The first time Peeta saw a ghost, he was two years old and unable to register the woman as anything out of the ordinary, much less grasp the magnitude of the inherent skill that set him apart from everybody else.
The memory was fuzzy; place and time and purpose all blurred down to a vague recollection of heat and his mother tugging him along with some urgency. He remembered the tugging stopping, so he stopped obediently, too. And looked around him. An old lady sat on a crate, looking up at people and whispering for water. Begging for it. Nobody so much as glanced her way but, in the middle of town, this was not something new even to a boy as young as he’d been then. She caught him staring and stared back, as though hungry for the eye contact she’d been denied for so long. “Will you give me some water? Just a little bit, son. Please.”
“I don’t have none,” he replied.
Then there was tugging on his hand again, and he was pulled away.
Neither he nor the ghost had heard the stories; neither understood what the other was. And so, the first time Peeta saw a ghost, he was allowed to get away unscathed.
Maybe, if Peeta had grown up in the Capitol or one of the comparatively prosperous Districts, there would have been somebody somewhere who could have helped him piece it together. But living in the District on the edge of the known world, hemmed in by the charred memory of what defiance looked like and peppered with daily exhaustion and misery and lack, people had enough modern nightmares to remember the horror stories from the old world.
Even so, he wasn’t a dim kid, no matter what his mother seemed to think.
By the time he was five, and had dealt with no fewer than eight identified ghosts, he knew the gist of it: some people just didn’t go away when their bodies died. Some hung around to say or do one last thing; important things that they clung to with a stubbornness stronger than the pull of the Inevitable After. Some stayed because they were just too angry to want to die.
Peeta preferred the ones who just needed his help to do one last thing before they carried on. Most of them were pretty nice when they realised he could see them when nobody else could, and, knowing less than he did about how they’d stayed or how Peeta could see them, they kind of muddled on together. The angry ones, the sad ones, the scared ones generally didn’t like it when he could see them but nobody else could; when he had to explain that they were really dead and couldn’t change that fact. These were the ones who realised quicker than others that they could touch things, if they concentrated. Throw things, if they were determined enough to do so. They tended to make Peeta’s life a lot more difficult to handle and explain to the rest of the world around him.
But, in the end, it didn’t really matter. Kind or mean, willing or furious, every ghost had to touch him in order to go On.
And every single ghost’s touch hurt like electricity racing throughout his body, and sapped him of strength like a marathon run.
Although he’d felt the feeling deep in his chest from the moment she stood up to sing, it took Peeta a while to figure out what said feeling for Katniss Everdeen was, simply because he’d never felt it before. Not the giddy rush of awe and butterflies she inspired every time he merely thought about her; that feeling he’d gotten before on the sleigh rides when they went down the hills fast. Or when he saw a really, really pretty picture in the window of people’s houses when he passed; beautiful enough he’d stop and stare for ages and then think about it in bed at night.
But the strong, steady feeling under the familiar-ish giddiness was new. She made him feel like a hug inside. Like his heart was bird taking off and soaring leisurely in the sky. Like tomorrow would be better. Like Mom’s disappointed anger and Dad’s careful indifference didn’t matter so much. The desire to know and protect and share was strange and he didn’t know how to handle it, as young and inexperienced as he was. He wanted to show her his paintings, but didn’t because he saw too many mistakes in them, and a girl who could sing like that needed better. Once he got as good as Mom wanted him to be with everything, then maybe he could give her a painting that made her feel as warm and good inside as her singing had made him feel.
He’d been practising art every day at school, anyway, but now he started practising at home every chance he got, rushing through chores or bribing his brothers so that he could have a few minutes to spare, tucked in a corner with the dog-eared, flour-spattered pad of paper on his lap. He didn’t shirk his duties at the bakery at all – didn’t become any less useful than he had been, in any case – but he also poured himself into this new hobby he was growing to love more and more every day because baking was the duty he owed his family, but a drawing was his only way to do something for Katniss that would make an impact, he thought.
And then her Daddy died.
Peeta had never wanted to see a ghost until the moment he heard the news. He waited for Mr Everdeen day after day, sneaking away from playing with friends and cutting his curfew time close as skin on teeth so he could run to where they’d buried him, or to the Seam to hang around their house unseen. He even snuck to the mine, once, knowing that trying to wobble back light-headed and sick-feeling if he helped Mr Everdeen On would be worse than cleaning the bakery when tired but determined anyway. The days ticked past, and there was no sign of Mr Everdeen where his bones rested or where he’d once lived or at the site of his death, which were the three places ghosts were usually tethered to.
Still, Peeta kept creeping around them as often as he could, even if coming late got him clouts from Mom and quiet, disappointed lectures about responsibility from Dad and cross half-punishments from his brothers who were forced to take over his duties when he wasn’t there to fulfil them. He couldn’t stop himself from hoping. Waiting. Because ghosts were those who had something left to do or who didn’t want to die or who had gone unexpectedly, he’d figured. And Mr Everdeen, by his reasoning, was all three of those. And if he could just meet the man, he could get some last happy message for Katniss, and she would no longer be so sad. And then he could help Mr Everdeen On, and he would have done something for her that nobody else could ever do, and even if he never told her about it he’d know. And she’d know, too – the conviction that she’d look at him and see him suddenly was as deep as the one that the sun would rise in the morning. How did you know that about my Daddy? She’d ask. And then she’d want to be his friend. Maybe even his best friend. And he could make her happy, and she’d make him happy, and one day they’d get married.
After two months, Peeta had to give up the hope that Mr Everdeen had not simply gone On by himself at the moment of his death. Katniss got sadder and sadder and further and further away from him, and he couldn’t help but think that he’d messed up his one chance.
And then the day with the bread.
