Someone has a death wish, and they're tapping insistently on her bedroom window.
She's not overly worried. The riots had been a flash in the pan: over almost as soon as they had started. Since then, the violence has dropped off entirely. No one feels safe outside in the open with an illness creeping its way through the District. The streets are barren, save the few brave souls who hurry by, clothes `zaround their noses and mouths. Those already affected by the illness are sequestered to their homes, by order of Commander Thread. The Evens are blocked off entirely, and a truck parked at either end of the street hides it from view. Keeping the rest of the population out, or keeping people from the Evens trapped inside.
Either way, she is both unnerved and relieved by the quarantine of the Evens. Though she had been there during the start of the outbreak, and she has yet to get sick (to her delirious relief), the illness could still spread to their part of the Seam. Could still spread to the Hawthorne's. To the Merchant Quarter.
It has already made its way to three other streets in the Seam, jumping across the District to hit the southern and northern eastern sections of the Seam concurrently. While it isn't spreading as quickly as previous years' flus had, Katniss is still worried. Because there don't seem to be many survivors.
Prim, of course, has taken an interest in tracking its progress, and will tell anyone who will listen where she thinks it's headed next. She hasn't been right yet, but it hasn't deterred her. She's doggedly pursuing whatever books her mother left behind, searching for clues to what this disease could be and how to cure it.
Its no use though, because the illness is like nothing they've ever seen before. Except for Prim's revelation that most of those affected are among the poorest in the District, they don't know much else about it.
So Katniss isn't worried about the tapping on her window, because whoever it is, they are either too stupid to break their way in or they are someone she knows. Either way, she's content to ignore them until they go away. She huffs, turns over, and closes her eyes. Its not even dawn yet.
The tapping continues, however, and no amount of ignoring it makes it any quieter so can she get back to sleep.
Finally fed up, she swings her legs over the side of the bed and roughly yanks her sweater on. Though it is still dark outside, the dead stillness of night has faded, and she can hear the first stirrings of morning- the light rustling of birds in the trees and the flap of their wings as they leave in search of their first meal.
Throwing open the window, she finds Rory fidgeting nervously.
"What are you doing?!" she hisses, "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Can I come in please?" he says, his eyes sliding left and right anxiously, "Please Katniss?"
She slams the window shut with a gust of cold air and tugs on a pair of socks. Rory has some nerve. If he thinks she is waking up Prim for him, he has another thing coming.
With a frigid glare, she cracks the front door open and pulls him inside.
"Where the hell is your head at?" she barks.
Rory's answering grin is shy, but self satisfied and gives her the distinct impression he's been up to something his brother wouldn't approve of.
"Do you have any idea how stupid it is to wander around after curfew, Rory Hawthorne?"
After all the time and energy so many people had spent keeping Rory alive, he had risked his life all over again. He rubs the back of his neck and drops his overstuffed hunting bag on the table. She hadn't even seen that he had been carrying it. But now that she does, her eyes go wide.
"You cannot be serious," she says.
No wonder he's so pleased with himself. A stuffed game bag is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a fifteen year old boy and novice hunter like Rory. He must have left yesterday afternoon, hunted all evening and spent the night in the woods. What excuse had he given Gale? Stupid, stupid boy.
"Dead serious," he says, "and there's plenty to go around."
He rips open his bag and pulls out a few squirrels. As it is the tail end of a brutal winter, they're scrawny, but its still the first meat Katniss has seen in a long time. After Rory was whipped, Gale's hauls had gotten considerably smaller. He had spared what he could to trade with Katniss for bread, but that had all but ended two weeks ago.
"I can't accept these. You could have gotten yourself killed."
Rory shrugs and doesn't meet her angry stare.
"Right. But I didn't."
Katniss massages the bridge of her nose.
"That's not the point. People have worked very hard to keep you alive."
Rory shakes his head minutely, withdrawing a leather satchel from his pocket and plopping it on the table. The heavy, woody scent scent that tickles her nose gives it away as willowbark. And a lot of it.
"I'm not taking anything for granted. But I have debts to repay. And promises to keep. Starting with you and Prim."
There's a rough squeeze in her chest. He sounds so much like she had at his age. Even at fifteen, she had hated feeling indebted to anyone and Rory was following right in the heavy trail of footsteps she and Gale had left behind.
"Prim up yet?," he asks, as he roots around deeper in his bag, "I have something special."
"Not yet. And don't you dare ask me to wake her."
"No. No. I don't want to do that. Is it okay if I wait around until she is?"
He pulls his hand out of his bag, gently clutching three brown speckled eggs.
Her mouth drops open in shock. This early in the spring its rare to find nests, let alone eggs. How Rory managed to get his hands on some is a miracle.
Or maybe it isn't. Even Gale himself had been surprised by Rory's uncanny ability for tracking. The way he described it, Rory picking up on things that any other hunter would have overlooked, seemed at first to be beginners luck. Over time, however, it had become obvious that Rory had been hiding a sharp tracker's eye. She'd love to watch him work sometime, if only to see for herself what Gale had.
