She was so caked in mud that he originally mistook her body for a pile of debris from the flood. It was only when she slowly opened her eyes – her cloud-grey irises standing out like two clean pools of water in the middle of all that dirt – that Peeta Mellark realized he was looking at a living, breathing person.
A girl who had somehow survived the worst flood to ever hit Panem Valley and washed up miles and miles away from the nearest town.
He immediately knelt down next to her twisted form.
"Where are you hurt?"
The girl continued to stare up at him, but she didn't answer.
She was wearing a single shoe and the tattered remains of what was once a maroon sweater. Her skin – or what little could be seen of it beneath the layer of mud – was littered with bloody scratches from where brush and debris had torn off her clothing. Her hair was a matted, slimy mess that stuck to her face and neck, and her lips were tinged blue.
Peeta quickly took off his jacket and wrapped the girl in it.
"Where are you from? What's your name?" he tried next. But she only blinked slowly, perhaps avocal or amnesic from the trauma of the disaster.
Clutched tightly in one of her fists, Peeta was surprised to discover a grubby duck potato – or katniss root, as it was sometimes called. He could only guess that she must've been swept away by quickly rising waters while trying to gather the starchy tubers.
"I'm going to call you 'Katniss' then, alright?" he said, hooking his strong forearms under her back and knees and lifting her as gently as possible.
The girl's arm fell limp, releasing the duck potato into the mud as Peeta carried her back to his cabin.
The only time Katniss made any noise was at night, when she woke Peeta with her screams.
After bathing her, cleaning her wounds and bandaging up her broken arm on that first day – it was nothing short of miraculous that she had escaped more serious injury, Peeta thought – he had placed a steaming bowl of rabbit stew on the table in front of her. She didn't even acknowledge the food until he actually lifted a spoonful to her lips, at which point her eyelids fluttered and she slowly opened her mouth. He only managed to feed her four scant bites of dinner that evening before tucking her into bed.
By the end of the week she had improved significantly. The vacant look in her grey eyes had started to fade and she was feeding herself. One day, Peeta even came in from the garden to discover that she had gotten out of bed to brew some mint tea.
But still, she said nothing.
The only sounds that emerged from her lips were the terrified screams that accompanied her nightmares. They frightened Peeta so much that he was eventually forced to leave his own makeshift pallet by the fire and crawl into bed behind her, holding her flailing arms to her chest so she couldn't hurt herself. Then he'd whisper soothing things into her ear until her cries calmed into hiccups.
"Shhh, shhh," he would breathe as she trembled in his arms. "You're safe. It's alright. You're safe."
Peeta himself wasn't much of a hunter. He had a small garden where he grew mostly peas and yams and potatoes, and he was known in the nearby town of Heavensbee for occasionally trading his hearty, homemade nut-and-seed breads. But he did own a bow and had been taught by a friend how to set a basic snare, so there was at least the occasional rabbit or wild turkey on his dinner table.
One morning, he awoke tangled in the sheets of the bed to find his arms empty.
Katniss was gone.
He panicked for a moment, fearing that she might've wandered off in confusion and gotten lost. But before he could even put his shirt on, she suddenly appeared at the cabin door with the bow in one hand and a dead groosling dangling from the other.
It had been expertly shot through the eye.
"Katniss!" Peeta exclaimed, shocked. "You're a hunter?"
Katniss only looked between the bow and the bird with a puzzled expression, as if trying to make sense of it herself.
Over the next few weeks, more pieces began to fall into place.
At one point while they were picking peas, Peeta was stung on the wrist by a wasp and Katniss knew exactly which plant to make a paste out of in order to reduce the pain and swelling. Another time, during one of her nightmares, Peeta tried singing in his efforts to soothe her. To his surprise, she instantly fell silent and then actually began to hum the old folk tune along with him. When he told her about it in the morning, she only looked confused.
He quickly learned not to leave Katniss alone when it looked like rain. Storms terrified her to the point that she would revert to a catatonic state much like the one he had originally found her in.
So Peeta began to make a list of things about her to help bring her back to herself. He would recite them as he washed her back or rinsed her hair or tucked her into bed, until she was able to do these things for herself once more.
"You're a hunter. You're a healer. You're a singer. You can obviously swim. You never put honey in your mint tea, and you smile the most when you're outside in the woods."
Once Katniss had slipped into a regular routine of hunting each morning, Peeta felt confident enough to leave her on her own and trek down to Heavensbee more often to trade. The town itself had only been partially damaged by the flood, but in asking around he discovered that many of the villages in a region known as The Seam had been washed entirely off the map.
When Peeta returned to the cabin and mentioned a few of the hardest-hit locations to Katniss – the towns of Rue, Bogg's Hollow and Odair, as well as the tiny hamlet of Primrose – she collapsed into tears.
One of them must've been her home.
That evening, as he tenderly washed the grime of hunting and skinning animals from her body, he recounted the painful story of how his own hometown, Mellarksville, had been almost completely destroyed by wildfire.
"That's why I live here by myself," he admitted quietly. "My family didn't make it out alive."
He combed out Katniss' wet hair and dressed her in a flannel shirt of his, which doubled as her nightgown. Then he carried her to bed. He was just about to turn away when a small hand shot out from beneath the quilt and gripped his arm with surprising strength.
"Stay," came her faint, thin voice.
Peeta got the impression from the way that she peeled off his shirt and straddled him that Katniss wasn't one for words, even if she could speak.
Her lips and tongue against his chest were tender in contrast with her strong hands below. Peeta exhaled roughly into her damp hair and gripped her naked body as she writhed atop him. All these months he had just assumed that she was two or three years younger than him because of her small stature. But the way her hands moved so skillfully, the way she kissed so passionately, the way she rolled her hips against his lap – all these things made him wonder if she was older after all.
He had a thousand questions about this strange girl who had simply washed up at his back door and with whom he was quickly and undeniably falling in love. And he knew that there would be plenty of moments to come in which to learn more about her. But there was just one question that couldn't wait any longer.
She was just about to lower herself down onto his length when he sat up and caught her thighs in his hands. He pressed an urgent kiss to her lips.
"Tell me," Peeta breathed when their lips parted. "Tell me first – what is your real name?"
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled.