The Victory Tour is here. In only hours, it'll be time to leave behind District Twelve. Time to leave District Twelve, with Katniss. Katniss. Just the name entering my thoughts makes my heart thump and memories, both good and bad, surface.
"Peeta! My brother, my friend. The bread of my life!" My brother Lucern exclaims from the doorway of the kitchen of the bakery, drawing me from my thoughts, and stopping me from dwelling even longer on them.
I can't help but laugh at him, "The bread of your life? What does that even mean?"
He walks closer, "You know… you… nourish me with your brotherly love the same way bread… okay, I don't really know where I was going with that."
Still chuckling, I continue to package the loaves of bread I've just baked. "What can I do you for, Luc?"
He braces his hands on my shoulders, and I can tell from the way he's patting them that he wants something. "You see Peeta… is it in any way possible for you to tell mom I need to take a half day today, to help you get ready for your tour?"
I wasn't exactly expecting that, but it's not something I wouldn't believe Lucern to ask. But I'd rather know the reason before I agree, "Why?"
He throws his arms in the air, looking exasperated. I can't stop the smile that edges up onto my face. Then he fiddles with some of the leftover dough that hasn't been thrown out yet before looking over his shoulder and lowering his voice, "Mom is crazy. She schedules me for full hours every single day. Every day! I mean, yeah, I'm nineteen now and I have to work full-time, but damn. I think everyone deserves at least some time off."
I already know I'm going to get him off early, but I keep my face stern as I say, "Lucern Mellark, you lazy slob of a human being. Sitting here, complaining about your job, when over half the people in this district would do anything to be able to find full time, steady work in this bakery. You pig!"
We both chuckle and he wipes his hands on the apron he's wearing, "So… you'll do it? I mean, it is partially your fault. When you were gone, mom got used to seeing my lovely face around here more often than yours, and she hasn't adapted back to her old ways."
"Sure, I'll do it. I don't know if she'll actually let you beg off early, but I'll try." I tell him, and he grins excitedly at me before walking back into the front room of the bakery.
When you were gone. That's how my entire family refers to the time I spent in the Hunger Games, when they refer to it at all. I'm not sure if I like the fact that they don't remind me of it or not. Because while it was the worst part of my life, it was still the best. After weeks of reflecting upon everything that happened, I kept coming back to the same conclusion. Even though it ended badly, it was still amazing while it lasted. Nothing was fake for me.
I finish my packaging, and methodically stack all of the loaves on the storage shelves for my father to take out to the kitchen when the supply we have out there now dwindles. I quickly wipe up the counter and pull off my apron, making my way into the front store, where my mother is sweeping and Lucern is standing behind the counter. He sees me and gives me a thumbs-up behind my mother's back quickly before looking back at the cash register.
Clearing my throat, I say, "Mom?" When her sweeping slows and she turns to look at me, eyebrow raised, I ask, "Would it be possible for Lucern here to help me prepare for my Victory Tour? I'm really swamped for things to take care of up at the house before it's time to go."
Her eyes narrow, first at me, and then they travel to my brother, who is spending an abnormal amount of energy trying to look normal. Which just makes this that much more out of the ordinary. Our mother's face is stern, "Oh, and Lucern is going to go help you with chores?"
I nod, "Absolutely."
She checks the clock we have hanging behind the counter, "It seems to me that Lucern's shift is only half over for today, and you still have a little while before you'll be leaving. He can stay here while you go."
I turn and look at my brother, shrugging, and his eyes are desperately begging me to just try a little harder, so I sigh and turn back around, "Please mom, I try not to ask for much around here. I'm going to be gone for a while, and it would be really nice to have some more time with Lucern before I head out."
My mom practically growls her annoyance. In my life I have very rarely pressed her after she'd made a decision regarding… anything. And normally when I did, I got a beating for it. But my mother has been very beating-light ever since I got back. She starts sweeping with renewed vigor and says, "Fine, take him. That lazy pig was hardly doing anything, anyway."
