Over the next few weeks Katniss slowly recovers. Mrs. Everdeen comes by to check on her once a day, usually under the cover of night, and assures me that she is making excellent progress. I feed her clear broth three times a day and Mrs. Everdeen shows me how to clean the wounds and change Katniss' bandages. Whenever I do this I am always intensely cautious of respecting her modesty, but I can still tell that she is close to mortified every time I gently unbutton the back of her night dress and attend to the wounds. Not being a medical professional myself, I find it impossible not to blush when I accidently graze the side of her breast as I arrange the strips of gauze across her upper back.
"I could call Seeder to do this, you know," I tell her one day. "If it would make you more comfortable…"
I expect her to agree immediately, but I am surprised when she gives me a firm "No." "I mean, well, I know you," she explains. "I don't want a stranger…touching me." After that I don't ask her again.
One afternoon, about a week after the whipping, I am sitting by Katniss' bedside reading an old novel that I found in the safe house's library, "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I catch her gazing at me, an odd look on her face.
"Hey," I say, putting down the book. "I thought you were sleeping."
"I was," she says simply, an intense look still fixed on my face. Katniss reaches up one of her hands, wincing as the scabbing skin on her back pulls a little, and says, "May I?" I nod slowly, my throat going dry as cotton, as she traces her finger gently along the edge of the stripe on my cheek. The wound is beginning to heal, but it is still an angry red and purple color rimmed in a sickening shade of chartreuse. "Does it hurt?" she asks.
"Not much." Katniss gives me a look and I laugh. "Ok, ok, it does hurt a little."
"Why did you do it?" she says suddenly.
"Why did you jump in front of the whip like that. You didn't owe me anything. If fact, most of the time I treat you like crap."
"Katniss…" I begin.
"No!" she says a little too loudly. "I—I'm distant and defensive and I hardly ever give you a chance. And all you are is nice to me. I don't get it."
Katniss is beginning to get upset and I see a shine of sweat break out on her forehead at the strain. I dip a fresh cloth into the water basin and dab her face gently. With Katniss still in such a fragile condition, now is definitely not the best time to divulge the full extent of my feelings for her, so I settle on something more esoteric.
"I don't know exactly why I did it. I think it's just what we do, you and I, protect each other."
I can tell by the way her eyes are boring into mine that she's not quite satisfied with my answer, but she doesn't push the subject.
"You look tired. When was the last time you slept in a bed," she says, changing the subject. "And don't try and lie to me," she adds as I start to shrug my shoulders as if it's nothing.
I smile sheepishly at her. "I don't know, about a week I guess."
"Come here," she says evenly.
"Come here," she says again, more emphatically this time. Katniss pats the empty space on the side of the bed. I gulp. Get in the bed? With Katniss? While she's wearing that tiny little nightdress? There are so many ways this could go wrong. I slide into the bed carefully, trying as hard as I can not to jiggle the mattress and irritate Katniss' wounds. This is made even more difficult by the fact that I am also trying valiantly not to touch that vast expanse of bare leg from the middle of her thighs to her toes, a task that proves nearly impossible in the narrow twin sized bed. I hurriedly force my mind to recall the recipe for cheese danishes in order to avoid the shameful, ungentlemanly places it wants to go.
The only way we can both fit comfortably on the bed is if we are propped up on our sides facing each other, a fact that only serves to increase the agonizing intimacy of the arrangement. I feel like any moment the sound of my heart pounding in my chest will give me away, but Katniss doesn't seem perturbed at all. Perhaps it is the morphing, but for some reason Katniss, who normally has violent fight or flight reactions to the smallest hint of human closeness, is content.
"Are you going to ask me a question today?" she says, and the tickle of her hot breath on my face almost sends me over the edge. Cheese danishes, cheese danishes, cheese danishes.
"What are you afraid of?" I know it must seem like a loaded question to her.
Katniss doesn't answer right away. She is drawing circles on the sheet, blissfully oblivious to the effect this is having on me as her finger loops around near my navel. "I guess I'm afraid of letting people down. Prim, my father…you, when I was stupid and ran off into the woods like that."
