The familiar smell of baking bread wafted into his nose, warming him. An already baked loaf of bread sat in a tin on top of the wood burning stove, and another was nearly finished in the oven. Peeta wiped the flour from his hands, the bits of dough falling from the crevices of his skin into the metal sink. It was a good to feel that again. Comforting and familiar.
The temperature had risen outside while everyone napped and he baked; the melting snow was dripping off the roof onto the muddy ground below it. Steam rose from the soggy earth, and the constant dripping sound was strangely comforting. Maybe spring would arrive just yet.
His skin still stung a little where Katniss' nails had lightly scraped him earlier. Peeta felt his lips turn upward into a smile as he let himself bask in the memory of it. That was one injury he didn't mind a bit.
"I take it all went well then? No one gave you any trouble?"
Peeta looked up from his little trance. His father was sitting at the kitchen table with some tea, his bad leg propped up on the stool beside him. He knew his father had been worried to send him to the Hob, but that idea only made Peeta smirk. He'd been more than safe with Katniss.
"No. No trouble."
After their storage room tryst, Katniss had given him an almost shy smile before slipping from the room. While she'd napped on the floor by the stove with Prim, he'd taken it upon himself to start baking. He planned on making dinner that night with what was left of Prim's goat cheese and some dried herbs. Melted onto fresh bread and paired with some cured meat, it wouldn't be a half bad supper. Then again, they were all at the point where just about anything wouldn't have been a half bad supper. He was just starting the second loaf when his father had tip-toed into the kitchen to talk about his day.
"When will her mom be back?"
"Went to see the neighbor she helped a few days ago. Wanted to make sure those babies were alright. Said she'd been gone a few hours," his father sighed. His calloused fingertips drummed on the table for a moment.
Peeta picked up a towel, moving the hot tin of baked bread from the stove to the countertop. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed the far-off look in his father's eyes when he talked about Mrs. Everdeen. It was obvious there was something there.
"Okay. Just wondering," he sniffed, brushing more flour off his hands. "You hungry?"
His father glanced over at him. "Oh….erm, yes."
Peeta frowned slightly, but understood. Hunger was usually at the front of everyone's mind in District 12 – that much wasn't new. However, he understood that even hunger could take a backseat when one was worried about another person. In his case, it was Katniss. He had been easy to ignore the loosening pant waist and constant clench of hunger in his belly when he was too busy worrying about her. He supposed that wasn't too different for his dad.
He turned around to lean on the counter. "I got a lot of money today. It went well. Katniss is a good barterer."
"Nothing about her told me she wouldn't be," his father chuckled softly, shaking his head. Peeta noticed his hands go to twist the wedding band that was no longer there. Realizing his mistake, his father noticeably grimaced. A pang of pain sliced through Peeta's heart. Turning back around, he began carefully slicing the warm loaf.
"You keep that money. When this is over, you can use it to start over."
"Not sure there will be anything to start over for," Peeta sighed. "Not even sure what I'd want to do with it."
His father cleared his throat. "You erm…wouldn't have to bake. Not to keep me happy, anyway. Use it to start over. Start your life. Don't think you have to be a baker."
Peeta sniffed, straightening the pieces of bread he'd just cut. He gave his father an appreciative glance over his shoulder.
"Thanks, but….I think baking is the only thing I can do."
His father was quiet for a moment.
"Just be sure that…whatever you do you…you don't have any regrets, son."
Peeta turned around, leaning on the counter. "What do you mean?" he asked, even though it was obvious. It was impossible to miss the way his father looked at Katniss' mother. The longing glances, the tentative smiles, the way his voice changed when he talked to her or about her. It was obvious that the only regret he has was the woman who had sewn up his leg. Did he even miss the woman who had been blown to pieces in the bakery?
"I just want you to know-"
"-Dad, look….it's alright. You don't have to-"
His father grimaced, shaking his head again as if he was trying to shoo away whatever unpleasant thing he was thinking. Peeta was certain he knew what his father was thinking. His brothers were dead, and so was his mother. The mother that yelled at him, hit him, humiliated him all those years. His father didn't have to say what he was struggling over. It was clear enough.
How could they mourn someone and at the same time be relieved that they were gone?
"I think….I should have done things differently. In my life, that is."
His father held up his hand. "Not to say that I'm not pleased with you and…and your brothers," he sighed sadly. "You boys are….and were…the light of my life. Best thing I ever did was you kids."
