Peeta's home is nearly bare, and he watches sheepishly as I look around the sparse main room. There's nothing on the white walls except the Capitol-mandated television set, and he doesn't appear to own a single piece of furniture aside from the folding table and chairs in the kitchen. It's not at all what I expected; even my parents managed an old sofa and other pieces in the small home they put together.
"Which room is mine?" I ask, getting right to the point. It's not like I need anything but a place to sleep.
I wait a beat before he shakes himself out of whatever else he was thinking about and finally acknowledges me. "You can take your pick, but my parents' old room is the largest."
He leads me down the hall, the hardwood floors squeaking slightly under our weight. The first door he opens is to a large, empty bedroom, and I take only a quick look before following him to the next one. This one is much smaller, and I'm sure it belonged to his oldest brother and not the witch and late Mr. Mellark.
"I'll take this one," I say, dropping my game bag onto the floor to stake my claim.
"Are you sure you don't want the bigger one?" he asks, but I shake my head. I would never feel settled in a room that belonged to his parents, and I can't even imagine what would happen if Maria Mellark found out I was sleeping there.
That thought gives me pause for the first time since I ran to him. "Peeta? What will your mother say? Or your brothers?"
He considers it for a moment and then shrugs. "My brothers have their own lives to be concerned with, so I'm sure they won't say anything. My mother…" He shakes his head as he contemplates it, and I'm thankful that he's not simply brushing it off. "It's hard to imagine her being concerned about anything I do," he admits. "I rarely see her."
"Okay." But I still feel uneasy now that the image of her hardened face is in my mind.
"What about your mother?" he asks me. "And Prim. And Gale Hawthorne."
My eyes snap to his, and I'm not sure what kind of expression I expect to find him wearing, but he's only showing genuine curiosity. "They have their own lives to worry about, too," I answer simply, but I know that I'll have a lot of explaining to do to all of them, and it's nothing I'm anticipating.
I brush past him as I leave the room, and he follows right behind me. "I can get some furniture," he says from his place now at my side. "I was planning on it eventually, but I haven't really had the time or need for it."
He shouldn't have to furnish the place on my account, and I don't feel comfortable with the idea of him taking on such an expensive endeavor for me.
"You don't have to do that," I tell him. "You shouldn't have to pay for all of that, and I can't really afford to help and pay rent-"
"Maybe we could pool our resources," he interrupts. "And that could be your payment for the room."
"We'd buy it together?" I ask to clarify, and he nods. "I don't have that much saved, Peeta. And I might not even be living here by the time I do."
"You haven't even moved in yet," he says with a smile. "And you're already thinking about leaving?" He presses one shoulder against the wall and leans as he considers his next words, and he seems more solemn when he asks, "Do you think you won't be here long?"
Truthfully, I haven't thought about it. I haven't really thought out anything in the last hour. "No. I'm sure I'll be here for awhile. As long as you'll have me."
There's that smile again, and it seems to have this calming effect I can't begin to explain.
"So there's no hurry. We'll buy everything one piece at a time. But you're going to need a bed soon."
"I already have one," I say, waving him off as I look around my new living quarters again.
"Oh. So you can move in whenever you're ready," he says. "Now, if you want."
It might be best to leave as soon as I tell my mother about this, since I'm not sure what her reaction will be, so I nod in agreement. "Thank you."
"It'll feel more like a home once there's furniture," he promises kindly, and my face falls at that. Because this won't be my home. Not really. And my parents' house, that small rundown shack with more bad memories than good, will no longer be mine, either.
A place to stay, yes. It's a bed to sleep in, somewhere to eat and bathe and keep warm in the winter. But it's not my home. I'll never have a home again.
"You don't have to go," my mother insists again as I pack the few clothes I own into an old box. I don't have many other belongings to take with me; there's my hairbrush and rubber bands to secure my braid, our family's plant book, and a few other odds and ends that have accumulated over the years. Still, it will all fit inside of this box. The sum of my life, my existence, all folding neatly inside the confines of this cardboard.
"It's for the best," I tell her. "You'll have more room and more time for your patients now."
"This is your home, Katniss," she reminds me, but when I don't respond, she takes a deep breath and looks away. "You're welcome back here any time."
I close the box and place it on the dining table. Gale, who agreed to help me take my things into town, has been quiet, and I'm thankful for that. As we move to the bedroom to take the mattress, my mother stops me with a frail hand on my forearm. "You forgot something," she says, handing me the wedding photo of her and my father.
I stare at the withered frame in disbelief. "You don't want this?" There's an unmistakable edge to my voice.
Her face hardens at my implication, and she holds the photo to her chest protectively. "Of course. But I thought you might like to take it with you." The offer has been rescinded, however, as I've twisted her kind gesture into something malicious. When it comes to my father, it's an unforgivable offense.