If anyone could find the first, and maybe only eggs yet this season, it would be Gale's prodigy of a younger brother.
But she wished she could decide if she was more angry at him or proud.
"Your brother would have my skin if he knew about this," she bites, raking her hand through her loose hair. She takes them from him anyway, and sets them out on the counter in a bowl. They're warm to the touch despite the chill outside, and they feel heavy and rough in her hands.
Of all the things she's missed this winter, eggs are at the top. If it were later in the season, she'd be able to scrounge up some crisp wild onions or spicy young chickweed to go with them. Maybe even pick up a small bag of black peppercorns and to grind and put on top.
Or find some cream to mix in and make them rich and fluffy like the pastries at the bakery.
Her mouth waters. Its a beautiful, bitter dream. Since the riot, food in the District has dwindled to whatever rations the Capitol sends to the Distribution center, and bread from the bakery. Neither of those options are particularly enticing. No wonder she's fantasizing about luxuries like black pepper.
Now tired and hungry, she rubs her eyes.
As much as she doesn't want to admit it, Rory has saved their hides. Neither she nor Prim had had any protein in a week, and she had been about to tug on her boots herself and haul back what she could before Prim noticed she was missing. Not that she wanted to. If she collapsed in the woods, there was a good chance no one would find her. Not even Gale.
Rory coughs, thrusting his arm forward awkwardly. Clutched in his fist is a bouquet of colorful wildflowers.
"Anything for these?" he mumbles, his face red to the tips of his ears.
Katniss keeps her expression carefully blank as she retrieves a chipped mug from the cupboard and fills it with water. Rory sets the flowers in it, then puts it in the center of the table.
"She said she missed flowers," Rory mumbles, staring down at his hands as he re-ties his bag. "That it didn't really feel like spring until they were here. I thought, with everything that's happening, she should have a reason to smile, even if its just…"
He clears his throat.
"Sorry. I don't know why I told you that. It was weird."
"Its ok," Katniss says, but she frowns as she busies herself at the sink refilling the kettle. She squints down at the frothing water as it swirls in the black belly of the cast iron kettle. "You can stay until she's up. But I'm not lying to Gale for you. You're on your own with-"
A loud, sharp sound, like a note of music, fills the house and Katniss whirls around, water sloshing down the old button up shirt that belonged to her father but now serves as her nightgown. The television on the other side of the couch flickers blue and white, a single beam erupting out of the broadcasting box set on the mantle. It rises slowly, the sound blaring as it does. As the beam reaches its full height and starts to spread horizontally, the sound shifts notes and it becomes obvious that it is the national anthem, rising in volume until she and Rory have their hands capped over their ears.
Then the screen flickers to life to show President Snow at a clean white desk, one of his hands resting on the smooth polished wood, the other on top of that. His face is placid, his eyes blank, but his lips are fleshy and red. They disturb her, though she can't put her finger on exactly why. Their size, maybe. They look swollen, as if he had been stung there by bees. A shiver makes its way down her spine, but she can't tear her eyes from the puffed flesh.
"It is the dawn of another new day in Panem," he starts, his voice authoritative and even. "In every District, loyal citizens are rising to do their part in the great and beautiful machine that is our country, and they're doing so because they believe that a united Panem is a strong Panem. Our nation's history is rich and long, and it's from that history that we know that only through unity and sacrifice can we truly prosper. For that reason we hold the Hunger Games, which are not only an opportunity for each District to shine in front of the entire nation, but, more importantly, prove their loyalty and integrity, to one another and to the Capitol. In that spirit, I know you'll be joining me in celebrating the upcoming 74th Hunger Games. Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor."
The floor tilts under her feet. She hadn't forgotten the Reaping. It would be impossible to- so much of her life was planned around it. But somehow, it drifted in importance with everything that had come to pass in the last year. It is Prim's first Reaping. She hasn't forgotten that either, but still it had escaped her that it would be so soon. Maybe she had assumed it wouldn't happen with how badly off the District had become. But they had never stopped it before, not for anything.
Of course it would continue this year.
The broadcast box sputters, the image of President Snow wavering, before it flickers off. Then its silence. Rory's downturned gaze rises slowly to meet hers, and she's not even sure he is breathing.
He clears his throat and opens his mouth to say something, but before he can there's a quiet hiccup from behind them in the kitchen. Prim is standing by the table, barefoot, with one foot tucked under the other.
The way she used to stand when she was just a little kid and forgot her socks on winter mornings, too eager to get to breakfast.
Too hungry. Too cold.
There's a moment of silence that stretches uncomfortably where no one says anything, but they all think the same thing. Prim is the only one who says it out.
"What if it's me?" she croaks.
Katniss' heart seizes in her chest and she enfolds her sister in her arms. She refuses to even consider it. It won't be. It can't.
