A/N: This is written for themes 51-75 of the Hunger Games 100 theme challenge. Each chapter is one of the themes. It's going to have a somewhat similar format to my earlier story called Life Lessons in that it's mostly episodic yet is also chronological. However, I think this story also has more of an overarching story than Life Lessons has and stands together more as one story as opposed to a series of one-shots that Life Lessons could be taken as. This story could also fit in as a prequel to Life Lessons, but it doesn't have to be. Knowledge of one story isn't at all necessary to read either one.
"Sometimes you're doing really well, then, after three or four years, everything inexplicably crashes like a house of cards and you have to rebuild it. It's not like you get to a point where you're all right for the rest of your life." - Patti Smith
"There is one consolation in being sick; and that is the possibility that you may recover to a better state than you were ever in before." - Henry David Thoreau
Chapter 1: Gone
"True love doesn't happen right away; it's an ever-growing process. It develops after you've gone through many ups and downs, when you've suffered together, cried together, laughed together." - Ricardo Montalban
The sun was shining again. Peeta wasn't sure when he had decided to take a mental catalogue of the weather each day, but at some point he had realized that rain hadn't fallen since he'd been back in District 12. He tried to think back to what the weather was usually like at this time of year, but he was met with the fog that was all too familiar these days. He pushed the thoughts away. He had more important memories to clear than weather.
With so little of an idea on what he had done with his time, Peeta had more or less been going off of what others told him about his past. That meant a lot of baking and painting. Planting the primroses yesterday had been his own idea though, and that had resulted in actually getting to spend time with Katniss. After that, Peeta had resolved to stop worrying about what he was supposed to like doing and just do what he wanted to do.
That proved easier said than done he was discovering. The sun was inching closer and closer to the highest point in the sky, and Peeta hadn't yet gotten up from his kitchen table after breakfast. He knew what he wanted. He wanted to see Katniss again. He just didn't know how to achieve that. Bake her some bread and bring it over? He wouldn't see her until late that afternoon when the bread finally cooled. Paint her a picture? Who knew how long it would take for him to actually be happy with one, and she'd probably think he was crazy.
Except he was crazy. Katniss was crazy. Haymitch was crazy. They were all crazy, and Peeta was sick of it. He just wanted the fog to go away.
Movement outside his window caught Peeta's eye, and he jumped up to see what was going on. Katniss. She was walking through Peeta's backyard dressed in what Peeta could vaguely recall as the clothes she'd often worn in the past, but it was the first time he'd seen her in them since the hijacking. He saw the bow in her hands, and he figured she must be heading off to the woods. He just didn't know why she was sneaking around behind their houses instead of using the street. Some habits must die hard. Unless they were taken from you.
Peeta sighed as he finally stood and carried his empty plate over to the sink. He didn't know much about hunting, but he figured Katniss would be gone most of the day. He began absent-mindedly scrubbing at the plate as his thoughts wandered. He should be happy for her. As far as Peeta was aware, this was the second day in a row she'd gone hunting, a first since they returned to District 12. A return to routine might have been good for her. It could help her clear her head.
She didn't seem to be avoiding him, at least not purposefully. Yesterday hadn't gone over completely like Peeta had hoped, but Katniss had let him plant the primroses. They hadn't really spoken, but Katniss had seemed more surprised than turned off my his presence. Katniss had looked at the primroses with such a strong surge of emotion before scurrying back inside her house, but from what Peeta could remember, Katniss had always kind of been like that. If anything, his and Katniss's interaction was just about the only thing that could explain her sudden desire to hunt again. Maybe Peeta should have been proud of himself.
Instead, he just felt lonely.
Peeta looked down at the plate to see that any remnants of food had long since disappeared under the steady stream of water. The rag slipped from his fingers back into the sink, and he let the dish clang down onto the rack meant for drying.
He thought momentarily that he could go see Haymitch, but he immediately thought better of it. Visiting Haymitch had been the first thing he'd done upon reaching District 12, and he was willing to wait a bit longer to repeat the experience. His old mentor would come out of his drunken stupor once his alcohol ran out, and Peeta would be there when he did.
