We carried on like this for a month. A whole, maddening month. My shoulder was finally starting to heal, and with the new medicines some of the workers of the district had begun producing, pain was minimal. I could finally hunt again. More and more new citizens – wide-eyed with the possibilities that awaited them here – flocked in. There were so many of us that I couldn't provide everyone with fresh meat. There were other hunters too that would contribute. We'd hunt and some of the women in the district would cook. Peeta still baked in our spacious kitchen, but not that I ever saw him. Haymitch insisted I was out when Peeta was free to wander to the house.
I felt like he was a prisoner, and it destroyed me to know he was locked away and handcuffed whenever I was around. The slips weren't quite so frequent, and Haymitch even confided in me that he thought he was finally start to get through to him. They could talk and share memories. Sometimes there would be a flicker of something pass over Peeta's eyes, shadowing them. But it would fade quickly and he'd smile and continue onwards with the conversation.
That was something, right? I started trading some of the meat I'd fetch with the people of the district and was even making some friends, but nothing could replace Peeta. The house felt so empty and I always felt alone there. And one of the most terrifying things about the whole mess? I was getting used to the nightmares.
To pass the time, I kept myself busy. I was rarely in the house except for some in the morning, and of course to go to bed at night. I just couldn't be there; it was maddening. But one day, that all changed. It was evening, and I was sitting by the fire just staring into the flames as they lapped and licked at each other like tongues. Orange. The glow of the embers was a soft orange – like a sunset. I close my eyes and lean back against the couch, memories play through my mind like reels of film when suddenly the door opens a crack, and Peeta is standing there.
Haymitch raises an eyebrow as he peers over to top of his newspaper that he's reading. My breath catches in my throat. He still looks the same, but there's something different – a kind of tired wearing in his eyes. I want to go to him like I did that day in the snow, and run into his arms – only this time, it wouldn't be for show. I don't. I straighten and my mouth forms a fraction of a smile. It's the only greeting I can make myself give – I don't think my mouth would be capable of forming words right now. Peeta is holding something in his hand, brown and worn. It takes me a minute to realize it's a book.
"It's old, older than any other book I've read but it's good," he comes closer to me, but still keeps his distance. He holds the book out to me and I reach out for it. When I grasp it, our eyes meet and he continues –
"I thought you'd like it. The uh…the main character reminds me of you."
I run my fingers across the binding and crack it open to the first page. The pages are yellowed and spotted with brown age marks, but I can make out the words JOAN OF ARC on that first page. A small smile crosses my lips. Something tells me that I am going to like this book, and I am grateful for Peeta for sharing it with me.
"Thank you," I say, closing the book and meeting his eyes again – the whole while Haymitch is watching intently, thinking he's being sneaky behind his newspaper and failing miserably at it, "How are you?"
"Okay," he answers and I hope he's being honest with me, "How are you?"
"Okay," I set the book down on the coffee table in front of me and nod towards the spot on the couch next to me, asking him to see. Haymitch shifts slightly in his chair and Peeta runs a hand through his hair as if trying to decide if he should or not.
"I won't bite," I encourage and he grunts a half-laugh half-snort again – the only thing close to a laugh I've really heard him make in a rather long time.
Peeta rolls his eyes good-naturedly and sits down next to me. His tone changed as he said, "But mutts do."
I scowled at him and he bothered his lower lip between his teeth. He knew I hated it when he brought up that sort of thing. I hated it when he called himself that horrible word. He wasn't a mutt. He hadn't been ruined – he was still my Peeta. I could see it in his eyes, when they weren't glazed over, that sparkle that was only his. He leans forward to the fire and rubs his hands together before leaning back against the couch, "How's the shoulder?"
"A lot better. I'm hunting again…" I realize he already knows that as soon as the words spill out and I realize I must sound like a total moron. It doesn't faze him though –
"Well that's good," he says genuinely, "I am really…"
"It's fine, Peeta," I try to sound assuring, but it's difficult, "I am glad you came out of hiding. I've missed you."
"It's for the best. I just wanted to give you the book, and I knew Haymitch would be here so…yeah. I just can't be around you, Katniss," and as he says it, I swear I hear his heart cracking, "I can't risk hurting you again. It's like I blacked out that night. I can't risk another blackout. What if I do something even worse to you? What if I kill you?"
