That night I sleep better than I have in years. I don’t know whether it’s the relief of going home, or knowing that even if he is watching us, soon Snow at least won’t have public appearances to critique, or just the comfort I get from whatever it is that I have with Peeta, but for once I don’t wake up screaming. I do start awake in the early hours of the morning, but this time I don’t remember my dream. Instead I just have a pit of guilt in my stomach. My waking flinch half wakes Peeta, and he opens one eye as he asks whether I’m ok. “I’m fine,” I assure him. “Go back to sleep.” He gives me a sleepy squeeze and I think is unconscious again immediately.
There’s a lot of things I could be feeling guilty for: putting my friends and family in danger, launching into this relationship with Peeta before I’d really thought it through… but what my mind settles on is Gale. Because if my feelings for Peeta are unclear, I can’t untangle what I wanted with Gale, either. If he had spoken up, would I have responded? No. I was never interested in romance. If I weren’t with Peeta, would I want to be with Gale now? I don’t know. I’ve never seriously entertained it as an option. Can I imagine a future with him? I think I can, is the trouble – only if I do, it’s the future I might have had if I hadn’t gone into the Games. I just can’t picture Gale living in my new house in Victor’s Village, though. He’s too proud to take what he would see as the charity of the Capitol. I don’t know whether he’d be willing to live off his wife. And what would he do all day? He wouldn’t have to work, after all, if he was with me. I wonder, too, how it would feel to have to face him year after year when I came back from the Capitol, where presumably he’d have to see me on screen with Peeta for weeks at a time. I wonder whether he’d judge my ability to save or, more likely, not to save my tributes.
Can I picture a future with Peeta? That’s easy. I imagine Peeta is incredibly easy to live with. I can’t imagine any trial in life he wouldn’t be helpful and supportive for. I can’t imagine him not getting on with Prim. It would be a comfort to have him around. And as for the rest… well, I can’t deny I like it. If there’s anyone who gives me courage to explore other aspects of a relationship, it’s him. Also, Peeta is able to be involved in every part of my life. He’ll be with me in the Capitol as well as District 12. He knows how the Games work enough that he won’t judge what we’ll have to do year after year. It’s a cold assessment of a relationship that is anything but chilled, but as we race towards home I feel the need to pause and be rational, not least because I know that quite soon I’ll have to confront Gale. I’ll have to break his heart. Because I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t volunteered, but I know I can’t be with him now.
I pretend to be asleep when Peeta gets up for breakfast. When he’s gone, I sit on my bed and just think, trying to figure out how I can explain the way my life is going without losing Gale’s friendship. My prep team comes and dresses me, but when they leave I just curl up at the end of the bed, preparing myself.
Eventually there’s a knock on the door and Peeta comes in, looking worried. When he sees my sombre face he stops short, sighs, and then sits on the edge of my bed and stares at the floor. “This is feeling kind of familiar,” he says. I can’t help but notice that he looks worried and won’t meet my eye.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “The next few days will be confusing. I’ll have to deal with… with some stuff” I finish lamely. I refuse to say Gale’s name on the train with all the listening devices.
“Right,” Peeta responds, sounding defeated. I don’t know what to say to make him feel better that I know for sure is true. After a minute of silence he stands up. “I’ll leave you be,” is all he says. He’s almost at the door when I speak up.
“Peeta, the plan – the second plan. The good one.” He turns back and gives me a questioning look. “Do that. Please. I don’t know what I’ll be like at home, but remember that the last few days have been real, ok? You know it and I know it. And… follow the plan. Don’t just give up on me again.” As I speak Peeta walks towards me and finally kneels next to the bed and takes my hand. He still doesn’t look happy, but he’s starting to look a little hopeful.
“OK,” he says. “I will. I won’t shut you out.” I nod.
I don’t want it to look like we’re fighting – I don’t want to be fighting – so I lean over and give him a soothing, tender kiss. His hand comes up to cup my jaw. As he kisses me back I feel my heart swell, and in that moment I can’t imagine not having him with me all the time, so we can do this whenever we want. As we break apart we lean our foreheads together and just listen to each other breathe for a few minutes. I don’t think it’s a very good idea for us to be by ourselves today, stewing in our own nerves, so we go out and I listen in while Peeta chats idly with Effie and eventually Haymitch. I know that Haymitch, Peeta and I are at some point going to have to have a serious conversation about Snow and what the trip did and didn’t accomplish, but that can wait until we’re back.
