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After the fire, Ashes remain

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During the following weeks, Peeta and I start normalising our new relationship. I drop by the bakery a couple of times a week to buy pastries.

In those  first encounters we make some small talk and I meet Rue. We get along instantly, she reminds me so much of Prim: she’s younger than me but mature and gentle, and she adores Peeta.

 

I feel better knowing he had such a safety network around him while I was gone: Finnick, Annie, Alex, Rue... and even Cashmere —although I’m not her greatest fan for obvious reasons.

 

Weeks give way to months and one day he asks if I’d like a coffee. That starts a new routine. One where we speak, smile and laugh. I think to myself I could be happy with this,  the rest of my life... until he squeezes my hand. At the beginning I try to minimise it, and I think it was just a small reassuring gesture, but subtly something changes after that moment. 

 

I’m much more aware now of his body language, how he leans closer to me, or how he brushes my fingers when he gives me my cup of coffee or when he starts to put his hand on the low part of my back when we go through a door. I live  for those moments. I crave his touch, and his expert hands running over my skin. When I start having some explicit dreams with my blond and handsome ex boyfriend I know I’m fucked.

 

I came back to Panem because I still loved him, but I never expected to fall for him as hard as if we were teenagers, just the same way I fell for him the first time. Last night was just another example of where this is going.

 

He walked me back home after watching a movie, and just after we said our good nights, he stepped forward and secured a lock of my hair behind my ear. I held my breath looking at his eyes. For a moment I thought he was going to kiss me. I swear I saw his eyes moving to my mouth and I felt his breath on my lips but, in the last second, he turned his face and kissed me softly on the cheek... way too close to my mouth for me to think it was by accident.

 

“Sleep well, Katniss” he whispered by my ear, nuzzling in my hair.

 

It will be the understatement of the century to say, I was restless for the rest of the night, my own skin felt tight. 

 

That moment from tonight is all that crosses my mind when I step into Mellark’s in the late afternoon the next day. 

 

“Hey Rue, how’s the day going?” I wave at her. “Is Peeta here?” 

 

“Office” she mouths as she keeps attending the queue of let customers.

 

Before going in,  I breathe deeply and smooth my hair but a quick glimpse to the room and a loud noise of a tray falling to the ground tells me he’s in the kitchen. I’m pretty sure he’s preparing dough for tomorrow. I chuckle because I know he’ll be grumpy after the kitchen fiasco, and I’ve always found his frown adorable. It’s an old joke between us, me finding him adorable when he’s pissed. Maybe, because I’ve left my walls down, I’m not ready for what I see from the frame of the door.

 

He’s kissing Cash --or Cash is kissing him. I don’t know because I can only see his back. I fly away from there before the full picture gets registered in my brain. 

 

On my way out, I bump into Rue.

 

“Did you find him?” She asks

 

“Hmmm? Oh yes, but he was busy with one of those wedding cakes, and I didn’t want to interrupt. You know how focused he is. Anyway, I need to go to the Park. Don’t tell him I was here ok? I’ll call him later.”

 

I’m walking through the woods. It’s a sunny afternoon, and a cool breeze carries pine scent. I thought this would soothe me, but I feel physical pain and a sense of betrayal. I know I don’t own him, but after some of the moments we shared the last weeks, I thought we were reconnecting, I thought we were becoming some of our old selves and I thought --no, I was sure-- that he was feeling the same, and this is exactly the opposite of what I thought.  I shake my head to clear it, and dry my tears.

 

As soon as I get back to an urban area, my phone beeps. I fight the urge to look at it until I park in front of my apartment. 

 

Peeta 

Hey, how are you? Would you like to hang out? Watch a movie? I’d like to see you...

 

There’s no way on Earth I’m  going to watch a movie with him, spend time with him or be near him any time soon, if I have a say. 

 

Katniss 

Sorry, I am tired. Had to work this evening. 

 

Peeta

Oh ok. What about tomorrow or any other day this week? I have a pretty flexible agenda for you 😉

 

Katniss 

We’ll see, the week is going to be hectic as we need to prepare the trails for high hiking season. Just make your own plans. I don’t want to be a burden.

 

Peeta

Katniss, are you ok? Is everything alright?

 

I’ve had enough of this conversation for now. Just seeing his name and picture on the screen of my phone is too painful.

 

Katniss

Geez Peeta! I’m just tired.

 

I can see on my screen that he’s typing back and forth for a while, and I feel really bad for snapping at him. After some minutes his reply pops up in my screen. 

 

Peeta 

Ok I guess I’ll see you then at Alex’s birthday’s party next Saturday at least.

 

 

I can’t make myself answer, I know it’s mean but I feel like a love-sick fool. Peeta never promised anything except that we could try to be friends. 

 

The clench I feel in my heart it’s really similar to a broken heart.

