A/N: Beware, this story is slowly tapering toward, with every chapter that passes, angst. There is cuteness and romance, but only second to tragedy. I can't tell you for sure if there will be a happy ending, only that you should stick with it to see. Yes, this is based off of that one chapter I wrote in another story, and it's very different. I am trying a new writing style. What do you think? Worse or better? Thank you for reading, sorry for typos. Reviews are updates. -Taryn(:
She is in class, merely minding her own business, her gaze transfixed on the window. There is nothing that suggests this day is different from any other day of her life; she will finish this hour, take the papers, shove them into her threadbare rucksack and then find Primrose, walk home with Gale and his brother.. normal. A normal, unextraordinary day, without surprises.
Except, she hears this cough. Not a fake I'm-trying-to-get-your-attention sort of cough. Just a cough. Loud and hacking and thick. Katniss' face tightens on the surface, disgusted, memories flooding her mind, of the sick her mother takes care of. And she isn't and probably never will be a healer, but there is something horrible about that sound.
She opts to ignore it. Until it just doesn't stop. A cry of a consistent crow; caw, caw, cawing. The teacher pauses in the lecture, concern etched into the face of a man who'd never taken the time to frown at the starving children from the Seam before. This captures her as strange and she turns her head, to see – and yes. She is right to assume. The girl is from Town, the blonde hair, which usually is falling down her back in curls, tied on the top of her head messily, and her pale skin strangely sallow.
Everyone is watching her, bent over herself, turned to the side of her desk, two hands clapped over her mouth, chest heaving, shaking, retching. She is trembling and crying, and Katniss feels the first prickle of concern touch her beyond her careful mask of indifference, and she sits a little straighter in her chair.
"Delly," the teacher starts, haltingly, and it clicks in Katniss' mind. Delly Cartwright. That's why she looks so familiar – despite the fact that she should have known instantly. They've shared a grade after all, and Delly is particularly kind, smiley, and uncaring of prejudice between the Town and the Seam. Though it is not ignorance or unwillingness, or even prejudice within herself, that made her not recognize the long friendly Delly. It is the appearance. The presentation that is not.. right.
It is Delly, herself, thinner than she was, somehow pastier, smiles stolen from lips well-made for them.
The girl waves one of her hands at the teacher, vague, dismissive. Still coughing, cawing, cawing. Every inhale Delly manages is fleeting and probably painful, and thick.. almost.. liquidated. She is gasping and her eyes are running, and she says her words between each sharp sound from behind the hand held awkwardly over her mouth, "I – need – please.. excuse – me."
She stands, and doesn't touch her books or bag or wait for permission – which is wrong, very wrong, because Delly always has permission, Delly isn't rude or disrespectful or rebellious – and she flees the classroom.
Everyone is quiet. Someone rises from their seat. Her eyes dance to see who, and then regrets it, when she recognizes Peeta Mellark, moving across the classroom, after Delly. He's stopped at the door by the teacher, who commands him to sit. Which he does, grudgingly. The teacher turns to the class, narrow-eyed and tells them to behave, and then slips out into the hallway.
Almost instantly, as if the room is some sort of teeter-totter, half of the students on one side of the room transfer to the other, doubling up at the desks of their friends, and whispering and chattering and worrying about Delly. Some aren't though, some laugh, some talk about how awful she looks today, how they wouldn't dream of showing up today, looking like her.
Their shallowness makes her feel sick in her stomach, angry, because Delly never says anything remotely near what they are whispering about her, and Delly is sick, and hurting and they are uncaring; but she won't get involved. The people of Town have always ignored the starving Seam, so she should be used to their impassivity. It is only.. that she thought.. expected.. a certain degree of decency. The people from the Seam truly aren't their friends, aren't within their social or economy circle, but – but Delly is. She is one of them.
And it doesn't matter.
At least in the Seam, they look out for one another. It isn't conditional, or specific to only these few. It is a general respect for where they come from, no matter how much they hate it, and it is understanding, and compassion.
She doesn't know why she is thinking this; it helps no one, doesn't feed her family, and she can't very well pretend to be Delly's best friend. No. But there is someone, who is. Her head tilts slightly, as subtlety as Katniss can, and angles her eyes toward the opposite side of the classroom, across the way, where she knows he sits.