"You could never let any of them down, me least of all."
Katniss frowns and waves away my comment. "You should have seen how Prim looked after my dad died…like a skeleton. Her eyes! They were so empty, Peeta."
"Shh," I whisper, and I want so badly to reach up and stroke her hair, but I bite down the impulse.
"I almost failed him. I almost let them starve."
"But you didn't," I assure her.
"No, you didn't," says Katniss, catching me off guard. "That day with—with the bread. You saved us." She casts her eyes down shamefacedly
"Katniss, how many times do I have to tell you. You've got to stop feeling like you owe me for that."
She studies my face minutely, as if she's got me under a microscope and is scoping for sincerity. "Fine," she says finally, and then adds, "But then you've got to stop feeling guilty for what happened. It's my fault I got freaked out and ran into the woods. Mine. I make my own decisions, ok?"
"Deal," I say, giving her a lopsided grin. I settle down into the pillow and draw the quilt up over Katniss' shoulders. Now that I am finally lying comfortably in a bed, sleep is beginning to overcome me quickly and I feel my eyelids drooping, but just as I am about to drift off, I hear her voice once more, soft as the beating of a moth's wings.
"Thank you for the bread and…for everything."
By the end of February Katniss is finally able to move around again and it is a relief to all of us. Mrs. Everdeen had prescribed at least three full weeks of bed rest, and towards the end of that time Katniss was so bored that she was becoming insufferable. There came a point where I literally had to drag my mattress off my bed and sleep in front of the doorway to her room to prevent her from trying to sneak off in the middle of the night.
Katniss is in much better spirits now, despite the fact that we still have very little freedom to roam. For safety reasons we are confined to the walls of the safe house, which I have discovered is actually situated on the far end of Haymitch's estate.
After hearing Haymitch's horrifying story about his girl Rosa I'm no longer surprised that inebriated old uncle Haymitch has joined the rebel movement. But what I don't know is how developed this movement really is. Is it just a few disgruntled miners from District 12, or is this something more? Obvious there is at least one person involved from a different district because Seeder tells us that she hails from District 11. Travel is strictly regulated in Panem, even for Merchants, so I've never been to District 11, but I know that it is primarily an agricultural community. I have a feeling that being Seam in Eleven might be worse than in Twelve because I've heard Gran ramble on about how in the other districts Merchants really know how to put Seam in their place. Apparently in Eleven domestic servants and orchard workers don't even get paid wages, they just work like slaves for substandard room and board.
Haymitch is being very mysterious about the whole thing. He stops by from time to time to check on us and whenever he does I press him for details, but all he does is grumble something into his bottle of liquor about how I'll find out when the time is right. By early March I am just beginning to think that no one will ever explain to us exactly what is going on, when something strange happens. It is nearly midnight and Katniss and I are up late playing a game of chess in front of the fire, when Seeder receives a delivery. Curious, I follow Seeder over to the table, and from the familiar smell wafting up out of the package, I can tell what it is before she even opens it. Bread. At least a dozen loaves, and a very diverse array. I recognize the dark bread made from ration grain most common here in Twelve, a salty sea-green loaf shaped like a fish from Four, and the square, bite-sized rolls from Three.
Seeder takes the loaves out of the package and begins arranging them on the tablecloth, her tongue just barely peeking out of her mouth as she concentrates. There seems to be some significance in the way she is laying them out, but as far as I can tell, it just looks like a very sloppily done bakery display. Finally, Seeder positions a last crescent shaped loaf from Eleven, and sits back with a satisfied sigh. She glances over at Katniss and my blank looks and smiles. "You two ready for your first council meeting?"
The next evening as we help Seeder set up folding chairs in the living room, she explains that the rebels use bread to communicate sensitive messages—the code is based on the number of loaves and the district they come from.
"That's very clever," I tell her, finishing up the last row of chairs. "Are you expecting this many people?"
