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After the fire, Ashes remain

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Peeta

 

I’m lying down on Finnick’s couch, nearly in tears because of the pain.

“Peeta, we really need to look at it,” Finnick says.

“I know,” I reply.

“Then, why wouldn’t you let me look at it before? You are a stubborn man, no matter what you say…oh! It was because of Katniss,” my friend exclaims when he realizes.

“Finnick, fetch the scissors from the kitchen,” Annie says looking at him with a hard look in her eyes. “Sorry about that, Peeta”.

“It’s ok, Annie, I didn’t want to show her...this,” I say pointing at my fake leg with a grimace of disgust.

“Why, Peeta? You have nothing to be ashamed of, and I highly doubt that Katniss would think it’s disgusting.”

“It's not only that, Annie. It's true that I didn't want her to see me like that, I was complete before, that is how she remembers me. Maybe I’m vain or…”

“She won't mind, Peeta, she was really concerned about you just five minutes ago.”

“I know, and that's the other reason. It would be too painful for both of us This is a constant reminder of Prim’s death for me, I don't want it to be a reminder for her too,” I say looking at her, . I expect to see my own sadness reflected on Annie, but what I see is my friend smiling with a sweet look in her eyes. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because you are you again, Peeta.” Annie kisses me on the cheek as Finnick walks into the living room.

“That kitchen is huge! How am I supposed to find anything in there?, he asks with a scowl in his face.

“Maybe if you spent more time in it, you’d find things easier? I’ll be back in a second with the scissors. You come with me and learn” she orders her husband.

I look at the scene in the garden, with the safety provided by the chiffon curtains. Alex and Katniss are sitting in the grass, she is facing the window and keeps looking in my direction, worry written in her stormy eyes. I enjoy the moment despite the pain. Looking at her was always my favourite pastime since I was five,I learnt to know and love every single expression her face showed. I used to sketch her, something I haven’t done in a long time, another piece of me that was lost in the fire. After that I tried a couple of times to draw her again but I couldn’t capture her face anymore, it was vivid in my mind: her lips, her cheeks, her eyes, her brain and smile… her image was haunting me, it didn’t mind if I was slept or awake, however when I grabbed the pencil or the charcoal, my hand resisted drawing her; there was a disconnect between my hand and my brain. The fire took away from me, all my sketches and paintings, but Katniss took away my ability to draw. I don’t feel passionate about anything or anyone since then.

Finnick and Annie come back from the kitchen with the scissors, cut my jeans, and take a look at my leg. The damage done by the prosthetic is obvious: big bruise and an open injury that is bleeding and will need stitches. They bandage the wound and when Finnick states “it’s time for hospital” I just nod, and don’t voice any objections despite my obvious aversion.

I'm a bit dizzy when I get up with Finnick and Annie’s help. Every step brings a stabbing pain, and I have to bite my tongue to not swear out loud, Alex is in the garden… and Katniss.

Despite my better judgement, I turn my head and look at her and, for the first time since she showed up in Panem, her image doesn’t hurt me more than my leg, which could be normal due my condition.

Hours later and after being in the hospital, Finnick and I are in my apartment, the doctor has told us I won’t be able to use any prosthetic till the injury heals and the swelling disappears.

“Finnick, for the last time, I’m alright! You don’t have to stay with me. I have my old crutches and the wheelchair and, believe me, I know how to manage just fine with one leg.”

“It will be only tonight Peeta, I promise. This can be our pizza and beer night”

“I don’t think is your best idea, mate, I’m on those strong painkillers, and the last thing I need is to overdose and have to return to that damn hospital after being there for more than four hours. I’m exhausted. I need to sleep,” I say, although I know I won’t be able to rest tonight after everything that’s happened, the void in my heart is too big. I don’t know how to calm the anxiety down.

“Ok, let me walk you to your room. I’m staying on your couch tonight, though.”

“Fine! You can drive me to the bakery tomorrow, then. I don’t need a roommate, but I need a chauffeur.”

“You’re not going to the bakery tomorrow, or for the rest of the week, as far as I’m concerned,” he states with a solemn tone, so similar to his voice when he’s lecturing Alex.

“Oh, yes I am! Because you know that routine is my lifesaver, and you also know that you invited Katniss today. So, you owe me.” His face at that moment could be described as a puppy face, but I resist the urge to laugh at him, it is better to keep playing the “blame game” if I want to get away with this. “You will bring my wheelchair to the bakery and I can work in the prep table.”

