Chapter 1: Chapter One
Author’s Note: I decided to tackle a crossover between Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” and “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” by Ann Packer. Is this really a crossover? Doubtful. The characters belong to Suzanne Collins but I don’t always follow her characterization. I have (loosely) based some of the (very general, initial) events of Ms. Packer’s book in this little fic. Parts ARE taking place in Madison, Wisconsin because that’s where I went to college. Just covering my bases as I don’t want someone raging at me about plagiarism. If you’ve seen the horrific made-for-tv movie, I’m sorry. And yes, I have footnotes because I love everything about Madison, the UW, Amherst and UMass.
Peeta’s driving his pickup and I’m riding shotgun, both of us returning from Annie’s college graduation party. We’ve gone to enough of them now that they all seem to blend together. Our small group came to the University of Wisconsin1 together and, for the most part, we all graduated together (save for Gale who is on the seven-year plan). Annie’s party is the last of them and I’d venture to say that we’re all glad they’re over. It’d be one thing if we were relaxing on the Terrace2 like any other Friday night, but it’s another when families are involved.
My mom’s completely absent, Peeta’s family is dysfunctional at best, Annie’s is overbearing, Gale’s is perpetually disappointed in his lack of initiative and Madge’s think she can do no wrong (which is a load of horseshit if you really know her). Add a few grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts and you have the ingredients for one hell of an awkward afternoon.
We’re heading up East Wash3, the capitol building looking black against the fiery orange sky. I love our capitol…it sits on an isthmus between two lakes and at the top of a hill, streets streaming down its sides. State Street runs the distance between the capitol and campus, bridging a political city with an equally political university. But more than that, I think it’s as beautiful as the United States’ capitol building…if not more so.
“Do you want to head to the Terrace for a beer? Or maybe Nick’s4?” Peeta pulls me out of my trance and I sigh, looking out the passenger window.
“Mmm. It’s late. I’m not really feeling it.”
“Come on. It’s 8 o’clock, Katniss. It’s not like we have anywhere to be tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you call Darius or your brother? I just want to shower and go to bed."
And I do. The iciness between the two of us has been uncomfortable at best. Peeta’s tried to shrug it off and capitalize on the few times I’ve let my guard down, but we both know something’s not right. Things haven’t been good for months but we’ve kept up the façade, at least in front of our friends. It’s exhausting.
He turns on to Webster Street and finds parking, obviously intending to stay in with me. I grab our backpack and he takes the cooler, trudging up the two flights of stairs to our tiny two-bedroom apartment5. Calling it a two-bedroom is overstating it: one bedroom literally fits a loveseat and Peeta’s drafting table and the other barely holds a double bed. There’s a large closet in the main room that once held a murphy bed, and a galley kitchen and tiny bathroom complete the tour. Welcome to paradise.
Peeta puts the leftover fruit salad into the fridge while I drop the sandy blankets down the laundry chute and get ready for my shower. I look into the bathroom mirror and immediately wish I had some aloe or Noxzema; I got a little more sun than I had intended to. Strong arms wrap around my waist and squeeze.
“Mind if I join you?”
“I’m all sweaty. I just want to cool off.”
He squeezes me again. “Let me help you unwind.”
“I’m really not in the mood.”
His face is expressionless and reflected with mine, his head over my left shoulder. Peeta kisses my shoulder and his arms lose their grip as he leaves, shutting the door behind him.
I grip the sink’s edge and look back at my reflection, wondering how it is we got here. I wonder how I ended up with a high school sweetheart-turned fiancée and yet so desperate to be anywhere but here. I wonder how I’ve become so resentful of the one person who’s put everything on the line to make me happy.
When did I become such a bitch? I don’t know. I don’t have the heart to care.
The water is blissfully cool as I lather up, shampoo my hair and shave…even on a sunburn the feeling of prickles creeps me out. I comb some conditioner through my hair, braid it back and step out of the shower. Head-to-toe lotion will have to sub for aloe and the liquid seems to capture the breeze, soothing my pink skin. My body gets wrapped in a short robe and I head toward the bedroom.
The apartment is empty and I stand in the living room, realizing that he’s gone for the night. I sigh and know that my stomach should be in knots, but instead I feel nothing as I turn off the lights and slip into bed. The street lamp shines into our room and illuminates my face.
It wasn’t always like this.
A new city meant a new house and a new school. I thought I’d miss the old place, but when Mom announced that we were moving, I silently packed up the things that held any meaning and plotted my (eventual) escape. I didn’t need a final picture or a last walk-through. I knew every room had a memory, some of which I wanted to forget.
Our house had a story that begged to be burned.
My sister Prim was at the other end of the spectrum. She desperately wanted to stay and pleaded, screamed, wailed, sulked and eventually was dragged to the car, her flip cam capturing every last box getting loaded into the van. I might not have understood her attachment to that piece of Everdeen history, but I squeezed her hand as she slipped it in mine, knowing that her world was imploding. I mean, the kid was ten. Her life was her friends and whatever the hell Brownie troop she was in. Brownies and those amazing cookies. Samoas are the best.
That flip cam was permanently attached to Prim’s face as we pulled away from the old driveway, getting ready to discover (or in some cases, scrutinize) a new home. If the Everdeens do anything thoroughly, it is distancing ourselves from the problem at hand. After Dad died, Mom decided to put a time zone between us and that memory, effectively killing the process of mourning. Ha ha.
The sky was an expansive pool of blue that we drove under for days. By hour two on day one, Prim’s video diary had gone from whiny to giddy and I wanted to chuck the camera out the window.
Even before Dad’s death, I was the introspective kid. I think a lot, but I don’t say much and it’s kind of amazing the stuff you notice when your mouth isn’t busy polluting the silence. You see the simplest, most profound acts of kindness in one blink and then you’re faced with my generation’s stupidity on a stick. Let’s face it: social media has made bragging an acceptable pastime. Me, me, me. Life is going on and we’re ‘waiting for it’, pants hanging past our asses, our faces aglow from the computer screen we watch just in case we miss something big like the latest celebrity meltdown.
My—shall we say—saltiness, hasn’t earned me many admirers. I never really cared because I always preferred a smaller, tight-knit pack. For me, safety in numbers maxes out at six, including my sister.
Prim, on the other hand, thinks out loud. Nothing is spared in her conversations and it doesn’t matter who is within earshot. The kid never shuts up, which makes her a magnet for people. She’s mutually adored by virtually everyone she meets and it’s a miracle she wasn’t abducted as a child. She’d take ice cream from strangers, help someone look for a puppy and accept a ride home from a masked man all in the course of an afternoon if we weren’t more careful. She is life itself.
You’d think that oil and water don’t mix, but somehow we work, Prim and I. I’d walk over hot coals for her. She tolerates my “horrible” taste in music.
That leaves Mom. A trauma nurse, physically she’s beautiful, all blonde hair and blue eyes like Prim. Inside she’s vacant. It’s bizarre having a mom who is checked out emotionally, but who is able to function in a fast-paced life-or-death job. She can assist with level five trauma in the ER, but often forgot that her daughters needed basic dental care or a packed lunch. Some would call it scatterbrained. I called it abandonment. I hope that whatever the hell it is isn’t genetic.
So we downsized to a family of three. I used to wonder how I got saddled with the boring brown hair and steely grey eyes, but seeing Dad with those same features somehow made me feel just a little bit better. Aside from the similar look, I used to think that we had a different understanding of the world. Quiet and aware like me, he would whisper, “Don’t tell the world what we know.”
Then he went away, taking the life in Mom’s eyes with him and I was left wondering where I fit into this equation. I want to know precisely what he said he knew, because I’m not entirely sure I understand anymore.
I pull the one photo I have of my dad out of the nightstand drawer and gaze at it under the night sky.
“Dad, I don’t follow.”
Chapter One Notes
- University of Wisconsin. Also known as the UW. Sometimes referred to as UW-Madison. The Badgers. Flagship university of the state of Wisconsin. Over 40,000 students. My alma mater and I could wax poetic about it all freaking day long.
- Terrace: the Terrace at the Memorial Union at the UW. Huge outdoor space with chairs, boat rentals, piers, live music, beer, food, etc etc. Sits on Lake Mendota. Also known for its orange, green and yellow metal chairs. Google it!
- East Wash: East Washington Street. This main street runs straight through Madison and up to the capitol building. West Wash runs down the other side.
- Nick’s. Tiny restaurant on upper State Street. Great food and drink, very low-key.
- Two-bedroom apartment on Webster. I based this apartment off of the one I rented my junior year and it was exactly as I described. Sadly, a fire destroyed the building, but they are rebuilding. I loved living on the capitol square!
My introduction to the Mellark family took place the day before high school began when Prim and I were walking around the neighborhood, trying to become acquainted with the new surroundings. Prim ran across the street (without looking, of course) and squealed, her nose pressed up against the glass of another store. I can’t remember if she got a cold from practically licking the storefront.
I walked closer and saw what made her stop. Mellark’s Bakery is exactly what you’d picture in any other college town. There was a little condensation on the windows, but you could clearly see rows of muffins, cookies, rolls, pies, turnovers, donuts, loaves of bread and specialty Danish. Breathe in and you can practically feel the fat coating your throat. Okay, not really, but you do breathe in that burnt sugar and yeast smell that makes your mouth water even when you’re full.
I reached into my pocket and felt the $2 I had left and decided to mess with Prim’s sugars, pushing the door open. The small bell chimed and an older, stocky man came to the counter, dusting his hands off on his well-worn apron. His face was ruddy—whether from genetics, the sun or the heat of the ovens, I didn’t know—and his hair and eyes were pale.
“Good afternoon, welcome to Mellark’s. What can I get for you today?”
Prim choose a frosted sugar cookie, which he handed to her with a brown napkin. I gave him payment and he stopped to ask why he hadn’t seen us before.
“We just moved here and thought we’d check out the neighborhood before school starts tomorrow.”
A blonde boy carrying loaves of bread came through the swinging door and abruptly stopped when he saw that there were customers in the store. His cheeks turned pink and he shyly smiled at me while the baker paused and instructed him where to place the fresh items.
“This is my son, Peeta. He’ll be starting at West tomorrow. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names.”
Prim to the rescue. “I’m Prim, and this is Katniss. She’ll be going to West, too. But I’m going to Randall.”
“Well in that case, welcome to town Prim and Katniss.” He handed me a cookie too, telling me it was on the house. “Feel free to stop by again.”
I nodded at him, glanced at Peeta and dragged Prim out of the warm bakery. She was completely engrossed by her pile of sugar but managed a wave before the bell announced our exit.
And there you have it. Peeta’s been in my life ever since.
The ring of my phone startles me out of a light sleep. I reach for it and check the time—only 11:01 p.m.—but don’t recognize the number. I let it go to voicemail and turn over, but only a minute later it rings again and I answer it with an edge of annoyance.
“Katniss, it’s Gale. There’s been an accident. It’s Peeta. Madge is on her way over to pick you up. You need to get here.”
“Wait, Gale. What? What’s happened? Where’s Peeta?! What the hell is going on?! Gale—.”
“Katniss, just get dressed and downstairs. Get here now.”
But the line is dead and the knots I should have had earlier have reared their ugly head. I pull on some sweatpants and a tank top, slip on flip-flops and grab the keys before racing down the stairs.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
Madge pulls up and I frantically pull on the door handle, falling into the front seat while she pulls away. She takes hard left turns as we weave around the square, trying to get to Gorham and out toward University. Traffic lights are simply blinking this time of night and we don’t run into much traffic downtown.
“Madge, what do you know? What the fuck happened?!”
“Katniss, I don’t know. I don’t know! There was some accident and Peeta was transported to UW Hospital.”
“Who was he with? Where was he? What was he doing?”
“I don’t know, alright?! I don’t know!”
The night is oppressively humid and I feel like my heart is in my throat, my chest constricting. I can’t breathe. I can’t. Can’t.
Madge pulls up to the ER entrance and lets me out. I run inside, wildly looking for someone—anyone—I might know, but instead I ask the woman at the admitting desk where Peeta Mellark has been taken. She looks at me through half-rim glasses and asks if I’m family.
“What? Yes! Peeta is my fiancée. Please, where is he?”
“Well let me check my chart. Your name?”
“Jesus Christ, lady! Where is—?”
“Katniss! Thank God!” Peeta’s brother Rye6 runs over and grabs my arm, hauling me toward a room down the hall. Peeta isn’t there, but the rest of his family and Gale are. I look around with huge eyes before someone—Mr. Mellark?—pulls me into a rib-crushing hug and begins to cry frantically onto my shoulder.
“Dad, ease up. Let her catch her breath.” Mr. Mellark pulls away and I understand just how bad this may be. His eyes are almost swollen shut from crying, panic evident in his shoulders. Why is everyone avoiding my gaze?
“Will someone please tell me what happened?! Where is he? Is he alright? When can I see him?!”
“Katniss,” Gale whispers. “Sit down.”
“Don’t tell me to sit down!!” I’m screaming now. “Where is he?!”
His mom steps forward. “He’s in the OR. It’s not good, honey.”
Gale proceeds to tell me that Peeta was in a car accident near campus. There’s no way to know right now if he was drinking or not—he was alone—but they had to use the Jaws of Life to get him out of the truck and he hasn’t regained consciousness since. He’s lost a significant amount of blood and his left leg was crushed during impact. They’ve resuscitated him once.
“The doctor said they’re doing whatever they can to help him, Katniss. And Peeta’s strong. Now we wait.”
I sit numbly in the vinyl chair and his father pats my arm. “He’ll come back to us, Katniss. He’ll come back to you.”
I put my head in my hands.
Chapter Two Key
6. Rye. Sorry, this name is practically canon now, right?
People always assume that Peeta and I were the first to connect, and I suppose that if you were to get technical, you’d be right. After all, we met first. But what people forget is that it was Gale who brought Peeta and I together. The two of them were inseparable, with Gale seeking me out once Peeta pointed me out.
Any other time in my life I’d find his persistence to be annoying, but it wasn’t like I had friends at my disposal at a new school in a new town. Gale trailed me like a puppy, asking me what kind of music I liked, what my favorite sport was, what my favorite subject was and what my parents did for a living. That last question cemented us for good, with Gale losing his father in a construction accident a year before I lost my dad. There was no need for tears or “I’m sorry” or awkwardness. Solidarity was enough.
I might have wondered for a moment if Gale liked me beyond his goofy, brotherly affections, but that moment came and went like a blink once Peeta was in the picture. Confident but introspective, Peeta oozed dependability and I craved that like a drug. Everything about him was charming and sweet and he quietly whittled his way into my daily life with a side hug, a treat from the bakery or a kind smile. It was as simple as the day he took my hand and never quite let go. He looked like he won the lottery and I felt like I was staring into the sun.
Gale paused for an instant and then we picked up where we left off, now a group of three. I quickly learned that Peeta’s life was a complex one.
Mellark’s is a family business, so naturally he’d been working there since he was just a kid…not exactly the safest daycare option, but certainly the most cost-effective. His father taught him everything he knew, patiently explaining why overmixing led to a tough dough. Why baking soda and baking powder weren’t substitutes for one another. Why brown sugar had to be packed when measured and why you should always sift flour. How to expertly crack eggs with one hand. Folding in versus mixing in. Dry herbs versus fresh herbs.
I can’t figure out boxed brownie mix, so it’s all Greek to me.
Mr. Mellark is the first to tell customers that, in fact, his son is a better baker than he is. He’s taught Peeta every recipe he knows, but Peeta’s also had a lot of motivation to prove his worth in the Mellark family. Peeta once explained to me that, unlike cooking, baking requires focus and exact measurements to yield a perfect product. Adding in too much of any one thing skews those ratios and messes up the chemical reactions, which means failure. Fear of failure is an excellent motivator, so after a few (expensive) botched attempts, you decide it’s best just not to fuck up.
When I first started dating Peeta, I only saw the self-assured guy who could do no wrong. Later I learned that someone’s indifference and resentment could cut as easily as a knife. Peeta’s scars ran deep.
“Katniss?” I feel like the voice is calling to me from under the water. “Katniss? Wake up. The doctor’s here.”
I snap awake and realize where I am, quickly walking to the hallway where a short man with glasses looks at us with a mixture of professionalism, calculation, resolve and dread. He looks completely out of his element, much like I feel.
“I’m Dr. Beetee, the attending surgeon. Peeta is out of surgery and in the ICU. His condition is considered critical at this point.
Gale puts his arm around my shoulder. Okay. Critical is better than extremely critical. It’s better than grave condition.
“Peeta suffered injuries to his left side, resulting in significant blood loss. He is now maintaining blood pressure, which is a good sign, but his internal injuries are not insignificant.” The doctor shifts uncomfortably.
“And his leg?"
He clears his throat. “I’m sorry to say that we were unable to save it. The damage was too great, and the risk of infection or subsequent injury too high. It was amputated above the knee. At this point, Peeta’s leg is the least concerning of his injuries.”
The Mellarks start asking more questions about the recovery process (the next 24-48 hours will be critical) and when they can see their son. I step back into the empty hospital room and lean my forehead against the window, my breath fogging up the glass.
“Katniss?” I turn toward the voice and see my mother, her disheveled scrubs betraying the fact that she most likely woke up after a quick break. “I came as soon as I was paged.”
I let my mom hold me as she whispers words of encouragement in my ear. She checked Peeta’s chart and his vitals seem to be holding—in what condition, she doesn’t say.
“When will I see him?”
“He’ll probably be transferred to a room sometime tomorrow, once they have a better feel for how his body is healing. The hospital only allows visitors one at a time in the ICU, but the Mellarks are heading up…would you like to see him?”
I walk to the elevator bank with my mom, waiting for the up arrow to illuminate. The steps into the car are some of the hardest I’ve had to take, but my sense of obligation to Peeta—obligation!!—keeps me going. We congregate outside of room 705 and Rye offers to let me go in next, so I wait anxiously and wonder what I’ll see when I go in.
What I see, or whom I see, is not my Peeta. Swollen, bruised and touched with dried blood, a boy with blonde hair lays before me, hooked up to more monitors and tubes than I can possibly imagine what they’re for. There’s a buzz of white noise, punctuated by persistent beeps of the heart monitor. I stand a few feet away from the bed, simply looking at his broken form in the dimmed light. The blanket’s drape suggests what is—or isn’t—below.
“He can probably sense you’re here, you know.” Gale leans on the doorframe with his arms crossed. Not much escapes him. “Let him know you’re here.”
I simply stand there, looking at Peeta.
I wouldn’t know where to touch. I wouldn’t know what to say, anyway.
A nurse comes in to check vitals and I use the diversion as an excuse to leave, brushing past Gale and joining the group outside. There seems to be an eerie calm—everyone is relieved that there is news, that Peeta is on the other side of the wall in whatever condition he is.
Another attendant ushers us to a private waiting room where we can digest what’s happened and drink enough coffee to keep us awake into autumn. Throughout the rest of the night and early morning, we’re updated on Peeta’s condition and are eventually rejoined by Prim, Madge and Annie. I’m asked if I want to see Peeta again but offer to let someone else have a turn, which earns a look between Gale and Madge that I don’t miss. A chaplain quietly leads us in prayer.
Omnipotent and eternal God, the everlasting Salvation of those who believe, hear us on behalf of Thy sick servant Peeta, for whom we beg the aid of Thy pitying mercy, that, with his bodily health restored, he may give thanks to Thee in Thy church. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.7
Annie sits on one side of me and Prim on the other, quietly offering me food as the morning light shines in. Someone starts talking about what rehabilitation will be like and I tune out, struggling to reconcile the fact that I’ve never been one to plan the big picture of my life in advance, let alone help plan a life that now includes a seriously injured fiancée. How is this happening so fast? Jesus, try thinking about someone other than yourself, Katniss.
“Hmm?” I look around, trying to find who called my name.
“Katniss, my name is Effie Trinket. Would you mind coming with me, dear?”
I get up without question and walk with Effie down the hallway and out of the ICU, simply strolling without an obvious destination. The woman’s scrubs could probably induce seizures in some small sampling of the human population and she obviously subscribes to the “there is no such thing as too many accessories” train of thought. She mentions that she’s a social worker here at the hospital, and that she had been filled in on Peeta’s prognosis. Effie wants to know how I’m holding up.
“Fine. I’m fine. Peeta will pull through like he always does. I know he will.”
“It sounds like he is very resilient. You two are engaged to be married?”
I narrow my eyes a bit. How does she know? She looks down at my left hand and sees the chip of a diamond and gold band that’s been circling my ring finger for so long that I don’t even feel it’s presence anymore. My right hand grabs at my left, confirming her suspicions and I answer. “We’ve been together for eight years, engaged for one.”
“Do you have a date in mind?”
I know she’s trying to be polite. Soothing, even. But I can’t answer and just swallow.
“Life will change, Katniss. Peeta’s recovery will be a long one, but there will be life again. It may be a different vision than what you originally had, but it will be there.”
My mouth feels like it’s filled with cotton. “I didn’t have a vision.” What the fuck did I just say?! I can’t look at her.
There is a long silence between us as we stand near a group of windows, the morning sun shining as though nothing bad could possibly ever happen. Outside, a city full of people are ordering lattes, reading the Cap Times8 and starting another workday. Almost everyone out there is oblivious.
“That’s okay, too, you know.”
I nod, not willing to take my eyes off of the scene outside.
“Katniss, I would like to make myself available to you, should you need to talk to someone.” I tense. “It’s just an offer, not an order.”
“Thank you.” I take her card and pocket it. “I should probably be getting back.”
We spend hours in the waiting room, going to the cafeteria in shifts, walking the halls aimlessly and talking quietly. Some go home to shower. But Mr. Mellark, Gale and I stay, waiting waiting waiting. Mr. Mellark cries off and on and Gale tries to keep him occupied, insisting that Peeta will pull through just fine. His vitals haven’t faltered, and the doctors are pleased with his progress. It’s just a matter of time before he wakes up.
Eventually he does.
Chapter Three Notes
7. Traditional Catholic prayer for healing.
8. Cap Times. Capitol Times, one of the major, mainstream papers in Madison. Pretty liberal.
By the time we were all seniors at West, we had melded into this group that couldn’t imagine not going to the UW together. After all, we did almost everything else as a unit. Me, Peeta, Gale, Annie and Madge. There was this idyllic feeling that we’d conquer whatever was tossed at us together and I never once questioned the notion that everything I needed to experience was right here in Madison. Peeta’s arm around me cemented me to the vision and we all celebrated when the acceptance letters came in the mail.
Peeta. He was as much a fixture in my life as I was in his. The constant presence of the other didn’t go unnoticed by our families or friends: if he was at the bakery, I was in the back doing my homework. If I was at home, he’d be lounging on my couch. I worked at a tiny bookstore and he situated himself in the adjoining café9. We were practically conjoined and genuinely struggled with the moments when we were apart.
It was my mother who quietly questioned our obsessive devotion, clarifying that while it was moving that we cared about each other so much, it wouldn’t be unhealthy to experience a few things outside of the small box we had inadvertently created. She even offered to put me on a plane and send me back to Massachusetts to check out a few other colleges, but I balked and threw a classic teenaged fit, claiming that she couldn’t possibly understand how happy I was.
Then she became “Mother” and forced me to get on the plane, so I countered by being miserable the whole weekend back in New England. Take that.
Madge and I even decided to room together our first year and ended up in Liz Waters10. Peeta landed in Bradley, Annie in Slichter and Gale in a rundown house on Mifflin11. Our circle remained intact, but most managed to expand their group of friends. Gale was philosophical and started to smell like patchouli, seemingly too busy to have dinner or regularly go to class. He talked a lot about foreign films at the Union12 and always found something to protest on Library Mall13. Annie and Madge got involved in student groups on campus, going to football and hockey games any time the teams were at home. I joined Hoofers14 and immersed myself in my degree—Zoology15—while Peeta majored in art and worked at the bakery.
Gale always joked that Peeta only needed three things to survive: paint, carbs and Katniss Everdeen. Of the five of us, he was seemingly least impressed with the new world that such a large university provided. Sure, he found a home at the Humanities Building16, but instead of exploring and reveling in his chosen field of study, Peeta desperately held on to what he knew. He found true happiness in routine, and I was a big part of that.
Our relationship was one built on comfort. It started with a trusted friendship, morphed into a teen infatuation, changed again when we became physical and continued with a routine we both intricately molded. My desperate need for a reliable person in my life coupled with Peeta’s desperate need to matter to someone manifested itself in one hell of a codependency.
We were young enough—and okay, horny enough—that it all seemed so expected. Sex had been a part of our dynamic since we were 16 and that unbelievable intimacy created a cocoon I loved. I couldn’t get enough of him. Peeta loved it too, but he needed it. There was no need to go to an art exhibit, lecture or game because all he wanted was to be with me: sketch me, talk to me, touch me, laugh with me, sleep with me.
I knew about his need to matter and he mattered to me.
“He’s regaining consciousness.” Dr. Beetee joins us in the waiting room and fills us in on the latest. “This is a good sign, but I want to caution you that Peeta still has a very long road ahead of him. He’s not out of the woods yet. The physical wounds are significant, which doesn’t begin to describe the emotional minefield he’ll be maneuvering. We’ll map the process of his rehabilitation in a few days.”
“Can we see him?” Gale’s practically bouncing in his seat.
“Yes, but no more than two at a time. He’s not completely aware of where he is or what’s going on, so he may appear confused or fall asleep without much warning.”
“And the amputation? How will he be told?”
“We still have time to think about that. He’s not able to process much now and he doesn’t need to be agitated. Peeta won’t remember much.”
Mr. and Mrs. Mellark go first, taking in the sight of their youngest and moving toward his bedside. I lean against the wall and close my eyes. Now is not the time for me to get flighty or selfish. Now is the time for me to actually be here for Peeta. I ask to go in with Rye next, ignoring Gale’s obvious pout at having to wait another 10 minutes. Rye is worried about his little brother and his emotions can more than cover for me. Gale’s been too observant and I don’t need to explain this to him. Not now.
We walk in and Rye immediately goes to his bedside, whispering “Hey buddy. Can you open your eyes?”
I walk up to Rye’s side, looking down at Peeta. He somehow looks so small in this bed and it scares me. I touch his arm and wait for him to make a motion showing us that he’s in there somewhere.
A second later he opens his eyes, lids fluttering and closing again before opening and attempting to focus.
“Peeta, we’re here. Katniss is here, see?”
His eyes can’t seem to find anything in particular until they settle on mine. I can’t muster up any words of comfort, but I rub his forearm. He falls asleep and Rye chokes back a sob. I hug him, knowing that he loves his little pain-in-the-ass brother more than he ever wanted to let on.
“He’ll be alright, yeah? Katniss?”
“Peeta is stronger than all of us.” I’m afraid of the lie I just told. Peeta is physically stronger than many people, but beyond that, he’s constantly (secretly) walking a thin line laced with doubt and insecurity. No one has really bothered to acknowledge that, though. I’ve grown accustomed to his need for reassurance, which manifests itself from growing up Mellark.
“Come on, Rye. Our time is up.” I lean over Peeta and kiss the spot between his eyebrows. He’s always craved kisses in that precise spot…told me that it was his favorite kind of kiss: the kind that made him truly feel loved and cared for.
Gale and Madge head in next, so the rest of us congregate in the hall and talk about how he looked. Pale. Slight. Broken. Bruised. But Peeta is alive and he will fight through this. We just have to wait.
My mother and Prim stand behind the Mellarks but gesture to me, offering to take me back to the house for a shower, hot meal and some rest. I accept and Mrs. Mellark calls to us “We’ll see you back here tonight, right Katniss?”
Where else would I be?
Prim makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches. White bread, plain old American cheese and a lot of butter. I grab a can of tomato soup, dump it into a saucepan with milk and whisk it over medium heat until it’s hot enough to scald the roof of your mouth. Screw summer…we need comfort food.
“Seriously, Katniss, that’s disgusting.” Prim sits on the counter, looking across at my bowl.
“What?” I ask, my mouth full. Prim hates my addiction to saltine crackers. I like to smash the crackers and mix them into my soup until it’s more cracker sludge than soup. Beyond that, they’re a great vehicle for peanut butter, regular butter, jam, nutella, cheddar cheese, port wine spread and pepperoni. They’re also perfect plain. Judge if you must.
We eat in relative silence, Prim somehow sensing that I don’t need to hear that it’s going to be okay. It hasn’t been okay and I don’t need meaningless words right now. I get halfway through my sandwich before it all seems to be too much and I ask if I can crash in her room.
“Do you want me to wake you up at a certain time?”
Chapter Four Notes
9. Café and adjoining bookstore. Canterbury Café and Avol’s Books on Gorham Street, right off of State Street.
10. Liz Waters. An all-girls dorm on campus. Considered part of the Lakeshore dorms, which are a little more remote and picturesque. Bradley and Slichter are also considered Lakeshore dorms. The Southeastern dorms are downtown and more urban. I lived on campus for one year in Adams, another Lakeshore dorm.
11. Mifflin. Mifflin Street is famous in Madison for the ridiculous number of crappy, student homes/apartments. There’s a summer block party on Mifflin that is well-known for riots, drugs, drinking and general debauchery.
12. Union. Memorial Union is one of two student unions on campus. The other is Union South. Both buildings/unions are very active and always have events, movies, food, drinks, music, random classes, etc.
13. Library Mall. At the bottom of State Street, near Memorial Library. Seriously, people are preaching and protesting something there daily.
14. Hoofers. The oldest student group on campus, focused on outdoor recreation like sailing, kayaking and canoeing.
15. Zoology. One of my majors.
16. Humanities Building. One of the ugliest buildings on campus. Looks like it was built to withstand bombings. After the bombing of Sterling Hall in the 60’s, rumor had it that Humanities was indeed built to stand up to mobs/bombs/etc. Urban myth. It’s just ugly.
“What’s that?” He looked up from his canvas to the loveseat where I was (unsuccessfully) trying to read.
“Peeta, I’m late. My period. I’m never late, and I’m officially late.”
Neither one of us said anything for a few moments; Peeta just looked at the floor from where he sat. “Okay—.”
“No, not okay. This is not okay. I can’t do this. I won’t do this.”
“Katniss, breathe. Let’s get a test and find out if this is something we even have to tackle.”
How did I not think to walk to Walgreens and buy a stupid test? Women buy them every damn day. I put my book down. “I’ll go now.”
“Of course. We’ll go now.”
Two pee tests later and I was “unofficially” not pregnant, but I insisted on biking to University Health Services to make sure. Peeta came with me and was the doting boyfriend, assuring me that he would be there for me. I knew that, but his words eased my mind. Of course he would be there. When was he ever not there?
I was told I’d know the “official” answer two days later. We stopped at Babcock Hall17 for ice cream and walked our bikes back through campus and up State Street, quietly talking about what this event could have meant. Peeta had always wanted children, but neither of us had planned on being parents this soon. Or at least I hadn’t. I told him that I hadn’t ever given a serious thought to kids; that they weren’t something I thought of as a part of my life.
“Do you love me, Katniss?”
“You know I do.”
“Peeta,” I laughed. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He got quiet. “I will always love you. I will always want to be with you. It’s always only been you. You know that, right? I mean, you feel the same way?”
“Where is this coming from? Of course I want to be with you.”
“Then let’s get married. Marry me. And don’t say we’re too young. I’ve loved you for years and everyone expects it. I love you.”
“Peeta, I don’t think that this is the best time—.”
“No, don’t you see? This isn’t about the right time. This is about you and me. We love each other, so timing is irrelevant.”
We stopped at the front door of our building and he pulled me in for a kiss. “At least think about it.” I nodded. Each of us hefted our bikes onto our shoulders before walking up the two flights of stairs, ending that seemingly never-ending day where we started it just hours earlier.
I later stood in the kitchen chopping vegetables and chicken for sir fry. Did I want to marry Peeta? I had told Peeta I loved him more times than I could possibly count, and his love for me wasn’t something I ever questioned. Not once. But marriage? I was only twenty! I hadn’t really seen or done anything outside of Madison, anything outside of this relationship. True, I couldn’t envision a life without Peeta, just as I couldn’t envision a life outside of the one I had.
But was that because I was utterly content, or because I didn’t know any better?
Was there a difference?
Later that night we went to bed, thoroughly exhausted from the emotional day. Despite the heat, I cuddled with Peeta like I always did, lazily running my fingertips across his arms and feeling the few coarse hairs there. He started humming some song that I couldn’t place and I breathed on his neck.
“I’ll marry you.”
I wake up and am disoriented. Where am I? Oh. Prim’s room has always looked like something has imploded and I’m currently in the middle of that chaos. What time is it?
I look toward the nightstand and grab my phone. It’s 8:40 a.m. and I have seven missed calls. I fall back onto the pillows and silently swear, realizing that I’ve slept through a whole evening of visiting hours and haven’t been around to grieve with the Mellarks. Shit. Shit shit shit.
Beep. “Katniss, it’s Rye. Were you going to come back tonight? Mom thought you were. Call me.”
Beep. “Katniss. Gale. Where are you?”
Beep. “Katniss, it’s Mom. I hope you’re trying to get some rest. Listen, Peeta’s really starting to come around and his vitals are strong. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
Beep. “This is Charles, and I’m calling on behalf of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College Democrats…
Beep. “Katniss, fuck! Answer your phone! Why aren’t you here? You should be here!”
I hit the home button and ignore the rest, swinging my feet off of the bed and making my way toward the bathroom. I need a shower and I need some food. I also need to get to the hospital. Selfish bitch.
By the time I round the corner on the seventh floor, I know I’m in trouble. Gale stands alone, his face contorted with rage. He grabs my arm and yanks me to the waiting room, shutting the door before letting loose. That’ll bruise.
“God! Where the fuck were you?! Did you just space out and forget that Peeta was here, you know, fighting for his damn life? He needs you, Katniss. You! Did you have somewhere better to be? Is it too fucking much to ask you to be here for Peeta?!”
I wrench my arm away. “I fell asleep! I’m sorry! I’m here now, and I’ll stay here. Don’t you dare assume you know what this is like for me Gale.”
“What it’s like for you? You?! Peeta’s been wracking his brain, trying to figure you out for months. Months! And now he’s here without a fucking leg, still worried about you. He woke up and asked about you. He found out about the amputation without you. He wanted to know if you were coming! Should your fiancée even have to ask that damn question?!”
He might as well have slapped me. I’d deserve it, too. But I don’t have an answer so I leave the room and shut the door, leaving Gale to fume some more. I hesitate for a split second outside of room 705 but walk in and take in the scene. Peeta’s parents are near his bed and look up, eying me sadly (warily?) from where they sit. I ignore the look of disappointment and walk to Peeta’s side, leaning over and whispering his name.
His blue eyes flutter open and focus on my face, a million questions reflected on his own. Where were you? Are you okay? Can you still love me? Will you stay with me? Stay with me, please stay with me, please…
“Hi.” I seriously have never sounded like such an insincere asshole in my life.
“Shhh. Don’t say…I mean, don’t exert yourself. The doctors said that you needed to stay calm, okay? Zen. Chill.”
“I love you.”
“I know. I’m here.”
I look at Peeta—really look—and see that he must have been tended to a bit more. He’s a little less covered in iodine and dried blood, his hair has been brushed and there might be a tube or monitor missing. I look lower and the blanket again confirms what I—what Peeta—now know.
“Shhh. Just sleep. I’m here.”
I lean in and peck his lips before kissing his cheek. I see the confusion in his eyes, but he quickly closes them. I don’t know if he’s truly sleeping or just blocking out his thoughts. Maybe he’s blocking out my face.
Chapter Five Notes
17. Babcock Hall. The UW has a working dairy/creamery on campus (for that matter, you can see the cows from University Ave.) and sells it’s ice cream here, as well as a few other spots on campus.
Peeta insisted on proposing “the right way,” getting a ring he could afford and making a day of it on Picnic Point18. After driving to the entrance of the park, we walked to our spot, spread out a blanket and I listened to him make plans, the ring now on my finger. Maybe we could honeymoon somewhere in Oregon since we’d always wanted to go. He wanted to buy a house—preferably around Hilldale19—once we both had jobs. He’d still work at the bakery until he could find some consistent work, which to be honest, was a bit of a relief since I wasn’t really up on the market for graphic artists. Ideally he wanted three kids, maybe four.
“Can we just enjoy this right now? Just us?”
He rolled on top of me and whispered, “I can think of a few ways to enjoy us…”
“Stop!” His kisses along my neck made me laugh. “I’m serious. I want to just enjoy the engagement for a bit before we start naming hypothetical children.”
He leaned he head back to look at me. “They aren’t hypothetical.”
“For now, they are. Let’s bask in the moment a bit, okay?”
“So no more planning?” Disappointment and suspicion flitted across his eyes. Peeta frequently suspected the worst, having always been made to feel like he had somehow let someone down. Sometimes it felt like it was my job to reassure him. Occasionally it was irritating.
“I didn’t say that, what I meant was—.”
“I want to set a date.”
“You need to relax! I love you, I love this ring. Now let’s enjoy this moment. This exact one. Alright?” I rolled him over to lie down next to me, winding our fingers together between us.
“Is now a bad time to tell you that our families are waiting for us at James Madison Park?” He squinted in the sun when he looked at me, guilt plastered on his face. “Surprise?”
I groaned and scooted toward Peeta, snuggling into the crook of his arm. “You can’t be serious. Now is the time when you’re supposed to say ‘Just kidding, babe. We’re going to stay here for a few more hours, just us.’”
I loved this little nook near his shoulder. I’d never wrapped myself around another man, but I couldn’t imagine a better fit for my body. Peeta’s smell, warmth and heartbeat were so familiar to me, I was sure I could identify him blindfolded if asked. I knew his body as well as I knew my own…every freckle, scar, laugh line and eyelash. We had spent years simply memorizing.
Peeta kissed my head and shifted, ending the quiet moment.
“Let’s go. They’re expecting us. I don’t want to keep them waiting.”
Over the course of the following days and weeks, Peeta’s health improves steadily and he’s moved to a regular outpatient room on the fourth floor. He’s awake for longer periods of time, eats with some enthusiasm (as much enthusiasm as can be mustered for hospital food) and is able to hold extended conversations. There isn’t a moment when someone isn’t with him and one of his parents is literally always at his side. I swear they’re taking shifts in case he’s upset, sad, gets a fever or is looked at wrong. The lack of privacy is starting to wear on me, so I assume (correctly) that it pisses Peeta off.
I can’t remember his mother ever being so attentive. Years ago, I might have angrily pointed this out to her, but given my own distant attitude I have no right.
Many days I come to visit. Many more I don’t, choosing instead to look for a job, spend time with Prim or simply sleep. At first I felt guilty, imagining Peeta thinking, “Where’s Katniss?” Eventually the guilt faded and in it’s place I felt a quiet truth.
The doctors patiently and repeatedly shared their plans for rehabilitation with the Mellarks, the first step simply being pain management, the prevention of infection and shaping what remains of the limb. It’s an excruciating process to recover from any trauma and the incision sites make mobility painful for Peeta. Not further injuring his leg with an inadvertent bump is a constant worry. He slowly gains the use of crutches and can take a few hopping steps, eventually working up to full physical therapy and prosthetic rehabilitation. The time in a hospital bed has already decreased his muscle strength, so frustration quickly sets in for all involved.
Peeta’s quiet and charming demeanor has (rightfully) been replaced by anger and defeat.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Sure. I could go for a burger. In fact, I’d like a burger from Dottie’s20. Can you handle that, Katniss?”
It’s impossible to ignore the sarcasm in his voice, but I reply anyway. “How about something legal? You know I can’t bring in food.”
“Can’t do much of anything.” His eyes stare into mine and I hold them for a moment before looking away.
So Mrs. Mellark tries with her voice that is almost sickly sweet. “Peeta, would you like to watch a movie? I think they have HBO! Or how about we take a walk to the rec room?”
“Really? We could walk there? Well doesn’t that just sound amazing, Mother. Tell me, what else can I do with one leg?”
The room is now silent save for Mrs. Mellark sitting back down in the vinyl chair, her lips pursed.
Peeta sighs and apologizes. “Would you mind giving me some privacy? I’d like to speak with Katniss alone.”
My heart is beating thickly in my chest and I look up, hoping—praying—that they insist on staying here with us. But they shoot each other a glance and silently agree, deciding to go home and have a real meal. They stop and pat his hand before looking at me and leaving.
This is the first time that Peeta and I have been alone since the accident and the tension in the room is palpable. First I just stand there but then move the chair next to his bed and take his hand, waiting for a word. It’s awhile before one comes.
“Are you going to say something, or are you going to make me say it?”
My voice is soft and low. “What would you like me to say, Peeta?”
“When did you stop loving me?”
Softer still. “I love you—.”
“No. No!” He takes our intertwined hands and presses them into the bed. “No, Katniss, please don’t do this now. After all of this time don’t look me in the eye and lie to me. At least be honest with me. If you ever loved me, tell me the truth. We were never going to get married, were we?” Peeta looks at the ceiling, tears funneling out of his eyes and toward his ears. I move to wipe them away, but he moves his head and brushes my hand away.
I whisper, “I don’t know anymore.”
“So we’re done then.”
“Peeta, we should talk about this when—.”
“When? When what? When you suck up your pride and replace it with pity for me? When you decide to settle for the broken kid you used to love? When you resign yourself to a life you probably never wanted in the first place, let alone now when I’m defective? When, Katniss? Tell me!”
There are no words to sling back, since Peeta is right. I’ve failed him. I haven’t been tirelessly selfless; I’ve been calculating every gesture and word, deciding what it was that Peeta wanted or needed to hear from me.
“It’s actually a load off of my mind. I’ve known this for a long time, but I’ve been waiting for you to prove me wrong. Hoping, I guess. Wondering why I wasn’t enough for Katniss Everdeen.”
“It’s not that simple.” I can feel the ache in my jaw and at the back of my throat, a sure sign that I’m about to lose it.
“I think it is.”
“Peeta.” My voice cracks on his name.
“Please, just go. I’d like to be alone.”
“Katniss, I’m tired. Please go.”
I look at him for a moment more before doing what he’s asked. It's the least I can do.
Chapter Six Notes
18. Picnic Point. A wooded park/preserve that is about a mile long. It juts into Lake Mendota and is incredibly popular for students to walk, picnic, etc.
19. Hilldale. Neighborhood on the near-west side. Close to campus, yet the undergrad student population is minimal.
20. Dottie’s. Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry is a hamburger joint near the Kohl Center in Madison. It used to be on upper State Street but was forced to move after the Overture Center for Performing Arts bought out the entire block.