He is an exception, she allows.
His face is appropriately taunt with worry, eyes focused on the door of the classroom, feet braced against the floor, as though ready to spring up and greet her on her return. Except she doesn't. Come back, that is. Delly is sent home, the teacher tells then and they are let out for the day, five minutes early – weirder, still.
The day is strange and off-kilter as she waits out in the school yard for her little sister. Her hand is fidgeting with the shoulder strap of her bag, twisting and twirling, until her fingers are pale and purple and bloodless. She slips her hand free of the trap, then twists the coarse fabric around the appendage again. She is thinking about what happened ten minutes ago, her eyes vague, lost in the grass, and lips pursed is stubbornness; she doesn't want to.
Katniss didn't want to see it, hadn't wanted to mention it or point it out, because the very sight had made her stomach twist around itself; and it shouldn't because blood doesn't frighten her, she's slaughtered enough animals to know that blood is just blood, and she's had her hands buried in entrails before, but this is different.
This is human blood.
This is Delly Cartwright's blood.
Katniss had been sitting in the perfect spot, in the back, to the right, behind Delly. She'd seen it when the blonde had flung out that hand, rolling down the sides of her wrist. She saw it, dripping from the lips, across the chin, cupped on her tongue gawkily, rolling over her stark white teeth as waves, with each violent caw.
Drowning, hacking, gasping for breath.
A shiver runs up Katniss' spine and she shrugs her shoulders in complaint. Her eyes refocus on the world. Students mill about, just released, excited that the day of learning is over, but moving slow, lazily, because for most, this means it's time for work.
One group passes her, slow, talking loud – Delly's name is falling from everyone's lips.
Somehow this makes her nervous, makes her stomach feel sicker.
Her thoughts go to peculiar places, untraveled routes, of maybe going to see her. Perhaps, just pop by the Cartwright's house, make up some inane excuse, and confirm if she actually saw what she thought she did. Because that would fix her stomach, surely. That would soothe the knot in her throat, tugging tighter each time she recalls a faded memory of Delly smiling at her, or waving, or offering a hand of aid in class projects or gym activities.
But that all collapses when Primrose shows up. Her little sister reminds her that she has more important thing to do, that there is a family – two, counting the Hawthornes – that are needing her, depending on her care and presence and there are plenty, more welcome, persons that will show up at Delly's house, offering kind words and get-well-soon phrases. Katniss is not much good at those thing anyway; she is sure she will scowl half the time, feel out of place, awkward and tug at the end of her braid as she spoke to Delly's parent when they answered the door, perplexed at the sight of their visitor..
Yes. It is better to just go home.
She greets Gale, Rory, and Prim as she always does. Her smile is thin, but they don't expect more than that. She walks between Gale and Prim, hand still wrestling the bag's strap, her head held high and her eyes steady on the sidewalk in front of her. Once they reach beyond Town, the atmosphere grows easier, and Rory begins to tease Prim about some recess folly that happened today.
Gale turns his head, considers Katniss' expression, and watches, almost in intrigue, her hand fidgeting. "I heard that Delly made quite a performance today in class," he says, lightly, and out of the earshot of their younger siblings.
"Where from?" she asks, setting her jaw. She's not angry. She shouldn't be. Yet, irritation is zinging in her blood. Or rather, she feels bugged.. pestered.. pressured. Gale most likely heard it from everyone, and could not help hearing it as he walked through the yard.
She just would rather hear him answer her questions, then have him ask her questions.
She doesn't want to lie to him. If he asks her what she saw, she'd have no choice but tell him what she saw. And she's not sure enough to share.. not even with Gale, her best friend, the person she illegally hunts and poaches and sells things with. That is how uneasy the whole thought makes her.
Katniss gnaws on the inside of her cheek, and allows her hand to fall from her shoulder strap.
Gale gives a careful, cautious, shrug. He is watching her. No doubt wondering what is wrong with her.
"I heard it from Jarek first. Then Thom told me all about it. I just thought, since you were actually there, you knew something those numb skulls didn't," he replies, easily. Unfazed by her unexpected behavior.
