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The Catalyst

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I still remember the precise moment I knew I was in love with Katniss Everdeen.

 

Dust from the abandoned building had clouded the air that day, and in combination with the heat it made it practically impossible to breathe easily; yet somehow I felt like it was more her doing than anything else. She made my stomach flutter; the way her legs hung over the wooden window ledge and swung back and forth. I kept staring at those chapped lips, kept watching the way her chest would rise and fall as she inhaled from her cigarette. Even at sixteen, she had already begun to fill out her shirt. 

 

I knew so much about her, but it just wasn’t enough. I wanted to feel the sweat at the bend of her knees, to taste the salted flesh at the crook of her neck.

 

I was fascinated by her, watching as she took a long drag from her cigarette. She noticed and narrowed her eyes at me. “What?” she asked, passing along a hard look, forcing me to panic with embarrassment. My face somehow became hotter and I felt all the blood rush to my head.

 

“N—n—nothing,” I stammered in response. It was confusing at first, but I somehow became increasingly aware of Katniss over the last two years. Maybe she’d shrug it off, but it wasn’t the first time I had been caught looking at her. She wasn’t highly observant, but she wasn’t stupid either. I feared that we were getting to that awkward place in our friendship; the place where it was evident that feelings were involved and someone eventually had to say something, but I was far too scared for it to be me.

 

It was only a matter of time before she figured it out. Hell, even Gale and Finn knew. They had found the drawings of her in my notebook a long time ago. 

 

Sunlight reflected off her shoulders from the broken tinted window, illuminating her skin against the light. There was something endearing about the way the shortened strands of her brown hair clung to her face while the rest cascaded down her back, and as she brought the cigarette to her lips again, wetting the filter with her mouth, I forced a dry gulp. All the blood that had just been in my head descended quickly to my dick.

 

“Have you ever tried to smoke, Peeta?” she asked coolly. I liked it when she said my name. Almost everyone always called me Peet, but her refusal to do this almost made it seem as if there was a sense of ownership that came along with it—like only she could call me Peeta and no one else could. I was certain it would never sound as good coming from anyone else, anyway.

 

“No,” I answered shakily.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Just never wanted to, I guess...”

 

She scooted herself to the edge of the windowsill and beckoned me with her finger over to her. Nervously, I slowly moved closer, wiping the sweat from my palms onto the sides of my now dirt-ridden khakis. When I grew nearer and noticed the hole near the inner thigh of her blue jeans displaying that olive skin, my breath hitched.

 

“Try it,” she said, handing me her half-smoked cigarette, the warmth of her skin grazing mine during the exchange. I looked at her confoundedly as it sat between my fingers, the tip glowing, filling with air with a cloud of thick smoke. The smell was off-putting. It made me cringe.

 

I brought the filtered end to my lips and sucked, intrigued because I could taste the sourness of her saliva on it. I half expected to hate it, figuring it would make me cough and make an ass of myself, yet nothing happened. I pulled it away from me and gazed at it, quite confused.

 

“I... I don’t think I’m doing it right,” I admitted weakly after a few more tries.

 

“You’re not inhaling. You’ve got to hold it in. Here, let me show you. Keep your mouth open.”

 

I was so close to her, standing on my feet, trapped between her legs as she sat before me. I had fantasized about us being in this very position a million times, but never in my dreams was my heart pounding this hard.

 

She grasped the cigarette from my fingers and brought it back down to her lips. They wrapped tightly around the base as she drew in a deep breath, while she grasped a hold of my neck to bring my face close. My lips parted. My hands trembled. I held my breath and watched curiously as the gray smoke escaped from her mouth into my own. Quickly, everything began to burn inside of me. I backed away, dry coughing from the singe traveling throughout the back of my throat and down to my lungs.

 

Even though it hurt, there was something incredibly erotic about all of it: the way I could taste her, how incredibly close we were to one another, the manner in which her lips wrapped around the base of the cigarette. I couldn’t help the blush running up my neck and cheeks as I imagined them on something else, which was growing slightly hard as my thoughts progressed.

           

“Let’s do it again,” I suggested.

 

She lifted an eyebrow at me and chuckled slightly, hesitant, but compliant anyway. I moved between her legs again and brought my face within a short distance of hers. This time, I was prepared when the smoke filled my lungs. I didn’t cough. Instead, I was steady and allowed my lips to linger near hers. Her eyes flickered curiously. I memorized the curvature of the red, plump flesh—the way her teeth grazed over the bottom lip and held it in. Her warm breath gently exhaled and settled against my cheek. I couldn’t forget any second of it. I didn’t want to.

 

I stayed in that position for a long moment, staring directly at her mouth. She was still as ever. I knew I had to do it. Before I changed my mind, I brazenly said, “Katniss....I’m going to kiss you.” 

 

She didn’t say anything; she just fluttered her eyelashes closed and waited as I brought my lips down to her. They were warm. Luscious. She was patient. It took me a moment to get it right, as I thought I might have been too forceful at first, but soon it became easy; as though it were always meant to be that way. And I knew then had I given that moment to anyone else, I would have been cheated from perfection.

 

I loved her—possibly more than anything. Even if it wasn’t reciprocated, I was okay with that, because maybe, just maybe, she could learn to feel that way about me.

 

I hoped, anyway.

 

It was perplexing for a little while after that. Neither of us quite knew what to do with ourselves. I just froze every time I saw her and she would do the same. Our bodies would go rigid, her eye contact would falter, and she would grow even quieter than normal. 

 

It wasn’t until a month later that the distance began to close. I came to school with a welt on my face, courtesy of my mother’s wooden rolling pin. I forgot a rack of bread in the oven and she made me pay for my mistake. Once Katniss caught sight of it, she gripped my jaw possessively, staring at the purple bruise with a look of concern. I watched as her focus continued, scanning me up and down, searching for more answers.

 

“What did she do to you?” she asked, bitter and sad.

 

I didn’t say anything. There was never anything to say. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Dwelling on it would have been pointless.