As if to answer my question, the intercom rings and I hear several voices whistling the four-note melody. The first arrivals are a strikingly handsome bronze-haired man with green eyes, a twitchy-looking older gentleman with glasses, a formidable young woman with closely cropped hair, and Haymitch, who is followed by an odd looking woman with a bright pink wig and garish two-inch false fingernails…Effie Trinket? I recognize her from the Capitol Coal commercials where she gushes about the mines and goes on about how Seam citizens should consider it an honor to work in such a place. What is she doing here?
For about ten minutes there is a constant stream of people flowing into the house, and after several weeks of virtual isolation I happily greet the new arrivals. Katniss just stands awkwardly by my side and scowls, but she brightens a bit when she sees Gale come in and he gives her a little wave from across the room, mouthing, "Hey Catnip!" By eleven o'clock all of the guests have filed in to their seats and an impressively sober Haymitch has taken his place at the front of the room. At Haymitch's request Katniss and I slide into the first row next to the handsome bronze-haired man. He immediately flashes us a charming, toothy smile and leans over me to talk to Katniss. "Sugar cube?" he purrs seductively, offering her one.
To my relief Katniss gives him a scornful look that could take the varnish off wood. "No thank you," she says stiffly.
I stick my hand out to him and in a voice that is colder than usual I say, "I'm Peeta, this is Katniss. It's nice to meet you."
"Finnick," he says, taking my hand and shaking it. "Charmed." I notice that Katniss does not offer him her hand, just stares at him icily. She must think he's teasing her by acting in such an overtly flirtatious manner, and for once I'm glad that Katniss is so reliably obtuse about interpreting social cues.
Haymitch is now standing behind a makeshift podium and motioning for the crowd to quiet down, so I shoot Finnick a territorial scowl and focus my attention up front. "As president of the District 12 rebel council I would like to welcome our guests from other districts and say thank you for being here tonight," begins Haymitch. The thirty or so rebels smile and nod at him. "As you know, I am not a man of many words, so let's get straight to business. I have gathered you together tonight to introduce you to a special new pair of rebels—"
"Hang on a second," interrupts the formidable woman I noticed earlier. "I don't really feel comfortable have this meeting with her here," she says, jerking her thumb at Effie Trinket. "She's got Capitol written all over that horrid sequin dress."
A few other rebels in the crowd seem to agree with the woman because they begin echoing her concern: "Yeah, what's she doing here?" "We don't need Capitol scum mucking up our operation." Haymitch waves his hands, trying to maintain order.
"Look," he says, shouting a little over the murmur of the crowd. "Effie may be bat-shit crazy—" From where she is seated Effie gives an indignant little huff and purses her lips. "—but she's on our side, ok? And if we want to bring down Capitol Coal then having a high-ranking insider is going to be a major asset for us."
"He's right, Johanna," says the twitchy man, putting a bracing hand on her shoulder. "We need an insider, and besides, we have to remember that the Capitol's greatest weapon against us is class hatred. The more we can embrace our differences, the more power we have over Capitol control."
"Hear hear, Beetee," agrees a tall man with thinning hair and a slight potbelly, who I think I recognize as one of Haymitch's drinking buddies. "I seem to remember that y'all used to have a problem with old Haymitch here, too, and now he's president of the council."
"Satisfied Johanna?" asks Haymitch. The woman does not voice any further objections, but she crosses her arms across her chest and continues to shoot contemptuous looks at Effie. "All right then, moving on. Council, if there are no further interruptions," he says, looking hard at Johanna. "I want to introduce you to the key to the rebellion," says Haymitch with a sweeping gesture at me and Katniss. We both stare at him, dumbfounded.
"What? Behind scar-face and the little girl that looks like she'd like to put a dagger through your heart?" snipes Johanna.
Haymitch ignores her. "This is Katniss Everdeen." A murmur of recognition runs through the crowd at the name 'Everdeen.' "And Peeta Mellark.—"
"—The star crossed lovers from District 12!" breaks in Effie, unable to contain herself any longer. She jumps out of her chair and prances up to stand next to Haymitch, who gives her a withering look. "Isn't it romantic? It's just the sort of love story that we need to make the rebels explode into action!" She makes a little fireworks gesture with her hands that looks like the sort of dance move you might see on Gran's favorite reality show, "Dancing with the Capitol."