She wonders what is wrong her. It is just blood. She's seen a man vomit blood once, out the corner of her eye, as she fled the house, and her mother took care of the man. But he lived... he lived... and she isn't so sure.. and she doesn't want to think about it..
"She was coughing," Katniss says, and is glad to find her voice level and natural. Something about this day has to be normal, and if it can't be her thoughts, than at least she can appear composed outwardly. "Probably the flu or a cold. Minor stuff. You know how everyone likes to exaggerate."
"Yeah," Gale agrees. "Town is all about drama."
She is glad when her and her sister reach home and there is no one there to discuss it with. The evening passes quickly, uneventfully, normally, and she is relaxed by the time she is undoing her braid, and dressing for bed. Primrose is doing the usually ritual, cleaning father's old shaving mirror, though since he is not here to use it anymore, there is nothing to wipe away but what she wet it with.
Her dreams are of screeching crows. She is chasing them, furious. Somehow she keeps missing, all her arrows going askew from their mark at the last moment, as if some invisible hand reached out and flicked them to the side, or it is simply that the crow dives out of the way, and takes flight in a flapping, cawing mass of black wings. Near the end, murky in the way only dreams are and shrouded from conscious thought, she knows she got one, hit one straight through the throat, and she races to the place it fell. What she finds is a slow death, as the bird wails, voice strangely high-pitched, human, girlish, the sound thin and cringe-worthy and gurgling, as the blood gushed from the wound in its neck and out of its mouth.
She wakes suddenly, holding her breath, and the day begins like that, in a slow, dreading, trudge. She knifes her way onto her back, before pulling herself from the bed, feeling sweaty and cold. But when she presses her knuckles into her cheek, it is flushed and her pulse is ramming in her wrists. She shakes herself. It is early. The sun has not risen and Gale is waiting for her.
By the time she gets to their meeting place beyond the fence, the horizon is the pale gray of pre-dawn. "Point the way," she tells Gale, who evidently has been waiting some time, and that stands silently and leads at her words. After awhile the cold of the morning wanes and his smile comes free and sudden; hers, too, though she keeps scoping the sky for crows.
They get a fairly good haul from the traps and she manages to shoot a squirrel. "We'll take this to bakery after school," says Gale, stuffing it into the game bag, already skinned and prepared for sale. She agrees with the dip of her chin.
After splitting the goods, they go to their respective houses to change and grab their school things, and their siblings, too. Primrose is ready, as always, sitting demurely on the end of their bed they share, while the room is dark and their mother slumbers on. Katniss glances at the woman worriedly; she had considered, briefly, last night, mentioning what she saw to her mother, a healer by all rights, but had stalled herself, because she still held a grudge toward her mother, and didn't want to admit need of help, nor could she find it in herself to mention Delly out loud.
She figures it is in the past. Tomorrow was strange, but today is new, it is bound to be normal. A safe, familiar normal, because she dislikes new. New is bad and foreign and she is unprepared for change.
But that's ridiculous, she tells herself. Delly Cartwright's well-being has no influence over her life.
Primrose skids over the gravel, waving at neighbors, greeting other kids also on their way to school and Katniss follows much more slowly, keeping her eyes trained on the head of blonde among a sea of black. Gale jogs up to her side, grinning, tugging a Rory by the arm behind him. He lets go of his brother once he is at her side and he tells Rory to stay is sight. Katniss offers Rory a smile, and warns him not to get Primrose is trouble, or any bad situations.
The boy's eleven year old face grows appalled in a comical way. He is walking backwards, having stalled in his flee to face them, and he throws up a arm, crossing it diagonally over his chest and abdomen. His eyes are grey and shining and proud and – indignant, like someone else she knows – he says, quite smartly, "I'm her knight. I protect her from danger." Rory's chins drops low again and his expression becomes half a scowl. "I don't drag her into it."
Gale reaches out a hand and ruffles his hair. "That's right." A pause, as Rory rights his hair with his palm and Gales gazes over his head. His eyes center back on his brother, mocking. "I think I see Marcus Arbuckle pulling her braids right now. Better get to it, Mr. Knight." Rory is gone in a heartbeat.
Katniss' eyes fly up to check this claim, too, and wonders, fleetingly if she needs to have a talk with this Marcus. Only she finds that it is lie, and she shoots Gale a disgruntled look. "You don't have to tease him like that."