He was so relieved to be able to help her, this time, he didn’t even think of the consequences. He would have helped even if he had thought it through, because the feeling for Katniss in his chest had done the opposite of settling down over the years, but because he’d acted instinctively the clout came as almost a surprise. He bore the cost willingly, even though he knew that meagre bread wasn’t enough. It was all he could give her, right then. And he had to be content with leaving his offering of love to Katniss Everdeen at burnt bread.
At least for a few years.
The irony of his life was this: helping ghosts was the one thing he alone could do – his one realm of intelligence and excellence – and they hurt more, tearing, ripping sapping as they passed through him, willingly or not, to get On, than anything his mother had ever done to him to punish him for screwing up and not being good enough.
And yet, his mother was the one who left marks.
Fear was relative when your house required you to tread on eggshells and your gait had always been heavy. Fear was relative when it was common for you to deal with a person nobody else could see or hear, who you had to help by hurting yourself, who sometimes tried very hard not to let you touch them. Maybe he hadn’t lived a life on the Seam, where fear smelled of empty cupboards and cold seeping through the winter-ravaged walls or the collapse of mine rock, but Peeta had thought he’d understood fear well enough to treat it with polite caution.
And then he saw Katniss’ eyes as she screamed damning words to save her sister.
And then his name was being read out by Effie Trinket.
And then his brothers couldn’t look him in the eye, and his mother didn’t even snap at him that they’d lost their most useful baker after his father, putting them down a hand when they couldn’t afford to be making less stock. And then his father told him only that he should probably stop crying, because the cameras would be on him in a moment.
And, even then, Peeta did not understand fear; would not understand that he would never understand it until much, much later. He got a little closer to the realisation, however, later on the train, when it dawned on him for the first time how many people had unwillingly died in the place they were taking him.
He was not a dim kid; he’d learned early on that nobody wanted to be friends with people who saw things that weren’t there. Much less who spoke to things that weren’t there. He could cover up the pain and weakness of being Walked Through with the age-old excuses of hunger or flu or eating something nasty or working too hard at wrestling practise, but the actual conversing – or dodging things thrown his way by angry ghosts – had to take place when he was alone. So, slowly, through trial and error, Peeta learned to recognise and then ignore those who were no longer alive.
That skill, as meticulously crafted as his painting, though enjoyed much less, saved him in the arena. He did not let himself look at the ghosts that he saw out of the corner of his eye. He did not let himself be distracted by those who had a whispered, tortured mantra for help. He did not acknowledge their presence, even when he was on watch duty and the night made them manifest the ways they’d died, over and over, filling the place around him with screams nobody else could hear and nightmarish images that he would carry with him as heavily as the realities of his own stint in the belly of evil.
In the quiet moments – especially those where he lay dying caked in mud – Peeta went over how easy it would be to end their suffering with a single grab. He could do it so casually that even the keen, high-definition, always-focused cameras would not notice.
But he did not let a single one touch him. Not even Cato, as the spirit sat beside his own destroyed body and watched Katniss help Peeta away to the river.
The important fitting for the interview turned out not to be very important at all, and as soon as Portia had disappeared around the corner, Peeta slipped out of the room assigned to him. He knew he had no hopes of sneaking around quietly; if he’d been loud before, the new leg and the cane and the slightly awkward way he used both now made him audible from miles away. Still, he marched on without hesitation, ready to fight in any way necessary to finally get a moment alone with Katniss.
When he turned into the hallway her room was located in, he ran into the second ghost he’d ever encountered that had tethered themselves to a person instead of an object or place. At least, that was his first assumption; hot on its heels came the memories of the mutts, and the slightly irrational fear that maybe the tributes’ bones were stacked in the walls of the building they were in.
With that thought making him already sick, Peeta deliberated ignoring her as he’d ignored all the other ghosts, focusing instead on talking to Katniss. But if the ghost was attached to her, then Katniss would have a half-alive shadow she’d never be able to see. And she’d already be haunted enough without having an actual haunting over her life. Besides... This was his job. His responsibility. His choice, most times. And, while he’d be drowning in the guilt of all those he hadn’t helped during the Games, he didn’t think he’d be able to handle this one on his conscience.
Peeta glanced around to make sure they were alone, then leaned against the wall to try and look like he was taking a breather. Or deliberating Katniss’ door.
“Hi,” he said, very quietly, moving his lips as little as he could. “It’s Rue, isn’t it?”
The girl startled badly, swinging to face him with huge eyes. In her sudden shock, she started to manifest her death; blood leaking quick and red across her chest that Peeta tried not to stare at.
“You can see me?” she whispered back, voice tremulous. “I... Katniss didn’t seem to be able to...”
“She can’t,” he confirmed, gently. “I... uh... have a special kind of gift that lets me...” He hesitated a beat, then gently lay the truth at her feet. “That lets me talk to ghosts.”
Rue’s lip trembled and the blood stain grew impossibly large, starting to drip onto the carpet in her distress. “So I’m dead, then?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it.
He looked away and gave her a moment of privacy so she could tremble and cry and stain the carpet with a puddle of blood that nobody else could see. And then he heard her take three deep, calming breaths, and he glanced back at her. The tear-stains remained, but all the blood had vanished again, leaving her whole and unmarked.
“You’re not dead, though,” she said, slowly. “And neither is Katniss.”
“They changed the rules; two people from the same District could win this one.”
She cocked her head to the side, thought about it for a moment, then nodded, slowly. “So you decided to try and save Katniss,” she said, but there was another question in her voice.
“I was always trying to save Katniss,” he said, firmly, and Rue actually grinned a little. “And she really did try to save you.”
“I know,” Rue said, simply, sad beyond her years, suddenly. “I... I think I... saw some of the Games? After I died, I mean. There are... flashes. You two were in a cave? And then... an explosion... dogs...”