My mouth falls open. Star crossed lovers from District 12? Katniss' face immediately turns to stone and even though she hasn't moved, I feel her drawing away from me as though she is backing away from a live explosive device. I swivel my head around and glare at Haymitch as if to say "you better not have known about this." He just shrugs his shoulders noncommittally.
I can feel the eyes of everyone in the room on us, and seeing the murderous look on Katniss' face, I can't help but thank God that she is not armed. "Look, I'm really sorry Effie, but you have to understand that Katniss and I are not—we're not lovers," I manage to choke out, blushing in a way that must seem to contradict my words.
Effie just smiles knowingly. "Oh, come now Peeta, no need to be shy about it."
I look over at Katniss and she is starting straight ahead, a scowl plastered to her face. On the other side of the room I see Gale standing near a group of miners. The way he is gripping the chair in front of him tells me that he's not happy with this ploy either, but his expression looks resigned, maybe a little sad. Did Gale know about this beforehand? It looks like he might have been involved in the rebel movement for some time now, so I guess it's possible.
"Look, Effie, I'm really sorry, but this just isn't what you think—"
"Well, you stepped in front of the whip didn't you?" she interrupts me.
"Erm, yes, but—"
"I suppose you'd have to care about someone very much to do something like that, wouldn't you?"
"Of course, but—"
"Then I don't see the problem," says Effie brightly, straightening her pink wig and turning to the crowd of rebels. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Star Crossed Lovers of District 12!"
There is scattered applause and the bronze-haired man, Finnick, let's out a loud wolf whistle. No one makes any effort to ask for our opinion on the issue.
"Hang on, what exactly does that even mean?" I ask indignantly.
"Oh, you know dear, just a few TV propos here and there to give the rebels a little motivation, put a human face on the rebellion." She puts a hand up in front of her face as if she envisioning it now. "Picture this: Two young lovers—one Merchant, one Seam—kept apart by the injustice of a cruel and outdated system of discrimination. It's great TV. They're going to love you!" she squeals. "So," continues Effie, clapping her hands as if she has answered my question rather than just making me more confused than ever, "I guess now there's just the matter of the Mockingjay, isn't there?"
I hear someone clear their throat pointedly at the back of the room, and Effie pauses. "How about you let me take it from here, Effie, if you don't mind." It is a man with gold eyeliner and a graceful, calming demeanor.
It looks like Effie clearly does mind being interrupted, but she flashes him a large, artificially bright smile and gestures for him to take center stage. The fact that the man is from the Capitol and that he appears to be in on this whole "star crossed lovers" thing makes me want to hate him, but there is something in his eyes that makes this difficult to do.
"Hello, my name is Cinna," he says in a deep, smooth voice. "I was born Merchant but I have been a member of the Seam rebel movement for over two decades. It is a great pleasure to meet our two newest members." Cinna smiles at Katniss and I and continues. "Katniss, I must tell you that when people saw that broadcast of you getting whipped wearing that Mockingjay pin, you, the daughter of Jeremiah Everdeen, well, let's just say it made quite the impression," explains Cinna.
Haymitch breaks in. "And then when this idiot jumps in," he says, jerking his head towards me. "The crowds just went wild. The whole Railroad hasn't been able to talk about anything since."
"Excuse me, the Railroad?" I ask.
"Yes, sorry for not explaining properly" apologizes Cinna. "The Underground Railroad, to be exact. It's a rebel network that runs all across Panem, a matrix of safe houses and meeting rooms for runaway Seam and their Merchant supporters. But we can talk more about that later, for now I want to focus on the rebellion. The star crossed lovers angle will certainly gain sympathy for the movement, an important aspect that cannot be ignored." I see Effie smooth out her skirt with a self-satisfied smile. "But what we really need is a salient symbol for the revolution, one that will make the rebels dare to defy the Capitol, dare to fight the injustice…a symbol that will give them hope. And that is where you come in Katniss Everdeen."