He is smiling like a goon. "Why? Do you like all that sappy stuff?"
"Prim does," Katniss says, indifferent. She tugs her rucksack higher up onto her shoulder, and there is no further comment or thought about the subject. Not until they get to Town, and she senses instantly that there is something wrong. Prim is not in sight, at first, as her eyes flicker through the mill of children and teenagers, Seam and Town. She feels a wave of gratitude when she spots Rory, holding Prim's hand and dragging her back toward her and Gale. A knight, maybe not, but sweet and good, and observant, that he is.
Gale has risen to the tension and is looking around the square, with hard, judging eyes. "Why are there so many?"
Peacekeepers, he means.
"I don't know," Katniss replies and pulls Primrose to her and holds her by the shoulders all the way until they get to the school. Fortunately, the Peacekeepers don't even notice the day to day traffic of the district, off to work or school or the mines; they all look preoccupied, and stressed. Why? Her and Gale share a hundred curious and uncertain glances, but neither can answer that question; no one can, as everyone murmurs and frets and whispers, the sighs of their breaths a breeze among the crowd.
There are theories, both ridiculous and rational, that spring to thought. Something to do with the Hunger Games? That's rational, because there are never that many Peacekeepers within 12 except for on reaping day. There is a nervous titter of executions and punishment rolling from tongues, and she feels her face fall deeper into the mask. She thinks of hunting this morning, recalls the squirrel in Gale's game bag, stored somewhere in his house, where Hazelle and Posy and Vick are staying, oblivious to the need for obscurity.
After walking Primrose to her classroom, Katniss find her first period and enters the room that is stiflingly tense and queasy and.. sad. Her eyes scope the room for Madge, and the blonde waves her to the usual seat in the back. Katniss is careful when she sits, dreading, because there is a gleam in the back of Madge's blue eyes, that suggests today won't be normal.
"Delly's dead, Katniss," says Madge, point blank. She was never one for pretty refinements.
Katniss nods, staring at Madge, not breaking the stare. She wraps her head around the concept – it is not difficult. Almost too easy, actually, to accept the fact that the bubbly and smiley Delly is dead, stone cold, six feet under, gone.
Her voice is level. "How?" she asks.
Madge looks around the classroom, pressing her lips together. She leans toward Katniss, over the small isle between their desks and keeps her voice low. "I'm not really allowed to tell anyone. I mean, I only was ease-dropping on my father.. and I'm not even supposed to know. They said she was sick. But they said it weird. Like it wasn't a normal kind of sick."
"An epidemic?" Katniss offers, remembering she heard the word from her mother before, when they'd gotten an onslaught of sick over the course of two weeks, for the same symptoms, nonstop.
"No," Madge says, voice soft, "worse."
"But... Delly is just one person," Katniss objects.
Madge's eyebrow arches. "Is she?" and there is a deeper meaning to her voice; it is sadder, somehow.
Katniss turns her head and regards the classroom. She takes attendance for the teacher and –
But she pretends like she doesn't see the glaring empty seat. Katniss turns back to Madge and her mask is carefully in place; a little bemused, indifferent to the right degree, and curious, too. Underneath she is frowning. Her heart sinks, but she can't say why. It hadn't sunk for Delly Cartwright.
"Who?" she asks.
"Who?" Katniss knows it's stupid, to pretend that she doesn't know him. She does know him. She owes him, a dept for her life, for her family's life, Primrose's sweet life, or perhaps, just a thank you, since she does not have anything of worth to offer.
Madge does not see beyond the mask. The only friend, aside Gale, that Katniss has, does not show even a smidgen of surprise or suspicion toward the fact that Katniss can't recall the simple name of a classmate she's had for years – not to mention that he is one of the most liked.
"Peeta Mellark," says Madge. Glumly. "He's the baker's son."
"Yeah. He's really sweet."
Katniss nods, unsure of how to reply. Madge and Katniss don't talk boys.
Madge adds, and quickly, because the teacher is walking into the room, readying to call them to attention, "I heard my father say to the Peacekeepers that they were to take into custody ever person that visited Delly yesterday, or that had physical contact to her. That's probably where he is. Delly and him were always close."
