I haven't spoken to Peeta since that afternoon with the primrose. I will admit I am too embarrassed to confront him after my breakdown, and Peeta, always being the gentleman, is giving me space to deal with my demons.
Despite my social inadequacies, he still comes every day to tend to those bushes. I think he sees me in the window, watching him with tears in my eyes for my lost sister, but he never acknowledges me.
Even if we don't speak, his presence is a comfort. It reminds me that I'm not as alone as I sometimes believe. Peeta is still here. Haymitch is only a short distance away. There is still life in District 12 even if I myself feel like an empty shell.
This morning, I awoke from a particularly horrifying nightmare. It involved Finnick, though many of them do. No matter how hard I try, I can't keep myself from reliving his death in my dreams at least once a week. Each time it feels worse than the last: bloodier, more violent. This morning, the mutts hadn't just killed Finnick. They'd killed his unborn child as well.
It was a lingering vision that made me wish Annie hadn't called earlier this week to share her happy news. It might be a blessing to her, but for me it was just one more thing to bring into my personal hell.
Wanting to force this horrible memory from my mind, I pull on my boots and stomp out the front door. I don't really have any place in mind to go. I just need to get out of my house. It only makes me think of Prim. It won't help lessen the pain of my dream to replace it with thoughts of my dead sister. That would only double my misery.
The first time he calls my name, I ignore it, thinking it to be only another memory, another thing I've lost along the way. Then he says it again, clear and with purpose. Trying to keep the surprise from showing, I turn to face him. My eyebrows arch with my silent query. After all this time in silence, what could he possibly want?
Peeta makes his way toward me from his front yard as quickly as his metal leg will allow. Watching him struggle makes me feel guilty. Despite his best efforts to assure me that I saved his life in our first games, I still feel as if losing his leg was my fault. If I'd been better, maybe he wouldn't have lost it.
I also feel guilty because he is rushing. It's as if he's afraid I might bolt if given the chance. I can't really blame him for thinking as much. Last time we spoke, I ran into my house and slammed the door.
"Katniss," he says a little breathlessly as he reaches my side.
"Peeta," I return. My voice sounds hoarse from lack of use. The only company I have nowadays is Greasy Sae, and she respects my wish for silence.
Peeta's face breaks into a giant smile at my greeting, as if I've done something more than simply say his name. He doesn't wait to start up our conversation, because he knows I won't be the one to do it. "I was just wondering what your plans were for Halloween," he inquires with an eager expression.
"Halloween?" I ask in confusion.
"You didn't hear about Halloween." He frowns and his lips purse thoughtfully. "I assumed…" He shakes his head before he offers me an encouraging smile. "The kids found an old magazine in District 13 about Halloween. It's a holiday they used to have before…" He waves a hand vaguely in the air. "Children used to dress up in crazy costumes and go door to door collecting treats from their neighbors."
My vision of children in costume consists of them looking like grotesque version of the citizens of the Capitol. I shiver in horror at the idea and automatically turn my body to walk away. "I don't think I'll be participating," I inform him stiffly.
To my surprise, Peeta reaches out and grabs my shoulders to keep me from leaving. "It's just meant to be for fun, Katniss. It was their idea," he says of the meager number of children in District 12. "They don't have much to get excited about, so this is important."
He pauses and drops his hands away from my shoulders. "There aren't many people in 12 who have the ability to give anything to them. Many people still don't have their own homes yet, let alone enough resources to give something away."
I feel guilt overwhelm me once again. I am better off than most people in District 12, but there is still one problem with Peeta's idea. "I don't have anything to give them," I point out.
This only causes his grin to widen. "I know the perfect thing for you to give. If you go out into the woods today, you could pick a basket full of berries. I have little mesh bags left over from the bakery we can wrap them in and ribbon to tie off the bags." He continues on without even waiting for me to object. "I can bake a couple dozen cookies for me to hand out while you do that. It'll be fun."
My eyebrows arch at this. Fun? I don't remember what fun is. I usually settle for not miserable, and sometimes even that is hard to obtain. I go to argue, to find some excuse, but Peeta cuts me off.
"Please?" he wheedles, his expression nearly pleading.
I can't say no. After every horror that Peeta has endured because of me, I owe him. That is how my afternoon came to consist of me picking more berries than I could ever eat myself.
X X X
Sitting at Peeta's kitchen table is an odd experience. His house looks much like mine on the outside, but the comparisons end there. The basic frame and structure is the same, but where mine is the place I merely exist, Peeta's is a home.
My walls are barren. I have no decorations, no photos, nothing of sentimental value. Just stepping into Peeta's front hall lets you know that he has memories he doesn't wish to forget. A large oil painting of his family when you first walk in the door is impossible to miss. It's as if he wants to force visitors to remember who he lost in the war.
My kitchen is nearly uninhabited. I don't cook. I don't bake. I have no real need for it. Even without him in it, Peeta's kitchen is a testament that someone lives here. His large oven is on and full of cookies. Flour smatters the counter. Stray baking ingredients litter the marble surface. The place just feels like Peeta, warm and comforting.
I look up from the ribbon I am wrapping around one of the mesh bags and study Peeta as he enters the room with a little container of cinnamon in his hand. He looks confident and sure of himself here in his kitchen. I am almost jealous that Peeta has found his niche back in 12. I even heard rumor that they are rebuilding the bakery for him. When he bakes, he looks…happy. I don't even remember what that's like.
Peeta grabs a cookie from a plate where he has at least two dozen cooling already. Turning to face me, he holds out the cookie with a hopeful expression. "Would you like to be my taste tester?"
Things had been quiet and comfortable before this moment. Upon my arrival, we'd greeted each other softly then set to work. This is his first attempt to socialize with me.