Author’s Note: Since I’m at the halfway point of Part One, I thought I’d say hello and thank you to those of you who have happened upon “Reprieve.” I know you want to hit your head against the wall. I feel your pain. Hang in there.
I call Annie on my way to the apartment, sobbing, frantic and needing someone to talk some sense into me. What had I done?! Peeta is so completely ingrained in my life and here I am abandoning him at his darkest time. I shunned the one person who always—always—was there for me. God, I am heartless.
Annie arrives and immediately pulls me into a hug. “Katniss, you need to calm down. Breathe in, breathe out.” She hands me a glass of water and pulls me to the couch, rubbing my back.
“Annie, I need him to understand! I broke him! I broke us!”
She is eerily calm. “Katniss, you have to know that isn’t true. I know you both tried to put on brave faces, but we’ve all known this might happen for a while now. Yes, the timing sucks, but we saw it coming. You did. Peeta did, too. He wouldn’t tell you that now, but—.”
“This is my fault! Who would tell Peeta no? He’s so perfect and…perfect! He loves me! Every piece of fucked up me! Who would be so stupid as to throw that away?”
“Putting Peeta on some crazy pedestal hasn’t done him any favors. And Katniss, I’d say the same thing to Peeta about you. He isn’t perfect…far from it. Neither are you. But love isn’t about dependence like that. Two people are supposed to become even more dynamic when they find the right kind of love. I love you both, but from an outsider’s perspective, you’ve forgotten who you are. You’ve forgotten who is it that you want to be.”
How did she know? How could she explain it so easily when I couldn’t even begin to describe what had been gradually taking place? I breathe in rapidly and begin to hiccough. “I don’t know who I want to be. I assumed that whoever I was, it would be fine as long as I was with Peeta.”
“If you don’t know who you are, how can you expect anyone else to know and love you for it?”
I lean into Annie and cry until the tears refuse to come anymore.
The apartment is dark when I wake up. I find my phone and see that I have 12 messages from Gale alone, but I ignore those and dial the number I somehow still know by heart. After all these years, it comes to me like my social security number.
“Uncle Haymitch, it’s Katniss. I’m coming back to Amherst.”
I end the call and walk to the bathroom, flipping the light on. I run cold water over my face and open the medicine cabinet, pulling the essentials into my bag. I go to the closet and do the same, flinging shoes into a suitcase before topping them with jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts. I shove socks, bras and underwear into every available crevice.
In my room I find some old paperbacks and journals that I keep with me, as well as a stuffed dog I’ve had since I was in the third grade21. I grab these things and the picture of my father before packing it all up in the main room. I finish and stand, looking around at this piece of my history—our history—before turning off the lights, locking the door and walking to my car.
I loop the capitol square and head down East Wash, glancing at the capitol building in my rearview mirror22.
The radio is tuned to Triple M23 and I listen to the station until static takes over.
I’ve reached Pennsylvania before the pure adrenaline has worn off and I need to find a place to sleep for a few hours. Red Roof Inn calls to me from the highway and I pull over to grab some fast food and rent a room. For the first time since I left Madison, I turn my phone on and listen to the relentless chiming of voicemail alerts. Gale times 20, Prim twice, my mom once, Annie, Madge and…Peeta. I owe everyone an explanation, but I don’t even know how to explain this to myself. I chicken out and text Prim.
On my way 2 MA. Tell Mom. I’ll call when I can. 143.
I turn the phone back off, take a swig of my Diet Coke and pull the comforter straight off the bed before laying on top of the sheets. I don’t dream.
The next morning I take a much-needed shower, braid back my hair and brush my teeth, feeling a million times better already. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts near the highway and I smile, knowing that this means I’m getting closer to New England. Screw Starbucks; I order a large, light and sweet and continue east.
The toughest (or most boring stretch) is the New York State Thruway, but by 6:30 I’m in Massachusetts and on my way through the Pioneer Valley24. I wasn’t old enough to drive when we lived here, but every turn I make feels as routine as if I had lived here all my life. Route 9 is still a nightmare, the two lanes making it impossible to drive without constantly tapping the breaks. Thousands of people are either making their way to UMass or are leaving the campus, all via the only road that meets up with I-91.
I turn onto Rte. 47 and am transported back in time. The tobacco barns that dot the landscape all have their cladding boards open, allowing the air to cure the leaves that hang upside down25. There’s a cart of vegetables at the end of a long driveway, encouraging people to stop, grab some corn for dinner and leave their change. Mapleline Dairy26 is open, a high school kid inside is selling milk in glass bottles. A massive hydrangea bends in the breeze.
The long gravel drive hides the house from view, which is exactly why Haymitch built behind this cluster of trees…he didn’t want to see the road, only the tobacco field and sky. The house looks like it’s tired, the white boards now grey and the green shutters peeling. Bushes are overgrown and the grass has gone to seed. The whole place has “Haymitch” written all over it.
I put the car in park and just stare. How did I get here? Then I unbuckle my seatbelt and curl my arms around the wheel, leaning my forehead against the leather. But I’m here. Home.
Time to face my new reality. I walk to the front door, pull on the screen and call, “Haymitch?” No answer. The place smells like old person, sweat and sap. When was the last time he opened the windows? “Haymitch?”
The house is as filthy as I remember it. As a girl, I made the mistake of wearing new winter boots in here and then standing with one foot on the other. The dust and soot from the ancient coal furnace was everywhere, relentlessly tracking black on the floors and thus, my boots. He’s since switched to gas heat but never bothered to clean up the residue. Shocker.
I round the corner to the kitchen and see my uncle at the table, bottles scattered around him. He hasn’t shaved in God knows how long, his hair is stringy and he looks yellow. Trash removal is apparently optional here and I think I just saw a mouse run across the kitchen counter. The faucet that has always leaked plink—plink—plinks water into the sink.
He looks up wearily, trying to focus and belches. “Sweetheart. What are you running from this time?”
Uncle Haymitch has had an interesting role in the Everdeen family. Not really an uncle at all, Haymitch was my father’s best friend and a constant presence in my life growing up. Crass and rude, my dad truly believed that his friend was a positive influence in the upbringing of his girls. Truth: we learned how to throw knives at the dead tree in the side year. Truth: we knew more swear words than any other grade-schoolers. Truth: we knew more about moonshine than any law-abiding citizen ever should. Haymitch’s legendary status made him an ally we were often glad to have. Right now, I’d be glad if he took a bath.
“None of your business. What the hell have you done to the place?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is this your caring, nurturing side? Or perhaps your ‘tough love’ side? It’s always hard to tell with you.”
I hate it that he knows me so well. I stand there for a minute, holding his gaze.
“Can I stay here? At least until I find something else? I’ll make myself useful and stay out of your way.”
“I promised your dad I’d look out for you,” he coughs and looks out the kitchen window. “Though I’m not sure why I’d go out of my way after all this time.” He pauses and looks back at me, unwavering. “Wouldn’t back down on something like that. Back bedroom is yours.”
I nod and turn, moving toward the staircase and up to the second floor. For some reason Haymitch has never used the second story of his place. Everything he needs is downstairs, or so he says. There are two bedrooms up here that Prim and I played in when we came over when we were kids, as well as a small bathroom. I lean on the door frame of one of the bedrooms and remember the day when Dad died. Haymitch had been the one to come upstairs, interrupting our game with the news that shattered our family. He held us as we screamed, his tears making it real.
I shake my head trying to rid myself of the memory and take a good look around. Aside from needing to be swept, dusted and wiped down, there wasn’t anything to clutter the space. A double bed, dresser, desk and chair completed the room. The second bedroom mirrored the first and the bathroom just needed some scrubbing. I decide to open the windows, strip the beds to wash the sheets and get settled.
It is past midnight when I finally succumb to exhaustion. I’d start to tackle the downstairs tomorrow, but right now I didn’t have the energy to dream.
Chapter Seven Notes
21. That dog? It exists.
22. True story. I looked at the capitol in my rearview mirror when I left Madison to move to New York after graduation. Cried like a baby.
23. Triple M. WMMM in Madison is hands down the best radio station in the city.
24. Pioneer Valley/Happy Valley. Amherst, Northampton, Hadley and that whole Connecticut River Valley area is known as the Pioneer Valley.
25. Tobacco farming. You wouldn’t necessarily think of Massachusetts as being a big tobacco area, but back in the day, it was. There are still many working tobacco farms.
26. Mapleline Farm and Dairy. Family-owned dairy that you can stop and purchase items in, or schedule home delivery. Down the road from where I lived in Hadley.
Every muscle in my body protests as I stretch, the morning sun pulling me out of sleep. It’s so quiet compared to my old apartment: no rush of traffic, no sirens, no loud music being played from the third floor apartment. The quiet seems loud in it’s own way.
I’ll deal with 24 N. Webster Street another day. Today is about cleaning this dump up. If I’m being honest with myself, it might take me days to dig through the heaps of trash and filth that Haymitch has been honing for years. But time I have and the cleaning should be a welcome distraction from my brain.
I don’t intend on turning on my phone quite yet, and I have no intention of listening to whatever messages it holds. I wonder how he is. I wonder who knows what I coward I am. For a moment more I lie in my bed and let the tears fall. I miss him. How selfish can one person be?
The shower brings me back to the present and I wish I’d never left it once I’m at the bottom of the stairs. Jesus. Haymitch clearly isn’t home, which is probably for the best. I’m about to get real with his hoarding tendencies. And since it needs the most attention, I start with the kitchen.
Walking into the small room gets my stomach churning, and not from hunger. First things first: open every window that will open. I find black garbage bags under the sink and begin by tossing the contents of the fridge and pantry. No way should anyone be eating canned yams from 1985. The liquor I leave—contrary to recent events, I do value my life—and feel like there’s been a tiny bit of improvement with the kitchen emptied of expired food. The dishes alone take me two hours to wash by hand. I’m not sure if Haymitch always had this many pieces of silverware or if he just bought new stuff when the rest got dirty, but he could easily have enough dishes to host a Thanksgiving dinner for 35 people. The thought makes me smile as Haymitch hates a) people, b) holidays and c) anything that isn’t served over ice.
By now I can’t ignore my hunger so I quickly clean up (again) and head into town for a bite to eat. There’s a small café27 near Rtes. 47 and 9, so I pull in and seat myself in a booth before ordering the special. This place clearly draws the “typical” Amherst resident: a little bohemian, globally aware and bleeding liberal…just like Madison.
“BLT, extra ‘B’ on sourdough and an extra-large cappuccino with an extra shot?”
I nod at the waiter, waiting for him to place the food in front of me but he smirks and says, “Are you intentionally trying to stop your heart? Or maybe you’re just trying to stop mine?” I even get a wink and a lick of the lips. Oh, if he only knew.
“I didn’t realize that witty personal commentary was included with all lunches.” I look up and give him my best “don’t piss me off” look as he leaves my plate and turns back to the counter. Katniss 1, hippy undergrad 0.
A box with slips of paper and tiny pencils rests on the table and I grab some of each, deciding to make some lists. I fibbed when I said that I hate to plan. I mostly hate to plan. But really, I like being governed by little lists…what I need to do during the course of a day or week. Things I want to read, grocery lists, to-do lists. There’s a lame amount of excitement that I get out of crossing things off of the lists, but this is a habit I’m not ready (or willing) to break.
To Clean in Kitchen: refrigerator, stove, microwave, floor. Wipe down pantry shelves, cabinets and counters.
Groceries (until I talk to Haymitch): milk, cereal, bread, peanut butter, granola bars, apples, peanut m&m’s, saltines.
Rooms to Clean (in order of importance): kitchen, downstairs bathroom, living room, basement (near laundry only).
Supplies: bleach, sponges, Lysol, rubber gloves, laundry detergent, toilet paper?
People to call: Prim, Annie.
Other: look for job, start writing again, figure out my life.
The vagueness of my last list amuses me more than it should. My cappuccino is long gone and I decide to order another with a cookie to go before heading back to the house. The cookie is good, but not quite as good as the gingersnaps from Mellark’s. I sigh and get in the car.
“Where the hell is my stuff?! I never said you could destroy my house, girl!” Haymitch’s eyes are a little red and the vein in his forehead is dangerously large. A whole day of cleaning has resulted in a spotless kitchen and bathroom, and I’ve made a decent dent on the living room.
“I only threw away food that was so old it had started growing fur, so calm down. Everything else is here…it’s just been cleaned and put away.”
Haymitch squints at me. “You think this is making yourself useful, huh? Things have been fine for me since you all left. I’m not a charity case!”
“But I currently am. And I need somewhere to stay so we might as well both benefit from it. You get a clean house, food to eat and clothes that don’t smell like foot. I get something to do and a smaller chance of contracting tetanus or salmonella.” My voice has gone from strong and justified to quiet and choked. I look away, not wanting to deal with symbolism anymore.
Haymitch clears his throat, “My liquor?”
“In the pantry.”
“Listen, I bought a few things to eat, but I figured I could go and replace the groceries I tossed. Is there anything in particular you’d like me to get? Anything you need?”
He turns to me and points a finger in my direction. “Don’t you go thinking that this is going to last forever. You’re gonna to learn to deal with whatever it is you’ve done and then you’re gonna move on, sweetheart. I’m not a damn hotel.”
“How about beef stew?”
He stops for just a brief moment. “Only the stuff in the can. And saltines.” Haymitch and I have a choppy communication style that works. He goes to his bedroom and slams the door, effectively ending our conversation. I grab the keys once more to do some evening shopping.
“Katniss! Oh my God, are you okay? Where are you? You didn’t even say goodbye!” Prim’s frantic tones slice me deep, which is why I’m driving and having this conversation at the same time. I need something to distract me from 100% honesty right now and the cows that have apparently gotten loose and are roaming along Rte. 47 are doing a fine job.
“Prim, I’m fine. I am. I couldn’t stay there anymore—.” My lame excuse turns to silence, which my sister interprets correctly.
“I know. I just wish…I wish you had told me about all of this stuff with Peeta yourself. I’m your sister.” I can almost feel the tension through the phone. “How long were things, um, not perfect?”
“Awhile,” I sigh. “A few months. I’m not ready to explain it, and I’m not sure I could just yet.”
“Was there someone else?”
I don’t know why, but Prim’s question is simultaneously funny and rage inducing. Why do people always assume that breaking up is due to cheating? Have I given off the vibe that I’m a girl who sleeps around? And why on earth would I cheat on my Peeta? Sigh. I need to stop referring to him as ‘mine.’
“What?! Absolutely not! Prim, you know I’d never do that, and you know I love Peeta.”
“Loved. Past tense.”
“It’s complicated. I do love him. Present tense.”
“If you love him, how could you leave him? Katniss, you two are like peanut butter and fluff…you just go together. And Peeta is hurting so much. If you could see him—.”
“I wish I could put all of my feelings into words Prim, but they aren’t coming quite yet. I’m working on it. I promise.” Time to ask the question I need to ask. “How is Peeta?”
Prim sighs. Her loyalty to her two siblings—me, her actual sister and Peeta, her almost-brother—is coming through loud and clear. The dilemma: to tell me the truth, to fudge the truth or to blatantly withhold information. Unfairly, Peeta and I have always told Prim things with the caveat of “Don’t tell Katniss/Peeta!” She’s a vault of secrets.
“I don’t want to get in the middle, Katniss. But he’s hurting. Physically he’s about the same, working on his PT and rehab. He’s worried about the things he said to you and has been trying to call you. Have you gotten any calls from him?”
“There are voicemails on my phone from a lot of people. I haven’t listened to any of them yet.” I pause and clear my throat. “So everyone knows, huh?”
“Yes. There wasn’t a town hall meeting or anything, but it sounds like most everyone kind of saw something coming, especially when you stopped visiting regularly. His parents were kind of floored, but when have they not been oblivious? Gale wants to skin you alive, FYI, so I’d sleep with one eye open. But Peeta told everyone that he snapped and told you to leave. Is that true?”
“What Peeta said to me was the truth. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t what he said that made me leave.”
“You owe it—.”
“I know, I know. I owe it to Peeta to make this right.” Seriously, these cows are making this conversation way longer than I intended it to be.
“No. I was going to say that you owe it to yourself to get to the bottom of these feelings, Katniss. Whether or not the end result has you and Peeta back as a fluffernutter is not important.” I can’t help but smile. “You need to come to terms with life and decide to live it for once. For you. Not for me or for Dad or for Peeta. For you.”
“I live.” What a ridiculous retort. Even my baby sister has grasped this concept faster than I have.
I change tactics again. “Okay Prim, so there are a few things I need you to take care of while I’m…away. You have the keys to the apartment, so keep an eye on the place until Peeta…until I tell you otherwise. I’ll be sending rent checks, so don’t worry about that. Run the water on occasion, get the mail, stuff like that.”
“No problem. Peeta will most likely be moving in with his parents once he’s discharged. It’ll be easier for him to not have to go up the stairs.”
Of course. I assumed incorrectly (again) that Peeta would go back to our place. Why would he want to go back there anyway and be faced with our previously-happy existence? But the thought of him having to move back to his childhood home makes me cringe. “Well, if you could just be around, that would be great.”
“How long are you going to be out there?”
“I haven’t thought that through. I, um, don’t have immediate plans to return to Madison. I’ll start forwarding my mail and arrange for my things to be sent out here if this becomes more permanent. In the meantime, if I need anything mailed, I’ll let you know.”
“What should I tell Mom?”
“That I’m fine and that I’ll be in touch when I can.”
“She worries, too, you know.” Prim’s a little more in-tune with my mother’s parental style. Living alone with her has made her an expert in deciphering what each blank stare means.
Time to fib. “Right. Listen, I’m at the grocery store and I need to run a few other errands. I’ll call again soon, okay?”
“Katniss? I wish you had said goodbye.”
I know my voice betrays me when I say “I’m so sorry Prim. All I could think about was getting away.” All I could think of was myself, is more like it.
“I love you. Try not to kill Uncle Haymitch.”
She ends the call and I lay on the horn, practically willing the cows to move already. “I’m getting hamburger at Stop ‘n Shop, you know!”
How many more people will I hurt?
Chapter Eight Notes
27. The café I’m envisioning is fairly new. Esselon Café roasts their own coffee and has a) great coffee and b) great food. Really eclectic.
I’ve been hiding under the guise of cleaning Haymitch’s place for two weeks now. My old apartment never had such detail go into cleaning, but I’m beginning to enjoy the routine of getting up, cleaning and making a few meals. The crock pot is the best invention ever: throw things in there with some sort of meat and you have a hot meal at the end of the day. One that is hard to screw up, brown and is almost always edible!
I’ve called Prim a couple of times since our first conversation and am reassured that everything is being handled as best as it can be in Madison. She encourages me to listen to my voicemails, but I am not ready to go there. Right now I need to think about my lists. ‘Look for a job’ is at the top as I need to find some source of income before too long, whether it is in the sciences or at any local business that will hand me a paycheck. I’m banking on the latter. Getting a head start on this search is vital before the undergrads come back in the fall.
It’s time to shake the funk off, get out and explore. I decide to drive around Amherst first, looking at how the town has changed while simultaneously keeping an eye open for employment. The downtown is still quaint, but new shops and restaurants have taken hold. It’s a little more high-end than I remember. Next up is Hadley, which I’ve been driving through on my occasional trips for supplies. There are many big-box shops and chain fast-food restaurants that seem to stick out like a sore thumb among the hills and fields surrounding them. Last is Northampton. “Noho” hasn’t changed a bit, which is charming and comforting. Anything and everything goes here…it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing (or in some cases, not wearing). It’s a place where being you is not only encouraged, but expected. In my opinion, it’s also one of the great things about the Five College28 influence: the schools each have a distinct vibe and the students lend that same vibe to the surrounding communities.
I decide to actually park the car and look for a job. The thing is, I’m not sure where it is I can see myself. Retail? Eh. Food service? Maybe. I fill out about 10 applications over the course of the afternoon, not much closer to finding a job now than I was this morning. At least I did something.
My stop at Esselon Café on my way home is well deserved, in my mind. When you walk through the front door there are two velvet curtains separating the improvised foyer with the main space, creating a cocoon of warmth and comfort. Finnick, the guy who waited/hit on me the first time I came in, nods hello and starts my drink. I appreciate the gesture for what it is: routine.
“Hey Finnick, I’m looking for work. Do you know of any places hiring?”
“Ahh. Have you finally decided to succumb to my charming advances, beautiful?”
“Looking to put your stellar attitude to use?”
“Hey Boss! Come out here.” Wonderful. Let’s expand this conversation to include a few more people. “Thresh, this is Katniss. She’s a regular and looking for work. Are you still looking for help with the roasting works?”
Thresh is all muscles but soft spoken. “Listen, I’m sure you’re nice and all but I don’t want to have to work around class schedules, so…”
“That’s fine, I’m not a student.”
“Oh. Well can you life 50 pounds?” I nod. “Good. Let me show you around and we’ll see if we can get along.”
We do. Just like that, I have a job.
I get home and again Haymitch is absent. I’m not sure where he goes during the day, but it’s starting to feel like I live alone here, which I’m not complaining about. I help myself to whatever stew I’ve concocted today and decide to head upstairs. I want to cross a few things off of my list (take that, ‘look for a job’) and make a few more. I should call Annie. I want to start writing out what’s in my head. I should listen to my voicemails.
After the first of Gale’s profanity-laden messages I decide to delete all 23 of his and then listen to the others.
Beep. “Hi, it’s me. Katniss (his voice breaks), I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry for my behavior earlier. I know that things haven’t been right for a while, but I want to apologize for what I said. I want to make things right. I love you.”
Beep. “Hey. Um, it’s me. Peeta. (He clears his throat.) Prim told me that you left for Amherst. I had hoped to talk to you again face to face. Katniss, there is so much I want to say. I need to say. I’m so sorry. Come back. I love you.”
Beep. “Katniss, please. Please talk to me. Please.”
Beep. (There’s breathing on the line before the phone is disconnected.)
I look at the phone in my hand and delete his messages one by one.
Beep. “Hey lady, it’s Annie. So you’re in Amherst. (She sighs.) When I told you to figure out who you were, I hope you didn’t interpret that as ‘drive halfway across the country and ostracize yourself.’ Just kidding. Hey, I’m here when you’re ready to talk. We’re helping Peeta out, too, so try not to make yourself completely sick over that, even though I know you are. I love you, girlie. We all do. Call me when you can.”
I immediately dial Annie and am practically jumping on my bed when she answers. “Annie. It’s Katniss.” I sound breathless.
“Hey! I was hoping to hear from you before the snow started flying. Did you get my message?”
“Yes, just now. I’ve been dealing with things as they come, you know?”
“I know. How are you? I miss you!”
“I miss you, too, Annie. I’m doing okay. Staying with my Uncle Haymitch, which is an exercise in patience. I just got a job today. Earning my keep and all.”
“A job? So this move is semi-permanent?”
“More like I needed to make some money and keep my mind occupied.”
“Hmm. How are you holding up?”
“I haven’t really dealt with much yet.” I shift to lie on my side, trying to get comfortable. “It’s amazing being back…like I never left in the first place. Aside from Haymitch I don’t know anyone, but everything is the same and new all at once. I know I’m not making sense.” Story of my life, these days. Katniss is confused! Katniss is not able to put thoughts into words! Katniss refers to herself in the third person! “In a way, this place reminds me of Madison, minus the baggage. You’d love it.”
There’s silence on the other end. I am such a shit.
“God, I’m sorry Annie. That came out wrong. I didn’t mean that you’re baggage. Or that Peeta—.”
She sighs, “Katniss, I know. Relax. Try to stop apologizing so much, okay?”
“It’s not about anyone or anything, I swear. It’s me. It’s all me. I just need to figure this out.”
“And then?” I know I’m leaning on Annie now. That’s what I do…I take, take, take.
“Then you’ll continue living, just as you are now. It won’t be some miracle, Katniss. It’s not like the heavens will open and your life will suddenly begin. You’re living now. You’ll just have a better sense of which direction you’ll steer in. You’ll set some boundaries and maybe follow your heart a little more. You’ll love because it makes your life infinitely better, not because you’re expected to.”
“I love Peeta.”
“You will always love Peeta. He will always love you. You guys just need to figure out what kind of love it is.”
Was that true? Did I need to figure out the kind of love I had for Peeta? I loved him as a friend. A fiancée. A lover. A confidant. I knew these things explicitly. I wanted more balance. I wanted to figure out how to be content with just me. I wanted the same for him.
“You should have been a psych major.”
“Ha! Maybe I’ll remember that when I’m having a midlife crisis and decide to go back to school.”
It’s starting to get dark outside by the time Annie and I hang up and Haymitch still isn’t home. I take my dirty dishes downstairs and wash them (even I do not think about messing with the spotless kitchen) before grabbing my new notebook and settling on the front porch. The mosquitoes haven’t been bad and I want to hear the crickets. Pretty soon they’ll be cold and still with the first days of autumn.
I decided what to do with this new journal a few days ago. Part diary, part creative outlet, it’s as much of a project for me as it is for Peeta. And sure, avoiding the face-to-face confessional might be a cop out, but it is an opportunity to let the honesty fly.
If you asked me what day of the week I arrived in Amherst, I honestly couldn’t tell you. The drive here was pretty uneventful, unless you count the seven Dunkin’ Donuts stops I made between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts (and the subsequent bathroom breaks as a result). I’m rambling now. I’m sorry.
I’ll probably end up saying that so much that it will end up losing its sincerity.
If you haven’t noticed, this is a new notebook. It felt right to begin another when I had the idea of writing for you. I’ve never been wonderful at getting my words out without stumbling, but if you could only know how much I truly want to say. Am I afraid of my words? If so, what am I afraid of? Of being judged, or maybe disappointing someone when they see me for who I really am. Someday I’ll tell you who I am and you can judge me then. Perhaps you’ve already begun to change your perception of me after how I’ve behaved. Of course you have.
I’m staying with my Uncle Haymitch. You’ve never met him, but he was my father’s best friend. If you’ve ever wondered why I have such a vast knowledge of beer and weaponry, well, now you know. He keeps to himself for the most part, which is probably for the best. I’m not sure how long he’ll let me stay and I haven’t made plans one way or the other. You know, trying the whole fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants thing.
I did get a job working at an artisanal coffee shop in town and I’m told I’ll be helping the owner with the actual roasting. I’m hoping that free cappuccinos are in my future, but that probably depends on my ability to be civil to the barista.
I think of you every day, which sounds trite and insincere. But it’s the truth.
I’ll try again tomorrow.
I go upstairs and close my bedroom door, letting the weight of my words push me to my bed. They weren’t beautiful or even coherent, but they were mine. I haven’t done this since moving here but I know where to look, leaning toward the dresser and picking up the book on top.
The leather crinkles a bit when I open the cover and my dad looks back at me, the photo loose between pages. He’s on the dock and smiling, holding my mom close to the stern of the Sunfish on the day he bought the boat. This picture was taken before either one of them knew I was even on the way. Things were finally turning around for them after a tough start; Dad was making a decent living and Mom was just finishing nursing school. He looks like everything he’s ever wanted was dropped in his lap, but years later he’d tell me that that wasn’t exactly true. Not until I came along, anyway. What a sap.
This is the one photo I have of my parents the way I wish I could remember them. Dad is there, so happy that his eyes are almost squeezed shut, and Mom is not only present, but alive. I shut the book and lean back, wondering just how different things would be if he were still around. God, I don’t know how to do this without him.
I wish my brain had a map to tell my heart which way to go. I let myself cry it out, shaking the grip my emotions have had on this day. Tomorrow I’ll write again.
Chapter Nine Notes
28. Five College Consortium. There are four colleges and one university in the Pioneer Valley: UMass, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Smith College and Hampshire College.
Author's Note: This is what I like to call 'necessary filler.'
Today I went to Mount Sugarloaf, which is just a few miles from Haymitch’s. It’s hard to think of it as a “real” mountain, but the view from the top is pretty spectacular. Someday I’ll bring you here so that you can see it for yourself. You’d love to paint the landscape. Mount Sugarloaf: the spot seemed to be named for a baker. Get it?
My job is actually…fascinating. Thresh (my boss) seems to tolerate me and has been teaching me the very basics of roasting. I have no grand ideas of becoming a master roaster anytime soon, but the botany behind the beans is right up my alley. He plans trips to South America and Africa with the sole purpose of building relationships with farmers and bringing back the beans to create new blends with fair trade. And to think, I’ve just been sucking back the Dunkin’ without giving a thought to the science behind it.
The staff here is pretty laid back. Thresh is the owner and spends a lot of his time traveling, teaching baristas around the country (you read that right…there are schools for baristas) and working with fair trade organizations. He’s opened a few cafes in town and will most likely expand to other areas in New England. Finnick is one of the baristas on staff. He’s pretty full of himself and assumes he’s God’s gift to women, but he’s not a bad guy. Finn pulls an incredible shot of espresso so maybe that confidence is well-placed.
That leaves Johanna, who is a raging bitch. There’s no other way to describe her and she’d call herself the same, so go ahead and close your mouth. Johanna’s been at Esselon for years and kind of does a little bit of everything as long as it minimizes contact with the patrons. But the customers have become so accustomed to her personality that she’s seen as an endearing fixture instead of the crass woman she is. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find her lack of a filter almost refreshing…I envy her honesty and if she would allow it, I’d probably consider her a friend.
I love you,
Writing to you kind of makes me feel like you’re here with me. Truly, I don’t know what it feels like to not have you in my life. You’ve become so ingrained in it, I think that I have taken you for granted. I know I have. But in my own selfish way I feel you here with me now, holding my hand and telling me that somehow this will all shake out. And if it didn’t work out exactly how we’d planned it, you’d kiss me and love me anyway.
You’ve always had everything planned out and organized. Aside from my little lists, my flakiness must have driven you nuts. I’m sorry I couldn’t get my shit together.
Have you ever felt like you were drowning? Every decision I’ve made has been made with the knowledge that it would affect someone else positively or negatively. And knowing that, how could I not choose what would make people happy? I want you to be happy. I want Prim to be happy. I want to find out what will make me happy, and I want to know if all of that happiness can coexist. Do you think it can? Annie says that the more I love my decisions, the less I’ll need others to love them. Why can’t it be both?
Maybe I’m making this more complicated than it has to be.
How can you be so sure about everything? About us?
When you were first brought into the ICU, I didn’t know where to touch. You were as pale as the sheets on the bed. You didn’t look like my Peeta, but you were alive.
When you first woke up, I saw your eyes. Not filled with sadness or anger, but concern for me. Concern for what you assumed I must have thought of your new reality. I thought you were perfect.
After that, your eyes were guarded and cautious but mostly I saw disappointment reflected in them. Disappointment in me. You always wore your heart on your sleeve, and you always betrayed every emotion in your eyes. I could get lost in them. I often did.
You said that you were broken, but you were wrong. You’re beautiful.
Today I read a quote that made me think: “I’m in love with cities I have never been to and with people I’ve never met.”
If I asked you, would you go with me?
I never once asked you why you seemed so indifferent about the UW. You could have made a million friends, been active in student groups or intramurals, gone to games or hung out at the Union. The whole campus could have been yours. But you didn’t seem to care. You seemed unimpressed.
Something shifted between high school and college. Whatever it was, I overlooked it. Tell me what I missed. Tell me what bothered you.
Now that I’m here and you’re there, I’m realizing just how little we really knew. I wish I could just ask you every question I never did. I want to know more about what you were like as a kid. You know, the little stories hardly anyone else knows about. I want to know about your family traditions...not just what they are but why you have them. I want you to tell me your plans for your art. I want you to tell me about your pee wee soccer team. Tell me about life before us.
I’m here and you’re there; I’m realizing how much I wish you were next to me now.
People say that autumn in New England is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. There aren’t enough words to do it justice.
I’m sure you’d be up by 5 a.m. even if your job didn’t require it. Things are so different in those moments right before a sliver of sun creeps above the horizon. There’s an eerie glow about the world, dew shimmers on the grass and you hear the first coos of mourning doves looking for seeds. In that moment, everything is so fantastically perfect that you don’t want to blink. Colors slowly swirl, churning from the violets and navy of nighttime to greys and periwinkle that give way to rosy pinks and soft yellows, all before the sun even breaks the surface. I swear I try to hold my breath just hoping to witness the exact moment when the world is bathed in light so that I can describe it to you.
Oranges creep up, crows start to caw and then I can’t help but blink. How, in that millisecond, can the world change so much?
Do you think you could still love me?
Coffee is intoxicating. Oily, smoky, rich, bold, brown, chocolate, creamy, sharp, bright, earthy, buttery, caramel, green, heavy, mellow, nutty, smooth, woody. I’m beginning to rethink my favorite color having now seen the beautiful shades of this drink. Browns that are almost black, tawny and light, barely visible through delicate foam and creamy milk chocolate. It’s such a warm, inviting color that I want to live in.
Even autumn, with its cool, dead, brown branches feels warm.
(There is my lame attempt at poetry, Mellark. And I'm kind of embarrassed by it, so do us all a favor and burn this.)
A long time ago I made a decision to never, ever end up so dependent upon someone that I’d lose myself like my mom did. It wasn’t worth it. Face it: after so many years of being together you barely knew her beyond the woman who occasionally sat on the couch watching the 10 o’clock news.
What if that’s what’s in the cards for me? Are you sure you can handle that?
But you messed that up in the best way possible. People always joked that we were conjoined, and I suppose that in some ways we were. My happiness was wrapped up in you. How could it not be? You gave kind smiles, a hand to hold, fiery kisses, tender touches and soft words. And I hadn’t had that in a really long time. But for as much as I loved you, I forgot how to just be okay with me. I lost me.
I viewed your life as perfect, which by default lessened the fucked-up-ness of my own. You, this golden boy with unbelievable talents and big heart, and me, a floundering girl trying not to let all of the balls drop.
Why on Earth did you choose me?
There had to be something outside of the cocoon we’d created. I started to crave some stability between crazy love, healthy love, independence and change. I helped to create our reality and I didn’t know how to manipulate it back into something whole. I don’t know how to make that happen.
I wish I had found a way to talk to you beyond my clipped words and indifference. You were always my partner in crime and I left you to figure it out on my own. It's not the same. It will never be the same.
I miss you,
I love you. I don’t know what else to say. But maybe that is enough.
I scream, sitting up so abruptly that my hair swings over my shoulders. My heart races so fast that I swear I can hear it straight through my chest. I breathe like I’ve just run a mile and shakily reach for the glass of water that I keep on my bedside table. My clock blinks 2:10 a.m.
This is becoming routine. Weeks have turned into months. Most nights I’m in bed by 11 and within a few hours the nightmares have clawed at my sleep. Though the dream morphs and changes, Peeta is always taken from me and I’m left staring at his vacant eyes that don’t cry, plead or even question. I’m ripped awake screaming for Peeta just ask he drowns, plummets to the ground or succumbs to exposure.
I left him. It was too late. I am always too late.
I’ve gotten my life together. I have a steady job that earns me enough money to buy the necessities. I occasionally socialize with people from work outside of work. Haymitch’s house is spotless. I cross things off of my lists.
I even briefly tried to forget him. But it’s hard to forget someone who gave you so much to remember.
I write to him every day. Sometimes it's coherent, mostly it's not. But it feels like I'm taking him with me. It feels like he’s here.
I miss him so much. I miss feeling like anything was possible as long as we were together. I miss that unwavering trust. I miss holding his hand. I miss knowing what each of his smiles meant. I miss making him smile. I miss hugging him as hard as I could. I miss the paintbrushes that seem to end up everywhere. I miss his breath warm on my neck. I miss his heartbeat under my ear. I miss his calloused hands. I miss kissing that spot between his eyebrows. I miss his heart that is so unbelievably good…so good that it makes you realize that you’ll never measure up.
I could live 1000 lifetimes and not deserve him.
Who knew that coffee could be so interesting? I’m not researching groundbreaking therapies or endangered species, but the science behind the bean—from plant to cup—is genuinely cool. Coffee has managed to meld agriculture with politics, anthropology, cuisine, history, biology and sociology. With Thresh guiding me, I feel as though I’m back in college and I love it. He’s hinted at taking me on an international trip if my work intentions become more permanent. I’ve never really been anywhere outside of Wisconsin or Massachusetts, so the possibility alone is pretty foreign…in a good way.
I wish Peeta could share the possibility.
Johanna’s question snaps me out of my trance and I’m caught off-guard. Shit. Did I say that out loud? “What?”
“You heard me. I said, ‘Who’s Peeta?’”
“How do you know about Peeta?” I stop wiping down the sink to look at Johanna. My heart’s doing that clenching thing and I’m having a hard time swallowing.
“I’d have to be a decent person to not know about Peeta. But considering I’m an asshole and you left out that book you constantly write in the minute you go on break, well, what did you expect?”
“What the hell?! That stuff is personal, Jo!”
“Oh calm down. You should have been more careful. So who’s Peeta?”
“Did he give you the ring?”
“Johanna, I don’t want to—.”
“Yes, yes. Continue being sullen and quiet. That’s worked out well for you thus far. Tell me more about Peeta.”
“So’s roasting coffee. You seem to have managed. Finn!” She snaps her gingers. “French press! Now, Peeta. Seriously, who names their kid Peeta?”
She ushers me to a booth and pours, waiting expectantly. Explaining Peeta to Johanna is sort of like being in a car with someone who is learning how to drive a stick shift. The conversation stalls, jumps, halts, hurts and makes you feel like you’re going to puke. It also takes most of one afternoon. The sky is dark and the café is closed by the time Johanna leans back.
“Well damn, dumbass. Peeta wants you. So you need to want him back.”
“I think it’s slightly more complicated than that, Jo.”
“I think you like to complicate things when it’s really quite simple, brainless. Find what makes you happy and who makes you happy and you’re all set. Plus—.”
“There’s more?” My head hurts. I knead my forehead with my fingers, hoping to make it all go away.
“Peeta needs you. I’m not saying that you two don’t have a messed up sense of what’s healthy, but he’s facing a hell of a mountain. Do you just want to be on the other side, or do you want to climb it with him? Might be good for both of you to face this newness together.”
“I don’t want to go back to Madison.”
“So don’t. There’s approximately 12 billion other places you could check out. Including Amherst. If you knew that you couldn’t fail, what would you do?”
“Don’t you think I should figure out my own shit first?”
“Katniss, you keep rereading chapters of your life, hoping to find some magic sign.” Johanna gets up from the booth and grabs her coat. “Trust me, there is no magic sign. Turn the page. Get on with living already.” She stands up and yells, “Thresh! Katniss needs to talk to you!” Before he comes into view she asks again, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
I shoot her my best scowl as Thresh comes sauntering in from the back, wringing a towel with an expectant look on his face.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Thresh, I need a big favor.”
“Already? You haven’t worked here long enough for big favors.” His smile betrays him and I begin to explain.
By the time I get home, I feel raw. Johanna knows more than even Prim or Annie does, but her blunt observations sit surprisingly well. After making arrangements with Thresh and Finnick, I know I need to talk to Haymitch. Sweeten him up a bit.
There’s Dinty Moore and saltines at the kitchen table waiting when he comes in through the front door. I hand him a BBC Cabin Fever29.
“Aw hell. Now what?”
“You know that thing I’m running from?”
“Well, you’re going to find out. I need to bring him here.”
“Hi, Prim?” I look down at my thumbnail and there’s nothing pretty about what I see. My conversations today have done a number on my cuticles. I’m not sure that the catharsis is quite over, either.
“Katniss! Hi! It’s late, are you alright?”
“I’m fine. You sound good. Happy. Older.” She does. My little sister isn’t quite so little. How much have I missed?
“Well, I am a senior. It must be the senioritis.”
“It’s too early in the year for you to be leaning on that excuse, Prim. You have college decisions to make!” Oh my God, my little sister is going to college?
“I’m pretty sure I’ll be heading to the University of Minnesota. You know, increase the sibling rivalry a little bit. Rory and I went to visit the campus last weekend and I fell in love.”
“With the U, or with Rory?”
“Prim!” I clutch at the phone, my eyes bulging out of their sockets. Rory is Gale’s little brother, and aside from being tall, dark and handsome, they have absolutely nothing in common. The younger Hawthorne is a basketball player, pretty conservative and has his eyes on med school.
“You’ve missed a lot, Katniss. I’ve missed you.”
Sigh. “I’ve missed you too, Prim. So much.” Let’s get on with it. Deep breath. “Listen, I’m flying in this week. And before you rupture an artery, it’s just for a few days. I need to stop by the place and pick up a few things.”
I hold my ear away from the phone. I’m deaf.
“Yes! Sorry. Ohmigod when are you coming!?”
“Wednesday. Please Prim, I don’t want you telling anyone that I’m coming to town. I have to tackle this one on my own.”
“Are you going to see Peeta?”
“That’s part of the plan.” Seriously, that’s the whole plan. “Lips zipped, got it?”
“Got it. I love you, you know. I’ll be glad to see you again!”
“So you’ll clear an evening for me?”
“I think I can squeeze you in. I’ll help you at the apartment and then we can have dinner. Maybe Thursday?”
“Perfect. Well, I’m going to pack. Tell Mom I say hi, okay?”
“Got it. She’s on all weekend though, so I doubt you’ll be able to see her. Love you, Katniss! See you soon!”
I end the call and look around my room. Here we go.
Johanna drives me to Bradley International and we’re silent the whole way. For once there aren’t any smartass remarks or words of wisdom…just me and my nerves. She pulls up outside of the Delta gate and puts the car in park.
“I can’t stay cos of the TSA, and let’s be honest, I don’t want to. So get out.”
I laugh and grab my bags. I’m not sure how much I’ll be bringing back, so I stuffed two empty duffels into my backpack along with the few items of clothing I thought I’d need.
She calls to me through the open window, "Katniss!"
“Don’t fuck this up.” And with that she drives away.
I decide not to waste any time when I get to Madison, driving to Mellark’s Bakery right away before it closes. Of course I haven’t planned anything and that has thrown me into a panic the second I park out front.
I abandoned you when you were at your lowest.
I never stopped loving you.
Please don’t tell me you’ve stopped loving me.
I left you when you needed me the most.
I was afraid.
How are you?
I miss you.
I need you.
I want to figure this out.
Am I too late?
Do you hate me?
I wouldn’t blame you for hating me.
Don’t hate me.
I love you.
Come with me.
My feet move on their own accord and I walk to the front door, praying that there aren’t any customers. As long as I’ve got God’s attention, I’m praying that Peeta’s parents aren’t here, either. The bell rings and I stand alone in the middle of the store, enveloped by the smells I have memorized. For a moment, I close my eyes. I fold my hands in front of me and wait for someone—anyone.