Night has fallen outside, and my mother doesn't say anything else as Gale takes the box to accompany me back to the square. He's agreed, mercifully, to wait until dark. As I grab my father's hunting jacket, I tell my mother that I'll still bring her the plants she needs, as well as meat. She thanks me quietly as the door closes behind us.
"If you're that desperate to leave, you can stay with me and Vera," Gale says before we've taken our first step.
"And did you discuss that with Vera?" I tease, taking the box from his arms. He pulls it back against him, insistent, and meets my eyes squarely as he tells me he has.
"Thank you for being a good friend," I sigh. "But Peeta's a good friend, too. A good friend with a spare room."
"The offer stands."
I allow him to carry the heavier items, and we don't speak again until we've reached the town, where we're shrouded in darkness and safe from prying eyes.
Peeta offers his help, but I tell him to continue his prep work for the next morning. He and Gale exchange a curt nod, and soon all of my things are inside this strange room and not the only home I've ever known. When Gale leaves for the last time, I hug him, inhaling his strong scent of woodsmoke and familiarity. He pats my back gruffly and wishes me a good night.
I stand in the room, with its bare walls and wood floors and unwelcoming feel, and for the first time I consider what I've done today and wonder if I've made a monumental mistake. As the breath catches in my throat, and I feel as if these very walls are closing in on me, Peeta appear, knocking on the open door and smiling at me when our eyes meet.
"Are you hungry?"
I shake my head, because for once, I'm actually not.
"Can I get you anything? A blanket, maybe?"
In June, in this already stifling apartment on top of a bakery? Again, I shake my head.
He sighs as he moves into the room and stands before me. "Katniss, look, I know this must be strange for you. I remember when Graham left, and I was all alone for the first time. It didn't feel like the place I've known all of my life. And you were never even up here before today.
But I want you to know that this is yours now, as much as it's mine. And maybe after you've been here for awhile, and there are things here that you've helped buy to make it feel more like a house...it will feel more like a home. For you, and for me."
He leaves, closing the door softly behind him before I have a chance to respond.
I sit down on my mattress with a sigh as I begin to unpack my meager belongings. It's late, and I'm tired, but I want to look through the plant book before I turn in. My fingers probe for the worn leather binding, but I feel the hard edge of a frame instead. She must have snuck it in when I wasn't looking, and I pull out the photo and stare at it. My mother, so young and beautiful and happy. My father, handsome, strong and in love. There's a thin layer of coal dust covering the glass, and I wipe it away with my sleeve. Then I move the box to use as a makeshift nightstand, and gingerly place the frame on top, angled towards me. As I curl up on my bed, I look back at it one more time, and then I close my eyes and slowly fall asleep.
It's my third night here, and my third night waking with a start before the sun has risen.
The first two nights, I ignored the loud bangs and thumps from the first floor, but now I'm exhausted and agitated, and I don't think he realizes how loud he actually is. So I stalk down the stairs in my bare feet, tugging at the hem of my father's nightshirt.
"Peeta!" I yell, and he jumps before his eyes dart toward me.
Immediately I feel bad for taking it out on him. This is his business and home after all, and no matter how much he protests, I'm the interloper, and I really don't have any right to chide him for how frustratingly loud he is.
He grimaces when he takes in my flustered and exhausted appearance. "Did I wake you?"
"It's fine," I say, my resolve gone. The ovens are blazing, he has about twenty different batches of dough on the largest table, and I know his work has only just begun. My sleep should be the last of his concerns.
"I'll try to be quieter," he promises, and now I feel even worse. I can only imagine how tired Peeta must be, and he still has another 14 hours of work ahead of him. There was a time when I was sure that miners bore the greatest brunt of our district's workload, but now I realize that merchants don't exactly have soft lives, even if their jobs are decidedly less dangerous. And Peeta works especially hard, because he has no one to help him.
"What can I do?" I ask, looking around at the mess. Maybe I can't bake, but I can clean, and I can measure.
"You don't have to do anything," he says, but I won't hear it.
He should know it's no use fighting me, so he tells me only one more time that I can back to bed before accepting his defeat and showing me how to clean out the display cases.
Soon the sun is up, and I go up to my room to change before the first customers arrive. I know Peeta has talked about finding help for the front end now that Graham is working full-time elsewhere, but he's been working himself to the bone trying to do it all himself. He needs a break, and I know I can help, if only for a day or two a week.
We work together throughout the day, and my muscles ache by the time he is flipping over the 'open' sign and locking the door. I clean up while he preps for the next morning, and he thanks me profusely as we head back upstairs for the evening.
