In the ruins of District 12, Peeta struggles against the cold that seems to have settled all around him. When he is visited at the bakery by Gale, his doubts only worsen. Still, there may be warmth left for him to find in District 12.
Here's another one-shot. I just can't get this pair out of my mind. It's a bit longer than the others, though, so consider yourselves warned. :)
Disclaimer: Suzanne Collins owns this series. I only play with the characters.
The bakery's cool when I enter. It has taken me a few weeks to put back together, but the long hours it takes to build and cut and fasten keep my mind settled. A clear task helps set me straight: I don't have to categorize nightmares or anything while I'm here. I just focus on putting in ovens, sweeping up sawdust, and trying not to think that my father might have died right here. So really, it doesn't keep my mind off everything, but I'm getting better.
Sometimes she comes with me. I think she's still settling into the woods, so she doesn't visit them as often as she used to. They're unchanged, and maybe that makes it more difficult for her. I imagine her visiting the spots that she and Gale went off to everyday, and I wonder if she thinks of him. I guess I don't wonder. I know she must.
Sometimes she comes here with me, though. I have to remember that. She doesn't say much, but she shows up and offers to sweep or dust or carry things in. Her eyes settle on some point in the room, occasionally flickering back to me. I know she's watching me and treating me like prey that might run at any moment.
I don't run, though. I let her watch me. Watch over me, really. Protect me. That's what she said, isn't it? We protect each other.
Today, though, she's hunting. I came by to see her this morning before she left and we continued our odd little dance of avoiding any real emotion between us. I blame the kiss. It was a few weeks after I returned when it happened. Before that, we had started to grow back together. We did little things. I planted flowers and baked at home. She began to venture back to the woods. We made the book together.
That book brought us both a little closer to life. I think that's how it happened that we somehow ended up with that kiss. We were composing a sketch of Rue, or rather, Katniss was tracing my sketch with her finger. As she did, she started crying and tried to hide her face. I took her hand in mine, and then she leaned forward. At first, I didn't know what to do and I felt my hand go into those convulsions. Then, when her lips met mine, I just melted into her. There's something about kissing her. It's intoxicating and shatters every piece of me until I'm just lying there, gasping, and completely dependent on her to bring me back.
We didn't stop there, though, at that one kiss. You might compare it to the beach, when she really kissed me, and when I knew she wanted me. I've had to sift through that memory several times to believe that the aching I felt on the beach was sincere. However, I've peeled back most of the layers that my Capitol torturers tried to cover it up with. Now that I'm down to the meat of it, a kind of warmth pervades through the memory or, really, a kind of hunger. I know she felt it, too. Or at least, I think she did.
It was like that memory, though, but with maybe even more because we were alone. A flurry of hands on necks, stomachs, backs, legs—everywhere. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't think, could only register that this was the sort of thing that could revive a person.
Then I felt it. A tear on my cheek—her tear. Through the haze I recalled how she had been crying before we'd started kissing, and so I stopped.
My first instinct was to feel used. She doesn't love you, the voice inside me hissed. She loves the idea of you, sure. You're the only one left, aren't you? But who would she be with if he were here?
Still, even after the disaster of a kiss, we slept beside one another. Our words lay muted on our tongues, not discussing that kiss, until eventually, we began to talk about anything and everything else.
It's maddening, though, having her beside me in the night. Nightmares vacate my mind in her presence, but they're replaced by a fervor that boils inside of me. I'm only human and she's right there, so, so close, and I can't make sense of these nights any better than I can those nights on the train.
When we talk, she recreates the moments of my life, and I'm forced to trust her. I have no one else. That's not true, really. I don't want anyone else. I've come to know Katniss again, all over again, and though there are quite a few rough parts, I'm starting to pick away at the girl I fell in love with so many years ago.
Today, I survey the bakery, finding that all that's left to do besides move a few boxes is to paint. I promised Katniss we would do this together, though. She asked me to the last time she came.
"When will you paint it?" she asked.
"I'm not sure. A week, maybe. You want to come see it when it's finished?"
She bit the inside of her cheek, causing one side of her mouth to seem more pursed than the other. Then she opened her mouth, nervously shifting from side to side.