The swinging door between the kitchen and the store opens and I hear “You made it right in the nick of time. I was just about to lock—.”
And there he is, just as I remember him. Peeta stops abruptly and drops the rag he had been using to dust himself free of flour. His hair is longer and he’s a bit thinner, but he’s Peeta. A cane is clutched in his right hand but he doesn’t move.
I have never felt so small.
“Hey.” I clear my throat. “I should have called.” I shake my head and mutter, “Of course I should have called. Many times.” I’m about as coherent as Haymitch on a bender.
“I know you’re ready to close for the day, but I wanted to stop by. To see you.” I gesture in his direction. “You look great.”
He stands there just looking. I’d almost rather he’d lash out at me and scream in my face. Call me the names I deserve to hear.
I can feel my pulse over every inch of my body, the thumping accentuating every moment of silence between us.
“I’m sorry, I should have given you more warning. I should have called. I’m sorry.”
He’s still standing there motionless, so I turn and run, the chime signaling my most recent exit.
Chapter Eleven Notes
29. BBC. Berkshire Brewing Company. Delicious, delicious beer.
I can’t hear anything other than the blood rushing in my ears as I climb into my car. I feel like I might vomit or pass out or both. Instead I throw the rental car into drive and leave, heading for my apartment. This was a bad idea. This was a horrible idea. What the hell else did I expect?
I pull up to Webster and fish out my apartment keys, unlocking the doors to what I had left. Months ago I stood in the living room, prepared to leave whatever it was that I had here behind. I had hoped to pack a few of those things up for my return trip, including Peeta.
Damn! Peeta isn’t a thing! I act as though he’s a blanket or comb or something.
My phone vibrates and I look down at the text. It’s from Johanna. “Hey asshole. Based on your lack of news, I'm guessing you've fucked this up.”
I drop my bags and walk around the place. Nothing—and I mean nothing—has changed. I know that Prim has been here, but the dust proves that not much has been moved. I run my finger along picture frames, mementos and books. This is what our history has been reduced to. I had assumed that Peeta’s things would be gone, but they aren’t. The fridge is (thankfully) empty of food and I slump onto the couch, my head in my hands.
I cry, not knowing what else to do.
Traveling has left my body tired and grimy so I eventually hop in the shower, letting the water wash away tear stains and calm my nerves. Once I’m out I pull on some of Peeta’s old sweats and order pizza…might as well start sorting through some of my stuff while stuffing my face and nursing my ego. The Gumby’s30 delivery guy shows up and I drop the boxes on the kitchen counter, grabbing a slice and taking a bite. I hear a key fumble in the lock and peek around the entryway, thankful that Prim has decided to drop by.
“Peeta.” The blood rushes back to my ears and the pizza is like cardboard covered in sawdust. I swallow anyway.
He just stands there, so I nervously wipe my face assuming I have sauce somewhere. Say something. Say anything.
“Are you back? For good?”
“No. I’m only staying for a few days…I needed to pick up some things I forgot. I leave on Saturday.”
I can tell that my words cut deep and I rush to explain but he interrupts me, his voice cracking, “You can’t just keep leaving. You can’t just walk away without letting me say anything, Katniss.”
My own voice is barely a whisper. “Am I too late?” Peeta is slowly moving closer, worried that I’ll bolt.
“Too late? Too late for what?”
“I came back for you.”
The shock and hurt is apparent on his face. And if I had half of a brain I would have warmed up to this, or at least started with something other than “pack your bags.” I would stop thinking of him as an object to pocket. Stellar move, Katniss.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re gone for weeks—no, months—and now you’ve come to collect me? I don’t need your charity, Katniss.” The evenness of his voice is unnerving. Eerie.
“This isn’t about charity or pity or guilt. I want you to come with me. I mean, I’m asking you to consider coming with me. Please.”
“And why would I do that? Why would I leave everything I know—everyone who’s been there for me—to follow my former fiancée—?”
My right hand instinctively clasps over my left just like every other time someone mentions Peeta or our engagement. I hadn’t once considered the fact that to him, the proposal might be rescinded. I don't want it to be.
The shock in his voice is apparent, “You still have the ring?”
I keep my eyes on his and avoid his question, lowly saying, “I don’t have an eloquent reason for asking you this. I know that I have no right to even ask, but I am. I want to do this. With you. Together.”
We stand there looking at each other for what seems like too long. He doesn’t lean on his cane and if he wasn’t clutching it in his hand you wouldn’t guess there was something physically different just by looking at him. He seems tired but determined and quite honestly, a little pissed. There’s a dusting of flour near his hip, probably from brushing up against the countertop.
He mumbles, “Do you still love me?”
“Yes.” And there you have it. The truth. Looking into his eyes, I know he thinks I’m being insincere and that I’ll flake out again so I give him an out. “You don’t have to love me back, Peeta.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I’ll figure that out.” Serves me right.
He steps so close that I have to look up at him. How did I get here?
“And if I do?”
“We’ll figure that out, too.” I reach my palm out and touch the spot I know sits right on top of his heart.
He puts his palm above my own heart, tracing with his finger. The motion is repeated for a minute or so before it ceases. Peeta’s crying when he says, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m sorry.”
I swallow the lump in my throat as well as my pride while I lower my hand. I had prepared myself for this, but it didn’t hurt any less. It takes all of my self-restraint to not beg. “I understand. It was a long shot. Really, I understand Peeta.”
We stand there for another minute, unsure of what to do or say. I want to hold him. I want him to hold me. I want to recommit his face to memory. I want to beg him to reconsider, like he once begged me.
“I should go.” So soon?
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I take a step back and force a smile. “It’s been a long day and I have a lot of packing to do. Pokey stix to eat.”
Peeta faintly smiles and shifts nervously. I’ve given him his out, which is the least I could do. I owe him so much more than he’ll ever know. I’ll never stop owing him.
He is gone.
I put my face in my hands and let out the choking sobs that I’ve been holding in. I lower myself to the floor, kneel and lean forward, resting my forehead on the carpeting. My breaths won’t come evenly and my voice comes out in wails and screams, pleading for a different outcome. Another chance.
I cry for Peeta. I cry for me.
Hours later I’m in bed but no closer to sleep. My crying hiccoughs have finally subsided and I can inhale without sputtering. It doesn’t occur to me to call Annie, Prim or even Johanna because this is the reality I created all by myself. How did I get here?
The sounds of the city all seem so loud now and I’m wishing I were back in New England. I roll over to face the wall and tears leak out of my eyes. Tomorrow I’ll begin again. I had selfishly hoped it would be with Peeta.
Three hours later the creaking of the floorboards in the living room wakes me up, but I’m not scared. I shift to look at the doorway and see his silhouette, the streetlight giving his hair a slight halo. I scoot to my side of the bed, letting Peeta drop onto the mattress and swing his legs up. He lies on his back but reaches for my hand as I hold my breath.
“I’ll come.” Inhale.
“Are you sure?”
“Are you?” Exhale.
I don’t immediately answer. “Can you look at me?” He rolls his head to the side, facing me. I look up, searching his face. He’s looking back, scrutinizing my features for some ounce of insincerity, doubt or pity. But my eyes are wide and honest; they don’t look away or shift nervously. Peeta moves his hand to rest on my cheek; his skin is warm and his touch gentle. I relish the feeling of the kind hand and I want to hold it there. “Peeta, I’m sure.”
“I know it’s not just you…all of this, it wasn’t just you.” He swallows. “I’ve changed. I’m changing.”
“Hey,” I whisper as I touch his cheek. “So have I. We’ll figure this out together.”
We gather each other close. There isn’t a kiss. This isn’t just Peeta holding me, or me curled against his back. Neither one of us dominates the other…this is a mutual lock on the other, my breath hot on his neck. He exhales near my ear and we hold on.
Chapter Twelve Notes
30. Gumby’s. Local pizza company that’s pretty popular with students.
A phone ringing wakes us up. Somehow I’ve ended up on top of Peeta, pinning him down to the bed. He’s like an oven and I’m sweaty from the contact. I lift my head and look for the phone but Peeta’s arm shoots out and grabs it off of the nightstand. He answers without opening his eyes.
I don’t need to be on the phone to hear the conversation from the other end.
“Just what the fuck is going on, man? Rye told me that Katniss is back in town and that she came to see you? Jesus Christ, Peeta—.”
I touch my forehead to Peeta’s chest before pushing with my arms and maneuvering off of him. It is going to be hard enough dealing with the dynamic between the two of us…dealing with everyone else could be a massive roadblock. He grips my hand and shakes it between us, trying to get my attention. A gentle, reassuring smile crosses his lips and I squeeze his hand before heading to the bathroom.
The face in the mirror looks peaceful, minus the marks on my cheek from lying on Peeta’s chest. I slept like the dead and I feel completely rested for the first time in a long time. Not exactly calm, but that’s to be expected.
The pizza boxes in the kitchen need to be tossed, but I’m anxious to know how this call—and subsequent conversations—will impact Peeta. During the night things always seem so uncomplicated. My feelings haven’t shifted even a tiny bit, but you never know how the light of day will affect someone else. Will Peeta second-guess his decision? Will the opinions of our friends and his family sway his choice to leave? How have those relationships changed since I left?
“Where’d you go?”
I jump a bit. “Gah!” He chuckles and leans against the counter, waiting for an answer. “Nowhere. I just needed to use the bathroom.”
“I mean in your head. You’ve been staring at that box for a while. Where’d you go?”
I have a feeling that I’ll be laying it all out there from now on. “We have so much to relearn. To catch up on. Do, um, things look different to you in the morning? I mean—.”
“Did I change my mind?”
“Did you?” Please say no, please say no.
“Gale’s pissed. My family is upset. But no, I haven’t changed my mind.”
I smile. The sacrifice of his decision isn’t lost on me. Neither is the weight of it. “We’re going to do this?” He smiles back and opens his arms, motioning for me to come closer. I burrow into his chest, feeling his heart beating under my ear.
“We should probably start with breakfast, no?” He looks down at me and I look up, nodding. Some things never change, and for once I am grateful.
We walk to Marigold Kitchen30, not saying much on the way. A waitress seats us in a booth before bringing us coffee and taking our order. Peeta looks at me over his mug and says, “Where do we even begin?”
“I know what you mean. I don’t think we get a road map for this one.” I reach over the table and offer my hand. He rubs his thumb over my palm and sighs.
“In some ways, I feel like I don’t know you. In other ways, you’re still Katniss.”
“We have time to figure it out. It’s sort of nice, not being on anyone else’s watch, you know?”
“Have you met anyone?” Peeta is blushing and shakes his head. “Don’t answer that. What I mean is, what have you been doing?”
“I’ve been trying to figure my life out,” I say with a smile. “It’s incredibly slow-going. So in between bouts of trying to figure it out, I’ve gotten a job and rescued my Uncle Haymitch from an episode of ‘Hoarders.’” I squeeze his hand, hoping that the gesture is reassuring. “And no, I haven’t met anyone. I was never looking for anyone. Prim asked me the same thing and I skewered her.”
“I just needed to know.”
I nod. It’s a fair question. “And you?”
“Of course not. You’ve got to know that, Katniss.” He looks down at our hands and continues, “I’ve been busy with PT and the bakery. And I’ve…uh, I’ve been talking to a counselor about some things.”
I must have a questioning look on my face because he quickly says, “Someday I’ll talk to you about it. Not today.”
“How are you, um, physically?” Aside from the cane, I haven’t noticed much else.
“Alright. It took a while to get used to and I still trip up every once in awhile, but the prosthesis makes getting around a hell of a lot easier. Everything else has pretty much healed up.” He gets shifty again. “It’s, um, not the same. Under the clothes.”
“Peeta, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there,” I whisper. After squeezing his hand he looks up again. There will never be enough apologies for my absence. I will never live it down, but I will be there from now on. That I promise myself.
“I wish you had been.” There’s a silence that I want to fill with anything, but I know that this will be one of the many times when words won’t help. I need to accept what I did and Peeta has the right to feel anger, disappointment or whatever else creeps into his heart. “I’m trying to come to terms with it. I am.” He squeezes back.
“I’m here now.” Saying that sounds insignificant. Of course I’m ecstatic that Peeta is coming with me, but I’m not naïve in thinking that the road ahead of us will be perfectly paved. Johanna said it would be worth it. I’m somehow confident of that.
The waitress brings us our plates and we spend the remainder of the meal mapping out the logistics of the journey back. I had assumed we’d fly, but Peeta needs the freedom of his own transportation and insists on driving us in his new-ish pickup, the other having been totaled in the accident. I want to bring a few more things from the apartment but Peeta “just wants to bring the necessities,” which for him means clothing, toiletries and every single sheet of paper, canvas, marker, pencil, tube of paint, brush, portfolio, box of charcoals, sketchbook and his Mac. I hope that the change of scenery inspires him in ways that both can and cannot be expressed on paper.
Peeta wipes his mouth and leans back. “What about a job?”
“What about it? You can take your time and see how you feel, what you find. We’ve got a place to stay for now—.”
“Sure, but you’ll be working, right?”
“Most days, yes.”
“I need to do something.” Peeta sounds almost desperate and I am clearly not following. He sighs, “I don’t want to fall into our old pattern and I need to keep busy… independently of you. It’s part of the counseling. The ‘new me’ if you will.”
“I understand. We’ll find something that you’ll like.” Maybe something artsy in Noho, or even a bakery if he wants to keep up with that. “I can ask some people at work before we even leave.” He looks a little more confident and asks me about my coworkers. Laughing I say, “I think that’s best experienced in person.”
“I need to get some things from my parents’ place, but almost everything is at the apartment. I also need to make arrangements for my PT to continue out there. What are you doing for the rest of the day?”
“I should call my mother,” I say. “Prim and I were going to catch up while I pack. Did you know that she and Rory were a thing?”
We get up to pay the bill. “Ha! I’ve known that for months…they’re cute together. Gale approves.
Ah, Gale…it’s my turn to get shifty. “Peeta, how are we going to deal with everyone else?”
He takes a deep breath and slowly releases it, resting his hand on the small of my back. “To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much that we can do on either side, and for once, I really don’t care. Katniss, we can spend time worrying about them or we can attempt to fix us. The best thing we can do is end up proving everyone wrong.”
I sign the receipt and turn to fully face Peeta with a smile. “I like the sound of that.”
“What, giving everyone the finger?”
“That and proving everyone wrong.”
Prim is older. She looks older and acts older and I’ve missed it. “Prim?”
“Hmm?” She’s rolling shirts. Apparently they fit better in a suitcase when rolled…who knew?
“Are you okay? You know, with just you and Mom?”
She looks up and cocks her head to the side like a puppy. “Yes, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. You’ve dealt with this on your own for a while. Since I went to school, really. I never thought to ask if you were doing alright.” The role of older sister sort of expired and I completely missed it.
“Katniss, your guilt complex is showing.” She laughs and I can’t help but smile. “I’m fine. Really. Mom’s been a little better, and you being at school actually gave me a chance to figure some things out on my own. Test my own wings instead of riding your coattails. No offense.”
“None taken. I’m proud of you. I hope you know that.”
“Thanks. I’m proud of you, too. I’ll miss you, but I’m excited you’re doing this with Peeta. It’s kind of a chance to start over without all of the baggage.”
“I don’t know about that. The baggage is still there, but I hope that a new space will help us see through some of the murkiness. We’re kind of playing it by ear.”
“I know this sounds crazy, but I can see the change in you. There’s a little spark again. Maybe Peeta will find his again, too.”
I sit back on my heels to look at Prim. “How has he been?”
Prim sighs and looks me straight in the eye. “I love you both, but it’s not my story to tell. Peeta has to tell you himself.”
Peeta brings Annie to the apartment to say hi (and goodbye), which I’m thrilled about. Annie’s quiet, steady friendship is one that I genuinely appreciate and her understanding of the inner workings of Peeta and I isn’t laced with judgment.
While Peeta is packing up his art supplies, she follows me into the bedroom and sits on the bed as I roll some of Peeta’s clothes. “I’ve missed you, but I can see what Amherst has done for you. How are things?”
I smile. “Good.” I look across the apartment into Peeta’s art room and amend that. “Very good. I don’t feel like a huge shift has taken place or anything, but I feel calmer…like I’m ready to tackle everything with a level head.”
“And what does that mean for the two of you?”
“I know how I feel. I’m not certain where Peeta is exactly, but for the first time in a long time I feel like we’re doing something because we want to, not because we feel obligation over love, if that makes sense.”
Annie’s beautiful face breaks into a grin and she reaches to hug me. “It makes perfect sense.”
My phone vibrates and I look at the screen. A text from Rye.
Rye: You destroyed my brother.
My eyes begin to pool. I know.
Rye: I hate you for that, you know.
I don’t blame you.
Rye: You don’t deserve him. Don’t fuck with him again.
I won’t. I promise.
Rye: Make sure you don’t.
Prim volunteers to take Annie home, promising to stop by before we head out. I lock the door and turn to face Peeta, who is standing in the middle of the apartment, his hands in his pockets.
“I suppose I should have asked if it was alright to stay here. After last night—.”
“I want you to stay…if you want to, I mean.”
He chuckles. “How long do you think it will take for us to get over this awkwardness and just be ourselves again?”
I laugh along and walk toward him, “Well, I’m guessing I’ll be on my best behavior for awhile, so maybe things will calm down once one of us does something completely ridiculous.” I hug him reassuringly. “Like pick up and move to another state.”
“Or like this?” He cups his hand at the back of my head and angles me up to connect our lips. The melting in my heart startles me and I wrap my arms around him, reciprocating the kiss. I missed this. In fact, now that I’m kissing him, I can admit that I’ve craved it. I have the teenage urge to ask him if he felt that spark, too, but decide against it. We both sigh and cradle each other close, simply listening to the breaths between us and not labeling the gesture as anything other than what it is: a kiss.
“You’ll come visit, right?” Prim and Annie stand on the sidewalk, handing Peeta boxes and bags.
“We plan on it! I can’t let you keep Uncle Haymitch all to yourself.” Prim and I laugh, knowing that Haymitch’s crankiness will only increase with the added number of visitors. Poor Peeta.
“Why do I get the feeling that Haymitch is going to make life interesting?” Peeta wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me to him.
I squeeze his side and laugh, “He’ll keep you on your toes. We’ll probably have to spend the ride quizzing you on home distilling. Are you up for it?”
“I’m coming, aren’t I?” He releases his hold and walks to the bed of the truck, making sure that everything is secure. That’s when I notice another couple walking toward us, only I wasn’t aware that they were a couple until now: Gale and Madge. I whisper Peeta’s name to get his attention. He straightens up and gives a wave.
“So you’re going? Just like that?” It’s not a question; it’s an accusation. Gale keeps some space between us and Madge stands at his side offering me a small, embarrassed smile that might have gone unnoticed had I not been avoiding looking at Gale.
“No, not ‘just like that.’ Of all people, you know I need to do this.”
“I know you have people here that worry about you.” He looks at me and continues, “Who were there for you through all of this. You’re going to up and leave that for some bitch who ran the first opportunity she got?!”
Before I can register the pain of his words Peeta has stepped forward and drilled Gale with a punch to the jaw. There’s a collective gasp as Gale staggers back and spits blood, eventually touching his face in disbelief. I bring my hand to Peeta’s side and he takes it, gripping my fingers painfully. Madge reaches for Gale’s shoulder but he shrugs her off, pointing right at me. “I never want to see your face again.” He turns to point at Peeta. “Done. Don’t fucking come crying to me when she screws you over again.” With that, he walks away and Madge follows.
Peeta is breathing heavily but manages to sound calm. “We should get going.” I nod and turn to face Prim and Annie, both of whom are shocked by what they just saw and heard. Prim and I hug for a long time, promising to keep in touch. She’ll be coming out over spring break, maybe with Rory.
“Let me know when you get your acceptance letter, okay?”
“Of course. Love you, Katniss.”
I turn to Annie and she hugs me close, whispering “Just go with it, Katniss. Whatever it is, just go with it.” I look into her eyes and see the sincerity. It’s reassuring.
With the goodbyes taken care of we get into the truck and take one last look at 24 N. Webster. Peeta and I wave and he puts the truck in drive, making left turns to get around the square before taking the right onto East Wash. We’re stopped at a light and I loosen my seatbelt to lean over and hug him, pouring reassurance, confidence and trust into it. A horn blows at the green light and he pecks my lips before pressing on the gas.
In the mirrors we can see the capitol building. Home is now behind us.
Chapter Thirteen Notes
30. Marigold Kitchen. Great spot on the capitol square, specializing in local, seasonal food.
End Part One
Author’s Note: so that’s Part One. Thank you for reading, alerting, reviewing, messaging and encouraging. I’m a little over halfway finished with Part Two...if you’re so inclined, stay tuned!
Author's Note: Well hi there. If you're reading 'Reprieve' I just want to thank you so, so much. I truly appreciate the notes and reviews as well. When I get an alert I keep thinking "Oh! Someone is reading this! Gah! I mean, yay!" If you've mentioned the story to someone else, let me give you a hug. This is where Part Two begins.
After debriefing on Haymitch, my coworkers and Amherst, we spend the rest of the drive in relative silence. It doesn't feel strange or forced though, just peaceful. Besides, it doesn't feel like the right time to discuss 'us.' I hold Peeta's hand and direct him once we exit I-90 and hit the Thruway. Three hours away from home I suggest that we switch so that he can look around a bit more, taking in the landscape. At the rest stop he pulls me into his chest but says nothing1; I know that calling this change 'monumental' is an understatement for Peeta. In my gut, I still think it can be good.
He kisses the top of my head and climbs into the passenger side.
Soon he's eager to know what's what so I do my best to describe what we pass as we drive through the Pioneer Valley. I point out Esselon and he asks when he'll have a chance to meet everyone.
I can't help but smile. Peeta simply saying that is so…unlike him. I don't say so, but I like it. "As soon as you want. That's the beauty of not being on anyone's clock."
No family or friends to chime in with thoughts or anecdotes, no timetable to follow. With the exception of the two of us, no one here is as invested in the relationship. It's not all warm fuzzies though: this also means that Peeta and I have to learn how to really be there for each other beyond the initial flurry of feelings. We've got to figure out the lines that have been drawn: our need for independence, understanding and patience. Hopefully we find love again somewhere.
I point out the tobacco barns—we don't have anything like that back in Wisconsin—and Peeta seems genuinely interested until I turn onto the gravel drive, Haymitch's place coming into view. It's a conversation-stopper, all right. His eyes are wide and I think I see the hint of a grimace.
"Unless he's managed to completely destroy the place in the few days I've been gone, I promise you that the inside looks better than the outside."
"Well, then I guess I have something to look forward to." He opens the door and climbs out, leaning on the side of his truck. He's rubbing the back of his head, a sure sign of nerves. "And you're sure that it's okay that I'm here?"
"Let's be clear: Haymitch is never really okay with anything. Underneath it all, he genuinely cares and will learn to adapt. Or tolerate. So yes, it is okay that you're here. And if we wear out our welcome, we'll go somewhere else."
I walk around the truck to where Peeta stands and reach for his hand. "He's not even here right now, so how about a tour before we get unpacked?" I offer him a key. "Here."
I drop it into his palm and he quirks an eyebrow. "You had a key made ahead of time?"
I feel the blush creeping onto my cheeks. "Yeah. I really, really hoped that you'd say yes. I wanted you to feel welcome." I roll onto my tiptoes to kiss him. "Peeta, thank you for doing this."
The place looks relatively unscathed, minus the collection of new bottles in the trash and the dishes in the sink. At least he kept the windows cracked.
"So yeah. Kitchen." I motion as I go. "Dishes are in the cabinets to the right of the sink. Pots and pans below, silverware in the small drawer here." I walk to the pantry and open the door to show him where most of the food is kept before slipping past him and showing him where the downstairs bathroom is. "I haven't really watched much TV, but the one in the living room works. Haymitch sometimes drinks there if you feel the need to bond. His bedroom is down the hall, but I've actually never seen the door left open…thank God." I smile, motioning him to follow me.
"I can show you where the washer and dryer are tomorrow. We're going to be upstairs."
The room I've used is clearly lived in, but Peeta stands in the doorway as though he's a guest. He's not. I don't want him to feel that way.
"Yeah, Prim and I spent most of our time playing here when we came over as kids. Haymitch never comes up here, so it's sort of like having an apartment. It's not so bad. There's a full bathroom."
I can tell that Peeta is mulling something over. "I, um…I can take the other room then?"
That I was not expecting. "Oh." I try to adjust my voice on the fly. "Well yeah. Of course, if you'd like to be in your own room, that's yours to take."
"No." He clears his throat. "I mean yes. I sort of want a space that's mine. I need a space that's mine."
"Totally fine, Peeta. The sheets are washed and everything."
He crosses into my room and pulls me in for a hug. "Thank you," he whispers.
"Come on. Let's unpack."
"Who the hell are you?"
Haymitch must have showered today, and for that I am grateful. I need to ease Peeta into this weird, makeshift family. He's looking in Peeta's general direction and Peeta is trying his hardest to not a) run and b) laugh.
"Haymitch, this is Peeta. Peeta, meet Haymitch." My past, present and (possible) future converges and it's surreal. I feel like I'm 10 again, introducing my—well, sort of my fiancée—to the guy who butchers bunnies out back.
"So, how in the hell did you end up with her? Must be like cuddling with marble. Tough and cold, only with long hair."
"Yeah, thanks for that, Haymitch." Seriously, act normal. Try to act normal.
"I'm simply stating the facts, sweetheart." He bats his eyelashes in mock adoration and turns to look at the cane in Peeta's hand. "What's wrong with you?"
"Fuck, Haymitch!" Damn him straight to hell.
"I was in a car accident. The cane is just temporary." Peeta is looking Haymitch straight in the eye, but the realization of the timing of the accident and my initial arrival months ago crosses Haymitch's features and he slowly turns to me.
"I see." His voice is quiet but his glare is loud. Haymitch holds the stare for a moment longer before walking to his room, calling back "Well stay out of my liquor. Get your own damn beer, kid."
The door shuts and we stand there. Peeta breaks the silence with a chuckle. God, I am so embarrassed.
"I'm sorry. He doesn't have any tact—."
"I actually can see the family resemblance."
"He's not family! And I have tact!"
"Yeah, but that's just a technicality." I cross my arms and now he's laughing. "Come on, Katniss. Lighten up. The guy didn't skewer me. I can handle him. I'm tougher than that."
I "hmpf" anyway before grabbing a glass of water and marching upstairs. A smirking Peeta follows.
I'm in bed and Peeta is finishing up in the bathroom. I'm not really sure what to make of the sleeping arrangements, but something tells me that Peeta will talk when he's ready to. I don't want to push the subject, but I guess I had assumed that we'd…
"This place is so quiet compared to Madison." He stands in my doorway, wearing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. "How long did it take for you to get used to it?"
"Only a few days, really. It's funny you say that, since Madison actually seemed loud when I came back."
He nods and takes a sip of water. "Mind if I sit with you for a bit?" I pat the spot next to me and he comes in, setting his glass on the bedside table. He sits on the edge of the bed and motions to my notebook. "What are you working on?"
"Just an ongoing project. You know me and my lists. I wanted to write a few things down that were in my head and it's morphed into a journal. Nothing major." I close the notebook and hope that he doesn't press for more information. Not yet. "Would you like to check out the area tomorrow? I made some calls about a job if you want to get that settled quickly."
"Yeah, that sounds perfect. I have a few calls to make, too. I should also check out the clinic so that I know where I'm going for PT."
I look down at Peeta's leg and my hand moves on it's own accord. It rests gently on his thigh for a split second before Peeta brushes it away, mumbling an apology.
"I'm sorry. Does that hurt? Please tell me so that I know—."
"No, it doesn't hurt. It's fine, okay?" There's an edge to his voice that went as soon as it came. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I just want to understand, that's all."
We sit in silence for a few minutes, Peeta taking my hand and eventually squeezing. "Goodnight, Katniss."
He leans toward me and quickly kisses me on the lips before getting up and leaving.
I gently call to him, confusion in my voice, "Goodnight, Peeta."
It's after two in the morning when I hear Peeta walk as quietly as possible (for him) across the hall and into my room. I sit up and can see that something's wrong.
"Peeta?" I whisper. "What is it?"
"Just can't sleep."
I get out of bed and tell him to get comfortable before heading to the linen closet and grabbing a washcloth. Quickly running the old towel under cold water and wringing it out, I head back to the bedroom and sit next to Peeta. He's sweaty and clearly upset.
I situate the cool compress on his forehead. "Nightmare?" He nods. "What was it about?"
"They're always the same. It's fine now." He takes a deep breath and releases it in a gust.
He's grasping my hand so I turn on my side and fit myself into the nook near his shoulder, running my free hand up and down his arm hoping that the gesture offers some comfort.
"I've got you. I'm here."
Peeta falls asleep first, his breathing evening out and deepening. Eventually he rolls to curl into me, holding me like a pillow with his head on my chest. It's not lost on me that he avoided actually answering my question but I vow to be patient. Like Prim said, it's his story to tell.
Peeta's warmth lulls me to sleep.
Chapter One Notes
1. When I left Wisco to move to New York, I pulled over at a rest stop on the Thruway and had a moment of panic. The Thruway's good like that.
I wake up alone. The sound of the shower running means that Peeta’s awake and is getting ready for the day. How did I not wake up when he left me?
I pull my hair back, grab my notebook and walk downstairs to make some tea. It’s too chilly to sit outside so I cozy up on the couch with an old quilt.
I will never understand exactly why you came with me to Amherst, but I will spend the rest of my life thanking you for it. Regardless of the end result, I’ll always know that your heart is a million times bigger than mine in taking this huge leap of faith.
You followed the girl who tore your heart out. I can’t understand it, but God, I thank you for doing it anyway.
But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe there isn’t an end result. We’re always evolving and changing, aren’t we? And yet we always want to know the ‘why,’ ‘where,’ and ‘when.’
I have to be patient with you. More than that, I have to be patient with me. You and I both know that patience was never a strong suit of mine. Help me if you can.
Last night was the first time in a long time that I took care of you. It’s usually the other way around. I’m selfish like that, but I’m trying to learn to be more giving. I am. I thought my heart would beat through my chest with the combination of nerves and instinct.
I’ve been going through this phase where I refer to you as ‘mine.’ It sounds possessive in a completely negative way, but let me explain. More than just a sense of responsibility or history, I feel like our lives are so interwoven that your experiences become my own. That used to frighten me. It felt like I was suffocating. But the more in tune I am with the feelings between us, the more at peace I feel. At peace with you and me. At peace with myself on my own. I love you. And you don’t have to love me back, but I’m going to give you my heart anyway2.
“Good morning,” he calls from the stairwell. I close my notebook and take in the sight of him, looking much better having showered and changed.
“Hey, I see you found everything okay. Towels, shampoo, soap, etcetera. Want some tea?” Peeta shakes his head no but comes to sit down next to me, snagging the cup from my hands, taking a sip and placing the mug on the coffee table.
“Nah, a sip is all I want.” He smiles and brushes a loose strand of hair over my shoulder and gently grazes the exposed skin there. “Thank you, though. And thank you for last night. I, uh, occasionally remember things from the accident and can’t seem to catch my breath. Being in a new place probably set me off.”
“It’s not a problem. I slept like the dead after that.” His touch is so soothing that I can’t seem to focus on anything other than that point of contact between us. Patience, Katniss. I brush the hair back off of his forehead and smile back, my fingers finally lingering on his neck. His stomach growls and I laugh. “Breakfast, I assume?”
“I can make us something. Why don’t you get ready and then we can eat before heading out? You can show me the lay of the land.”
I do it without thinking. I lean forward and kiss that spot between his eyebrows. My lips linger and I hear his breath hitch before a long exhale.
Neither one of us knows what to say so I blurt out “Sure, but we’ll stop for coffee, my treat” and head upstairs.
“So this is where you work? It looks pretty granola.” Peeta gets out of my car and sizes up the café as he walks to the entrance.
“It is. But I’m not drinking wheatgrass, so it’s okay.” I smile, grab his hand and lead him inside. Finnick is at the counter and raises his head when the bell chimes. He smiles back and we walk up to the counter to place our order.
“Well if it isn’t our dearest Kitty Kat, coming back to us from America’s Dairyland.” Finnick reaches across the counter for a hug and I oblige. My arm links around Peeta’s waist and I start the introductions.
“Finn, this is Peeta.” I look up to his face and relish in the genuine smile, Peeta taking Finnick’s hand and shaking it.
“Great to meet you, man. Katniss talks about you so much that I feel like I know you.” He moves his head to the side, trying to see something past Peeta. “Though contrary to what she’s told us, the sun does not seem to be shining out of your ass.”
Peeta raises his eyebrows before looking at me. I’m red from embarrassment but find a way to laugh. “Shut up.”
He doesn’t miss a beat. “Eh, it only shines like that on Tuesdays. Katniss tells me that you pull a great shot of espresso.”
“That I do. This cappuccino will change your life.”
Peeta nods and I ask for the same. I love seeing Peeta here in my environment. It’s making it real.
“Peeta, Katniss tells me that you’re looking for a job?”
“Yeah, I’m hoping to solidify something today. Hear of anything?”
“In fact, a friend of mine is hiring and I’m told that you’re this baking phenom. Would you be game for a baking gig, or were you hoping to get something in your field?”
“Baking would actually be preferable. I have some freelance graphic design projects that I’m working on for a few clients, so keeping up with the kitchen would be a great.”
Finnick raises his eyebrows and nods, clearly impressed. “Sounds like you’ll be busy.”
“I hope so.”
“Well here’s the number for my friend Rue. She owns Henion Bakery3 here in town; they supply us with most of our baked goods so you two could make special arrangements. You know, a croissant for a cup. A bun for the barista. Go ahead, get creative.” Finnick winks and I want to die. Peeta is laughing though, squeezing my side. “In fact, you guys should just stop by the bakery today to say hi.”
“We will. Thanks, man. This will help a lot.” Peeta takes a sip of his drink and nods. “Katniss wasn’t lying.”
I mention to Finnick that I’ll be back at work tomorrow before we take our drinks and go. I’m bucking my seatbelt and balancing my own cup, trying to digest everything that just happened. God, I had missed so much. I hadn’t even thought to ask Peeta what he had been doing aside from, well, recovery. Should I have asked for more information? I grew so accustomed to knowing everything.
“I didn’t know you had some jobs in the arts lined up. Peeta, that’s great news!”
“A few things, yeah. That’s the beauty of working remotely. Just some logo work and website design. It’s not a big deal.” He rubs one hand along the back of his neck again, almost looking embarrassed.
Placing my hand on his, I say, “I know I’ve missed a lot, but I’m really proud of you. And it is a big deal. There’s so much I don’t know…you can fill me in, you know. I want you to.”
“I know. A lot’s happened since the accident; hell, a lot’s happened just in the past couple of days. I want to know more about what you’ve been up to, too.”
“Great. It’s a date then.” I move to put the car in drive but Peeta stops me, leaving it in park.
“Do you still have a rule about not making out on the first date?” He wiggles his eyebrows trying to make the point even more obvious. I’ve missed his sense of humor and I can’t stop laughing. The spark reaches his eyes.
“You’ve seen me naked so I think we’ve successfully passed that milestone, Peeta. Years ago as a matter of fact.”
“You’re beautiful when you laugh, you know.” He kisses me soundly and then sits back so I drive toward the downtown area, pointing things out along the way.
Henion Bakery is one of my favorite places in Amherst; their bakery is enough to make me pay for parking. Peeta would be a natural here, but he has a plan and I’m going along with it. He walks up to the display and orders an embarrassing assortment of pastries, buns, slices of cakes and pie before grabbing glasses for water. I grab forks and napkins and take a seat next to him, waiting for the ridiculous amounts of food to be set in front of us.
Eating with Peeta is pretty sensory. It starts innocently with plates being turned, lifted to eye level and tipped just slightly. I think the artist in him is looking for color variations and basic visual appeal. Then items get tapped with a fork for good measure. He moves on to what he calls ‘the nasal appraisal,’ a test of smell and how his taste buds react to them. I think that the ‘nasal appraisal’ makes him look like a little boy who’s skeptical of the plate in front of him, but it’s endearing. The first bite is for taste and texture. Sip of water. The second is for final review.
With an order of 12 items in front of us, the rest is delegated to the ‘to go’ box.
“Well, Baker Boy, what do you think?” Rue herself is standing at our table with a smirk on her face, but she quickly seats herself across from us and shakes our hands. “I’m Rue, the owner of Henion Bakery. Finn told me that you were coming over and I see that you’ve been studying. Well, what do you think?”
“I’m Peeta, and this is Katniss.” He clears his throat and takes a sip of water, the blush creeping up his neck. “It’s good. This is delicious.”
“But—.” He sighs, “But I think that the base for your scones is just barely too moist. The cranberry with that icing is cloyingly sweet. You use vodka in your pie dough, which is good, but I think you should go half and half with the butter and shortening. Or maybe just lard. Your sourdough is perfection; serve it with unsalted butter. The jelly donut should never change4.”
Rue is trying hard to look stern, but is failing miserably. “Anything else you’d like to point out?”
“Not yet. I’ve only gotten through half of my plates.”
She laughs and so do we, relieved that the critique has been well received. Rue emits this amazing warmth that you can’t help but gravitate toward and she seems to like Peeta’s honest analysis.
“There’s a lot that we do well here, but I want to work with someone who will push us a bit. Maybe tweak a few things with existing recipes and try out a few more new ones. We can start with part-time work and go from there. What do you think?”
“Can I check out the kitchen?” Peeta’s practically bouncing out of the booth and we follow Rue to the back.
“Don’t you think about messing with the jelly donut, kid.”
Chapter Two Notes
2. This line more or less comes from “Untamed Heart” which was just mentioned on tumblr in the last week. I actually squealed. Sad, lovely movie. Awful attempt at Minnesota accent.
3. Henion Bakery. Teeny tiny little bakery in downtown Amherst. Amazing.
4. Henion’s jelly donut is life-altering. For real.
Peeta's alive. He is. I knew he was good at baking and I knew that he found some peace in it, even while working at his family's place. But today his creativity has been unleashed and he's alive with just the possibility of it all. I don't know if it's the baking, the fact that no one out here knows the name 'Mellark' or something else entirely, but he hasn't stopped talking the whole afternoon. Recipes. Endless recipes.
"Katniss, this is incredible. I feel incredible! I can't wait to get in the kitchen and show them what I can do. And that donut was insane. I wonder what flour blend they're using." He's looking out the window, his eyes not really focusing on anything in particular. I love him.
"You're so happy."
His head snaps in my direction and his smile reaches every inch of his skin. Who is this guy? I love him.
We spend a good amount of the day driving around, familiarizing Peeta with the Pioneer Valley. He checks out all of the grocery stores (sigh) and drives past the clinic where he'll go three times a week for PT.
"What kinds of things do you do in physical therapy?" Peeta and I haven't talked much about the accident or his injury. It seems to be a touchy subject, but it's a part of the recovery process and I want to help as much as I can. "Could I go sometime?"
"Nah, it's not a big deal. And I'll be done with it sooner than later."
"Oh yeah? Do you know how long before you're free?"
"Are there things I can help with, like exercises at home?"
"I said it wasn't a big deal. You can drop it. Really."
I bite my bottom lip in frustration but don't say a word. On the one hand I can't push him for information. On the other, how can I help if he won't let me in? Patience, Katniss. I keep telling myself that, reminding myself that I wasn't there and he doesn't owe me anything.
Peeta breaks me out of my thoughts. "Hey, how about I make us dinner? I feel like salmon. Sound okay to you?"
"Uh, yeah. Definitely. After I digest all of that sugar though. How can you even think of food after all of those carbs?"
"More like how can I not?"
We pull into the driveway and walk to the house, Peeta leading the way. He's about to unlock the door but pulls me in for a hug. He murmurs into my ear, thanking me for nothing in particular. All of these 'thank yous' are completely unnecessary. After all, it was me who let him down. I hate myself for it. I want him to hate me for it, too.
I don't know how to help you. I don't know where to touch. I don't know where the line has been drawn. Show me.
But I know that I love you.
We go to bed separately.
I wake up to Peeta curling up against my back and placing his hand over my stomach. He exhales and it is quiet.
For all of the years that Peeta and I dated, we spent very little time talking about life before 'us.' Maybe that's because our relationship started at such a young age, or maybe that's because we just didn't want to burden the other with past wrongs. Perhaps it's a little bit of both?
Don't get me wrong: we knew more than the basics. He knew about my dad's death and my mom's subsequent depression. Peeta got the gist of it and could put two and two together when he saw my mom and I interact. But I never sat down with him and explained just what happened and the impact it had on the Everdeens.
Likewise I knew about Peeta's fucked up relationship with his mother, if you could even call it that. He never once talked about it, but having spent as much time together as we did I witnessed the indifference, belittling, sarcasm and yes, occasional shove. I tried to find every excuse for him not to be alone with her but never once tried to talk to him about it. I didn't want to embarrass him; I figured if he wanted to really talk about it, he would.
I should have tried harder. I should have gotten in her face and told her exactly what a cowardly bitch she was.
But was I really any different?
I look over at the sleeping form next to me and my eyes follow the gentle sweep of his nose, the soft indentations under his eyes, faint creases near his forehead and soft lips. Peeta isn't perfect, but no one deserves to be made to feel like that. No one should have to go through a childhood like that.
I'm not under the impression that whatever lies in front of us will be perfect, but I vow to never give him reason to doubt me again.
"Peeta," I whisper, lightly stroking his cheek.
He softly moans and opens his eyes. They're confused and questioning.
"I just want you to know that I love you."
He looks at me for a long while before closing his eyes, his arms secure around my waist.
Baker's hours. They're a bitch. Peeta is up long gone before I even begin my day. I taped a note on his steering wheel hoping that the sentiment gets his day off to a good start. I'm sure he's as nervous as he is excited to start at Henion, but I know he's also happy to get back to a routine. Peeta plans on stopping by Esselon after his shift and before his PT appointment in the afternoon.
He's not the only one who is excited to get to work today. I actually miss my coworkers—friends—and look forward to catching up with them. I anticipate getting bombarded with questions, but for once I'm fine with it. I have nothing to hide. We have nothing to hide. I want them to know about me. Us.
I'm hanging up my coat when Johanna appears just inches away from my face. "Finn says that he's fuckable. So naturally, I need to meet him."