And anyway, she thinks later, as she wraps cloth mask over her face and makes her way to work, there are so many others with entries in the upper double digits. Prim really had no reason to worry about her measly slip. Katniss herself had close to fifty.
The houses she passes on her way through the Seam and into the merchant quarter have their windows shuttered and are still and dark. The air is warm for spring, but too quiet. Eerily so. She averts her eyes quickly when a glance into the shadows of a porch reveal a sheet wrapped body.
Her throat works to swallow, but her tongue is too fat and dry. With her eyes refocused on the dark rust of the dirt and rocks under her boots, she allows herself, just for a moment, to think about her own entries.
She and Gale had worked hard to keep Rory and Prim from taking a tesserae, but they have both paid a heavy price. Her odds are poor. Gale's are poorer. But at least they're not the poorest.
There's no point worrying. She had done what she had to, and so had Gale, and what would happen at the Reaping would happen. And anyway, there's nothing they can do except feel helpless, and that wouldn't change their odds a lick.
But she can't just do nothing or her leg will bounce all day and everyone will know what's on her mind without her having to say anything at all, so instead, she runs the odds. Twelve's math courses never took them beyond basic algebra, but she knows instinctually there's more. The formulas she uses are her own, and only guesswork, but something it's better than nothing at all.
Customers filter in and out of the bakery in a faceless blur of quick exchanges. Peeta keeps sticking cartoons scratched onto the back of receipts in weird places for her to find. Any other day, finding one of them in the cash drawer would have made her snicker at the least.
Today, all she can see is that the drawer looks off. A quick count and a look at the sales ledger reveals that she's right.
"Peeta, the till is off."
He's restocking the front of the bakery case on the other side of the counter, and nothing is visible except his mop of blonde curls and the very tips of his ears, which pinken noticeably.
"By how much?"
He stands up and rubs the back of his neck, the sleeves of his sweater inching up his arms to reveal the first slender lines of his tattoo as he does so. The sweater is too small for him and fits much too close to his torso. Are sweaters even warm when they're that tight? Why couldn't he just get one that fit?
"Ten dollars," she blurts, the ducks her head to recount the money in the drawer. "We've only been open for two hours. I think you've broken your own record."
"Did you check the back of the drawer?"
She pops out the cash tray and peeks underneath.
He's suddenly right next to her peering over her shoulder.
"Here, let me just-"
Leaning one arm on the counter, he uses the other to lift the heavy, black iron register onto its back. When the back of the drawer is lit by the overhead light, she sees why. Peeking out from behind a metal bar at the very back of the drawer is the crumpled corner of a ten dollar bill.
"Um, will you...?"
He nods his head toward the register.
"My hands are too big."
She's fishing the bill out when the bell over the door rings. With her head twisted over her shoulder, she watches as Delly walks in with a determined set in her jaw, followed by a stormy Thistle.
"Hey guys," says Peeta, easily flipping the register right side up.
Katniss shoots Delly and Thistle a distracted smile as she attempts to put the drawer back together. The cash tray seems to fit, but the drawer won't close completely. This has happened before. Something else is stuck in the drawer. Katniss lifts it out the tray and fishes around inside the drawer for the offending object.
"I'm here for bread," Delly proclaims. Thistle rolls her eyes.
"Given that that's all they sell, I'm sure they know that already."
Delly ignores her and grabs a yellow bag, dropping it on the counter with a glare at Thistle.
Peeta stares at her for a moment, then shakes his head.
"What did you do Delly?" he says sadly.
Delly squares her shoulders and smiles grimly.
"Exactly what I needed to."
Thistle doesn't have a quip or joke or even a smile, but there's a glint in her eye that has nothing to do with humor. Its anger.
Then Katniss realizes. Delly has taken a tesserae. Her hand pauses in its exploration of the drawer, her fingertips brushing the cool metal lightly.
"How many does this make Delly?" Peeta asks, a tremor interrupting his voice.
"This is the first time," she answers defiantly.
One extra entry? That was all?
She shares a look with Thistle. Both of them are Seam born and understand intimately all the implications of being forced to take tessarae. There is no way Thistle would have asked Delly to take one. Thistle made enough from her illicit side business that Delly would not have had to worry about food. Delly is taking the tesserae of her own accord, probably out of some misguided notion of self sufficiency and pride.
It was a very stupid thing to do. And Thistle seems to agree.
Suddenly, Katniss' hand encounters something sharp and she jerks it back in surprise. As she does, she notices a small cut on her fingertip. She curses loudly, causing the conversation to stop and all eyes turn to her.
And then she thinks something so horrible that she is sure every person in the room has heard it.
What is a cut, if its her name that they call this year?
The world feels blurry and not real- as if its on television and not happening right in front of her, and someone else, not her, mumbles out an unintelligible excuse and ducks into the kitchen. The boxes of bread are still piled high, the golden seal of the Capitol emblazoned on every side and staring unblinkingly back at her. Leaning against the door, she glares over the top of the boxes at the far wall and sucks on her fingertip, a slight tinge of metallic blood on her tongue.