“That all happened,” he confirmed. “Other ghosts have told me that it takes a while – even up to a week – for you to... uh... get enough of a grip on the world to be fully aware again. And fully... solid? Presenting like yourself? I’m not sure what to call it.”
“I just popped up in her room,” Rue whispered, arms going around herself in an attempt at a hug. “Like... being woken up from a deep sleep very suddenly. Just... Nothing, and then suddenly standing at the foot of her bed. But no matter what I did she didn’t look at me. So I came out here to...” She broke off, looking startled. “Oh. I... walked right through the wall. Huh.” She stared at the wall in wonder for a moment, and then back to Peeta. “So... Can I walk through train walls? Just get on the next train to Eleven...?”
“You can, technically, walk through train walls,” Peeta started, slow and gentle. “But ghosts are usually tied to something – something that has a lot of emotional weight for them. Most are tied to their own bones, others to the place they died or the object that killed them and so on. I think you’re tied to Katniss. Which means you’ll only be able to go where she goes; just a little distance from her body.”
Rue frowned for a moment and then took off down the hallway at a trot without warning. Peeta startled and made to get up to follow her, but by the time he’d gathered himself she’d come to an abrupt standstill.
“I can’t walk any further,” she reported, half frustrated, half surprised. “I’m trying to take another step, but I can’t move.” She took a step backwards, and then tried again, but came up short in the exact same spot. She returned to Peeta, her face unreadable. There was a bit of a blood stain on her clothes, again. “I guess that my range, now.”
“Rue... you shouldn’t have to stay here. Ghosts... the more they hang around, the more crazy they get. It’s lonely. And you don’t ever sleep. And bad memories keep coming up in your head over and over. Or so I’m told. You should... move On. Go wherever we go when we die. I know that may sound a little scary, but it’s better than hanging around here half alive, seen only by me.”
Rue’s eyes had narrowed in suspicion. “How do I ‘pass On’, or whatever? Do I have to give one last request and close my eyes and wish really hard, or what?”
“You can definitely give me one last request to fulfil for you,” Peeta said with a small smile. “But, really, all you have to do is touch me. And then you’ll go.”
She opened her mouth, then considered him for a moment, gaze growing even more shrewd. “And if I choose not to go on... You’ll touch me anyway, won’t you?”
Peeta’s smile twisted into something sad. “Yes,” he admitted. “For your sake, and for Katniss’. Being haunted isn’t... She deserves better.”
At this, Rue nodded. “I don’t... I don’t know what to ask you for. Maybe... Find a way to... I dunno. Help my family?” She shrugged, a little. “If you ever end up seeing them, maybe... You bake, don’t you? Give them some bread.”
The irony of the situation punched low and hard and painful, and he had to close his eyes for a moment. “I’ll think of something,” he promised, and he’d made emptier vows to ghosts before, but that one seemed the most hollow.
“Thank you.” The sincerity in Rue’s voice made him open his eyes and look at her. “Oh! And take care of Katniss.”
“I’ll do everything in my power to.” This one, he thought in that moment, was easier.
Rue grinned at him before turning hesitant. “Okay. So do I just... Touch you... anywhere?” Peeta nodded and held out a hand to her. Rue looked at it, then at his eyes for a long moment. “Will it... hurt? Like... like when I died?”
“This time won’t hurt at all, I promise,” he said, meaning her and not him.
“Thank you, Peeta Mellark.”
She ignored his hand and threw her arms around him instead, and Peeta gripped her close as she disappeared, gritting his teeth at the agony, folding to a heap on the floor of the hallway when it got too much to stand upright. She’d been more Katniss’ friend than his, until that moment; somebody he’d heard about or seen on the Games rerun. But after having met her, and put a personality to the kind eyes who had touched Katniss’ soul so, he felt touched by her, too. So, as he got over the vertigo, Peeta sat in the hallway and cried quietly for a girl named Rue that nobody would ever see again.
Despite what his mother had always raged, the bakery was doing fine without him. So much so that his family used it as an excuse not to move into Victor’s Village with him. He nursed that pain as he nursed the revelation of Katniss’ lack of feelings, and quietly, thankfully, holed himself up in his big house alone.
He visited, of course; Haymitch, even when the mentor didn’t seem to want him. Madge and Delly, who actually did seem to want him around for more than just Games stories. His family, where his brothers were gentler with him than they’d ever been and his father was a bit more indifferent and his mother didn’t raise her hand to him after the first time she tried and he’d just pinned her with a look that had made her go white and trembling.
Not Katniss, though. After years of trying to come up with ways to offer her proof of his love and affection, he couldn’t bear the thought of forcing himself into her space when he was so clearly not wanted. Like his family all over again, but much worse because at least he knew his blood loved him, however complicated that love was. And... if Gale was on the scene like that , Peeta didn’t want to have to see what it looked like when Katniss was really in love and not just pretending.
The big debate around him, he found out without wanting to, was whether he had a zero kill count or not. Some wanted to attribute Foxface to him because he’d been the one she’d stolen the nightlock from. Many screamed down that claim, absolutely thrilled by the trope of a Hunger Games Victor who had a zero kill count. Peeta let them argue it out, and just kept painting all the ghosts he’d seen that he’d refused to help so that he could stay alive.
Peeta tried to fulfil Rue’s last wish and unknowingly made everything so much worse.
After Katniss finally told him the truth of Snow’s ire and he knew how carefully he was being watched, he knew also that it would be absolutely, stupidly damning for him to do anything off script. Even so, he wanted so badly to slip away to the graveyards in every District. To make a real difference there, in a way that only he could and that the Capitol could not take away. To prove to them – to himself – that he was more than a piece in their Games. But the only places they stayed for more than a speech was in the middle of nowhere, and there were no ghosts out there in the nothingness for him to try and redeem himself with.