"It's nice to see you too, Jo. He should be coming by this afternoon." I grab my apron and head to the counter to make a drink before touching base with Thresh. He had plans for a new blend before I left and I want to know how discussions went with the Guatemalan supplier. Johanna follows me.
"All sarcasm aside, are things okay?"
"Well, yeah, I suppose things are fine. We're kind of coasting right now, trying to figure each other out again." I take a sip of coffee. Perfect espresso roast. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
"Good." Johanna grabs a mug for coffee. "So how's the sex?"
"Shhhhh! Jesus, Jo!" I look around to see if anyone heard her. The two guys playing Scrabble in the corner seem unaware, but I don't need people getting interested.
"You didn't have a make up fuck? Why the hell not?!"
"No, we did not have sex," I whisper. "He seems, well, unsure sometimes. Maybe it's about the accident and the residual scars. Or maybe it's me. It's only been a couple of days. I don't want to push him."
"Maybe he wants to be pushed."
"It's not the right time. And I need to go find Thresh." I breeze past Jo and through the back hallway but turn right and step into a supply closet. My back presses to the door and I close my eyes.
The truth is, I didn't know what Peeta wants. I know what I want and I know I have to be patient. If Peeta was going to get there, he needed to do it on his timeframe, not mine. But he seems so unsure, like he is second-guessing every move. Like he's second-guessing us. I did that to him and I don't know how to fix it.
"Hey," Finnick comes into the back office and flips a rag over his shoulder. "You might want to get out there. Jo's met Peeta and it's pretty steamy."
I drop my notebook and walk up front, laughing when I see her trying to show Peeta how the steam valves work. He sees me and smiles but Johanna tells him to pay attention if he has any intention of getting another coffee at Esselon.
"See? Microfoam. Congratulations, you passed. I'm outta here." Jo smacks him on the ass before punching her timecard, punching my shoulder and leaving.
Peeta feigns hurt and rubs his butt. "Was it something I said?"
"No, that's her version of 'goodbye.'" I walk over to Peeta and wrap my arms around his neck in a bear hug. He smells like bakery again, completely warm with a hint of something that's been caramelized. I lean back to look in his face. "Hi. I don't think I have to tell you how great it is to see you here."
He leans in and kisses me. "I like hearing it, so you should keep saying it." Now I kiss him and sigh with the feeling of contentment. Maybe he did just need some time. It's the least I can give him.
"So how much time do you have before PT? I want to hear about Henion!" I grab Peeta's mug and my own before making our way to a corner booth.
AN: emarina, you're a good egg. Grade A. I am going to write you a haiku now.
The fact that Peeta had such a great start to his time in Amherst makes me giddy. I pull out of Esselon's driveway and on to Rte. 9, intending on going to Whole Foods for a few groceries. I threw some things in the Crock Pot this morning, but maybe I should branch out and get some ingredients for a salad. They have those little rosemary trees, too, and Peeta loves making that rosemary olive oil—.
A horn blaring snaps me out of my mental shopping list and I swerve, barely missing the dump truck that has pulled out in front of me. My car finds the gravel shoulder and I sit there for a moment trying to collect my breath. The truck slowly continues down the road and I recognize the company name on the back. Snow Transport.
I signal and get back into traffic, quickly taken from a good mood to a somber one. I can't stop wondering what life might have been like had there been no accident. Everything would have been better: Mom would have been happy and Prim would have had a normal childhood. We might never have left Massachusetts.
After buying the few items I wanted I decided to take a detour on the way back to Haymitch's and stop at a place I haven't been to for at least eight years. I pull into a parking space and walk the rest of the way, winding through trees and stones until a bird perched above me causes my head to lift and spot another person straight ahead. He's sitting on a small bench, his elbows resting on his knees. It looks like he's talking to himself. He moves his head just enough and I suck in a breath, realizing that it's Haymitch sitting in front of Dad's grave.
I contemplate leaving but decide instead to walk closer, clearing my throat when I'm a few feet away to alert Haymitch of my arrival. He swears and rubs his forehead, clearly aggravated by my presence but I approach him anyway.
"What do you want?"
I sit down. Damn, he smells.
"I haven't been here since the burial. I guess I wanted to see it again. Make it real."
We don't say anything else for at least an hour. The stone looks cared for and there are thousands of pebbles scattered around the grave. There's also an empty tea-light holder that must have been placed there years ago.
"I wish I had him back, even for a day. There are so many things I'd like to ask him." My nose is running and I wipe it with my sleeve. "I miss him so much."
Haymitch doesn't say anything at first. And really, I don't expect him to. But after a moment he clears his throat and quietly surprises me. "I know I'm not him. I know I'm a poor excuse for a substitute. But I love you like my own, you know."
I look at my hands and swallow. "Haymitch, how often do you come here? To see Dad?"
"Every day. Every damn day." He looks over at me and continues, "I was supposed to be there, you know. That day? Your dad took my shift. And I'll never live that down, but I swore to him that I'd look out for you. You and your mom and Prim. When he died, I couldn't face any of you, knowing that it should have been me in that truck. I'm sorry for that. More than you know."
He's crying now, but so am I. "Thank you. For helping me now."
"When you called, I knew I had the chance to make it up to you, even a little. But I know you need more than a roof over your head." Haymitch runs his palms over his face before continuing, "I'm not any good at this. But I figure I can try. And you should start by telling me about the other kid squatting at my house."
"Who names their kid that?"
I can't help but laugh. "Bakers."
"I see you're wearing a ring. You two gonna get married?"
"I don't know. Peeta proposed before things got bad and I'm not sure where we stand with the engagement. I haven't asked." I touch the ring and twirl it around my finger. "I keep the ring on because it feels…I don't know exactly. It feels right? It feels like it's supposed to be there. I want it to be there because I want Peeta to be there. I need him to be."
"Does he know that?"
"Haymitch, I brought him halfway across the country with me. I think he gets the gist of it."
"Sweetheart, take it from a guy. When it comes to women, we never know what the hell is going on and we're never right." He clears his throat again and asks, "Why'd you leave?"
"Because." I can't stop the tears from starting up again. "Because I was scared of both not having the answers and having everything spelled out for me. Of ending up like Mom. I had to take care of Mom and Prim by myself and I was so tired, Haymitch. But Peeta was always solid for me and I failed him. I know it doesn't make sense, but I started resenting him for being so grounding when sometimes all I wanted was to escape. Once I blamed him for one thing, it was easy to feel annoyed and bitter and indifferent and…tired. So I left. And I know I'll spend the rest of my life hating myself for it. You don't have to remind me."
He's quiet for a few moments, rubbing his palms together as he thinks. "I wish you had known your parents like I did. Your dad wanted to raise you two fearless. I'm proud of you for helping out the way you did, but you got burdened. I can see it in the furrow between your eyebrows, sweetheart. You don't trust people enough to stick around…I get that. But it's okay to tell that kid all of your 'ugly' and let him in. Just know that when he needs the same, it's not about adding another burden. It's him trusting you enough. It's important to know the difference."
I nod, looking at my dad's stone and again focus on the small pebbles that litter the ground. "Haymitch, what are the stones for?"
"I want him to know that I haven't forgotten. I leave one every time I visit."
We sit a minute longer before I offer him a ride back to the house. He declines, saying that he's going to stay awhile.
"Thanks for listening Haymitch."
"It's not that hard."
"Thank you anyway."
Peeta's truck is in the driveway when I get home. I pull up and grab the grocery bag and tiny tree of rosemary from the back seat and make my way to the door, hoping that he hasn't started dinner without me even though I'm late. But the house is quiet and the lights are off.
"Peeta?" I move to the kitchen, flip on the light switch and put the bag on the counter. The stew is still in the Crock Pot, so I turn it off and make my way to the staircase to head up to the bedrooms. I'm sure he's upstairs, maybe napping after a full day.
What I find is Peeta sitting on the floor of my room, his back resting against the side of the bed and his head in his hands. His fingers are gripping his hair roughly and I know that the dark spots on his jeans are from tears.
"Peeta?" I whisper. He won't look up at me so I kneel down and rub his side. Still nothing. "Peeta, what is it?"
His cry comes out as a gasp so I straddle his lap and place my hands on each side of his head, hoping he'll look at me. When he does it breaks my heart, seeing the swollen eyelids and red eyes, irritated from crying. I know what this is. I'm late. I didn't show up. This is Peeta thinking that I've flaked out on him. This is Peeta wondering if I've left him hanging again. I don't ask another question; instead I just gather him close and hum as I rub circles on his back. After a moment he snakes his arms around me and breathes deeply.
When he's completely calm and we no longer have feeling in our legs from sitting so awkwardly, I lean back a bit and look at him, brushing my fingers along the tear tracks that stain his face. Only when he does the same do I realize that I've been crying, too. Crying for Peeta. Crying for me.
I lean forward again, keeping eye contact until Peeta's close and my lips find that spot on his forehead. I kiss him there once, twice before pulling away just enough to look at him again. I lean in again and kiss his eyelids softly, kiss his cheekbones, his nose. I kiss the spot behind his left ear and under his jaw. When I lean back again he opens his eyes, so I gently smile and kiss his lips.
He now leans in and does the same. I close my eyes and feel his breath warm on my cheek. Peeta's kisses flutter, covering my nose, eyes and forehead before settling on my mouth. This kiss is different. It is slow—almost tentative—and languid. This one begins the healing process.
We touch foreheads, a sort of understanding having passed between us. I eventually stand up and offer my hand. "Come on."
Author's Note: Merry Christmas! Thank you all so, so much for reading/recommending/reblogging on tumblr. And special thanks to my good friend emarina, who is a wonderful person all-around and tells me when something just doesn't add up.
I quickly chop the lettuce, cucumbers, basil and tomatoes for our salad while Peeta ladles Crock Pot Whatever onto some rice. Deciding to forgo the kitchen table we settle on the couch in the living room without talking. We're both ravenous and clean our plates pretty quickly; Peeta goes back for seconds while I nibble on some French bread that he brought home from work.
"I want to talk to you about why I was late, if that's alright." I look over at Peeta and he nods, putting his plate on the coffee table and turning toward me. "Something made me think of my dad on the way home from work and I felt this need to go visit his grave. Haymitch was there. It turns out that Haymitch is always there."
"What do you mean 'always'?" Peeta takes my hand and offers it a squeeze.
"He told me that he goes to visit Dad every day. I think he's still working through losing his best friend. I guess my dad took his shift that day he died and Haymitch hasn't gotten over the guilt." I squeeze Peeta's hand. "I, um, never talked to you about this before and I should have. I guess I felt like it didn't really matter since it wouldn't bring him back. But I want to talk to you about it now. If you'll allow it."
He smiles and says, "Of course I'll allow it."
"I think you would have liked my dad a lot. He reminds me a lot of you, you know. Big heart, always smiling. Wait…let me go get something." I run upstairs, grab the book and run back down, snuggling into Peeta's side. "See? This is my dad. I think he was really handsome. Another thing you two have in common." I nudge Peeta's side and he chuckles, putting his arm around me.
"Your mom seems so different here. I've never seen her look, well, happy."
"Before the accident she was so alive. She was one of those moms who baked, volunteered at school, helped with book reports, the whole nine yards." Peeta holds my hand and I'm thankful for the gesture that keeps me from falling apart. "I suppose I started resenting her after the fact. I was mad that I lost two parents—Dad to death and Mom to grief. I love Prim—you know I would die for her—but I got so tired, Peeta. Sometimes all I wanted to do was act my age and not have to worry about making sure that the bills were paid on time or that someone would show up for parent-teacher conferences."
"Katniss, why didn't you tell me? I would have done anything to help."
"I know you would have. And I love you for it. But I didn't want you seeing that side of my life. I had to keep everything together and I was afraid that if I let you in I'd lose focus. If I fell apart, I'd never be able to put myself back together. Your life was so deliberate and planned…I was sure that you'd think that mine was too much to handle."
I'm on a roll so I interrupt him. "But I also hated it. I fucking hated having to have all of the answers all the time. I felt like I was suffocating, like nothing would ever change. All of a sudden we were talking graduation, jobs, a house, kids. I love you. God, I love you so much. But I'm scared of not having the answers. I'm scared of always needing the to have the same answers as you. And I'm sorry for thinking that you couldn't deal or wouldn't understand. I'm so sorry. It was a horrible decision top to bottom, keeping you in the dark like that. It was the reason I left. I know it was. Peeta, I'm sorry. If I had just talked to you we might not be here."
I take a deep breath and Peeta covers my hand with his own, wordlessly asking me to let him speak. I nod.
"But maybe I want to be here." I look up at Peeta and he continues, "Katniss, we don't always need to be on the same page. I would appreciate reading the same story though." I shakily laugh and he continues, "I'm scared shitless half of the time, but losing you would be worse than losing just a vision of kids or jobs or whatever is scaring you."
"Isn't that what you want though?"
"Well…yeah, eventually. They're things we've never done before and we'd be doing them together. But it doesn't have to be now, and it doesn't have to mean that life as you know it is over. I never want to hold you back. But maybe take me along sometimes?"
I can't help but smile, thinking of Haymitch's words. "I thought that begging you to come to Massachusetts with me was a dead giveaway."
"It's still nice to hear that you want me around. I'm trying not to push."
"I want you around. Very much. And you can push a little."
"So as long as we're knee-deep in honesty hour, mind if I take a turn?"
He's fidgety when he asks, "Did you ever want to marry me?"
I don't hesitate when I say 'yes.' I might have had moments of being scared, but I know that I want to be with Peeta. I knew that then, and I know it now. "Peeta, I still do. That probably isn't what I'm supposed to say, but I'm trying this whole honesty thing."
"And how's that working out for you?"
"Alright." I nudge Peeta's side and say, "It kind of sucks when you don't know where the other person stands, though. Hint, hint."
"You've been really patient. Uncharacteristically patient. You can push a little, too, you know."
"Honesty hour? I don't know how to push without making you upset. I ran away and have no claim to you anymore."
"Don't you know?"
"You claimed dibs on me a long time ago. Dibs don't expire."
I pause and take a deep breath. "Peeta, tell me about PT. About your leg. Please." I purposefully move my hand slowly as not to upset him, placing it on Peeta's thigh. "Please."
Peeta is quiet but places his hand over mine. He quietly murmurs, "How can you possibly come to terms with it if I can't?"
"Because I love you." I get up off the couch and offer him my hand. "I'll love you enough for both of us."
We head back upstairs and get ready for bed, taking turns in the bathroom. I change into my most comfortable, worn out, holey sweats and am ready with my arm extended when he comes out of the bathroom. Instead of going to my room, I lead Peeta to his.
I don't spend any time in here: this place is Peeta's refuge of art, books and blankets, but now I'm going to push. I shut the door and move us to the bed, hand in hand.
"I don't know how to do this, Katniss." And I get that. I'm not asking him to drop his pants. Yet.
"Why don't you show me some of your sketches? We haven't done that in months and I'd like to see what you've put down to paper."
So we move to the bed, sketch books in hand and get comfortable. Peeta runs a hand over the green cover and explains that some of the images are unsettling, stemming from the accident. I expected that, but perhaps not to the extent that he drew them.
The artwork is, for the most part, abstract. Colors—both light and harsh strokes—dominate the pages. "Can you talk to me about them? Help me understand?"
"Um, sure. I can try. This—" he points to a drawing near the front of the book, "—is the last thing I remember. Just white noise and headlights." He continues to peruse through the book. "I sketched this based off of my feelings the first time I knew I had lost my leg. I felt like I couldn't catch my breath at first, so I wanted to depict that in the drawing."
Page after page of sadness and anger. When he found out I'd left. When he'd first moved into his parent's place. When he fell at the bakery. A time when he'd destroyed a display case out of frustration. The day he'd trashed his room in a fit of anger. He shuts the book and I lean my head on his shoulder for a long time.
Eventually he sits up and takes my hand, moving it to the hem of his shirt. Together we pull it up to reveal Peeta's torso. I look into his eyes for permission before ghosting my palm over the raised red and pink scars that almost mirror Peeta's art. His left side is marbled with rippled skin, making patchwork of his chest and stomach. The skin there seems slightly warmer, so I hold my hand against it and gently cup the side of his face with the other, searching his eyes. They seem to be pleading with me.
He lowers his shirt and awkwardly raises his hips, starting to remove his sweats. I help him pull them off, finally revealing the true extent of his injuries. The best word to describe the prosthesis is 'bionic' with its working joints, metal and silicone. Peeta won't look at me so I take his hand in my own and move it to his thigh. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little scared, too, but this isn't in any way about me. This is about Peeta.
"Please show me."
He slowly works at the leg, eventually removing it entirely. There is a sleeve of sorts that he also takes off, unveiling unnaturally tight skin and puckered scars.
"Does it hurt?"
"Sometimes, yes." He places his hand over the limb and brushes it gently. "It gets irritated at the pressure point, so I should remove it at night."
I look at him, alarmed. "But you haven't since I've seen you again. Not once. Why?"
Peeta shrugs and I wrap my hand around his wrist, removing it from his leg. I then take my small hands and gently place them where his was moments earlier, exploring the newness.
I can hear the desperation in his voice when he says, "Say something."
I pause to collect my thoughts before beginning, "You came back." I lean him back to rest on his pillows. "You're whole," I shift down to kiss his exposed leg, his breath hitching, "beautiful," I lift his shirt and kiss the skin there, "and new," I lean down to kiss his lips. "You came back to me. Thank you."
I snuggle into Peeta's side and he wraps an arm around me. My nook. His body gently quakes with unshed tears so I softly start singing a song that my mom used to sing to Prim and I when we were kids. Eventually Peeta hums along. At the end of the tune we lay quietly, listening to the breaths between us.
"I think that's all I can be pushed tonight."
"Okay." I take that as my cue to leave, kissing his forehead and whispering goodnight before walking across the hall.
I'm frozen with terror, my heart beating rapidly in my chest. It's only 1 a.m. but my dream won't let me get back to sleep. All I see are Peeta's drawings.
I can't help myself. I quietly get out of bed and tiptoe across the hall to Peeta's room. It's too early for his nightmares to bring him to me, but I need him. I gently lift the quilt and slip into his bed. He startles but immediately pulls me into his chest, his arms wrapping around me.
"See? I said you could push."
Author's Note: Thanks, emarina! Here is your haiku:
you might be my sister from
Author's Note: Here we are…the halfway point of Part Two and the halfway point of "Reprieve" as a whole. This chapter is sort of the catalyst for big change, so enjoy!
We're coasting. I can feel it. I don't exactly hate it. I'm not sure I like it, either.
That's not to say that things aren't going well for both of us. Peeta's brought a new flavor to Henion and the locals are starting to notice. There have even been articles in The Daily Collegian5 and The Hampshire Gazette6 on this carbohydrate renaissance, and Peeta's eating it up. Rue has offered to increase his hours but he's been so busy with his freelance work that he declined. At least for now.
I've been working full time at Esselon, which has included a few regional trips with Thresh. And the trips were great, not only for the experience but for the space it provided Peeta and I. It was just enough time away to take a deep breath, enjoy the moment and be genuinely happy to see each other once I came home. Balance.
And every night we switch off which room we sleep in. No more tiptoeing into the other's room in the early hours of the morning. We've reached an understanding and are both sleeping better because of it. Platonically.
We need something to push us.
Her name is Delly Cartwright.
"Hey, I was thinking that we could maybe get away for the weekend. Drive to Boston or something, maybe check out some museums or a game. What do you think?"
Peeta is brushing his teeth and motions for me to wait a second. Eventually he shuts the bathroom light off and walks to my room, making himself at home. I close my notebook and stick it under the bed before he leans in and kisses me.
"I've got to get some work done for that client I mentioned. She'll be coming in to town for a presentation and it's still not where I want it to be. Some other time?"
"You've been working so much. I wish you'd take a break every once in awhile." And it's true. If Peeta's not at the bakery he's holed up in his room with his computer. He's got that artificial glow about him from the screen.
He brushes my hair away from my forehead and holds his hand against the side of my face. "I like being busy, Katniss. It's important for me to make a living and make clients happy. You know that." He kisses me again. "We're good. We'll take a weekend soon, I promise."
This whole patience thing is really pissing me off. I think my tongue has a permanent crease where I constantly bite it, hoping not so say something that will set us both off. But the truth is that I am tired of taking it slow. Aren't we supposed to be working on 'us' too?
"Alright. But I'm holding you to it." He leans in again and kisses me, shifting to lay me down and pin me against the mattress. My hands writhe up his back and hold him to me as he groans and deepens the kiss. Here we go. Finally. "Peeta," I'm breathless and begging.
"Soon." His kisses retreat and turn to pecks. Soon?
I move to hold him to me and whine, "No, now. Please."
"Soon." Peeta's too strong and rolls away.
"Why are we waiting? Is this about the accident?" I touch my palm to the spot over his heart. "We can figure out ways that are more comfortable for you. For us. I just want to feel—."
"Katniss, this isn't about my injuries." He rolls on his side to face me. "We're doing everything right by taking it slow. Please don't rush this."
"I don't think I'm rushing this." Traitor tears reach my cheeks. "It's been months. I want to be with you again."
"Please don't cry." He gathers me closer and I rest my head on his chest. I feel like I'm going to be sick to my stomach, a weight settling there that I have been trying to ignore.
I hate coasting.
I'm trying to be patient.
I'm trying to push at the right time.
I'm trying to be happy with the happiness you've found.
I'm trying to understand your idea of taking it slow.
But I feel like I'm losing you.
I'm trying to be strong.
I'm trying to trust you.
I'm trying to figure out where I fit in your life.
But I'm scared that I'm failing.
"Remind me why I agreed to go with you to this game?" Johanna and I are closing up Esselon on a Friday night and are planning on heading to campus for the UMass hockey game against Vermont. It's one of the league's oldest rivalries and should draw a big crowd, even if neither team is particularly impressive this season.
"Because I actually want to go do something and Peeta's working. I haven't been to a game all season and I promised to treat you to a postgame beer in exchange for keeping me company."
"Back the truck up. I think we agreed on beer and wings in exchange for this outing, brainless." I laugh and we lock up, driving to the Mullins Center7 in the early evening traffic.
We're walking into the arena and hand the usher our tickets. "So how are you and the Wunderkind? Comfy cozy?"
"Sure. He's been really happy with work. Rue loves him and he's excited to be working on some original recipes. It's awesome to see him happy, you know?"
We shuffle into our row near UMass' bench, sitting just above the glass. "Where does that leave you?"
"What do you mean? You know I've been busy with the roasting works. I can't complain."
Johanna shakes her head and says, "I don't understand you guys. You either feed off of each other like some sort of disgusting, parasitic succubus or play the 'I'm totally independent and don't need you for my personal happiness' game. Christ, it's dramatic."
The lights dim and the crowd erupts when the teams take the ice. I'm in a fog as the announcer reads off the starters and the anthems play.
"Come on, Katniss. Haven't you heard of a happy medium?"
I've heard of it, but I obviously haven't mastered it.
We decide on ABC8 for postgame and settle in for a while. Eventually a few of the players and coaches show up, sticking out like sore thumbs in their suits and ties. Girls flock to them and they revel in the attention. Ah, to be the big man on campus.
"So when's the next time you're going home?" I can tell that Jo really isn't paying attention. She's just making small talk, looking around the bar for a potential conquest. I'm not really in the mood for deep conversation anyway.
"Probably Prim's graduation in June. I can't believe she'll be going to college, you know?"
"Yeah. Hey, isn't that Peeta?"
"What?" My head jerks in the direction Johanna's is in and I eventually locate him at a booth on the other side of the room. He's leaning against the back of the seat, beer in hand and laughing, a young woman sitting across from him. She's blonde and blushing, waves touching her shoulders with one hand resting on her own glass and the other just inches away from Peeta's own.
There's lead in my stomach. It's irrational lead, but it's there.
"Who's the blonde? She looks enamored."
"I, um, I think that's the client he's been working with. She's in town to see what he's come up with."
"Right. What he's come up with. More like what he's got hidden in that portfolio." Johanna starts to slide off of her stool, "Let's go say hi."
"No! No. I mean, he wouldn't want to be interrupted. It's a business meeting."
"You sure about that?"
"Yeah. I'm sure." I drain my pint and circle my fingertip around the edge of the glass.
"Katniss." Her voice is relatively soft for a crowded bar and is laced with understanding. "Come on, let's get out of here." I nod and hand the waitress some cash. I try to be inconspicuous when I look again toward Peeta's table. She's placed her hand on his forearm and her smile is soft. I decide not to look at his face for a reaction and turn away, feeling something greater than doubt flood my senses.
I pull into the driveway and put the car in park, deciding to sit here for a while with the heat blasting on my face. It's uncomfortably hot, but I'm pretty sure that the flush creeping up from my chest isn't from the temperature.
Peeta's client—Delly is her name—is beautiful. I could find jealousy in that reality, but that's not what is bothering me. What's bothering me is the ease of their interaction. No awkward second-guessing each word and action. No dancing around past wrongs. He seemed calm and happy and she, well, she seemed enamored just as Johanna had pointed out.
Enamored with my fiancée. Or boyfriend. Or whatever the hell it is we are. What are we?
I'm mad. I'm angry. I'm annoyed. But of all of the emotions I've felt over the course of our relationship, I've never once felt this. I've never once been jealous. And yet here I am, angry tears coursing down my face.
You tell me to take this slow. You tell me to be patient. Well isn't that wonderful, because this is the result of slow and patient. And it sucks.
Do you still love me? I don't know. How would I know? You haven't said those words in months so I just keep telling myself to be patient when all I want to do is get in your face and ask you. Do you love me?
We're always in 'fix it' mode, trying to be the perfect partner for the other. And I'm trying so hard to be what you need. In case you were wondering, I'm failing. Fix it mode is exhausting.
And right now I'm tired of being good. I want to drop kick Delly Cartwright and her stupid, perky breasts back to whatever the hell city she came from.
Are you happy now?
I'm in bed when Peeta comes home, lying on my side facing away from the door and pretending to be asleep. After a few minutes I hear him enter the room. The mattress dips and he removes the prosthesis before lifting the quilt and rolling to spoon me. I concentrate on making my breaths even and slow, feigning sleep.
I feel his breath hot on my shoulder as he trails kisses along the bare skin there, eventually reaching my neck. I wonder if he thinks I'm really asleep, in which case this is affection that's safe for him. This is affection on his terms. Fuck this.
Jealous Katniss is kind of a bitch.
But I don't cave and eventually he settles in, breathing in the scent of my hair.
Chapter Six Notes:
5. The Daily Collegian. UMass' student newspaper.
6. The Hampshire Gazette. Local paper.
7. The Mullins Center. Arena where UMass' basketball and hockey teams compete.
8. ABC. Amherst Brewing Company. It used to be located right downtown but then relocated to a spot slightly closer to campus and across from two other popular sports bars: the Hangar and Rafters. The new location is absolutely huge but kind of lacks the intimacy of the old place. But they make delicious fried pickles, so almost all is forgiven.
The morning has done nothing to calm my irrational mind. Peeta's going to be spending an hour or two with Delly's breasts and I'm going to imagine all of the names I wish I could call her to her face. Seems productive.
"Morning." Peeta enters the kitchen and I drop my cereal spoon, dripping milk on my shirt and the floor.
"Shit." I put the bowl on the counter. "Shit shit shit."
He hands me a paper towel. "It's just milk. Rough morning?"
"Great, now I need to change." I try to move past Peeta but he holds my arm, keeping me next to him. "Peeta, come on. I can't wear this."
"What's going on? Why are you so riled up?" His face is honest and some of my resolve begins to crumble. Dammit.
"Nothing, I'm just not feeling like myself."
"That's bullshit and you know it. Tell me what's going on, Katniss."
This would be the perfect time for me to keep my mouth shut. I should just bite my tongue off and be done with it. So God, do us all a favor and glue my lips shut before I say something stupid. Okay?
But no. I huff and say, "Did you have a good time last night at ABC?"
Understanding registers on his face and he sputters, "You were there? Why didn't you come over to the table and say hi? I would have introduced you—."
"Oh, to Delly?" Christ, Katniss. Get a grip now. "Yeah, well I thought about it for a second before I realized how awkward that might be for all of us. For you, the amazing artist, Delly, the stunning client and me, the…well, now what would you call me?"
Lord help me, I'm even gesturing.
"Excuse me?" Peeta's voice is getting louder, but I'm matching him octave for octave.
"What am I? Am I your roommate? Your human pillow? Your girlfriend? Your fiancée? Or maybe I'm still the girl who fucked you over? I'm trying, okay? I'm trying and I fucking don't know what to do anymore! Tell me how to make this better!"
He points a finger at my face. "You left me!" Peeta wins the war of volume. "You. You left me. You didn't talk to me. You didn't even try. You left me there." He's on a roll and rattles on. "I'm so sorry I'm not on your timeline. I'm sorry I'm still trying to come to terms with this. It isn't easy Katniss but I'm doing the best I can with what I have. I came here, didn't I? You think that I don't want to figure this out? You think that I don't wish that kissing you would make the doubt just go away? You think that I don't want to fuck you every time I see you? I do. Every damned time. But I can't because my head is screaming at me, reminding me that you ran once and you could run again. And I don't think I'd live through that, alright?"
All of a sudden the oxygen has been sucked from the room and I simultaneously feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. I knew this would happen. I did. This was one of the times when I'd have to be stronger than my urge to run because Peeta has every right to hate me. I hate me, too.
I step back. "I'm almost relieved you said that."
He raises his hands in frustration. "Katniss—!"
"No, I am," I interrupt. "Because you're right. I deserve to hear that. But I'm trying, too. You need to know that I'm trying." I take a deep breath. "Just stay here for a minute, will you?"
He lets his arms fall and I walk upstairs to my bedroom, reaching under the bed and grabbing the notebooks that I've filled over the course of the days, weeks and months. As hard as it will be to expose myself like this, I'm reminded that this was a project for me as much as it was for Peeta. I scribble one more note under my jealous rants about Delly, change my shirt and walk back to the kitchen.
Peeta runs his hands through his hair and his voice cracks a bit when he murmurs, "Listen, Katniss, I'm sorry I yelled—."
"No, it's okay." I hand Peeta my notebooks—four in all—and look him in the eye. He's confused by my offering but lets me continue. "I promise, it's okay. What you said was true. But what's in these is true, too and you deserve to know that."
He clears his throat. "Delly is a client."
"And she's lucky to be working with you."
"Are you leaving?"
This is a loaded question and my instinct is to tell him yes. It would always be easier for me to flee. But I wouldn't do that to him. Not ever again.
"I'm not leaving, I'm working." I squeeze his hand before grabbing my coat. "The difference is that I love you."
The morning—my irrational behavior, Peeta's yelling and the giving of the notebooks—has thrown me off of my game. I start my shift by yelling at Finnick and ruining an Americano with soy milk before settling down in the office and focusing on the computer screen. Breathe in, breathe out.
I pick up my phone and call Annie, leaving a message for her to call me back when she had some free time. It's a struggle to return to the quiet of paperwork so I decide to help Finnick up front as a distraction.
"Hey. I'm sorry for snapping at you, Finn." He nods and continues to make drinks, creating beautiful rosettes and hearts on the tops of every latte. It's odd to see this brazen guy with huge hands focus so intently on a tiny pitcher of milk, creating something that brings a smile to a person's face. Many people just cover it with a lid but a few genuinely thank him for taking the time to make their own little masterpiece.
"Will you show me how to do that?"
"Sure. Come here."
We spend the morning pulling drinks and Finn guides my hands with any latte orders. I'm glad that the artwork is still drinkable since all I've managed are things that resemble puddles or clouds at best.
"I mentioned that Peeta's the artist, right?" I hand Johanna a latte with what looks like tobacco spit on it and Finnick laughs.
"Speak of the devil—."
The door chimes and Peeta walks in with Delly, giving a small smile when he sees me. I wave and they come to the counter.
"Peeta! It's been awhile. Come for your little barista?" Finnick rolls his 'r's' and I kick him while wishing the ground would swallow me up. "Ow! Jesus, Kat. What can I get you guys?"
Delly places a to-go order before Peeta (properly) introduces us. "Delly, this is Katniss. Katniss, this is Delly, the client whose website I've been working on. She's heading out of town but I told her that she needed the world's best cappuccino first."
Finnick yells above the noise of the espresso machine, "Thanks, man!"
I take Delly's outstretched hand and shake it. "Delly, it's nice to meet you. Peeta's been working so hard on this presentation; I hope you liked it."
"Liked it? Katniss, you're downplaying his talent." She seems nice enough. Her breasts aren't that great, really. "Peeta talks about you so much, so I'm glad we're finally getting to meet. You're very lucky to have him. I'm even a little jealous." She winks. Jesus.
Poor Peeta is already red but I can't help myself. "Well, I'm not sure that anyone can really be had, per se. But I know we're lucky. Thank you for noticing."
She looks a little unsure of how to respond so she takes a sip of her drink and nods. "Well I do have quite the drive in front of me. It was nice meeting you Katniss. Peeta, thank you so much for your hospitality. I love the end product!"
He shakes Delly's hand and walks her to the door, holding it open as she leaves. Peeta comes back to the counter and drums his fingers against the wood. I try to act nonchalant, too. "So the presentation went well?"
"Very well. The client is happy and I got paid so all in all, a pretty decent outcome."
"That's great, Peeta. How about a celebratory latte?" I motion to him and he rounds the counter, joining me as I show him exactly what I've been working on all day. He's standing impossibly close and I want to hold him there. "See? How great is this?"
I hand him the mug and he looks down, confused. "Jabba the Hutt?"
I take the mug back, put it down and laugh, wrapping him in a hug. "I'm glad you're here."
He whispers in my ear, low enough that only I can hear. "Are you almost finished with your shift?"
I move to look him in the eye and see that we're not only reading the same book, but we might have progressed to reading the same chapter. "Yeah, why?"
"Let's go home."
The house is empty (of course) but Peeta's been busy. I thought that his meeting with Delly would occupy most of his day, but it's clear once he'd led me upstairs that he's been working on a few more things.
"How did you get that up here?" I ask, gaping at the furniture in the corner of his room. There's an armchair with a blanket draped over it and a floor lamp beside it. His art supplies are everywhere as though he planning on sketching. The room was pretty cramped for space to begin with so the additional clutter is borderline inconvenient.
"Haymitch helped me." He motions to my room, saying "I had to move a few things to the other side of the hall. I hope you don't mind."
"No, of course not. But what's going on?" I continue to look around and see that Peeta's brought some food up as well. Basic provisions.
"First, get comfortable. Let your hair down and put on some sweatpants."
I do as he asks and return to his bedroom. Peeta's changed into flannel pajama bottoms and a ratty old t-shirt so at least we match. He steps to his bed and grabs my notebooks before standing in front of me, holding them out. I take them, a confused look on my face, and begin to ask for an explanation but he interrupts me.
"I started to read these this morning, but I stopped after just a couple of pages." He goes on, "I want you to read them to me. All of them. Now. Tonight."
Oh God. Oh God, oh God, oh God. "Um, but those are for you to read. I wrote them for you."
"I know that, and I appreciate that. But I need you to talk to me Katniss. And if this is going to be the only way that you really say what's going on in your head, then I'm going to ask that you read these out loud. Please. For me."
Peeta must see that I'm completely panicking because he takes the notebooks from me and hugs me close, his chin resting on top of my head. "Katniss, please."
I can't help but cry, clutching at his back and pleading, "But everything is there for you. It was hard enough to write it down once."
"I know. But now I need you to talk to me, face to face. And I promise to talk, too. It won't just be you. You'll read and I'll react, explain or ask questions. We'll talk through it, just you and me. Please."
He holds me until I'm calm and then pulls away to look at my face, wiping away the stray tears. I nod and he gently hands me the notebooks. The chair is soft and the blanket comforting, so I tuck my feet under me and get situated. He even thought of a box of tissues. Peeta takes a seat on the bed and gives me an encouraging smile.
I exhale. Inhale.
Author's Note: thanks to m'lady, m'bestie, m'friend emarina.
Johanna's been at Esselon for years and kind of does a little bit of everything as long as it minimizes contact with the patrons. But the customers have become so accustomed to her personality that she's seen as an endearing fixture instead of the crass woman she is. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find her lack of a filter almost refreshing…I envy her honesty and if she would allow it, I'd probably consider her a friend.
I place the notebook in my lap and Peeta quietly asks, "So what do you mean by envying her honesty? I know that there isn't a Johanna inside of you, dying to get out."
"How do you know?"
"Well I hope not an exact replica! This town isn't big enough." He chuckles and I join in. It helps diffuse the tension a little.
"Even though Jo is crass and crude and cranky, I am jealous that she can so easily say what she's thinking and feeling. It doesn't always come out in the right way, but she lays it all out there in a really unapologetic way."
"And you don't feel like you can do that?"
I shrug. "Not without disappointing people. I don't want to channel my inner bitch or anything, but I've learned to be really good at saying what will make other people happy."
"At the expense of your own happiness. So really, you're giving everyone an edited version of you."
"Yes and no. I would never say something that is an outright lie and I wouldn't compromise my morals. I just try to tone down what I really want to say, or sometimes I get a sense of what someone wants me to choose, so I try to appease them."
"Like when I ask you if you want Fudge Brownie or Pistachio Pistachio and you choose Cherry Garcia because you know I love it?" He smirks and I smile back but lower my eyes. The guy knows all of my tricks.
"That sums it up fairly well." I take a sip of water and continue. "In a way, it's like choosing between two perfectly fine options: my own and someone else's. But when I know that choosing for someone else will make them happy, how can I not pick that option?"
"Yeah, but isn't that like deciding that you'll always come second? I'd rather occasionally have Fudge Brownie knowing that it makes you happy. You being happy makes me happy, too." Peeta raises one palm at a time. "It isn't all about me. It isn't all about you."
I nod. "50-50."
"100-100. I read that once somewhere, that relationships aren't really 50-50. Or maybe it was on 'Oprah'." I quirk my eyebrows but he continues, "Either way, when both people give 100 percent they end up being much more content. Happier. I want you to give me 100 percent Katniss. I want to give you 100 percent Peeta without feeling like it's an affliction or hindrance."
"You aren't an affliction. I'm sorry if I ever made you feel like you were." He nods, motioning that he understands. "I just got so used to taking everyone else's problems and shouldering them myself."
He rubs the back of his neck, trying to explain. "I never wanted you to take on my problems. I wanted to feel like they mattered to you, that's all. I probably didn't make the difference very obvious."
"You have to remember that I'm kind of defective emotionally. I even fly off the handle on occasion, if you can believe it." That earns a smile. "Peeta, I want to stop tiptoeing around who we really are. I just need you to remind me every once in awhile. Maybe help me out if you notice it?"
"I can do that."
Annie says that the more I love my decisions, the less I'll need others to love them. Why can't it be both?
Maybe I'm making this more complicated than it has to be.
How can you be so sure about everything? About us?
"So you want to know how I was sure about us?" Peeta grabs an apple and starts to eat.
"Sure." I myself grab the Cheetos. Like there's even a contest.
"Simple. I loved everything that you never saw. I loved that it didn't occur to you how smart you were, and you never had to work at being a good person. It was just part of who you were, without even trying."
"That has nothing to do with us—."
"It has everything to do with us! You said that your flakiness probably drove me crazy, but Katniss it was a relief for me not to be so hung up on every. Little. Detail. God, I exhausted myself sometimes. You changed that without even trying."
"You make that sound like a good thing."
"You are a good thing. I imagined every first being with you. And I wanted that, regardless of how hard or irrational it was at the time. I never had a moment where I imagined life without you, even when it was work to be together."
"So you just knew."
"Yup." He balances the core on the table, leaning back on his elbows.
Looking back, I never once asked you why you seemed so indifferent about the UW. I never thought to question why you didn't quite care about college as much as the rest of us. You could have made a million friends, been active in student groups or intramurals, gone to games or hung out at the Union. The whole campus could have been yours. But you didn't seem to care. You seemed unimpressed.
Something shifted between high school and college. Whatever it was, I overlooked it. Tell me what I missed. Tell me what bothered you.
I look up at Peeta and ask again. "What did I miss?"
"Me being jealous."
My eyes are wide with disbelief. "Excuse me? Jealous of what?"
"Everything. You. Gale. The whole fucking campus. It was one thing to be your boyfriend among a couple of hundred teenage guys. But I started to worry that so many options—school, clubs, work, parties, life—would make you realize that you'd made a choice before you knew that you could have had anything. You were forced to make a choice too soon."
I look at Peeta with narrowed eyes. What? "You know I suck at social situations. But regardless, I wanted you. How could you doubt that?"
"I tried everything I could think of to make you choose me. I wanted to spend every waking minute with you, just to make sure you wouldn't forget me."
"Gee, that's heartfelt —."
He shoots up and sits at the end of the bed, tapping my knees. "God, no, that comes across as so wrong and possessive. I wanted to spend time with you. I was just totally irrational in the way I went about it."
I pause. "You know what the crazy thing is?"
"I spent years wondering why you chose me. You spent years worrying that I'd find something better. We probably could have spent years just being blissed out that were that lucky."
He squeezes my knees. "I was pretty blissed out anyway."
I smile. "Me, too."
When you first woke up, I saw your eyes. Not filled with sadness or anger, but concern for me. Concern for what you assumed I must have thought of your new reality. I thought you were perfect.
After that, your eyes were guarded and cautious but mostly I saw disappointment reflected in them. Disappointment in me. You always wore your heart on your sleeve, and you always betrayed every emotion in your eyes. I could get lost in them. I often did.
You said that you were broken, but you were wrong. You're beautiful.
"There was a tiny part of me that thought that my accident would bring us closer together, you know. I knew that we had a messed up sense of balance and that things had been uncomfortable for awhile, but I thought that maybe this would be the thing that would bring us back."
"No, it was irrational to think that. I know it was. Then I saw your face and I knew it wasn't about my leg. It wasn't even me. It was us."
I lower my head into my hands, my face screwing up with the cries I try to hold in. Peeta crouches down in front of me, his hands on my thighs. I plead with him, "As selfish as it sounds, at that point I didn't even think of trying to fix it. I was so far gone, so far past knowing what to do. And then that woman, the one with the crazy outfit, she wanted to talk to me about our future—."
"Wait, what lady?"
"I, I don't remember her name. Crazy jewelry everywhere lady. She wanted to talk to me about how I was holding up, as if I was the one fighting for my life or something." A new wave of sobs wracks my body and Peeta waits for me to continue. "She made me feel exposed—not on purpose or anything—and it freaked me out even more. I swear she saw through me."
"Her name is Effie Trinkett. She ended up working with me after the accident, sort of as a counselor. She's not too bad. She means well."