Cinna shifts his gaze to her and I see her lift her head to meet his eyes. "I knew your father," says Cinna gently. A muscle twitches in Katniss' cheek, but she doesn't say anything. "To this day he remains the bravest man I have ever had the privilege to call my friend. Now, I know that I can't claim to know you, but from what I've heard, you take after him a great deal."
"I don't know," mumbles Katniss, her ears turning red.
"She does," chimes in Gale, and I see Katniss look up in surprise. "She's a great hunter just like her dad was and she's been taking care of her family single-handedly since she was twelve." I feel a great rush of warmth towards Gale for saying this. Maybe the guy's not really so bad after all.
"The boy also tells me you've got a voice that makes the Mockingjays go silent just like your old man," puts in Haymitch, but he must notice the questioningly look Katniss is giving me, because he adds, "Boy also thinks the sun shines out your ass and you sweat out sugar, so I realize it might be exaggeration—"
"No," puts in Gale again. "It's true what Peeta said."
"Well in that case, I can't think of anyone better to be our Mockingjay, sweetheart. What d'you say?"
Everyone is looking at her expectantly, and although her expression is steely and her fists are clenched, when I think back to that conversation we had about our fears, I know she won't let them down. After a long pause, Katniss rises slowly, almost regally, to her feet.
"I say yes," she says, lifting her high. "For my father I say yes."
For about a week after the council meeting Katniss avoids me like the plague. We have been granted permission to wander around the grounds as long as we don't leave the grove of trees surrounding the safe house, so she spends most of her time skulking around in the boughs of an elm. Gale visits as much as he can with his schedule at the mines and I can't help but envy his time with her. I wonder if they talk about me… considering the "star crossed lovers" fiasco, I guess it's probably better if they don't.
Several of the rebels from the meeting have moved into the safe house. To my displeasure I'm rooming with Finnick, and to Katniss' even great displeasure, she is rooming with Johanna. The twitchy man called Beetee, who I've discovered is some sort of tech wiz, and Cinna have moved in to the room across from Seeder's. To keep busy I bake bread every morning and cook most of the food for our dysfunctional little family. Finnick has taken to calling me "mum," but I don't care. One morning I even don a frilly floral apron that I found in the walk-in pantry and it gets an appreciative laugh from everyone at lunchtime. Katniss doesn't show up for meals, but the plate I fix for her always disappears some time later. I'm also sure to keep a plate of fresh cheese buns on the counter since I haven't forgotten that Prim told me Katniss favors them.
One day in early march, after chopping wood to stoke the three ovens that heat the safe house, I head down to kitchen for a drink of water. Finnick punches me playfully in the shoulder when I pass him in the hallway and advises, "Watch out, it's a clucking mess in there."
"Huh?" I say, but a second later Finnick's word play makes sense, because there is Katniss, elbow deep in blood, seated on a low wooden stool and grappling with a freshly plucked, headless rooster. It is a clucking mess. She looks up before I have even passed the threshold, no doubt tipped off by my notoriously loud tread, and then quickly drops her eyes without uttering a greeting. I approach with caution. This may be my only chance to talk to her about what happened at the council meeting!
"I haven't seen you around much lately." I say, trying to sound as casual as possible.
In response, Katniss selects a knife from the table and unceremoniously slits open the underbelly of the rooster. I gulp.
"You've been avoiding me."
There are squelching sounds as Katniss begins pulling out the rooster's organs and slapping them into a metal bowl.
I try another approach. "Guess that rooster was asking for it, wasn't he," I say, laughing nervously.
Katniss finally looks up at me, most likely to ensure that I don't miss the way she is rolling her eyes. "Well, are you going to help or not?" she demands, plopping the liver into the bowl where it quivers repulsively like a vile block of jello.
"Uh…" I flounder. I wasn't expecting an invitation to stay, so I'm caught off guard, but suddenly the prospect of gutting a rooster has never seemed so appealing. "Of course."
I draw up a stool and perch on top of it feeling uncomfortably large and wondering exactly what "helping" is going to entail. I don't have to wait long.
