I fold the dough and knead it, feeling how sticky and real it is beneath my fingers. We have almost finished moving out of our old residence above the bakery and into the new house in the Victor's Village. This will be the last time I bake anything here. I feel like taking in all the details: the tiny cracks on the counter, the scorched spots on the ceiling where smoke rose when one of my brothers or I overcooked a loaf of bread. But that's dangerous, since it makes me think of the time I burned the bread when I was eleven to give it to Katniss, and that makes me think of Katniss.
A lot of things make me think of Katniss. It's always been that way. But thoughts of her no longer come to me as a wistful, bittersweet dream. Now they're a complicated, heart-stopping, vivid, painful reality. I knead the bread harder, trying to focus my mind on its feel in my fingers, on the solidity of the floor beneath my feet and the haze of the flour-filled air around me.
It's only because I'm trying so hard not to think of Katniss that I miss the blindingly obvious reminder of her that approaches me now. I miss her until she speaks. "Are you very busy, Peeta?"
It's Primrose. The reason Katniss was in the Games in the first place. She's looking at me with such a clear gaze; I know immediately that she understands what I'm trying to distract myself from. That she's giving me a way out, if I don't want to talk to her. I could say yes, and she would leave. But I have never spoken to her before, and she is a part of Katniss's life. I want to grasp whatever I can of that, even if it's not mine to have, in the end.
They all think I'm selfless. But I do it all so I can touch Katniss's life with my own hands and mold it into something better with my own hands, even if it means dying. Is that selfish instead? I don't know. It doesn't matter. All that matters is keeping Katniss safe and happy. And part of that is keeping Prim safe and happy.
I stare at her for just a moment, and I wonder how much of what goes through my head reaches hers as well. "Actually," I say, "if I don't stop soon, this bread will never rise." So I pull my fingers away from the dough.
She smiles at me. I think of everything Katniss has done to protect that smile. I'll help, too. "May I ask you something?"
"Why not?" I lean against the counter. "Go ahead and ask, Primrose."
"You should just call me Prim," she says.
"Prim," I say. "Okay." I know what the question is going to be. She's going to ask if I really love Katniss. Then she'll move on to trying to decide if I'm good enough for her sister, the sister who was willing to die for her.
But she surprises me. "Would you be happy to have me as a sister-in-law?"
I start a little, and then I'm looking into her eyes. I realize she's never doubted that I love Katniss. "You missed a question," I say, and I wait for her confusion to clear up.
But there's no confusion. She just shakes her head. "No, I know you love Katniss," she says. "I'm sorry you had to work so hard to convince her."
"She doesn't trust easily," I say. "She's been hurt before. I want to show her a world where she doesn't have to be hurt again." I'm not sure I meant to say that last sentence, but Prim's innocent eyes pull it out of me.
"I think," Prim says thoughtfully, "I want her to have a world with you in it. You should answer my question," she adds, a little chidingly.
I haven't stopped looking at her. It's not the same as looking at Katniss, and I have to remind myself that they're related. Katniss draws my attention like heat. This girl lets it slip away like a soft fall of rain. It would be easy to smile at her and then overlook her. "I'd be very happy to have you as a sister-in-law, Prim," I say.
"I think you will," she says. "Someday."
I shake my head. "She doesn't love me."
"She can't love anyone right now," Prim says. "But she needs you."
There's a dull ache in my throat. "I never wanted her to need me," I say.
"But for Katniss," Prim says, "that's how she gets to love." She tilts her head back to make sure our eyes are locked. "I can't promise you my sister's heart," she says. "But—" She stops. "I'm not supposed to bet," she says, a little abashed.
"Bet?" I'm caught off-guard.
"If I were allowed to bet, though," Prim says, "I'd bet that in a few years, we'll sit around a table together and share your bread, because we'll be the same family." She holds out a hand. "Won't you look forward to it with me?"
It takes me a moment to realize that she wants me to shake her hand. I'm usually much quicker at picking up on these things, but Primrose Everdeen mystifies me. She's so unlike her sister on the outside, but she has so much of the same purity of heart. It makes her impossible for me to predict. I reach out and grip her small clean hand in my flour-coated, slightly sticky one. "Okay," I say.
When I let go of her hand, there are spots of flour on it. She doesn't wipe it off, though. "Thank you, Peeta," she says instead, and I know it's for more than the conversation. It's for what I've done to mold her sister's life into something better.