 

But she wouldn’t let it go. I felt her eyes following me everywhere throughout the day. Every time I caught her gaze she would be staring at me with the same worried expression.

 

Later that night, as I lay on my side, unable to fall asleep, I stared at the dark shadows cast upon my bedroom walls. My mother’s voice carried up from the bakery below, where she was screaming at one of my brothers. I thought of Katniss; what she might be doing on a warm night like this. Her concern had touched me. It was proof she cared about me. The slightest bit of hope lingered within me. Maybe she was beginning to think about me the way I did about her? 

 

The clock flashed 12:14 a.m.

 

Just as I felt myself drifting, I heard a rustling from my bedroom window. I craned my neck back and squinted to focus, seeing a figure through the glass. And then I saw that she was there, softly knocking on the pane, motioning for me to let her in. 

 

I pushed the covers off and made my way over to the window quietly, lifting the handle and letting the warm night air in. “What are you doing here?” I whispered in utter disbelief, peering down the rooftop’s uneven shingles, noticing the distance from the ground to where we were. Had she climbed all this way? I just stared, spellbound by her ability.

 

Her eyes flickered at me. “To see you, obviously. Are you going to let me in or what?” 

 

I nearly stumbled trying to move over, which allowed her to slip through the small opening. She wasn’t exactly quiet about this, and it made my heart stir as I listened closely down below us, making sure nobody else heard. Worriedly, I brought a single finger to my lips reminding her of how late it was. Katniss just rolled her eyes and slipped her long boots off, letting them fall to the floor.

 

We ended up settling in bed next to each other, lying closely with her arms wrapped around my waist from behind. I could feel her nose nestled against my shoulder as she gripped me tightly.

 

We never talked. I never asked why she came. I suppose I didn’t have to. Her embrace said everything there was to say. And as she held me close, like she was afraid to let me go, I allowed myself to fall asleep peacefully. She could easily fight the demons of the night away.

 

I dreamed of her, but woke without her next to me.

 

 But she came the night after that, and the night after that. 

 

I wasn’t sure if it was for me or for her, but I didn’t care. As bad as that sounds, I just wanted her close any way I could get her.

 

 Once the leaves started to fall off the trees, we finally kissed again. 

 

 It was different that time. I felt her focus. There was more desire, more hasty touches and ardent lips. I grew confidence in those evenings under the sheets, began feeling more bold with each passing day.  The night when she slipped her small hand under my waistband was a pleasant surprise; I definitely hadn’t expected it, but eagerly accepted her touch regardless.  All I could do was look at her with all the admiration in the world. 

 

And eventually, she gave me all of her.  She gave me everything.

 

I only grew to love her more because of it. I knew it wasn’t the same for her that day, and she didn’t experience what I had, but quickly learned how to give her the same pleasure she gave me, how to make her feel good. I studied every line of her body, traced every inch of her skin with my lips. The first time I finally got to watch her fall apart beneath me, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, probably even better than I had imagined it. 

 

“Peeta, don’t ever fucking leave me,” she said breathlessly, reaching over to wipe the sweaty curls from my forehead. Her fingertips traveled down to the corner of my brow and caressed my face while every fiber of my being remained content and exhausted.

 

“I’m going to marry you someday,” I whispered back as Katniss pressed her body against mine. Her breathing grew so steady I thought she may have fallen asleep.

 

“Highly unlikely,” she mumbled after a moment from her pillow, sheepishly.

 

“Why not?” I asked a little more loudly, my ego undeniably bruised.

 

She turned over to face me and looked me in the eye. “Because there are no white picket fences and minivans in my future. Love... kids.... marriage... it’s just not for me.”

 

Perhaps I should’ve been concerned, but I put it in the back of my mind, too high on her to think of anything else.

 

I began to learn a whole new side of Katniss after that. It became increasingly apparent that when she allowed herself to feel, she felt with a violent intensity; jealousy, sadness, rage, and anger were amongst the top of the list. It all came in tidal waves. 

 

It didn’t matter though. I only fell harder as the days passed. She was like a closed book,  and I tried to tell myself that I didn’t need to hear it—that I could feel everything I needed to from the way she kissed me. Why would I need more? I had everything I wanted. I had her. 

 

But we were so different, down to our very cores.

 

Katniss hated school while I loved it. She was so withdrawn, and most of the time found herself leaving midday to go on some adventure. Sometimes she would grab me by the wrist in the hallway and pull me out the backdoor, leading us to our abandoned building. Then there were days she would just disappear by herself, heading for the woods, and on those days she wouldn’t return until the sun disappeared into the clouds. 

 

Mrs. Everdeen didn’t mind, but eventually the attendance office called my mother, and the bruises stayed for weeks afterward. If only her fists were as calm and forgiving as my father.

 

Katniss wouldn’t leave my side for a week after that. She was like a watchtower, standing over the fragile boy who could so easily be broken. I guess she didn’t realize that the only person who could break me was her.

 

She had a lot of big dreams, some of which were shared with me. Sometimes she would talk of going away, either by herself or the two of us together. I could tell she had mixed feelings about it, but the idea of leaving our small town behind was incredibly appealing. I had never lived in the city before and the idea was fascinating. I craved change. It was so fucking stuffy here.

 

I loved that she wanted to study journalism and to write music. It made my longing to become an art teacher seem less cliché. But when it came time to rise to the occasion and apply for college, we both let it slip by. She was promoted at the little diner near the freeway, and after my dad died, my mom needed help at the bakery. We fell into a routine, and it seemed that this was the life perfectly carved out for us.

 

Katniss grew miserable. She couldn’t take living in the house with her mother on top of the long hours she was working. They were constantly at one another’s throats, mainly about Prim. Katniss hated Mrs. Everdeen’s parenting methods and she didn’t try to hide it. So I guess it wasn’t entirely out of the blue when she started looking for an apartment. 

 

Her asking me to move in with her, however, was.

 

“I can’t watch her hit you anymore, Peeta. I want you out of there. Let’s just do it together. It’ll be easier to save money for Prim’s college with two of us anyway.”