So Delly has seventeen entries. Of course she can afford to flippantly add a slip with her name into the bowl. The difference between sixteen and seventeen is nothing compared to the miles between sixteen and fifty.
The swift kick she sends to the box on her right does nothing to alleviate her anger. Neither does the second. And when the door swings open and Peeta walks in, she's thwarted from a third attempt.
His eyes flicker from the holes in the box to her face.
"Please tell me what that box did so I don't make the same mistake," he says.
She scowls, and his own smile fades minutely, before he clears his throat and glances at the floor. The silence that stretches between them is loaded, but Katniss doesn't care to alleviate the tension in the room. He's waiting for her to react, but he is also part of the problem. Even his odds are better than hers. It strikes her suddenly that he may have the best odds of all, because so many exceptions had been made for him to operate the bakery already, they might exempt him from the Reaping as well.
But one look at Peeta's face, where the telltale lines of worry already crease his forehead, tells her what she needs to know. No one is safe. Not even him. But he knows how many entries she has, and he too is worried, but not for himself.
This deflates her somewhat. Hadn't she once thought of Twelve as a pen for pigs on their way to slaughter? Reaping or not, Peeta is squarely under the thumb of the Capitol no matter what he does and would be for the rest of his life. One way or another, no one escapes a Reaping.
"They've left," he says, like he's reaching a toe into cold water. "Thistle slapped the bread out of Delly's hand the minute they walked outside. I think they're still arguing."
She stares at the scuffed toes of her boots and pops her injured finger out of her mouth.
"Its just a joke to her," she spits, "just a way to prove a point."
"No, Katniss," he says gently. "Delly did what she thought was best. Look at who she's friends with."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means she knows you never would have stood by and just let someone else take care of you."
"Are you saying this is my fault?"
Peeta shakes his head.
"No. Not at all. Delly sees you and everything you've done to keep your family safe... She doesn't have a job, and the only skill she's ever known is now useless. She'll never take over her parent's business. She thinks she is a liability, and she's trying to keep Thistle safe. From herself."
"I didn't say she was going about it the right way," he says. He puts his hand on the door. "I should get back out there. But take your time. Come out when you're ready."
The door swings shut behind him, but he's only gone for a moment before he reappears, shock evident on his face.
"I found this stuck to the top of the cash drawer," he says hurriedly.
The thickly folded piece of paper he puts in her hands is covered in graying mechanical type. What is written are a jumble of words she's never seen before. Some are very long. Others have combinations of letters she neither seen nor heard of. But one amongst them she has, and it jumps off that page as if it is electrified. Seizure. There are formulas that vaguely resemble things she's seen from one of Gale's textbooks. They're molecules. But they're not labeled with names, just letters and numbers that mean nothing when combined together. She unfolds the paper further, and right at the top, the word "Anti-Convulsant". Followed by a name. And the words "District 13."
"Is this some kind of a joke?" she mutters in disbelief. "District 13?"
"I don't know," he says in awe. "But it says this drug can stop seizures. Katniss… you need this. We need to get this for you. Could this be real? It looks real."
Peeta's voice is rising in excitement, and he takes the paper from her, examining the edges of it with a look of concentration on his face.
"Only the very edges of this paper are yellowing…," he says, "It's new paper."
"What does that mean?"
His eyes narrow at it.
"Could be nothing. But… I don't think so. Its a schematic. An instructional sheet? Or some kind of a recipe? I don't know. But its printed on nice paper. Expensive paper, designed to last. And its recent. Why would someone buy paper this expensive for a joke? Not to mention, you can't even get this in Twelve. And take a look at the fibers-"
He drags his finger down the page.
"See the blue fibers? The little red ones? It's recycled. But made to last a long, long time. I've never seen anything like it, but I've heard about it. Its like what they keep the District records on. Birth certificates. Marriage licenses..."
"So its nice paper. It doesn't prove whatever is written here is real."
"No. But I think this actually came from District 13."
"District Thirteen is rubble. We've all seen the footage. We even learned about it in school."
"Maybe. Maybe. But who else would produce something like this? Its so involved. Every step- from the way the paper is made, to what's actually written on it. It doesn't make sense for someone to fake this. There's too much effort. Its too complex. Not even the Capitol would go this far to catch someone out, especially when they have peacekeepers on the ground anyway. And, Katniss- if this is real... it could save you."
She stares silently at the paper, absorbing the implications. Everything Peeta has said makes perfect sense. But what doesn't make sense is why.
Why would someone go through such elaborate measures just to get her a sheet of paper she couldn't understand anyway? What did they want in return?
"Getting this to you would have been very risky. I think… its an act of good faith," he says carefully. She must have spoken her last thoughts aloud. "Someone wants your trust."
He continues to examine the paper, running his finger along the words. Then, he stops.
"There's more," he breathes. "At the bottom. Look."
