I am pulling on my jacket when he taps my arm and asks if we can talk. I search his voice for hints that he intends to bring up something I'd rather not discuss, but he sounds like the rational baker Peeta so I nod.
He walks behind the front counter and I hoist myself onto a bar stool, lean my elbows on the smooth counter surface and begin mindlessly fiddling with a stray coin.
"Katniss," he begins, and the slight hesitance in his voice makes my head snap up because he is going to say something that he knows will bother me. Unexplained rage begins banging against the walls of my stomach. I am about to leave when he spills out a string of words so incoherently and unlike Peeta that I halt. I scrunch my eyes at him.
He breathes deeply and paces slowly away from me. "Is it okay if you start working in the main kitchen now? Things are getting pretty busy and we need more hands." He turns back to me, "You can say no," he adds quickly.
"Oh," is all I can get out, because the intentions of the boy in front of me do not match the rage I had possessed towards him not a minute ago. The banging in my stomach ebbs as the crazed rage loses it's meaning, if it even had one to begin with. I manage to croak a "why not?" and am instantly rewarded with a wide smile that almost reaches his eyes. I smile back, but I think it looks more like a grimace. He doesn't seem to notice because he begins chattering excitedly about the appliances in the main kitchen.
I sit reluctantly, hearing but not really listening to Peeta's words. It is evening, the shop void of anyone except for the two of us. After a whole day of measuring sugar and flour, I'm itching to get outside. Maybe even hunt.
He pauses to ask me if I am following along, and I nod or mumble an answer even though all I caught was something about 'dough consistency' and the 'right temperatures'. I get very lost somewhere in the middle of 'kneading techniques', so I just take to watching Peeta talk animatedly about his beloved carbohydrate. It's a wonder that he's still so enthusiastic about it after working with it everyday since he was ten. I watch the way his hands move as he talks, discover the absentminded way he runs a hand through his hair when he thinks, and see the steadiness that he once brought to everything gradually showing its familiar face again. Here is Peeta in his element. Not in front of the cameras or the prying eyes of the Capitol citizens. But in an empty bakery with a girl who has given him nothing but pain and heartache in return for his kindness and devotion.
Judging from the eyebrows arched so high that they camouflage with his wavy fringe, he must have discovered my lack of attentiveness. To my embarrassment I blush, the most inappropriate response to the situation, and try to keep alert for the rest of his spiel.
By the time he finishes, my eyelids are losing the battle against sleep and the hard tabletop looks very inviting. Then, there is a warm hand helping me out of the chair, and I am slung over something strong and warm. A part of me wants to protest, but the other sleep-deprived one drowns it out. I automatically wrap my arms tightly around it, burying my face in the deep earthy scent of baked bread and dill.
A jolt brings me back, and my half-open eyes recognise my bedroom from the flickering bedside lamp that I haven't bothered replacing. I make out Peeta's silhouette slumped onto the chair on my right. I try to squeeze the weariness out of my eyes. He seems to be clutching his leg. I don't have time to wonder why because the blanket is carefully placed up to my ears, pulling me back down to slumber.
That night, I dream of my father. But it isn't the long-forgotten nightmares that come to haunt me. He is walking by me in the woods, strong and whole and alive, teaching me about the wonders and secrets of the forest, singing to the mockingjays and trying to coax a tune out of me. Then there are snippets of him, my mother and Prim…talking and smiling and laughing over a pot of burnt stew. My nine-year-old self pleading with him to tuck me into bed, to which he jokingly shakes his head. His rich voice is the last thing I hear before the covers are pulled up around my ears and I drift off.
The next morning I am shaken awake by Greasy Sae, who hands me a bowl of porridge and tells me to eat. Once I shovel every bit of the sticky mixture into my mouth, she leaves and I wash up and braid my hair quickly down my back. I notice the freshly pressed shirt and pants laid neatly at the foot of my bed. I wonder what the occasion is, and am about to walk out in yesterday's clothes when I remember the long one-sided conversation that took place in the empty bakery last night. I glance at the clock on the bedside table. Seven-fifty. I'm very late. I throw on the clothes and bolt out the door.
The sky is overcast, the town still asleep on this early Saturday morning. What's left of the town at least. I do not let my eyes wander around. I walk stiffly past the empty florist's shop where Prim used to get free primroses, past the colourless sweet shop where she always tugged me towards to watch the candy being made. As always, I remind myself to only move forward. Place one foot in front of the other, Katniss. Don't turn back, Katniss. Get to Peeta's bakery.