 

My heart should’ve been soaring, but it wasn’t. I didn’t want it like that. I didn’t want to move in with her out of necessity. I wanted it to be because she wanted me there. Because she wanted me.

 

She must have caught on to the look on my face, because a second later her hand was on my cheek. 

 

“I wouldn’t want do it with anyone else, Peeta. Only you.”

 

That was enough for me.

 

It rained the day we moved in. My brother Andre helped me carry our secondhand furniture through the shallow puddles and up the creaky steps of the apartment building. The walls were dingy. The hallways were poorly lit. I was ecstatic. It was a dump, but it was our dump.

 

I made a silent promise to myself that I would make the best of everything. My paychecks were small, but she never lacked for anything she needed. We always had running water, food, electricity. I tried to even do the small things—like bring her home leftover cheese bread from the bakery, or if there was a meal she especially loved, I made a point to make it regularly.

 

I took her to town on Mondays when the bakery was closed. We liked to walk. The day a music store opened on the corner and she gazed longingly at the pianos through the window, my heart broke. When we were still in school, she had access to instruments. Now that we had moved on to our adult lives, things had changed. Our lives had changed.

 

It put things into perspective for me. While I could give her everything she needed, I couldn’t give her everything she wanted. It felt like shit, like I was worthless and inadequate. She deserved more.

 

After that, I spent the better part of two months trying to put away money, but it proved to be useless. Our car broke down, or Prim had broken her arm and needed to be taken to the emergency room. There was always something more important that warranted the funds, and even if I could conjure it up, I knew there wasn’t an inch of extra space to spare in our six hundred square foot apartment.

 

It was the best I could do—taking her to the little shop on the corner and watching from a close distance as her fingers struck the ivory keys, filling the room with rich sound. It left me in awe every time. Anyone else who walked through that door had to stop and listen too. 

 

 I just loved seeing her alive. There was something about her in those moments—so light and effervescent. Her mood was contagious. When she burned, I burned. It was an amazing feeling, and it came with such little effort. 

 

I just wanted to capture it and live in it forever.

 


 

I rub my face in pure exhaustion, tired of having to pinch the flesh of my arm just to remind myself that I’m alive. I’m no longer whole in these moments, just pieces. It has become work to feel.

 

Tears escape from the corners of her eyes. The tip of her nose is flushed pink. She uses the backside of her hand to wipe her face. I keep losing my focus. I don’t know if it’s her words or the white walls of our apartment that’s distorting everything. Either way, it hurts to look at her.

 

“We’re so young, Peeta,” she says. As profound as the validity of this statement is, it still burns.

 

I almost want to scream while watching her sit the on the edge of the bed, pregnancy test gripped firmly in her left hand. She’s naked from the waist down, tightly holding on to herself. The air is dry and you can see the dust settling against the bright light shining in. Her stare is tired and fixed on the ground, gazing anywhere but at me. I hate it when she won’t make eye contact. I hate this situation even more.

 

The last few years, we’ve been so careful. I’m not sure how we got here, but I suppose I’m to blame. I should’ve been more cautious. I should’ve paid more attention. But she’s been on the pill, and we did it a million times before... 

 

“Peeta, I don’t want this. I’ve never wanted this. It’s just not meant for me.” God, what am I even supposed to say to that? All it does is fill me with doubt.

 

What isn’t for her? Is it just me? Is it the idea of a family? Is it this life? Does she need more? I can’t read her. I don’t think anyone can, to be honest. She keeps everything so bottled up.

 

As disappointment fills to the brim and spills over, I tell myself she’s right; this is for the best. We’re only twenty-one. We’re broke. We’re not ready right now.

 

I try, but it feels like someone is taking a sledgehammer to my heart.

 

“You know this is for the best, Peeta...” 

 

I shake my head despite the buzzing in my mind. No, I don’t know that it’s for the best, but it’s not my choice. Katniss knows I want kids and perhaps that’s what is making all of this worse. I want them so badly, and I want them with her.

 

I’m numb, practically paralyzed. I need to turn off everything because I can’t feel like this. It’s too much.

 

“I need you to be in this with me. I need you to stand by me... I need you, Peeta,” she pleads. I fight back the tears burning under my eyelids. I don’t want to make her feel like she is doing something wrong, but how can I be strong about this? We want different things.

 

For her sake, even as impossible as it is, I picture myself in her shoes. I try to imagine everything: the toll a pregnancy would take on her body, labor, the irreversible outcome and responsibility that comes with having a child. I try to picture it from her perspective, but I can’t. I can only see love and laughter and everything I’ve ever wanted out of life.

 

I cover my face with my hands and take a deep breath, urging myself forward. I’ve always been calm and collected. Even in this moment, I can’t lose that.

 

 “I’ll always stand by you,” I tell her.

 


 

Morning frost covers the metal handrail as I walk down the steps at 6 a.m. You can still see the lit trees through the apartment windows, even the day after Christmas. The rest of the world is asleep, but not me. I’m awake.

 

Her face is pale as I find her balled up on her side of the bed, arms wrapped around her waist, face buried in the pillow. I’ve watched her every day, petrified. Somehow, she’s managed to lose weight over the last three weeks. This is destroying her and I can’t bear it anymore.

 

I help Katniss put a coat on and carry her out to the car, cradling her against me. Her arms are tightly coiled around my neck as the cold wind brushes through, shaking the tree limbs. Packed snow crunches loudly under my feet. While setting her against the chilled passenger seat, I try to avert my gaze from the back. Images of a blue car seat safely nestled beneath the seatbelt have haunted me for weeks and I need to get them out of my mind. 

 

I look again. Of course it’s not there.

 

We drive in silence as she gazes out the window. As long as we’ve been together, this is the loneliest I’ve ever felt. I hate it—this feeling that the gap between us is insurmountable, like we could be broken. Maybe we already are broken and I just don’t know it.

 

They call her name at 7:30.

 

I wait for some time in the parking lot and let the cold air outside fill my nostrils. My mind wanders. I think of Katniss, in that room, scared and alone, worried if she’s doing the right thing. I wish I could do all of this for her, but I can’t.