At the bottom of the paper there's uneven, scratchy handwriting, done in pencil, with a few letters written so heavily they nearly puncture the page. The text reads: Areyou and Lemonhead hungry? We're all goingto be here until then, even S.
"I hope I'm not lemonhead," says Peeta with a groan.
"I think you are, actually. But its also a clue," she says, and then tells him about the peacekeeper with the lemon, who she believes isn't really a peacekeeper. "This is from him. It has to be."
"Well, its a man's handwriting. That's for sure."
"How can you tell?"
"Its just an impression. Look at how sloppy it is. The pressure they used. See how it's indented?"
He holds the paper up to the light, and she can see where the pencil has embossed the paper.
"Wait a minute," says Peeta. "Do you see how some letters are thicker than others? Look. 'M, O and N in lemonhead. E, I, G, H, T… thats eight. And e,v,e,n,s… Katniss. This is an invitation. He wants to meet. Monday, eight o'clock. In the Evens."
"I hope he's not holding his breath," she snorts dismissively.
Peeta continues to examine the letter, shifting it in the light, his brow drawn together in concentration.
"Maybe we should go," he says cautiously. "Think about it. Are you hungry? I don't think he's talking about food. I think he has this medicine. Otherwise how would he have this paper?"
"I don't like this, Peeta."
"Neither do I. But if there's a chance this is real, we have to take it."
Peeta has a point. And the man had gone far out of his way to contact her, and given away a lot of information about himself in the process. If it was a trap, he was doing an awful job of being discreet. He had all but advertised his personal history and alliance to the rebellion to her. All the same, she's not convinced. And the Evens are blocked off. Getting around the vans and the peacekeepers stationed there would be difficult, if not impossible. Not to mention why it's been blocked off. The disease.
But If this is real, it could stop her seizures. At least, thats what the paper claimed. Maybe it would cure them entirely. And the headaches too. Giddy excitement flares to life in her chest.
"We can't just run in," she says slowly. "The Evens have been blocked off, and it's crawling with Peacekeepers. This is risky. Very risky. And everyone in there is sick. We'll have to be careful."
"We will. And we're out of there the minute anything seems off."
She doesn't trust this man, whoever he is. But she does, without a doubt, trust Peeta. She cautiously agrees.
But come Sunday morning the sheet-wrapped dead have started to pile up in the gutters and Katniss forbids Prim from leaving the house. She avoids looking directly them, but its impossible not to see the faces and bodies inside when the sheets flap open. Blackened fingers, hands, feet and faces. Limbs contorted in grotesque poses. Trails of crusted vomit on chins and chests. Open, leaking sores dotting the skin.
She means to turn away from the window as a peacekeeper drags away the last body left out on their street, but she's planted there as if her legs are locked in concrete. That's how she sees it- the person the peacekeeper is dragging away isn't dead. Not yet. But they're close. Their back bows, neck taught and face strained, mouth open in a moan Katniss can't hear. Their swollen eyes are open, just slightly, and she watches in silent horror as their head lolls to the side and their eyes meet hers.
She rips herself away from the window and clenches the edges of the sink. She flips the faucet on and stands there staring at her hands uncomprehendingly as she washes them.
How many are dead now? There's no count that's being broadcast. No information circulating. There have been no announcements, no medicine has been sent. In fact, there's been no word at all from either the Capitol or Commander Thread.
She turns the water off, rubbing her hands down with a clean, white rag.
A shiver creeps down her spine. Their silence didn't bode anything good.
She doesn't know what she will do come Monday, but entering the Evens, even for a potential cure for her seizures, is out of the question. She and Prim will both be expected in school- but she would rather risk the ire of the peacekeepers than she or Prim getting sick.
With wide, glassy eyes, Prim peers out their front window over the kitchen sink and watches a peacekeeper march past their house. She chews on the side of her finger contemplatively, watching the scene unfold with a look on her face that Katniss has come to know as her thinking-face.
She drifts from the window to her chair at the kitchen table, where a few scraps of paper covered in scribbles lay out and her breakfast sits, untouched, off to the side. Katniss, seated across from her and working on an enormous mug of freshly cut willow bark tea, eyes the food on her sister's plate with worry.
"You know," Prim ventures in a small voice a moment later. "I don't think its air-borne. Look here."
She points to a map she's sketched on some scrap paper on the kitchen table, where areas shaded in with loose coal dust illustrate the progression of the illness.
"The affected people are all over the place. It's not one section that's expanding, its several contained spots. And they're the poorest areas in the District. I don't think this is a coincidence."
"What do you mean?"
"Well think about it. Why haven't they shut the school down? Or the distribution center? Why aren't the peacekeepers wearing masks when they move the dead? All of those things are signs. They know something we don't."
Katniss blinks at her younger sister in surprise. She's right. The peacekeepers were wearing gloves, but not masks, as they moved the bodies out of the street. If the disease was airborne, wouldn't they try to protect themselves?