Holding Katniss at night, safe from her own, personal ghosts almost, almost made up for it.
Of course he was going back into that arena. Maybe he couldn’t help the ghosts there any more than he could the first time, and maybe Katniss didn’t return his feelings, but he’d be damned if he didn’t give everything to keep her alive in the first place. Maybe it was love. Maybe it was a desperate attempt at redemption. Either way, he’d make sure he wasn’t the one leading Katniss Everdeen’s soul to the other side. He couldn’t bear it.
For the first time, Peeta feels what it’s like when somebody dies while touching him. His hand is still buried deep in the Morphling’s hair when she passes, the stickiness of her blood-flower still fresh on his cheek, and a tingle rips up his entire body. It’s as intense as when somebody moves through him to go On, but nowhere near as painful. It’s like the happiness and joy in her eyes at his thanks washed over him as she left the world.
He couldn’t cry for her. Not just because he didn’t have any tears left, after all he’d been through, but because her simple, quiet joy still thrummed through him, even as he carried her to the water and laid her empty body to rest, too.
Before they got smart and separated Peeta from the others, they were all holed in one place. Jo across from him, so they could watch what was being done to each other; fall asleep to the sight of each others’ wounds and haunted looks. Annie was in a cage at the end of the row, like the guest of honour seated at the head of the table. They fed her and watered her but did not touch her. She was a silent, poignant reminder of how those who did not have rebel secrets would be treated.
Annie broke her silence suddenly. First, there were only whimpers through the darkness that Peeta could ignore; it was almost a regular soundtrack to his evenings, by then. “No,” Annie moaned, again and again until Peeta was fully awake. “Go away, go away. Leave me alone, please, I can’t.”
He heard Johanna rising painfully, dragging herself to the bars of the cage. “There’s no one there, crazy,” she snapped. “Cut it out!”
“Jo. Please don’t make me this time, Jo. Please tell him to leave me alone.”
“There’s nobody there.” Johanna returned to her bed, muttering darkly.
Most of Peeta felt numb. Disconnected. Disinterested. But something that almost sparked like understanding was running just below the surface. It took effort he didn’t know he could handle to drag himself to the bars of his cage. There wasn’t enough in him to feel anything when his haunch was proved right. Slowly, he let himself slip down to a seat on the floor, leaning painfully against the bars of the cage.
“Hey,” he said. “Uh... Sir with the blue hair.” Said gentleman turned away from Annie’s cell to look at him in surprise.
“It’s aquamarine,” he said, affronted, speaking past bloodied lips.
“Come here,” Peeta said, so tired, but still wanting to save Annie from what she clearly did not want to do. “I’ll help you. Just stop scaring Annie.”
He held out a trembling, thin hand, and the ghost took a step toward it, face curious.
“Stop encouraging her,” Jo said, before swearing at him.
But Annie’s eyes were on him, large and solemn and still brimming with tears, and he was still caught up in that gaze of hers when the ghost’s hand grabbed his.
She said his heart stopped in the arena. And, as time wore on so, so slowly, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t died there. Because whatever he’d once been was no longer. It was being peeled out of him, piece by piece, reality turning into shattering colours and impossibilities that killed his love for painting like a fish slowly gasping for air on dry land. What if he was a ghost, and because of his ability everybody could see him and nobody knew he’d died?
What if Katniss had killed him more than once? She had it in her, the filthy mutt.
He lost himself.
If that kind of bewildered, confused madness was what ghosts fell into when they stayed around for longer, he wanted to throw himself at their feet begging for forgiveness for not getting to them sooner.
He tried to ask those who could to let him go On, but none of them would help him. None of them would let him.
Stay with me .
He couldn’t do anything but agree. “Always.”
He told Doctor Aurelius it was therapeutic; something he just had to do to assist his healing process. Because he rarely insisted on anything, the man finally gave in to his quiet, persistent requests and got permission for Peeta to go out to that spot with only one guard. All it took was a little sitting around on some big debris staring at the sky for the guard to get bored and wander off a little, leaving Peeta to relative privacy.
Then turned to his right and said, with sincerity and pain, “I’m so sorry.”
Mitchell started, his expression of shock grotesque because of the way bits of his face no longer aligned properly. “You can see me?”
“Yes,” Peeta said, heavily. “I can see ghosts.” He swallowed twice before he could add, “Even those of people I didn’t kill.”
“You didn’t kill me,” Mitchell said, quietly, and Peeta let out a hollow laugh.
“Don’t,” he said. “Just... please don’t.” Mitchell let out a little hum, and then they sat in silence for a while. “I also help ghosts move On,” Peeta explained when he had himself under control again. “On to wherever everybody else goes when they die. So if you... have any last requests – anything to say to anybody or anything you’d like me to do...”
“Everybody I ever had is already gone,” Mitchell said, simply. Then he shrugged a little. “Don’t mind going to see if the stories of seeing them all again are true.” He glanced at Peeta. “So we won, then?”
“I don’t know,” Peeta admitted. “But Snow is dead, a good President is in office, and there are no more Games or threats from the Capitol.”
Mitchell nodded, seemingly satisfied. “How does this work?”
“You just have to touch me,” Peeta explained, and held out a hand. “It won’t hurt.”
Mitchell grabbed Peeta’s hand in a shake, opening his mouth to say something. But he was gone before the words came out, leaving fire in Peeta’s veins that felt like a combination of being electrocuted and being shot with trackerjacker venom and also nothing like it at all. He bit the inside of his wrist to keep himself from moaning in pain and to keep himself from having a flashback, but he stayed in the moment without any trouble at all.