“Fine, you win.” He concedes resigned. I’m surprised it didn’t take more time to convince him, this is an indication of how guilty he feels.

I put on my pajamas, and get into my bed with my cup of tea on the nightstand. I sip it with the hope that it will help warm my heart and soothe my memories… maybe it is too much to ask of a plain tea. “Life would be easier if everything could be solved with just a cup of tea,” I whisper to myself.

When I was a child, what helped me forget my mother’s tantrums was drawing, I remember. For the first time in ages, I feel the strong pull of the blank page calling out to me. The images of soft charcoal strokes run through my mind inviting me to follow. My hand itches to trace them, to bring them to life.The urge to grab a pencil is too strong to resist.

“Do you need anything else?” asks Finnick from the doorway checking up on me before going to bed.

“Actually… yes. Could you please fetch my sketchbook and a pencil? They are in the kitchen, in the second drawer,” I say as nonchalantly as I can, I don’t want Finnick to read more into this. If he does, he doesn’t comment, not in that moment or when he returns with a new sketchbook.

“Good night, Peeta, If you need something just shout,” he says.

“You’re a good friend.” I concede

“No way, dude… I’m the best friend ever,” he answers and winks his eye.

It is weird to have a pencil in my hand and a piece of white paper in front of me today. I caress the surface of the sketch paper and trace an oval line just to break an invisible barrier.

I don’t know what I want to draw, no picture comes to my mind, so I just draw another oval line near the first one. ”What is this abstract shape?” I wonder “The crown of a cypress? A fish in a pond? An eye?”

I clear my mind of all images going through my head, and I leave my hand to draw free, it actually sketches faster than my brain can put all the pieces of those lines together. It's almost like it's drawing something it learnt a long time ago.

I stop and look at the sketch. I’m not surprised when I realize what all these lines show: Katniss this afternoon when she came to see how I was after I fell. Locks of her hair frame her beautiful face, glassy eyes full of genuine concern and something else I can’t pinpoint, her round mouth asking if I was alright… her fingers running through my hair. I close my eyes to feel again her touch. This is the first time she’s touched me after 3 long years, and still makes me want herand long for the touch of her skin against mine, her warm breath in my ear lobe, her voice moaning my name… I shake my head to rid it of those images, but I can’t deny she’s my sickness and my salvation and, if I’m going to move on, I will have to forgive her and, most importantly, I’ll have to forgive myself.

I grab the phone and I start typing: “Hey, sorry for my behaviour earlier. I didn’t know you were coming and I was kind of shocked to see you there. It was a small accident, nothing to worry about. I guess if you are going to stay, I’ll see you around. Cheers.” I stare at the screen for a couple of minutes over-analyzing my words. Does it sound to casual? Does it sound like I want to see her again? But, most importantly, does it sound real?

My finger hovers over the send button as I debate with myself. Send. Not send. The bright screen is starting to hurt my eyes when I decide to just go for it. It's been a long day and I'm tired. I need to start trusting my instincts again.

Her answer doesn’t take too long to arrive, polite but distant: “Hi, Peeta. Thanks for letting me know you're ok. There's no need to apologise I'm the one who behaved badly. I'm sorry you had to spend the rest of the day at the hospital. Hope you recover quickly. I'll see you around.”

I look one more time at her image, and I exhale. It would better to switch off the light and get some sleep.

The next few days aren't easy. Finding myself with crutches and a wheelchair again takes me back to the very first days of the physical therapy, but the toughest aspect is the emotional rollercoaster: nightmares, a couple of panic attacks when I’m alone at home, anxiety… I know this regression is normal, I was warned by the psychologist, but that doesn’t make it any easier. On top of that: no news from Katniss. I wonder if I should text her back, some days ago I would have been glad with her silence, but now...I’m not sure anymore.

It’s Friday afternoon. I’m making the dough for tomorrow when Rue comes into the kitchen with her always-on bright smile.

“Hey, boss, what about some PR?” She’s only 7 years younger than I am, but she’s an expert on social media. She opened an Instagram account for the Mellark bakery and it’s already got more than one thousand followers. “I thought this time we could post the elaboration of one of our top sellers: cheese buns which, by chance, you are mixing now.”