Katniss nods, numbly, then turns in her seat and responds, "Here," when her name is called.
Nothing happens when Peeta's name is called; silence, stillness, glances passed between his real friends, and those who have a right to worry. Katniss shouldn't be feeling so.. strange, and it must be because if he dies, then she'll never of had the chance to thank him. Which is important, of course.
Important enough to linger over that frivolous, tedious wording in Madge's sentence? "...physical contact... always close.. Delly and him.." But no. She doesn't care about his life, and his.. physical contacts.. it is just.. she has this image in her mind, gory and vomit-inducing and it is him kissing Delly and she has blood in her mouth and he is.. appalled. All of this is appalling.
She has more trouble than usual focusing on the day's lessons. The whole school is having trouble, as rumors flutter through ears, and eyes brighten at the prospect of petty excitement, and everyone notices. Everyone is observant today; they notice Peeta is gone, they notice their teacher that had went after Delly is gone, a boy from three grades below is gone. What makes it all so meaningful, noticeable, is the fact that none of the teachers are mentioning the lost students, or the dead one, at that, or the Peacekeepers that have so suddenly took up resident in District 12.
At lunch she can't help thinking it's a good thing she didn't go over to the Cartwright's after school. What would she do if the Peacekeepers showed up to her house to take her into custody? What would Gale do? Something drastic if she knows him. And she does. Primrose might cry and that would just tear her hearts to shreds, anguished at the thought that Prim is in pain or is suffering. Her mother, would try to placate and talk to the Peacekeeper, or just stare with those ghost blue eyes – it wouldn't matter, she would fail Katniss no matter what she did.
It is the last class of the day, and she is staring out her favorite window, with its perfect view of an oak tree that stands tall and majestic in the middle of the school yard. Her eyes are tracing over the branches, her thoughts are wandering, wondering if she were to climb it, which branch would she take first, how high could she go, and all the nonessential things to distract herself from the fact that today won't be normal – and tomorrow might not be either, and she is bracing herself for anything.
She almost lets out an exasperated sound, at the hint of noise to her side, from another student –
It is sudden, sharp and she assumes it is a cough. Her skin grows clammy, while her fingers wrap into a fist and she turns her head, in time to hear the real sound it is –
It is Gins Pander, from Town, who squeals and jumps from her seat and hugs the figure that has timidly emerged from the classroom door. Peeta Mellark smiles, ruefully at the girl, patting her back, and shooting the substitute teacher apologetic glances, for interrupting the lecture. Gins is chattering under her breath as the two go to their seats, side by side to each other. Katniss hears only a gist of it; so worried, thought the worst, everyone was saying.. you're okay.. couldn't believe.. with Delly and.. you.. gone. Katniss stares. Knows she shouldn't though. She is not even being subtle; it is a blatant, guarded stare across the room, her eyes fixed on his expression as he reassures his friend.
She notes things.
She notes them, as though she is able to tell that they are new attributes.
But that would suggest she knows Peeta, and she doesn't. They've never even talked before.
And still, she sees the nervous run in his fingers against his desktop, she sees his leg bouncing underneath the desk – not like the energetic jitter he sometimes has – it is an impatient thing.. and she starts when his eyes suddenly flicker from Gins' face, over the blonde's head, and his eyes meet hers. At first, she sees that he does not realize it; Peeta glances up, then down again, lazily, on instinct, really, but in a jolt his eyes fly up again, wider than before. Because he realizes that she is already looking.
Today really is the day for noticing things, isn't it?
She stares at him and doesn't turn away. Katniss refuses to feel the heat pooling in the skin of her neck and shoulders. She waits for him to look away. She's too stubborn to appear abash or smile or – do anything but scowl, because that is a safe expression. It is an easy movement of muscles in her face, when she panics, faced with those scorched blue eyes. In a matter of a second, running through her thoughts, she recalls all those other times, when she'd catch him looking her way and he'd turned away, sometimes red cheeked, other times running a hand through his hair.
She won't do that. She refuses to do that.
Peeta is bewildered at the most and warm, at the least, his eyes somehow brightening. She does not know how to describe it. Can't understand it, really, as her eyes harden into quarters in return.
