The Peacekeepers shoved me down to the floor, causing sand to spray everywhere. It rubbed uncomfortably against the chaffed areas around my wrists and my tail where the chains usually were. "Mr. Mellark."
I glanced up. "President Snow," I replied icily. "A pleasure, as always."
He stared me down for a few seconds, and then decided to let an emotion show on his face. A smirk. "Indeed. The public is getting anxious, waiting for the return of their esteemed victor."
I snorted. Snow had been keeping up the illusion to the rest of Panem that I was residing in District 12. Back home, they thought I lived in the Capitol. I hadn't seen anything but this cavernous jail for months.
"Don't worry. They will see you soon."
My head snapped up, my eyes narrowing, and I tried to stop the hope of fresh water from flooding my heart too quickly. "They will?" I asked cautiously, my mind scrambling for explanations. It couldn't be time for the Victory Tour already, could it?
Snow's eyes glinted with satisfaction at his own plan. "Yes. Today, in fact, you boarded a transport from District Twelve to the Capitol."
It couldn't be that simple. I stayed silent.
Snow continued, "Unfortunately, your transport was attacked by humans. You were severely injured, and kidnapped. Never seen or heard from again."
My heart sank. This was it. "Since it seems my fate is already decided, I suppose I should thank you for keeping me alive this long." I raised my neck, exposing it to him. "I'll stop wasting your resources."
President Snow actually chuckled. My blood ran cold. "Mr. Mellark, weren't you listening? You die after being tortured at the hands of human kidnappers." He leaned down towards me, his dirty white tail pushing cold currents into my face. "We'll have video footage."
It must have been about two o'clock in the morning when I stumbled downstairs to see who the hell was accosting my door at this hour. I gazed blearily out the window to see Gale. Figured.
When I jerked open the door, he stumbled in, hauling something heavy over one shoulder. I jumped out of the way as Gale headed straight to my living room, dumping the body onto the couch.
"Gale, did you kill someone?"
"Shut up, Catnip," he bit back, "I was working and found him on the shore on the way home."
I glared. Gale, like the rest of the men in the Seam, was a miner for underground oil, and he regularly pulled 18-hour shifts so he could support his family. I admired him for it. I respected him more than anyone I knew – but not at two in the morning. "So you're dumping him here?"
Gale shrugged. "You have a couch. My mom would flip, and your mom's down in Washington for the week. Solution."
"I am not letting a random stranger sleep in my house," I flat-out refused.
"Katniss…." He whined, tugging on my sleeve. "He looks your age, and I couldn't just leave him there."
"He probably just passed out drunk or something," I said, stepping away. The light was low enough that in order to see anything more than a silhouette, I had to squint, and it was making my head hurt. "He deserves it."
"Catnip," Gale said. "He's not passed out."
I looked around, and jumped about a mile when I saw the boy in question. He'd propped himself up on his elbows and was staring at us. "Gale," I hissed sideways out of my mouth. "This. Is. Not. Okay."
Gale ignored me, walking over to the boy and kneeling next to him. The boy was only wearing a pair of canvas shorts, and he looked awful, bones sticking out and curly hair sticking everywhere. I couldn't tell what color it was in this low light. "He can't speak, and he can't walk very well," Gale said. "Maybe he was a passenger on a ship that hit his head and fell overboard. I don't know. If I was ever in the position, I'd want someone to help me."
"Since when are you noble?" I spat.
Gale glared at me. "Reminded me of Rory," he said, "After he was stung by that jellyfish."
And immediately I felt awful, because Rory was Gale's little brother, who was the same age as my little sister Prim. He'd managed to haul himself up to the dock, but it had been hours before any sailors had noticed him and gotten help.
So I sighed, "Fine. But you better be back-"
"I have work at noon," Gale blurted out.
I glared at him. This was typical Gale. "Fine. I'll deal with it."
Gale stood up and squeezed me in a tight hug. "Knew I could count on you, Catnip."
"Whatever," I groaned, pushing him off me.
Gale looked down at the boy, and told him, "Katniss will help you."
The boy nodded. Examining him closer, I could notice depressions under his eyes from tiredness. He reached up his hand as Gale reached down, and they clasped forearms in some sort of silent male ritual. Then they both withdrew, and without as much as a goodbye, Gale started to leave my house.
I stared after him, and then back down at my unexpected houseguest. "We'll talk in the morning," I said flatly, turning and stomping back up the stairs. "You can sleep here." And then I left him there, because I figured if he couldn't walk, he wasn't much of a threat, and I'd hold Gale responsible for any trouble.
Stupid Gale, trying to be a stupid rescue hero. Hopefully, when I woke up in the morning, it would all be a dream – I hate dealing with people.
No such luck.
I slept fitfully that night. When the sun started to peak above the horizon, I decided to just give up my tossing and turning and head downstairs. Normally, if I woke up early I would go down to the shore and fish, but that plan was quickly derailed when I passed by the living room and noticed the body sleeping there. Damn. Not a dream.
Now that I could actually see, I could examine the boy a bit more. The first thing that popped out at me was how skinny he was –skinny enough to starve to death. I knew the position well. It was the state in which I existed in the years between my father's death and my Uncle Cinna's graduation from school. I had to depend on fish to survive. Gale, my fishing partner, made life easier. Once my uncle had a job, he started sending us bits of money, too. As Mom was only home for the weekends, and my sister Prim and I didn't need much, I could make that bit of money stretch a long way.
I wondered how long it'd been since the boy had a decent meal.
His skin was pale, like he'd never seen the light of day. His hair was only slightly darker, falling in ashy blond clumps around his head. He had a long, thin scab above one eyebrow. He also had rings of scabs around his wrists and ankles.