Lucern's eyes are lit up, and he takes off his apron as well, going in back to hang it up. I go behind the counter and take two loaves of bread, and open the cash register and pay as though I were taking five loaves. I never just take any baked goods from the bakery now, because I feel incredibly guilty having so much money at my disposal while my family doesn't. Of course, they aren't poor, but, like nearly everyone here in town, they could do with some more funding to support them.
I offered my parents, together, enough money to keep them living comfortably without the bakery. It was one of the first things I did when I got back. They stood together, firmly telling me they didn't want my money. A week later, I offered it to my father, separately from my mother. "You know that even with the bakery it would be nice to have a cushion. If you took it, you'd never have to work again." I had said to him. I was desperate for my family to take my winnings, even a small part.
But he refused, his eyes, as always, were gentle but firm as he said, "Peeta, you have a giving heart. But I can't take that money when it doesn't belong to me. It's yours. You earned it, you keep it. And you know I love the bakery."
"For what? I'm never going to need this much money in my whole life." The money sat like a lead weight sitting on my chest.
"Then do something with it. Give it to someone who needs it." And that was the end of our conversation.
Then I offered it to my mother, separate from my father. I knew her heart isn't in this bakery, not like my father's. But she resolutely wouldn't take it, and all she would vehemently tell me was, "A parent provides for the child, not the other way around. Now get out of my way."
That was the end of that. But I can't live with myself knowing I have so much money while my parents work themselves to the bone every day and don't even have a fraction of what I have, so I've come up with ways to slip them money without them realizing it. Like giving them extra cash when I purchase something here. Or, if I see one of their jackets or a pair of pants laying around whenever I'm upstairs in the old apartment, I put some money in the pockets.
Lucern comes back out to where I am, his jacket on and he's already buttoning it up as he says, "Let's hit the road, bro." By the time we reach the door, both of us have our coats completely closed, and our faces are buried in them, up to the nose, as the snow outside is already swirling.
We leave, and start to make our way to the new house in Victor's Village. That's another thing – not only did I have this surplus of money at my disposal, I had this huge house. Naturally, I'd thought my family would move in with me. But Thyler, who worked full shifts at the bakery still and his wife, Hailey, who has a hefty sum of money herself because of her family, and they live together in a fairly nice house. And my parents both refused to leave the apartment on top of the bakery, saying it's their home and they don't want to leave. The only person I could convince to live with me there is Lucern.
For the first month after I came back, nothing was the same between us. It wasn't the same between me and anyone in my family. They walked on eggshells around me, like I needed to be protected from something. I wasn't one to miss the irony – after I'd survived an ordeal like the Hunger Games, probably to most difficult thing anyone in this lifetime might have to do, I was treated like glass. Gradually, after I joked with them and behaved the way I always had, things got back to normal.
Well, as normal as things could be after everything that happened. Because even I recognized the change. It wasn't everyone else – it was me. I had seen death. I nearly experienced it myself, hell, I was missing a limb. I'd looked into the depths of humanity, and I didn't like what I saw. And, even more than that. I wasn't Peeta, who had a love puppy crush. I was Peeta, who was drowning in heartache.
But that time in my life is over. Even if I didn't want it to end, it had to. Because the forlorn creature I'd turned into wasn't someone I recognized when I looked into the mirror. I wasn't someone I liked – someone who looked at Katniss and felt sick with sadness. So I adjusted. I became the old Peeta I liked. Only better. Peeta 2.0, as I sometimes like to call myself.
"Man, you have to tell me about all of the districts when you get back, like everything you see." Lucern is telling me as we start up the path to the Village. While he was in school, Lucern brought back, at best, mediocre grades. Teachers, pretty much everyone, really, wrote him off as just some lazy merchant kid who could skate by in life. And generally, they're right. But he did always have one curiosity: other districts. He'd always been fascinated by everywhere but here.