He paused a moment, his cheeks growing slowly ruddy with emotion. His jaw clenched and unclenched as he fought a sudden onslaught of something. Peeta watched, his hands tightening against the wooden countertop. In the living room, Katniss and Prim still napped in front of the fire, oblivious to all of this. Peeta wondered if Katniss really had any idea how his father felt about her mother.
"I never told her. How I felt," he muttered softly. "Wouldn't have mattered. She was over the moon for Everdeen, always was. Didn't stand a chance."
Peeta glanced at his father. "I know the feeling."
They exchanged wry smiles. "Yes, you do. But you made a move. You changed your fate. Paid dearly for it, but…you did it. You did what I couldn't do, son."
Peeta winced at the mention of the painful memory that had changed his fate with Katniss; he had scars from it that he would carry the rest of his life. But in moments like the one they'd shared just an hour ago in her mother's storage room, he knew it was completely worth it. If he died tomorrow at the hands of the Capitol, he would at least die knowing that he'd lived.
"It wasn't easy. I paid for it," Peeta replied darkly. He started arranging the cut pieces of bread on a metal tray, spreading goat cheese over it with a dull knife. The creamy substance started to melt almost instantly against the still-warm bread. His insides felt like they were being stabbed with hunger as he prepared the food.
"You did. When I heart you'd been whipped, I thought for sure it was some stunt. Maybe the Peace Keepers were using you to set some sort of example. Some sort of show to let everyone know that not even the town folks were safe from it all. But then your mother came home fuming….I heard her mutter something about Katniss and I knew. I almost knew what had happened."
Peeta bit back a smile. "You did?"
His father shrugged. "Didn't take much for me to figure it out, that's for sure. I'd seen the way you looked at her. Recognized it when she came into the bakery. I may have….looked at someone similarly over the years. It's not hard to see it when it's a look you know yourself."
"Right," Peeta sighed. "Well I guess I was just tired of standing by. I had to do something to show her I was….alive. In the same district as her. I didn't think she even cared who I was before that and I just…went a little nuts I guess. I don't even remember having to think about going up to that podium," he shrugged. "I sound like a fool."
"No," his father sighed. "Just a man in love. You did what you had to do, and now…."
"Now we have to wait and see I guess. I'm sorry son. I don't mean to unload on you. Especially after the past few days."
"It's alright. But….why did you stay with her? I know you didn't love her."
His father straightened in his chair, brushing a hand through his hair. It was speckled with more grey that Peeta remembered.
"I wouldn't say that. I loved her for…for what she gave me. She gave me you. She gave me support. She drove me to push myself, my business. She kept our family running. Your mother, she…she didn't do it the best way all the time, but I have to give her credit."
Peeta was silent. The only thing he could think of was the memory of being drugged on the table that stood two feet from him now, and the sound of his wretched mother slapping kind Mrs. Everdeen across the face. He was reluctant to give her any sort of credit. Why in the midst of all this could he only see her wickedness? He was supposed to be mourning the woman that had tortured him physically and emotionally for years. Instead, he could feel the relief slowly but steadily bubbling up in his chest.
"We owe her, Peeta. She's gone now, but…she was my wife, and your mother and she did the best she could with what I gave her. Whatever little that was, I suppose….." he was silent a moment, shaking his head. "Son, she stayed with a man who could only give her half of his heart."
Peeta stared at the man in front of him; half crippled his heart exposed and raw and his blue eyes full of tears. Whatever happened next, he thought, he hoped his father came out on the other side with Katniss' Mother. Perhaps she could heal broken hearts as well as she could heal whipping wounds and leg gashes.
A loud, rapping knock on the door broke the silence, making them jump. Peeta moved to the door, exchanging a perplexed look with his father. Katniss stirred on the living room floor. Peeta held up a hand as she stood. He cautiously opened the door.
Gale stared back at him.
His lanky frame pushed past him and over the threshold.
"Gale, what is it?" Katniss asked, standing up. She sleepily rubbed her eyes and flashed him a look of annoyance as he eyed the three of them.
"Tomorrow, be at the Hob at dawn. It's starting."
"What? Gale, what's starting?" Katniss asked. She looked at Peeta. He shrugged back, telling her he was as clueless as she was.
"What starts?" he asked.
Gale smirked. "We learn to fight."
Ooooh, it's starting. I didn't originally plan to post this chapter, but this was a talk that I thought needed to happen. We are only a few chapters away from the ending, so I wanted to show this bit of closure.
Up next: fight training!
Thank you for reading and please review : )