Wordlessly, we find ourselves side-by-side in the kitchen, preparing supper together. He tells me funny stories about some of his customers as I sauté squirrel in the skillet and he chops the carrots.
Our food is long gone, but we still sit at the table and talk. It's only when he yawns in the middle of our discussion about former classmates that I realize he should be in bed. The summer sun is just setting, but baker hours are harsh ones. He moves to clear the table, and I shoo him away.
"Thank you for today," he says again as he pushes in his chair. "I'll try to be more quiet in the morning."
I nod, hating this coy smile I can't stop, and then I tell him goodnight. He replies with, "Sweet dreams," and something about how he says it stays with me long after he returns to his room.
Over the first week, we fall into a comfortable routine. Most days I hunt and visit Prim, and then I always help Peeta at close to ease the end of his day. Some mornings I'll wake with the sun and assist him until the afternoon. We always cook dinner together and then talk about our days as we eat, and then we retire to our own rooms and it all starts over again.
Peeta insists that our first furniture purchase should be a bed frame and dresser for my room, even though I've slept on this plain mattress for as long as I can remember, and I barely have enough clothes to fill a box, let alone a bureau. He says that Graham will give us a good deal, though, so I reluctantly agree.
As I'm putting away the few shirts and pants I own, most of which are far too big as they belonged to my father, Peeta knocks on my open door and then enters with a large box. "I was cleaning out my closet and found these," he says, holding it out to me. "Would you want them?"
I look through his offerings to find a bunch of clothes that he must have outgrown years ago. He says they were passed down to all the Mellark boys, but have been stored away since he last fit them. All the material is soft and worn, but well-kept, and I thank him quietly and accept. What is simply an old box of hand-me-downs to a merchant is a treasure chest to anyone from the Seam, and I wait until he's gone to rummage through all of them before putting everything away in my new dresser.
The only thing I keep out is an old bathrobe that feels as soft as a flower petal. Peeta must have still been a teenager when he wore it, since it's the largest item in the box, and I'm practically swimming in the light material when I slip it over my shoulders. It's so comfortable, though, and it doesn't smell like it was stored away for a decade. No, it still smells like Peeta, and it reminds me of that jacket I wrapped myself up in months ago.
I put it back on after I've gotten ready for bed, and then I sit on my old mattress, my feet barely touching the ground now that it's elevated, and I look at the wedding photo and bid a quiet goodnight to my parents, the way they were.
It's a little too warm to wear this robe to sleep, but it's so plush that I plan to regardless, so I wrap the belt tightly around my waist before I head to the kitchen for a glass of water. Peeta's emerging from his room just as I am, and his eyes widen slightly when he sees me in his old clothes. It was a kind gesture to give them to me, but I know I probably look ridiculous in this, and I fiddle with the sash self-consciously.
His strange expression morphs into a smile as he gestures to the robe. "You look much prettier in that than I ever did."
"I'm sure you looked very pretty in it," I manage to return, looking away as he laughs lightly. He says kind things to everyone, I remind myself, and that's the only reason I don't retreat back into my room. Instead, we both fall silent as we continue to stand in the hallway, neither of us sure what to say or do next. The fact that we share this space is still something I'm trying to wrap my head around, and I feel like it's the same for Peeta.
"Are you going to bed soon?" I ask, breaking the quiet.
"I guess," he answers after a moment's contemplation. I take the reply to mean that he might as well, as if there isn't anything worth staying up for. When I lived with my mother, especially in the months after Prim left, I turned in early nearly every single night.
Peeta, though, can certainly use the rest, so I quietly excuse myself to the kitchen. Surprisingly, he follows behind me and then stands at my side by the sink as I fill the glass.
"Are you working on your book?" he asks, and I nod as I sip, then I place the empty glass back on the counter.
I had shown him the plant book last night, since I was working on it as he came into my room to remove the door for the furniture delivery. It's not something I've shared with anyone else, but his simple curiosity is certainly harmless.
"I was thinking," he says now as he fetches his own drink. "If you want, I could help out with that."
I'm not able to hide my frown before he catches sight of it, and I see the hint of his own before he quickly recovers. "But I understand if you don't want that. It's your family's book, after all."
"How?" I find myself asking as he turns away.
He stops and looks back at me, and I avert my eyes to refill the glass again. "I can draw," he says. "And paint. I know you write descriptions, but I thought you might want a picture to go along with that."
"You can paint?"
"Yeah," he answers simply. "But I understand that you want to keep it in your family. The offer stands if you ever want help with anything."