“What do you have in mind, Rue?” I ask with a smile. Her energy and passion are contagious, so I play along. Up until now, her free marketing actions have brought more customers than ever. I have even hired a second person who started a couple of weeks ago, his name is Thresh.

“I thought to post a series of pictures of you baking,” she says with a mischievous smile that gives away she has some other hidden reasons.

“And…..We have done this with other recipes. Where’s the trick?” I say motioning with my hand for her to continue.
“This time, we could take pictures of you, not just of your hands and arms.”

“No way!” I exclaimed. “Do you think anyone wants to see a crippled man in his wheelchair?”

“Peeta,” she says now adopting a grave tone, “no one would think that. Actually, all the women I know think you’re handsome.”

“I'm not sure, Rue.” I shake my head. I know she means well, but I’m not convinced yet.

“C’mon, it will be funny… trust me, and if we don't break our likes record I promise not to talk you into something like this again but, if we succeed, next time we will record a video!”

“Ok, why not? Let's do it!” I say because his optimism wins me over

The rest of the afternoon passes by with laughs and silly poses to make the pictures look like real influencers, although I’m afraid we get the opposite effect… and I forget for some hours the turmoil inside my brain. I discovered some years ago that the bakery works a balsamic effect on me, that is why, despite having two people helping me now, I like to open; something I do every day, except for Saturdays and every other Sunday. I don’t have much life outside my lunch appointment with the Oddair family and these walls, so being here at least keeps me busy and helps me reconnect with everything good that happened in my life... like the very first time I kissed Katniss.

By the time we close the bakery and Rue drives me home the cheese buns post has beaten our best register to date. Rue can't avoid the proud smile in her face as she brags about the more than 500 likes we had in only three hours, and some of the comments we got… like the super nice comment from Cashmere.

“What did she say?” I ask quite intrigued.

“She said she would like to taste more of your “specialties” next time you see each other,” she says while using air quotes as she says the word special. “Do you want to share something about your love life, boss?

I can feel my cheeks are heating up with the implication of Cashmere’s comment but, fortunately, I’m saved by the ring of my phone. I rush to answer Finnick and avoid this conversation.

“Hey there, what’s up?” I answer and Finnick starts to talk. “Ok, let me see if Rue can. Hold on a second,” I cover the mic and ask Rue, “I know tomorrow is your free day, but could you open the bakery instead of Sunday? Finnick has an urgent appointment and he won’t be able to make it on time, and I can do Sunday morning?”

“Yes, no problem”’she answers .

“Ok” I resume my conversation with Finnick “but please don’t get later than 11am, it gets very busy after then.”

Rue drops me at home, and I decide to stretch a little bit more the evening and work out, it usually relaxes me and I can sleep better… and after all I don’t have to be an early bird next morning.

On Saturday I wake up in a good mood, and I enjoy my warm bed and the sun heating my face till I remember I have to do some laundry. I, lazily, spend ten more minutes laying down. After all, I’ll need Finnick to help me hang the clothes up. My terrace is too small for my wheelchair, and the last time I tried it to do it just with one crutch, one of my socks ended up in the park eight floors below me.

Finnick is already ten minutes late when I start to get impatient. I’m about to call him when I hear a knock in the door.

“Have you forgotten the keys again?” I say to the person on the other side of the door when I open the door I find out that it isn’t Finnick but Katniss.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi… what are you—,” but before I can finish the sentence she cuts me off.

“Finnick didn’t tell you… again.” I nod to confirm her suspicions. “don’t worry, I’ll leave now and you can look for a better way to get to the bakery. I knew this wasn’t a good idea, but he insisted and told me you were ok with the arrangement and, after your last text on Sunday, I really wanted so badly to believe him, but… Oh, I haven’t asked you how you are. I’m so rude and so..” she is ranting and her voice gets lower till it becomes a whisper but her imploring eyes are speaking louder than any word. She was never a talker.

“I’m much better, thanks for asking,” I say with a smile that I hope can reassure her… and me. “Finnick didn’t tell me, but I really need someone to drive me to the bakery so I appreciate your help, although I’m afraid I’ll need another favor.

“Please, can you come in?”

She offers a polite smile as reply and enters my house, walking very close to me, so close I can smell her lavender and pine essence. I’m sure she already hiked this morning.

“Your apartment has so much light, Peeta! It's very cozy.”

“Thanks,” I say as my eyes contemplate the white and impersonal space I’m living in. If she’s surprised by the lack of canvas on the walls she doesn’t comment.