"What kinds of things did you talk about?"
I look at my hands in my lap. Fresh tears leak out. "God, I'm so—"
"Katniss, stop. I didn't say it to make you feel worse, I said it because we're being honest here. We talked about the loss of my leg. How it felt being back at home. She helped me through a lot…opened up my eyes to things I didn't really want to see." He smiles, before continuing. "She encouraged me to come out here with you. That's something, right?"
My eyebrows shoot up with the new information and my breath hitches, the after effects of crying. "I should thank her."
I wish I had asked you more about your family life. Inherently I knew that things weren't perfect and rationalized it by thinking that no family was perfect. I knew that we spent more time at my place than yours. I heard the things she said to you. Why didn't you tell me?
"It was a relief to not have to think about my mother or talk about what she was doing. Besides, by the time I was in high school it had lessened to verbal jabs and offhanded comments. She was passive aggressive and that was an improvement."
"What do you mean, 'an improvement'?" The weight of his words sits in my stomach. "Peeta," I say lowly, "what did she do?"
He shrugs. "She hit us. All of us. Pretty bad, too." Staring at his hands he continues, "There was always a reason, you know? We were too loud, too stupid, too careless. By the time we met, the most she ever did was smack the back of my head if I messed up somehow."
My mother wasn't award-winning by any means, but she never hit us.
"But growing up, why didn't anyone do anything? Your dad—."
His face snaps up, indignation plain in his eyes. "Don't you think I've been asking myself that same question my whole life, Katniss?"
"What I meant—."
Peeta's exasperation comes out as a shout. "My whole damned life I've been asking 'Why didn't someone notice and do something?' I don't know. I don't know! If I saw a kid with bruises, I'd sure as hell do more than look the other way. I'd be there for that kid. I'd—."
"Peeta," I whisper. I move from the chair and join him on the bed, hugging him tightly. He's wound tight, a fist of muscles.
"Katniss, you were the first person who came into my life and told me to my face that I was worth something. You were the first person who made me feel like I mattered." His words are muffled deep in my shoulder. I feel the tears that dampen my skin.
"You matter to me."
I wanted to marry you. I wanted our engagement to be about us, but it slowly became a spectacle of families, parties, planning and acting. We left parties in silence, exhausted by the whole affair. We seemed to forget the whole point of being engaged.
We're lying side by side on the bed now, facing each other. "I wish I had proposed differently. The whole proposing-after-your-girlfriend-takes-a-pregnancy-test-thing wasn't exactly how I envisioned it."
"So why'd you do it?"
"I wanted you to know that I was serious. That I would have been there for you and our baby, had there been one. And I meant what I said. I didn't think it was about being too young or it not being the right time in our lives. I loved you and wanted to marry you. I just would have gone about it in a different way."
I nod. "I wanted to marry you, I just wanted to keep everything quiet for awhile. I thought we'd spend time celebrating, just the two of us. Then we started talking about the reception, houses and children. It seemed so fast, so fabricated. We were focusing on how the marriage would make everyone else happy. I didn't expect that."
"People were excited and it got out of hand. I guess I saw the finish line—being married—as the goal and I just wanted to get there."
"I just wanted you."
He reaches over and holds my hand.
You tell me to take this slow. You tell me to be patient. Well isn't that wonderful, because this is the result of slow and patient. And it sucks.
Do you still love me? I don't know. How would I know? You haven't said those words in months so I just keep telling myself to be patient when all I want to do is get in your face and ask you. Do you love me?
We're always in 'fix it' mode, trying to be the perfect partner for the other. And I'm trying so hard to be what you need. In case you were wondering, I'm failing. Fix it mode is exhausting.
"What is it that you think I need?"
"I don't know," I shrug. "Every day I try something different. I try asking questions, not asking questions; being available, giving you space; showing affection, easing up."
Peeta laughs, rolling onto his back. I laugh for a bit but then get agitated and nudge his shoulder. "What? I'm trying!"
He rolls again to face me, smirking. "Welcome to my life. I feel like that's all I've been doing, trying to figure out how to be who you need me to be."
"Huh? How so?"
"Katniss," he gently places his hand on my arm. "I needed to know how to be the guy you wanted again. The guy that you wouldn't run from. Tough, resilient, a little indifferent. I didn't want to be so needy."
"But I need you!"
"Sure, but in what way?"
"Yes!" I yell. "I need you! Sensitive, strong, confident, direct, planning, anal retentive, baking, artsy shit everywhere, passionate, witty, smart, dorky you! You, you jerk!"
"Oh. Well that's good." He pulls me close. "I need cranky, fiery, brainy, frantic, intense, quick-tempered, loving, sassy you." He squeezes me tighter. "Jackass."
"I'm not sassy."
"Yes you are."
I pause. "But you like that?"
I wrote these letters with every intention of giving them to you when I was ready. You kind of ruined that.
The truth is, I don't think I ever really would have been ready. Not without being pushed. I would never willingly put myself out there to be embarrassed, judged or ridiculed. I'd never be ready to wear my heart on my sleeve and bare it all, not really. I'd never tell anyone what really was going on. Doing that leaves you vulnerable. It makes you an easy target. It lets people sneak up on you.
I hate feeling that way.
But then I realized that, well, it was you. It was always you. You've always pushed me just enough to make me better. It wasn't about making me look weak…it was about making me strong.
I love feeling that way.
And I want that for you. I want to be that for you. Not because it's the right thing to do, and not because it's some crazy obligation I've made up. But because that's what you and I do for each other.
We're at the top of my list. I'll keep pushing you if you keep pushing me.
I quietly ask, "Deal?"
I've written this particular note a few times but have conveniently skipped over it all night. I suppose it's time I read it aloud. It feels like the right time.
I love you. I don't know what else to say. But maybe that is enough.
He doesn't say anything and so I just look. Peeta holds my gaze until it makes me a little uncomfortable and I focus on his collar, the sheets, anything. I've said "love" in a variety of ways tonight, but he hasn't prompted me to expand upon it. It's hanging out there like an awkward penguin and not once has he mentioned it.
Not once since my reappearance has he said those words to me. He's never even repeated them with an obligatory "I love you, too."
I can't hold it in anymore. "Well, say something."
He whispers back, "Keep reading."
"That's the last letter."
Author's Note: This is what I fondly refer to as "the jerk chapter." Thank you, emarina for saying "dude, something is off" after draft one and then following that up with "are you kidding me?!" after draft two. You are my spirit animal.
I pick up the notebook again and turn the pages until I find where another note has been hidden.
There hasn't been one moment between now and the first time that I said it that I haven't loved you.
I love you.
My fingers clench, gripping the paper and I break down as Peeta scoots closer, taking the notebook from my hands. My fists ball and hit his chest once; my body curls in on itself as he shushes me and lifts his chin so that my head rests under his. Peeta's hands hold my body tightly against his own.
"Shhhhh." Peeta rocks me gently, rubbing his hands along my back. "Shhh."
Once I quiet down a little, he takes the notebook and holds it just beyond my head, continuing on where I left off, my head still tucked to his chest.
I love you. But for once in our relationship, the words wouldn't come to me. Thank you for being as patient as you could. Please forgive me for making you wait.
I love you.
Squeezing your hand, smiling at you in the mornings and sneaking in kisses are poor substitutes for the words that you've needed to hear. They're also words I needed to say. I knew they could be powerful, but I never knew that they could heal.
Peeta's voice cracks, but he continues. I love you.
Initially there was a part of me that held the words close, knowing that doing so hurt you. Withholding them was a sort of punishment for you, and ultimately for me. Then they became words that terrified me: I didn't know if I could possibly live through losing you once more. I blame myself as much as anyone for what happened, but selfishly I knew that I couldn't go through that again and still come out the other side in one piece. Not without you.
If that makes me seem weak, so be it. I won't apologize for telling you the truth you deserve to hear.
But I realized that by not saying the three simplest, yet most profound words, I was letting the best part of 'us' slip away. I was allowing it to go on, more interested in self-preservation than happiness. I fed you doubt and worry. I fed myself shame.
I want to live our story with you, not reenact past mistakes.
I'm telling you that I love you–all of you–and knowing that breathes life into me. All I needed was one reason why this would work. Allowing me to love and be loved in return is that reason.
Scratch that. I need two reasons. The other is here with me now.
I won't lose you. I refuse to give up when we've come so far.
I love you,
It's quiet and still in the room. The great stillness only compounds as the moments go on, our uttered words finally settling down on us, comforting like a down blanket. "Peeta," I whisper, not wanting to etch into the contentment. "Peeta. I love you."
He brushes the hair away from my forehead, searching my eyes. "I love you. Stay with me."
I press my lips to his and hold myself there, no longer searching for forgiveness or answers or acceptance.
My mind is oddly blank. For the first time in a long time, I'm not living in my head. All I feel are Peeta's lips against mine. His lips against my lips. My neck. My shoulder.
I whisper Peeta's name between moments, capturing his lips and pushing my body against his, the muscles shuddering as I stretch. He grips my waist as I wind my arms around his neck, strong breaths being shared.
I look at him, smiling, panting and kiss him again.
Everything is familiar but new. Stripped down. His hands are shaking and his fingers circle my collar, trailing down and lifting my sweatshirt, his eyes gazing at my chest before putting his ear to the spot over my heart.
"Your heart is racing. Are you nervous?"
"Mmmm. Not even a little bit." I trace his ear. "It's you."
Peeta brings his face to mine and kisses me again so I reach for his shirt and pull it over his head. Before there's a chance of him feeling self-conscious of the scars, I push Peeta's shoulder and lean over his torso, leaving wet, open-mouthed kisses across his chest and along the marbled skin. I hear him humming and feel the slight vibration against my lips.
My hands trail down to his waistband and stay there, waiting for Peeta to lift his hips. Kneeling at his side, he does so and I scoot back to remove the flannels; I eventually return to his waist and place my palms there.
"I love you," I whisper.
He nods and I ghost over the prosthesis, gently mimicking the motions I've seen Peeta make before. Once it's removed, I return to his side and take his hand in mine, weaving our fingers together and place it over my breast. He closes his eyes for a moment, kneading softly and then sits up to kiss me before laying me down. I shimmy out of my sweats and we just are.
Peeta lies on his side, taking his time seeing and exploring with eyes, hands and tongue. It's too much. It's not enough.
"You're beautiful." His mouth finds my breast. His hand moves lower.
"Peeta, I—." I gasp and turn my head to the side. "I—."
I can't form a coherent though. I'm unraveling.
I see the hint of a smirk and lift up on my elbows, reaching to push Peeta back; I am fully prepared to give him some of his own medicine. My legs straddle his middle and I hold his hands in mine, pinning them slightly above his head.
Tracing the base of his throat to the underside of his chin with my tongue, Peeta groans and leans his head further back onto the pillow to expose his neck. Some things never change. I blow on the line and whisper in his ear, "So predictable."
He chuckles. "Can you blame me? It's been awhile."
I release our hands and cradle his face, looking into Peeta's eyes and smiling. "So now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?"
"Never let you go."
I continue to pepper kisses along his jaw and ask, "Is this comfortable? I mean, should we—."
"No," He smiles and says, "I mean yes, but I want to start—" he rolls us over "—here."
Peeta settles against my hips and my breath hitches as he gasps into my shoulder. It's a declaration, an assertion of sorts. For Peeta it's reclaiming what he thought he had lost. For me it's coming home.
"I love you."
We are spent, his weight fully pushing me into the mattress beneath us. I hold him to me, languidly running my fingers up and down his back as we catch our breath. Sweat has darkened his hairline and I can feel the beads that have gathered at the base of his spine. He kisses my breasts and I smile.
He asks, "Was that—?"
"It was perfect. You were perfect."
Peeta exhales and I can feel him smiling against my skin.
We quietly move to the shower and stand under the spray just watching the water. It collects and drips from our eyelashes and earlobes, bouncing off of one of us and colliding with the other. It trails down my chest where Peeta kisses.
Slowly I turn and wet a washcloth, lathering soap against the fibers and return to face Peeta. I lovingly wash his body first before gently massaging shampoo through his hair. He stands beneath the spray rinsing, his eyes closed and my hands sweep suds away from his face. Standing up on my tiptoes I kiss his lips and he responds, stepping out from under the stream and wiping his eyes.
He smiles and takes a washcloth to return the favor. Peeta's hands tenderly linger and are soft against my skin. I close my eyes as he massages my scalp before rinsing and sliding conditioner over the tangles. We hold each other until the water cools.
Continuing the small, caring gestures, both of us wrap the other in towels before walking to my room. Peeta runs a comb through my hair and gathers it at the base of my neck, kissing the skin there. I gently place my hand on his leg and turn to kiss his lips.
I turn off the lights and we retreat under the covers. Exhaustion—no, contentment—settles in and we whisper observations and promises until we sleep.
Author's Note: I asked emarina what to write immediately after chapter 8. She said "chapter 9." How awesome is she?! Indeed, she is the Buttercup to my Lady. Also, a quick thank you to kismetff who has been incredibly encouraging along the way!
I lean down and kiss Peeta. “I’d forgotten what you look like from here.”
“Mmm. This might just be my favorite way to start the day, you know.” His hands rub his face and then move to span my waist. “We could throw the alarm clock out and just let nature run its course.”
I’m relieved that neither one of us has to work today, letting us enjoy yesterday’s revelations and just spend some time together without distractions. We’re finally tackling ‘us’; we’re finally reading the same chapter. Maybe we’re even on the same page.
I feel disjointed in the most amazing way possible.
My palms gently press onto Peeta’s chest and I ask, “How do you feel?”
“What, you can’t tell?” I roll my eyes and Peeta continues, reaching out to pull me to him. “I feel alive.” He kisses my cheek and whispers in my ear, “Awake. I feel like I have everything I’ve always wanted. I feel lighter. Lucky. Every corny word you can imagine, I probably feel it.”
“It feels amazing, doesn’t it?” I kiss his shoulder and sigh.
“Not having to hide from each other anymore.”
He pulls the blanket over us, shutting everything else out.
For someone who’s spent the better part of the past day in bed, Peeta’s completely dead to the world and I can’t bear to wake him up from the much-needed nap. It’s weird how your body just knows when it needs to shut down; emotions can be ridiculously exhausting.
I kiss his temple and reposition the blankets before tugging on some sweats and quietly head downstairs. I’m starving.
Rummaging through the pantry I find some Ramen and set a pot of water on the stove to boil. My phone rings and I smile when I see who is calling so I hop up to sit on the counter and answer.
“Guess who has two thumbs and got into the ‘U’9? This girl!” Prim’s excitement is coming through in the form of a scream, but I hold the phone away from my ear and laugh anyway.
“My sister, the Golden Rodent10.”
“Golden Gopher, Katniss. Don’t start.”
“Prim, you’ve officially signed up for four-plus years of constant ribbing. Minnesota’s our biggest rival and you know it.”
She laughs and continues, “I know, I know. But I’m so excited! And Rory got in, too!”
“Ah, le boyfriend.” I raise my eyebrows and add the brick of noodles to the water, stirring. “How is the lovesick fool?”
“Head over heels for yours truly.” She quiets down just a bit and I hold the phone between my ear and shoulder. “Nah. He’s really good. I like him a lot, Katniss. Like, a lot a lot.”
“Prim, that’s great to hear. Really.” My sister is graduating. She’s enrolling in college. She’s dating. She’s—. I blurt out, “Are you being safe? Condoms and stuff?”
“I’m going to pour bleach in my ears and pretend that you never said that, thank you very much.”
“Prim, come on! This is important!”
“Ugh! Yes, okay? Yes we are being, you know. Blech.” I swear I can hear her cringe. “Change of subject, right now. Rory, Annie and I were thinking of coming out and visiting you guys. What do you think?”
“Yeah! We’d love to have you come out here! When?”
“We were thinking late March or early April. That leaves enough time before finals and graduation in June. Is that okay with you and Peeta? How is he by the way?”
I look up and see Peeta sleepily walking into the kitchen. I smile and say, “He’s right here. Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
I hand the phone to him and he mouths “who is it?” before I whisper, “Prim.”
Peeta and Prim continue chatting while I assemble the Ramen and hop back up on the counter, grabbing the whole pot and cushioning it with a potholder. Peeta keeps talking and walks forward.
“Absolutely. We’ll plan on showing you around. Maybe we can take a day trip to Boston, too.” He smirks at me with that last suggestion, knowing I recommended doing just that quite recently. B.D. Before Delly. He “mmmm-hmmm’s” a few more times and wraps it up. “Sounds good. Katniss says goodbye, by the way. She’s stuffing her face with Ramen noodles. Yeah, I know. She still can’t kick the cheap college kid habit.” I kick his shin and he laughs. “Bye, Prim.”
He stands in front of me, palms on my knees and looks into the pot. “I’m starving. Feel like sharing?”
I twirl an obscene amount of noodles onto my fork and hold it out; Peeta’s lips wrap around the whole forkful. What a guy.
“Now who’s stuffing their face?”
He smirks, chewing and I take another bite.
Today is the best kind of day.
Even working the morning shift is better. It’s dark outside but it’ll take more than 6 a.m. to dampen my good mood. Plus, Thresh and I are planning a few spring/summer trips and I’m excited to see where we might travel.
“Well it’s about damned time.” I look up and see Johanna with her hip resting against the counter and her arms crossed over her chest.
“About time for what?” I grab my coffee and walk over slowly. Esselon’s not even open yet but we’re here getting ready for the morning rush. I even grab Mr. Miller’s usual—currant scone, clotted cream and Earl Grey to go—and place it out on the counter for the customer who is always (and I mean always) here the moment we unlock the door.
“You got lucky.”
My head shoots up. “What?! No.” I feel the heat rise to my face so I brush my hair away and mumble, “No.”
“Yes, you’re all blushing, too. Thank you Jesus it’s about time.” She walks to the front door and flips the sign to ‘open’ before fiddling with the lock. Mr. Miller walks in and hands me his debit card.
“Good morning, Katniss. How’s everything with my favorite barista?”
Johanna runs over and interrupts with an injured tone. “What? I thought I was your favorite?!” He just smiles and shakes his head, taking his card and tucking it back into his wallet.
I hand him his bag and to-go cup. “Things are great, Mr. Miller. Thanks for asking.”
“Oh, things are great for Katniss alright,” Johanna emphasizes, “Stellar, in fact. I was just talking to her this morning about just how wonderful life can be—.”
I clamp my hand over her mouth and smile my apology. Mr. Miller looks at us with an odd expression but moves toward the exit. I call, “Have a great day! See you tomorrow.”
Looking into her eyes, my hand still covering her mouth, I shoot her my best scowl and hiss “I will end you if you say another word.” I slowly lower my hand and she looks at me with a dead expression.
“Yeah, but was it good?”
She bolts to the back and I let my head hang back, huffing in frustration. The bell on the door chimes and I get to work.
“So ladies, what are you two up to this evening?” Finnick is washing dishes and Jo’s putting chairs on the tops of the tables. I turn off the lights in the office and grab a broom to help out.
“I bet I know what Katniss here will be doing.”
Johanna’s been implying. All. Freaking. Day.
“Oh yeah?” Finnick asks. “What’s on tap for tonight?”
Her snort lets me know that she’s about to make another smartass remark using the word ‘tapping’ so I beat her to it and blurt out, “Actually, I’m going to the Moan and Dove11 with a few of Peeta’s coworkers. There’s a bluegrass band playing.”
“Really?” He sounds surprised. It’s pretty well-known that ‘social’ for me usually coincides with the word ‘couch.’ “Can it be that our Kitty Kat is stretching her wings and getting some fresh air?”
“Oh, she’s getting some alright!”
I grab my coat and make my exit, not needing to hear the rest of this conversation.
The Moan and Dove has one of the most extensive lists of beer in the Pioneer Valley, which doesn’t really matter since they have Lambic12 on tap. The bar is wooded and dark, but we find Peeta’s friends right away. Or rather, they spot us.
“Hey! There he is!”
Peeta smiles and squeezes my hand as we walk toward the small group huddled in the corner. Rue is instantly recognizable but I have no idea who the other three people are. I urgently pray, “please don’t be socially awkward” before smiling at the people in front of me.
One of the guys yells, “You made it!” and clasps Peeta on the shoulder before turning to me and offering his hand.
“I’m Cinna, I work at Henion with Peeta. And you must be Peeta’s girlfriend?”
Peeta interrupts, “My fiancée. Everyone, this is Katniss. Katniss, this is Cinna, Portia, Beetee and you already know Rue.”
I shake hands with everyone in turn, but Rue pulls me in for a hug. “Katniss, it’s good to see you again! What would you like to drink?”
I order my pint of framboise and take a seat in the oversized booth next to Portia and across from Cinna. Peeta slides in next to me and puts his hand on my thigh, squeezing. The small gesture is comforting: I’m not great with meeting new people and he knows it. Peeta, on the other hand reminds me of my high school sweetheart: he’s animated and happy, clearly comfortable in his element. I smile and take a sip of beer.
“So, um, you all work at Henion?”
It turns out that everyone but Portia works with Peeta. Cinna and Portia moved here from Quebec a few years ago and are married. They’re very affectionate with one another and it’s obvious that there’s a great deal of respect for the other. Beetee’s new at the bakery and somewhat quiet, but clearly very intelligent. He, Cinna, Rue and Peeta are talking about the proposed farm-to-school program13.
Portia turns to me and says, “I’m glad to have finally met you. Peeta is very special, yes? He talks about you often.”
“Peeta is pretty wonderful, but I might be biased.” I take another sip of my drink. “How long have you and Cinna been together?”
Portia’s voice is soft and low. “Since we were children, really. We grew up together in Montreal and have been married seven years now.”
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I am a seamstress, but work at the University to pay the bills. We’re hoping to someday open a small boutique for my designs.” She looks at Cinna and smiles. “Someday. We’re expecting a baby this summer.”
I look down at her belly and back to her drink. She laughs. “Oh no! It’s water, Katniss.”
Of course. “Congratulations! You must be so happy.”
“We are, thank you.” She motions to Peeta and says, “Have you two thought of when you’ll be married? Do you want children?”
Peeta chimes in with, “We’re enjoying us right now. No big plans outside of this just yet.”
I smile and lean in to him as he kisses my temple.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“I love you back.”
The conversation is easy and I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying myself. By the time the cover band is ready to play, we’ve spent a couple of hours just getting to know one another. I’ve learned that Rue is not only like a worldly, older sister but is hysterically funny, and that Beetee is an engineer disguised as a baker. He was looking for a change of pace and found it in kneading dough. And the budding bromance between Cinna and Peeta is due to French pastry techniques. Go figure.
A banjo player introduces the band and we settle in for some bluegrass. Peeta and I both have an extensive love for music, specifically for the lyrics. The song14 is familiar to both of us and he turns to whisper the words in my ear. I intertwine our fingers and listen.
People keep asking and wondering why
There's always a tear in your eye
You've lived a hard life one I'd rather not lead
I ought to be glad it's not me
But when tears fill your eyes and clouds hide the sky
Your heart is so sad and you have a worried mind
You'll know my heart is with you and my love for you ain't blind
Your worries and troubles are mine
Now the nights are hard to get through as I wait restlessly
My letters are written in vain
Unsure of your feelings my tears fall endlessly
And my heart's beating rhythm with the rain
But when tears fill your eyes and clouds hide the sky
Your heart is so sad and you have a worried mind
You'll know my heart is with you and my love for you ain't blind
Your worries and troubles are mine
Chapter Ten Notes:
9. The U. Short for the University of Minnesota.
10. Golden Rodents – er – Gophers. Any self-respecting Badger refers to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers as the Golden Rodents and/or the ground squirrels.
11. Moan and Dove. Bar in Amherst. That’s all.
12. Lambic. Lambic is a specific kind of beer from Belgium, and while it comes in many different types that range from sour to sweet, I’m specifically referring to the fruit lambics. Some are sweetened so much that they are almost like a beer fruit punch, but the best are made with real fruit and are a treat to drink. If you don’t like beer, try this. If you do like beer, try this.
13. Farm-To-School. There are many cities and states that are trying to get farm-to-school to work. The program matches up local farms with local schools in order to make healthy meals an option for kids.
14. “Your Worries and Troubles Are Mine.” Song by Ralph Stanley. I love, love, love bluegrass music and this song (specifically the line about letters being written in vain) seemed to fit the story very well. You can be outraged that I didn’t choose “My Heart Will Go On” or something, but really, this is better. Listen to the song here: http://sunfishdunes.tumblr.com/post/39433908112/grizzy-peak-your-worries-and-troubles-are-mine
Author's Note: emarina, you're the best. You know the drill.
I don’t think we’ve ever talked this much. Sometimes we talk a little too much.
The last weeks have created a different kind of dynamic for Peeta and me. Instead of feeling like we are tiptoeing around each other, we’ve embraced this whole back-and-forth thing. We seek clarification when we need it and occasionally ask for some reassurance.
It’s not exactly like having to relearn to ride a bicycle, but there are a few things we’re surprised to find out. For instance, I like trying to fix things on my own and it drives me crazy that Peeta always wants to swoop in and make everything better. Peeta likes to lend a hand and it pisses him off when I’m too stubborn to let him help. So we try to navigate. Sometimes we’re successful. Sometimes not so much.
And yeah, on occasion we roll our eyes at each other because it’s so damn ridiculous being back on our best behavior. Peeta can’t help but laugh and says, “You know, we could also learn that not everything requires a 10-minute dialogue.”
We’re huddled in the kitchen; he’s making waffles and I’m doing what I do best—watching. He has the day off and promised me breakfast before I go to Esselon. I hold my hand around his waist, not wanting to let any space squeeze between us. I feel like I just got him back.
“I always liked waffles better than pancakes15.” I startle and quickly turn. Haymitch.
“Jesus Christ, Haymitch. You scared me!”
“There’s something about the crunchy squares that holds just enough stuff, you know?” He takes a seat at the table and I bring him some coffee. “And you even brought the fancy coffee home, sweetheart. How thoughtful. Well done.”
“How many do you want?” Peeta is standing near the table with a plate and Haymitch motions him over, taking the whole stack. He grabs the butter and syrup while Peeta goes back to the waffle iron for round two.
“So,” Haymitch takes a swig of coffee and another forkful of waffles. “We need to discuss the timeline for you two getting the hell out of my house.” I look at Peeta and he looks at me. This was not on my radar.
“Yeah, well all good things must come to an end, right? The truth is, I like my space and you kids need yours. You’re on your feet now and you need to move on. Find a place of your own.” He looks from me to Peeta and then back to his plate. “Soon.”
“Of course.” Peeta joins us at the table and forks some waffles on my plate. “We’ll be out of your hair as soon as we find a place. We can start looking right away.”
I look at Peeta and he smiles, giving me a slight nod.
“Yeah. Um, I’ll call Thresh to see if I can make up some hours another day.”
My boots are laced and I wrap a scarf around my neck, waiting for Peeta to finish getting dressed. We now have a tiny thing to deal with on his day off (and technically, now mine): look for housing.
“I guess I didn’t think it would happen so fast, you know? I thought we were keeping up with the housework and meals.”
“I don’t think it really has anything to do with us imposing on him, Katniss. I think this is Haymitch’s way of pushing us just a little.” He stands in front of me and pulls a hat down on my head. “You know, love disguised under general annoyance and disgust.”
I throw my arms around Peeta and breathe deeply. I need to ask this, even after everything that we’ve said over the past weeks. “Are you okay though, with us staying in Amherst?”
He holds me tightly and answers, “On principle alone, I refuse to live in Belchertown16. Awful, awful name for a town. I can’t have business cards and address labels with that on them. But yes, anywhere else in the general vicinity would be perfect for us, don’t you think?”
I smile back. “Yes.”
We spend a few hours walking and driving around, looking at pictures of places in flyers, in the paper and online. There aren’t many listings, but there aren’t usually many people looking for a place this time of year, either. There’s also a lot to consider in a pretty short amount of time: Peeta needs space to continue his freelance work, neither of us wants an extensive commute to work and I’d prefer something a little more rural. Of course we will need to make arrangements to end the lease in Madison and get the rest of our stuff out here. Maybe everything can be stored at my mom’s place until we go back for Prim’s graduation.
“Hey, look at this one.” Peeta shows me a listing on Craigslist for a small, single-family home just a few blocks from Haymitch’s. “We’ve been driving around all day. Might as well go past it on the way home.”
From the outside it seems perfect. The house is very small and looks like it would be at home on a Christmas card. The lot is heavily wooded and it’s on a dead end street, too.
Peeta dials the number listed on the ad and I’m surprised when it sounds like we can look at the place in a few minutes. “Great! We’ll be here.” He ends the call and explains, “The owners live three streets down and will be right over. It sounds like they just want to get someone in here.”
I open my door and get out of the truck to walk around. Peeta does the same, checking out the neighboring homes. “Am I the only one who cannot wrap their head around the last few weeks?”
“You mean you didn’t anticipate fighting, having a come-to-Jesus and getting kicked out of your uncle’s house?” We both start laughing. “It’s been a pretty solid month, huh?”
The owners pull up behind us and we shake their hands before assuring them that we are not students and then head inside. The place is clean, with a kitchen, living room, den and bathroom on the first floor. The upstairs is open with sloped ceilings, ideal for a bedroom. Small doesn’t do it justice. It’s about the size of a postage stamp.
“We know it’s tiny, but there’s plenty of storage in the basement and laundry, too. Doesn’t take much to keep it warm in the winter and the fireplace works. There’s a garage and you’d be responsible for snow removal and general upkeep. Rent is due on the first of the month, no exceptions.”
I ask, “Do you mind if we walk around again?”
“Sure, take your time.” They head outside to the garage to give us some space.
We walk down the stairs to the basement: it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s dry and has plenty of shelving. According to Peeta, the kitchen is small (no kidding) but workable. It’ll be different just having the one bathroom on the main floor but the fireplace is a huge bonus. Plus, it’s close to Haymitch’s: I’d like to keep tabs on the old man and I want him to be part of our lives, too. Upstairs I look out each of the windows and turn to face Peeta.
“We’ll need to start looking at Goodwill for some essentials, I guess. At least until we’re able to get our stuff from Madison.
“Right. We can make due with a few things until then. We should just go to Bob’s17 and get a new mattress though. Do you think Haymitch will let us borrow a few things?”
I nod absently, looking around and then back at Peeta. “What about your art? Will the space downstairs be enough for you?”
“It’s great. It’s on the main floor, so there’s perfect access to everything I need and the lighting is good.” He smiles and stands in front of me. “Katniss, I think this place is about as perfect as it’s going to get on our budget. I love it. I say we take it and be done with looking.”
I hold his face between my hands and kiss him my ‘yes.’ “Well, let’s see when we can move in.” I take his hand and we walk downstairs18.
“What do you mean you found a place?” Haymitch is at the table, beer in hand and Peeta’s at the stove. I grab two beers from the fridge and pop them open, handing one over to Peeta before taking a sip.
“We found a place over on Shattuck Road this afternoon and we can move in this week. The owners are going to do a quick once-over for repairs and then we’ll pack up.”
“Yeah, but is the place decent? You’ll probably get shit for heat and then what?” He shakes his head and continues, “You should have let me take a look before signing a lease, sweetheart.”
Peeta interjects, “Haymitch, I think it looks great. Katniss and I have rented before and it’s nearby. I doubt we could have done better.”
I smirk. “And we’re close enough to stop by for nurturing talks, heart-to-hearts and cozy family meals. It’ll be like we never left.”
“I told you I want my space, so don’t get any grand ideas about dinners with Haymitch.” He begins peeling the label off of his bottle and lifts his eyes to mine. “But I figure you’ll need a few things to get started. You can take what you need, just until you get settled. This is still my stuff.”
“Thank you, Haymitch.” I take plates of food from Peeta and place them on the table. Once Peeta’s seated we dig in. “But the weekly dinner is a non-negotiable.”
If you think about it, there’s not much to pack. Clothing, mostly. Some books, Peeta’s art supplies. The bed was delivered yesterday and we’ve taken over a few kitchen items like pots, plates, silverware, glasses and utensils. We scavenged around some of the thrift stores, too and have a random assortment of lamps and tables, plus a dresser for the bedroom and a tiny TV for downstairs. Oh, and a Crock Pot! Haymitch even pitched in some towels and sheets for the interim, while coworkers have offered us everything from an old couch (yes, please) to a shag rug (thanks, but no).
“Katniss, I think that’s everything.” Peeta calls up the stairs and I quickly take one last look around. “Come on, one more trip.”
These rooms have been my refuge many times over the years. It’s bittersweet to close the doors again.
I walk downstairs and look around for anything I missed, knowing that I can come back any time. “God, this place looks completely different from when I first came here. ‘Disgusting’ wouldn’t accurately describe it.”
Peeta snorts and adds, “And it will probably look completely different after 24 hours of all-Haymitch all the time.” He holds my hand. “You okay?”
My smile is a mixture of ‘yes,’ ‘maybe’ and ‘I hope so.’ “A lot happened here, you know? Things were fixed.”
“I know.” He holds me close. “Who knew that it would take a practically condemned house and cranky distiller to realign the planets?”
I laugh and squeeze him back. I know we’ll be here often enough and I’m ready to start again in the new place. “Okay. Let’s go unpack and christen the place.”
“I like the way you think.”
End Part Two
Chapter Eleven Notes:
16. Belchertown. This is a real town and I really did refuse to live there based on the name.
17. Bob’s. It’s a New England furniture distributor. You know that local business that has the most annoying commercials ever? The kind of commercial that you mimic, make fun of and/or quickly turn the channel to avoid? Yeah, that’s Bob’s.
18. A general note about them finding a place. Yes, it is fast. This is exactly how I found my first place in Amherst, so to everyone who says “No way that could have happened,” it can, it did and it was fun.
Author's Note: so that's part two. I'll be posting it to tumblr sooner or later (sunfishdunes) and then it's on to part three, which is the final installment. Thanks for reading!
Author's Note: Here it is! The last chunk of chapters! Thank you all so much for your words of encouragement and kind notes here as well as on tumblr. I appreciate the feedback and look forward to your reactions to the closing out of "Reprieve." If you're so inclined, a playlist that coincides with the story themes is also on my tumblr. To emarina, thank you for your friendship! It has been a pretty awesome discovery.
Two months later, Peeta and I have found a sort of routine in our new surroundings. Somehow it feels different than when we lived at the apartment, and certainly different than when we lived at Haymitch's. In Madison we did what so many undergrads did: we played house. Just the prospect of not living in the dorms or the houses we grew up in was enough to satisfy us until we excitedly looked for a place off campus. That in of itself was so "grown up." Our parents might not have liked it, but we didn't care. We were in love with the idea of perfecting our roles as dutiful boyfriend and girlfriend.
Haymitch's was a completely different ball game. There, we tiptoed: around each other, around Haymitch as his "guests" and around the predicament we found ourselves in. We were (mostly) on our best behavior. It was a safe house. It was a bridge between where we had been and where we wanted to be...someday.
But Shattuck Road is its own ball of wax. We've lived together long enough (and under such different circumstances) that the novelty has somewhat dimmed. Not in a bad way, but in a mature way. That's not to say that we didn't act like complete morons the first weeks. It started with shutting the door the first time we were "home" and yelling at the tops of our lungs, knowing that no one else was there to complain or laugh. We played music constantly, impulsively dancing instead of making dinner. One of us would come home and the other would make a tackle the minute we were in the kitchen, propriety out the door as clothes went flying. We sat around in our underwear and ate what we wanted until the craziness was, for the most part, out of our systems and we returned to the real world.
Totally blissed out.
"This might not end well, you know."
I slowly spin in a complete circle from my spot near the kitchen to survey the situation. Our postage stamp-sized house plus Peeta's coworkers plus my coworkers plus Annie, Prim and Rory. All under this miniscule roof for what we then thought was a brilliant idea.
"Maybe they won't all come?" I suggest, trying to make the best of the situation. "Or maybe they won't all come at once?"
Peeta stands in the middle of the kitchen and tugs on his shirt collar. "But if they do, then what?"
I laugh, "Um….then you and I will hide upstairs?" I shrug and walk over to him. "It's only for one night. How often will all of our worlds collide like this? Besides, what's the worst that can happen?"
He kisses me and leans back to ask, "Remind me exactly how I got you to agree with this?"
"I think the key is to make suggestions while spooning, post-orgasm."
"I should write that down."
Annie, Prim and Rory will be flying in to Bradley the next day and we've decided to have a party that night at our place in order to merge all of our lives. I like the Henion folks a lot and Peeta's interactions at Esselon were pretty positive, minus the occasional inappropriate grab of the ass by Johanna. It is the first time that some of the most significant people from Madison will be here in our newly-created reality and we are anxious to make good impressions.
Peeta and I take off of work: we both need to prep some last minute things for the party and I am going to drive to the airport solo to pick up our three houseguests. It might not be the Weston but we offered to let them crash at our place for the weekend. After borrowing two air mattresses, designating the couch as a bed and temporarily moving some things upstairs, we at least had places for them to sleep.
"Hey did you stop at Liquors 44?" Peeta calls to me as he's rummaging through the refrigerator.
"Yeah, everything is in the garage. We're totally set there. Soda, too." I yell back from the living room where I'm pushing everything against the walls. Something about creating the illusion of space. "What about the food?"
"Katniss, we have enough food to feed a freshman dorm. Toilet paper?"
"Under the sink."
An hour before I'm supposed to leave for Hartford we sit, exhausted, just looking around. For now, everything is clean. I lean into Peeta and sigh.
He turns to kiss my forehead. "Something on your mind?"
I try to gather my thoughts, but it isn't working. "I'm not exactly nervous, but I'm…I don't know. Do you think that people will see that we're happy?"
"Since when do you feel like we have to prove anything?"
"That's just it. I don't really feel like we do. It's weird; I can't quite put my finger on it."
"Maybe it's the fact that Rory will be here? This is the first time you'll see him as Prim's boyfriend. Plus there's the Gale thing."
For someone who was so firmly entrenched in our lives, we haven't mentioned him once since we left Madison. Not since he made it quite clear that he was removing himself from the entire situation. We've both kept in touch with our families and with Annie, but certainly not our former best friend.
"Do you ever miss Gale?"
"Every once in awhile I wonder what he's up to. But he made his feelings known. He did some things that I have a tough time forgiving, you know?"
I nod. "Sometimes I feel like Madison is there, waiting in the wings. Like we should deal with it at some point."
"You mean we should deal with the people there?"
I nod again. He continues, "We promised each other that we'd give everyone the finger, remember?" I laugh and he squeezes my side. "Everything will work itself out. We've proved them wrong, they just have to see it. They'll eventually come around and this weekend is a good step in the right direction."
We sit in silence for a few minutes. I murmur, "Hey."
"I love you, you know that?"
"Love you too, babe."
Two hours later and I'm pacing near the bottom of the escalators at Bradley. The plane was slightly delayed but the monitors tell me that they should be here any minute.
Any minute now.
"Katniss!" I look up and Prim's dancing on the escalator, either really happy to see me or really in need of a restroom. She launches herself into me and I soak her in. My baby sister.
"Argh! Prim! I am so happy you're here!" She pulls back and I wrap Annie in a hug as well. "I can't believe you're here. It's been way too long!" Finally I look up and see Rory—the spitting image of Gale, standing awkwardly in front of me—and give him a gentler squeeze. "It's so good to see you. All of you."
Their bags are all collected and I lead them to my car, Prim and Annie gabbing the whole way.
"Oh my god, and the guy next to Annie was so gross!" said Prim.
"Katniss, he took his socks off. It was offensive."
"Right? I mean, who does that in public?"
We fit the luggage in the trunk and begin the short drive back through Connecticut and into Massachusetts. Prim squeals and points things out that she remembers along the way.
Annie is in the passenger seat and looks over while I'm driving. "You're looking good. How's Peeta?"
"Thanks." I quickly look her way and smile. "Peeta is great. He's at the house getting the food ready for tonight." I look in the rearview mirror and add, "He's excited to see you guys."
I fill them in on who will be coming tonight and their relationship to both of us. "Everyone is really nice. Jo will try to shock you but she's basically harmless. And tomorrow we can drive to Boston…we'll check out some touristy stuff before the BC/BU game."
We pull in to the driveway and I honk the horn. Peeta rushes out of the house with an apron around his waist and grabs Annie in a hug. Prim runs over, too and gushes over him before Rory extends his hand. Peeta contemplates this for a split second before shaking it and welcoming everyone inside. I round the car and he waits for me, pulling me in for a kiss. He whispers, "Okay?"
"Yeah, okay." I look down and smirk. "The apron is pretty sexy, you know."
"Want me to get grabby with my flour-ey hands?"
"Get in here, you dork."
He smacks my butt anyway.
The grand tour takes all of two minutes. The luggage gets thrown in the den for now and we decide that Annie and Prim will take the couch and mattress in the living room. Rory will eventually end up in the den. No way am I cool enough to let Prim and Rory canoodle.
Each of them takes turns showering before everyone else starts to arrive so Peeta and I spend time chatting with everyone in turn. Prim and Rory haven't gotten their dorm assignments yet, but hope to be fairly close to one another. It's cute how they keep their distance when other people are in the room versus fawning all over each other. Not that I'm complaining.
"Rory, have you decided on a major?"
"Microbiology. I'll be pre-med."
Rory has always been quiet, but Prim more than makes up for that. "That or Neuroscience, right? Rory got a full scholarship, too." He turns red but Peeta bails him out by asking Prim to arrange crackers on a tray.
"Is that right? Wow, congratulations, man. Your mom must be proud."
He's a little noncommittal. "Yeah, I think so. One less thing to worry about."
Rory exits as Annie joins us, grabbing a glass of water and leaning against the counter. She's even more beautiful than I remember if that's possible.
She takes a sip and shrugs. "Alright. Things are busy, but a little bit predictable, you know? I figured it would be a little more exciting, but there's a lot of paperwork." Annie pauses and then blurts out, "I'm actually looking for something else."
Already? That's not like Annie. Peeta echoes my sentiments when he says, "Oh really? That's kind of…fast."
"I know it's quick, but I just have a gut feeling about this, guys. I don't want to be pushing papers around that much longer. I'm not saying that I should have an office with a view, but I need something a little more fulfilling, you know?"
I chime in with, "No, it makes sense. It's important to like what you're doing and you've never been one to just work for a paycheck. Do you want to stay in Madison?"
Her head slowly leans toward one shoulder and then the other. "I'm not sure yet. We'll see what's out there."
Rory lets Prim know that the bathroom's free and says he'll be making a call in the den. The three of us converge on a platter of veggies and continue our conversation.