He's already done plenty for me, but I can't say I haven't always wanted more pictures in the book, too. The ones that were done many years ago, drawn by the hand of an unknown relative who was long gone before I was born, are worn well with age, the fading black ink bleeding onto the yellowed paper. I've tried to do them myself when adding a new entry, but I lack any artistic talent. Peeta, though...if he can make designs and images burst in color on top of a cake, I can only imagine what's possible with paper, ink and maybe even some paint, if I can get my hands on it.
"Okay," I tell him, just as he's about to turn back in the direction of his room. "I always wished I could draw the pictures myself, but I'm not any good at that."
He smiles. "Guess it wouldn't be fair for you to have all the talents, huh?"
I take his glass from the countertop and start to wash it, and then I realize he seems to be waiting expectantly rather than going back to bed. "I'm not going to ask you to draw now. You have to open the bakery in the morning."
"Yeah, but that's work. It'd be nice to do something fun for a change."
"Helping me with the plant book sounds like fun to you?"
Again he smiles, but wider this time. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do more."
There's about another hour of daylight to burn through, but I'll feel terrible if he doesn't get to sleep before the sun sets. No sense in arguing with him about it if it will only waste more time, so I rinse out the glass and then lead him into the living room. After I go back to my room to retrieve the plant book, we sprawl out on the floor and I turn to the page I was working on earlier.
"My father called this Fireweed," I tell him, showing him the description I already penned very carefully inside the margins.
I hand over the quill and ink, which cost me a bundle at the Hob, but it was as necessary as food or water, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, I had to have nourishment, the basics to sustain myself and my mother at the time, but working on this book in the evenings at home always felt like the one thing keeping me sane. Years ago, I would have thought it was too much of a luxury to devote so much time and trades to this endeavor, but now I know I need this as much as I need the air I breathe.
So it's with slightly shaking fingers that I push the book toward Peeta. He's careful, so careful, with the expensive ink, and I watch in amazement as the picture of the plant blossoms to life on the page under his hand. I summed up the appearance in a few sentences, but he took those words and breathed life into them, and I can't believe how accurate his drawing is. The circular veins in the leaves, the soft droop of the four-petaled flower...it's as if the image was already burnt into his brain. He takes his time, wanting to get it right, and the minutes fly by as I watch him at work. Outside, the sun sets just as he finishes the last stroke.
"I could mix up some dyes downstairs for the purple, but I'm worried it'd ruin with the ink," he says with regret.
I can't tear my eyes off the page. "It's perfect just the way it is," I tell him honestly. For the first time in a long time, I feel genuine excitement about something outside of the woods. How did I ever think that my words would be enough? Peeta's drawings will make this book everything I always wanted it to be.
We leave the page open so it can fully dry overnight, and he walks me to my room, whispering goodnight before making his way to his own.
That night, I dream of all the plants and flowers in the forest. There are the thick, curved leaves of trout lily, the cotton puff blossoms on Juneberry trees, and the bright white leaves of the daisies that pepper the grass and line the trunks of the old oaks. I can taste the plump black raspberries, the tartness exploding across my tongue as the juice stains my fingertips a violent violet.
Now I can have all of these images in my book, instead of just existing beyond the fence and inside my head. And even as I sleep, I can feel myself smiling, because I know that my father would be excited about these drawings, too.
In the morning, I want to escape into the forest from dawn to dusk and live my dream from the night before, but I know how busy Peeta will be downstairs again. It doesn't bother me at all, not even a little, to stay inside and assist him rather than go out to hunt and forge. It's not a matter of debts that need to be paid, or keeping score of who owes what to whom. He's helped me, and I'll help him, and it doesn't have to be about anything more than that.
The workday is long, but the time passes by quickly. I get fewer disapproving looks from customers than I anticipated, and the few who sneer in my direction do so quietly, which is good, because that means Peeta doesn't have to know about it. I have a feeling it wouldn't go over well at all if he did.
My only real complaint before closing is the heat. It's sweltering outside, the summer sun shining hotly over the entire square, and I feel just like the dough being placed inside the ovens. I can feel my clothes sticking to my sweat slicked skin, and my heavy braid feels like a torch against my back.
"I don't how you can handle this weather," I say as we finish cleaning up.
"You never get used to it, but at least it's warm in the winter." He's suddenly very close, his body radiating more warmth than the oven at this point. "It's too hot for you to cook," he says, taking the bowls from my hand. "I'll make dinner for you tonight."
"Peeta," I sigh, shaking my head. "You've been on your feet all day."
"So have you. And all as a favor to me, so let me do this."
"We might be low on squirrel. I think I'll have to go out tomorrow for more."
"That's okay," he says with a bright smile. "I want to make something else, anyway." He reaches behind his back to untie his apron, and then he fixes his sweat dampened hair with a brush of his hand. "Go upstairs and relax."
"Where are you going?"
"I'll be back in twenty minutes," he says, spinning away from me while successfully evading my question.