"I will." I promise him. I've never have that same obsession with the other districts, but I have a good memory, and I know I'll be able to tell him whatever he wants to know.
By the time we reach the houses, I have a good amount of time to go make sure Haymitch is up and ready for the beginning of our Victory Tour. I part with Luc, and make my way up to his house, preparing myself for the stench of … I don't even want to think about it, that I know will be festering around there. The front door is open, but I don't find it strange – there are many days that I've let myself into Haymitch's home, and found that he left the most bizarre things running, and leaving a door open is at the bottom of the "that's really strange" list.
But as I draw closer, I hear a voice say, "… you should have asked Peeta." A familiar voice. The voice that both elates and haunts my dreams. The voice that still makes my nerve endings tingle.
Making my presence known, I say, "Asked me what?"
Katniss' back is to me, but she noticeably stiffens up. As she does, guilt gnaws on my stomach. My fault. It's my fault she gets like this around me. I drop my eyes from her back, and make my way over to the table, setting the bread down. I don't want to just rip off the end and hand it to him, and I hold my hand out, waiting for Haymitch to hand me his knife so I can cut off the heel for him. Amidst the grime and the mess in this house, even though we're in the kitchen, I doubt I could find any other knife except for the one Haymitch keeps on his person. He hands it over as he gruffly answers my question, "Asked you to wake me without giving me pneumonia."
It's only then that I notice the empty coffee can in Katniss' hand and the fact that Haymitch is soaked with water. A smile creeps up on my face. She's so feisty; it's one of the things I love most about her. I try to hide my smile – I've come to realize that my smiling too often seems to make her uncomfortable – and duck down to grab some alcohol I can use to sanitize Haymitch's knife.
I quickly clean it, then cut off the end of the bread – Haymitch's favorite part – and give it to him. My eyes seek out Katniss of their own volition, drinking her in, as I ask, "Would you like a piece?"
Her voice has the same rigid tone that her body is giving off as she declines, adding on an extremely forced, "But thank you," at the end. She doesn't want the bread from me. Can I really blame her? She detests running into me, and I know it, and here I am, ruining her morning. It's unintentional on my part, but I'm still doing it.
The guilt that the knowledge brings makes my voice sound exactly like hers as I say back, "You're welcome." But on the inside I'm screaming why are we like this? But I know why.
In the first few weeks, when the camera crews were still here, when I loved her and she was still pretending to love me… I'm not proud of the way I felt. Angry, sad, lifeless. Just seeing her, day after day, it hurt. But while it hurt because I felt betrayed, I also hurt just because I missed her. I was rude to her then, and I held everything against her. I shouldn't have – she was just saving her life, which was exactly what I'd wanted. She didn't deserve my anger. I was a jerk, and now I have to pay the consequences.
Haymitch's voice cuts into my thoughts, "Brrr. You two have a lot of warming up to do before showtime."
Showtime. I've been dreading and anticipating it for months. Showtime is when Katniss and I will pretend to be in love again. I'm dreading it because I don't know how much of her fake love I can stand when the love I have for her is still so terrifyingly real. But I'm anticipating it because even though the warmth and affection are fake on her part, I just long to have her be with me and not absolutely dislike me, like she does now.
All Katniss says in response is, "Take a bath, Haymitch." Which, while he really needs to, makes me snicker, and she does one of her Katniss tricks that always amazes me when it happens – she swings out the window, just like it's the most natural thing in the world.
"You're in love with a bizarre broad." Haymitch tells me, as if I didn't already know. "And you two better get your shit together before this afternoon comes, and all of Panem sees you two together. Although, I doubt I need to be telling you this. You're going to do it anyway."
"Yes, I am." I say quietly. I check my watch and note the time, and that I should probably get back to my own house so I can pick up and prepare for my prep team and Portia. "I have to go. Eat some more bread… and really, you do need to take a bath."
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