Peeta says, "Well we wish you the best. Someone will be lucky to have you."
"Speaking of lucky, how are you guys?"
I look at Peeta and he looks at me, both of us smiling and raising our eyebrows at the other. He begins, "Pretty great, if I do say so myself."
Annie asks us how we like our jobs and we try to give her more detailed descriptions of who she'll be meeting over the course of the evening. Prim and Rory are a little young, but I'm not too worried about them feeling left out. Speaking of Prim—.
"Prim! Are you done in there? People will be here soon."
"Some of us do our hair and makeup, Katniss!" Fair enough.
The small house gets smaller with every ring of the doorbell. The Henion folks are here first, punctual and dependable like the bakers they are. Cinna, Peeta and Beetee discuss food in the kitchen while Rue, Annie, Portia and I talk with Prim and Rory about college life: the freshman 15 (or in my case, freshman 20), dorm life, why not to skip class and homesickness.
Johanna doesn't even knock. She comes in and grabs a beer before swatting Peeta's butt and yelling, "Brainless! Where's this sister I've heard so much about?!"
Prim's eyes widen and I introduce everyone to my mouthy coworker. Rory looks like he's looking for any excuse to abandon ship but Annie seems to take it in stride. Rue and Portia have been to Esselon before so they're familiar with her unique appeal.
Jo takes a break from storytelling and asks, "Where's Finnick? You did invite him, right?"
"Of course. He said he'd be here. Thresh was on the fence…I bet he backs out."
The doorbell rings again and I get up to answer it. "Hey Finn," I greet. "Come on in. Everyone, this is Finnick." He steps into the house and nods his greeting to the guys before saying hello to the ladies. "You know Rue and Portia, but this is my sister Prim, her boyfriend Rory and my friend Annie."
For once, Finnick is quiet. And Annie blushes.
It’s late by the time people offer to help clean up and start to leave. Rory and Beetee are still quietly talking science in the living room and Prim has drifted off on the couch. She seemed to have a good time talking with Rue and Portia, who are probably some of the only women she’s ever met who care about fashion as much as she does.
I say goodbye to everyone and walk back to the kitchen, only to see Finnick and Annie still there, washing dishes in silence. I observe them for a moment before walking to the living room and arranging air mattresses, finally putting a blanket over Prim. Rory collapses on his makeshift bed and I hear Peeta quietly call out to me, “Katniss, let’s go upstairs.”
I nod but cock my head toward the kitchen where I know Annie and Finnick still are. He gently shakes his head and smiles before taking my hand to lead me to our bedroom.
“But Finnick is still here. Shouldn’t we—.”
Peeta cuts me off with a soft finger to my lips. He leans in and kisses me, wrapping his arms around my waist and pulling me closer. I hum and hold him to me, smiling between breaks. He whispers, “They can handle it. And call me crazy, but I think they may want to chat a little bit more without a fully conscious audience.”
“You noticed that, too?” He nods and leans in to kiss my neck. “They weren’t even saying all that much.”
“Maybe not. But there were small touches.” Peeta sweeps the hair over my shoulder. “And smiles.” He looks at me and grins. “And just the right amount of shyness.” I look down but he touches my chin and looks me in the eyes before kissing me again and leading me toward our bed.
We wake up early and head downstairs quietly, knowing full well that our guests are probably still sleeping. At the bottom of the stairs Peeta stops short and I peek around his side to see Finnick on the floor next to Annie’s mattress. Everyone is fully clothed (thank god) and fast asleep.
“So I guess I’ll make breakfast for six then,” Peeta chuckles while I bury my head in his back. We slip into the kitchen and make coffee, chatting about last night.
“I had fun last night. Did you?”
I nod and sit on Peeta’s lap. “Yeah. It was nice seeing everyone at once, and I think people had a good time. Prim is obsessed with Portia. I think I overheard them talking about tunics. What the hell is a tunic?”
Peeta puts his mug down before taking mine and doing the same. He hugs me close and I return the squeeze. “I don’t know what a tunic is, but I saw how happy you were last night. You were beautiful.”
“Thanks.” All of a sudden I laugh and say, “Giving the finger is incredibly liberating. We should do it more often.”
Prim pads into the room. “Coffee,” she mumbles. I point to the pot and she rubs her eyes, adding, “Who are you giving the finger to?”
I tickle Peeta’s side and answer, “No one. Sleep well?”
She nods and leans against the doorway with her mug held tight. “I see that what’s-his-face is still here. Is he coming with us today?”
Peeta shrugs his shoulders. “Feel like French toast? We can eat and then get on the road.”
I volunteer to take my shower first while Peeta gets things moving in the kitchen. By the time I’m finished, I note that Finnick has left; I head upstairs to get dressed and find Prim sitting on my bed.
“Hey, did you have a good time last night? You weren’t bored, right?”
“Ugh, I am so jealous. Your friends are so cool, Katniss.” She dramatically sags against the bed and says, “Do you think they liked me?”
“I know they did, Prim. When has someone not loved my little sister?”
She smiles widely and then pats the spot next to her. “Sit down. I’ll braid your hair.”
I sit on the edge of the bed and Prim kneels behind me, taking a comb and gently working through the length of my hair. She plaits it carefully and talks while her fingers work around my head.
“You and Peeta are different,” she says. “Different than even way before the accident. What’s changed?”
I am not sure how to answer this. On the one (and obvious) hand, everything has changed. Absolutely everything. On the other, nothing has. Peeta brought up that 100-100 thing and we’ve been grappling with it ever since. It’s work to be you, you know? It’s work every single day.
But more than that, it’s private.
“Would you kill me if I told you that it was between Peeta and me?” She stops braiding for a second but then resumes. So do I. “We have this unspoken agreement to talk to each other instead of dragging everyone else into it.”
I feel like crap for essentially telling my sister that my relationship—which used to be in open season to chat about—was now a bit more under wraps. It wasn’t about not trusting her, or anyone else for that matter. It was about what was right for Peeta and me. All of a sudden I am fiercely protective of the one thing I—no, we—worked so hard to get back. But here I am, trying to justify my decision to keep my trap shut.
“I don’t mean for it to come across like that, it’s just—.”
Prim takes an elastic and ties off the end of my braid. She scoots to sit next to me and gives me a hug. “Katniss, you’re my sister. Seeing you happy is way better than the drama.”
I hug her back. “Things are good. Really good.”
“That’s all I need to know. But can I ask one more thing?”
“Can I still talk to you about Rory? Because you owe me years of gushing about a boyfriend.”
I love Boston. I love that the streets make no sense, I love the food on the North End, I love what a great sports town it is and I love the history. We decide to take the Freedom Trail tour since the Ducks are out of the question and spend the day doing everything tourists would do: Quincy Hall, cannoli at Mike’s, shopping on Newbury Street and pizza at Pizzeria Regina.
Prim and Rory walk in front of us, my arm is woven with Peeta’s and Annie is next to us. She hasn’t mentioned Finnick once, but knowing Annie, she will when she’s ready. I’m just going to nudge a bit.
“So did you have a good time meeting everyone last night?”
She’s a little red, but it could be from the wind. “You have some great friends. Makes me miss the times we all hung out, you know?” Annie turns to us and says, “Do you think you’ll be staying here long term?”
Peeta clears his throat and says, “We don’t really have plans to leave. Things make sense here. Why?”
“I miss you, of course. We all miss you. Don’t get me wrong; I’m ecstatic that you’re so happy, but I wish we were closer.” She stuffs her hands in her pockets. “It’s not the same.”
“No, it’s not.” We walk in silence, knowing that there is a lot we left in Wisconsin. I’ve kept in touch with Annie and Prim, and have even chatted with my mom on occasion. Peeta calls his family often.
“I know you needed to do this, I do. It’s awesome that you did this together. I’m just having a sappy moment of missing my friends.”
We continue walking a few blocks and eventually catch up to the store that Prim and Rory are checking out. Peeta goes in as well, giving Annie and me a moment to chat.
“We miss you, too. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do. But seeing the difference in you guys is worth it.” She sniffs—the effects of cold weather—and looks across the street. “So, your friend Finnick seems interesting.”
I smile and nudge her with my elbow. “Oh yeah?”
Prim brings Rory to Haymitch’s on Sunday but I decide to spare Annie that experience, instead taking her shopping in Northampton while Peeta gets a few things done at home. Annie falls in love with the quaint town, reminding me again just how similar Madison is to this part of western Massachusetts.
“I don’t blame you for wanting to stay here, Katniss. This place is pretty amazing.”
“Amazing enough for you to come visit again?”
“Absolutely. I’d like to come in the summer and see everything in bloom. I’m sure it’s a lot quieter then, too, with all of the undergrads back home.”
We walk around for a while, admiring the older homes and mom-and-pop shops. Annie buys a coral scarf and I treat us to tea before heading back to the car.
“So, speaking of undergrads,” she says, “Gale is finally graduating.”
“Is that right?” I put the key in the ignition but don’t turn it. “How is he? I mean, have you talked to him?”
Annie nods. “He’s doing alright. He and Madge broke up, but I don’t think he’s dating anyone else. He is looking for a job somewhere in Washington or Oregon, last I heard.” She pauses before saying, “He wouldn’t say it, but I know he misses both of you.”
“Well, he and Peeta were best friends.”
“No, the three of you were best friends,” she corrects. “Always were. You know that Gale loved you. It was just for a tiny moment, but he did. And he never let on that it bothered him that you chose Peeta instead because he’d rather have both of you in his life than neither of you. Now he’s exactly where he didn’t want to be. He’s hurting.”
I know Annie can tell that I’m about to argue so she interrupts. “I know what he said was wrong. But he was there for Peeta when no one else was, so from his perspective, he did everything he thought was right by sticking by his friend and he still ended up with the short end of the stick.”
A sigh escapes my lips. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Even getting Peeta to talk about it would be a stretch.”
“I think you’ll both be glad if you at least try. You’re coming back in a few weeks for Prim’s graduation, which might be a good opportunity to try to come to an understanding. You both came out here to figure out where your relationship stands, and it seems solid. Don’t you think it would be a relief not to have Madison hanging over your heads like this?”
She has a point. We’ve been working on fixing the two of us, but as long as his family and our friends were skeptical of our (my) intentions, we’d (I’d) always feel that heaviness in the backs of our (my) minds (mind). Who am I kidding? It bothered me more than Peeta, seeing as how I was the one who skipped town. And now it was more than proving to everyone that Peeta and I were okay…it was about addressing all of the anger that everyone else experienced alongside us.
We head home in silence to pick up Prim, Rory and all of the luggage. This time we all squeeze in my car with Peeta driving for the trip to the airport. Prim begs to stop at Esselon before leaving town and we get drinks to go. Annie is pink the whole time but Finnick acts like nothing is unusual, chatting with everyone before they head back to the Midwest. He hands Annie her drink and she looks down at what he’s created on the top of her latte. Beautiful spirals swirl out from the center and she smiles at him, a better ‘thank you’ than any tip.
“I hope you have a safe trip home, Annie. Stop by again if you come back to town.”
“I will, thank you.”
The trip to Hartford goes quickly and before I am ready we pull up to the United departures gate. We can’t stay long so hugs are rushed and goodbyes are cried before the TSA marshal gives us the stink eye.
“I love you, Prim.” The waterworks begin. “It won’t be too long before I see you again. Let me know when you get home. Take care, okay?”
She nods and cries a little harder as I hug Annie and Rory in turn. Peeta hugs them all before we get back in the car. The three of them wave as we drive off, heading back home.
We end up here a lot: me on the couch facing the den where Peeta works on his art. Sometimes he's sketching for a client, sometimes he's working on some digital stuff on his computer and sometimes he's simply working on a personal project. I end up reading most of the time, but on occasion bring some paperwork home to weed through.
Tonight Peeta's sketching for the hell of it and decides to join me on the couch so I slip a scrap of paper between the pages and close my book. I inch my way over to his cushion and peek at what he's putting to page.
"What're you up to?" I glance down but it's too preliminary to know what it will end up to be.
Peeta smirks and says, "None of your business."
"That's code for 'I don't know,' isn't it?"
"Yup." He looks and me and smiles, leaning in for a kiss. "But I'll let you know when I figure it out. Any requests?"
"Not offhand, but you should think about hanging some of your art here. Or even at Henion or Esselon. I'm sure Thresh would eat that up and you might be surprised at the reactions from patrons."
"I can see the headlines now: from croissants to canvas."
I smack his shoulder. "I'm serious! Don't just let them sit in the corner of the den."
"Even the ones of you?"
"No, no, no. Those stay here." Those particular pieces are absolutely not meant to be seen by anyone other than Peeta. I'm not even able to look at them much without blushing. The way he sees me—clothed or not—is intimidating.
Peeta chuckles and continues to draw. Watching him work is mesmerizing. I've actually fallen asleep a few times over the years just watching him, lulled into contentment as he repeats the same motions over and over and over. It must be something inherently Peeta because the same thing happens when he bakes: it's almost as though he's on autopilot and voila! End product!
"So I've been meaning to ask how things went when Prim and Annie were here. Did they mention anything about us?"
I'm snapped out of my head and blink a few times, again looking at Peeta.
"As a matter of fact, yes." I pull my feet under me and face him. "I am proud to report than I tactfully told them to find a new hobby." I smile and continue, "Not in so many words, but I did tell them that things were a) private and b) great. But, um, when Annie and I were talking she brought up Madison." He nods but keeps drawing. "Specifically Gale."
That earns a reaction and Peeta puts down his artwork before turning to me. "What about Gale?"
"I don't know. She mentioned that he was graduating and looking to move." All of a sudden my cuticles are really interesting so I poke at them until Peeta puts his hand over mine, silently asking me to continue. "She thinks that it would be a good idea to try to talk to him. What do you think?"
He's quiet for a long time. So long, in fact, that I wonder if silence is his answer. But eventually he calmly asks, "Why now?"
"Why not?" I squeeze his hand and continue, "I mean, I wonder if it would be a good idea to at least try to talk to him. At least we'll know we made an attempt—."
"Katniss, he made himself pretty clear—."
I interrupt, "All I'm saying is that it might be a good chance to clear the air once and for all." I pause to let my words sink in. "We were all pretty emotional that day. You included. Maybe we should just give it a shot."
Peeta rubs his face with his hands, sighing before relenting. "I'll think about it, alright?"
That's all I can ask of him. I've had this off-and-on nagging feeling about Madison and while I'm fucking ecstatic that Peeta and I are in a good place, I know that we have to address Wisconsin sooner or later. Gale. My mom. Peeta's family.
"And your family?" I mumble.
"What about them?"
I look up and lock eyes with Peeta. His glare is intense but I hold it. "Well, I'm assuming we'll see them?"
Peeta doesn't say anything, which simply confirms my fears. I obviously knew that Rye was skeptical of my intentions. I had a pretty good inkling that his parents were less than thrilled with my actions and Peeta's subsequent decision to escape.
I didn't intend on this conversation taking the turn that it has, but I also am grasping at straws here. I don't want to dwell on the negative, and it isn't like we can hide out here forever just hoping that his family magically forgets why they're pissed. If we've tackled every other dark corner of our past, why not this one?
"I know they're probably angry with how I handled things, but maybe if they see us now, we can start to mend fences." I shift positions and wrap my arms around my knees. "I don't want to feel like I'm walking on eggshells, Peeta."
"I get that, but I think it will take some time with them."
"So what does that mean?"
"It means be patient."
Insecurity surfaces. "Do they hate me? I mean, you talk to them. What do they say about all of this?"
"Katniss, I don't have the answers, okay? Let me worry about it. I just don't think that we need to make a big deal out of it."
"But it is a big deal, Peeta! I don't want to always feel like an outsider with your family."
"We're in another time zone for god's sake, so why talk about it like we might run into them at the store or something?"
Frustration bubbles inside of me and I let being immature take over. I push off of the couch and turn to Peeta. "You said that we shouldn't worry about what everyone else thought, right? Did you really mean to say that we shouldn't worry about what everyone thinks of you?"
"Oh, come on! That's not fair—!"
"The only person I was concerned about gaining forgiveness from was you. You said this—" I point my finger between myself and Peeta "—was about the both of us. That it wasn't all me. Did you mean that, or is there an asterisk I don't know about? Is it really about us, or is it just about saving face in front of your family?"
I grab my book and walk upstairs, too angry and embarrassed to continue the conversation.
A couple of hours later I hear Peeta climb the stairs, get undressed and climb into bed. He immediately rolls to my side of the mattress and I turn over to face him.
"I'm sorry." He pulls me close and kisses me slowly, my snotty behavior apparently forgotten.
He brushes his fingers along my collarbone and says, "I know it's important to get all of this out of the way. The thing is, I don't know how to fix it all right away."
I nod. "This whole patience thing sucks you know." He kisses me again but I quickly pull away, asking, "We're in this together though, right? United front and all that?"
"Tag team." Again with the kisses. They're incredibly distracting, and I can't help but wonder if that's his intention. He mumbles, "I'll start with my dad, okay?"
Nodding, I get lost for a bit before forcing myself to shut off the voices nagging in the back of my mind and be present. Peeta loves me. I love him. We'll figure this out just like we've figured everything else out. I have no reason to doubt that.
I come back to the now and roll him on to his back.
Weeks follow and I've decided to leave it at that. Peeta doesn't need me to continually pester him for information or eavesdrop on his calls home. Trusting him to lay the groundwork for fixing this has to be enough for now. Of course I'd be a part of the solution, but he'd begin the process.
Not that I'm not anxious to get it resolved, and quickly.
Mr. Mellark is a good starting point. Obviously he's the parent Peeta is closest to and he's always been friendly toward me and Prim, even if the knowledge of his wife's abuse (and his subsequent sidestepping of the issue) has left a bitter taste in my mouth. I wonder if Peeta has ever spoken to him about what happened in that house. I suppose we all have stories we'll never tell. Still, he's the best option to break the ice. Then there's Rye, whose text messages remain on my phone to this day. Not so much as a reminder of the threats, but as a reminder of my promise to never hurt Peeta in that way again. Rye was sort of like a big brother to me, too, so I hope that he'll come around eventually.
That leaves Mrs. Mellark. I'd be lying if I said that I was looking forward to seeing her again regardless of the circumstances. Not only was our relationship cool and indifferent to begin with, but my extended knowledge of her cruelty disturbed me beyond belief. I didn't want her interacting with Peeta, but that also wasn't my decision to make. Whatever his stance was, I'd find a way to support it.
Peeta's home by the time I get off of work so I grab my bag and head inside. He's not in the kitchen but I hear his voice coming from the den. He must be on the phone so I start leafing through the mail and wait for his conversation to finish. Student loan statements, ValuPak coupons, March of Dimes, oooh! Penzey's1 catalog…
I'm startled by the frustration in his voice when he says, "I know that, alright? But you're going to have to let that go, Dad. Katniss did. I did. Don't you want to see me happy for once?"
Obviously I can't hear the other end of this dialogue and I'm not sure I want to.
"So, what? You don't want me to come home? Are we not welcome there anymore?"
My legs feel like lead and I sink onto a kitchen chair. I rub my temples as tears start to prick at my eyes. This is worse than I had feared.
"I love her!"
Why did I have to fuck everything up for him? Now he'd have to choose between me and his family; how is that fair?
"She's a part of my life. Dad, she will always be a part of my life, whether you guys accept that or not."
Am I worth it? Is all of this worth it to Peeta?
"Well I'm sorry Mom feels that way. And I'm not exactly shocked that you're blindly following her by default. Pretty much par for the course, huh Dad?" He pauses for a moment and angrily says, "Let me know if you change your mind."
I assume the conversation has ended as I hear him walk toward the kitchen and stop abruptly when he realizes I'm home. He stands there awkwardly and I look up, the panic and sadness spilling over my cheeks.
I swallow and gasp, "Now what?"
Peeta walks over and kneels in front of me, his hands on my shoulders. "Katniss, this doesn't change anything. Not one thing. What matters is this—" he motions between the two of us "—and that's all. Please, please don't worry yet. Please."
I can see that Peeta's about as upset as I am, clearly agitated that I'll deem it all too much. "We're still in this together?"
"There's nowhere else I'd rather be. Stay with me, okay?" His voice is trembling. "We've weathered worse. Don't back out on this now."
I lean forward and hug him to the floor.
Chapter Three Notes:
1. Penzey's. A Wisconsin spice-house that is AWESOME. They have shops all over the United States now and yes, you should sign up for their free catalogs.
Author's Note: I was looking through my book of quotes and came across one that really resonated for the next couple of chapters: "The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice." (Peggy O'Mara)
Peeta is sitting at his desk in the den and I'm perched on his lap. We're staring at the computer screen, reading and rereading the details, making sure we a) don't make a mistake and b) go through with it.
"We don't have to, you know."
"Yes, we do."
"Once we hit 'submit,' we can't go back. Are you sure?"
"You do it."
We're going to Madison.
Dinners at Haymitch's serve a few different purposes. The obvious (for me) is keeping an eye on the old man, making sure he eats and generally knows that we care. Slightly lower on the scale of importance (but in no particular order) are cleaning, slowly returning the items we've borrowed, repairing some things in the house, doing yardwork, taking the mountains of bottles to be recycled and making sure the garbage actually makes it out to the curb at least once a month.
He'd never admit it, but Haymitch loves our visits. Oh sure, he complains and barks orders and hurries us out the moment the dishes are washed, but I know that deep down he appreciates the company. He's been alone for so many years and I don't intend on leaving him hanging, wallowing ever further in guilt and depression.
We're leaving for Madison in a few days so tonight is our last visit for a while; Peeta's grilling brats and we brought some salads from the deli. I pop open two bottles of beer and head outside, handing Peeta a drink while he mans the grill. Haymitch should be here any minute now.
Peeta turns his attention back to the grill, turning the brats. "So I've been thinking about Gale."
I swallow wrong and cough, sputtering, "What?" I wipe my mouth with my arm and try to regain my breath.
"Gale. I've been thinking about what you said and I think you're right. We should at least reach out while we're in town." He reaches for a plate and takes the food off the grill. "The chicken shit part of me wonders if Annie might consider coming along as a buffer."
I smirk and say, "That could probably be arranged at a price. You know that her weakness lies in anything apple. Pies, tarts, crisps…"
Haymitch pulls up, slams the car door and walks right past us, muttering, "Like a damn circus around here."
"Love you too, Haymitch!" I call after him. Turning back to Peeta, I reach for the plate and continue. "I'm sure Annie would be game. It'll be like old times."
He rolls his eyes. "Right, just like old times."
We walk inside and put everything on the table where Haymitch is sitting, nursing a gin and tonic. He digs in before either of us takes a seat.
"We're not leaving before 8 o'clock, so you can slow down. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. The whole bit."
He gives me a glare and reaches for the bowl of coleslaw, spooning some onto his plate. "And how do you know that I don't have plans as soon as this love fest is over?"
"Because we all know that you eat ice cream while blubbering over the DVR'd episodes of Gilmore Girls the minute we leave." Peeta snorts and I keep going. "Come on. We're heading out next week. Would it kill you to sit around for a few minutes?"
Haymitch "hmpfs" and we continue in silence for a while. It isn't awkward—it's our reality and we're used to it.
Eventually Haymitch takes a swig and clears his throat. "So, you're going home. That sister of yours finally graduating?"
"Yup. Prim's heading off to college in the fall. Kind of hard to believe, huh?"
"What about everyone else?"
"Who, Mom? What about her?"
"Yes, your mother among other people. Remember her? And I assume you have family—" he points his fork at Peeta—"that you should probably acknowledge."
Peeta wipes his mouth and sits back, looking at Haymitch eat. I give him props—it's not pretty watching him shovel food into his gullet.
"We're going to see some people, yes." He weaves his fingers and places them on the back of his neck. "It's not exactly easy."
"And what gave you the notion that it would be?" Haymitch pushes his chair back and grabs his glass, heading to the porch. Peeta stands and grabs some of the dishes but motions for me to follow my uncle. I do.
"Haymitch, can I talk to you?"
"Oh Christ." He drains his glass.
"I know that this isn't your favorite pastime. For the record, it isn't mine, either." I fiddle with my ring but eventually blurt out, "I'm scared to face all of it again, Haymitch."
He hums, mulling it over. "What exactly has you so uptight?"
"Peeta's family is really angry about everything: how I left at the beginning, how we eventually took off together. His father basically told him that we weren't welcome there."
"How is this my problem?"
He's tracing the condensation that has trickled down his now empty glass. "You're young, you were stupid. You did what you thought was best and I gotta be honest, you two ended up proving everyone wrong. You beat the odds. They'll see that. They will."
This is where I think Haymitch is mistaken, but I don't say that out loud. Instead, I ask, "What if they don't?"
"What are you scared of, sweetheart? Scared that that boy is gonna leave you? I've seen the way he looks at you: he's not going anywhere."
"I don't want to be something he regrets."
"So don't be. This trip is gonna be hard for him, too, so you need to get a thick skin. Show him that no matter how shitty things get, you're still next to him."
"What if what? What if his mom slams the door in your face? What if his brother tells you to go fuck yourself? I hate to break it to you, but you'll probably hear worse than that. But that kid?—" He motions toward the door "—He loves you more than that shit. He chose you. Don't forget that."
The screen door opens and Peeta steps out, joining me on the bench.
"Don't let him forget that either." Haymitch gets up. "I'm going to get a refill."
Peeta pulls me to his side and asks, "Don't let me forget what?"
"That we'll be fine if we stick together."
"Haven't I been telling you that all along?"
"Well, yeah." I poke him in his side. "But it's like the internet. Hearing it from my inebriated uncle makes it true."
He takes my hand and squeezes it repeatedly until I look at him. "Are you still worried?"
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I just don't want to be the source of problems in your family. It isn't like I expect them to sweep everything under the rug, but I would hope that someday I could be forgiven, not for my sake but for yours."
Peeta nods and interjects, "You know that my family has a whole boatload of problems, so really, what we did is like number 462 of 689."
I don't deserve for him to lump my mistake into a 'we' problem, but I appreciate it nonetheless.
"Do you miss them?"
He clears his throat. "I miss Rye. I miss my dad sometimes."
"And your mom?"
"Would you think less of me if I told you 'no'?" I lean in and put my head on his shoulder. "Because I don't. Part of me would rather not see her next week, but I know that's not an option. It's weird, but she makes me feel weak; like no matter what I do, it's wrong. Maybe 'insignificant' is the right word. I'm pretty much guaranteed a full-on bombardment of shaming."
"Peeta, look at me." He holds my gaze as I say, "There is nothing about you—not your heart, your mind, your talent, nothing—that is insignificant. Don't let her turn you into someone you're not."
He pulls me in for a hug and holds me for a long time, whispering, "Thank you. I love you. I love you…" He captures my lips and I respond with kisses.
"Jesus God, get off my porch and do that crap at home!"
We guiltily break apart and get up to leave. I hug Haymitch—seriously, take a shower—and tell him when we'll be back before reminding him to pick up our mail.
Peeta and I walk away hand-in-hand. When we reach the mailbox Haymitch bellows, "Hey!" As we turn around he yells, "Don't make me regret fixing you!"
I look at Peeta and laugh. "That 'goodbye' wasn't half bad."
We head home.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our initial descent into Madison, Wisconsin. At this time please turn off all electronic devices and stow any items you may have used in-flight. Flight attendants will be walking through the cabin, collecting any items you wish to discard. Please lift your tray tables and return your seats to their fully upright position."
We each remove our earbud and Peeta wraps the long cord around his iPod. He's held my hand the entire flight, while I've rubbed circles on his wrist. His leg is bouncing with nerves and eventually I put my hand on his knee, trying to calm him.
"What time is dinner tomorrow?" I'm just making conversation. Rye called Peeta and extended the olive branch, asking us to stop by for dinner at their parents' place. Well, I'm assuming I was included on that invite. Tough shit if I wasn't…I'm going.
"Six-thirty. We don't have to go though. I mean, if you don't want to—."
"Peeta, we're going. We can't hide forever."
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Dane County Regional Airport, where the local time is 7:43 p.m. Please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened until the seatbelt sign is turned off. You may now use your cellular phones. Please be careful when opening the overhead bins as items may have shifted during flight. Thank you for flying American Eagle. We look forward to flying with you again soon."
All around us people are calling loved ones, acquaintances, coworkers and friends, letting them know of their arrivals. Next to me, Peeta's eyes are closed. His leg is bouncing again.
It's our turn to exit the plane so I rub his arm and stand up. He follows me through the cabin and the jet bridge until we get into the terminal where he grabs me and holds me close. People stream by us, looking curiously at the couple that hasn't even made it to the baggage claim.
"I hate this."
"I'll be fine. We'll be fine. I just want this to be over, Katniss."
A million times I've wished that I could go back in time and rewrite my crappy mistakes. If I just could have hung in there with a level head, we wouldn't be in this airport on the verge of vomiting up our nerves.
But then I remember the night of letters. I remember everything about that night. I remember Peeta telling me that this—what we had now—was what he wanted. We promised to push each other. We refused to give up. We made a deal.
The two of us stand there for a moment more before I put on a brave face and joke, "Come on. We have hotel sex to look forward to."
Peeta smiles—a real smile—and we go to collect our bags.
When either of us is filled with insecurity, sex is, well, purposeful. Dominance shifts repeatedly so that we each get what we need, whether that be demanding kisses, hands held captive, vulgarity, hair pulled taught, primal positions, raking fingernails, whispered endearments or shouted encouragement.
One of his hands supports me under my stomach and the other grips my hip. My head drops forward and my hair spills onto the pillow, my fingers clench the sheets.
His hand immediately slips lower and I let out a sound even I didn't know I had in my arsenal. Peeta speeds up and begins to lose his rhythm, finally collapsing on my back and propelling us both into the mountain of pillows. We're gasping and panting but he shifts to pull me to him. It's hot—almost too hot—but we don't allow for any space tonight.
"That was—" Peeta lets out a gust of air "—ah...aha."
I don't know why I'm chucking, but I am. "Yeah. What you said."
We're finally calm and the air has significantly cooled our sweat so I move to pull the sheet lightly over us.
"I love you."
He sighs and nuzzles into my neck.
It's amazing to understand and feel the shift that's taken place between us. No longer are his worries my burden. I don't feel weighted by his insecurities, much like I don't feel weak for my own. It wasn't about obligation anymore. It's what he and I do: we protect each other.
Author's Note (because one wasn't enough): My sincere thanks to emarina, my sounding board, friend and practically-sister. Then there's Kismetff, who made a lovely banner for "Reprieve", but more importantly, talks to me about everyday, mundane Everlark. To everyone who has sent notes or reviews, please know that I appreciate it more than you will ever know.
Since the majority of our stay has been planned around visits, dinners and Prim's graduation, we decide to spend the day hitting up some of our favorite places in town. I want to walk out to Picnic Point and Peeta wants to have lunch at Bunky's2. We comment on how much the campus continues to change with new buildings going up and old ones either being expanded or taken down.
Soon enough we're heading back to the hotel to dress for dinner and the nerves are back full-force. Peeta's changed shirts three times and I keep messing with my hair, insisting that this one piece is acting out. We're stalling. We know it.
"I suppose we should go. We don't want to be late." He nods and we walk to the car.
The drive is painfully quiet and before we're ready the car is parked in front of the Mellark house. Both of us glance out of the passenger side window, taking in the front of Peeta's childhood home. It's neither small nor overly impressive, nestled in a firmly middle-class neighborhood. He opens his door and the overhead light illuminates the car. I smile at him and move my hand to let myself out.
"Katniss, wait." I look over at Peeta. My fiancée. I look at him, expecting him to tell me that he loves me or that he's changed his mind and wants to leave. Both are expected. But instead he says, "Whatever happens in there, I want you to know that I choose you. I would choose you a million times over. Please don't forget that."
I'm sure that his speech was meant to be encouraging, but it makes me queasy. I push my insecurities away and put on a brave face. "I won't forget. And if for some reason I do, remind me, okay? Promise?"
He smiles and leans in to kiss me before we finally leave the car and walk to the front door. We stand there awkwardly, trying to decide if we should just let ourselves in—it is his family's house after all—or ring the doorbell. Neither is necessary as the door is pulled open, Rye standing there with a neutral face.
Peeta extends his hand. "Hey, Rye." His brother looks quickly at the offering before pulling him in for a hug and clapping him on the back, uttering "hello" a few times as both of them pull back. I stand slightly behind Peeta and look at his brother, putting on what I hope is some semblance of a smile and whisper, "Hi."
I'm floored when he reaches for me, too, not saying anything at first but holding me in a genuine hug. One that lasts. "Thank you for keeping your promise." I look at him quizzically and he shrugs, "My texts."
"What is he talking about?"
I fish around in my purse and find my phone, locating the old text conversation between us and show it to Peeta. Anger quickly flashes across his face and he mutters, "Was that really necessary, Rye?" He looks at me and asks, "And why in the hell would you keep that?"
Running interference, I shrug and calmly say, "He was right. This isn't mean, it's real. And I keep it as a personal reminder. It's fine, honest."
He slowly smiles and nods, giving in. "Okay." Looking up again at his brother he asks, "So what are we in for?"
"Mom and Dad are in the kitchen. We might as well go in and get this show on the road."
Together—as a group of three—we walk through the family room and past the dining room into the spacious kitchen. The house may be pretty common but the kitchen is anything but—credit the family business. Peeta's mother is at the stove and has her back to us but his dad looks up from the island and clears his throat, putting his paper down.
"Hi Dad." Peeta moves from my side and offers his hand, which his father accepts. Mrs. Mellark straightens and turns toward us before walking to Peeta and hugging him briefly. I can see his jaw clench. "Mom."
They both look at him like he's part prodigal son and part disappointment, flooding my heart with sadness. Mr. Mellark clears his throat again and says, "It's good to see you, son. You look well."
She's wringing her hands but juts her chin out, "You seem alright."
I stand there, feeling like a fool before Rye puts his hand on my shoulder, a gesture of comfort. Mr. Mellark catches the movement and says, "Hello, Katniss. Can I get you something to drink?"
"Uh, yes. Just water please." I look at Peeta, my shoes, the refrigerator and finally her. "Mrs. Mellark, it's nice to see you." She looks straight through me, making her point without a word.
"So Peeta," she starts. "How is your leg? I certainly hope that changing physical therapists so—abruptly—hasn't impeded your recovery."
"No, it's fine, Mom. I'm finished with PT anyway. I just go in as needed to have the prosthesis checked."
"Interesting." She moves back to the stove, stirring whatever is on the burner. Peeta heads to the fridge and pulls out a Coke, pulling the tab and taking a sip. "Oh for goodness sake, get a glass, Peeta." He opens the cabinet and retrieves a glass, pouring his drink without a word. I make eye contact and offer him a smile.
Rye tries to save us all and asks me about my job. "So where are you working, Katniss? Peeta mentioned something about coffee?"
Mrs. Mellark barks out a laugh and says, "A diner? With your education?"
I feel the heat creeping up my neck so I take a sip of water and calmly say, "I work for a local coffee distributor. We work with farmers around the world on blends and fair trade, plus we do roasting in-house. I travel—."
"Do you sell coffee? The drink?"
"Yes, but the business itself—."
"Peeta, bring me the salt." I'm stunned into silence but take a deep breath. Do this for Peeta.
He brings over the shaker and tries to interject, "Katniss actually does a lot of—."
"And what's this I hear about you working at a bakery? You had to chase her halfway across the country to roll baguettes when you could be helping your father right here? Helping with the family business?"
I look at Peeta and swear I see the seven-year old boy he once was: gangly, shy, unsure and desperate to please. I want nothing more than to rush over, hug him and simultaneously berate her for being so condescending toward her own son.
"Well, I needed a job." I know that he's making a convenient excuse. He loves Henion—it wasn't about finding a job, it was about finding himself in something he loves. He has friends there. He's a big deal there. He's happy there.
She waves a spoon in his face. "Are you telling me that your family means so little to you that you would leave us high and dry like that, without a suitable replacement?"
Mr. Mellark shifts at the island and simply says, "Molly, that's enough."
We return to an awkward silence. Peeta walks over to me and I slip my arm around his waist, hoping to offer a tiny bit of warmth in the midst of this absolute crap situation. He just stares ahead, a little boy.
I try again. "Can I help set the table?" Silence. I turn and move to the dining room anyway, taking Peeta's hand and bringing him with me. Once we're out of the view of the kitchen I hug him to me but don't say anything. He's stiff at first but eventually returns to the present and winds his arms my waist, squeezing tight. I whisper, "Okay?"
He nods and asks me the same. I nod as we break apart and begin to distribute the plates and silverware.
We sit around the table eating in silence. The food tastes off and I almost smile as I recall Peeta's theory that you can taste a cook's emotions in their food. Right about now I taste bitterness and misery. Between the sounds of forks and knives grazing the plates, there's not much else to be heard.
Until Round Two, that is.
"Well, Katniss, I hear that little Prim is graduating. Is that right?" God bless Mr. Mellark's attempt at conversation.
"Yes, she graduates on Saturday afternoon. She and Rory will be heading to the University of Minnesota together."
"Is that right? And what does she plan on studying?"
"Right now she's leaning toward communications, but—"
"Now why would she go to Minnesota, which is such a big school and so far away, when she is technically undecided?" Mrs. Mellark forks a piece of ham and pops it in her mouth, chewing slowly.
I put my fork down and explain, "Well, she loved the campus—"
"What is it with teenagers and 'loving the campus'? As though the campus has anything to do with a quality education? Really, I'm shocked that your mother allows it. And she is going there with her boyfriend?" She pointedly looks at Peeta, then her husband. "My, my. You Everdeen girls are so alike."
"Oh, didn't you know? Peeta had a wonderful opportunity to attend Loyola-Chicago, my alma mater, but chose instead to follow the likes of you two miles down the road. A complete waste of an opportunity if you ask me."
I glance at Peeta but he's simply looking at his plate. I need him to look at me. I'm willing him to look at me but he's frozen in place.
Please help me. Please remind me.
"I wasn't aware, but—"
"Well, that's the thing, Katniss: you never were aware of anything or anyone other than yourself." Mr. Mellark slams his fork on the table in protest but she beats him to the punch. "No, Graham. This is the truth and you know it. From the day that you stepped into our bakery, you have been nothing but a burden on my son and this family. We have watched Peeta follow you like a lost puppy, blindly putting his unshakeable faith in the fact that, on occasion, you might throw him a bone. He had everything—everything—at his disposal and wasted it on such a snippy little thing who took advantage of his good, loving nature. You whored around with him throughout his schooling, distracting him from his true potential. You left him when he was crippled and you jerked him back on a leash when you realized what a failure you actually were. How you can bear to show your face around here is beyond me."
Now it is silent. I bow my head, defeated.
Please help me. Please remind me.
But Peeta says nothing. And I can't do this alone.
"I fucked up," I whisper.
"Don't you dare use that language in my home!"
But I do, because I can't help but burst at the seams. It might waver, but I raise my voice. "I know I've fucked up. I know I'm not perfect. But I'm trying every single day to be better. And it is hard. It is so damned hard! I don't need my sins hung over my head as a reminder of how I made a mess of things. I look in the mirror and see my mistakes every fucking day! I made my amends, or at least I was told I had." I desperately look in Peeta's direction, but he's still staring at the plate in front of him. "When is it going to be enough?"
"I'll tell you when it will be enough: when you leave this family alone once and for all!"
"I love him!" I yell. "I love your son more than I ever learned to love myself. And you're right: he has amazing potential and an unfailing faith in people. He is so much more than you will ever know. He is good. He is so good. But he is who he is not because of you, but in spite of you."
Her mouth is open in shock.
Please help me. Please remind me.
Please look at me. Please hold my hand.
Why aren't you looking at me?
It comes out as a whisper. "I will always love your son. I can't help it." I hurriedly wipe my cheeks with my hands. "I don't want to help it."
I put my napkin on my plate and excuse myself, heading down the hall to Peeta's old room. I close the door and squat down, wrapping my arms around my middle and gasping with the pain. I can hear the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Mellark rising and falling with Rye interjecting; I make my way to his old twin size bed and lay on top of the comforter.
Please help me. Please remind me.
Unlike the ones at home, these pillows don't smell like Peeta anymore.
Chapter Five Notes:
2. Bunky's. If you're in Madison and want amazing Mediterranean food and/or the best hummus ever, this is your place.
Peeta's old room is a bizarre mix of childhood things and adult necessities. When he moved back here after the accident, he brought with him some practical things like a walker and cane, a few small pieces of equipment to help with rehabilitation exercises and endless pairs of sweats. No kidding, there are stacks of them in the corner—easy on, easy off.
The shelves over his desk are like a timeline of his life: books, trophies, photos, mementos and boyhood memories. He was always smiling, always sunny in spite of what was happening on the inside. No one knew. How is it that no one guessed what was going on? Then again, I didn't know the real extent of it, either.
On the lowest shelf is "The Missing Piece," one of his favorite Shel Silverstein books. I flip through the pages, reading, "One time it seemed to have found the perfect piece, but it didn't hold it tightly enough and lost it. Another time it held too tightly and it broke. So on and on it rolled, having adventures, falling into holes and bumping into stone walls." Gently, I shut the book and return it to its place.
I reach into the small drawer of his nightstand and look for the sketchbook he used to keep there, grabbing it when I locate it. I open the book and softly run my fingers over the sketches I've seen thousands of times. More often than not, Peeta drew me as he saw me: happy, laughing, introspective, pensive. He always said that he didn't need pictures because he could draw me based on any number of interactions, creating what he considered to be "the real Katniss." He's always been like that: arguing all sides of a story, insisting that we are more than a single moment in time, blending personality traits and colors into a "collage of the human spirit." Peeta sees all angles, every potential.
The door creaks open slowly and I look up, surprised to see Rye peering in. He offers me a sympathetic smile and quietly murmurs, "Katniss, I called Prim to come get you. She'll be here any minute." Offering his hand, Peeta's brother helps me off the bed and we quietly make our way to the bedroom door.
I pull back. "What about Peeta?"
"I think it's best if you just go. This whole thing is a long time coming, Katniss."
"Rye, I can't just leave him—."
"It'll be okay. You don't have to talk to Mom and you don't need to hear any more of this. I'm so sorry you heard any of it to begin with." His hand hovers above the doorknob. "Peeta needs to deal with this alone. They won't even see you leave."
I wrinkle my forehead in confusion. Did Peeta ask him to call Prim? Did he really want me to leave?
