I wasn’t thinking about Peeta as I gathered black walnuts, grabbing them up from the frosted ground and tossing them into my backpack. I wasn’t thinking about anything except that I’d found food and it hadn’t cost me a single arrow. And that I could take care of myself.
I didn’t think about him as I walked home either, but then I passed his house and saw that the light in his kitchen was on, and before I knew it, I was knocking on his door. I didn’t knock hard, just sort of rapped the door with my knuckles.
As I waited, I rubbed my arms and shivered. It was cold, and the clouds were thick and gray. Though it was only late fall, I figured it would probably snow soon, maybe even tonight. I hoped it wouldn’t. Not that I didn’t like snow, but Prim used to crawl under the blankets with me on snowy nights, and we would huddle together for warmth, cold nose to cold nose, ankles overlapping.
Peeta opened the door after about a minute, and I could tell from the apron around his waist and the flour on his hands and nose that I’d interrupted him in the middle of baking. I started to apologize and back away, but he said “Katniss. Come on in,” while wiping his hands on the apron, trying to get the flour off. I wondered if he knew there was some on his face too. He didn’t seem to.
“I found black walnuts,” I said, showing him the backpack slung over my shoulder. “Out in the woods.” I hadn’t intended to share them with him, but I suddenly felt like I needed an explanation for showing up on his doorstep.
“Okay,” he said. A moment passed. He was still holding the door open. “Um, do you want to come in?”
I shrugged. Then I realized I had to actually make a choice, or we’d be standing here forever, just kind of avoiding each other’s eyes, so I said, “Sure.”
I walked past him into the house, which was warm and well lit and totally empty except for us. He closed the door behind us and motioned me into the kitchen, where I could see what I’d interrupted: dough in the process of becoming bread. There was a mound of it, maybe the size of two large fists, on a wooden cutting board on the marble counter. All of it – the dough, the cutting board, and the counter – were sprinkled with white flour.
“I was just kneading,” Peeta explained. “Then it has to rise for about an hour. Can I get you anything? Tea?”
I shook my head, although hot tea sounded good; I was still cold.
“Well, you can help yourself to whatever you want. Not that there’s much.”
I helped myself to a chair over by the kitchen table. As I sat, letting my backpack full of walnuts slide to the floor at my feet, Peeta dipped his hands into a bag of flour and reached for the dough again.
I watched him for a while, my body half-twisted toward him, my arms folded along the back of the chair. I’d never actually seen him bake before. He’d sprinkle the dough with flour, then push the heels of his palms into it, moving them back and forth in a slow rhythm, flattening the dough. Once it was flat, he’d pick it up, fold it into quarters as if it were some kind of lumpy, sticky paper, then reach for more flour. Although he never looked up, he must have known I was watching because the tips of his ears turned pink.
I looked down at my own hands. My nails were short and rough, with black dirt underneath the tips. The skin across my knuckles was red and chapped because I hadn’t been wearing gloves. I thought about how smooth my hands had looked under the care of my old prep team. I didn’t miss it - those perfectly manicured hands had never felt like they belonged to me – but I couldn’t help making the comparison, and just then it occurred to me that this was probably the most comfortable I’d ever been around Peeta – there was no reason to perform, for once – and it still felt awkward.
Peeta grunted softly and I looked back up in time to see him slam the dough into the cutting board. He dragged a hand across his forehead, smearing it with flour, then slammed his fist hard into the dough.
Had he forgotten I was there?
“Peeta,” I said firmly. For a breathless second it was like we were back in the Capitol. “Peeta.”
His head jerked up. He blinked at me for a moment, then quickly looked down again. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Sometimes, I just… I want to do something, but I can’t, so I take it out on harmless dough.” A corner of his mouth quirked, like he was trying for a smile, but it faltered.
I understood. Some days I felt so apathetic, I just wanted to lie in bed and dissolve. Other days, I couldn’t sit still. I felt so angry and restless, that I had to go off into the woods and run or throw things until I’d exhausted myself. My bow wasn’t much use then; my hands shook too hard, and it would have been a waste of arrows anyway.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean.”
Suddenly I wished I had dough – or anything, really – to mangle. I wanted it so badly that my fists clenched.
Then I thought of something. I climbed to my feet.
“I have an idea,” I said.