickly from the youngest tributes without even asking for their daemon's names, or any special talents they might have.
For all that she looks like she's going to pass out right there in front of all the cameras, there's nothing Katniss can do to make her eleven in training, or the way Donner shifts on his perch and glares fiercely whenever Caesar gets too close, any less than what it is: she actually stands a chance in the Games.
Peeta, meanwhile, knows exactly what everybody sees when they look at Jazz. She's got flat teeth for mashing berries and a long tongue for getting nectar out of flowers and ants out of their bakery; not exactly the tools of a fearsome predator. Her fur's silky to the touch and the same golden color of a peach; better for petting than for camouflage. Her tail's flexible enough to serve as a fifth hand, almost, which might be useful, and her claws are sharp enough to scratch, but neither of those things make her much of a deadly weapon.
Nobody says it, but the tributes with the prey daemon almost never survive.
"It's all right, though. We already knew that we weren't exactly victor material," Jazz murmurs that night, burrowing into her usual spot underneath his chin, even though he's certain there's no way he's going to sleep tonight. They go into the arena tomorrow. "Are you mad that I didn't go with a cat shape after all?"
"No," Peeta answers instantly, giving her tail a fond tug. It wasn't like it'd been a conscious decision, anyway; none of it had -- the way he let the bread loaves tip into the fire on rainy night when he was twelve, the tug he felt deep inside when Jazz leapt out of the way of his mother's snapping turtle's jaws, changing midair into something with claws to rebuff the blow, and it was only later, when he was tossing the loaves to where Katniss crouched beyond the fence, emaciated and wet and shaking, that Jazz wrapped her tail around his neck for the first time and murmured, this is it, Peeta.
"No," he says again. "There's no one else I'd want to go in the arena with than you, just as you are."
They wind up spending their last night on the rooftop, watching the thin spattering of stars in the Capitol sky.
"Do you remember what shapes Donner favored before he settled?" he asks, wrapping his arms around his knees.
Jazz doesn't even think about it. "Songbirds. Always the songbirds."
There's a beat, a pause, a breath between one moment and the next that Peeta would just like to live in as long as he can, but it passes and the truth sinks in.
Donner shrieks, the same heartstopping, death-rattle cry he uttered when Prim's name was drawn in the reaping. He drops from Katniss's shoulder in a soft rush of feathers, skimming the ground for a moment, beating his wings hard to get lift, and that's the opportunity Jazz takes to spring from Peeta's shoulder. She's bleeding, still, has been off and on since she was sliced open at the Cornucopia by Glimmer's eagle owl daemon, but she gives chase, leaping high enough off the ground to catch Donner, sending the two of them tussling into the pine needles and leaves.
Katniss lets out a wordless cry, and when she sees him going for his knife, she swings her bow up, notching an arrow and pulling it taut, pointed straight at his heart, all in the time it takes him to close his fist around the handle.
It's actually the calmest Peeta has been the entire Game; there's nowhere he's going but in a pine box to be shipped back to District 12, and Katniss will live.
Katniss will live.
Donner tries to rake his talons across Jazz's eyes, but she jerks back, and the blow glances off her shoulder; Peeta feels it in his gut, the catch and drag of flesh splitting open, and it comes out as a high whine between his teeth.
He tosses the knife aside just as Jazz gets her tail wrapped once around Donner's body, pinning his wings down. And then she's got her paws on his face, stroking the teardrop shapes under his eyes, the soft feathers at his breast, pressing their heads together. It's one moment, two, before Donner relaxes and Jazz releases her hold, and the two of them huddle together on the ground, twined as close as possible.
Swallowing audibly, Katniss lowers the bow.