 

The week passes by faster than I’d like. Loyal to his word, Peeta hasn’t texted or called me, and Saturday keeps approaching inexorably in the calendar. 

 

I go the whole week trying to find a valid reason for not attending the party, but finally I can’t cope with the disappointment that would bring to the small kid.

 

I arrive a bit later, on purpose,  my plan is to go unnoticed among the people and avoid Peeta, and Cash if she’s there, as much as I can. 

 

It’s an unusual warm fall afternoon and the garden is full of children, running, playing and laughing.

 

Peeta is here alone. Our eyes lock several times, but I bring my eyes away every single time and, finally,  decide to hide in the kitchen, refilling trays and drinks and making small and unimportant talk.

 

“Here you are” I hear Annie saying to me. “Thanks for coming, Katniss, and for helping with all the kitchen stuff.” 

 

“Sure,” I answer nodding and bring my view back to the garden where Peeta is kneeled beside Alex.

 

“Are you alright? You are very quiet.” 

 

“I am quiet,” I say, washing some dishes.

 

“Yes, you are, but this is more of a melancholy mood Katniss, I can recognise it for what it is. You know how difficult my mental health was some years ago, and besides  you aren’t subtle.”

 

“I don’t know what you mean.” 

 

“Peeta. You might be hidden in the kitchen, but you haven’t taken your eyes off him What’s going on? I thought things were better…” 

 

I stop pretending and close my eyes grimacing, ready to spit my guts out “I thought so too,  Annie, but …”

 

Before I finish my sentence, a cheerful and unaware Finnick comes into the kitchen announcing it’s time for the cake and the candles. 

 

“This conversation isn’t over. We’ll talk later,ok?” she whispers to me.

 

Finnick and Annie decorate the cake (of course Peeta’s creation, I would recognise his doing anywhere) with the candles and light them up.

 

The guests are waiting in the living-room. When I open the door for them, everyone starts singing and looks at them and at Alex' face. Peeta, of course, his godfather is beside the kid but he’s not singing. He's looking intensely at me. His glance burns my skin, and becomes unbearable, because I can read his silent plea. I run away from the crowd as soon as I can, and I look for solace in the small porch by the kitchen. 

 

It’s not long after that I hear heavy steps behind me. 

 

“Are you avoiding me?” his voice asks softly.

 

“Of course not, I just feel … a bit under the weather today” I say, turning slightly around but without looking at him yet.

 

“I thought you’d like some,” he offers standing now next to me and leaving a dish with cake in front of me.

 

“I am not hungry, but thank you” 

 

“Wow! I’d never thought you’d turn down food. You must really be sick or… you must be really pissed off” he reads me as usual and it’s not buying my bullshit as always, which in this moment is quite infuriating, so I snap. 

 

“I came here to be alone, Peeta!”

 

“Don’t do this, please Katniss,” and he caresses the side of my hand with his little finger. “I’ve missed you this week”

 

I huff and smile before answering  “That’s hardly true”.

 

“What do you mean by that?” he says with a hurt edge in his voice “I thought we were past this, I thought we decided that we could start over, be friends…”

 

That’s it, he has said it now. I never thought a word as friends could sting so much, and it’s in this very moment that I make up my mind - I can’t stay here, not anymore.  

 

“Listen, I need to go,” I say moving away from him, but he is fast and grabs my wrist. 

 

“Don’t run away from me again. Not when I was getting you back,” Peeta begs and I hate that his voice can reach me and cut through my body in any situation. 

 

“I’m leaving,” I scowl and try to hide my emotions and pain from him but I can’t fool Peeta so easily. 

 

 

“Katniss, are you ok? you look sick, sorry for pushing you … Just.. Let me drive you home. We can speak tomorrow or next week when you feel better,” his other hand --the one that isn’t holding my wrist-- cups now my cheek tentatively.

 

“You didn’t understand me. I’m leaving Panem, for good,” my voice cracks with the feeling of his skin on my face.

 

“You are kidding, aren’t you?” But he knows I’m not. Looking at my face, he steps back taking away the warmth I crave so much. “Because if you aren’t kidding, this must be the cruelest thing you’ve ever done, Katniss. Not even leaving me the first time was as cruel as this, because this is deliberate. You’re breaking my heart just when it was starting to hope. How could I was so stupid to  believe in you, in us, again?” Peeta says, raising his voice, nearly screaming.

 

“It’s funny you’re talking about breaking hearts, Peeta. I saw you two kissing the other day in the bakery. So, I’d say your heart is in better shape than mine!” I nearly can contain my tears; tears of rage and disappointment, tears of pain and love lost.