Trying not to ruin his effort, I reach out and take the cookie from him. "You know they're good," I assure him, though I break off a tiny piece and pop it into my mouth. I moan at the taste of chocolate chips melting on my tongue. In the Capitol, I'd had many different foods. Nothing compared to this. I'd never had anything right out of the oven, still gooey and hot. "Peeta," I mumble around the next bite of cookie I shove into my mouth. "These are amazing."
The smile that lights up his face at my compliment makes my heart constrict with a sensation close to pain. It is so easy for me to please him, my boy with the bread. A random compliment is all it takes to make Peeta smile. How easy it is, yet the majority of what I've brought him is pain.
Unaware of my internal struggle, Peeta slides into the seat next to mine and gently takes the mesh bag of berries from my hands. "These turned out really nice," he compliments earnestly.
I shrug, unable to accept his compliment. I don't deserve it after everything I've done to him, and the idea was his anyway.
He glances at the clock above his stove, and I can see the eagerness plainly on his face. "Halloween officially starts in a few minutes. Are you going home to hand out your berries?" He turns his attention to me and runs a hand nervously through his blond hair before continuing, "You could always stay here if you want. We could do it together."
Before I can even answer, there is a knock at his door. "Looks like I don't have a choice," I inform him. "Someone's early." I'm glad for the opportunity to stay. These last few hours have been the most peaceful ones I've had since returning home. We don't have to say much to each other. Peeta's presence alone is enough to satisfy my need for company. I find myself surprised to admit that I've missed him.
The companionable afternoon we just spent together is the first time I feel like I've really been with him since before the Quarter Quell. In District 13, things were too complicated. He'd never been the same after the Capitol got ahold of him…until now.
I smile at that thought, possibly the first genuine one I've had since Prim's death. Climbing to my feet, I grab a handful of my berry pouches and follow Peeta to the front door.
The children on his front step look so excited, it's almost comical. Their costumes aren't what I envisioned at all. One boy is a ghost. He wears an old, ratty sheet with eye holes cut into it. Another little boy laughs in embarrassment as his friends hassle him for donning his sister's dress and going as a girl.
There isn't anything Capitol about these costumes. They are costumes done by those who are used to going without. A sheet, an old dress, a scarecrow made from spare straw and a flannel t-shirt.
I watch Peeta as he reaches out to the little girl dressed as a scarecrow and hands her a cookie. His expression is so open, so caring as he talks to her. Something about this scene is so touching, it brings tears to my eyes. My throat feels thick, and I have to bite my lip to keep my emotions under control. These are Seam children, children who have lost loved ones just like we have.
Peeta turns to give me room to pass out my berries when he catches the expression on my face. Understanding fills his eyes, and he offers his hand out to me.
I take it and let him pull me forward toward the little kids. The fact that I don't need to voice what I'm feeling aloud is one of the best things about Peeta. He just knows. He's gone through the same terrors I have, so at times it feels as if he can read my mind.
When I'm even with the children, his hand goes to my back in a show of silent support.
I need it too, because when I hand the scarecrow her little bag of berries, her eyes light up in sheer delight. I want to cry over the sad fact that a handful of berries are so special to these children. They've starved while those in the Capitol gorged themselves until they vomited. This girl is a reminder of why I fought, why I became the Mockingjay. She is a symbol of the good we've done for our District. Without having to ask, I know that Peeta's thoughts mirror my own.
X X X
In my nightmare, Prim is screaming for me. She yells my name over and over while flames consume her body. Despite my own burning agony, I concentrate on Prim. I watch the skin melt from her face, watch as fire consumes my little sister.
I bolt upright from my dream with a scream. I am shaking so uncontrollably that I don't think I'll ever stop. My eyes scan the unfamiliar surroundings of the room with terror, and I swing an arm out in a desperate attempt to throw off the blanket someone's tucked over my shoulder. Not knowing where I am makes me panic. It isn't until arms wrap around me and force me to stop trashing that I remember I'm at Peeta's house. I'd fallen asleep on his couch while he cleaned up the last of our Halloween treats.
It wasn't Prim repeating my name over and over again but him. He holds me tightly, my back pressed against his chest. His hands are on my wrists to keep me from striking out, but I'm done now. The dream is fading to leave me a trembling mess, a shell of the girl I'd been before the war.
I hate showing emotion in front of others, but I can't stop the sob that forces its way from my throat as the dream continues to fade, taking with it the last image of Prim I will ever have. Another follows, and soon I'm weeping uncontrollably.
Peeta doesn't ask any questions. Once again, he doesn't need to. He just tightens his arms around me and whispers softly in my ear. His words aren't anything specific, just general expressions of comfort.
Despite their lack of substance, Peeta's words are exactly what I need. His arms are what I need. I recall those nights on the train before the Quarter Quell when Peeta would keep my nightmares at bay. I need that now more than I've ever needed anything in my life. Back then, the nightmares hadn't involved Prim or Finnick. They hadn't been nearly as bad as the ones that have been plaguing me over the past few weeks. "Don't leave me," I beg him, my left hand coming up to cling to the arm he has stretched across my chest, so that his palm cups my shoulder.
I know my request is unfair. After everything I've done to this boy, how can I beg him to stay with me? After all the pain I've caused, how can he still want to?
Somehow, he does still want my friendship. Inexplicably, Peeta still has it in his heart to care for me. "I'm not going anywhere," he whispers in reassurance. Shifting on the small couch, he manages to wedge himself behind me. His arms leave me for only the moment it takes to situate himself. Then he's holding me once again. His left arm keeps me securely tucked back against his chest while his right hand slides soothingly through my hair.
While he holds me, I cry myself to sleep, my tears dripping down to the cushions of his couch. My heart is full of suffering and I am far from being a functioning citizen of District 12, but that night, for the first time in weeks, I don't have any more nightmares.