Once the pain faded, he tried to get to his feet, but the vertigo slammed so hard he fell right back down again, the earth moving in waves around him and the sky spinning. The part of him not concerned with keeping down his lunch was again worried about a flashback, but he stayed within his head, even when his head felt ready to float off his shoulders. Peeta closed his eyes and leaned against a thick rock and tried to breathe, noticing that he was shaking badly all over.
Still no shiny memory fought for his attention; almost all the symptoms of an attack, save the homicidal rage, and he was still very much himself. And it led him to wonder how many of the symptoms of his flashbacks were ghost-skill related in the first place. And it led him to wonder why he’d never believed that Katniss was connected to the ghosts in any way; why ghosts had never even come up in his wild not-real memories. Did the Capitol really only have power to warp what they thought they knew about him, and since the ghosts were a secret, even the venom had not been able to grab hold of it?
He didn’t have the answers, or much time to search for them. The guard saw him on his ass with his eyes closed and came gallophing close, calling his name and demanding evidence that he was okay. So Peeta forced himself to his feet, ignoring the dizziness and the nausea and the weakness, and forced himself walking before he was truly ready.
He’d done worse in the past few months.
The first time Peeta saw another ghost still breathing like him was when he spun around from his gardening to face Katniss’ sudden appearance.
She blanched at the primroses and for a moment he thought he’d once again failed at giving her something that would help her feel better on the inside; had, instead, dug up ghosts and came to plant them in her garden. But then the look faded. Right before she turned and ran from him. It was not the worst reaction he could have imagined her having, especially after he’d regained all the memories of her talking about owing people debts.
It was certainly not the last time he saw the luring call of On in her eyes. Some days, he looked at her and she didn’t even register he was in the room, and all he could hear, keening just below her breathing, was the desire to just let go. Perhaps the old him would have known how to tell her he understood in more ways than one, now, the lure of Going. Especially when the tether to earth felt more like a chain than an anchor. But all he had to offer was bread and the quietness of his presence and other honesty, when she asked for it. All he could offer was that he’d always fight not to kill her. Some days, that looked like leaving her be when she couldn’t breathe the air the war had left them with. Some days, that looked like locking himself in his house hanging on to the nearest furniture, fighting shiny memories that were not his. Always, it looked like him not daring to touch her, because the fear of having her Walk Through him as soon as his fingers brushed her was far too strong.
So, for a while, he dealt with him and her and, sometimes, Haymitch, learning how to deal with ghosts still breathing. It was partially necessary, and partially pure cowardice; he didn’t want to set foot in the old bakery, or anywhere else on those streets where people had died so horrifically and all at once. But there came a point, eventually, when the excuses not to head into town ran out. When it became apparent that he could no longer bake from his house, but would need a proper oven and a place more central for the growing inhabitants of Twelve to get the bread he all but gave away for free.
Late one night, when the rest of the District was asleep, Peeta made his way to the site of the old bakery. It felt incredibly lonely, walking a path that had once been to home by himself, knowing there was nothing good waiting for him at the destination. But Haymitch wasn’t the sort of person you took with you, for trips like this, and Katniss hadn’t emerged from her locked room in two days and, anyway, if he ran into any ghosts it would be easier to be alone.
There was a little girl playing in the moonlight, concentrating hard so she could pick up stones and stack them into towers. He didn’t even get to ask for her name; she was just so relieved that somebody finally saw her that she flung herself into Peeta’s arms with a cry. He waited out the vertigo and the shaking, and then slowly got to his feet and walked the rest of the way home.
There were no real words to explain how he felt when he found nobody waiting for him at the bakery. Some of the emotion in him was relief; he wouldn’t have to see them one more time, only for it to be a goodbye. He wouldn’t have to see how they looked at death. Some of the emotion was anger and disappointment and loneliness so acute that he found himself in a ball on the floor even though no other ghost had touched him, crying for his mother to materialise and yell at him just one last time.
For a few days after that he paid two of the almost-teenagers to deliver his bread for him, stayed mostly holed up, and dealt with his grief alone while next door Katniss dealt with her own demons.
Slowly, on random days and in no particular order, he dealt with the ghosts tethered to buildings or objects around town. He was discovered, once or twice, but it was easy to be vague about the symptoms when people so easily left him alone, thinking it was the war or the torture and not one of the only good bits – purposeful bits – of him that remained. And Peeta knew it was good, because no matter how dizzy or weak it made him, no matter how horrific the death the ghost manifested, no matter how angry they were, helping ghosts On never triggered an episode.
Katniss announced she was going on a multiple-day hike, much to Greasy Sae’s obvious approval. And Peeta was happy, too; glad she was able to hold on to herself more and more. But, mostly, he was just making up his mind about what he’d do in the two days where nobody would check up on him.
The Meadow had started to seed itself, and it looked peaceful and hopeful enough that Peeta took a moment to just look at it for what it wanted to be, and not for what it was. Then he walked to the middle, sat down in a tuft of grass that had grown before the others, placed down the notebook and pen he’d brought with him, and waited.
The first ghost to rise from the mass grave below him was, bemusingly enough, the old math teacher Katniss had tried to tell him about what seemed like forever ago. As they chatted, others were drawn by their conversation, curious or surprised or just relieved to have somebody living to talk to once more. So many ghosts in one area made them feel bad, they explained. Made it harder not to replay their own deaths. Made it feel like it almost hurt even though they couldn’t feel any more.
He’d brought the book to write down last requests so he wouldn’t forget them all, and his plan had been to get through writing them all down before he explained the Walking Through process. But stalling that way meant that, by the time he’d almost gotten through everybody, there were close to thirty ghosts around him, and he was starting to worry about how he was going to get through them all.
And then two began to squabble about being the next he attended to, and one reached out to grab him, unthinkingly, to get his attention.