"You want some help?"
I nodded, and she smiled. We walked home together, talking about Finnick and Annie's newborn baby. She wanted to add the picture to the book later. We called Annie, too, to congratulate her together.
I decide to paint the walls with a base coat today, and then let Katniss help paint the rest of it. I'm not really sure what she wants to do, anyway, so I pull out the materials where they've sat at the ready for a few days. The paint burns my nostrils, but it's a familiar sensation. Last night I painted a scene, and the grooves of my hands and in the crooks of my nails are covered in red, blue, yellow, and purple. I try to wash it away, but some of it always manages to stick.
I've been painting for a few hours when he comes in.
"Hey," he says.
He seems taller or bigger somehow, but he always has to me. Certainly, he's put on weight and muscle. His eyes gleam from the darkened skin of his face, suggesting his fancy new job keeps him outside.
"Hello," I say. "I didn't expect to see you back here for awhile."
I try to snatch the resentment out of my voice, but a bit edges its way in.
He shrugs. "I didn't really expect to, either."
I raise my eyebrows, nodding. He shifts awkwardly, fidgeting with his hands. I'm not sure what he wants me to say, and he seems to have suddenly become very interested in the walls of the bakery.
"I wanted to check in," he offers suddenly.
"Oh," I say. "I see."
Seeing Gale sends a ripple of conflicting emotions through me. At first, it's images of Katniss kissing him. Then, it's his words from our time in the Capitol about Katniss never kissing him the way she kissed me. I still don't know if it's true, but I doubt she was crying when she kissed him.
I look up at his words, realizing I've been gripping the countertop.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Still have some, uh, relapses. I'm under control though."
Gale nods and looks around, not meeting my eyes. He's not his usual, cool self. I remember the last time we really spoke, and I find that we both seem so different from the shells that existed at that moment. Me more so than him, I guess.
"Is she here?"
There. That's why he's here. Immediately, some animal inside me snaps to attention, rising and growling. I fight it down, though, trying to laugh casually.
"Who? Uh, Katniss? She said she was going to hunt, or something. You know how she is."
What kills me is that he does know Katniss. Or maybe, just maybe, he only used to. Does he know her in the same way that I do now? He's not there with her at night. He's not here with her in District 12. That, at least, I know.
Gale doesn't move or look up.
"Is she… okay?"
I want to tell him that she is, but no thanks to him. That animal inside of me is clawing at my throat, threatening to scream at him that—once again—he abandoned her. It's not fair, and I know this. I take deep breaths. I think of the Katniss I saw, hollow and drained, as she pulled out the pill that would end her life. The girl who screamed at me to let her go was the same one that I was determined to crawl back to. But what about Gale? He didn't return here, but I did.
I am pushing down images of his hands on her face, on her eyes flitting to me as she smirks. These images didn't even need to be delivered to me by the Capitol, but they were certainly exaggerated by the menacing words and the influx of venom into my body. I shut my eyes to bury the image, and instead repeat, "Not real, not real."
My eyes fly open again, and I swallow. Gale's eyes tear into me, but I steel myself against it. I try to throw on the charming persona that I managed to scrape up for my interviews. Most of that, though, was self-deprecating and fails to protect me from Gale.
"She's fine. She's good. Really."
He kicks aimlessly at the ground. Their similarities strike me and, if I'm honest, disturb me. It's no wonder she misses him.
Deep breaths, and then, all at once, I say, "You should go see her."
He looks up at me, befuddlement falling over his features. He shakes his head and begins to laugh. Then he steps towards me, his lips breaking out into a smile.
"You're something, you know that?"
I think this might be meant to mock me, to suggest that I am foolish. He reaches out to shake my hand. I open my mouth to say something back, but he drops my hand and waves before I get the chance.
"I'll see you around, Peeta."
He steps out, leaving the bakery cool and empty once more. There's something so unnatural about the cold when I'm used to the warmth that has always settled in here. I see my father, navigating the ovens with ease. I feel his hand on mine, guiding the frosting onto a small yellow cake. I hear his laugh, the soft undertone of his deep voice.