With lack of anything else to do, Peeta left the kitchen for the living room that had become his makeshift art studio. Easels holding up half-painted canvases littered the room. Peeta had been surprised how quickly painting had come back to him. Maybe he had an innate talent or maybe it was just a memory that the Capitol hadn't bothered to take. Either way, he handled the brush and paints the same way he always had.
Yet he still hadn't managed to get more than halfway done with a single painting. Images came to him. Horrible ones that he wanted to get out, but the fog always encroached. He could never see them clearly enough to accurately depict them, so he'd always move onto the next one hoping for a better result.
Peeta laid one of the older attempts down on the sofa and replaced it with a clean canvas. He hadn't had a plan before picking up the brush, but as soon as it was in his hands, he was dipping the utensil in paint. The brush was already creating strokes across the canvas when Peeta realized what it was he was painting: Katniss's house. Or rather, the small plot of dirt beside it. The one with the primroses.
Peeta didn't notice as the sun moved across the sky. He was far too wrapped up in his art. The scenery would have been recognizable to anyone now, and he was just beginning to add Katniss into the scene when it suddenly hit him that it was getting harder to distinguish the colors. He glanced around to take in his darkened surroundings. The jolt of being pulled from his own mind made him pick up on the growling of his stomach.
He laid the brush down and took in what he could see of the painting. The primroses stood out to him, even in the darkness. Peeta tried to recall his memories of Prim, but he could just barely see her through the fog. He glanced toward another canvas across the room where he could just make out the form of a young girl, the color of her hair similar to that of the flowers Peeta had painted just that day.
A knock on his door startled Peeta, and his brush hit the floor, leaving a streak of light tan on the wood.
Katniss remembered the days when she welcomed the morning sun coming through her bedroom window. It was much better than those nasty alarm clocks she knew some used. There was no sense in wasting daylight and not waking up with the sun.
Now, however, she longed for an escape from the intense light. It had been like this since she'd been back: Katniss burrowing deep in her sheets to escape the day every morning, too scared to seek refuge in one of the other two bedrooms, which had windows facing the other side of the house. The doors to those had remained firmly latched shut since Katniss's return to District 12. Her mother hadn't contacted her since they parted ways in the Capitol, so Katniss figured she didn't want anything she'd left behind. Prim's room had taken on a shrine-like quality in Katniss's mind. One that was far too holy for Katniss to enter. She was too dirty and unworthy to be in that space, so she stayed out. It was better that way.
A groan broke the oppressive silence that had been marking her days, and Katniss was only vaguely aware that it was her own. She threw the covers back suddenly, tired of the sweltering body heat that had collected around her through the night. She glared at the window, feeling the need to project her anger at something. At first she could see nothing but a glare of light, but soon her eyes adjusted to take in the clear blue sky. It was too pretty. She didn't want to sit up and get a better view.
Standing from the bed, Katniss kept her back firmly towards the window. She made her way downstairs wearing the same clothes she'd been in yesterday. Even after her impromptu hunting trip yesterday, Katniss still didn't have the motivation to change regularly.
Katniss knew what she would find in the cupboards as she pulled them open. The heel of a loaf of bread sat in plain sight. The only food left in the house. Greasy Sae was sure to bring some with her on her next trip, but Katniss finally felt like maybe she should start functioning well enough to feel herself.
She thought of the bow and sheath of arrows laying in her front closet. Even with yesterday's failure of a hunting trip, Katniss hadn't strung her bow since she'd been back, hadn't shot an arrow since the one that had pierced Alma Coin. She also hadn't had any meat that wasn't bought from District 10 and offered from Greasy Sae. Meat from District 10 wasn't as limited now as in the past from what Katniss had heard, but Katniss wondered how much money it was costing.
By the time she had finished her breakfast of bread, Katniss had made up her mind. She grabbed the bow and arrows from the hall closet, ignoring the way her hands shook as they held them. There was still no use for bathing or a change of clothes, but Katniss pulled on her boots for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. It momentarily dazed her when she stood, still not used to the slight change in her height after so many days of hardly standing at all.