After that, he had to explain, through the slight dizziness, what else he could offer them, besides carrying messages and digging up buried nest eggs for family members that probably weren’t alive, any more. There was a moment of silence, and then one or two hesitant questions, and then the first one sprang at him with desperation.
“I want out!” he howled, skin beginning to blister and burn as an unseen fire overtook him. “I want out!”
He slammed into Peeta, and the pain distracted him enough that he didn’t see the others cloying closer, voices pleading to be next.
“Wait,” he asked, through clenched teeth. “Just... please...”
Two pressed forward and went for him at once, knocking against each other in their haste. One hit against his prosthetic , and touching the non-flesh part of him made the intake slower; a leisurely raking of sensation rather than the quick punch he was used to. Peeta couldn’t help but scream at that, fire in his veins as the world dipped sickeningly around him. One more ghost Walked Through and he all but passed out, retching into the mud and dust and barely able to remember how to breathe.
The first thought that greeted him when he swam back to coherency was that he hadn’t lost himself, even once. This was his last and final and triumphant rebellion against the Capitol, and they’d never be able to touch it.
Peeta rolled onto his back slowly, aching in his muscles – right down to his bones, it felt like – and saw that some of the ghosts had formed a protective ring around him, forcing the rest of the clamouring ones back.
“Give the boy a break,” Mayor Undersee snapped, but he had no authority in that space.
One ghost managed to break through the ring, and Peeta only managed to croak out a syllable before the ghost grabbed him. This time, the pain and wash of weakness knocked him out completely. He wondered, as he faded, if they could Walk Through even if he was unconscious. If he’d die lying there on their graves.
“Come on, Boy. I’m not dragging your ass back, so you’d better wake up.”
The smell of Haymitch’s breath wafting over him nearly maked him pass out again. “’ay’ich?”
Haymitch simply grabbed him under the armpits and tried to make him sit up. The movement nearly did Peeta’s head in, and he toppled to the side at once, retching weakly. The elbow he leaned on only held his weight for a few moments more before he was once again in the mud.
“I’m trying to get you out of the mud,” Haymitch snapped at him. “Come on, Boy. We don’t have all morning.”
It was morning, Peeta realised. He must have been out there the whole night. He took a bleary look around, and spotted two ghosts lingering a little way away, watching him with a mixture of curiosity, worry, and longing. Haymitch tapped him hard on the face.
“Hey. I’m talking to you. Come on; if I can get up this damn early in the morning, then you can sit up.” There was a curious undercurrent of almost worry to Haymitch’s voice.
Peeta tried again, this time managing to remain upright even as the world spun around him. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and tried to ground himself on the steady, unmoving earth.
“Bad one, huh?”
“Yeah,” Peeta muttered, not wanting to try and explain that it wasn’t an episode that had left him wrecked in the middle of the Meadow, muddy and damp and flecked with his own vomit. “How did you... why are you awake?”
“Geese were hungry and making a damn noise about it. Went over to yours to see if you had old bread for them. Know you wake up at the ass crack of dawn. But you weren’t there. So I went looking. Some kids said they saw you sleeping here.”
“Thanks for coming to find me,” Peeta said, genuinely touched by the gesture.
Haymitch grunted, not looking at him. They sat in silence for a long while, and then tried to haul Peeta to his feet. But even after the vertigo passed, the weakness and the bone-deep stiffness and aches still remained, and even with Haymitch under one arm Peeta could only hobble a little stretch and then no longer. Haymitch, cursing about it, went to find some people to help carry Peeta back to his house, and Peeta bore the humiliation as best he could, promising the two gentlemen free cupcakes once he started baking them again. They seemed only too cheerful by that exchange, but the cheer suddenly leached right out of them as they approached Victor’s Village.
Peeta thought, at first, it was the place and all it stood for that made them suddenly unsure and almost nervous. And then Haymitch swore again, and he looked up to find Katniss standing at her door, watching the procession with a very particular look on her face. His own heart leapt and then sank in embarrassment, guilt, wariness. Katniss took one hesitant step toward them and then began running. Haymitch went out to meet her, catching her momentum and holding on while she fought him.
“What happened? Is he – Peeta? Peeta!”
“Stop it – stop it! You’ll set him off again.”
“Let me – !”
“He’s had a big enough episode already,” Haymitch snapped, still trying to force her back. “You want that to happen again?”
“It’s okay,” Peeta called to both of them as he was carried past, the mortification staining his whole face and his neck red. “It’s fine.”
He was deposited on the lavish couch downstairs, because he didn’t want to make the panting lads have to heave him up to his bedroom. After one more humiliated thanks he curled into himself and wished for sleep.
“Peeta?” Katniss asked, quiet and cautious. Of course he hadn’t heard her come in.
“I’m here,” he mumbled to her, opening his eyes to look at her. She took a moment to hold his gaze and ensure that his eyes were blue and lucid before she approached. “I’m okay,” he said, and she frowned at that. “I’m just... gonna go to sleep.”
“Okay,” she agreed, and folded herself to the floor in front of him, still watching him intently.
Somehow, her piercing gaze on him made him fall asleep much faster.
He woke up to nightfall, stew made from her fresh kills and to her worry. Even the terrible episodes that she’d witnessed hadn’t knocked him out for a full day, and she was concerned he was getting sick. Or that Haymitch had drugged him.
It took only two spoonfuls of stew for him to make up his mind. She knew everything else about him, after all. Had seen him at his worst. She deserved to know this last secret, too.
“It wasn’t an episode,” he blurted out and, seated on the couch beside him but nowhere close to touching, Katniss’ head shot toward him. “I’m not sick, either. And nobody drugged me,” he added, quickly, when her scowl turned dangerous. “I just...” He set aside the stew carefully. “This is going to sound crazy. I know it is. But you have to trust me that I know it’s real, okay?”