 

As I pace back and forth, letting the bitter chill clear my mind, I notice a little flower shop across the street. I buy a bouquet assortment wrapped in clear plastic and take it back with me to the waiting room, where nerves continue to course through me. The news flashes on the small television screen in the corner. Slumped down in my seat, I stare at the cover of a magazine on the table before me. I’m so tired but I can’t sleep. I’ve tried so hard.

 

When she finally comes out, it looks like all the life has been drained from her hallowed cheeks. I rush out my seat to offer my hand as she walks slowly. Katniss half smiles when she sees the bouquet.

 

“Ready to go home?” I ask softly, entwining my hand with hers.

 

She nods her head weakly. 


 

Weeks go by. I respect the decisions that were never mine to make. I hold no grudges. Truth be told, if it was between Katniss or anything else, I’d always choose Katniss. Always.

 

She, however, is not fine. She is a whirlwind of emotions. Distant. Moody. 

 

I try to take her to the music shop in town, but she won’t go. I make lamb stew, but it sits on the counter untouched. 

 

I can’t seem to get it right.

 

When I get home on Friday night from my shift at the bakery, she’s at the kitchen table, diligently concentrating. As I close the front door, I hear heavy rustling and shuffling; the sounds of her hands quickly working to move papers. I shrug off my coat and watch as she finishes stuffing things inside the kitchen drawer. Narrowing my brows, I walk over and pull it open, revealing old family pictures. A clear photograph of Katniss and her father sits at the very top, and I feel my heart clench.

 

Her father died in a fire when Katniss was 12. There was a gas leak at the construction site he had been working on. 

 

We had become friends just after his death. She didn’t talk about it much, but she really didn’t need to. It broke Katniss to pieces for months and it took even longer to put her back together.

 

“Katniss...” I reach for her, but she pushes me away. Those grey eyes blaze with something I can’t quite define. She wraps her arms around her waist and I can see her tremble from a close distance. The body language before me exudes an excruciating amount of discomfort.

 

I go to move closer, but she backs away. “Just don’t,” she orders.

 

“It’s okay,” I plead with her, reaching again, but she pushes me in the chest, hard. Immediately, I pull away. She doesn’t want to be consoled, which is normal, but this scares me. Katniss is normally so stoic, so collected, but then she has these rare moments where the pain and rage she feels is so beyond anything I’ve ever seen, it leaves me at a loss for words.

 

“What could you possibly know? How can you say it’s okay? You have no idea what you’re even talking about.”

 

“You’re right, I’m not you. I don’t know...” The pain stringing across her face cuts through me. I just want to hold her, if only she would let me.

 

“Get the fuck out,” she says.

 

“Katniss...” I beg. 

 

“Just get the fuck out!” Her voice cracks with a certain panic. It comes out so loud, strained, and I’m afraid of what will happen if I stay.

 

So I leave. I walk through the streets of our small town on a bitter January day, fighting off fatigue and a now dissipated hunger. I try to let go of the hollowness that consumes me.

 

Later that night, I return and find that she has locked herself in the bedroom. I don’t know how much time passes as I stand there knocking, waiting to see if she’ll get up. I just know that our small apartment seems incredibly large without her. And as I make my way to the couch, I think about how for the first time in I don’t know how long, I’m going to sleep alone.

 


 

She seems fine again after a couple of days.

 

I make her pancakes like I always do on Sundays. It’s too cold to walk to the park, so we stay home and watch bad movies. She quotes silly Nicholas Cage lines from Con Air and nestles against my chest, drifting lightly. Time stills. She looks as beautiful as always, and I crave her touch. It’s been so long—since before everything happened, and I just want to feel every inch of her so I can re-familiarize myself with her body.

 

When we finally make our way to the bedroom, I clutch her arm and pull her close to me. My fingers run across the planes of her shoulders, across the back of her neck. I breathe in her scent and feel the tip of my nose tickle against the soft flesh behind her ear.

 

“Peeta,” she says in a stern voice, pushing me away. Her gaze roams the room as if she were suffocating and desperately searching for a way out. Eyes that used to be filled with love and adoration only seem to hold pity. It pulls me from the inside out.

 

“I can’t. Not right now,” she says and frees herself from my grasp. I watch as Katniss enters the bathroom, quickly closing the door behind her. I hear the jiggling of the door handle and the click of a lock.

 

She’s never locked the door before.

 

________

 

She’s doesn’t break down the next day, or the day after that even, but the following week it happens again.

 

It’s Monday. We’re walking to town, on our way to the market and are forced to stop at the crosswalk. Cars whistle by as we wait patiently. It’s been a good day, filled with smiles and laughter. Katniss has her arm interlocked with mine. I playfully adjust her knit hat that seems to keep creeping upward and pull it down just above her brows. She plants a warm kiss on my cheek. The sun is beams down on us, and despite doing nothing for the temperature, it seems to brighten our moods.

 

A middle-aged woman pulls up next to us with a baby stroller and leans forward, making sure the infant is covered. I smile at the gesture, but Katniss immediately becomes uncomfortable. I can sense her practically wanting to jump out of her skin. Her feet shuffle and she fidgets profusely. It’s like she’s here, but she isn’t, only to be concentrating on something a million miles away. Everything is off. I feel it. 

 

Something snaps inside of her.

 

“Let’s just go home,” she says, dragging me by the arm. I dig my heel against the pavement to stop us from moving. She blinks. I narrow my brows in confusion, primarily because we are only a block from the market.

 

“Katniss, we’re right here. Why would we leave?” I point down the block where the yellow sign for the produce market is in view, but she’s looking away, lost.

 

She shakes her head and begins heading for the opposite direction. Before she can get too far, I grasp a hold of her arm through her thick coat, but she yanks it away. For a moment I consider how this probably looks to other bystanders and feel their eyes upon us. Because of this, I don’t attempt to grab her again.

 

She walks home nearly ten feet ahead of me for the whole mile.

 

When we get back to the apartment, I slam the door and throw my coat off in frustration.