"Regardless. Stay inside. We don't know for sure what this is, and I don't want you taking any risks."
She looks down at her mug on the table, cradled between her hands. The edges are chipped and the ceramic underneath is yellowing. Her bones feel heavy as she leans over her elbows on the table. Even with a plague spreading through the district, life had to go on. They need essentials, food and soap and coal, no matter what's going on outside. There's an inventory of things they need now or will need soon. They're low on twine and candles. Prim is in the middle of a growth spurt and very soon she'd be as tall as Katniss, maybe taller. She would need cloth for a new dress.
And since the outbreak started, alcohol has been in high demand and she has up at all hours running the still. As a result, more if their budget has had to be diverted to buying coal, and the distribution center workers have been getting suspicious. So earlier that week Katniss had visited site of the what used to be the Hob, where the melting ice had freed some of the planks of wood that had made up the stalls. She'd been dragging it home, stockpiling it in the shadows, and waiting to split it into smaller pieces when she got the chance.
Today is perfect for doing just that.
She slips out the back door with half a piece of dried meat (breakfast) hanging out of her mouth, and reaches for the splintering handle of the hatchet propped up at by the door.
The battered wood is rough in her hands and in just a few swings, callouses are already throbbing to life on her palms. Despite the pain, the jarring impact of the head of the ax through the wood gives her something to channel her energy into. To distract herself with. Like the soreness in the muscles of her back. The burn in her shoulders. The crick in her neck.
Sweat beads on her forehead as the sun begins to climb in the sky. Spring is definitely here. Its warm enough to venture out in just a sweater and pants, though she relishes the lasting bite of winter's chill that clings to the air. She rolls the sleeves of her sweater up her arms when the hatchet gets stuck in a particularly gnarled piece of wood. With a sigh, she puts her foot on top of the plank and tugs backward with the hatchet. The wood gives and she stumbles up and back. Blood rushes from her head as she straightens, and a sharp, shooting pain just behind her eyes flares to life. Dropping the hatchet, she brings her palms to her eyes and rubs. Patterns dance behind her eyelids and the pressure from her hands soothes the ache behind her eyes. But the moment she drops her hands away, it's back, this time racing underneath her scalp from her eyes to the back of her head.
The hatchet lies prone in the patchy sprigs of grass that poke shyly out of the dirt. Coughing dryly, she grabs the handle and picks it up again, ignoring the pain in her head and resolving to finish what she had started. Headache be damned.
The sun is brighter than it was when she started the task a few minutes ago. Its hotter too. Maybe she should take her sweater off? The next sharp crack of the hatchet splitting wood echoes angrily in her head like lightning streaking across the sky. She drops it to the ground a second time. Her chest heaves as she pants, and she pauses to hang her head forward with a wince. Air moves deeply in her chest, but the ground is tilting and the sun is burning the skin on the back of her neck.
With the wood pile dwindling frustratingly close to its last dregs, she's reluctant to stop now, especially since the final few pieces would take next to no time to split. No sense in quitting when she's close to the end. She grunts in annoyance as a twinge of pain races through her head and bends over to pick up the hatchet to finish what she started.
It looks like a white brillo pad- wooly, wiry and ashen. Dark shapes move along the periphery of her vision. She blinks, and her vision clears a little to reveal that the brillo pad has blue eyes. It gives her a watery smile.
"Welcome back," he croaks.
Its Rory. Why is he here?
"Don't let her sit up!"
"Katniss, you have stay down, ok?" Peeta says.
Hands hold her shoulders down and she tries to pry them off. It happened again. She doesn't remember how she ended up on the couch in her living room, but she's there now and the mystery of waking up somewhere different with no memory of she got there is by now familiar.
"I'm fine," she says shakily, "I want to get water."
Rory gives Peeta a look.
"Stay. I'll get it."
She shoves Rory's hand off her.
"I can do it!" she snaps.
But before she's even finished with her sentence, fat tears splash down her cheeks and roll over her jaw. A hot, oily something bursts to life inside her, washing over her face and the back of her neck, leaving a trail of burning, prickling skin in its wake. She rears up and scrambles off the couch, desperate to escape the arms and eyes that pinned her to the sprints down the hall and into the room she shares with Prim, bolting the door after her.
Sitting heavily on the bed, she tries to understand the sequence of events that lead her to where she is now. She had wanted to chop wood for the still. Found her father's hatchet leaning up by the back door. She has a memory of the roughness of the handle. Then, a blank space. Nothing.
"Katniss?" Peeta calls from the other side of the door. She holds her breath, staying perfectly still as the doorknob rattles. "Open the door. Please... I have you water."
Her front teeth tug on her lip and goosebumps prickle to life on her arms. Her chin trembles and her face twists.
"Please Katniss. Open up. Its just me."
Of course this had happened in front of Prim. She leans over to her side, gingerly laying herself down. One of the springs of the mattress creaks underneath her as she shifts and there's a thud on the door. Like Peeta hitting his head against the wood gently.