Her nod was slow and cautious, but she gave it. And so he told her about the ghosts when he was a child, about how he’d tried to see her dad for her, about those in the arena, about Rue, even about Annie that night in the cells, talking to one of Snow’s poison victims who had never left. Katniss just stared at him, but she didn’t have to say anything for him to tell she was not convinced.
“Could this...” she started, in a patronisingly gentle voice that Peeta tried not to sigh at, “not just... be the hijacking? Giving you... false memories and hallucinations?”
“No,” he said, patient but firm. “These aren’t shiny memories, Katniss. These are real. This is... this is maybe the last real thing I have left in me. The last bit of my rebellion,” he said, with a hollow laugh. Her frown stayed in place. “Come back to the Meadow with me tomorrow,” he offered. “You won’t be able to see the ghosts, but you’ll see that what they do is different than an episode. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said, after a long pause, and they went back to eating their stew in careful, distant silence.
When she didn’t look at him once as they made their slow walk back to Victor’s Village, Peeta almost wished she’d run like she’d clearly wanted to. He kept giving her little glances, but she simply stared right ahead, a frown on her face, matching her pace to his wobbly, unsteady one.
He’d managed to work out an agreement with the ghosts – feeling slightly shy at speaking to them when Katniss was watching – that let him only help three or four On at a time. It meant that he could still drag himself home without help at the end of it all, even though he was incredibly shaky. Peeta let himself lean against the gate to Victor’s Village as they passed it, needing a moment of respite. Katniss walked on a few steps and then suddenly whipped around.
“Are you okay?” she asked, voice urgent.
“Yeah, yeah,” he assured her, quickly. “I’m just... uh... I need a moment?” She walked closer, and he let more of his weight rest against the fence. “Are you okay?” he asked her, gently, trying to stave off the remaining light-headedness so he could peer at the expression on her face. “I know that was... probably a lot to take in.”
Katniss frowned at her feet for a moment. “Ghosts,” she finally said.
“Yep,” he confirmed, managing a small smile for her.
“You’ve been... doing that your whole life?”
“Pretty much, yes.”
“How did you... know?”
“Well, I could see them when nobody else could. And no matter what my parents gave me the ‘hallucinations’ didn’t go away. Dad dismissed them as imaginary friends. Mom... uh... wasn’t too happy about that notion. And then, one day, one touched me. And I just kind of... figured it out from there.”
Katniss watched the skyline, and he left her to her thoughts. “So in the arena...” She looked back at him and swallowed. “Were there... many?” He nodded, tightly. “I can’t even imagine...”
“You don’t have to,” he said, firmly.
“But all those people I...”
“Katniss.” He wanted to badly to reach out and touch her, but the fear of rejection – especially now. Especially when she’d seen what his hands had touched all day – and of making her disappear forever aborted his movements even as he began to make them. “You can’t... I won’t let you use this to make other ways to punish yourself,” he said, and it came out sounding much harsher than he intended.
Katniss blinked at him for a moment. And then nodded. “Okay,” she agreed, softly, and it floored him a little. “Do you need help getting back home?”
He was mostly asleep, already, but he hummed at her, surprised that she hadn’t left his house when he thought she had. He’d had intentions of climbing the stairs to get to his bed, but they’d evaporated as the couch had slowly lured his exhausted, sore self into slumber.
“You said you... didn’t see my father.”
At once, he forced his eyes open. She was staring at the fire and not at him, seated on the floor with her back to the couch. So close to touching him.
“No,” he agreed, suddenly nervous about where her head had been at, and where it still lingered.
“And... and... Prim...?”
“No.” He hesitated a moment, then admitted, “But I did try to go back to look for her. I passed the... the place... they’d set up a memorial there and I walked past maybe nine or ten times but...” She was quiet. “I’m sorry, Katniss.”
She shook her head. Another silence followed and then she said, “But you saw Rue. And you helped her.” It didn’t seem like a question, so he didn’t say anything. Katniss turned to look at him. “Thank you,” she said, quietly.
“She deserved it,” he replied. “Well. She deserved... so much more. But... It was the most I could do.”
To his surprise, Katniss frowned again, deeply. “You’re wrong, you know,” she said, and it took his tired brain a moment to realise they’d jumped onto a slightly different topic.
“What?” he said, struggling to figure out where she’d leapt to.
“This... ghost thing. You said it was the last good thing about you. And the last way to rebel against the Capitol. You’re wrong.” She was insistent, fire in her eyes, and the sight of her conviction was mesmerising after so long with it being gone. “You’re still... you paint. That’s still you. And you bake, and give the bread away for free. And you are kind to people and even Haymitch’s damn geese. And you came back. You come back, even after episodes that try to tell you how bad I am. Even after days when I’m... nothing. And you painted the new park for the kids here and... and...”
“I’m trying to say,” she snapped, embarrassed and insistent. “That there’s a lot of good in you left, Peeta, okay? And that’s how you rebel against the Capitol. By still... being very much alive, despite all the ways they tried to not make you. By really living a life when they tried to strip you down to survival.”
He stared at her, stunned to silence, embarrassed and proud and a little sad all at once. Katniss flushed and got to her feet, and he was almost brave enough to ask her to stay.
“Please don’t go out there for a few days, okay? Just... for a few days.”
“Okay,” he said, still dumbfounded, still reeling under the force that they’d turned into the Mockingjay but that was, in the end, just Katniss.
Annie appeared without warning, a baby snugly tied to her hip, face serene and happy when Peeta opened the door to her. It turned out that Katniss had called her asking for advice and help, not wanting Peeta to be hurt by the sheer volume of ghosts he’d said were probably at the Meadow. And Annie had told her that she would get back to her in a few days. Instead of calling back, however, Annie had simply turned up, saying that she was there to help.