I shake Gale's visit from my mind, or at least, I try to. I return to the base coat, watching the bristles swim across the walls. I stay here for hours, painting slower than usual. I keep replaying Gale's words, and imagine him waiting outside Katniss's house in the Victor's Village. I stay rooted, unable to move, dreading the idea of me leaving early to find them all over one another in the street or something. Of course, part of me doubts this, but it's still close to nine when I leave.
I cross town, turning to look over my shoulder because I half-expect to run into Gale. I don't, but when I walk up to my house in the Victor's Village, Katniss perches on my steps. I have all of these cutting remarks at the ready, or I at least plan to slink away and try to put my head under a pillow. But when I get closer, she stands, and then bursts forward, throwing her hands around me and burying her head against my chest. I'm thrown back slightly, and I'm jolted by a memory of us tumbling in the snow.
"Hey now!" I say, and begin laughing in spite of the emotions I've been dragging around for the majority of the day. "I was only gone for a few hours."
The words come out so naturally that I can't stop them. After I've said them, they sound silly, presumptuous, and guilty. But what she's done has disturbed our recent coolness and pulled me back to a collection of memories that feel warm, alive, and vibrant.
"I fell asleep," she whispers. "In the woods. And when I woke up, you weren't there."
I grip her. My lapses into nightmares are an almost daily occurrence, but having Katniss there when I wake up seems to diffuse or eliminate them completely. I can't imagine waking up alone in the woods. Her woods still remind me of the wilderness in the games. I steer clear of them for fear I'll start hallucinating about Cato or Thresh or any of the others. Sometimes they're trying to kill me, and other times I'm watching them die.
"I'm here now," I say, patting her head.
She meets my eyes, and I pull her inside. I'm kissing her before I can think about it, and she's kissing me right back. I don't think of Gale, or my suspicions that the two of them might have been doing this minutes ago. Instead, I focus on the feel of her lips on mine to savor it as "real" because I can only hope that it is. I'm panting, and every bit of emotion I have tumbles out as we crash to the ground.
For what feels like a couple delirious hours, we stay locked in this strange place of discovery and bliss. I stop her, though, again, because I feel like I can't control myself—a feeling that I associate with vicious memories—and because I don't want to let the potential of this moment slip through my fingers.
"What are we doing?" I say.
I can see her digesting my words as she tries to wade through whatever it is that's fogging both of us up. I could probably pin it down to want for myself, but it frightens me a bit to think that Katniss could be feeling the same way.
"I don't know," she says after a moment.
Not the best answer, really. Images of her and Gale pop back into my mind, but I try to force them back down.
"You don't know?"
She shakes her head. Did she do this with Gale? Now, I'm certain that she did. I doubt she didn't know what she was doing with Gale. Or did she? Stop, I tell myself. Focus on Katniss. Focus on—
"Why are we doing it then?"
Or, say that. I wince, expecting her to recoil. But instead, she only reaches out, steadily running one finger down the underside of my arm.
"I'm scared, Peeta," she admits finally.
She's scared that I'm not Gale, of course.
"Of whatever this is."
I breathe slowly. Not Gale, but still, I feel that animal again, stirring inside me beneath the emotions that lead whatever this is that Katniss can't put her finger on.
"What did he say to you?"
I blurt out the words, trying as soon as they escape my lips to tether them back inside. She looks at me, puzzled, which I don't understand. But of course Gale had to have said something to her, even if they didn't kiss. That animal rears within me, and I can feel the glare threaten to reach my eyes. There's no other explanation. Her kissing me, it all has to do with him, right? She misses him. It's never about me—it's always something else. It's always some kind of a game.
"What did who say to me?"
She resumes the calm imitation of the voice her mother used for patients like me. It's cautious, exacerbated by tender touches along my hand.
"Gale," I say.
She cocks her head, confused. Her hand stays on my arm, though, pausing, but not releasing the touch.
"He was here today. I… told him he should come visit you," I stop. "Why? Didn't he?"
I try to read her face for longing, but she only shakes her head.
"No," she says. "He didn't."
He didn't? But why not? I wonder if he really has moved on from her. Or maybe, just maybe, he imagined that he would find the same Katniss at home that I had imagined, the one who was in love with someone else.