"Please… please Katniss."
He's begging now, voice is raw and jagged like broken glass. She doesn't answer, but the mattress squeaks again as she rises and pads over to door. She unlatches the lock and steps backward. A split second later Peeta is through the door and she is warm and weightless in his arms.
The scent of wood and sweat and smoke cling to him, but underneath that, something warmer. A spice, but airier. Wet. Woody. Rich. Like rain through an open window.
She wraps her arms around him and buries her face in his neck.
How had he known to come?
Prim must have left for help. She went to find Rory, and then told Rory to bring Peeta.
She had been out there, wading through streets lined with the dying and the dead, all because Katniss was sick.
She had put Prim in danger. Who knew what could have happened with Prim out there in the war zone that Twelve that had become? What if Prim got sick? It would be her fault.
What if Prim had gotten hurt? If she had died?
And then she's crying so hard that she hasn't noticed her fingers digging into Peeta's back, or when he shifts them so they're lying down, drawing the blanket around them until the world is a quiet, woolen cocoon and all that exists is the gentle puff of air on her cheek that is his breath, the solid weight of his arm draped around her, and the soft words he's speaking into her hair.
Peeta doesn't say its ok. Because its not. And she's relieved her doesn't try to lie to her, because that would make it all so much worse. Instead, he tells her stories about the bakery. His brothers, and his friends. She curls into his chest, willing his warmth to fill the cold emptiness in her own. Could he feel the numb vibrations that rattled through her? His hand runs down her braid and over her back, fingers dancing lightly over her spine and the exposed skin of her lower back. Probably not.
He also probably doesn't mean to invite that flutter back in her chest, or the tingling trails his fingers leave on her skin. But that's what he does, and whether or not he means to, the effect is the same.
She is electric. Empty. Heartsick.
He loves her. She doesn't understand this. Its like an incorrectly balanced equation with a variable whose value is another variable. It doesn't fit together. The energy he stirs in her is strange and rampaging. There is nothing she can do to bottle it and she fears its name more than she fears death itself. The pounding of his heart sounds loudly through his chest. That muscle fascinates her. How could it keep that heavy, frantic pace without hurting him?
But when she asks about it, he just grins at her, as though it's a secret they both share. She insists there could be something wrong with it. A spike of fear shoots through her at thought. What if it kept beating faster and faster until it just stopped?
His smile dims a little, not much, and he tucks a loose piece of hair behind her ear, his eyes flickering between hers.
"It won't," he says.
"How do you know that?"
"It'll keep beating as long as you need it to."
"But I don't need it to. You do. It's yours."
He shakes his head.
"No. It's yours."
She stills, hardly breathing. How could he say that so casually? How was she meant to respond? Her eyes flicker downward and she swallows.
"Did you mean it..." he entreats suddenly, "when you kissed me?"
Why does it matter if she did? Is there a way to mean or not mean to kiss someone? It was an intentional action, after all. You had to mean to do it in order to actually do it. And anyway, it was just the press of one mouth to another, in the end. Just skin to skin. Nothing more.
But as she remembers it- the heat of him, his body unbelievably solid against her, the way she had felt both wildly out of control and perfectly safe all at once- she understands that if there is a way for a kiss to mean nothing, she doesn't know it and she doesn't want to. And she would never want to know the person who would kiss Peeta and not mean it.
What answer could she give him? In the end, if he loved her, could kissing him ever mean nothing? It had meant something. Of course it had. Maybe not the same thing to her as it did him, but it wasn't nothing.
So that's why the only answer she has for him is 'No'.
Because if the answer is yes, then Peeta becomes her greatest weakness and her most powerful enemy all at once. And there would be no hope of surviving him. It was just better that her answer be no. The kiss had meant nothing to her. But she can't bring herself say it.
Is she too selfish, or too afraid? It doesn't matter. Either way, she dooms him when she presses her lips to his a second time.
She realizes too late that this kiss is not at all like the last. Warmth pools in her stomach, then spreads to her limbs, curling her toes in her socks and her hands in his shirt, and she is lost, so impossibly lost to it, that she knows she has equally doomed herself. Her hands- rough and tacky from handling wood, stick to whatever of him they touch. His sweater, his neck, the downy curls of his hair… It lasts forever and only a moment before he pulls away and tries to get her to sleep.
But she finds Peeta is easily convinced that more kissing is a good idea. And she thinks it is too. It makes her feel lazy, like she's eaten too much on a hot day, and her lips move slowly against his, and then even slower still. And that's when he sees her eyes are drooping, and really tries to get her to sleep and it's not as easy to distract him this time around.
Monday dawns bright and stubborn, and there's no convincing Peeta not to go to the Evens- especially not after the day before. In fact, he seems more resolved than ever that it is a good idea. He's sitting across from Prim at the table talking about the spread of the illness and she is pouting on the couch, but it is as if they are talking to each other from across the room.
That morning when she had awoken, Peeta was already up. And he had a plan for breaking into the Evens. She has to admit, its a good one. Using one of Prim's maps, he plotted a course through several backyards to reach a basement that connected with another basement that lead into the Evens, completely bypassing the peacekeepers and the bodies in the street. But that doesn't mean she's happy about it. The plan is still incredibly risky.
She shoots a glance at Peeta, and his eyes flash from Prim and the map on the table to her face. As her jaw hardens, he raises his eyebrows challengingly. She huffs, curls around so she's not facing him, and sips a little bit of tea from her mug.
No matter how many times she downed willowbark, it only ever tasted like tree.
Well, if he had a death wish, so be it. She obviously couldn't let him go alone. That was a disaster waiting to happen.
The day slips by. Peeta heads to work just as the sun rises, but refuses to let her come too. She and Prim stay home from school and do anything they can to distract themselves from the carts full of bodies that rumble through the streets. Prim avoids looking at her in the eyes, and every time she does, Katniss can feel a sickly twinge in her stomach.
She laughs too readily. Her voice is too canned.
Prim is faking it. Hiding what she's really feeling.
Mid-way through a card-game, Katniss decides faking it is the way to go and pretends to have a headache in order to lie down on the couch and close her eyes. She doesn't understand what's happening with Prim, but she's knows its her fault. She turns until her face is tucked into the back cushions of the couch and lies there faking sleep until Peeta comes back that evening, Rory in tow.
Which is really smart, because Prim doesn't even notice when they slip out of the house later that night.
Peeta's plan is not only smart, it actually works. In just minutes they're standing in the middle of a house in the Evens, and, if her sense of direction isn't mistaken, its the same bullethole riddled house that members of the rebellion had emerged from just before the riots broke out. She gives Peeta a sideways glance and a rare smile. He may not have the skills to hunt, but he isn't totally useless.
Together, they round the corner into another room and Katniss blanches in surprise.
A group of dark forms sit around a table, with papers of various sizes and colors spread out in front of them. Some of the papers look like maps. Others are inventories, but of what she can't guess. At the head of the table is the peacekeeper who gave her the lemon, and he raises his head slowly to look at them as they enter. With the shadows playing across his face, he looks like someone else. Someone vaguely familiar, but she can't put her finger on who. However, once he shifts and light falls across his face, the familiarity ebbs and he is back to being the peacekeeper.
He looks entirely different in the light than he does in darkness.
She and Peeta stay quiet as they move forward, and the creaking of the floorboards under their feet announce their presence to the rest of the room.
"I'll be damned," says Peeta suddenly, to the peacekeeper. "I knew I recognized you."
Its the peacekeeper who had given her the lemon, only his face keeps shifting in appearance. His bone structure is obvious in the shadows, but in the light, it is much different. He had altered it somehow, with pigment. Like camouflage.
He smiles impishly at Peeta.
"I bet you're one of those that never forget a face."
"No. I'm sure I've forgotten faces. But yours is famous."
The man laughs.
"Well, I'm glad you remember me at my prettiest," he teases lightly, tugging on one of his curls. "Black doesn't suit me, does it?"
"I think red worked better."
And then all the pieces fall together.
"You're Finnick O'dair," Katniss blurts.
He bends just at the waist, bowing slightly and smirking at her.
"One and the same."
"But how are you here?"
"Jesus, haven't you heard? The whole country has gone to hell in a handbasket. District Four fell long ago. I was on my way north, and decided to stop for that old lush," he answers, jerking his finger over his shoulder at a man slouched over the table but gazing at her openly. "And now, I'm trapped until this damn fence falls."
Her eyes trail over Finnick's shoulder to the man he pointed to. It's Haymitch.
"What are you doing here?" she hisses at him. He raises his flask to her humorlessly, and she quickly takes stock of the other faces in the room, unwilling to deal with any more surprises. Ripper's there. So is Gale, leaning back until he's nearly hidden in the shadows in the corner of the room. And there are other victors she recognizes. Annie Cresta, who went mad in the arena. Beetee, the victor who won by electrocuting his opponents. And tiny, feral Johanna Mason, her dark eyes glinting dangerously in the low light. The rest are all Seam men, dark eyes and soot streaked faces peering at her curiously.
"Well, welcome to the rebellion sweetheart," Haymitch says.
A/N: HOLY COW DID YOU KNOW THIS CHAPTER IS ALMOST 9,000 WORDS?! I hope that makes up for how late it is ;) Here's why: I am currently traveling for personal reasons (not vacation), and my time to write is very limited. That said, I'm doing to my best, and you can check my tumblr, listed on my profile, for updates, outtakes and previews! And, if you ever need info on RD and where I'm at with it, I have my anon turned on and I answer all my asks. :)
Questions? Comments? Be sure to leave a review and, because I just learned I can answer them (Thank you, GraphiteGirl!), I will respond.
Huge thank you to my phenomenal beta Opaque, who deserves so much credit for her outstanding input on this.