“Annie,” Peeta protested, “there are very many ghosts there. You know what it feels like to have one Walk Through.”
“I know what it’s like to have them whispering around you, never going away, always saying things and reminding you of things you want to escape,” she replied, quietly and firmly. Her eyes flickered away. “Even when they’re not real, they leave an impression,” she said, and a bit of the madness of Annie Odair made perfect sense to Peeta in that moment.
“I didn’t mean for you to come,” Katniss spoke up, sounding guilty and unsure. “I just wanted... to help.”
“You did,” Annie assured her with a wide smile. “And now I’ll help. Like you helped me, Peeta.”
“That was with one ghost,” he protested, and for a moment she frowned at him in confusion.
“Not that, silly,” she said with a shake of her head, and didn’t elaborate further. “Come, now, let’s go while it’s still light. They can get scary in the dark. Oh.” She looked in adoration at the baby sleeping on her hip and carefully untied him. “You can’t come, darling,” she told him. “Katniss will watch you.”
“What?” Katniss barked in pure horror, only instinct making her hold on when Annie deposited the baby into her arms. “Annie. No. I can’t!” She looked at the bundle in her arms as though it was a flash grenade.
Peeta had to press his lips together not to laugh as Annie tried to convince Katniss she could hold a sleeping baby for a few hours. Eventually, a compromise was reached – Katniss would take him to Hazelle, and then meet the two at the Meadow. With snacks and sweet drinks because, Annie said, they always helped. They watched Katniss very carefully carrying the baby down to town, eyes still huge at the realisation of what she held, and then started toward the Meadow.
“Finnick is gone,” Annie said, out of the blue. “I went back to see him, when they told me where he’d died. He saw his son. And now he’s gone.”
“But not really gone,” Peeta said, quietly. He'd learned enough, since the Games, to know that even people like him and Annie could never truly send a person's presence away for good.
Annie smiled, brittle and warm at the same time. “No, not really,” she agreed.
“I hate to have to ask you to do this for me,” Peeta tried again.
Annie simply took his hand, lacing their fingers together easily. “You’re not asking. And it’s not just for you.”
That night, Peeta made it to his own bed, even if it was by sheer force of will. Most of it was because Annie had fallen asleep on the couch, her son tucked protectively to her side, at peace despite the pain and weakness she was still in. They’d both beelined to the couch after they’d stumbled back, she with some help from Katniss, and while he’d dozed the moment he’d sat on that couch, Annie had kept herself awake until Katniss returned from picking up Annie’s son from Hazelle. For the rest of the afternoon they hadn’t moved, content to sit shoulder to shoulder, resting or catching up or teasing Katniss about holding the baby.
By the time Annie had fallen asleep, Katniss was brave enough to rock the little boy to sleep to get him to stop fussing before she deposited him back beside his mother. Without meeting Peeta’s – gently amused, he’d admit – face, she’d left the room. And he assumed she’d gone home.
But, once he was in bed and had removed his leg, the prosthetic too heavy and sore to keep on any longer, there was the faintest change in the moonlight and Katniss slipped into his room.
“Okay?” he asked her, at once.
She nodded. “I went to get Annie a blanket,” she explained. “You were gone when I came back.”
They looked at each other for a while, Katniss biting her lip and him waiting for her to say whatever she came up there to say.
“Can I... stay?” she finally said, and he couldn’t trust himself to do more than nod.
Quickly, as though scared one of them would change their minds, she slipped into the lavish bed with him. But still kept her distance, snuggling down and shutting her eyes. He watched her, unable not to, thoughts whirling and a shiny memory not too far away. He pushed at it, focusing on the moonlight on her hair. How it made her look so insubstantial. She was much better, than she had been but there were still some days when she was... lost. When On was singing from her pores.
“Do you think,” he whispered, finally unable to stop himself, and her eyes opened and met his at once, “that you’ll still be able to sleep better next to me? That I’ll still... make it... better? After... everything?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.
Peeta licked his lips. “You won’t disappear if I touch you, real or not real?”
“Real,” she said, still solemn and open. When he hesitated, she slowly reached out to touch him, her fingers ghosting against his forehead as she brushed his hair away. “Is that why you haven’t...? I mean... I didn’t want to... set you off...”
“I just didn’t want you to leave,” he admitted hoarsely. “We were both a little... dead. And I didn’t want... I couldn’t bear it if you disappeared, now.”
She didn’t make any promises, and for that, Peeta was grateful. She did also scoot closer to him, curling herself deep into his arms. He was grateful for that, too.
“It’ll be okay if I have nightmares beside you, real or not real?” she asked, breath against his arm.
He didn’t know how to answer – didn’t know if her screaming would set him off. Didn’t know if her presence would seep into his dreams and turn him into a monster in his sleep. “I’ll try to make it real,” he said, and it seemed inadequate.
“Thank you,” she murmured, and then curled up in his arms and went to sleep.
He slept deep. If Katniss had nightmares, she did not wake him with them. The next day, he and Annie went out to the Meadow and helped the rest of those willing to move On. They rested for a day, Annie adding to their Memory book, then went back to catch those who did not yet know leaving was the best thing for them, handling a bit every day with rests in-between. Peeta caught up on most of his baking while Annie knitted them presents with Katniss’ mom’s untouched wool and Katniss tried to learn to play with the baby and Haymitch nearly strangled his geese.
Annie and her son left. The ghosts dwindled. Some new ghosts appeared, and Peeta dealt with them. Some old internal ghosts resurfaced, and he and Katniss dealt with them together. The cycle continued, and before he knew it, Peeta was living a life.
And the girl with the magical voice, the hunter from a broken District, the girl who introduced him to love and taught him all its facets, good and bad, stayed in his bed through it all, and became the first ghost his hands touched who slowly came back to life.