 

“What the hell is wrong with you? What is going on?”

 

She looks at me with those usually vivid, fiery eyes, now filled with emptiness. Instead of responding, Katniss just turns her back and begins to walk down the hallway, clearly with nothing to say. I follow her into the bedroom, where she sits on the edge of the bed as she always does when she’s stressed. Her knuckles are white, but I can’t tell if it’s from the cold or not. With my arms crossed, I stand before her, frustrated and quiet, but calm for her sake. I learned a long time ago that you’ll get nowhere with Katniss while temperamental.

 

“Tell me what’s going on. Let me help you,”  I plead.

 

“And what are you going to do, exactly? Fix me, Peeta?” There’s a hint of animosity there. 

 

“Is that what you need?” I ask quietly while looking down, shifting my weight against the doorframe. Maybe if I can reason with her, she’ll open up to me. It’s all I want. I just want things to go back to normal, like they were before.

 

She scoffs at this. “I don’t need you to save me. This isn’t Cinderella.” 

 

In any other circumstance I probably would have smiled at that, but the hard look on her face and the overall feeling of hopelessness that I’m gathering deters me from doing so. “Katniss, it’s okay to need people sometimes,” I try assure her.

 

“I can take care of myself,” she fires back.

 

“I never said you couldn’t.”

 

“Then why are you acting like I need to be fixed?”

 

“I don’t think that. I can just tell you’re not happy. All I want to do is help.”

 

Those words taste like tar coming out of my mouth. I bite my lip, afraid it may start trembling otherwise. If there is anything I’m scared of in this world, it’s that I’m a source of unhappiness in her life.

 

“I’m fine, okay? I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just need a few minutes.” She sighs and runs a hand through her long, thick hair, most of which has managed to escape from her braid. 

 

“Katniss, you’re not fine. Just tell me what’s wrong.” God, I just need to know. I can’t take much more of this.

 

“I just told you... Jesus Christ, Peeta! What do you want from me?” Her voice raises and becomes shrill.

 

“I want to know is going on with you. Why can’t you just tell me?” 

 

She stands in frustration and covers her face momentarily. “Because it’s pointless with you. You never say what you actually mean to say, just what you think I want to hear.”

 

My focus is distorted. I’m taken aback. “What?” I ask. It comes out so strange, like it’s not even from my own voice. Suddenly, I feel like I’m out of breath.

 

“You know it’s true,” she says, looking me straight in the eye. My chest fills with something I can’t place. 

 

 

“Let’s just save ourselves some time. You wanna talk? Go ahead—say it, Peeta. Tell me how much you love me, even though I never say it back. Tell me how you don’t resent me for not wanting kids; how it’s okay, because you have me. Go ahead and spew your bullshit. Or for once in your fucking life, tell me the truth and not what you think you should say.”

 

“I am telling you the truth!” She has to know. The mere suggestion of anything else is just absurd. “This is ridiculous,” I tell her.

 

“There is nothing ridiculous about this. This is the most honest conversation we’ve ever had,” she replies with a blank face.

 

“What do you want me to say? Of course I wanted the baby, but I wanted to do it right. It’s not going to be right unless you want it too.”

 

Katniss looks me directly in the eyes. “You don’t get it, do you? I’m never going want it, Peeta.” 

 

Realization occurs. Maybe I just didn’t believe her before, or perhaps I’d convinced myself that she would eventually want the same things as me, but here, in this moment, I understand. I’ve had expectations—great ones that I knew she all would never fulfill. Yet all along I’ve been waiting for her to change this integral part of herself just because I’d hoped for it so desperately.

 

“We want different things,” she says in a cool manner. Too cool, like it’s been rehearsed ahead of time.

 

“Katniss, don’t say that...” I reach for her, practically trembling. I tell myself to hold it together, but my voice falters, betraying me. 

 

“Peeta,” she says, stepping away from me as I watch her intently, staring down at her chin and mouth. Her neck bobs and she swallows sharply. “I can’t do this anymore. We can’t go on like this...”

 

“No,” I tell her, wrapping my arms around her slight frame tightly. A single hot tear streams down my cheek as I bury my nose into her sweet smelling hair. “Don’t do this.”

 

She pushes herself from me and places her warm hands on my cheeks. “It’s okay to want something more. I just can’t give it to you...”

 

I swallow the lump in my throat, feel the constriction in my chest. My legs become heavy, my fingers begin to tingle and a churning begins in the pit of my stomach. It hits me like a ton of bricks—that feeling I couldn’t place before, the one that is now so evident, I’m afraid nothing will ever take its place. 

 

Despair.

 

I feel it again and again as she grabs her coat and swings it over her shoulders. The unruly knit hat that didn’t want to stay in place before goes back on her head cooperates this time. I have to watch, painfully, as she laces her boots and walks to the front door, pushing the heavy wooden frame open. It closes gently behind her and she never looks back at me, not once.

 

I find myself staring into a colorless world.

 


 

It snows the day my brother Andre helps me move out. There isn’t much to take this time, as I leave most of it for her. And I notice as I carry the cardboard boxes across the black ice to the car, just how much my chest aches. 

 

But this is what she needs.

 


  

The ice melts, but you can still smell the moisture in the air. It just comes with a glow of warmth now, and you can see the flowers jutting out of the ground, patiently waiting to be plucked.

 

I stare at those flowers and think about how in a few short months, they’ll be gone. The ground will dry up from the summer heat and then the copper leaves will fall, only to soon be replaced by a thick set of heavy snow. 

 

It’s a constant reminder of how fragile things are, how quickly they can disappear, and how easy it is for something else to take its place.

 

_____________

 

 

I keep hearing things, things I’d rather not know.

 

For the fourth time today, someone tells me about how they spotted Katniss last night holding hands with Gale Hawthorne at the local diner.

 

Why would you do that?

 

The next time someone finds it necessary to reiterate this nonsense I’m going to blow the fuck up. 