I watch suspiciously as he slips out the back door, and then he's gone before I have a chance to argue any further. I'm not sure I would anyway; it's hot, I'm tired, and the idea of relaxing is just too tempting today.
The bowls he took out of my hands earlier are the last things that need cleaned, so I finish with those before I escape up the stairs. In the bathroom, I adjust the water temperature to lukewarm. At my mother's, we had to heat our water if we wanted hot baths, but here it flows scalding from the faucet, if that's what you want. But that's definitely not what I want in this weather, so I test the water, satisfied when it's tepid.
This is a luxury, and I sigh in relief as I sink down into the water. Peeta must prefer showers, which I can hear running in the early morning before opening and in the evenings after close, but I'll always choose a bath. I rest my head against the back of the tub, my eyes falling shut as my muscles relax. I'm not sure how much times passes like this, but soon I hear Peeta's heavy footsteps as he ascends the stairs. It must have been awhile, because my fingers are wrinkled when I step out of the bath to dry myself. I wrap myself up in his old robe and comb out my hair. For a moment, I consider letting it hang loose, but then I quickly braid it.
"What are you making?" I ask when I make my way into the kitchen. Peeta's standing at the countertop, peeling potatoes as a pot of water boils on the stove. I just got out of the bathtub and I already feel sweaty again.
He looks over and then down at the robe I'm wearing again, and I see his face flush, but I'm pretty sure it's not from the heat. I cross my arms in front of my chest and curse myself for not getting dressed before coming out here, but something smelled so delicious, and I followed my nose like a wild dog.
"I'm sorry," I say, backing out of the kitchen and escaping to my bedroom, ashamed of my rudeness. I've been here for less than two weeks and I'm already acting as if I own the place. I change quickly and then return to Peeta in case he needs any help.
"You don't have anything to apologize for," he says as soon as he sees me out of the corner of his eye. I'm about to respond when I see the thick cuts of beef searing in the skillet.
"You went to the butcher?" Now I really feel bad. I should at least be providing the meat.
He shrugs, staring down at the steaks in disappointment. "I wanted to get some duck to roast, but they didn't have any."
I frown in confusion, wondering why he would possibly want to roast a duck on this sweltering evening, when I remember telling him earlier about the days I would spend at the lake with my father when I was younger. I'd been thinking about the same thing again earlier while in the bathtub, missing the cool lake water on the hot summer days. Peeta listened intently as I told him about those summer memories, about how we'd dig for katniss roots together, and I would search for eggs and then swim for hours while he hunted for fowl and enjoyed the freedom the forest provided us.
I stayed in that water until my skin was shriveled and my father had to pull me out, and he'd lift me on his shoulders as we gathered our spoils and headed back. At home, my mother roasted the duck my father hunted and we'd eat it with the katniss tubers in a rich gravy she prepared. Those are still the best meals I've ever eaten.
He wanted to prepare roasted duck. There's flour on the counter to thicken gravy, and I'm sure it was much easier to get his hands on those potatoes than the tubers I was named after.
"Oh, Peeta," I say, taking it all in. "You didn't have to do this."
"I wanted to," he insists. He's about to say something else but he pauses, and then I hear his soft exhale before he decides to continue. "I just want you to know how glad I am that you're here. It means a lot to me, Katniss. Not just the help in the bakery, but your company. I really don't know how I managed so long without you."
I'm not sure how to respond, so I think it over carefully, and then I come up with the truth. "I'm glad I'm here, too." We share a smile as I help him with the food, and when it's ready, we sit and eat and talk.
When every bit of the delicious meal is wiped clean from our plates, we wash the dishes side-by-side, and then we get back to work on the plant book. Tonight, Peeta draws the mayapple, something both my mother and Prim need all the time for its medicinal uses. It's still light outside when he finishes, so we move on to another. It's a simple blue flower without a name or important use, but it's one of my favorites because its blossom is a sign of spring.
"I have a birthday cake order due soon for the mayor's wife," Peeta tells me as he outlines one of the flower's five petals. "Maybe I'll make these to decorate it with."
"I'm sure she'll like that," I say, though with the state of her health, I doubt she'll notice much about the cake, if she notices it at all.
"Hey, when's your birthday?" he asks suddenly, and I look up from the book to find his blue eyes fixed on me. He looks a bit embarrassed, and he turns his attention back to the drawing. "It's just funny that I don't know that yet."
"Oh. I'm sorry I missed it," he says regretfully.
There really wasn't anything to miss. Last month, when I turned 24, Prim came by to visit, bringing everything to make a stew, which my mother prepared. I've never been one to make a fuss about getting older. As a child, it just meant another year closer to the reaping. As a teenager, it meant more slips in the glass bowl. Now, as an adult, it means absolutely nothing.