She was out her back door and halfway across Peeta's yard before she realized that she could have gone through town. Katniss prefered the seclusion though, and she continued traveling along the outskirts until she reached the familiar gap in the fence. A furtive glance shot out of habit showed her that she was still completely alone as she slipped out of District 12 and into the woods.
Several feet into the forest, Katniss paused and shut her eyes to take in the familiar sounds that surrounded her. It felt like it had been so long since she'd been in any forest, let alone this one. She figured the surroundings should have brought back horrible memories of her games or struggling for survival with Gale, but instead, she just felt more at peace than she had in recent memory.
Katniss traveled along the familiar paths with little thought. She startled to come across the rotting corpse of a rabbit in one of Gale's old traps. Of course they were still here, unchecked for months. Katniss held back the bile that rose in her throat at the smell. In all her years of killing, she had never been around something so decomposed. She quickly ran through her options. It would have been easy enough to leave the animal and the trap, but Katniss knew the smart thing to do would be to remove the corpse and try to salvage the trap.
She did her best to keep her mouth and nose covered with her shirt as she cut the small body free. It took her longer than she would have liked to dig a shallow hole for the rabbit, but she couldn't bring it in herself to leave it there. Hunting animals had long ago ceased to bring any emotion from her, but a large part of Katniss couldn't help but feel sympathy for a rabbit that died a useless death such as this.
The irony that a small animal was getting the burial Prim and so many others never would wasn't lost on Katniss. Her eyes scanned the surrounding area before falling on a small clump of wildflowers nearby. Prim would have liked them, Katniss thought. She pulled them gently up from their stem before ambling back over to the makeshift grave. Sudden laughter burst from Katniss's lips as she arranged the flowers neatly over the grave. Shocked into silence, she looked around, as if scared someone would suddenly pop out from behind a tree.
Sparing one last glance as the grave, she rose and continued on with her hunting.
By the time she needed to head back to town, Katniss had managed to kill a rabbit, not unlike the one she had earlier buried, and a squirrel. She hadn't checked the other traps, deciding to leave any potential burials for other days. A deer had wandered across her path at one point, but it would have been too much trouble to carry it back into town alone. Besides, Katniss didn't need all that meat herself, and she wasn't in the mood for bartering.
Once at home, Katniss set to work preparing the skinned animals for her meal. Her thoughts wandered briefly to Haymitch and Peeta. It was doubtful that either of them had been eating much more than she had, and Haymitch, in particular, could use the nutrients. A part of Katniss wanted to eat all of the meat herself considering the bread from that morning had long since been digested, yet she forced herself to make the trek to Haymitch's door with the platter of meat.
Katniss wandered into the house without waiting for an invitation she knew wouldn't come. Her feet knew to take her directly to the kitchen, and she was unsurprised to come across her past mentor passed out at the table with a half-empty bottle of liquor in his hands. A knife peaked out from under his arms.
Setting the meat down on the table, Katniss walked around the passed out Haymitch and towards his cupboards. They were just as bare as Katniss had expected, but she was able to find a chipped, old plate that would serve her purposes. She carried it back to the table and piled a third of the meat onto it.
Katniss never relished waking Haymitch from his drunken naps, so she left just as silently as she had come, leaving the plate of meat on his table.
There was a slight hesitation in Katniss's step as she walked to Peeta's door. This wouldn't be like Haymitch. Peeta would answer, and she would have no choice but to engage in conversation for the first time since she had last seen him.
Yesterday had been a good day. Katniss wasn't sure if she would have been able to work up the willpower to hunt today if it hadn't been for yesterday, but nothing was guaranteed with Peeta. She had braced herself to expect the worst by the time she knocked on the door. Her feet poised themselves to run should he show up with a knife and an intent to kill her.
As it turned out, she needn't have worried. Peeta opened the door looking confused and decidedly not murderous.
"Katniss?" His voice cracked from lack of use, and Katniss was reminded that she wasn't the only recluse these days.
She held up the platter as if it offered all of the explanation needed. At Peeta's raised eyebrow, she flushed slightly. "I went hunting today. I already took Haymitch some meat, and I thought maybe you'd want some as well?"
There was something in Peeta's eyes that Katniss couldn't identify, something that she'd seen yesterday as well. Something from the old Peeta, and not the new one that she was still struggling to know.