"Here. Hold this," says Katniss shoving the carcass into my unsuspecting hands. I can't stop the girlish cry of disgust that strangles free from my throat, and I think I see Katniss' lips quirk up in that signature smirk of hers. She wrenches apart the rooster's legs. "I need you to hold them taut," she instructs, then grabs the knife again and begins sawing through the skin and cartilage at the hip joint.
The rubbery skin is slipping out of my grasp, but I do my best to hold on to it, while simultaneously racking my brain for a way to gracefully broach the topic of the rebellion meeting. "So I guess we both know there's an elephant in the room…" I begin.
Katniss snaps the rooster's knee joint and I wince.
"Actually, I believe the elephant is tap dancing now. It's really, ah, hard to miss."
She is now see-sawing the joint back and forth trying to break apart the tough tendons holding it together, but I can tell by the way her head is cocked that she's listening, so I decide to blunder on.
"You should know that I was just as surprised as you were about that whole "star crossed lovers" thing. I mean, it was really inconsiderate of them to just—thrust it upon us without asking us first. We were totally blindsided."
Katniss finally acknowledges me with a nod. "Yeah, we were."
I feel my courage mounting. "And you have a right to be mad about it, to hate it, to want to fry Haymitch in burning oil… but you should know that I'm on your side here. We can get through this." Katniss is twisting the leg joint more slowly now in a way that tells me she is listening carefully to what I have to say. I take a deep breath. "Katniss, I'm sure it must be obvious to you by now that I'm not going to have to—to pretend all that much with this ploy of theirs. I guess I mostly wear my feelings on my sleeve. But you also need to understand that I don't have any expectations. I mean, I know it's complicated—so I won't stand in your way—if you and Gale have a thing then—"
"We don't have a thing," interrupts Katniss. "We're just friends, Gale and I."
In spite of myself, I feel my heart buoying up at her remark. We're just friends, Gale and I. A chorus of angels has just started singing in my mind.
"Oh," I say, trying to keep my voice neutral. "Ok, but still, you don't need to feel like you're tied down to something that—"
I stop mid speech when I notice the odd expression on her face. "What are you smiling at?" I ask, perturbed.
"Oh, I don't know," she snorts, and an unexpected bout of laughter squeezes out the tension between us. "This is just such an odd conversation to be having while we're—" There is a sickening snap as the bird's knee joint finally tears apart. "—butchering a rooster," she pants. I look at Katniss, her hands covered in blood, a smirk on her face and then at the disgusted way I'm holding the rooster carcass as if it's a soiled diaper, and I burst out laughing.
"You should see your face!" she wheezes as she erupts into another round of hearty guffaws. "You look like Effie Trinket in a butcher's shop!"
We continue to laugh for a few moments and then as we're finally beginning to sober up I tentatively approach the tap dancing elephant in the room. "Speaking of Effie…"
"I'm not mad at you, Peeta," she says softly and she drops her eyes again.
"You—you're not?" I ask, bewildered. "But you've been avoiding me?"
She sighs heavily. "I know, and I'm…sorry." Wow, an apology. I'm so elated I almost want to hug the dead rooster for facilitating this situation.
"You don't have to be sorry," I say. "I think the prospect of starring in an Effie Trinket romance film would freak anyone out."
Katniss smiles crookedly at me and begins sawing off the rooster's other leg. "Well, if I have to do it," she says quietly, staring determinedly at the blade of the knife as it pulls back and forth. "I'm glad it's with you."
A sudden clap of lightening startles me out of a restless slumber later that night, and no matter how much I toss and turn, I cannot fall back to sleep. I throw my legs over the side of my bed, shuffle into a pair of slippers and make my way down the narrow staircase to get a drink of water. When I enter the living room I'm surprised to see a dark figure silhouetted by the bay windows, watching the rain coming down in sheets.
"Oh! Katniss. I wasn't expecting anyone else to still be awake." She whips around at the sound of my voice.
"Peeta, hi. The thunder woke me up… and I can't really sleep anyway," she confesses. Outside the wind howls and the rain beats against the windows.