I feel like I'm in a stupor as I follow Rye quietly out of the room. I hover in the hallway for a moment before walking toward the living room and standing there, out of sight. They must still be in the dining room, though I don't hear any voices at the moment. Rye says nothing but gently places his hand on my shoulder.
All I want is Peeta.
Please look at me. Please help me. Please remind me.
Thank god he does.
"That's enough," Peeta murmurs.
But it's never enough with Mrs. Mellark. "No, you listen to me, young man! That girl is trouble and always has been. God knows what you could have been if you hadn't gotten messed up with her. Trash! She's trash! She. Is. Trash."
Rye sighs and squeezes my shoulder. I look up and tears trickle down.
"I said that's enough!"
"No, Peeta, it's not. You know I love you, but—."
I'm startled and jump when I hear his fists slam against the table. "Bullshit! Bullshit you love me!" His chair slides back against the tile floor just as the doorbell rings. Rye walks to the door and opens it, revealing a very upset-looking Prim. Join the club, baby sister. I take steps toward her—enough to be in the sightline of the dining room—and glance back at World War III. Peeta's head turns in my direction and he's simultaneously raging, confused and relieved, clearly snapped out of whatever was holding him under his mother's stronghold.
Rye interjects before I can answer. "I called Prim to take Katniss home. She doesn't need to be here for this—."
He looks at me with fear in his eyes—I choose you, please don't forget that—before shaking his head and coming back to me. "When are you guys going to fucking listen to me?! I need her, okay? I'm my best self when I'm with her. And that may never be enough for you, but it's enough for her. I love her! She's my family!"
Mrs. Mellark raises her hand to slap Peeta but her husband grabs her wrist and restrains her. "Molly!"
Prim gasps and I cover my mouth with my hand. Peeta stands there for a moment, transfixed by the action he must know so well. He eventually gives her a sad smile and simply says, "We're done. Never again."
He moves from the dining room and walks over to me, taking his palms and framing my face. "Never again." His thumbs wipe away the tear tracks and he says, "Okay?"
Prim squeaks, "Um, should I—?"
Peeta takes my hand and puts an arm around Prim, ushering us both out of the Mellark home for what is quite possibly the last time. I look back and see his whole family standing there: one stoic, one incensed and one resigned. Rye gives me a small wave goodbye. Once outside, Peeta quietly thanks my sister for coming out and asks if we can follow her back to the house. She agrees, letting us know that Mom's working the night shift again.
He opens my door and helps me inside; I'm not sure if it is the shock of the evening or the unseasonably cold breeze that causes me to shake, but I can't seem to gain control of my limbs and my muscles spasm, my body trembles. It physically hurts.
Peeta walks to the driver side, gets in and immediately starts the car, driving away without a word or look back. His hand finds mine and grasps it, squeezing while glancing over at me nervously. "Almost there, Katniss. Almost there." It's as though Peeta's gained clarity but I'm in a fog.
The streets are dark but lamps throw circles of light every 50 feet or so. I look up and each light creates a distorted starburst through my tears. Peeta turns the heater on, hoping that I'll warm up and stop shuddering. Eventually he pulls up to the house, quickly helping me out of the car and bringing me inside.
"Peeta, why is she—?" Prim sounds scared and small.
"She'll be alright. Could you make a little coffee or something?" He sits me on the couch and removes my shoes and socks, rubbing my feet and pleading with me without saying a word.
"Should I call our mom?"
"No, just give her a minute to come around." He kneads my calves and then rubs my biceps briskly in the hopes of relaxing the muscles. "Come on Katniss, relax. Let go."
I close my eyes and try to process what happened this evening. Haymitch was right when he said that I'd have the kitchen sink thrown at me. Had it not been attached to the wall, Mrs. Mellark might have literally thrown it at me. With the exception of that moment months ago when I thought I had lost Peeta for good, I had never in my life felt the way I did tonight: worthless, hopeless, despondent. Back then, I could at least pinpoint where I went wrong. There was a source, cause and effect. But now, the lines are fuzzy and they don't all point at me. Sure, a few run parallel, but they'd been on a collision course long before I was even on the map.
I open my eyes and look into Peeta's. Understanding floods my senses: he chose me. I don't have to be something he regrets. I can choose, too.
"Peeta, I'll be your family now."
He smiles, relief painted on his face. "For a second there I thought you had forgotten. But yes, you're stuck with me. I'm hoping that's okay."
I pull him to me and hear "ooof" before he whispers, "I take that as a 'yes'."
We lay there, the odd tremors gradually subsiding while Peeta strokes my hair. Prim appears with mugs of tea, murmuring, "I thought chamomile would be better." Sitting up slowly, I reach for a mug and Peeta takes the other. Prim grabs a third from the kitchen and joins us, tentatively asking, "What happened?"
Peeta rehashes some of the vague details of the evening, just enough to help Prim understand. I can't "un-hear" some things and she certainly doesn't need to be dragged into the same boat. When he's finished explaining and Prim starts with questions, I quietly ask if we can stop talking about it. It's enough for tonight. They both nod.
By the time we've finished our tea, my body is so sore that I need to be helped up from where I'm sitting. Prim makes me promise to call her tomorrow and Peeta and I again head out to the car. The drive back to the hotel is nothing like the one we took earlier this evening. For as much as we were put through the ringer, there's a distinct calm, the kind you experience when you come to terms with a decision. The kind of calm that comes with a resolution.
Peeta flips the 'do not disturb' sign, shuts the door and locks it, then walks to the bathroom and turns on the shower. I close the drapes before removing my clothes and he does the same without an ounce of lust or desire. Just quiet.
In the shower, I face him and he faces me. My arms wind around his waist, his come around my shoulders. I press my head to his chest, he rests his on the top of my own.
Peeta's heartbeat is strong and sure; I try to match my breathing to his. Eventually his hands come to my face, gently sweeping my hair back in order to look into my eyes. He leans in and kisses me.
I turn to shut the water off and we towel dry, pulling on pajamas. We turn off our phones, unplug the clock radio and flip the light switch, crawling into bed with heavy sighs. Peeta reaches for me and I go to him, hooking a leg over his and resting my head in my nook. I place my hand over his heart, feeling the pulse that anchors me.
Author's Notes: emarina, you know the drill. You're a great beta, but an even more amazing friend.
I feel like I've been run over by a truck. I'm not sure what time it is but my body is letting me know that I need to move now or this might become a permanent problem. Groaning, I roll away from Peeta, gingerly put my feet on the carpet and clumsily walk to the bathroom. I feel hung-over.
God, I look hung-over. There is nothing remotely beautiful about the face peering back at me: puffy eyes, serious sheet marks, blotchy cheeks, chapped lips and dragon breath. I pull my hair back before brushing my teeth and rinsing off my face. Not much better. Oh well.
I make my way back to bed, wincing with every step. Nestling under the covers, I groan again and snuggle back into Peeta's side.
"Please tell me that I'm not the only one who feels like they ran a marathon in Sorels3." Peeta's voice comes out as a croak and I chuckle. "I haven't slept that hard in years."
"I'm pretty sure that fibers from the sheets embedded into my skin." My nose is cold so I press it into his side and he protests, getting up and making his way to the bathroom. I whine and roll to the side he's vacated; it's still toasty warm.
Once he's back in bed and we're comfortable again, he asks, "Whose brilliant idea was it to schedule back-to-back confrontations like this?"
"That would be me." I kiss is chest. "And I give you permission to veto any ideas I may have regarding future estrangements."
He raises his eyebrows. "There will be more?"
"God, I hope not. We're running out of people."
Peeta is quiet and I realize that I've put my foot in my mouth. He went from having a family—admittedly a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless—to being alienated in a matter of hours.
I sit up abruptly, look down at him and place my hands on his chest. "Peeta, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking—."
He brings his hands up to cover mine. "Please don't apologize. I had a feeling that last night would happen, and I came to terms with that fact a long time ago. I'm actually just relieved its over, you know?"
I nod and lay back down. "Still."
"Now I have some control over the situation, which is what I've been trying to gain this whole time. The ball's in my court for once. Besides, I plan on keeping in touch with Rye, which is one good thing that came out of last night."
Leaning on my elbow, I reach to touch the short hairs near Peeta's temple. He smiles and leans into the touch; I murmur, "I meant what I said last night. About being your family? You and me."
His eyes glisten and I can hear the relief in his voice, "Thank you."
I hug him to me. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Peeta squeezes me tightly before pulling away and gently cups my chin. "Katniss, what she said, it couldn't be further from the truth. You know that, right? I mean, you believe me when I say that?"
I nod and take his hand, looking at our intertwined fingers. He's spent most of his life believing the lies his mother spewed and if I have to, I'll spend every day refuting her words. "That goes for you, too." He smiles.
Peeta and I lay there for a bit longer until our stomachs grumble about the lack of food. We turn our phones on and quickly shower, preparing for another big afternoon. When I get out of the bathroom, Peeta smiles and hands me his phone. There's a text from Rye.
I'm proud of you, bro. And tell Katniss I like her balls.
We decide that neutral, familiar territory is best. Peeta and I drive to Memorial Union and head to Der Rathskeller4 to meet Annie and Gale for a beer. It's a fairly popular place to study, though I'm not sure how much actual studying I ever did here. Too much beer, too much music.
Entering the Union from Langston5, we walk past the little counter selling ice cream and make out way through the old hallways, eventually veering right into the German beer hall: the 'Rat.' Peeta looks around and immediately spots Annie and Gale sitting in a corner near the popcorn machine. Annie sees us, smiles and stands, wrapping us each in a hug.
I look at Gale but he just purses his lips and nods. We take a seat across from them and order a drink. Where do we even begin?
"So how do we do this?" Gale still has the uncanny ability to steal my thoughts.
Annie quietly points out, "I don't think there are rules, Gale."
Peeta clears his throat—maybe it's a Mellark nervous tic—and says, "So you're graduating? Congratulations. Have you found a job yet?"
Gale looks at him for an uncomfortably long time before relenting and uttering, "Yeah. I'm heading to Eugene in a couple of weeks."
I chime in. "I hear the city is a lot like Madison."
"You could say there are similarities."
The four of us sit there for a while just looking at our pint glasses and occasionally steal glances at one another. Damn, this is awkward.
"I just don't get it, man." Gale's fingertips grip the edge of the table and his knuckles turn white. "How could you up and leave? How could you follow along so willingly after everything that happened?"
Peeta decides to hold my hand—a show of solidarity—and answers very simply, "I didn't have a choice."
I knit my eyebrows, Annie raises hers and Gale says, "Huh?" before Peeta continues. "Gale, I needed to get out of here. I needed to get out of that house; you know what went on there." He shrugs. "But more than that, I love her."
"She left you, man." He finally looks at me. "Katniss, you just left him there to rot. How could you do that? How do you justify that move?"
"I don't." I look down at the table and then back at Gale. "There's nothing I can say that will change what I did or how I hurt the people I care about. But I'm hoping that someday I'll be forgiven for the mistakes I've made."
"Yeah, well I'm not talking about some minor fuckup here—."
"Katniss, no." Peeta holds up a hand, asking Gale to wait a moment while he continues, looking at me. "Stop apologizing for things we've rehashed a million times over." Gale looks like he's about to interrupt but Peeta just looks over to him and keeps going. "Gale, with all due respect, we've both come to terms with things that happened before and after the accident. What happened was and is between Katniss and me. You were there for me and I will never, ever forget that. Thank you for that. I miss you man, but I'm not going to justify what we did anymore. Not to you, and not to anyone else. I would hope that someday you could accept our decisions and be happy for us."
"But what I saw—."
"What you saw was one side. One. I screwed up too, you know? And as much as I wish I could, there's nothing I can do about it now. But here I am—here we are—and we're good. We're happy."
Annie calmly interjects, "You three used to be so close. Don't you miss that?"
Gale's frustrated. "I was mad, okay? I can be mad."
Peeta nods and Annie looks at me. Gale has a right to own his anger. He slowly drums his fingers on the table. Change of subject. "So how's your family?"
A nervous laugh escapes my lips and Peeta smiles, joining in. "Well, let's just say that we won't be expecting a Mellark family Christmas card anytime soon." Gale and Annie look perplexed but Peeta simply says, "The shit hit the fan. It was a long time coming." He delivers the Cliffs Notes version—thank you Lord—and rolls his shoulders, seemingly ridding himself of the weight of the memory. I think I hear Gale mutter, "Damn."
Another silence creeps in so Peeta gets up to grab some popcorn for the table. Gale quips, "So Prim and Rory. My brother, your sister. What do you think about that?"
I look into his eyes and see a glimpse of the friend I once had. "On the one hand it's bizarre and on the other it makes complete sense." I laugh, "I don't think he gets a word in edgewise though. She doesn't know when to shut up."
He smirks and drains his glass, motioning to a waitress for another. "Yeah, well Prim has always said enough for both of them. He's a goner, but they're good together." Our eyes meet again as Peeta slides back into his chair. When I look at Gale, I oddly recall the day Peeta and I started dating—or whatever it is teenagers do when they're clueless and infatuated with the mere idea of making out on a regular basis—and flash back to that split second of thinking that maybe, just maybe, Gale liked me like that. But all I saw was Peeta. I smile when I remember and smile again when I realize without a shred of doubt that fate was on my side. It was always going to be Peeta.
"Rory's a smart kid," Peeta chimes in. "He's really grown up a lot."
Gale snorts. "Yeah, try telling my mom that. He came home after midnight a few nights ago and she's still pissed about it. Apparently the guy's grounded through June."
Annie laughs and says, "I wonder if Prim had anything to do with his breaking curfew?"
"Gah! I don't want to know, okay? I already asked about condoms and I died a little that day."
Peeta sips his beer and adds, "I bet she did, too!"
"When did you get old?" Annie accuses.
"When I found out my sister was dating a Hawthorne."
A sly grin breaks out on Gale's face. "Fair enough."
I smile back.
The conversation starts and stops in fits, but by the end of the evening we're comfortable enough to shake hands and walk away. Tomorrow is Prim and Rory's graduation and we'll see each other then. After that, who knows? Perhaps we'll talk again. Perhaps not.
Friendships are like Madison: everything changes.
Peeta drops me off at the house the next morning. He and Rye have plans to grab some breakfast and I need to spend some time with my mom. I open the door and smell the coffee, calling "Hello?" before combing through the cabinets, looking for some cereal. I mutter, "Thank you, Honey Smacks6" while grabbing for the box. I open the fridge and find the milk, pouring an obscene amount of cereal into a bowl and drowning it in skim.
Milk dribbles down my chin and I catch it with the back of my hand. "Hey, Mom." I put my bowl down on the counter and walk to her for a quick hug. She gently smiles and sweeps the stray hairs away from my face.
"Would you like some coffee?" She reaches for two mugs and pours us each a cup before sitting at the table. I take my bowl and join her, folding one leg beneath me on the chair.
"Still sleeping." She takes a sip of coffee but keeps her eyes on me. "You look lovely, Katniss. Happy."
I nod and reach for my mug. "I am. I'm very happy, Mom."
Since Dad died, our talks have always been like this. I think 'disjointed' is the right word. We don't know how to communicate without overstepping the boundaries we've so carefully plotted. I don't want to be coddled. She doesn't want to be inundated with emotions. It's almost like we're slowly dancing in a circle, wary of the other.
It again occurs to me that she and Prim have a very different kind of relationship. By the time my mother was ready to resume the role, I was too pissed off to give a damn. Prim, on the other hand, needed her. I had outgrown her by the time I was 14.
"Things will be different here when she's gone, huh? What are you going to do?"
Mom smiles a little and says, "I'm thinking of getting a cat. It'll be nice to have something to come home to." She takes another sip and says, "I'll be lonely, that's for sure."
I nod. "Yeah, I figured you'd miss her. She definitely adds something to this house."
"You did, too, you know. In your own way."
"We don't need to pretend to have an ideal relationship, Katniss. But we can stop pretending not to love each other." She reaches for the coffee pot again and refills. "I know what I was and I know what I wasn't. That doesn't mean I loved you less."
"Can I be honest? Because sometimes it felt like that." My cereal is long gone and I look in disgust at the leftover milk. I walk to the sink and rinse out my bowl before leaning my hip against the counter. "Sometimes I wished you'd just snap out of it and be the mom for once. I resented you for having to be the responsible one."
"I'm sorry I couldn't be what you needed." Mom sighs. "Do you really want to rehash all of this now?"
I turn to look out the window over the sink. "Not really."
Over the course of the next two hours she leafs through the paper and casually asks me about Massachusetts, Haymitch and Peeta. "Is he coming by? I thought he'd be here with you?"
"He should be here in a bit. He and Rye wanted to grab a bite to eat and talk about a few things before we fly out."
"So you'll be staying in New England, then?"
"I think so…for now, anyway. We both feel like it's become our home; where we're supposed to be." I reach for the sports section and say, "You're welcome to come out and visit us."
She pauses and whispers, "I'm sorry, honey. I can't go back there."
Minutes later Prim rushes down the stairs and we look at the girl we both played a role in raising. "Water. I need water. I ate way too much pizza last night and now I feel bloated." Yeah, that's her.
"You'll be wearing a robe. How much bloat do you need to hide?"
"Katniss!" Prim swings around and her hair hits my face. She looks crazed. "There is a photographer. These images will last a lifetime and I refuse to look…puffy!"
I laugh and Mom calmly says, "Easy there, sweetie. You have a couple of hours to flush out the salt."
Prim grabs one of the huge insulated mugs that hospitals hand out to patients and fills it at the sink before taking an apple and running back upstairs.
I hear a knock at the side door and Mom gets up to open it. Peeta greets her with a hug and walks into the kitchen, leaning over me for a kiss before making himself at home. He knows this house as well as his own.
"De-bloating upstairs." He looks from me to my mother and back again before I smile. "Don't ask. How's Rye?"
"Fine. We had a good time catching up." Peeta winks at me and helps himself to some orange juice. "Mrs. Everdeen, how have you been?"
"Peeta, you're marrying my daughter and have been a part of this family for close to ten years now. I think you can graduate to calling me Claire." She smiles and Peeta blushes, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Uh, right. I guess it's been engrained in me to call you Mrs. Everdeen. Tough habit to break."
She nods. "Things are fine. Work keeps me busy." Mom folds the newspaper back up and looks at the two of us, sitting across from her. "Thank you for watching over my girl. You always did take care of her in the way she needed to be."
Peeta interrupts me, "Well, I love your daughter. I like to think that we look out for each other."
"It shows." She smiles again and gets up from the table. "I'm going to check on Prim. I'll talk to you both later."
My mother heads upstairs where Prim is undoubtedly steaming in the shower. I'm not exactly disappointed in our relationship. Maybe I had romanticized what kind of mother I thought she should be. What kind of family we should be. When I look at Peeta, my vision of family morphs and changes. I have a fiancée who loves me more than I can comprehend, a sister who has walked this journey with me without judgment and a mom who is still trying to navigate the waters. As much as I hated being the responsible daughter, a lot of my self worth was and is wrapped up in that role. My life is completely intertwined with these people I love more than I love myself. I've played a part in this, too.
It's not half bad. It's actually pretty good.
Chapter Seven Notes:
3. Sorels. I assume that everyone is familiar with the winter boots, but then again, I'm from Wisco.
4. Der Rathskeller. The Memorial Union has a few little restaurants and bars. Der Rathskeller is a German Beer House and is commonly called 'The Rat.' Der Stiftskeller is next door and serves food.
5. Langston Street. A street that runs parallel to State Street; virtually every fraternity and sorority house is located on Langston.
6. Honey Smacks. Such an under-appreciated cereal.
Each family gets four tickets to graduation, so in addition to our mom, Peeta and me, Prim graciously invites Annie. Hazelle and the Hawthorne kids are part of the big day and we're all in one long row, waiting for the canned speeches and names to be read. I'm sandwiched between Peeta and Annie, with Gale on the other side of her. The mothers are on their respective ends of the row and assorted Hawthorne kids fill in the gaps.
Out of nowhere Prim comes running over and practically hisses, "Katniss! I need you!"
I get up and follow her to the back of the auditorium, through a hallway and into an open classroom. "What? I hope you don't need a tampon because I didn't even bring a purse. I can probably get a quarter though—."
"Oh my God, I don't need a tampon. What am I? Twelve?" She grabs me around my waist and hugs me close. "I just love you, okay? I wanted to thank you for everything before I walk across the stage."
"Prim, what is this?" I hear her sniffling and I try to lighten the mood. "Hey, hey, don't smudge your makeup."
"Thank you for being such a great sister." I walk to the teacher's desk and grab a tissue, handing it to Prim. "I don't know why I'm crying. I'm graduating…it just feels really real all of a sudden. I'm leaving Madison soon. What if I don't like the U? And what if Rory and I break up?"
"Hey, it's okay. Breathe." I start to take deep breaths to encourage her. Once she's a little calmer, I continue. "Yeah, you'll fuck up a little but eventually you find this crazy balance between holding on and letting go. It'll be okay, I promise." I take a tissue and help her dab at her eye makeup. "I'm really proud of you, you know that? Mom is, too. And Dad would be over the moon about his baby girl. He would." She nods. "Come on, you need to get back out there for the big show."
"Thanks Katniss. I love you."
I walk her back to where her classmates are gathered and then make my way back into the auditorium. I shuffle to my seat next to Peeta and he whispers, "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah. She just needed a tampon." He cringes and the processional starts.
"Ohmigod, thanks you guys!" Prim launches herself at Peeta and then at me, holding the plane ticket up for everyone to see. Mom invited the Hawthornes over for a small party and the graduates are opening presents while the rest of us eat cake.
"It's really a selfish present because we're hoping that you'll use it soon and come visit us again." Peeta points out that there are no restrictions on dates and Prim starts to make plans for possibly coming out this summer. "The door is always open."
She pouts dramatically. "I can't believe you have to leave today. I feel like you just got here."
I would never say it out loud, but I couldn't disagree more. Looking over at Peeta, I know that he feels the exact same way. These few days have been some of the longest of our lives and Peeta and I are anxious to get back to our own routine. We're also excited about the prospect of two additional vacation days at home, but no one else knows we planned for that; we need a vacation from our vacation. The plans for our stay-cation include sweats and beer.
Gale isn't here—he said that he had some packing to do and I figured he'd had enough forced interaction—but I look around and find that I am okay with the visit overall. I found my own balance of holding on and letting go. Some people fit in the 'hold on' category: Annie and Prim, for example. Mrs. Mellark is firmly in the 'let go' column. Some, like my mom and Gale, actually fit in both. Maybe that's acceptance? I don't know for sure.
"Is there anything we should pick up on the way home?" Peeta looks over at me from the driver's seat of his truck. We're on our way back from the airport and just passed into Massachusetts from Connecticut. "I don't want to leave the house once we close the door."
I laugh and playfully pat his thigh. "Um, I don't think so. I mean, you have stuff to bake with if that's what you want to do. We have pretty much everything else. Beer. Saltines. Cheese. Potatoes. I think we might even have bacon in the freezer."
"And your point is?"
He laughs and grabs my hand. "God, I love you."
Waking up is perfect. Our bed. Our sheets. Our house smelling like our stuff. I look over at Peeta—he's still sleeping—and spend some time memorizing his face. He's got a freckle under his left eye and there are creases near the corner of his mouth from smiling. There's some stubble coming in and I can see the little scars from when he had the chicken pox and probably scratched.
It's weird: when I look at Peeta I see just about everything I love. Everything from Esselon to Annie to Haymitch and the outdoors, from art to sourdough to stupid long sleeved t-shirts, from the Pixies to Prim to basil. It's comforting, not stifling.
His nose twitches a little and I smile. Peeta is the 14 year-old kid I crushed on and the almost-23 year-old man I'm engaged to. If I squint a little, I can see Peeta as slightly older. He's still my partner-in-crime, but things have changed. Maybe his graphic design business takes off, or perhaps he owns his own bakery. He snakes the drain when I'm too grossed out to do it myself and still doesn't unroll his socks before putting them in the pile of dirty laundry7. He's also a father; the best dad any kid could hope for. He embraces people not only for who they are, but for who they have the potential to be. He's stronger as a result of what he's been dealt.
Peeta makes me stronger, too. I'm less afraid of what I feel and am better able to put those feeling into words. So what if I have to put them to paper first? He eventually makes me say them out loud, anyway. He makes me laugh, makes me feel absolutely secure in my own skin and in my own head. Peeta gently pushes me when I need to be and isn't afraid to call me out on my bullshit, either. He's not once let me down.
Peeta is home.
I look down at my ring and twirl it around my finger. Peeta (admittedly) proposed to me to prove something. He wanted to prove to me and everyone else that he was serious about our relationship. It occurs to me that we no longer need to prove anything to anyone.
But there's still something I can do.
I stretch and gently place a kiss between Peeta's brows. His eyes are closed but he smiles and mumbles, "Love you, too" as I slip out of bed and tuck the blankets around him. He sprawls out with the whole bed at his disposal and nestles back into the warmth.
Downstairs, I set the kettle on the stove for tea before sitting at the kitchen table with the notebooks I wrote in for Peeta. The last one is the same notebook that has his letter to me, a letter I've now memorized with the number of times I've read it. We've already talked through pretty much everything that needed to be said, so I decide to keep it simple and highlight everything I like. Then I turn to a fresh page and write something new.
I look at the note and smile, sipping my tea. Eventually I hear Peeta's heavy footsteps making their way across the bedroom and down the stairs. He walks to the bathroom and then to the kitchen, mumbling about coffee. I offer to make him some and he sleepily sits in the chair I just vacated, rubbing his face and looking down at the closed notebooks in front of him.
"What're these doing out? A bit of morning reading?"
I shrug. "Not really. Just some writing."
"Oh yeah? I thought that we were weaning you off of the writing." He looks over at me but I just lean against the counter, waiting for the coffee to finish percolating. "What's on your mind?"
"It's just drabbles." I pour a cup of coffee and bring it over to Peeta, sitting on his lap. "Don't worry, we can read it together." He starts to leaf toward the back of the book but I stop him. "No, we have to start at the beginning."
Peeta opens the book to the first page and I can see his eyes dart to the highlighted note. Immediately I put my palm over the words and say, "No, this time I want you to read to me. Okay?"
He sounds confused but agrees. "Okay?" His arms are wrapped tightly around my waist and I turn the pages, a team effort. And so he begins.
I've never been wonderful at getting my words out without stumbling, but if you could only know how much I truly want to say.
I think of you every day.
I'll try again tomorrow.
He mumbles, "Katniss, what is this?"
I turn to brush my lips against his cheek. "Please, just read."
Someday I'll bring you here.
I feel you here with me now, holding my hand and telling me that somehow this will all shake out. And if it didn't work out exactly how we'd planned it, you'd kiss me and love me anyway.
I want to know if all of that happiness can coexist.
You said that you were broken, but you were wrong. You're beautiful.
If I asked you, would you go with me?
In that moment, everything is so fantastically perfect that you don't want to blink.
But then I realized that, well, it was you. It was always you. You've always pushed me just enough to make me better. It wasn't about making me look weak…it was about making me strong.
I love feeling that way.
And I want that for you. I want to be that for you. Not because it's the right thing to do, and not because it's some crazy obligation I've made up. But because that's what you and I do for each other.
We're at the top of my list.
I'll keep pushing you if you keep pushing me.
There hasn't been one moment between now and the first time that I said it that I haven't loved you.
Thank you for being as patient as you could.
I want to live our story with you.
I'm telling you that I love you–all of you–and knowing that breathes life into me. All I needed was one reason why this would work.
I love you. I don't know what else to say. But maybe that is enough.
Peeta rests his head on my shoulder and I can feel his smile against my skin. We're quiet for a long moment but then he asks, "What was that for?"
I grip one of his hands with my own and whisper back, "Keep reading."
"That was it."
"Keep reading." I turn the page and he does.
Actually, there's just one more thing I want to say.
Chapter Eight Notes:
7. Kerissa and Penny, this line is for you. Mundane!Everlark.
Author's Note: e-marina you are a gif princess.
"Katniss," he whispers.
"Peeta," I whisper back.
"Did you just propose?" I twist in Peeta's lap but then stand, rearranging my legs on either side of his so that I'm facing him and sit back down. I put my hands on his hips and look at him expectantly.
"Are you saying 'yes'?" He starts laughing, not quite believing what I'm saying. "I know that technically we are already engaged, but I want to do this. Today. With you."
He pulls me to his chest, holding me tight and shaking with laughs that are ultimately big enough to squeeze out tears. I turn my head to snuggle into his neck and kiss him there, reveling in his happiness. My happiness.
Our happiness. Cue the freaking choir of angels!
Eventually he leans back and I know that I look about as ridiculous as he does, but I don't care. Peeta frames my face with his hands and kisses me fully, not really paying attention to squished noses or hurriedly bumped teeth. I melt into him and try to commit this moment to memory: his lips, his smile, how full my heart feels, how letting happiness in is a gift in of itself.
But hold the phone…
I pull back, taking in his heavily-lidded eyes and open mouth and say, "Hey! I need an answer!"
Peeta smiles and takes my left hand in his, bringing my ring to his lips. His eyes never leave mine as he places a kiss on the little diamond and says, "Well, as long as you don't forget who asked first. My answer is yes."
I smile and trace his lips with my fingertips. "I kind of want to get on with loving you for the rest of my life, if that's okay."
"I'll never get tired of you saying that, you know." He leans in and kisses me again before murmuring, "I love you."
We sit there until I'm sure Peeta's lost feeling in his legs, holding on tight and breathing deeply. Eventually he says, "So what now?"
"Well, I'm glad you asked that." I try to sit up but he won't let me budge. I laugh. "Okay, I'll explain from here then. We need to go The Office of the Town Clerk and take some oath—" he cocks his eyebrow "—I'm serious, the website said we had to 'sign under oath an Intention of Marriage' and then wait three days before we get an actual license. Forty dollars, a Justice of the Peace and that's it."
"Nope. Not unless we want someone there." I twirl one of his curls around my finger. "I was thinking—."
"How'd you know?"
"Because it makes perfect sense. He did 'fix us' as he so eloquently put it and he'd absolutely bitch about it the entire time. I mean, deep down he'll be crying like a baby but he'll hate every minute of it. It's genius."
I smile. "Exactly!"
"Here's the thing though: I think Haymitch should be it." I tilt to my head to the side but Peeta says, "No, hear me out. I'd like some Henion folks there and then there's the Esselon crew. But if we can't have Prim or Annie or even Rye there, I think we should stick with just Haymitch."
I agree. "What if we kind of keep the whole plan quiet until it's signed and official? Then sometime this summer we can invite everyone here—Henion, Esselon, Madison—for a big celebration? Shorts, grilling out, an iPod, nothing stuffy."
Peeta kisses my neck and teases, "Maybe we can say a few things in front of everyone?"
"Like vows?" These kisses will be the death of me.
"It might be a nice compromise for the people who won't be here for the actual 'oath' thing. You can even write yours down…"
He can't hide his smirk when he says that and I playfully shove his shoulder. "You love my letters."
"That I do."
"Vows would actually be kind of perfect." I kiss him again and say, "So let's go get this party started." I stand and offer him my hands to help him up. We start walking toward the stairs but he quickly scoops me up, slings me over his shoulder and smacks my butt. I squeal, "Peeta! What the hell?!"
He tosses me on the couch and wastes no time taking off his shirt and settling above me.
"First things first."
It's almost one o'clock by the time we make it out of the house and into town so we decide to stop for lunch at Judie's8, further breaking our stay-cation rules. I order the gumbo popover and Peeta decides on the sirloin tip popover, splitting them up between us. Peeta of course talks about the chemistry of the hollow bread muffin-thing and what steps will ensure success or certain doom. We casually eat and jot down a few plans for the summer: a new project for one of Peeta's clients, his ideas for wedding announcements, how I want to FedEx brats in from Wisconsin, my trip to Seattle and plans to check out Tanglewood9. We take our sweet time, talking about anything and everything while eating, paying the bill and walking the few blocks to the Town Hall.
By the time we get to the correct office, we're an odd combination of determined and chill. This feels so impossibly right. I had the idea of each of us contributing a $20 bill to pay for the license, an equal offering to a mutual decision. Filling out a one-page document hardly seems romantic, but Peeta stands behind me with his arms around my waist as I fill in my personal information, and when I'm done he reaches around me to do the same. The clerk smiles at us and tells us to return any time after Thursday for the actual license.
"Yes, dear. That's it."
I turn in Peeta's arms and laugh, hugging him close.
The rest of our stay-cation and the remainder of the week is pretty fucking crazy, if I do say so myself. There's a lot of paperwork to deal with once the license is filed and the name change alone looks to be a huge hassle, so we try to think of everything that will eventually have to be updated. While we're forgoing a huge production, the local Justice of the Peace has agreed to meet us for a brief ceremony on Friday afternoon. Then we plan how to corral Haymitch, tell select family members and get on with life. Peeta and I swear to keep our mouths shut until everything is settled on Friday afternoon, then we'll call my mom, Prim, Annie and Rye. I'll tell the people at Esselon and Peeta will spill the beans at Henion. Done and done.
Peeta designs an announcement that perfectly fits us: a flat card with some basic graphic elements and fancy fonts simply saying "we thought you'd like to know that we ran off and got hitched" along with our names, the date and location10; plus a little note that they should save the date for a celebration in August. We'll slip in a photo of the two of us and mail them out next week.
Then there are the rings. There's a local artist11 who has bands we're both happy with. Peeta doesn't want to wear a ring while working in a kitchen so we go ahead and buy a chain that he can string through the band and wear around his neck. His only request was that it a) not look like something Flavor Flav or Mr. T would wear and b) be a chain and not a necklace. Apparently girls wear necklaces. Okay, then.
"This is all so surreal. Surreal but nice12." Peeta tries his ring on and I look down at his hand. "How long did it take for you to get used to your ring?"
"It felt normal after only a couple of days, I think. But I still looked at it a lot." I smile at him and he holds my left hand with his own. "How does it feel?"
"It feels good, like it's supposed to be there. I like it a lot." Peeta holds his palm against the side of my face. "It feels like my hand was meant to hold yours. I can't tell you how happy I am to be doing this with you, Katniss."
"I know the feeling." I lean in and kiss him, eventually curling into his neck and holding him, whispering, "I love you. Thank you for loving me back."
I'm learning to actually crave these moments when we don't say anything but hold each other close enough and tight enough to leave no room for doubt. Peeta's arms are crossed behind me and his hands press against my shoulder blades. Mine wind around his neck and nestle in his hair, our cheeks rest against each other.
He chuckles and breaks the silence. "Can I call you 'the little missus'?"
I pretend to entertain the thought but say, "As your soon-to-be-wife, I advise against it."
"I can't wait to call you my wife."
"Or better half?" I playfully touch his nose with my own and smile.
Friday is torture. I'm at Esselon and Peeta's at Henion, but at 2 o'clock we're meeting at the house before kidnapping Haymitch. Thresh has been in Chicago and I have plenty of work to do. We've arranged for a shipment of green coffee beans from a new contact in Columbia and then there's the roasting that was done just yesterday, but I can't seem to concentrate. I keep looking at my phone for texts from Peeta.
Peeta: This is the longest shift I've ever had.
I know! I keep looking at the clock. Get me out of here!
Peeta: I almost used self-rising flour for god's sake.
Is that a bakery joke?
Peeta: No, it's a disaster waiting to happen.
I smile and Finnick walks in, offering me a cappuccino. He takes a seat and shows me photos on his phone of a concert he went to last weekend, so I do the same, showing him pictures of Prim in her cap and gown. Just then, Johanna flies in, yelling at Finn to get back out there so I'm left alone again.
Peeta: I can't wait to see you.
Can you believe that we'll be married in a few hours?
Peeta: No. I can't believe you finally wore me down and convinced me to marry you :)
Peeta: Actually, yes. I've been waiting for this day for years.
I sip my coffee—Finnick is God's gift to espresso—and look down at my phone when I hear the telltale chime of a new text message. Only my screen is black and I turn to see where the sound came from. In his hurry to leave, Finnick left his phone on the desk and I literally choke on my coffee when I see what's on the screen: Annie's face.
I grab his phone to be sure that who I'm seeing is, in fact, my friend. There's no mistaking that the woman is Annie. I put his phone back down and grab my own, texting furiously.
Peeta! PEETA! Finnick just got a text from Annie. She sent him a pic of herself!
Peeta: Wait, what? How do you know? Did you steal his phone or something?
No, no! I'm not a total stalker. He left it on my desk and it just flashed on the screen. OMG!
Peeta: I guess he left quite the impression and vice versa. Are you going to say something?
How can I not?
Finnick comes back with a slightly panicked look on his face and grabs for his phone. "I thought I left this back here," he mutters.
"Hey, you didn't get to see all of the graduation pics. It'll just take a second." He agrees and I take my time swiping through them, pointing out my mom, Gale, some landmarks in Madison and finally the pièce de résistance: Annie. "Of course you remember Annie."
"Sure I do." Finnick's a little red.
"I mean, she's kind of hard to forget." I'm laying it on real thick.
He shrugs, "I suppose."
"So you should probably take the pic she just sent you and save it to your contacts. That way her face will show up when she calls." I cover my mouth and try hard not to laugh. Finnick's breath hitches but then he laughs, too.
"Um, surprise?" He looks sheepish and runs his hands through his hair. "I guess we're busted?"
"You guess?! Have you guys been in touch this whole time?"
"Well, sort of." Finnick takes a seat, propping his legs up on my desk. "Pretty much every day since we met. I guess you can say we hit it off." He throws his hands up, exasperated. "We didn't exactly know what to say to anyone! I was about this close to asking you if I could be your carry-on when you went out there."
I roll my eyes and exclaim, "Geez, Finn! How about 'Katniss, I like Annie'?"
He shakes his head. "I think I love her."
That shuts me up. I look at Finnick squarely in the eyes and realize that he's absolutely serious. I obviously don't know either side of this little (big!) secret, so I can't pass judgment. "Well, you know that I love Annie like a sister. And you, well, you've grown on me." He raises his eyebrows. "What? You were kind of weird at first!" I tap his shin with a pencil and say, "I could get used to it, especially if it makes you both happy."
He smiles and simply says, "Thanks. I know that will mean a lot to her, too."
"Oh, I intend on calling my dear friend this evening, so you might want to give her the heads up. As a matter of fact, here—." I take his phone and navigate to the photo she just sent, handing it back to him. Then I scoot close to Finnick and tell him to hold his phone out and look guilty. A few seconds later, I've snapped a selfie of the two of us (plus the busted Annie) and send it to his phone.
"Send this to Annie. It should adequately prepare her for my call tonight."
I quickly turn off my computer and pack up my things. "I have an appointment, so I need to get going." I quickly hug Finnick and call back to him, "Oh, and ask Annie if she's found what she's looking for13. She'll know what it means."
Chapter Nine Notes:
8. Judie's. Cute little restaurant in downtown Amherst that specializes in…popovers. I'm not kidding. Freaking massive popovers that can be filled with all sorts of amazingness.
9. Tanglewood. Outdoor music venue that brings in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, musical theatre and some popular/modern musicians.
10. There's a shop on etsy called inoroutmedia that carries a card similar to this.
11. Tobi Sznajderman. Jewelry artist is Amherst. Seriously in love with her designs. She has some crazy stuff, but I prefer the understated designs and pictured something very simple and brushed.
12. Surreal but nice. Quote from the movie "Notting Hill." Therefore it isn't mine, but it is still awesome.
13. In the first chapter of Part Three, Annie is asked how work is. "Alright. Things are busy, but a little bit predictable, you know? I figured it would be a little more exciting, but there's a lot of paperwork." Annie pauses and then blurts out, "I'm actually looking for something else."
"Peeta?" I call. I drop my bag in the kitchen and run upstairs. He's freshly showered and is getting changed into some new(er) cargo pants and a light button-up shirt. I can't help but smile and walk over, straightening his collar.
"Do I look okay?" He's a tiny bit nervous, but I think it only adds to the charm of the day.
"You look perfect. I, on the other hand, smell like soggy coffee grounds." I start stripping and call to him, "Would you mind grabbing my sundress while I clean up real quick?" He nods and I run downstairs in a robe. I pile my hair up on my head to keep it out of the water and wash up. Wrapping a towel around my body, I brush my teeth, swipe a little mascara on my lashes and reach for my chapstik. At Peeta's request, that's going to be the extent of my makeup, which is a good thing considering I apply the stuff like I'm a kindergartner with fingerpaints.
I run back upstairs and drop the robe, shaking out my hair and stepping into the cotton dress. Peeta comes up behind me to zip me up and tie the halter's strings. His fingers linger on my shoulders and he gently turns me to face him.
"You look stunning. More beautiful than any other bride I've ever seen." I know I'm blushing when he lifts my chin to meet his eyes. "I want to remember this day forever."
"Me, too." I cover his hand with my own and continue, "Let's try to take our time, okay? Freeze the moments and commit them to memory."
Peeta kisses me softly and murmurs, "Agreed." He walks us toward the stairs, grabs the ring boxes off the nightstand and we make our way out of the house. The next time we come home it will be as husband and wife.
We stand at Haymitch's front door and knock—I don't think we've actually done that before—waiting anxiously for him to appear. When he does I exhale because he's somewhat clean and borderline sober.
He takes one look at the two of us all 'dressed up' and bellows, "Aww Christ, who died?"
Peeta snorts and I retort, "No one, but we need you to come with us for about an hour."
"For the last time, I'm not going to church, sweetheart. No number of confessions will set me right."
He starts to shut the door but Peeta stops him. "Haymitch, we're getting married in about a half hour and we'd very much like you to be there."
My uncle's eyes first get big, then squint and finally soften. He looks at me and then at Peeta before he clears his throat a few times. I can see his jaw working a little and I wonder if he's going to cry. Haymitch lets out a deep, shaky breath and says, "No church?"
I smile. "No church. But please, we'd both like a family member to be there."
"Check the family tree. I'm not your family."
Peeta corrects him. "When we came out here, you were the only family we had left."
That gets him clearing his throat again. "Well, well. You sure as hell could have given me more warning."
He shuffles away but reappears about 10 minutes later wearing an ancient brown suit, his face washed and hair combed. There's no doubt in my mind (or nose) that he added a generous splash of Old Spice as a final touch.
As he walks past us, heading toward the car, I touch his forearm and say "Thank you, Haymitch."
We decided on Mount Sugarloaf14, asking Irv15 to meet us at the little pavilion at the summit. It's windy up here, but the views can't be beat. It's the perfect backdrop: I wrote to Peeta from this spot when I first came to Amherst and now here we are. We've come full circle.