"That sounds great." Peeta smiled, and though it was small, it was genuine. "Do you want to come in? We can eat together. I haven't had dinner yet."
"Me either," Katniss voiced as she followed Peeta awkwardly into the house. She glanced curiously around the place as she followed Peeta toward the kitchen. She was struck not for the first time how similar yet different it was to hers. There almost seemed to be less ghosts here. Less signs of former occupants who were now gone.
She could barely make out the shape of canvases in the dark living room as they passed. Many times since she learned of his return Katniss had wondered what Peeta was painting these days, but no matter how hard she strained her eyes, she couldn't make anything out.
Peeta seemed oblivious to Katniss's snooping, even when she entered the kitchen later than someone directly following him should have. He was digging through a cabinet, and after some clanging, he pulled away with two plates in his hands. He offered her a smile as he laid one in front of the place Katniss had claimed. The one Peeta clearly hadn't been using recently.
Peeta turned his back to her before Katniss could even decide whether or not to smile back. She watched him curiously, even as she set to work dividing up their simple dinner. He was back at the cabinet, only this time he pulled out two glasses that he quickly filled with water from the faucet.
He came and sat one in front of her without comment.
"Thank you," she muttered quietly as he sat down across from her. Her eyes had come to firmly rest on the plate in front of her, and she didn't look up to see if Peeta had begun eating or not. Instead, she set to work on her own plate and relished the first protein she'd had in several days.
"This is good."
Katniss looked up in surprise. Peeta, who was still eating the meat he had just complimented, didn't seem to notice her gaze. She hadn't done anything special. Anyone with a brain knew how to heat meat all the way through. It wasn't as if she had added any of those spices or sauces the Capitol always used.
"Thank you," she finally said with a small hesitant smile. It had probably been too late to seem like a natural response, but after her brain had processed it, Katniss figured that was what she was supposed to say.
Peeta seemed to hear the hesitation in her voice and finally looked up at her with a smile that she hadn't seen since his hijacking. This one wasn't as cautious. It was playful and had a bit of an edge to it. He also made eye contact with her for the first time that day, and Katniss could feel the heat rushing across her cheeks.
Katniss went to take another bite and was startled when she found that her plate was empty. She knew that Peeta would be suppressing a smirk if she looked, so she reached for her glass instead and took a long drink of water.
"How was the woods then?" Peeta asked once Katniss had set the glass back down.
"Good." Katniss shrugged. "Same as always."
Such a simple response, but they both knew how rare "same" was these days.
Peeta nodded as he gathered up his now empty plate along with Katniss's and took them to the sink.
"It must be nice." He spoke with his back to her as he washed the dishes. Katniss thought she should probably help, but she was enjoying the bit of relaxation that came with having his back to her. "Having a place that's familiar, I mean."
Katniss didn't want to do this, but she forced herself to breathe deeply before answering. "I suppose. Bit haunting though."
Peeta nodded as he moved on to drying the plates. The only sound for several minutes was the clanking of dishes as Peeta stored them away where they usually sat. Katniss had downed the rest of her water for lack of anything better to do, and she almost hoped that Peeta would decide to wash the glass as well so his eyes would remain off of her. Instead, he took his seat directly across from her again. He was watching her closely, as if just waiting for her to decide to leave.
They had nothing to say to each other. Each one knew of the continuous thoughts the other had, and neither one had anything remarkable that could usurp that. Katniss knew she ought to go back to her own house and sleep, lock herself up alone again as she had for days, but something in Peeta's gaze held her to the seat. Being here was useless. She might as well leave, but too much of her wanted to stay. After all, being anywhere was useless, so she might as well be useless with Peeta.
"I think we'll be okay."
Katniss gasped as she looked back up at Peeta. He was watching her with an intense expression that left Katniss taken aback. It was the surest she'd seen him since before the hijacking, and she wondered when the old Peeta had started returning, how long she'd been missing it in her avoidance.
She nodded her agreement, not knowing how to voice it.
They would be okay. Never completely whole again. Quite possibly never completely happy. But okay they could do eventually. They could be okay. Together.