“I need some help to hang up the laundry, I can’t do it with just one hand,” I say motioning at the basket full of wet clothes.

Katniss smiles. “Yeah, I can see how that could be a problem.” Leaning down, she reaches for the basket and pulls a couple of t-shirts out.

We work in comfortable silence for the next few minutes. I manage to hang a few things, but I’m slow and clumsy and she does most of the work.

Suddenly, I see Katniss blushing. I’m wondering what the reason could be when I notice she’s holding one of my boxers. My brain fills with images of her sitting on top of the washing machine in our old basement, moaning while we had sex.

 

It was earlier than usual when I got home from the gym that night.
“Katniss, Prim, is anyone home?”
“Here” I heard Katniss’ voice coming from downstairs. I went down to find her leaning over the washing machine.
“Hey, beautiful,what are you doing?” I said admiring the bare skin of her lower back.
“Laundry,” she complained looking at me with her intense grey eyes.
“Great timing then, can you put some of my dirty clothes as well?” I asked approaching her with my gym bag.
“Depends…” she told me biting her lip
“What is it going to take this time, Everdeen? Dinner? Groceries? Cheese buns for breakfast?”
She grabbed the elastic of my sport pants and pulled me to her, “I was thinking about a different thing” and she kissed me closing the gap between our bodies.
“Where is Prim?” I muttered resting my forehead on hers and caressing her cheek with my hand.
“She’s at a sleepover with her friends. We are alone tonight, Peeta, just you and I” she put her hand between my boxer and my skin.
“What's gotten into you...today...Katniss?” I said choking as she moved her hand down.
“I have a confession to make” she whispered by my ear, her warm breath tickling in my neck “this jacket has always turned me on.”
“My old high school football jacket?” I asked surprised.
“Yeaaaaahhh,” she confirmed stretching out the word. “I had some wild fantasies that implied you and me and that jacket in the meadow at midnight.”
“You should have told me something. My teenage self would have gladly complied”
“I know now...we’ve wasted so much time,Peeta. I don't want to waste more time,” she said playing with her fingers inside my boxer.
“Katniss, you should stop or we won't make it to the bed…” I moaned trying to slow my breath.
“I don't want to make it to the bed.”
I grabbed her by her waist and lifted her to sit her down on the washing machine, I opened her legs and wrapped her with my arms the closest I could to my body… it was the best night of my life and I couldn't erase the smile on my face for days, even for weeks…

 

I come back to myself and realize she's looking at me.

“Are you ok? You looked like you were in another place,” she says, her cheeks still painted in pink.

“I was” I reply laughing “I guess I’ve zoomed out”

“It happened to me as well, isn't it weird how some moments or things trigger memories?” she says looking embarrassed, and then both of us start laughing.

“Yes, very odd” I answer. I'm laughing so hard I need to hold my ribs with one hand. One of my crutches falls and the noise breaks the spell we were in.

“Ok, ok, we need to go to the bakery, it is super late,” I say looking at my watch.

Katniss helps me back into the house again, one of her hands on my waist and the other holding the basket and my crutch.The fact that she has preferred to help me, instead of giving me the crutch, doesn't go unnoticed. It is nice feeling having her so close again, but it's dangerous, and complex, and too fast. I need to keep my distance.

“Please, can you give me my crutch? I can manage myself better, and I might be too heavy for you.”

“Of course, sorry! I just wanted to help you.”

“It's ok, but I'm used to this… it's been more than 3 years now.” My words sound bitter even to me.

The ride to the bakery is quiet and a bit tense, I'm afraid I've ruined the moment. When she stops in front of the bakery she says, “well, here we are. Do you need some help to get out?”

“No, don't worry, I'm ok! And thank you for your help today. Do you… do you want to come inside and have some cinnamon rolls or cheese buns?” I ask tentatively in a lame effort to fix the situation.

“No, thanks. I gotta go.” she says looking at the steering wheel instead of me.

“Ok, goodbye.” I’m about to close the door, but I don't want to part ways like this, not today. “Why don't you come by next week for a coffee?”

She turns her head and looks at me without blinking. “Are you sure?” she asks with trepidation.

“Yes, Katniss. I am sure”

“Then, I'll see you next week.” She says with a genuine smile, the kind of smile she reserves for people or moments she cares about… and that makes my day.