"Same here," I say. "Anything in particular on your mind?"
It is hard to tell by the dim glow of the dying fire, but I think I she is blushing. She crosses her arms over her chest like she does when she's in uncharted territory, but the action is more self-conscious than defensive.
"Erm, I was just thinking that maybe I'm not really Mockingjay material."
"That's ridiculous," I say, walking over to her and massaging her elbows gently until she releases her closed off position and her arms hang down limply by her sides.
"No it's not. You're the one who can sway a crowd, you're the one who always knows what to say…"
"Hey, look at me Katniss," I say soothingly and her stormy gray eyes lift to my blue ones. "I'll be with you through everything. We're the Star-Crossed Lovers, remember?" I grin at her, but all she can manage is a thin, tight-lipped smile that could easily be mistaken for a grimace.
"See, that's the other thing. I'm not sure if I—if I even know what it would look like…to—to be in love," stutters Katniss, her cheeks the delightful color of summer's first strawberries.
I feel the space between us crackling like the electrical fence around District 12, and I'm not sure if it's the full moon, or the way she's standing there so open, so vulnerable, but suddenly, I am no longer afraid of frightening her away.
With a deep, unsteady breath, I talk a step towards her so that our toes are almost touching. "Well, I imagine if I were in love, first I might do this…"
I take Katniss' left hand in both of mine, brushing my fingers over the top as I turn it over and then slowly bring it to my lips and kiss the soft flesh on the inside of her palm, just where it meets the wrist. Katniss shivers almost imperceptibly. "And then," I say, breathing heavily. "Then I would pull her closer…" I drop her hand gently and reach forward to draw her in by her hips, so that our bodies are flush against one another, my thumbs teasing the hem of her t-shirt where it just barely reveals the skin above her waistband. Katniss draws in a sharp intake of breath, but her eyes never leave mine. She looks skittish, like a colt just learning how to stand on it's own, but there is also trust there. "…After that, well, then I might reach up and just… brush her hair away from her eyes," my fingers skim across her forehead and tuck a silky tendril of hair behind her ear, "like this." I linger there when I feel her breath catch, and then drop my hand just slightly so that my fingers curl gently around the back of her swan's neck and the pad of my thumb plays across her cherry lips, parting them slightly. I feel myself begin to tremble as fireworks explode in the pit of my stomach.
"And then…I would want so badly to kiss her, but I wouldn't. I would wait until she was ready…until she knew for sure." I lean my forehead against Katniss', listening to the frantic beating of our hearts, breathing in the scent of her—fresh air, and pine and just a hint of lilac. "That's what I think love would look like."
Katniss closes her eyes and makes a soft contented noise in the back of her throat, almost like a purr. My legs turn to jelly.
"Yes," she breaths, "I think you're right, Peeta."
We both jump and spin around.
"What was that?" I ask.
"The intercom," says Katniss. "Listen!"
And sure enough, over the intercom I can hear someone whistling the four-note melody just like Haymitch did on the day we arrived. Then comes a desperate barrage of knocking on the door and child's voice whimpers, "The friend of a friend sent me!" before breaking down into a fit of coughing.
"The friend of a friend sent me," whispers Katniss, chewing on her lip as she thinks. Suddenly she snaps her fingers. "It means an escaped Seam travelling alone! Go get Seeder, quick!"
I bound up the stairs to the second floor and by the time I return with Seeder, I see Katniss has already let the "friend of a friend" inside and is kneeling down in front of the tiny figure, peeling off her wet travelling cloak. The girl cannot be older than twelve, with dark skin and eyes and a head of thick, disheveled curls. But the thing I am really struck by is the way she is standing poised on her tiptoes, her arms held slightly aloft, so that she looks like a bird about to take wing.
As another ominous roll of thunder resounds through the cobblestone house, I wonder how such a little bird came to be flying alone in such an awful storm as this.
Author's Note: Details on the butchering of roosters is taken from my experience in the Peace Corps. At the beginning of 3 years I was Peeta... now I'm Katniss. ;) Please review!