"When's yours?" I ask.
"But when in December?" I press, fighting a smile.
He's not able to contain his when he looks back up. "The 16th. Okay?"
"Sounds like a good day to me," I say with a shrug as he gets back to the paper and ink.
"Did you always have a cake on your birthday? When you were younger?" I ask. On one hand, I can't imagine his witch of a mother allowing that, but surely the baker's sons had special treats on those days.
"Cake? No, we never got a whole cake. But my father would give us cookies. Fresh ones, right out of the ovens."
Maybe he wants to return the question, but surely he already knows that answer. Not all of my birthdays were unforgettable, though. "When I was about to turn five," I begin, thinking back to the time when Prim was just starting to toddle around, and my parents were the happiest they had ever been, "my father gave me a doll."
I'm expecting him to laugh at the idea of me, at any age, with a doll baby, but instead he looks up happily and says, "Yeah?"
"Yeah," I smile, remembering the day I unwrapped her. He couldn't wait for my actual birthday, so he gave her to me nearly a week early. "She wasn't porcelain or anything. Just a rag doll. But she had a green dress, and her yarn hair was in two braids. And she had pink cheeks." I can still see her so clearly.
"Do you still have her?"
I shake my head, and he frowns. "She was one of the first things to go." Traded for a little food that kept us going. My father would have understood.
We finish the rest of the page quietly, and then it's dark outside and time for bed. As I crawl on top of the covers, I hope that I don't dream about my father tonight. Thankfully, I don't.
I have to hunt in the morning, so I slip on my hunting boots as the sun rises. As I make my way into the kitchen, I notice a plate of cookies on the folding table, and they're still warm to the touch. I don't need a note to tell me it's my birthday present, six weeks too late but still too much.
Once I'm outside of the fence, I take my time. By late afternoon, I've bagged half a dozen squirrels and rabbits, and picked plenty of strawberries. I stop at the Hob to trade most of it and then I take the rest home to the bakery.
Peeta's wrapping up the bread that didn't sell today, and I move in to help him. "Thank you for the cookies."
"The ones you left for me in the kitchen this morning?"
He pretends to have no idea what I'm talking about, and my eyes narrow as I continue. "The ones you left for my birthday?"
"Birthday?" he teases, grabbing a tray to take to the back. I follow him and see the grin he's trying to hide, so I take the tray from him and slam it down on the table.
"Yes, and I'm thanking you for them," I say, annoyed.
"You've got a funny way of doing that, you know."
He tries to take the tray back but I reach for it first. "Thank you for the cookies, Peeta," I tell him, as sweetly as I can manage.
Peeta laughs. "You're welcome, Katniss. But you don't have to thank me."
"No. It's just how it is. You're gonna get cookies for your birthday for the rest of your life now. Every May 8th, guaranteed."
That's a pretty big promise, and it takes me by surprise but I can't say I mind it. "Thank you," I repeat, much more sincerely this time.
He leans in, and he's close. He's so close. "Now what did I just say?"
I blink, and that simple act is enough to bring me back. "I brought wild ginger," I tell him, changing the subject to my game bag, which I swing around in front of myself. "I figured you can see it for yourself rather than go off my descriptions." Not that he's have any difficulty doing it that way.
"Great!" he says, beaming. "I bet I can finish that before dinner." He peeks into my bag. "What's for dinner, anyway?"
I close the bag on his hand and pull it away. "Rabbit. So wash up."
I make my way to my room, and once I'm inside, I slip off my boots and change into clean clothes. My braid is starting to make my head ache today, so I pull out the rubber band and let it hang loose. It's hot against my neck, but it still feels better to have it down.
When I make my way back to the main room, Peeta is already on the floor, the plant book open in front of him. He's studying the wild ginger leaf, twirling it between his fingers, but he looks up when I enter, and the leaf slips from his grasp.
"You can draw it there if you want," I say, motioning to the blank page he has open.
He doesn't say anything as I sit next to him, and I stare back at him expectantly, waiting for him to either talk or start on the book. "Peeta?"
"I, uh, don't think I've ever seen you with your hair down before," he says, and immediately my hand reaches up to smooth the strands around my face. I only combed through it with my fingers, so I can imagine how untamed it looks right now.
"Oh. Sometimes it gives me a headache if I keep it in a braid too long."
"I like it," he says quietly, studying it. Then he reaches out, and I can feel the back of his hand against the top of my head, and then his fingers weave through the locks and slip down, gently but firmly. I feel like I'm frozen to the floor, unable to do anything but gape at him as his hand finally leaves my hair.