When I reach the front door, I squeeze my eyes and take a deep breath. It's a miracle that I have turned up in front of the 'open' sign without once deliberating going back and lying under the covers for the rest of the day. I push the door open, the tinkling of the bell announcing my arrival. Peeta barely looks up at me from his kneading.
"Morning, Katniss. The others are in the back already," he says.
Gin gives me a small smile when I walk into the kitchen. She is hunched over some trays, lining them up with some paper. I smile politely back. Hildy enters with a basketful of the ingredients I prepared the day before, commenting on how difficult it's going to be with an extra person in the kitchen. Gin clears her throat, and Hildy notices me. She gives me a curt nod and starts sorting packets and jars into different shelves. I stand there awkwardly with my hands in my pockets, pretending to be occupied with the mockingjay that has joined two others on the apple tree outside the window.
"Katniss?" Peeta's voice interrupts me. My blank look must have conveyed my reluctance to be there and he says, "You can line the dough on the tray for today. Let Gin and Hildy take care of the rest."
I nod, and he gives me a reassuring smile before disappearing through the flap, leaving me alone again. I take one last glance at the mockingjay outside, clenching my fists in an effort to keep myself from leaving, to remain as it has on the branch of the apple tree.
Peeta told you to do something, Katniss. Do it.
"Okay," I whisper, slipping the pale orange apron over my head.
A minute, hour and day goes by. I do not think. I do not speak. I lift the dough and place it on the tray mechanically, one by one, row my row. I drown out everything that isn't soft dough. Peeta comes in to check on the bread occasionally. There are many customers today. The tinkling of the bell at the front door becomes mundane, blending into the everyday sounds of people chatting and the clatter of forks on plates.
Dusk has fallen when I finish. I can't stand being idle so I wipe all the bench tops and put the ingredients back onto their respective shelves. I am about to sit on a stool when the timer for the oven rings. I look around quickly for Gin or Hildy, but it seems they are both serving customers out front. The heavy rain and voices are too loud for Peeta to have heard the ringing. I try to remember what he told me the night before, but nothing surfaces and I curse myself silently for not paying attention.
In panic and desperation, I yank the oven door open and grab the heavy hot tray with both hands. I yelp, my fingers tipping the tray, sending the loaves of perfectly good bread into the flames. Peeta rushes in and quickly turns the oven off. The flames die down to reveal the ugly charcoal-black loaves that mean wasted time, effort and money.
Peeta grabs my hands. "We should get some burn medicine for this."
The burn on my palms can't seem to match the fire raging in my chest, the anger at the burnt loaves. I jerk away from him, hastily gather the burnt loaves in my shirt and stalk out the backdoor.
"Katniss, wait!" he calls.
I ignore him, the pouring rain drenching me almost instantly. It soothes my hands, which I now see are quite badly burnt. I trudge through the muddy alleyway behind the bakery, my hot angry tears mixing with the cool rain. The heat from the burnt bread seeps through my shirt, and I clutch them tightly to hide the failure they represent.
I don't know why I stop, maybe because I don't want him to have to chase me with his limp. I turn and he stumbles slowly toward me, each step adding a new degree of pain to his face. He finally reaches me and smiles wryly. Suddenly I feel the need to defend myself.
"Go ahead, laugh," I challenge, glaring at him.
To his credit, Peeta just bites his lip and reaches for the bread. I flinch, holding them tighter, but he takes one of my hands and examines the burn. "Go ask Haymitch for some medicine. It'll be fine by tomorrow." And with that, he drops my hand, snatches the loaves from my shirt and hobbles back to the bakery.
"You're taking away my dinner too?" I yell, the sweet rain dripping into my mouth. He doesn't falter in his steps, making me want to shout at him more so I spew anything that comes to mind.
"Burned bread for dinner? I thought you only liked cheese buns."
"I like it!" I snap, turning on my heel to stomp briskly home, up the stairs and into my room. Slamming the door behind me, I strip off my soaked clothes and lie under the covers, fuming.
I am awakened the next day by the morning sun, not by Greasy Sae, because on Sunday the bakery closes and Peeta usually comes to accompany me. Peeta. My stomach growls and I remember my annoyance at him and decide that it's good that he hasn't shown up today. I drag myself off the bed, pick a grey shirt and pants and make my way slowly to the kitchen.
The first thing that hits me is the rich smell of cheese. I see a cloth-covered mountain of something sitting on the middle of the kitchen table. I approach it warily, as though it is an animal ready to attack me, and notice a folded sheet of paper sticking out from under it. I pick it up and recognise Peeta's neat cursive writing: Your favourite.
I peer under the cloth, and there lies a plate of my favourite cheese buns, carefully and thoughtfully burnt on the tops.