Greasy Sae doesn’t knock before she comes in. Or maybe she does and I just don’t hear, but when I emerge from the study, my eyes still burning from the tears I’ve shed with my mother, I hear familiar noises coming from the kitchen: the snap of a burner coming to life at the stove, the whistle of a kettle, the crackle of bacon as it hits the hot skillet. I can smell it, too; the sweet-salty fragrance makes my stomach rumble at once, despite the fact that I hadn’t planned on eating at all, wanting nothing more at that moment than to sneak upstairs undetected and shut the door, drawing all the curtains to keep out all of the light. All this bright, blinding light that I just cannot take in right now.
There’s something else I smell as I walk down the hall. It takes a few seconds before my brain registers what it is, as I make the half-hearted attempt to shake off the cobwebs. But when it does, it hits me suddenly—and with the force of a tidal wave.
Peeta is here, too.
I haven’t seen him since earlier in the week, when I barely managed more than a sentence at the sight of him, one that probably sounded like an accusation of sorts—and in a way, I guess it was—before I slammed the door behind me and ran upstairs to retreat inside myself once more. Since then, he’s come by a few more times. I hear him outside, digging and planting, but he doesn’t seek my company. And why would he? I’m nothing but a wretched mess.
I can see him from where I’m standing in the hall, a sliver of blond just visible from the archway that leads into the kitchen. He moves into my view as he fetches a knife from the top drawer, then disappears again so that his shoulder is the only thing I see. I hear him slicing the bread into those neat, even pieces he always makes. I fight the impulse to flee before he spots me, but Greasy Sae already does and it’s too late, and she waves me in.
“There you are,” she says. “Wasn’t sure if you were still sleeping, but I figured you’d get up soon enough after you smelled everything.”
I give her a half-nod and find myself locking eyes with Peeta, who’s setting down a platter with the sliced bread on the table. My throat tightens when I see that it’s studded with nuts and raisins.
“Hey,” he says simply. I half expect him to make some sort of comment about finally cleaning up and brushing my hair, but instead he just looks at me in that way he does, the way that disarms me at once and makes me forget whatever I may have been planning to say or do.
I feel something brush against my leg and look down to see that Buttercup has snuck in. Greasy Sae tries to shoo him away—as a favor to me, perhaps, but I tell her he can stay, and she goes to fetch him a bowl of milk. My eyes drift back to the bread. Peeta’s laid down a bowl of honey next to the platter and he looks up at me tentatively.
“I can go get some butter, if you’d like,” he says. “Looks like you’re out of it, but I’ve got some at home.”
“It’s all right, you don’t have to do that.” My voice sounds rough, as though I’m out of practice with something as simple as talking. Which I guess I am. “But thank you,” I decide to add, and he smiles.
Greasy Sae places a platter full of fried eggs and the skillet of bacon at the center of the table, then goes to fetch the tea. Droplets of grease are still hopping from the pan, flying everywhere and landing on the placemats where they glisten in the sunlight pouring in from the window. Absently, I wipe a bit of it away with my thumb, then reach into the skillet to take a slice of the bacon and hold it out to coax Buttercup from the corner. He laps it up greedily, and I let it fall to the floor where he can work on it at his own pace.
I get the sense that Peeta’s been watching me this entire time. When I look up, he’s studying me intently, then quickly breaks the gaze, turning his attention back to the bread.
“I thought you didn’t like each other,” he says, as he drizzles honey over the slices. I watch the ribbons swirl around, settling in the nooks and crannies of the bread. There’s a subtle crease in his brow, one that only someone who’s as intimately familiar with every line and curve of his face as I am would ever pick up on. I realize he’s trying to work out where to file this particular memory. Shiny or dull?
“We don’t,” I say. “But we’ve got a kind of mutual understanding now.”
He doesn’t say anything, but I know he knows what I mean. So does Greasy Sae. She looks at me, then at him, then says, after we’ve all sat down and start to fill our plates, “Those flowers sure look nice all around the house.” It doesn’t escape my attention that she doesn’t refer to the flowers by name. “You did a nice job with them, Peeta.”
The memory of that morning returns to me again. The shock of seeing him in my front yard. The wheelbarrow full of scraggly, uprooted bushes. The disbelief that he had actually come back, that he had actually chosen to do what my mother and Gale and hundreds of others couldn’t bring themselves to do: come home when there was no one really to come home to. I certainly don’t count. I can’t even manage the decency to thank him for what he did for me. For Prim.
“We don’t have to keep them if you don’t want,” he says softly. “I probably should have asked you first, but… well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
He thinks I hate them. And I guess I haven’t given him any reason to think otherwise.
“It was a sweet gesture!” Greasy Sae says. “Wasn’t it, Katniss?”
My throat tightens again. I can only manage a nod, but I don’t dare try to speak or my voice will crack for sure. There’s not much talking for the rest of the breakfast. Greasy Sae cleans up, shooing me and Peeta away when we try to help, and she leaves soon after, promising to be back for dinner. I’m sure that Peeta will leave now, too—that he’ll want to make a stop at Haymitch’s and check up on him—but he stays. And to my surprise, I don’t mind.
He’s looking around, eyes taking in every detail of all that surrounds him. “It looks just like my kitchen,” he says, as though surprised that he’s remembered this accurately. “Except for the green paint. My walls are kind of a burnt amber color.” He pauses, then gives me a small smile. “I guess they painted the walls in our favorite colors, huh?”
I smile, too. I thought I had forgotten how to.
He begins to walk around, occasionally touching things—a doorframe, a vase, even the walls. I follow him, just kind of drifting along, as though he’s pulling me with an invisible thread, and before I know it, we find ourselves in the study, where the box with the mementos that were rescued still sits on the desk, undisturbed.