She wonders if there is a reason he holds her gaze for the first time in all their life at that moment. Is it because he feels bold, faced with his friend's recent death, or because he feels like he's just survived something by walking away from the custody of the Peacekeepers unharmed and not a tribute of the Hunger Games? Does that attribute also, to the small, barely noticeable, tug of the corner of his lip, and the indistinguishable tip of his head, before he returns his attention to Gins?
Did she imagine those things?
No. That would imply she wanted that to happen. That she hoped to see them and so her imagination decided to make her feel like it'd happened. But she didn't. She doesn't know why she was staring at him in the first place, let alone what she wants from him – which is nothing, because that would only mean she owed him more and she hates owing people – and so she couldn't have imagined it.
She doesn't think about it too much; doesn't let herself. She simply attributes it to what Madge said, not her, but Madge. That he was sweet and he was merely acknowledging the fact that she was there.
She is relived when they are dismissed. She stands, pushing out a breath, and pulls the rucksack onto her shoulder, and sighs as she slips through the rows of desks, her eyes unfocused, and her thoughts on what she is going to do when she gets home, how she should explain things to Primrose – her little sister is bound to hear something – and what Gale and her might have to do, if the Peacekeepers plan a long stay.
By chance, she hears Peeta's voice, talking –
No. A cough. Her head lifts almost instantly and she spots him, walking, a fist against his lips. He's smiling, though. It was only one cough and he doesn't look upset about it; but she isn't the only one who looked up and is eying him. He doesn't notice; or pretends not to notice.
Katniss can hear Madge's words in her head. One sticks out the most. Worse.
She decides that she has to keep her distance, even more so, from people. She can't get sick; can't die. Primrose can't get sick either, and she is always talking to people, helping them and offering her hands for aid. Like Delly. Is that why Delly got sick? Got this somehow ominous illness that has led to her death at only sixteen?
And she didn't look like she did the day she went home and never came back. Katniss had seen her on Tuesday, the day before, and Delly looked no different, she was normal.. yet, on Wednesday, Katniss looked at her and didn't even recognize her. If she could get that sick, that fast, then maybe there is a good reason there are Peacekeepers in the district. It would be the first, and she almost.. she almost feels.. something.. she almost feels relieved.. that there is a government, that there is the Capitol –
Yes, she hates them. Who doesn't? They are cruel and unusual and petty to the widest degree. But they're.. smart.. some of them. They know medicine, the real stuff. They know how to figure out the mysterious of the body, heal it, and know these things, beyond the knowledge of her mother.
She can't tell a person what makes you sick beyond a bug or a virus. She knows infections, sure, but what Delly had.. couldn't have been.. Katniss supposes it could have been a very severe case of pneumonia.. but that seems unlikely.. it was too sudden..
Katniss lifts her head, eyes calm, but then she sees the face of her companion and she frowns.
What could he want?
What does she say?
Is a thank you, good for right now? She'd never done it before because there was never a proper opportunity, she either was busy, or he had friends, and she had Primrose or Madge or Gale, and –
She looks around.
There is no one else in the hallway.
Primrose is outside waiting, no doubt, with Gale and Rory, wondering where she is.
They'll worry too. She knows it. They'll think of the rumors today, and glance toward Town and consider the possibility that she got sick or something.. something..
"Are you.. alright?"
Fuck. Now he thinks she's.. well probably just vague or something.
"Yeah. I'm fine," she says. Her voice wavers though. It betrayed her.
She curses in her mind and straightens her shoulders and looks him square in the eyes.
Only.. it's that he doesn't look alright. And she panics, a little, on the inside. Not for him. Not really. She panics for herself, because she doesn't know what to say, or how to possibly soothe the.. upset in his eyes, and the off center of his face, that is stretched into some smile that is half-pain and half-hope.
Katniss just stares; not scowling, not with her jaw clenched, just stares.
"I–" Peeta starts, falters, and his smile widens, embarrassed, his cheeks red when his eyes drop to his hands in front of him. He looks sad. He looks scared. "I.. uh.. made a promise to Delly."
Katniss finds the strap of her bag on her shoulder and twists it around her fingers so tightly she feels the instant, icy prickles of dying nerves, from the lack of blood. She fights to keep a level face – he's talking about Delly, and it must be hard, and this must be something private, which makes her not sure why he would share this promise with her, of all people, and she doesn't want to be rude and ditch him here –
But Primrose is waiting and Gale and Rory –
"A promise?" Katniss echos, quietly.