 

____________

 

I wipe a layer of sweat and flour off my forehead with the back of my hand, cursing about how it shouldn’t be so hot already in May. This is insane. I can’t even fathom it being any warmer. At the rate we’re going, July is going to feel like being trapped in Satan’s crotch.

 

I suppose that’s what this place is, anyway. 

 

On the upside, business has been great. It keeps the money flowing and my mother happy. This is important considering her level of happiness determines the amount of bruises on my face.

 

But despite living together I’m working so often now that I hardly see her. It’s better this way. The less our paths cross, the easier it is for me to function (something that has proven to be difficult as of late).

 

I’m a bit shell-shocked when the front door swings open and Delly Cartwright comes walking through it, dragging a handsome figure behind her. A high-pitched squeal escapes from her mouth at the sight of me. It forces a smile to string across my face. Her joy is enough to even surpass the guilt I carry, knowing damn well that I’ve been avoiding her for the last few months. I’ve been avoiding everyone, really, but especially her. The thought of trying to explain what happened between Katniss and I has been just too overwhelming.

 

She must not be too angry though, because she immediately gives me a toothy grin while stretching her arms out, awaiting my embrace. I gladly cling to her, basking in warmth and touch, something I’ve been deprived of for far too long. Blood finally pumps through my veins for the first time in I can’t remember.

 

“Peeta, I can’t believe you’re still here...” She waves her hands in the air, clearly talking about the bakery.

 

I roll my eyes at her. “Yeah, yeah,” I answer back, already wanting to talk about something else. It’s been a sensitive topic for me lately, especially considering that Thresh recently told me Katniss got into a university in the city.

 

“Who’s this?” I ask, pointing my finger at the tall blonde standing next to her. 

 

“This is Cato,” she says, grabbing a hold of his forearm and pulling him close. I smile at him. He just puffs out his cheeks and quietly gives me a single wave. The gesture makes me chuckle. I recognize that exhausted look on his face; all of Delly’s former boyfriends had the same one. If I know her at all, which I do, she’s been dragging him everywhere since the very minute she got home.

 

At first I think it might be odd—us chatting again, but when she starts talking a mile a minute about school and what it’s been like being away for the last three years, it’s like we never skipped a beat. I tease, she laughs. You can see the excitement in her eyes when she talks about her life, graduation next year and how she plans on traveling the world right after. A pang of jealousy courses through me.

 

I’ve never been more than thirty miles outside this town.

 

The conversation moves in another direction when she starts marveling over the desserts. Her hands press against the glass display case like a child, staring in awe at the sugary pastries. We spend ten minutes like this. Cato taps his foot impatiently. Recognizing this, I offer my suggestions.

 

She finally settles on various cupcakes and peanut brittle to take back home.

 

As Cato reaches into his back pocket for his wallet, I notice the pressed wrist cuffs from his crisp, button down shirt. The thick, phthalo blue fabric still has vibrant color and flawless, clean hem lines. The buttons shimmer against the light. The corners of the collar come together to form a firm, precise point. I can’t remember the last time I saw a shirt so new. It contrasts perfectly with his dark denim jeans and shiny leather loafers.

 

I used to take pride in my appearance. Not anymore. 

 

Suddenly, every stain on my discolored white t-shirt stands out like a sore thumb.

 

My brows furrow when I take his money. Even the twenty dollar bill he hands me is and clean and without rumples.

 

“I’m in town all summer. I expect to see you, Peeta Mellark,” Delly orders as I hand Cato the pastry filled paper bag and his change.

 

I close the cash register hastily. My throat is dry upon answering her. “Yeah, we’ll get together,” I reply so softly, I’m not sure she even hears it.

 

When they finally leave, I allow myself to slump against the wall and descend until I feel the hard floor beneath me. My head hangs between my legs as I try to pinpoint when it happened—the moment in which I had lost myself. The moment I stopped being me.

 

 All this time I had it wrong. I misdirected blame. The fault has always been in this cognitive dissonance, this incongruent fucked up mental state. It was never the pregnancy; that was only the catalyst. 

 

I shut my eyes tightly and press the back of my head against the hard surface behind me. Everything I couldn’t understand before comes at me in surges: the anger, the humiliation, the weightless sound of her words rippling through my skin and thickening my blood. 

 

It’s okay to want something more.

 


 

I don’t know what I expect to find when I peer into the glass window of the music store, I just know that when I don’t see her, a small pang of disappointment washes over me.

 

It’s been nearly a whole year since I talked to her last. Occasionally, I would see her face in a crowd and feel my breath hitch from the very sight of her. The last time I caught a glimpse of her walking through town, she was as radiant as ever.

 

 I continue to walk past the music shop and into the book store where they sell college textbooks. I refer to the sheet of paper in front of me with CRN numbers, attempting to find the appropriate book to match. A group of people attempt to squeeze past me and bump into my shoulders. It’s all kind of hectic.

 

It takes me nearly a half an hour to locate all six books. I stand in the check-out line even longer. When I finally get to the front register and see the 458.00 total, I tell myself not to cringe; it’s necessary. These are the steps we must take to bring us to the cusp of something greater.

 


 

Perhaps I should cry. Andre and Luke certainly are. But as I stand before her casket, looking down at her cold, wretched face, I can’t bring myself to shed a single tear.

 

I don’t know why I’m not more emotional. I thought I would be. I should be. This whole situation is fucked.

 

I do feel something, though. I’ve felt it since that night she didn’t come home. The shift in the rooms that she is no longer in, the soft breeze blowing through from the window that she would never open, or the light ease in which I can work now without fear of her hand across my face.

 

Hope is what I feel.

 

The soft, cheesy music in the background is quite the opposite of soothing. The flowers surrounding the casket blossom with vibrant reds and yellows, but do nothing to reflect her actual dark demeanor. When people come to embrace me and offer their apologies, I’m not even quite sure how to respond. So I just say “Thanks for coming” and offer a firm handshake or half-hearted hug. It’s the best that I can do.

