Looking up from the sink, he sees her through the kitchen window. The effortless and easy way she acts around her sister and her friend changes to a stiff and cold façade of toleration as she enters the Merchant Square. He smooths back his hair with his hands and moves to open the back door.
“Hi, Katniss,” Peeta says, mustering up some courage.
She halts in her path, eyes far too wide. She looks in the sides of her vision to see if anyone was nearby. Her change in demeanor does not go unnoticed by the young baker.
“You must have something to trade; let me go get my father.”
“No! Don’t! Uh, actually, I-I uh… was just walking by.”
Peeta blushes terribly and stammers, “Oh! Well maybe you would like some bread, or a fruit tart, or-or I just made some cookies! I bet your sister would love those.”
She eyes him curiously, but he knows that she would do anything to make her sister happy. And for some odd reason, that makes him happy, too.
“Gale and I did have a good haul yesterday,” she mumbles quietly, making Peeta flinch with jealousy at the mention of his name, “Fine.”
He smiles far too noticeably and practically screams, “Great! Just come around front, I’ll meet you there.”
When he turns away, he knows that she is still standing there, probably scared and somewhat terrified of his freakish behavior. He does his best to ignore it. As he waits for her, he nervously wipes his hands on his trousers and sees two hand-shaped streaks of white—flour. He curses himself, remembering the way he tried to fix his hair when he saw her. No wonder she was terrified—the sight of him there, begging for her to come into the store, with white, floured hair; practically a mad man. A quick wringing of a dish rag through his blond hair assuages the turbulent situation.
He’s looking in the mirror when he hears the bell above the door ring. His head jerks to the right and there she is—standing with her head tilted to the side, eyebrows knit tightly together, staring at him.
She thinks you’re crazy. Calm down, idiot. His brain’s message reverberates through his body as he tries to quell his racing heart. He gestures to the display case, hoping to distract her from his slowly unraveling sanity. He’s telling her about the little tea cakes when he hears his brothers storm in through the back door.
“Hey, Peet, we’re back. You can go finger-paint some flowers now or whatever it is you do all day.”
Peeta blushes and, wide-eyed, looks to see if Katniss heard. He sees her examining a pastry far too closely and knows she did, but she’s pretending not to. He doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or more embarrassed and turns as red as cherry pie.
Gulping, Peeta says, “Okay, just let me finish this sale really quickly, then I’ll take my break.”
“Whatever,” says one of his brothers as he strolls casually into the kitchen, biting into an apple.
“Oh,” they say when they see Katniss standing there, still scrutinizing over a scone, “Oooohhh.”
The oldest winks at Peeta while the other ruffles his hair.
“Don’t worry little brother. Why don’t you take your break now, we’ll finish up here.”
“But I-I,” Peeta splutters.
They shove him behind them, “How may we help you, Miss?”
She looks at Peeta as he climbs the steps to his room, his head hanging low, “One cookie, please.”
He can still hear her faintly as he reaches the top of the stairs, where he sits down with his head in his hands. Another hand pats his back and he turns to see the questioning eyes of his father. Peeta gestures towards downstairs with a flick of his head and his father moves past him just enough to see. She’s still there debating carefully on how to spend her money. His father turns and sits with his youngest until they hear her bustle out the door. With a sympathetic look at his son, the old baker slowly makes his way downstairs.
“Boys, come here.”
Peeta hears this, but somehow knows it’s not directed toward him, so he remains seated.
“Hey Dad,” says the younger of the two.
“What’s wrong?” asks the older.
The old man smiles, “Nothing is wrong, but I do wish to make things quite clear.”
The brothers gaze at him, waiting.
“Your brother is in love with that young girl and he has been for God knows how long.”
The brothers snicker to each other. Notions of love are foreign to them, like most teenage boys, love to them is a euphemism for lust. This idea, to Peeta, couldn’t be further from the truth. He believes he knows what real love is and he has from age five.
“Loving her makes him happy,” the baker sighs, he is tired, “and hell, we all need happiness in place like this. So for Peet’s sake, if that girl comes in here to buy cookies, let him sell them to her. Let him give them to her for free. Let him bake her a damn cake. Nothing is sure for anyone, it seems as though things are changing and everything could be gone in a second.”
The older boys are lost on the meaning of his words, but for the young lover sitting atop the stairs, truer words have never been spoken. Today is the day of the Reaping. At sixteen, he has only two years left before he never has to worry about his fate again… hopefully. But he is so selfless. It’s not his name he never wants to hear come out of that pink lady’s mouth. It’s not his safety that he prays for to an old God that his brothers say doesn’t exist. It’s hers.
While he likes to think that he’ll have all the time in the world to tell her how he feels, he knows that that is most certainly not the case. It could never be the case, especially with her. Any day, she could be arrested and shot for poaching. Any day, she could starve and wither away. Any day, well, just today, she could get sent to the slaughter on national television.
Peeta tunes back in to hear the last of the conversation.
“… That poor girl will never be safe.”
Peeta clamps a hand to his mouth and attempts to repress a sob he knows he must not let escape.
And when she volunteers, he finds himself doing it again. Repressing a cry that must not be heard.