I'm jerked back to reality when she moves her hand up to my cheek. Her touch is soft as it follows the line of my jaw.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I know that you miss him."
She looks at me and laughs. "Oh, I don't know if I'd say that. Maybe it makes me a terrible person, and of course I miss things from before, but not in the way that—ah, not in the way that you might think. He…"
Then, she takes her finger and places it against her lip, absently nibbling her nail.
"He isn't the same person, and I'm not really the same either," she says quickly. "So, maybe the old Katniss might have missed him, but I… can't. Does that make sense? We're just not the same. None of us are."
I nod, not sure what to say. I take her hand, though, or at least the one that she's not gnawing on, and rub circles into it with my thumb.
"No, I guess we aren't," I finally say. "But… I think maybe, just maybe, we're all the people we were going to be no matter what after that arena. Just maybe a bit accelerated. And a bit more damaged."
I smile in spite of everything that has brought on this damage, and she laughs.
"I think," she says quietly, her eyes lighting up as if something has dawned on her, "that you're right, Peeta."
Her eyes cut to me with an intensity that I start.
"Peeta," she says. "Is the bakery almost ready?"
Of all the things that I was thinking of, the bakery has not been at the top of my list.
"The bakery. Is it ready to paint yet?"
"Yes," I say, surveying her suspiciously. Part of me suspects she wants to see Gale and thinks he might be hanging around there like he was before. But then, I never told her that he came by there. She might have assumed, but it seems like a stretch. And then, hasn't she just said that she doesn't miss Gale?
"Can we go there now?"
She takes my hands, tugging me towards the door.
I'm about to ask her why and tell her that it's late, but then those grey eyes lock on mine and she's urging me to follow her. So I sigh, grab my coat from where it fell at some point to the floor. I have to snatch hers, too, because she nearly sprints out of the door without it.
"Katniss! Katniss, hold on—it's not going to disappear!"
"Peeta, come on," she snaps.
Her feet dart across town and I'm jogging to keep up with her. I'm thrown back to a time when I followed her through the woods when—if you asked her—I was practically trying to crush all of the branches that I stepped on. She never said that, of course, but she's not too hard to read when she's irritated.
Now, though, she doesn't say anything about my footfalls as we zip through town. The night chill hugs our shoulders and our breath comes in white puffs before our lips. I try to throw Katniss's jacket over her shoulders, but she shakes it off.
When we reach the bakery, she taps her foot impatiently while I jiggle the lock on the door. Once inside, she hurries over to the closet where I've stashed the supplies. She begins pulling out paint cans and brushes at random, and then stacks them on the counter. She then flies to the walls, running her eyes and hands along them.
"Peeta," she says. "Do you think you could paint something on these walls?"
"Uh, sure," I say dumbly. "I was just going to paint some bread loaves or cakes or something."
She shakes her head, and something almost manic crossing her face.
"I have an idea."
I must look wary because she comes over to me and wraps her arms around my back, trailing little circles with her fingers along my spine. I'm vaguely aware that I'm being bribed, but I give into it.
"Okay," I say, shivering involuntarily. "Let's hear it."
She pauses, and in the still of the night, I hear her breathing.
"What about… dandelions."
Dandelions. I remember Katniss, so much younger, plucking a dandelion after our eyes met at school. I also remember her swallowing hard when I recounted the memory to her some time ago. Now, her touch stills, and I pull back from her. She watches me expectantly.
"Sure," I say, trying to sound nonchalant. "Can I ask why, though?"
"I just think they'd look nice," she says, but her eyes dart away from me. I prod her with my fingers so that she'll look at me. I raise my eyebrows, and she sighs, exasperated.
"How about you paint them and then I'll tell you."
I grin and shake my head, crossing my arms over my chest. For a moment, that manic look is back, and she steps forward and walks her fingers down my chest. I think she may be trying to look haughty or something, so I begin to laugh. As her fingers cross over my arms and continue to dive lower, though, I'm too frozen by the action to really examine her face. She stops as she reaches my lower abdomen, suddenly flushing as she abruptly turns towards the wall.
"So," she coughs. "How about those dandelions?"