 

After the sixth hour, my hand begins to cramp and I feel suffocated. I loosen the tie around my neck and step outside, seating myself near on the edge of the rocks outlining the flower bed. I take in the wispy chilled air that rustles the tree branches. Clouds threaten the evening sky. A streetlight’s dim ray shines over the funeral home’s parking lot.

 

The sound of footsteps on the pavement makes me snap by head up. It’s a quiet step. Light. Familiar. A short, small frame comes into view. The very sight of her is enough to make my chest tighten.

 

She stops before me and I look up at her from a close distance, re-familiarizing myself with every inch of her. I exhale gratefully at her recognizable appearance. Call me selfish, but I was afraid she’d be so different I wouldn’t know who she was anymore. The fact that she’s still the Katniss I remember is beyond comforting.

 

She doesn’t say anything. We stare at one another for a brief moment before she bends down and envelops me in her arms securely. I inhale the clean scent of her hair and relish in the smoothness of her cheek against my stubble. It’s so warm where she is. So... everything.

 

But the second she lets go and takes three steps away, it’s painful. It provokes a certain amount of fear. What if this is the last time she ever touches me? What if I never felt the brush of her skin against mine again? The thought alone is enough to break my heart three times over.

 

With a look of concern, she asks a question that no one else had bothered to all day. “Are you okay?” 

 

I was, up until this point, but now, I’m not so sure.

 

“I’m fine,” I answer unconvincingly.

 

“I know she wasn’t exactly Mother of the Year.” 

 

Paula Mellark was very good at concealing her abuse. So good, in fact, that little to no people at all know about the blows the Mellark boys took behind closed doors. Maybe they never paid attention, or they were just too naive to put two and two together, but Katniss was no stranger to the subject. She knew about every mark, every cut that was ever left on my body.

 

I know that’s why she’s here; not to pay her respects to my mother, but to check up on me. She stands closely, her shuffling feet the only sound to break the silence. I watch as she stuffs her hands nervously into her coat pocket, unsure of what to do with them. This is the part where I should probably say something, but nothing’s there. She looks down at the ground momentarily and brings her gaze back up, pursing her lips. God, I miss her. I’m beginning to think no amount of time will ever change that.

 

“Do you want to go in?” I ask, pointing at the door.

 

She hesitates. “Do you want to?” 

 

I half smile and look down, ashamed. “Not really.” 

 

“Well, then no.”

 

Katniss positions herself next to me and sits. She’s close enough that her arm ever so slightly rests against mine.

 

“You know,” she says in a soothing manner. “It’s okay if you’re not heartbroken.”

 

It’s growing darker by the minute. The streetlight seems to be the only thing casting light upon us. I can barely make out the outline of her face.

 

“I just wish people could understand, you know? She wasn’t this great person that everyone seems to think she was. Maybe I just didn’t see what they saw? Who knows... I’m probably just an awful person.”

 

She shakes her head slowly. “I think what she gave you was real. She just kept it from everyone else because she knew how cruel it was. Peeta, you should know that there is nothing wrong with seeing people for who they are, and it definitely doesn’t make you a bad person.”

 

I feel the heat of her palm resting on my hand.  It’s a common gesture, I know, but I find it so comforting that I practically sigh in contentment. My heart stirs. I believe her so much it scares me. And somehow, her presence becomes like water in a drought; needed in every facet.

 

I study her hand on my own, hoping she realizes how perfectly they fit together. My mouth opens, about to say something along those lines, but she stops me. 

 

“I know that things didn’t end well, but I miss you, Peeta. I’d like us to be friends. I know it might be selfish to ask, and if it is, tell me. But I’d really like to see you again.”

 

Her face looks so hopeful that I don’t think I would even know how to decline her, but part of me recognizes that it’s not a good idea. If I say yes, it would be based on the conscious decision of hope; that by being her friend, it would possibly take us back to the way things were before. By the sound of things however, it seems evident that this is not her intention, and that what she wants here is merely a confidant. I don’t think I can give just that.

 

I rise from the rocks and straighten my tie out, hoping that being on my feet will help me do the right thing. She stands too, clutching the zipper of her jacket and tightly rubbing her lips together.

 

“Katniss, I miss you too. I just don’t see how that’s going to work.”

 

She narrows her brows. “If I miss you and you miss me, what else is there that needs to work?”

 

“Everything that matters,” I reply.

 

“I don’t see how anything matters if we don’t talk,” she says in a confused manner.

 

“I can’t pretend like there was never a ‘we.’ The history isn’t going to change. Things happened between us. I loved you. I wanted to marry you. You know that.”

 

“But there is so much more we can give one another than just that,” she adds.

 

“Yes, but you don’t get those parts of me anymore,” I admit sadly. Her eyes flicker. Realization sets in as the hurt strings across her face. I remind myself that the honesty is necessary. She chose this, not me.

 

“So instead, we act like one another don’t exist?” There is a certain bitterness in her voice. I know she is upset by the way her hands move enthusiastically. It hurts, but I have to let her go. I have no other choice.

 

“No, Katniss. We move on and try to forget.” 

 

She stills as I move forward and gently press my cold, chapped lips to her cheek. The wind has picked up now, leaving traces of leaves to blow at our feet. I let out a small shiver.

 

“Goodbye, Katniss,” I say, walking to the door.  

 


 

I feel like I’m meeting my brothers for the first time. They’ve changed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Luke talk so much. Andre never seems to stop smiling now, probably due to this girl he’s met. 

 

As we chat over our Christmas dinner, I can’t help myself from practically falling in love with her. While some of her features are similar, she herself isn’t anything like Katniss. She is bubbly and chatty, but not to the point of annoyance. It’s just enough to give off a general vibe, yet subtle enough to still remaining elegant and lovely. 

 

Of course, dinner is enjoyable without our Mother there to chastise us about the food or some other trivial detail that really doesn’t matter. We talk. We celebrate. We enjoy Christmas and have it in our own way. It feels more like family than ever before.

 

I still feel guilty for not missing her. Perhaps I always will.

 

The gift exchange is small and not extravagant. None of us have the money for anything else.