Where did he come from?
As if sensing my gaze from his sleep, and perhaps he could, he frowned and raised an arm, groping out sideways once, twice. His lips fell open, shaping words I couldn't hear, and I suddenly remembered Gale telling me he couldn't speak.
I reached out and grabbed his hand in my own. He latched onto my hand and squeezed so tightly I thought my fingers may pop off. "Hey," I said aloud, and he twitched violently, almost falling off the couch.
Not good. "Shh," I crooned, trying to think about what I would do to comfort Prim when she had nightmares. So I opened my mouth and began to sing.
It worked. After a few verses, he calmed down enough to loosen his death grip on my head. I slid it off me, laid it on his chest, and stood up to go mix up some sort of breakfast in the kitchen.
With some leftover oats, I was able to make three decent-sized portions of hot cereal, with half a glass of goat's milk each on the side. When I went outside to check on Prim's goat, Lady, I was surprised to find my baby sister already out there.
"Prim," I called.
She glanced up. "Katniss!"
"You're up early." I frowned. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No," she said guiltily. I shot her a look. "Fine, yes," she admitted, "but it was a nice way to wake up. You should sing more. You're the best singer in the whole world."
"You're biased," I told her.
Prim rolled up the bag of feed and picked up the bucket with today's milk. I quickly stepped forward to take the bag from her and hold the door open as she stepped into the house. "I'm right," she quipped. "Oh! Who's this?"
I stopped dead at the sight of the boy, leaning dizzily against the edge of our kitchen table and looking like he was about to collapse any second. "Um," I articulated as I rushed forward to catch up, and help lower him down into the seat. He looked at me briefly and then turned towards the food. I nudged a spoon in his direction, but he just picked up his bowl and started gulping it down whole.
"Katniss?" Prim repeated.
I tore my staring eyes away from him and towards Prim. "Ah…" I fumbled. "This is…a friend of Gale's. He needed a place to stay, and…"
"Oh, you look terrible!" Prim exclaimed, rushing forwards to the boy, laying a hand on his forearm. He froze for a second, and then put the bowl he was licking clean down, a guilty expression forming. "No offense," she added. "I'm Prim! That's short for Primrose. But everyone calls me Prim."
He smiled at her. I was inwardly relieved he was playing nice. If he had given one mean look towards my baby sister, he was being thrown out, Gale or not. He opened his mouth, probably to introduce himself, but no sound came out. He frowned and touched his vocal cords with one hand.
"Oh, you lost your voice?" Prim asked. She set her milk bucket down on the table and headed towards the sink. "Katniss, is there any hot water left over from the porridge? We should make him tea. That should help. I bet the conditions in the mines are just awful."
She assumed her was from the mines. Maybe he was. "Um, no," I answered her, gradually sliding into one of the chairs next to the boy. I tipped my bowl towards him, offering the food, but he shook his head no.
Prim tutted. "Fine. This will just take longer." She put water in the kettle to boil and then slid down to the last chair, on the other side of him. "He'll need clothes," she noted, clinically examining his thin chest. "Maybe he can borrow something of Dad's before he gets his own-"
"No!" I interrupted sharply. She and the boy just looked at me, and I fought to keep down a blush. I was perfectly fine talking to just Prim. Who was this guy, and why did he have to come here and bother us. "No, that's…Dad's stuff." There's no way we're just loaning it out to strangers. I saw Prim shoot me a sour look, but I continued, "Besides, we don't even know your name."
Seeing both of our attentions shift to him, the boy smiled uneasily. He glanced at me, and then began writing something in the air with his finger.
"Oh, stupid! I'll just get paper!" Prim shouted. She ran over to the bookshelf and ripped out a blank page from the ends of one of the books, like we usually do when we need paper. He accepted the paper and pencil, wrote something short onto the page, and then pushed it back out towards us.
Prim and I craned our necks to look at it quizzically. As far as I could tell, it was a bunch of boxy shapes covered in slanted lines. "This isn't our alphabet," Prim said.
I frowned. "Can you understand us?" I asked.
"But we obviously don't write the same way," I mused, and then turned my head to him. "Where are you from?"
He hesitated, and then pointed in a direction.
Prim laughed. "You're from the bathroom?"
"I think he means northeast," I said, trying to summon up a map in my head. "Maybe…Newfoundland? It's hard to communicate with someplace so far away. Their alphabet might have evolved."
"Didn't there used to be more land and islands?" Prim inquired. "I heard people once could walk on foot to the North Pole through a place called Greenland."
"Flooded," I answered flatly, looking to the boy for confirmation, but he only shrugged.
My heart tweaked as a little look of disappointment on Prim's face, but she moved on quickly. "Well, we could try to guess your name!" she offered. "Is it…Nik? Jay? How about Owain? I always thought that was a cool name."
He shook his head at each of those, and I groaned. "Prim, that'll take forever. And it might not even work."
"Might as well try," she said.
I stood, gathering the three bowls of mostly-eaten breakfast, and taking them to the sink to wash. I saw the boy staring at me, so I turned around and snapped, "What?" brandishing my scrub brush like a weapon.
He shook his head, as if to reply nothing, but he was still staring. My eyes caught his, and for a second or two I forgot the rest of the world existed. "You have blue eyes," I breathed, not consciously aware letting to words escape my mouth.
"No way!" Prim yelled, startling me out of my trace. He looked away too, towards Prim, his eyes widening. "That's so cool!" Prim continued. "I didn't even know that was possible! I've only ever seen gray or brown! Have you ever seen blue eyes, Katniss?"
"No," I answered softly. I've never even heard of them.
A/N: I do not own The Hunger Games.