It’s late afternoon when we get into 12. There are lots of people gathered at the station to greet us again, since today and tomorrow are holidays in honour of our victory. Front and centre are my mother and Prim, and Peeta’s parents and brothers. First we go to my family, and I give them both hugs and Peeta makes a show of formally asking my mother’s blessing, even though he knows I don’t care what she thinks. She agrees – what else can she do? Then he ushers me over to his family and gives a little speech about how he hopes they’ll make me feel welcome, and I say a few words about how wonderful Peeta is and how thankful I am that they brought up such a wonderful man and that I can’t wait to be married to him. Effie wrote the speech, obviously. I look at his parents and the whole thing feels fake again – I mean what I say about Peeta being wonderful, but I can’t help but think that it was despite his mother’s influence rather than because of it. Still, his father and brothers look happy for Peeta. One of them elbows him and says something in his ear that makes him blush scarlet and shrug his brother away, and the show of brotherly affection makes me smile. He catches my eye and grins at me when he looks up in a way that makes us feel real again.
We have to go to the Justice Palace next to stand around while the Mayor says a few words in our honour, and then it’s time for the party. I’m not usually one for celebrating, but it’s such a relief to be home, and this is all so familiar and relaxed compared to the Capitol and most of the Districts that Peeta and I both manage to actually relax and enjoy ourselves. We’re mostly seated with merchants for dinner, but Madge is seated near us so I can talk to her, and Peeta includes me in any conversations he has with people I don’t know. Once we’ve finished actually eating he slings an arm over the back of his chair so he can reach over and rub a thumb between my shoulder blades, soothing the tension he knows has been building from so much socialising. I absentmindedly reach over and rest my hand on his thigh, just because I find the contact reassuring by now. I see Madge eye the gesture with a glint in her eye. “So, things with Peeta seem to be… prospering,” she insinuates. I blush, which I’m sure confirms all her suspicions.
“It’s going well,” I admit. It feels odd to talk about him with someone else, but this is Madge, my only female friend. I go as far as to say “We’re very lucky to have each other.”
I have one glass of wine, just enough to relax me a bit. Looking around, I notice that Gale isn’t around. My main reaction is relief. I want to enjoy a few more moments of being with Peeta before I have to defend myself to Gale. The dancing starts up soon after that. Peeta and I stay seated at first, pleading fatigue, but when he notices me tapping my toe to a catchy number the Mayor asks me to dance. I agree gladly, and we have a grand time skipping around the dance floor. He’s a nice man, pleasant to talk to, and he seems to be genuinely happy for me and Peeta. Peeta meets us at the edge of the dance floor and we dance a few numbers, ending in a slow waltz . We’ve done this lots of times before, but it feels different to do it surrounded by people we know. Every look and touch feels more revealing. I find myself a bit shy, reluctant to step as close to Peeta or kiss him as often as I would have when we were among strangers. Early on in the waltz Peeta brings his lips to mine, and I indulge him (and myself) for a moment but I break the kiss before he can deepen it. “You alright?” he asks warily.
“Of course,” I reply. “But my mother’s right there. And Prim. And Greasy Sae, and Rooba, and our first grade teacher, and everyone we know,” I finish repressively. Peeta actually starts to snicker.
“Seriously? We’re out on display for the whole of Panem all week and it’s the grade one teacher that’s the last straw?” Clearly he thinks my prudishness is both hilarious and adorable, by the look he’s giving me, which is just as well because it’s probably not going anywhere any time soon. I roll my eyes at his amusement and heave a sigh, but to be honest when he’s this happy he makes my heart soft enough that I don’t protest when he goes in for another kiss. He considerately keeps it very tame. When the song ends I look around, and I see that actually the party is kind of winding down. My mother and Prim are gone, as are the Mayor and Madge. Some of the merchant kids are gathering around the edge of the lit square with semi-concealed bottles of white liquor, but Peeta doesn’t seem inclined to join them. Best of all, I can’t see anyone at all who has anything to do with the Capitol.
“Do you think anyone would notice if we slip away and go home?” I ask. Peeta casts a considering look around us.
“No, I think we’re in the clear,” he answers. “Walk you back?” I nod. For the first time I realise that as glad as I am to be home, I am not looking forward to having to go to bed by myself. I wonder what I will do tonight if I have nightmares.