 

The night goes quickly. When my brothers stand outside the front door, bidding their farewells, Luke grabs a hold of my black silk tie and gazes down at my crisp slacks. The smile he wears is proud. “You look good, Peeta,” he compliments. My cheeks redden. It warms me. I feel good too; practically invincible. Who I am and who I want to be seem to be aligning.

 

After their departure, I lay on my bed, able to admire the Christmas tree in the corner. Green and red lights glow against the darkness and I inhale the strong smell of pine that is clean and earthy. We’d never been able to have a Christmas tree before, despite our constant begging as children. She’d always claimed that they were too expensive or that the pine needles made too big of a mess. Eventually I stopped asking, deathly afraid that she would hit me. Instead, I would only stare at decorated trees from a distance, placed neatly in front other families' windows for the world to see. The jealousy had filled me to the very brim.

 

Now, as I push aside my art history books and lay my head back, reminiscing, I watch the beautiful shimmer of the lights. A single unlit star sits at the top, but its shiny texture is a quiet reminder that it’s still there. But somehow something is missing. I just wish I could place it.

 

And then, I hear the rustling of shingles from across the way. A muffled racket caused by thick-soled boots rises against the surface, forcing me to my feet. I should be worried, but everything feels so familiar that I can’t seem to fret. When the next sound to follow is a soft scratch at the paned glass, a sound so sweet that I could recognize it almost anywhere, my heart skips a beat.

 

“Katniss?” I ask, lifting the deteriorated, crooked window. It doesn’t sit properly in place as it has warped with use and age, but I will never replace it. Not in a million years.

 

The wind rolls in and it’s remarkably cold, even for December. She crawls through the opening, dusting a layer of light snow off her jacket once the floor is beneath her. Her hair is glistening with flakes of snow caught between the layers. Those grey eyes flicker against the green and red lights, creating that yearning, fluttering chaos in the pit of my stomach. She smells like clean, cool air and firewood. I don’t know why, but it’s sheer perfection.

 

“What are you doing here?” I ask, staring at her intently. Her expression bears no happiness, her eyes look tired. She shivers furiously.

 

“I...I...” Katniss’ mouth is agape, looking for the words, but finds herself just stammering instead. “I just felt like I needed to see you,” she announces.

 

“You could’ve used the front door,” I blurt, immediately wishing I hadn’t. But she must know the effect she has on me and what it would mean for her to climb through that window again. She can’t do this to my heart. I can only take losing her once.

 

“Yeah, I guess I could’ve. Would you have let me in?” 

 

“I’m not sure,” I reply truthfully.

 

We stand quietly for what seems like an eternity. Her eyes curiously examine my room, replicating the look I gave her only a few short weeks ago at the funeral home. She’s surveying for changes, running her fingers over the needles of the tree as though she’s attempting to fill in the gaps for the time we’ve been apart. Her left hand turns a silver bulb and thumbs the smooth, plastic surface.

 

Then, Katniss takes off her coat and lets it fall to the floor. Her feet lead her to the bed where she promptly sits down, scooting herself across the mattress. Next go the boots. I guess she’s staying a while.

 

“Lay with me?” She asks in a hopeful voice. 

 

I want nothing more than to lay with her. I want to do more than that to be honest, but my senses are telling me how much more it will hurt tomorrow when she leaves. And I trust myself a lot more than I trust her.

 

“Katniss...”

 

“Peeta, please,” she begs.

 

The pleas get to me. Against my better judgment I slide in next to her and we delve under the blankets. She pulls the heavy fabric all the way up to her chin, just as she used to years ago. My heart beats rapidly when I feel the tip of her nose tuck itself into the crook of my neck. A wave of memories and feelings flood me.

 

More silence. I’m determined not to be the first one to say something, so I just stare at the ceiling.

 

“I wanted you to fight for me, Peeta,” she finally whispers against my ear. It comes out so weak I wasn’t even sure she herself had said it. It registers after a moment and my eyes grow large. I turn my face over to her, gazing directly into those eyes.

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

“When you left... I wanted you to stay. I never wanted you to go,” she confesses.

 

“But you said—”

 

“I know. It’s hard to understand. I was so mad at you, but I never wanted you to leave. I wish there was a way to explain it. I know it sounds stupid.”

 

It doesn’t sound stupid though. It makes perfect sense actually; how she would pull close and then push me away. How true it rings to the unfolding of events. She had said she couldn’t do it anymore and wanted me to leave. I never thought to question it, but had I just insisted we work things out, then maybe we could have got through it together.

 

But I’m not convinced that would have worked, either. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anything would’ve made her happy at that point in time.

 

“I know you wanted the baby, Peeta, I really do. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think part of why I was so upset is because I wanted it too, just not then.”

 

I still at her revelation. I shut my eyes tightly just to make sure I heard her correctly, but upon opening them again, I find her staring at me just the same. Surely, I’m dreaming. There’s no way I’m conscious.

 

Her hand reaches forward and cups my chin, her fingers grazing near my mouth. I feel her thumb tug on my bottom lip, opening my mouth slightly. She traces the glistened flesh with her padded skin, fiercely concentrating on me all the while. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she softly says.

 

“You don’t have to tell me this just to please me. It’s okay to want something more,” I reassure her, using her own words. “I just wanted to make sure you had everything, even if it wasn’t with me.”

 

She shifts her weight and swings her leg over me, her bottom now pressed against my stomach. “I’m not telling you this to please you. I’m telling you this because you’re the only one who is going to please me.”

 

 My breathing quickens when she leans down and presses her mouth to mine, sweetly sweeping her tongue through the opening, rattling every thought in my mind. I immediately curse myself. I barely remembered how good this was. How could I ever have let myself forget such a thing?

 

A stream of green and red lights flicker across her face, the only source of light in the pitch black room. I close my eyes, not wanting to look, only to feel. She kisses me hard, so hard that I know she means it. Her lips leave little room for doubt.

 

But then, everything stops. We come to a halt. I open eyes and look at her, studying every inch of her face. 

 

“I love you, Peeta Mellark. Don’t ever fucking leave me.”