It's an odd Katniss that hasn't quite surfaced before. I see the girl who remained pure—perfect, really—in light of everything I've seen before. Really, she's still the girl who can't decide if she could handle seeing me naked. At least I'm more appealing now, I think, since I'm not covered in dried blood or mud or something. But then, I'm also out one real leg and have some severely damaged skin, so maybe it's a wash. Anyway, I'm so focused on where her hands were, and her seeing me naked, and how much I wish she hadn't stopped, and wondering if she even wants to see me naked—ever—that I don't hear her when she speaks.
She's gesturing to the walls, waving her arms, and I grab a paintbrush and select the necessary colors. I look down to hide the blush that has surely overtaken my face as I prepare to paint the wall. I hand her a brush, too, but she just sort of dots the wall with it at random.
We weave our way across the bakery, filling it with bursting dandelions. Some wade through a breeze, others clutch the ground, but soon, the bakery is brimming with them. We stop when we've covered it, and I begin to put the painting supplies away. She stands there in silence while I do, and only when I come to collect her brush does she speak.
"Hope," she says.
I avoid her gaze, trying to wrestle the brush from her hand. I'm still trying to ignore her so that I don't get back to thinking about the whole naked business.
"The dandelions," she says, tracing a dry one with her finger. "They represent hope."
She looks at the floor, shuffling her feet. I stare at her, then at the dandelions that surround me. I see her plucking the flower, and I hear her voice from that night in the cave where she told me about her owing me for the bread. I think of her hands tracing my sketches, our nights on the train and, more recently, our nights in our homes. Hope, I think.
"Peeta," she says, starting to bite her nails. I take her hands in mine, though, to pause her and draw her closer. Her brush clatters to the floor.
"Peeta," she repeats. "You're my… my last hope. You're the dandelion."
Me? I replay those memories over and over, drifting back in time. As I do, I see her everywhere. She's lying in bed, urging me to stay with her, and then that word comes out of me before I can draw it back. And then I'm so lost, but she's demanding it again: stay with me. Something inside me steadies, and she guides me back through the darkness. Always, I tell her. Always.
Then she's refusing to kill me though I beg her to, and later I'm refusing to let her die. I'm seized back into another memory still, and she's crying near me when I wake after Finnick's revived me. Because that's what you and I do, she echoes in my mind. We protect each other.
Finally, I'm sitting in a chair as torturers inject me with venom while images of Katniss flit across the screen. I'm doused in fear, and I spend those hours screaming at them to stop. When they leave, though, I call up memories of us on the roof, of us on the train, of us on the beach, of us, of us, of us. Hope. Those were moments of hope.
Our lips meet amidst the stinging odor of paint. The pieces fall together, and the envy that broiled within me earlier completely ebbs at her words, her touches, her kisses. We melt together once more, and the sparks that have been waning within both of us rush back to life.
"You love me," I say. "Real or not real?"
She nestles into the crook of my neck, her paint-tinged fingers entwining in mine. I feel her lips draw up into a smile.
"Real," she tells me, and the words wash over me in the dim light of the room.
That night, we fade into a sea of dandelions and fall asleep entangled in one another's arms. I awake some time during the night to the feeling of the rise and fall of her chest against my side. I run my fingers through her hair, and as I look around the bakery, my father's voice comes back to me.
"A bakery should always be warm," he said as he showed me how to create one of our more expensive tarts. I remember him pausing as he rolled some dough in-between his hands before he spoke. "Keep it warm, and you'll always have customers."
"You mean, the ovens?" I'd said. "Always keep the ovens warm?"
He chuckled. "Not exactly, Peeta."
He had relinquished the dough and guided me over to a chair in the corner. After he wiped off the flour and dough that stuck to his palms, he had taken me up on his lap, tilted my small head up, and pointed out the window.
"Warmth," he'd said, "is not just a matter of hot and cold. It's a matter of love. Sing, listen to the birds, take pride in your cakes, remember me and your mother and your brothers. You'll never have any shortage of warmth if you do that."
I'd thought he was a bit crazy, but now, with Katniss beside me, I realize what he meant. And as I drift off, I thank him. I know now, at least for the time being, that there is warmth back in the bakery.