It’s a clear, wintery evening, and we meander slowly out of town. When I shiver a bit he wraps an arm around my shoulders and I wrap one around his waist. The tune of that last waltz, an old traditional song, floats through my head. I don’t realise I’m humming it until I feel Peeta’s eyes on me, affectionate and admiring.
“No, don’t stop,” he urges me. “Please.” When I start humming again, he steps in front of me and takes me in his arms. We’re slightly outside of town, alone in the moonlit snow, so I let him urge me into dancing to my singing, moving in gentle waltz steps. I feel both foolish and absurdly happy that I’ve come to a place in my life when such a ridiculously romantic moment feels not just welcome, but natural. The whole world fades away as we look into each other’s eyes, and I realise it’s the first time we’ve been genuinely alone, away from both people and listening devices, probably since before we were reaped – maybe the first time ever. I find myself a bit nervous, but strangely it’s a good nervous, one that makes my heart beat fast. I know it’s not like anything I’d ever felt before Peeta. Peeta is smiling at me, looking happy to just stand there all night looking at me. What I want, though, is to be closer to him. There’s something different about wanting to kiss him when I know we really are alone, but as always something in him makes me want to dare it anyway. I stand up my tiptoes and tug on his coat. He puts both hands on my waist to pull me close as he bends down, his eyes bright with expectation. Just as our lips are about to touch, though, a voice rings out in the darkness.
“Get away from her” We both spin around in a rush of panic, trying to find the source but relax as Gale comes out of the darkness into the moonlight. “No cameras out here, Katniss, he can’t make you kiss him.” I glance at Peeta, who’s looking at me in question.
“Sorry, were you meeting him here?” he asks uncertainly.
“No.” I say, trying to reassure him. “No, I thought we were alone.” He doesn’t look quite convinced, but he stays put at least. Gale is storming towards us looking furious. He’s not even really looking at me, focussed solely on Peeta.
“I always knew you wanted her, but I thought even you wouldn’t be cold enough to manipulate her into your bed,” Gale mutters before he throws a right hook that sends Peeta down at once. I immediately throw myself in front of Gale and shove him back before kneeling next to Peeta and putting a handful of snow to his cheek. Peeta keeps a wary eye on Gale, but glances at me to see how I want to handle this.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. “Peeta hasn’t done anything wrong.” I hadn’t intended to confront Gale in front of Peeta. As it is I’ll have to say just enough to get Gale to calm down and go home without saying anything that’s going to hurt Peeta too badly. Great.
“Don’t lie to me,” Gale sneers, glaring down at the two of us. “Don’t you dare talk to me like the whole country didn’t see you all over each other at the President’s mansion. People don’t act like that unless they’re… you’re not that good an actress, Katniss.”
“Well you would know how people act,” says Peeta. I know he’s trying to deflect attention from me, but I wish he wouldn’t. “Or is Katniss not supposed to know about all the girls you’ve been with? You can do what you like while she’s pure as the driven snow?”
“Shut up, Mellark. You’re not worth the dirt on her boots.”
“Maybe not, but she’s the one who gets to decide,” replies Peeta. “And for the record, you don’t actually need to worry. Her virtue is intact. Not that it’s any of your business.” He stands up and folds his arms, giving Gale a blank stare. His quick sidelong glance at me is now his only sign of discomfort. I stand up too.
“I was going to come talk to you tomorrow,” I say tentatively. “I’m sorry you had to watch all that.”
“You said it was an act,” Gale growls accusingly.
“It was,” I defend. “But now…” When I pause, the atmosphere is heavy, weighed down by the expectation of both boys. I take a deep breath. “Now it’s not.” Gale blinks. I think he thought I’d deny it, hoped I’d come back pleading him to forgive me. But I can’t do that. It’s not safe for him, and it’s not fair to Peeta, who also gave an involuntary jolt of surprise when I confirmed our relationship. “It’s been a long trip, and we’re heading home. You should too.” Deciding I’ve been brave enough for one night, I don’t quite meet his eyes as I speak. Instead I just take Peeta by the hand and head out down the road. I don’t look back.
We’re almost back at the Victor’s Village when I find I’m losing the battle to hold back the tears that have clogged my throat since I walked away from Gale. Peeta stops at my first shaky sniff. “Oh, Katniss,” he says sympathetically, holding me close in a comforting bear hug. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
“I hate hurting him,” I sob. “He was my best friend. I didn’t even know he felt like that until recently, and I didn’t know what to do about it even before you… but I never meant to hurt him this much.”
