She could count the amount of steps it would take to make it from the Seam to the bakery. She'd taken the walk so many times that it seemed as though it's the same route as when one would walk home. A familiar place that isn't ever discouraging to approach. Somewhere that always makes you smile because it is warm and inundated with the smell of freshly baked bread.
Except, that day, that specific day, it seemed like she couldn't reach the familiar, blue-bell painted building even if her life depended on it. She was running as fast as her feet could take her. Her hands struggling with the game bag hanging around her shoulders as the treeline rapidly fell back to reveal the electric fence that surrounded District 12. Without thinking about where they land she tossed both bow and bag to the ground, before flattening herself against the dirt and wriggling her way underneath the fence.
She nearly tripped over the edge of the meadow, onto the graveled path, in her hurry down the street that led toward town. She had to steady herself quickly, the gravel turning into concrete in only a few bounds.
People raised their heads to watch as she raced passed. A question in the raise of their eyebrow. Or a shout of "Hey!" behind her back. Some even picking up her sense of urgency, and following, albeit at a much slower pace.
Already, three streets away, she could taste and smell the smoke. High in the sky was a thin finger of smog reaching for the perfectly scorched blue. Its greasy edges smearing the horizon to imperfection. She was gasping to make up for the effort of her racing heart, flinging myself all the way to the shops that linger just outside of town square. Blitzing right by the innocent bystanders. In her haste around the last corner, she knocked a Peacekeeper to the ground, but even when he threatened her with arrests and whippings, she did not turn around to look at him.
Only when she stood in front of a smoking building did she stall in her run, slowly turning from sprint, to jog, to a heart stopping, tragic walk. Gale wasn't lying, she thought, chest rising and falling rapidly as the air stings her throat and lungs. You could see the shatter behind her perfectly grey eyes, as they clouded and cracked, widening. She had thought it was some sort of prank, a really bad joke, when Gale had arrived to their usual spot for Sunday hunting, and he told her in passing comment that the bakery had caught fire.
It wasn't one, though.
The Peacekeepers that were sent by the Justice Building to make sure the whole district didn't burn down with the bakery were working on putting the flames out. Most of the outer ones had been tamed, the friendly neighbors to the Mellarks having helped kick at the smaller flames or tossed bucketfuls of water onto the ravished establishment. Somehow, even at her distance, over the loud noise of the Peacekeepers and citizens, she could hear the wooden supports of the bakery creaking underneath the roof's weight.
Fire leaped from the shattered windows like birds with flaming wings, fluttering at the open air, reaching with insubstantial, dancing talons that are the color of scarlet and sunset, hoping for freedom. Drawing in the oxygen like a living thing, feeding on the weak, molded structure of the bakery.
She took a step closer, just as the roof shudders, caught fire, the flames licking at the horizon, and it caved in on the whole place. A noise escaped her mouth, without permission, horrified, as she threw herself closer to the bakery, eyes careening through the crowd. Then she spotted one of them, the father, his father, on his knees, crying into his hands.
Katniss felt an icy, terrifyingly awful fear sink inside her to her toes. No. It couldn't be. She had only heard Gale say the bakery caught fire five minutes ago. She had run as fast as she could. She came despite the look of shock and confusion that crossed Gale's face when she reacted badly to the news. How could she have been wrong to hope? Quick to panic, about a boy she hardly knew.. a man, really, since they had both graduated half a year before..
So when she walked forward, nearing the family, she felt numb. An empty shell, who shouldn't be there. She hadn't even seen him since the end of their schooling years. It was always his father who handled the hunting trades at the bakery. She hadn't honestly thought about him since the last reaping when he had caught her eye across town square and shared with her a relieved smile, that she couldn't help returning, knowing that she was finally safe from the Hunger Games. But that was it. One glance. One smile. Not even a word of greeting.
So why was she there? She shouldn't care. Even though she had been thinking that, she found herself walking toward Mr. Mellark, weaving effortlessly through the gathered crowd of spectators. For some odd reason she felt numb, yet terrified. An empty shell, who shouldn't be here, but her throat closed over slightly, know why she'd come. Except, she fell to her knees in front of Mr. Mellark anyway. She ignored the mother and the broths, and she grabbed at the man's hands, tearing them from his face by the wrists, and when the grown man's eyes widen at the sight of her pale face hovering in front of his, he instantly enveloped her into a hug.
She stiffened, unsure, not one for hugs, but stayed put. If only for the old man's sake.
She refused to cry. Or speak. Or listen to the Peacekeepers who were hurriedly saying things to the Mellarks. Who were all too beyond words to be counseled anyway. The mother was furious over the loss of their business. The father was a mess of anguish, while the brothers glanced at Katniss oddly with red rimmed eyes. She doesn't feel awkward though, sitting on the ground with that man she hardly knew. The other people in town watching from the sidelines, pointing, muttering to each other about why the Seam girl might be there, went unheard by her ears. No, she only felt horrible, twisting pains in her chest. Knowing in an odd, certain way, that she would miss the boy with the bread. A boy she never thanked properly. Some boy she owed her life and her family's life to.
And she looked at the gathered Mellarks, numbly, seeing with her cool, calculating grey eyes that there was a reason they were one short. Then, the grown man that clutched her tightly by the shoulders, sobbed, "I-It was the smoke, that did it." He turned his head, indicated somewhere to their left, and Katniss sucked in a sharp breath.
He looked like he was sleeping, blonde curls laying against his seamless forehead. Eyes closed to the world. Lips parted slightly. The only thing Peeta was missing was the rising of his chest, the well being of his smoke-stained clothes. Katniss rose slowly, eyes only for the boy laid motionlessly in the grass, surrounded by officials. She walked over, stood, and heard one of the brothers say to the other, "Why didn't he wake?" They were distressed, frustrated, grief-stricken. "How come nothing woke him? What sick cruel odds does this to a person!"
Her chest felt tight, staring down at the corpse. She was wondering the same thing.
What kind of odds just lets someone so good and so kind slip right out the world? Then again, maybe it was a mercy. Maybe Peeta deserved the silent, painless death in his sleep. Maybe she was being stupid for even coming here, and she thought that, when she couldn't bear looking at the dead body any longer.
No. She ran, fled. Couldn't understand. Wouldn't accept.
Later, when the stars were out and she went wandering into the night, still numb, she found herself next to the pile of charred wood and melted ovens that was the bakery in District 12.
She stood under an old apple tree, hit it with her back, slid down its length, and began to cry.