Haymitch surprises us both when he clears his throat and offers his arm to me. I weave my arm through his and reach for Peeta with my other hand; together we walk up the small hill to where we'll exchange vows. Haymitch awkwardly kisses my cheek when we reach the little overlook, then turns to shake Peeta's hand and follows it with a strong clasp on his shoulder. Irv welcomes us and shakes our hands, too.
"Are we ready?"
"Actually, no." I hug Peeta again and whisper, "I love you so much." There's something about holding each other that's gained a new intimacy, and I can't believe my luck that really, now I never have to let Peeta go. He smiles and kisses my cheek. A few hikers are looking on as I announce, "Okay, now we can start."
We had asked Irv if he wouldn't mind reading "The Hands of the Bride and Groom16" which he happily does.
"Katniss, please face Peeta, and hold his hands, palms up, so you may see the gift that they are to you.
These are the hands, young and strong and vibrant with love, that are holding yours on your wedding day, as he promises to love you all the days of his life.
These are the hands that will passionately love you and cherish you through the years, for a lifetime of happiness.
These are the hands that will countless times wipe the tears from your eyes: tears of sorrow and tears of joy.
These are the hands that will tenderly lift your chin and brush your cheek as they raise your face to look into his eyes: eyes that are filled completely with his overwhelming love and desire for you.
Peeta, please hold Katniss' hands, palms up, where you may see the gift that they are to you.
These are the hands, smooth, young, and carefree, that are holding yours on your wedding day, as she pledges her love and commitment to you all the days of her life.
These are the hands that will hold you tight as you struggle through difficult times and will comfort you when you are sick or console you when you are grieving.
These are the hands that will passionately love you and cherish you through the years, for a lifetime of happiness.
These are the hands that will give you support as she encourages you to chase down your dreams.
Together, as a team, everything you wish for can be realized.
Katniss and Peeta, may you always remember to cherish the hands you hold before you today. Give these hands the strength to hold on during the storms of stress and the dark of disillusionment. Keep them tender and gentle as you nurture each other in your love. Help these hands to continue building a relationship founded in friendship, rich in caring and devoted to an equal partnership. May you see your four hands as healer, protector, shelter and guide.
Peeta squeezes my hands and I look up to see his smile. I swallow, blinking back tears and smile back.
Since we're saving our handwritten vows for the gathering in a few weeks, Peeta and I opt for the simple words millions of other couples have said before us. Haymitch stands just behind me, looking on as we make a promise bigger than any other we've ever made.
"By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I proclaim that these two are now married, husband and wife. Peeta, you may kiss your bride."
If we had an audience, people would probably assume that we should be committed. Between crying fits, hysterical laughing, dropping off my cantankerous (but deep down inside soft-hearted) uncle, making out in the car and general giddiness, we eventually make it home, bursting at the seams. Both of us are dying to tell someone—anyone—what we did. We run to the couch and dial my house. Peeta insists on at least trying my mom first.
Her soft voice answers on the third ring, "Hello?"
I press the speakerphone button. "Mom? It's Katniss."
Peeta leans in and (sort of) yells, "And Peeta!"
"Oh, hello. Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, Mom. Everything is great. We, um…we have some news." I look at Peeta with a somewhat panicked expression. I hadn't exactly thought through the whole 'guess what we did' announcement.
"Mom, we—. Well Peeta and I—."
He interrupts me and just blurts out, "Claire, Katniss and I are married."
I mouth, "Tactful, Mellark." He just shrugs.
"Mom, we didn't want to wait anymore and—."
I hear Prim's muffled voice in the background. Mom tells her that it's me on the line and to pick up the other receiver. She does and cries, "Hey Katniss! Mom says you have some news? What's up?"
Peeta yells (again), "Hey Prim!"
"Peeta? You guys are calling together?" I swear I can hear the gears turning in her head. "Ohmigod, are you pregnant? Is that the news?!"
"What?! No! Prim, Peeta and I are not having a baby for god's sake. We got married."
Silence. We look at each other and wait for a few seconds before Peeta urges, "Hello?!"
A shrill scream breaks through the receiver and we hold it out in front of us. I throw my head back and laugh while Peeta tries again. "Hello?! Prim?!"
She finally calms down enough and yells, "I can't believe you guys didn't tell me or wait until I was out there!"
I interject, "We are telling you! It literally just happened and you're the first two people who know. Well, aside from Haymitch."
"Haymitch was there?! I mean, was it romantic? I bet it was. Tell me everything."
We rehash the whole event and some details leading up to it, apologizing profusely (not really) and repeatedly for keeping it to ourselves. Prim's rather vocal but my mom says very little. Peeta explains that we'll be sending out announcements soon and that we'd like them both to come out for our "wedding part deux" in a few weeks. Mom offers to check her schedule but my sister agrees immediately.
"Can you text me a pic of your rings? Together. Like holding hands?"
Peeta laughs. "Sure. As soon as we hang up."
"Peeta! You're my brother now!"
"Katniss? Peeta?" My mom's voice breaks through Prim's ramblings. "I am very happy for you. I wish we could have been there, but I want you to know that I support you. And that I'm proud of you. Both of you."
I grip Peeta's hand in mine and my lip starts to tremble. "Thanks, Mom. That means a lot."
"Well, I'm sure that you have a few other calls you'd like to make—" Prim whines but our mother cuts her off "—so congratulations. I love you both and we'll talk soon, okay?"
"Katniss! The picture. Send me the picture!"
"Got it. Okay, love you guys!"
"Bye Mr. and Mrs. Mellark!"
We laugh and yell, "Bye!"
"Shut the fuck up."
"We're serious!" Peeta and I are laughing now, imagining Rye's eyes bulging out of his head.
"I need a picture."
"I'll send you one from my phone." I text one of the pictures I just sent to Prim to Peeta's brother. We look completely ridiculous, holding out our rings so that they take up the foreground of the shot. "Okay, sent."
"Dude, are you guys pregnant?"
"Why does everyone keep asking us that? No, I didn't knock Katniss up. Engaged people do have a tendency to get married, you know."
"Are you going to tell Mom and Dad? Cos Mom's gonna shit a brick."
"We'll send them the announcement, but my guess is that that'll be it. What they decide to do with it isn't really a huge concern of mine." Peeta looks at me and smiles. "Or ours."
"Well congratulations. I'm happy for you two, I am."
"You think you can make it out in a few weeks?"
"I wouldn't miss it, bro."
"I have an idea for Annie." I show Peeta the photo I took of Finnick and I before sending it to our friend. I'm assuming she already got it once from Finnick.
Annie: Yeah, yeah. I know we suck.
Finnick's a good guy. You could have told me!
Annie: Think of it this way: we did tell you, just in a very roundabout way.
Oh! Via a text I wasn't even supposed to see?
Annie: We would have told you eventually.
Well in that case…
I text her the pic of Peeta and I. It only takes her 10 seconds to call. I hit the speakerphone button and Peeta says, "Mellark residence."
"Are you guys for real?! You got married?! When?!"
By now we're old pros at summing up the whole week, culminating with the ceremony. "Annie, the day was absolutely perfect. Minus not having everyone here, it was everything we wanted it to be."
She's crying now and I lean on Peeta. "I'm so happy for you guys! And yes! Yes I will be there for the reception, or whatever it is you're calling it."
"You could probably stay with Finnick," I hint. "He said he hoped you'd stop by the next time you were in town..."
"Oh shut up. Point taken."
Annie promises not to say a word to Finnick so that we can tell our coworkers at the same time. For now we can turn off our phones and let everything sink in. Peeta gets up and walks to the kitchen, returning with a small box and two forks.
He holds the box up and explains, "I couldn't resist baking us a little something."
I jump up and run back to the kitchen, grabbing the closest thing we have to champagne—prosecco that Cinna brought for our party this spring— as well as two wine glasses and a corkscrew. Peeta's taken the small cake out of the box and places it on the coffee table. I pass him the bottle to open and sit on the floor next to him, our backs against the couch. He pours us each a glass and puts the bottle next to the cake.
"To my beautiful wife." He raises his glass and clinks mine. "I love calling you that, by the way."
"I like hearing it. Okay, let me try now: to my amazing husband. How was that?" He smirks and clinks my glass again before taking a sip of his wine. "Peeta, today was unbelievable. I couldn't have asked for a better day."
"Me, either." He links his fingers with mine. "Cake?"
"Please." He takes a fork and digs right in, taking a forkful and bringing it to my lips. I eye him warily. "Be nice."
Peeta feeds me the small bite and whispers, "I'm always nice." I bring my hand to my lips and close my eyes. "Good?"
"Mmmm. You tell me." I take a fork and follow his lead, watching him taste his own creation. He nods in approval. "Perfect, huh?"
"It's good, but try the frosting by itself." He swipes a small amount on his finger and brings it to my lips, only to smear it there. "Then again, I am the professional baker. Allow me." Peeta leans in and slowly traces my mouth, first with his tongue and then with his own lips. I close my eyes. "Pretty good."
"My turn." I straddle his waist and swipe the tiniest bit of frosting on the underside of his jaw, first kissing, then sucking gently. He groans softly and lets his head fall back against the cushions. "Yeah, pretty good."
He abruptly pushes me off of him and I land awkwardly on my hip. I start to whine but he holds out his hands to help me up. "Come on."
I try to pull him back. "What was that for? And where are we going? I want to stay here."
"It's your own fault."
"What? What is my fault?"
He pulls me close and breathes near my ear. "You can't just do things like that and not expect there to be consequences, Katniss." Oh. I can play along.
"But…but there's carrot cake—." I kiss his neck.
He groans a little bit but recovers. "Too bad. We need to go have married sex."
"Can we at least bring the cake?" I again nibble the spot previously dotted with frosting.
He looks torn, glancing from me to the cake and back to me. Peeta rushes out, "Yes, absolutely."
I laugh and together we run upstairs.
Chapter Ten Notes:
14. I've referenced Mount Sugarloaf before, but do yourself a favor and google it. The views of the Connecticut River, Pioneer Valley and surrounding hills are perfect.
15. I had to google search Justice of the Peace in Amherst and one of the names that popped up was Irv. How can I not have a guy named Irv marry these two?
16. The Hands of the Bride and Groom is used with some regularity at wedding ceremonies. I omitted a few lines that made me cringe and changed a few drastically. I don't own the words, don't claim to have written the words and certainly don't intend on pretending that I'm smart enough to have come up with the idea in the first place.
Author's Note: thanks for reading and for your kind words!
The weekend is essentially stay-cation, the sequel. Aside from a dinner with Haymitch and running to Wal-Mart to get copies made of the picture we're including with the announcement, Peeta and I enjoy being low key. Cake, sex, waffles, painting, sex, burgers, cinnamon rolls, sex. You get the idea. I don't know why, but being married adds a new dimension to everything. The feeling of permanence—or maybe it is the formality of the promise of forever—adds an element of…reverence? The word escapes me, but the feeling doesn't.
"Hmm?" He's at his drafting table and looks up frequently as he draws me. I'm naked, but so is he.
"Do you feel different? Now that we're married, I mean."
"I'm a little worn out, if that's what you're getting at." He smirks and I roll my eyes.
"Come on. Be serious!"
"Different how?" Peeta puts his pencils down and walks over to the couch, sitting and rearranging so that I'm lying back against his chest. He pulls a light blanket over the both of us and nuzzles his nose into my hair.
"I don't know, exactly. I feel like we've made it. It feels so real…I mean, it is real. I know it is." An exasperated sigh escapes my lips. "I'm not doing a good job of explaining it."
"I know what you mean," he whispers near my ear. "I haven't felt this content in a long time."
I twist slightly to look into his eyes. "Yes, exactly. Content. There's no rush because we're already here. Everything else can happen on our time."
"I like that word, you know. 'Our.' It's taken on a whole new meaning." He kisses my forehead. "So has 'we,' 'us'—."
I kiss him back. "'Together'?"
By the luck of the draw Peeta has to open the bakery on Monday and my shift starts in the afternoon. The plan is for me to stop by Henion about a half hour before Peeta leaves so that we can share our good news with everyone there and then drive to Esselon to do the same.
It's 5 o'clock in the morning when I hear Peeta quietly getting ready to leave for work. I roll to his side and murmur, "I don't want you to go."
He smiles at me and sits on the edge of the mattress, smoothing my hair with his hand. "I don't want to go, either."
"So don't. Stay here."
"I would if I could." He leans in and kisses my cheek, warm and wrinkled from the pillowcase. "Katniss, will you help me with this?"
In Peeta's hand is the chain we purchased to keep his ring safe while at the bakery. I scoot up behind him and reach for the chain. He slides the ring off his finger and I thread it with the chain, fastening it around his neck.
"There. All secure."
"I like it on my finger better." Peeta flexes his left hand and touches the slight indentation that his wedding ring has made on his finger.
"Me, too. It would keep flirty customers at bay." I reach my arms around him and hug him, gently feeling where the ring now rests against his chest. "But it's still there."
"Over my heart and everything." I kiss his cheek and he squeezes my hands, signaling that he needs to get up and leave. I lie back down and he leans over me, kissing me softly. "I'll see you later, okay?"
"I love you."
"Love you, too."
There's plenty to keep me occupied until I need to leave. I address, seal and stamp our announcements; I'll drop them off at the post office on my way into town. We've been slobs for the past two days, so I throw in a few loads of laundry, take the garbage out and deal with the dishes in the kitchen. Eventually I smile and get the vacuum out after finding cake in completely unexpected places. I end up wiping down most horizontal surfaces…frosting seems to have migrated, too.
I'm completely in the zone when the doorbell rings, shocking me back to the present. At the door is the UPS delivery guy with six huge boxes and an electronic signature tablet.
"Sign here, please."
I quickly scribble down my new name and start carrying the boxes inside. One glance at the label and my heart sinks. All of them are from the Mellarks. I quickly stack the packages knowing that Peeta will open them this afternoon.
Soon enough it's time for me to shower and get dressed for work. I pack a light snack and drive over to Henion, my mood lifting with each mile marker I pass. Running into the bakery and throwing myself at Peeta isn't an option so I take deep breaths and will myself to calm down as I park my car and walk to the front entrance. The bell chimes and Rue smiles at me in greeting.
"Katniss! We weren't expecting to see you today! Come in, sweetie." Rue reaches out her arm and hugs me to her. "Peeta! Someone's here to see you!"
A moment later my husband walks through the swinging kitchen door, wiping his hands on a towel and smiling brightly at me. He walks over and kisses me a little too enthusiastically given the fact that his boss is right there. Rue clears her throat and I blush, hiding a little against Peeta's chest.
Best. Secret. Ever.
"Hey everyone, would you mind coming out here for a sec?" A few heads peep through the kitchen door. "We have an announcement."
Peeta holds me tightly around the waist and when everyone is gathered around he continues, "You all knew that Katniss and I were engaged. Well, we decided to make it official on Friday."
Cinna belts out a laugh and walks over to us while Rue gasps, "What?!"
I lift up my left hand and Peeta pulls the chain out from under his shirt. His coworkers gather around us and embrace us both in turn, exclaiming their surprise and congratulations. I pull the announcements and pictures out of my bag and hand them out as Peeta explains about our upcoming party.
"So the mystery behind the carrot cake is solved," laughs Cinna. "I've never seen someone so intent on frosting in my life, man."
A nervous laugh bubbles up and I squeeze Peeta's side. Frosting, indeed.
We pull up separately to Esselon but I quickly run over to Peeta's truck and wrap myself around him, kissing him repeatedly. And okay, a little desperately.
"Are you sure you have to go to work today?" Peeta's hands are grasping at my hips as I continue my assault on his lips.
I stop abruptly and smirk, "Oh, that's convenient. I recall asking you something rather similar this morning."
"But what am I supposed to do by myself?"
"You're acting like this is the first time you'll be home alone. I'm sure you'll survive. And dinner would be nice…something other than carbs?"
"Love me, love my carbs."
I laugh and peck his lips again before pulling his arm, leading him to the café. Johanna is leaning against the counter and Finnick is behind it measuring out espresso. Thresh's car is in the lot so I assume he's in the back office.
"Unless you've brought baked goods, you're not getting free coffee." Johanna frowns at Peeta's empty arms and I chuckle.
"Good thing I'm the guy pulling the shots then," says Finnick. He lifts his arm in a wave and Johanna scowls, turning her back to us. "What can I get you?"
"Just a regular cup, black. Thanks." Finnick shrugs but pours Peeta his drink.
I walk to the back office and call my boss' name. He lifts his head and smiles. "Hey Thresh! Do you have a minute? Can you come up front?"
Once everyone is present I blurt out, "So, we're married." Peeta laughs at my bluntness and squeezes my shoulders. "Yeah. Um, on Friday." I am such a tool.
Finnick's jaw is on the floor. "Does Annie know?!"
"Yeah, we called her right away—."
"Shit, are you pregnant?!" That's our Jo. Full of tact.
I bring my hand to my forehead and hold it there in frustration. "No, we most definitely aren't having a baby."
"Not yet." I turn and raise my eyebrows at Peeta. "Well, we aren't pregnant now. But we might be someday.
"The point—" I exclaim, my hands raised in frustration "—is that Peeta and I are married! Not pregnant, but married." I hold my breath and wait for a reaction. Any reaction. "Well?"
Finnick yells and Thresh laughs. I think Johanna might even smile a little and all at once we're pulled into hugs. The few customers in the café smile and offer their congratulations as well.
Amherst has embraced us yet again.
I speed a little on the way home and rush into the house, looking for Peeta. The smell of roasted chicken hits me the minute I walk in the door and I smile at the vision of my shirtless husband decked out in an apron. He's chopping veggies for a salad and there's fresh fruit salad on the table.
"Whatever you're making, it smells amazing. I'm starving." Wrapping my arms around him from behind, I sneak a cucumber and kiss his cheek as he slices.
"Well, I cheated with the rotisserie chicken from the store, but it's too warm to do much with the oven. Why don't you get comfy?"
I pat his butt and walk to the bathroom to wash up, then upstairs to change. By the time I head back to the kitchen the food is on the table and Peeta is pouring glasses of iced tea. He opens his arms and I walk into them.
He kisses me and murmurs, "Today went well."
"Mmmm. The cat's out of the bag and I love it. Except for everyone assuming I'm with child."
"We could work on that, you know."
"We're practicing, aren't we?" I pinch his earlobe gently and lean in for another kiss. "And you know what they say about practice making perfect."
"You know I've always wanted children, so consider me ready and willing when you are."
"Can we hold that thought for just a couple of years?" There's the slightest tinge of disappointment on his face but I rush to clarify. "The past year has been nothing but change. We're still getting settled here and figuring things out with our careers. I want children with you, but the selfish part of me wants you to myself for just a little bit before we turn everything upside down again. You know what I mean?"
Peeta's kisses almost convince me otherwise but he agrees. "You're have a point and I know we should wait a while. But we can still practice, right?"
"Why do you ask such silly questions?"
We sit at the table and begin to eat. Suddenly I remember the UPS delivery and I ask, "Did you see the boxes that came for you?"
He nods. "I think I've effectively been erased from the house." I tilt my head to the side in question and he says, "Mom packed everything up and sent it out here. Even down to the photos of me from the living room. See?" Peeta reaches over to the counter and grabs some pictures there, handing them to me. "She even took a picture of my old room, which has swiftly been converted to a craft nook."
"Oh, Peeta." I look at the photos one by one, not understanding how he could be so calm. The last photo—the one of the new crafting area—is a cruel reminder of how quickly he was cut out. "I didn't even know she was into that kind of stuff."
"She's not. I think that's the point. Without me cluttering up her house and life, she can embrace things like glitter and stamps and ribbons." He takes the photos from me and drops them back on the counter. "Should be interesting to see how they react to the news, then."
"Hey." I stand up and step over to his chair. Straddling his waist I pull him to me and he rests his chin on my shoulder. "I love you." I hold him for a few minutes before I ask, "Will you let me go through the boxes with you? I bet there are a few stories I haven't heard." I can feel him nod his head.
Eventually I reach behind me for the bowl of fresh fruit and put a raspberry in my mouth. I offer Peeta a strawberry and he smiles, opening his mouth as I pop the berry inside. The bowl is now nestled between us on our laps and we take turns tracing the fruits around each other's lips before feeding one another.
"Fruit might be a nice switch up from cake." Peeta catches a drip of juice on my chin with his mouth while I laugh.
"Oh, no. No, no, no. I was dealing with cake remnants all morning. The line has been drawn, Mellark. Food's out for now."
He pouts. "Cinna wasn't lying, you know. I was nuts about that frosting."
"Oh, I don't doubt that. I was there for the tasting, remember?"
Slowly but surely we begin getting responses from our out-of-town guests. Annie and Prim will be flying in together; my mother won't be able to make it after all. To say I'm a tiny bit disappointed would be accurate, but I refuse to let her absence put a damper on our celebration. Rye will be coming, but there's no word from Peeta's parents one way or the other. There's a part of me that hopes that Mr. Mellark will find a way to give his blessing to his son, but I try to stay neutral for Peeta's benefit.
Going through the boxes of his things has been both therapeutic and traumatic, depending on the contents. We have enough sweatpants to clothe a few rec basketball teams and Peeta is ecstatic to have his old sketchbooks back, including my favorite one from his nightstand. He takes a smaller box and wraps up trophies and framed pictures, saving them for another time. The photo of the new craft area is thrown away, along with cards his mom saved from his childhood birthdays. I think that the Mellark's bakery apron is a little mean, but Peeta just hangs it in the kitchen with his others.
A sealed envelope causes the biggest heartbreak: it contains things like his birth certificate, baptismal documents, report cards, crayon drawings he made for his parents and awards he earned over the years. That offering leaves Peeta crying in my arms, knowing that his mother was wiping her hands of everything he had accomplished. No number of awards mattered, anyway. Every gesture was turned away.
"Peeta," I try to soothe. "Peeta. You matter to me."
That envelope is resealed and finds a spot in his den.
A card comes from Eugene, Oregon: Gale. His note of congratulations is meaningful to us both, but I suspect that his words hold more significance to Peeta. Our friend is making plans to join everyone in Amherst in a few weeks, a gesture neither of us will ever forget.
We never hear from Madge, whether that's because her address has changed or her schedule doesn't permit, we don't know. Still, the group that can make it is made up of friends and family who have helped shape us into the people we are, and for that we're grateful.
Days later, when the announcement originally sent to Peeta's parents arrives in our mailbox with "return to sender" scratched on the envelope, I simply throw it away without burdening my husband with their answer.
Author's Note: thanks to e-marina for giving this the thumbs up. This is the first chapter that wasn't written in advance, which signals the beginning of the end of this fic. I believe there will be another two chapters and that's it! Whichever way you choose to do it, my sincere thanks to everyone for sending your feedback.
Everything is set. Well, everything but the vows.
I'm sitting in a booth at Esselon, trying to get the words to come to me, but all I have are cliché lines and scratched out thoughts. Peeta's finished with his (of course) and has been a lifesaver with the details for the second wedding. From when out-of-town guests are due to arrive, to what hotel they'll be staying at, to the food, Peeta's taken the lead and that's for the best: at one point I had forgotten that people might want to know when to actually show up at the house.
"Hey. Need some help?"
I look up and smile at Annie. She's been here for about a week now and will be staying through our celebration. Annie's been a huge help too, trying to think of things we might have overlooked. But to be honest, just having her here gives both Peeta and me a sense of calm. It's not that our other friends and coworkers don't mean well, but Annie's known us the longest and knows what would make us happy and what we'd consider unnecessary fluff.
Beer and taco dip? Yes. Pastel jordan almonds in tulle? No.
"These vows are completely hopeless. I have no idea what to say." I rub my temples and look at her with desperation. "There are only so many ways to promise to be faithful and love someone until death do us part."
"You're overthinking it." Annie takes my notebook and skims over the words. "Katniss, this doesn't even sound like you."
I drop my head to the tabletop and moan, "I know!"
"Maybe it's the word 'vows' that's tripping you up." I look up and she continues. "You and Peeta are already married and you've already exchanged formal vows. So forget 'vows' and just pretend that you're talking to Peeta."
I mull it over for a bit. Letters aren't nearly as intimidating; I'd just have to read it. "You think that will be okay?"
"Katniss, I know your husband and he'd be happy if you recited the Pledge of Allegiance." She slides the notebook back to me. "He'll appreciate something from your heart."
I close the notebook for the time being and hold my mug of tea between my hands, looking at Annie. She's been staying with Finnick, though the four of us have been able to spend some time together. Having my friend here has made me realize just how much I miss her.
"You seem happy, Annie." I smile and so does she. I wiggle my eyebrows suggestively. "Finnick doing a body good?"
My friend laughs and blushes, hiding a little behind her own mug. "He's more than just a shot of espresso, that's for sure."
I know Annie wouldn't use Finnick, but I feel like I need to ask anyway. "Do you love him?"
"I do." She puts her drink down, nods and says, "I know it's only been a couple of months, and the vast majority of that time we've had to get to know each other over the phone, but I do love him. Trust me, I see what everyone else sees: someone who's brash, full of himself, suggestive and a little granola. But I also get to see the sides of his personality that no one else does, and those are the parts I love the most."
"Well he's over the moon for you, so how are you going to make this work?"
"There's no grand plan right now. I've been looking for jobs since I came out here this spring, so I'm going to expand the search and start looking out here, too." Annie looks at me with wide, honest eyes. "Would you be okay with that?"
"Are you kidding me? Annie, we'd be thrilled to have you out here. Freaking ecstatic, as a matter of fact."
"You wouldn't feel like I was barging in?"
"We've missed you…Peeta, Finnick and me." I reach over and squeeze her hand. "I've missed my best friend. Amherst is big enough for one more Midwestern transplant."
"Everyone will be here in a couple of hours," Peeta whispers as he trails his fingers up and down my side. I'm curled into him, both of us bare with just a sheet covering us on our bed.
"I know. I'm just trying to soak up the quiet." I slowly walk my fingers across his chest, which is lightly sheened with sweat. Our breathing has calmed somewhat, but I can still feel his heart beating strongly.
"Are you happy we're doing this?" Peeta looks down at me and I crane my head to look up at him.
"Yes, why do you ask?"
"I just want to make sure that you're happy. I know that big weddings aren't really your thing. Really, making abig deal about anything isn't your thing." He smirks and I roll my eyes playfully.
"Peeta, I got everything I've ever wanted a couple of weeks ago. That day was perfect. Sharing a bit of it with our closest friends and family is just icing on the cake." I brush his hair away from his eyes and continue. "Besides, this is about you, too. Are you happy?"
"Completely." He touches the tip of my nose and continues, "I didn't know I could be this happy."
I kiss his chest and lay back down. "Me, either." I poke his side. "But I know what you're thinking, and my answer is still 'no' on the icing."
Everyone's here and it's a good thing that the weather is cooperating: due to the miniscule size of our house, people are spending most of their time outside. Beetee is manning the grill and everyone is having a good time just eating, talking, tossing horseshoes and listening to music. I smile at Peeta and Gale, who are chatting with Cinna, and walk inside to grab some more pasta salad and napkins.
I'm in the kitchen when I hear a knock at the door so I quickly open it, a smile on my face as I get ready to welcome whoever has stopped by. My heart stops and my jaw drops.
Peeta's father stands in the doorway and he's beet red, clenching and twisting his fingers as he tries to find his words. "Hello, Katniss. I'm, um…I apologize for not RSVPing. I hope that's alright."
I clear my throat and step aside to let him in. "No, no! I'm glad you came. Peeta will be so happy that you made it. I didn't think you got the invitation."
"I didn't. I assume that Molly disposed of it, but Rye mentioned something." He glances around at the living space and asks, "Would you mind if we talked for just a few moments? Alone?"
"Sure. I mean, that's fine. We aren't going to be exchanging vows for awhile, anyway." I lead him to the couch and take a seat in a small chair across from him. I explain, "Well, not vows exactly. Just something personal."
Mr. Mellark nods and rubs the back of his neck; that must be another nervous habit that father and son have in common. "I meant to say congratulations, Katniss. I've thought about you as a daughter for quite some time and I'm glad it's official. You make Peeta very happy."
I nod, holding his gaze whenever he lifts his eyes to mine. We're in my house and are talking about my marriage; I'm not looking for his approval on my decision. My decision is solid. I want his approval for Peeta's sake. "Mr. Mellark, I love your son very much."
"And he loves you. He's an incredible person, you know." He chuckles quietly. "For as long as you've been in Peeta's life, I don't think I've done a very good job of talking him up when you're around."
The sadness I feel must seep into my facial features. This man cannot possibly understand how misguided he is. "With all due respect, no one needs to remind me how great Peeta is. I've known that from the moment I met him. He's pretty incredible like that." I pick at my skirt a little. "Mr. Mellark, it's your son who is hurting. He's the one who deserves to hear these words, not me."
We're quiet for a few minutes before he speaks up. "I want to apologize to you for my wife's behavior. What she said was completely out of line and I should have said as much when you were at the house." He pauses. "Katniss, I'm sorry for not intervening on your behalf. I'm here because I care for you both and I don't want to be on the outside looking in. I hope you'll both let me be a part of your lives in whatever way you feel comfortable."
I get up and sit next to him on the couch, offering him a soft hug. "Please, I know Peeta will want to know that you're here. I'd like to go get him, okay?"
He nods and I walk toward the door, smoothing my skirt with my hands. Peeta is still in deep conversation with Gale and Cinna, but I playfully take his hand and excuse my barging in by saying, "Excuse us, but I need to talk to my husband for just a few minutes, boys." I even throw a wink in for good measure. Peeta and I walk back to the house, but before we reach the kitchen door I stop and whisper, "Peeta, your father is in the living room. He would like to talk to you."
A million different emotions sweep across his face as he looks from me to the door and back to me. "What? My dad's here?"
I nod. "He showed up a few minutes ago and spoke to me just for a bit. I know that there's a lot to say and a lot of history there, but I think he really would like to try to make amends." Peeta stands there for a moment so I pull him into a hug. "You can do this."
He clears his throat and asks, "Would you mind if I talked to him alone for a few minutes?"
"Of course not. I'll be right out here, okay?"
Peeta kisses me deeply and I think I hear Johanna whistling. Smiling, I pull back and encourage Peeta to go inside. Once the screen door closes, I join Rye at the cooler.
He rests a hand around my shoulder and asks, "So where's Peeta?"
"Inside. Your dad showed up."
"Shit, are you kidding me?" He spins toward the house but I grab his hand and hold him in place. "I didn't think he'd come."
"Did you ask him to?"
"No. Well, yeah." He shakes his head and says, "I knew that Mom would rip up the invite or something, so I brought it up in conversation. He was really upset that he didn't know, but I didn't think he'd get on a plane. Fuck, I wonder what Mom thinks."
"Yeah, well, I'm kind of tired of worrying about what she thinks. He's here, and that's all that matters."
Rye raises an eyebrow and quips, "Look who's not afraid of Momma Mellark."
"I'm not exactly heartbroken over the fact that I won't be getting scrapbooking projects, if that's what you mean. I will, however, run her over with Peeta's truck if the opportunity presents itself." I shrug. "No offense."
I nod my head toward the door. "How long should I let this go on?"
"Give them time. You know Peeta and Dad have always been fairly close; they'll come out when they're ready."
So we join everyone in a circle of lawn chairs. Annie, Rue and Johanna are chatting and Finnick is on the ground, sitting against Annie's legs. He's talking with Thresh about some barista training we'll be hosting in a few weeks. Gale is patiently listening to Prim drone on and on about the big move to Minnesota with Rory. Cinna and Portia are quietly talking; he runs his palm over the swell of his wife's pregnant belly, feeling the baby kick. Beetee moves to fill his plate and joins us, happy as a clam. I knew taco dip was a good idea.
Haymitch declined our invitation, saying that he'd had enough with the one wedding. It's not exactly surprising: with Peeta and me, three's still a crowd for the old man. He'd blow a fuse with this many people. Prim sets aside some food anyway, announcing that she'll take it to our uncle herself. She's been a trooper for the past week, spending a decent amount of time with Haymitch. To top it off, Haymitch has a soft spot for her: he doesn't yell nearly as much when she's around.
A half hour later, I feel hands squeeze my shoulders and I turn to see Peeta. His eyes are slightly red but his smile more than compensates for that. I quickly stand and wrap myself around him, then smile at his father, who stands to his right.
"Everyone, this is my dad, Graham. He owns the family bakery back in Madison." Peeta introduces everyone and then points to the table of food. "Dad, go ahead and help yourself." Turning back to me, he whispers, "I love you."
"It will be." He hugs me again and murmurs, "We'll be working on it."
Rye gets up to welcome his father and Gale waves, trying to play off the surprise at seeing the man. No one from Amherst thinks anything of it and Rue quickly waves the bakery owner over to discuss business.
I think Peeta's heart overflows.
Peeta holds my left hand in both of his. Each of us has a notecard just in case, but the words seem to have a mind of their own and our gaze holds steady.
"Katniss, nothing makes me happier than to look into your eyes, knowing that the woman who looks back at me is my wife. With you, I've found comfort, strength and a confidence I didn't realize was missing. When I look at you, I see where we've been, where we are, and where we will be. Our collage of experiences has made us better. Stronger. Around us are people who love us unconditionally; people who have held us up when we've tripped and celebrated milestones alongside us. But what I'm most grateful for is what's between you and me, because through you I've found everything I've ever looked for my whole life. If I'm able give you even a small fraction of what you've given me, I will consider my time with you a success. No number of 'I love you's' will ever be enough, but today I tell you with everything that I am, that I am proud to have been chosen to be your partner. I love you."
I squeeze his hands and lean forward, kissing him and whispering, "I love you, too." Peeta wipes my own tears and then his own. Our guests murmur and smile. Now it's my turn, so I hold his left hand between mine.
"Peeta, I'd be lying if I told you that the thought of writing these words didn't scare me out of my mind. Not because my feelings weren't real, but because the words didn't seem to capture the true extent of what I felt—no, what I feel—for you. A good friend told me to break it down and simplify it. And that's the exact moment when I realized that really, what we're doing today is perhaps the purest gesture of our relationship. It is as simple as saying I love you, and knowing that with you is where I'm supposed to be. There's an undeniable truth in knowing that we've found each other time and time again. My heart's been programmed to seek yours out, and regardless of the obstacles, we will always end up here: hands woven together ready for the next journey. Every day we've had has led us here, illustrating in the truest, clearest way that we love each other. That together, we're better. I used to say that I hoped loving you would be enough. Now I know that because I love you, that will always be eno—."
Peeta interrupts my last words by leaning forward and capturing my lips. Rye and Johanna snort and I can't help but chuckle, too. Our friends and family laugh and cheer, clapping as we hold each other. Peeta pulls me to him and we continue to kiss for a few moments more.
I sheepishly pull away and Peeta announces, "Um, right. Well that's about it, I guess!"
Author's Note: Well, here's the final chapter! While my first go-round at writing isn't perfect, it is mine and I am so glad that I put it all out there. I'm completely happy with the result of my first story (flawed as it may be) and thank you all so much for reading, reviewing and recommending. I'm thankful for the people I met along the way, for the amazing banners (I have no idea how to post them here but I love them) and the overall response. Of course there's e-marina, who humored me and pre-read the majority of the chapters. Thanks for your encouragement! Let me face-plant now.
"That's it! Let's get on the road!"
I laugh at the ridiculousness of Peeta's statement. We're moving less than a mile away to a home that we purchased on Morning Star Drive. It is slightly larger with three bedrooms, but more importantly, it is ours.
After two years of saving, we barely had enough for a down payment but felt like it was time to make our residence a bit more permanent. Peeta's graphic design projects have been successful enough to earn some new clients (not to mention extra income) and he's been working full-time at Henion for almost a year and a half. I've earned a new spot at Esselon, too: Thresh has moved to Boston to open another roasting works there, so I'm managing the Hadley location and the fair trade accounts. We're both busy, to say the least.
"Okay, guys. Let's get to the house and rescue Annie already." Our friend—Finnick's girlfriend—has been there for a couple of hours cleaning while we pack up the rental truck. I'm not sure if she got the short end of the stick or not.
"Catch." Peeta walks toward the U-Haul and tosses the keys to his pickup to Finnick. "And be careful with my girl. That first gear is tricky."
Finnick rolls his eyes and yells, "That's what she said!" He pulls away and we watch him drive slowly down the road. Toward Annie.
She's been living in Amherst with Finnick for about five months now and the transition has been fairly smooth. The hardest part was simply finding her a job: she and Finnick spent months checking out every lead they could find, to no avail. But they took that time to get to know each other through letters, phone calls and the occasional trip, trying to be patient and make it work long distance. Now that she's here they're figuring out the balancing act of normal, everyday life. Whenever I see Annie and Finnick together, I'm reminded that they truly are each other's perfect match.
I turn to my own perfect match and hold out my hand. "Time to hand over the keys." We walk back to the house and meet our landlord in the kitchen, thanking him for everything. He wishes us luck and we take one last walk around the place before going back outside.
"Ready to go?" Peeta senses that I'm a little emotional and gently pulls me to his side, murmuring, "Hey, it's okay."
I hide my face in my hands. "I'm just going to miss this place."
"I know, I know. We had great memories here."
"You took pictures, right?" We decided to start a collection of photographs of the homes we've lived in, from childhood to present, and have framed all but this place and our new one. Haymitch's house is even in the mix.
"Yes. And here's the crazy thing: —" Peeta swipes his fingers across my cheeks "—we live just close enough that we can take another if the photo isn't perfect. Go figure!"
He smirks and I can't help but laugh, swatting at his shoulder. "Oh, fine. Let's go before they've had the chance to unpack too much."
Two rooms have been set up in advance: Peeta wanted to move all of his art, various supplies and computer equipment ahead of everything else, so his art room is perfectly in order. I insisted that one of the bathrooms be organized before the move…the rest of the house can be unpacked in order of importance: kitchen, bedroom, living room, etcetera.
We pull up to see Annie and Finnick waiting outside with bottles of beer. "Welcome home, Mellarks!"
I squeal with excitement and run toward Peeta, hugging him and calling, "Thank you guys so much for helping out! We couldn't have done it without you…we owe you one." I hug Annie and whisper just for her, "Thank you."
Finnick drains his bottle and says, "Oh, we intend on holding you to that favor. Come on, let's get on with this."
The four of us lug furniture in first. Once the major pieces are where they should be, we start with the boxes and put them in their designated rooms. Annie and I tackle the kitchen, putting food away and re-washing all of the dishes, silverware and pans, while Peeta and Finnick reassemble the furniture upstairs. Hours later, we've put a decent dent in the unpacking and relax with pizza and iced tea.
Finnick is stretched out on the front steps. "So is this it for you guys? Is this where you'll put down roots?"
Peeta answers, "I think so. Amherst is home, you know? Jobs, friends, new house. What else do we really need?"
Here we are. The last three years have brought us nothing but transition. Some friendships changed and family dynamics were altered completely. To this day we have not spoken to Peeta's mother, nor has she tried to reach out to us. Mr. Mellark keeps in touch, occasionally calling or sending new recipes to his son.
The vibration of my phone startles me and I pull it out of my pocket, reading the text.
Rye: So are you homeowners or what?
I take a photo of our front door and send it to him. Yup! Feels pretty great.
Rye: Did you set up my room yet?
Not quite. Priorities, man. But here's a thought: maybe you should come help.
Rye: Nah. Homeowners are supposed to want to do work themselves. Something about pride or building character.
Rye: Besides, I'd be a guest. Guests shouldn't be asked to work.
Rye: Ha! Tell my brother to call me later. Good luck!
I hand Peeta my phone and he glances and the screen, laughing.
Rye and Peeta are closer than ever. He's visited Amherst a few times and is constantly texting both of us. Rye also met someone back in Madison; he and Jane have lived together for a couple of months and I have a feeling they'll be engaged soon. Peeta doesn't have to tell me that the renewed connection with his brother and father has greatly lessened the blow delivered by Mrs. Mellark. He lost his mother, but replaced her with an even stronger bond with the men of his family. There's absolutely nothing she can do about it, either.
Gale emails pretty regularly but we haven't seen him since our wedding. We do, however, hope to see him during a planned trip to Madison over Christmas. Someday we'd like to make it out to Oregon, too.
"Hey," Annie taps my foot to get my attention. "When's Prim coming out?"
"Maybe October? She's taking genetics this summer and can't get a break until the fall." I lean back on my elbows and bend my knees, squinting in Annie's direction. "I think she wants to wait until we get a little more settled."
Prim and Rory are no longer dating, but both survived the breakup and are still studying at the University of Minnesota. Prim changed her course of study to follow in Mom's footsteps: she hopes to be admitted to the physician assistant program one day. My relationship with our mother is unchanged.
Johanna left Esselon shortly after Peeta and I got married, letting everyone know that it was time she check out some new scenery. I only hear from her once every few months, but she seems to be enjoying Maine.
The Henion crew is still intact with Rue at the helm. Cinna and Portia's son is seemingly happy every minute of every day. They still hope to open a boutique, but that'll have to wait for quieter times: Portia is expecting their second child in six months.
He grabs another slice of pizza and returns to my side, offering me a bite. "Yeah?"
"Remind me to go to Haymitch's tomorrow and return that box of his stuff that we borrowed. He's been crabbing about it every time I go over there; I might as well return it while we're unpacking and making trips to Goodwill."
"You'd think that he kept a list of what he loaned to us. Do lists run in your family or something?"
I laugh and lean into him. "Shut up. You love my lists."
Haymitch. The years have not been kind to the man: guilt grips him at every turn and what's waiting is a drink to numb the pain. Peeta and I still have dinners with him once a week and find excuses to visit him often, making sure that the garbage isn't getting out of control. I hope he understands just how many times he saved us over the course of the years and that that knowledge lessens his sadness even a little bit.
In three years, we lost ourselves, found each other and redefined our lives on our terms. It wasn't a game, but I still feel like we've won.
Later that night, when we've both showered and are lying exhausted on our bed with boxes still littering many empty corners, I curl into Peeta and sigh contentedly.
Peeta tiredly declares, "We're never moving again."
I turn my head and kiss his chest, smiling. "Never?"
"Never." He runs his fingers over my hair. "Unless we hire a moving company. Then I'll reconsider."
"I vote for never. For now."
Peeta and I lie there quietly, just listening to the new sounds of our new home. It is still. The late summer breeze is blissfully cool, rustling the maple leaves outside of our window.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
We had made our decision and the timing is perfect, so I reach for Peeta's hand and twine our fingers together. My heart beats loudly. "Peeta?"
Author's Note: The end! I'm on tumblr (sunfishdunes) if you want to chat.