“He’ll forgive you,” Peeta murmurs. “I’m so sorry, Katniss. I’ve really messed things up for you.” I’m tired of talking, so I just shake my head and squeeze him tighter.When I’m feeling steady again I take a deep breath and kiss him on the chin. “Better?” he asks. I nod. “Let’s get you home, then,” he says. “I bet your Mom’s waiting up.”
Peeta leaves me outside my door with a very respectable kiss on the cheek and a promise to stop by tomorrow. As I walk up to my own empty room I can’t help but think how nice it would be if he could have come with me, and for almost the first time I actually look forward to a time when we’re married, when I’ll never have to be alone if I don’t want to. Despite my heavy heart I focus on the better parts of the evening, trying to think of something pleasant as I go to sleep. The last thing I think of is dancing in the snow with Peeta, and before long I sink into a beautiful dream where Gale doesn’t come, where Peeta and I stand kissing in a dreamland of crystal snowflakes.
Of course it doesn’t stay peaceful. Before too long I’m alone in a wasteland, surrounded by corpses. Everyone who was at the party lies dead at my feet. I run home, desperately seeking my family. I run into the house and head for the kitchen, and it’s there that I find Peeta, spread out over the table with his throat cut… That’s when I wake screaming. As in my dream on the train I reach for Peeta, but of course he’s not there. I can’t get the thought of his dead body out of my thoughts. I can’t make my breathing slow. I go running down the stairs in my nightgown, out the door and across the lawn until I’m banging on Peeta’s door. At first I don’t hear anything – is it possible he’s still asleep? Is there some other reason he can’t come to the door? But then I hear a re-assuring thud of a single foot coming down the stairs. The door opens and I fling myself into his arms.
“Katniss, are you ok?” I nod, still burying my face in his chest.
“Was it a dream?” he asks with a soft, sympathetic voice.
“Did I wake you?” I ask. He gives a dark chuckle.
“No,” is the brusque answer. “I’ve been awake for awhile, painting.” I give him a squeeze – that means he woke from a nightmare too. Peeta looks past me, and it’s only then that I realise my mother has followed me and is standing on the porch. “It’s ok, Mrs. Everdeen, she just had a nightmare. I’ll bring her home in a minute,” Peeta says.
“I don’t like her coming here at night,” my mother says disapprovingly. “You’re not married yet.” I roll my eyes but Peeta plays nice as always.
“We won’t make a habit of it,” he says. “We both had trouble with dreams on the train, so we got in the habit of waking each other up. If we went to the lounge the attendants would make us warm milk.” Peeta lies smoothly, carefully implying that we were in separate rooms and under the eyes of adults when we were together. My mother is slightly mollified. “Honestly, Mrs Everdeen, we won’t be able to sleep. We’ll just have a cup of warm milk together and then she’ll be home.” I could care less what my mother thinks, but I think Peeta wants to have a good relationship with her. She agrees, and as soon as she’s turned back to the house Peeta has the door closed. Instantly I’m back in his arms and we’re clinging to each other. “Thank goodness you came,” he breathes. “I was going crazy here on my own.”
“What are we going to do?” I ask. Is he really going to give me hot milk and send me home?
“Well first of all, I’m going to put my leg on. Can you poke the fire a bit?” he asks. I nod and do as he asks. Soon I hear his normal tread coming down the stairs.
“Can we just sit?” I ask. I suppose it’s presumptuous of me to assume the same rules apply at home as on the train, but Peeta doesn’t seem to be feeling very amorous right now so we’re both on the same page. I just want to be reassured he’s alive.
“Of course,” he says, sitting on the sofa and holding an arm out to me. I curl into him, and the steady beat of his heart soon soothes me. When I wake again I’m aware that someone is carrying me – a moment’s reflection reveals it’s Peeta. My mother must open the door for us because I take in a whispered exchange between the two of them before Peeta starts upstairs. He deposits me gently on my bed and turns to leave, but I grab his hand.
“Stay,” I insist. I can’t stand the thought of waking up alone again.
“Um, I don’t think I should,” he replies, looking over his shoulder at my mother.
“Just til I fall asleep again,” I insist. I couldn’t care less what she thinks.
“Leave the door open,” is her condition. Peeta obligingly sits on the bed, above the covers, and I place my head on his chest.
I must be mostly asleep because I vaguely hear myself say “I can’t wait til we live together so you never have to go home.”
“Me too,” Peeta murmurs.