 

He turns white and gasps with the realization, putting all the pieces together before he starts talking very fast, “Katniss, I didn’t kiss Cash! She kissed me, that’s true,  and I was shocked and confused for a moment but I didn’t kiss her back. I don’t want Cash. You have to believe me. Cash and I were never together, I don’t feel that way about her”

 

“It doesn’t matter anymore. You were right. We’re broken, this place is broken. There’s nothing left for me: not a house, nor a lover, nor a grave with my sister. I was so delusional to think we could start over.”

 

“Katniss, please… “ he begs.

 

“I need to go, Peeta.”

 

I kiss his cheek, lingering a bit longer than necessary, but before I walk away, he says “Let me show you something before you go. I won’t bother you after this if you don’t want.” I nod because I can’t refuse to give him one more moment.

 

We jump in my car and he speaks only to provide some directions. I drive in auto-pilot, without realising where I am going too engrossed by his proximity, his scent flooding my senses until I become overwhelmed and I opt to lower the window and let some fresh air in. 

 

 

The sun is setting down and the sky becomes full of pinks, muted yellows and soft oranges. It’s a beautiful afternoon, that for a brief moment I can enjoy before my heart clenches again with his voice, and I suddenly realize where we’re heading. I stop abruptly the car and look at him. 

º

“What are you doing, Peeta?” I ask enraged “I’m not going there. Why would you think I’d like to return to this damn place?”

 

“You have to, Katniss. You won’t be able to start over if you don’t accept what happened.”

 

“I’m. Not. Going. There” I say, punctuating each of the words. 

 

“Do you trust me?” But I don’t answer to that. Peeta goes out of the car, walks around and stops near my window. “Do you trust me, Katniss?” he repeats and offers his hand. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought it could hurt you. Please, I need to show you something, ok?”.

 

I’m finally tempted by the honesty in his eyes, and because I know deep down that Peeta wouldn’t do anything on purpose to hurt me. If he doesn’t love me anymore it’s not his fault, I say to myself.

 

I get out of the car, and he grabs my hand and starts walking down the street down towards our old house. 

 

“Are you cold? You’re shaking” he pulls me in close and buries his face in my hair. Warmth radiates from the spot where his lips just touch my neck, slowly spreading through the rest of me. It feels so good, so impossibly good, that I know I will not be the first to let go. And why should I? This is our goodbye, my comfort moment where I can dream of the life we could have had. 

 

“Ready?” he says, bringing me back to reality. We walk in silence, his arm holding me still tightly, until we reach our old house and… oh! I can’t breath, the air has escaped my lungs. I cannot believe what I’m seeing.

 

I cannot believe what I’m seeing.

 

“What is this?” I asked confused looking around looking in awe at my surroundings.

 

“It’s a garden,” he says 

 

“Primroses,” I say in awe. He nods and starts walking inside the garden.

 

“She loved flowers, so I thought this would be a good way to remember her, to honor her,” He says motioning to a white stone that lays beside a pond, surrounded by primroses and covered with yellow and red moss.

 

The whole scenario is stunning. The colors in the sky melt with the colors in the garden, which vibrates with life. I approach the stone and I notice there’s something engraved on it. I drop to my knees and  I pass  my hand over the text where you can read.

 

Primrose Everdeen. Beloved sister

 

I look up to Peeta “I have no words, this is so beautiful, so thoughtful that I don’t know what to say. This is just perfect and she…” That’s the moment where I break, when I leave my emotions to take over me for real after that night. Tears run down my cheeks and I can’t stop them. I don't want to stop them. It's the  first time since this tragedy happened that I can think about Prim with a feeling different to loss, sadness and grief and it’s liberating. “She would have loved it. I love it” 

 

He sits by my side and embraces me nuzzling in my hair. “It’s going to be ok, Katniss”. And I firmly believe him, no matter what will be next, it would be ok if we can face it together, because he makes everything better.

 

I raise my head and look at him to thank him and to apologise again, but before I can say a word he captures my lips with his, tentatively and unsure of what he’s doing until I kiss him back. That’s all the encouragement Peeta needs. He brings his hands to my face and starts kissing me like I was the water and he was thirsty, like he’s going to devour my mouth and never let me go. It makes my belly warm with wanting. I move closer to him and sit in his lap while I run my fingers through his blond curls, not letting his mouth go for minutes.

 

“Oh God, Katniss,” he moans, “you have no idea, the effect you have on me.”

 

I laugh at that because he’s totally wrong as I can feel his erection on my  tights, “I’d say I have a very good idea.” I say to him, teasing. 

 

“We need to stop, right now or I’m going to embarrass myself…” he answers with a shy smile but hunger in his eyes. 

 

“So, what do you propose?” I say flirting and nipping his jaw.

 

“My place or your place, I don’t really care I just want to hold you the whole night. Will you allow it?”

 

His question lingers in the air because we both know he’s not asking for just one night. His request is full of commitment and future.

 

So when I reply, “I’ll allow it” , we both know my answer is a promise.