"You had a blade of grass here," he says quietly, and then he holds it up as evidence. He's looking at me funny though, and when my eyes meet his, I recognize that look, and I recoil as if he's a snake about to strike. He might as well be.
I try to reign in my anger, and I must be doing a good job of it because he returns to my family book as if nothing has happened.
Has he been listening to the rumors around the district, too? Weighing them, considering it carefully and then coming to his conclusion. I can hear Gale as his thumb trails along my cheek. "Everyone thinks we're together anyway, Catnip."
So is that how Peeta sees it now, too? Again, I wonder about the other girl, the one he wanted. Does he still want her, or has he settled, just like he swore he never would? It makes me feel sick thinking about it either way.
I don't move the entire time he draws an exact replica of the wild ginger leaf that's in front of him. While he finishes the final touches, I break out of my stupor and stand. "I'm going to clean up my room, then I'll get started on dinner."
"Okay," he agrees, not bothering to look up. "I'm gonna go see Graham and talk to him about our couch."
"Alright." It feels like I race into my room then, and when I shut the door behind me, I fall back against it. Things were going so well. I should have known better.
By dinner time, I'm still thinking about the way it felt to have his fingers running through the length of my hair. I chop wild onions as the rabbit simmers in a pan on the stovetop, and I try to concentrate on making the cuts straight and even. Normally the mouth-watering aroma of the meat cooking and the anticipation of a meal would have my full attention, but since Peeta's returned, I'm annoyingly distracted by all the sounds he makes as he roams around.
He says something to me about how good everything smells, but I keep my head down and my eyes on the blade. Then I feel him next to me, and I'm sure he's just reaching above my head for a bowl or something equally innocent, but the close proximity catches me off guard and the knife slips, slicing my finger and not the root. I cry out in surprise and pain, immediately bringing my fingertip to my mouth and tasting blood.
"Are you okay?" he asks with alarm as I inspect the damage. It's not too bad, though. Just a small cut right on the pad of my index finger. Before I can assure him that I think I'll live, he takes my hand in his own and raises it to see for himself.
When I was a little girl, in the years before my father's death, my mother could heal any of my scrapes or scratches, and she didn't need the herbs and medicines she used on everyone else. She'd drop a soft kiss on the wound, wipe the tears from my eyes, and sweetly whisper, "All better," and somehow, magically, it would be.
Now, for a fleeting second, I think Peeta might just do the same thing.
But he doesn't. He releases my hand and then opens the nearest drawer, digging through its contents. He finds a bandage a second later, and I allow him to take my hand in order to wrap up my finger.
"Dinner will be ready in a few minutes," I tell him, pulling my hand away. He thanks me, and then we eat in silence.
"So how's the merchant life?" Gale asks, and I glare back at him until he laughs uneasily. "Oh, c'mon Catnip, you have to admit this is pretty weird."
"It's fine," I insist, but it looks like he doesn't believe me. If he had been able to hunt with me last Sunday, this answer would have been an honest one. Maybe I would've had some genuine enthusiasm about it as well. Last night changed things, though. I didn't eat breakfast with Peeta this morning, and I'm holding out hope that he'll be visiting the community home by the time I make it back into town this afternoon.
"What do you even talk about?" Gale asks as he sets up his snare.
"We talk," I say simply, because I don't want to get into this right now, especially with Gale.
"What do you have in common?"
"Why are you asking so many questions?" I bark back, and he shakes his head as he gets back to his snare.
"Just curious," he says innocently, and I think he might be telling the truth.
I refuse to discuss this anymore. I go off by myself to find the plants Prim and my mother will need for the next few days, and I try to concentrate on this task alone, but Gale's last question keeps playing in my head.
What do Peeta and I have in common? Friendships depend wholly on some kind of compatibility. For me and Gale, it was the mutual need to survive and take care of our families that bonded us. My only other real friend was Madge, and while she lived a very different life than I did, we were both quiet, neither of us ever feeling the need to talk just to hear our voices.
What qualities do Peeta and I share? The answer comes to me immediately, and I don't like it. Loneliness. And here I thought starvation was a lousy foundation for a friendship.
That's it though, when it comes down to it. Peeta and I have nothing in common except that we have no one else. Now he's stuck with me, and I think he's realized it, too.
Convenient, Gale had told me once. Wouldn't it be convenient if we ended up together? I stalked off in an angry huff then and I do it again now, so I'm nearly a hundred yards away when I hear him calling my name.
"Where did you disappear to?" he asks when I finally make it back to him.
I'm quiet as I move around him to retrieve my bow, and I can hear him sigh in frustration. It really is a shame that we're spending what little time we have together like this, so I share the sigh, and then I hand him one of the containers of strawberries I picked as a peace offering.