Peeta shifts, peaking up at her through his eyelashes. Sheepish, almost. But no. He clears his throat, seems to get control of his bashful side and the pain –
A loss flits over her expression.. something traumatic..
No. She's reading too much into this.
He simply clears his throat, lifts himself to his full height, and tells her, "Delly is one of the... few people who I trusted.. to tell. This secret. Or, well, it's not a secret. It's just.. you."
She does not see where this is going. She is worried about where this is going.
His hand reaches for his hair and drags through the blonde curls. He's still smiling.
And it bugs her.
He is smiling; when she knows, knows it so much, that he doesn't want to be smiling.
"Is this.." she has just as much trouble speaking as him, apparently. She's always known Peeta as a good speaker though. He's confident and sweet and.. Well, she's Katniss. Maybe she's not talkative, but she's strong and stubborn, and she will speak. "Is this about.. the bread?"
Confusion roils onto his face, eyebrow drawn tight. "The bread?"
Katniss can't believe the rush of momentary, uncontrolled, disappointment in her; he forgot.
And she can't believe she let him see it. He saw her face falter, sadden momently, and her eyes frown and her lips press together, and he saw the disappointment; and somehow that reminded him. Or so it seems, because his eyes widen, too and he says, "Oh. The bread.. from when we were kids. I remember. And no, it's not about that."
Katniss shifts. Yes. Of course. Alright. "So.. what is this about? Because my sister's waiting.. and –"
"And Gale," Peeta finishes, watching her face carefully.
Her eyes narrow. "And Gale."
"Right." Peeta looks to the floor, breathes, –
He's nervous, she realizes.
Why is he nervous?
Why is it so hard to just spit out whatever it is he's trying to say?
"I like you," he says, rushed, the smile gone, for once – but he doesn't look sad. He looks anxious and serious and not kidding. "And I mean that in.. the way you probably don't think I do.. because I.." A cringe. "I think you're pretty.. no. Beautiful. I told Delly I'd tell you, because I've been nagging her about it for who knows how long and she has always.. encouraged.. and she said she was sad she wouldn't be here to see.. and.. I'm – That's all."
Her mouth opens, then closes. She processes. Looks for loopholes. Tries to find the other motives behind this.. confession. But there is none. She sees nothing that conveys insincerity, or that suggests he is telling her these things as a joke or.. for anything other than the reason he gave.
She is not sure how she feels, or what she should say, or what he hopes for –
And she wonders when Delly made him promise this –
Both Peeta and Katniss turn at the sound of Primrose's voice. Her sister stands at the end of the hall, propping open the door, and behind her back Katniss can see Gale and Rory, expressionless, looking at her, standing next to this boy.
Too close, to the boy, she realizes, and takes a startled step back. When did that happen? It must have been him. Not her. She looks back to him, but he is staring off toward the wall on their right, tugging at the zipper of his jacket.
She opens her mouth, looking at him, eying him in concern and curiosity and uncertainty, then closes it.
"I'm coming Prim," she says, turning away, her back to Peeta and hurrying down the hall to the door. She takes Prim's hand into hers and shoulders passed the Hawthornes and can only think of escape.
They are halfway through Town when Gale gets a word into things. "What was that?"
Lie. "I don't know," she says.
"We thought something happened," Prim pipes up from Katniss' opposite side.
She smiles at her sister, and tries to make it warm, and hugs her to her waist. "I promise if something happens, I'll make sure you're with me and we're safe."
Prim nods and returns the smile.
No one speaks until they reach the Seam, and that is only Rory and Prim who say goodbye. Katniss tells Gale not to take the squirrel, because the Peacekeepers and he nods curtly in her direction.
It's only when Katniss reaches the house that she realizes she never, not once, had not even remembered her own promise, or rather decision, – and she did, she supposes, a little, she just never spoke it or considered it relevant in the situation – of how she is never going to marry or have children or have those kinds of relationships. That would have been the response for Peeta. Is still the response. And she resolves herself on that; if he wants a reply for what he said today, tomorrow at school, then she'll have one.