"It's too risky."
"But you're working with him," I turn to Haymitch who starts making these random throat-clearing sounds, and I think he's rather taken back with the fact that we've actually noticed him sitting there, "Right?"
"Well yes, but nothing is definite. I've never done this before, Katniss. I'm trying, but I am no expert. Peeta is doing quite well, but he's been away from you. I don't know what would happen if he had another slip with you here. We can't risk it."
"No…" I shake my head.
"Katniss, it's for the best. I just can't be around you. I can't hurt you. Just thinking of hurting you kills me, sweetheart. How can you not see?"
"No!" My voice is harsh and I jump up from the couch. Haymitch raises an eyebrow, startled by my sudden outburst, "Don't you realize what being a part from you will do to me? Do you realize what it's already done?"
Haymitch coughs slightly and says, "Girl, you know we're all in a tough spot in this. It's not easy for any of us but…Peeta has considered moving to…"
"Katniss…" Peeta's voice is its constantly gentle tone and it makes me want to shake him; how can he be so calm about everything when I was breaking, "It's for the best. I can't be around you. I could slip and hurt you."
"Then hurt me."
I turn and stand before him, so close that our chests are practically touching him, "Hurt me," I dare him, raising an eyebrow, "Do whatever it is you think you're programed to do. Hurt me. Kill me. Whatever. Just do it."
Peeta's eyes are swimming back in forth with confusion and his lips part slightly as he shakes his head. He reaches up and touches the ends of my hair with his fingertips, and suddenly I am standing in the arena again, berries in my hand.
"You aren't. You didn't even clench your fists…"
"Katniss, I could never hurt you; but sometimes I turn into this monster and that…that thing isn't me. I don't know what it will do, and I have no control over it. It could hurt you. I never would, but it can and it will if I am allowed to be around you."
"So this books is a parting gift?" I raise an eyebrow towards the book on the table.
"Haymitch and I were thinking it would be best if I lived elsewhere. You can't sleep outside of my bedroom door on the floor each night, sweetheart."
"Then I'll sleep outside on the porch of wherever you live. Peeta…don't do this."
"Katniss, what choice do I have? I don't have any control over this thing inside of me. I wish I did. I really do. I don't know how to tame it, but…"
"Then let's figure out how to tame it…together. Peeta, for the past few years, everything we have done has been together. Why not this? We survived the games together…" I knew as soon as I said it, I shouldn't have. Something glazed over his eyes, and his jaw set tightly. I kept my words steady as I continued, "…we can survive this too. If you give it a chance."
"Can't you do something?" I glare at Haymitch who is staring quite intently at the rug beneath his feet, "Please?"
Haymitch didn't say anything other than, "I'm sorry, girl." That's all he said a few weeks later when Peeta went to move into one of the new houses that were built behind some of the shops. A bakery was being built, and I had been told by Haymitch that we would be working there. I began to wonder if I would see Peeta again before having to go to the Capitol together.
I didn't even say goodbye to Peeta when he left. Haymitch helped him take some of his personal items over to his new house, and I stayed locked away in my bedroom. I watched them though, through the bedroom window, peering out from behind the curtain. Peeta's shoulders were stooped and he had a look of defeat shadowing his eyes. I wanted to run to him and tell him to stop, not to go. But I didn't. I stayed frozen in place. He even glanced up at the window, and I slipped back behind the curtain before he could make eye contact with me, certain that if he did, I would cry.
The first night without him in the house was unbearable. I tried to sleep, and stay in my own bed, but the whole thing was just miserable. I cried silent tears into Buttercup's displeased fur. I just didn't know what to do with myself without Peeta there – a thought that shook me to the marrow.
I had always been so strong, so independent. I took care of Prim when mom checked out. I took care of Rue the best I could, and Peeta. I tried to insure they were safe, as well as my own safety. I fought for so much in that arena. I was the girl on fire. I was the mockingjay.
So then why did I suddenly feel so broken without Peeta?
Peeta Mellark of all people. I roll over and burry my face into the pillows, allowing the down to soak up the tears instead of Buttercup – to which I am sure he is grateful. I try to bite my lip to keep from crying, but stop the moment I taste rust in my mouth. Everything had been turned on a dime. Everything was so different. This world wasn't the same. It could never be the same.
And how was I supposed to survive without him there to hold my hand?