He takes them wordlessly, and I know we're okay. Then, a few minutes later, he says, "The offer still stands, you know."
"You two just want a live-in babysitter," I say, because I need to stay in the shallow end this time. I just don't have the energy to tread water right now. Not again.
Gale laughs as he pops one of the strawberries in his mouth. "If we wanted a babysitter, Catnip, we'd pick someone who actually likes kids."
My brow furrows when I realize what he just said. "I...I like kids."
"Oh sure, you're just crazy about them, huh?" He smiles at me like he's playing, like he's expecting me to laugh, but I look away because it hurts. Gale is my best friend, and I long thought he was the one person who knew me best.
Does he really think that I don't already love Ethan? Doesn't he know that I'm already dreading the days that are more than a decade away because I want nothing more than for him to be safe? I want nothing more than for all of them to be safe.
I want them to be safe, and happy, and to never know hunger or reapings. I want us to all live in a world where scraped knees are a parent's biggest concern. I want good people like Prim and Bryce to have a home full of children who they can dote on, because I know they have so much love to give.
But that's not our reality. In our world, children go to bed hungry every night, and their parents are helpless to do anything about it. Their blood is shed for others' entertainment, and still their parents can do nothing. And the good people with the biggest hearts will only ever have them broken.
"I don't feel very good. I think I'm gonna go," I tell him, dazed. He watches me with concern, but I wave it off. "I'm getting too much sun."
"Do you want me to head back with you?"
"No. Stay. Hunt. I'll see you next week if you can make it."
I take my bag and start off before he can say anything else, and then I try to silence all my screaming thoughts as I walk home.
Peeta's still there when I arrive, but the boxes of cookies are on the counter, so I know he's about to leave for the community home. He smiles up at me as he slips on his boots, and I hang up my bag before moving to stand in front of him.
"Peeta, I...I don't stay here because I don't want to see the children." I don't care if the rest of the district thinks I'm cold or heartless, but I need him to know I'm not. I'm really not.
He gives me a perplexed look before he shakes his head and resumes double-knotting his laces. "I understand why you don't want to go, Katniss."
"I, uh." My throat tightens painfully, that annoying tell that I'm about to cry, so I take a deep breath and try again. "I'd like to go back again today. If that's okay with you."
He stands up and studies my face, and I'm sure he can see the tears clinging to my lashes. I will him to not say anything about it, to not ask me what's wrong or what happened or why I've changed my mind. I don't want him to tell me that I don't have to go, or to say that we should talk. I really don't want him to say anything.
He doesn't. He hands me a couple of the cookie boxes and leads the way out, and he does it without speaking a word.
We don't talk on the way to the home, and we don't talk while we're there. I watch in awe as the children share their cookies with more generosity than any adults, and then I take a seat on the old worn sofa, not sure what to do next.
A couple little girls, no older than 5 or 6, come to sit with me, and they ask about my braid. I smile as I unsecure it, then I slowly plait it together again to show them how to do it. A few of the older girls watch me suspiciously, their protective eyes on the little ones I speak with. I meet their eyes and nod, because I know what they're thinking and I need them to know they don't have to worry.
Peeta and I stay for a few hours, until we're ushered out by one of the workers. We don't exchange any words on the way back to the bakery, either. We eat dinner in silence, and then we work on the plant book together, but we don't talk then, either.
It's just started to rain when I softly announce that I'm going to bed, and it's an all-out storm by the time I've changed into my nightclothes. I fall asleep to the sound of thunder, and I wake to the flash of lightning that illuminates my dark room.
The storm continues all throughout the night, and when I sleep, I dream. But they're really nightmares. I see Effie Trinket's grin as she reaches for that condemning slip of paper, and every face awaiting their fate is a familiar one. It's the children from the Seam, and the children from the home. The merchant kids who accompany their parents into the bakery are there, too. I see Posy Hawthorne, her lip quivering in fear. There's a little girl who looks just like Prim, but she has Bryce's eyes, and she shakes as she waits for the name to be called. Baby Ethan is also there; I know he shouldn't be but he still is, and he's crying and crying but no one comes to comfort him.
Soon all the children are crying, and when I wake up, I realize I'm crying, too. I feel Peeta at my side, and I'm wrapped up in his arms. He's telling me that it's okay, that it was just a dream, and my throat is raw when I try to answer him back. Because it's not a dream. Not really.
He brushes the hair out of my eyes, and I lie back against my pillow, relaxing with his touch. As he moves to leave, I reach for his hand and beg him to stay. The thunder roars outside and I don't hear his reply, but he crawls in next to me.
The storm rages on, so I inch closer towards Peeta until my cheek is pressed against his chest. His heartbeat drowns out every other sound, and my eyes close as I fall into a sound sleep.