He must have spotted it, too. I’m about to yell at him for taking out the plant book, but I can’t; all I can think of is the hours we spent working on it, the quiet moments where I would sit by his side, watching him painstakingly sketch every detail I’d describe. Watching him. The memory of it stabs me, a dagger right in the heart.
His fingers find something else: the locket. It’s at this point that I can’t look anymore, and I lean back against the wall, because something needs to support my weight. I hear him murmur, “You kept it.”
I close my eyes, feeling them sting once again, willing the tears not to come. When I open them again, he’s looking at me.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” he says, as though suddenly coming to himself. He puts the locket back in the box, next to the plant book. “This probably isn’t ok. Me wandering around like this in your home, touching your things.”
The callous, spiteful part of me wants to agree. It wants to tell him to leave and let me grieve in peace, to walk away now before I hurt him, too—one more person to add to the long list of my casualties. I run through the mental catalogue now: Prim, my mother. Rue. Cinna, Finnick, Boggs, Castor. Gale.
Maybe it’s too late, anyway. Because if I’m being honest with myself, then I have to admit that I hurt Peeta long before this. And I don’t want him to remember me this way. Broken and selfish and nothing like the Katniss he thinks he used to love. He has so few good memories left of me as it is. Adding more bad ones feels nothing short of cruel, and it’s more than I can bear.
But the part of me that wants him here, in spite of everything, wins over. Because it always does.
“No,” I say. “It’s all right.”
I see the tension leave his shoulders, though he’s still regarding me as though I might lash out at him at any moment. In another time and place, he wouldn’t have hesitated to cross the distance between us and take me in his arms. To hold me before I even have the chance to ask him to do so. But he stays where he’s standing and he’s watching me for a signal of what to do next.
This is what we’ve come to now. Tiptoeing around each other. Conscious of the fragile nature of… this. Whatever this is that’s between us now. I’ve never been good at labeling it and now it just seems pointless to try.
Suddenly, I become aware of the fatigue in my body. What little energy there was to begin with has now left me, and I sink down onto the couch, burying my head in my hands, and the memory of something he’d once said to me swims up to the surface.
I’m so tired, Katniss.
I think I finally understand what he meant that night. Because I’m tired, too. I’m tired of thinking, of feeling. I’m tired of forcing myself to accept everything that I’ve lost. Isn’t that what Dr. Aurelius wants me to do? Make peace with it all? Well, to hell with making peace with it. Any of it.
I start crying before Peeta has a chance to sit down beside me. From the corner of my eye, I see his hand start to reach for mine, but settling instead in the space between us. In the filtered light that manages to poke through the thin curtains, I see it clearly: the scar on the arch of his hand, bearing the shape of teeth marks. Right where I bit him when he tried to keep me from taking my life.
It’s like I’m suffocating all at once, ribs collapsing, squeezing my lungs, as wave after wave of grief overtakes me.
“Why didn’t you just let me die?” I can barely get the words out through my sobs. “Why didn’t you just let me end it?”
His voice is impossibly gentle when he answers me. A ghost of the old Peeta I remember, the Peeta I want more than anything to stay, to hold me, to remind me that not everything in my life has been corrupted. That this lone dandelion in the spring still blooms, vibrant yellow in a sea of dark gray.
“You know why.”
My head is hanging low, hands clutching my elbows, trying desperately to keep my shoulders from shaking and failing miserably to do so. Through the blur of tears, I see him begin one more time to reach for me. There’s a split second when I brace myself—the echo of his last assault bringing out a reflex I thought I’d stamped out. He notices this and stops, his fingers just shy of touching my hair. I turn my head to look at him, remembering the last time I let him touch me, willingly let him touch me: our last embrace at the Capitol, when I truly thought it would be the last time I would ever get to lay eyes on him.
“We’re all each other’s got now,” he says. “We’re all we’ve got left.”
It hits me then that he’s every bit as stranded as I am. Left adrift in the middle of the ocean, without any sign of a life preserver in sight. And if I’ve lost everything, then he’s lost even more: he’s lost himself, too.
I realize if he has any hope of rebuilding who he used to be, there is no one else who can help him. Delly might fill in a few more blanks from his childhood, and Haymitch can illuminate him on some of the bigger things. In time, he might be able to rescue the other bits of it on his own, piece them together without ever really knowing if he’s manufactured it all in his mind. But the memories that really matter—the ones that only the two of us shared, that no camera captured and no witness could ever possibly understand in their entirety—can only be reconstructed by me.
I realize I’m the only one who can carry him on this journey, as he is the only one who can carry me on mine.
“I need you,” he says. “You need me, too. Real or not real?”
“Real,” I whisper.
This time, I’m the one to reach for him, threading my fingers through his, letting the warmth of his skin travel through my nerve endings. It brings them back to life, as he always manages to do with me.
I wonder if Dr. Aurelius knew this. If he knew the road ahead would be dark and treacherous, and that the only way Peeta or I would be able to survive it is how we’ve survived every other threat we’ve ever faced: by facing it together. I wonder if this is why Dr. Aurelius sent him home.
“I can’t promise that I won’t… I don’t know when I’ll be… whole again, Peeta.”
His thumb sweeps over my knuckles. “I don’t know when I’ll be whole again, either. Maybe I’ll never be. Maybe that’s ok.”
“What a pair we are, then.”
“We’ve always been,” he says, smiling. “Haven’t we?”
“Yeah,” I say softly. “I guess we have.”
I know now that we will survive this, too. I know this, because we have each other.