He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t in his head. Her thoughts and emotions were woven among his earliest memories. Her presence had been a comfort in lonely times, in times of disappointment. She was part of him.
But Peeta did remember, clearly, the first time he understood no one else shared a connection like he had with her. He’d been seven years old. That was the day his mother smacked the side of his head hard enough to make his ears ring and told him imaginary friends were for babies.
She shared his pain, felt his anguish as she always did. And she soothed him, like she always did, with warm thoughts and songs. But that time she had also assured him that his mother was wrong, that she was very real. That they were real.
But they agreed, then, to be careful, understanding even at such a young age that no one would believe them. They spent time teaching themselves and each other how to mask their reactions, so as not to give away that they were experiencing things others couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel.
They helped each other, encouraged each other. They shared everything. Not so much in words, not usually, but in sounds and smells and feelings.
She was as much a part of him as his own hands, his eyes. He couldn’t fathom life without her.
Until she was gone.
Her pain had been shocking, overwhelming, a spear through his chest, and despite all of their practice he’d fallen to his knees in the schoolyard, consumed by her agony.
For hours he’d tried to calm her. He had envisioned the most soothing images he could; sunsets, still waters, fields of dandelions. He’d repeated in his mind over and over that it would be okay, that she would be okay.
But her anguish was such that she couldn’t control it, couldn’t mask it, couldn’t even explain apart from a handful of words. Family. Dead. Alone.
For days he did nothing but send her comfort and love. He barely ate, didn’t talk to anyone else, only slept when she slept.
She’d only just started to calm; he’d felt the ebbing of her horror, the clearing of the blackness in her mind, when something new happened. Through the white bolt of panic that invaded his mind was a single coherent thought: they’re taking me away.
It was too fast, he asked questions she couldn’t answer; where, when, why? She was only able to tell him airplane. He felt her fear, his own heart pounded with hers as she begged, stay with me.
He thought always, as strongly as he could.
When her fear faded away he was, at first, happy, because she wasn’t upset any more. But there was only silence. A silence unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
His own terror rushed in; where was she? Even when she slept he’d always been able to sense her, been able to feel her. But there was nothing. For the first time in eleven years he was completely alone.
Hours turned into days turned into weeks. He searched his mind constantly for any whisper, any hint that she was still with him. But he was empty, barren, desolate. He burned his hand intentionally on the oven, trying to reach her with his pain. But there was no response.
He ached, unable to feel her, having no idea what could have happened. Missing her so acutely it was as if he’d lost a limb. No, it was worse than losing a limb. It was losing a piece of his soul. And he could tell no one.
Only months later did he realize that he didn’t even know her name. Her half of his soul had needed no name, after all. He had known her by feel, by taste, by smell. She was joy and music, she was green trees and orange sunsets and melting cheese.
But she was gone. And he was alone.
He was hot and cramped, a spring popping up through the vinyl upholstery of their shitty station wagon poking him just below the ribs as he tried to sleep. Driving from Panem, NY to San Francisco with his brother and mother in a ‘79 Volvo with no shocks was surely one of the circles of hell. But Brann, his mother’s beloved first son, was getting married on the California coast, and there was no way any of the Mellarks would miss it.
Their father would fly in for the ceremony, unable to be away for more than a couple of days from the small bakery he ran. But Mrs Mellark had balked at the expense of four plane tickets, insisting that her 9 year old bucket of bolts was perfectly suitable for making the cross-country trek. At 18 and 20 years of age, Peeta and his middle brother Rye could split the driving.
The beast shuddered and lurched over yet another pothole, launching Peeta headlong into the door. Why his mother insisted on taking these donkey trail roads instead of the shiny new interstate was beyond him. “Rye can you at least tune the station in properly?” he groused from the backseat. It would be his turn to drive again soon and he’d barely slept the past three days. The faint music, static-filled and indistinct, was impossible to ignore.
“Radio’s not even on, asshole,” Rye grumbled, then yelped as their mother slapped the back of his head.
“Watch your language,” she snapped, and Peeta rolled away as they began arguing again. He could still hear the music, just barely, too distorted to make out the tune. It wasn’t worth getting in the middle of the fight in the front seat over.
He dreamt of her again. He’d been dreaming of her at least once a week since she disappeared, but this one was different. Instead of waking with that sick, sad feeling he’d come to accept was his fate, he awoke feeling calm, almost happy despite being contorted and stuck to the backseat vinyl.
And that soft serenity stayed, even as he white-knuckled his way through the Rocky Mountain roads, even as his mother bitched and moaned, even as Rye continually kicked the back of his seat. All of the shit in his life seemed a little easier to deal with.
They checked into the skeeviest fleabag motel Peeta had ever seen in the middle-of-nowhere, Nevada. The bed he was supposed to share with Rye looked even less comfortable than the backseat of the car, but he’d probably never know for sure because Rye collapsed onto the middle of it as soon as they’d walked in and was snoring loudly enough to wake the dead.
His mother was screeching into the hotel phone, likely at his father, and while Rye could sleep through that Peeta had always been uncomfortable with his parents fighting. Especially since it meant she’d be in a worse mood than usual afterwards. She didn’t even blink when he grabbed the keys and wandered out of the room.
The motel was just far enough off the highway to be desolate, surrounded by sagebrush and scrub, blue-white in the moonlight. Even his artistic eyes could find nothing of interest in this landscape, flat and empty for miles, oppressively quiet but for the hum of cicadas.
He wandered down the road, dry and dusty, kicking at loose rocks, mentally counting the minutes to time his return most advantageously. He knew it would be at least a half hour before his mother hung up on his father. Despite the late hour and the expense of long distance charges she would have her say.
He walked perhaps a half mile before turning back, marvelling at how good he felt, in spite of the oppressive heat and ugly surroundings, despite having spent endless days trapped in a shitbox car with more to come. Maybe it was the simple fact that his life was ahead of him; in a couple of months he’d be in college, out from under his mother’s thumb, experiencing life on his own terms. Free.
Even though he had to sleep on the motel room’s brown shag carpet, he was happy.
Music filtered through the thin walls, rousing him from sleep and he groaned. The sun wasn’t even up, he was stiff and sore and the carpet had left odd prints on his cheek. He recognised the tune, Lady in Red, not his preferred musical genre but not as bad as the country music that had been ubiquitous since they crossed the border.
Unable to sleep anymore Peeta showered, pleased that at least he’d have hot water. He could hear the music even over the running water, some remix he guessed since the tune went on much longer than he remembered the radio version being. In fact it was still playing, faintly, when Rye started pounding on the bathroom door.
It smelled like the woods. There was no reason for it; he hadn’t even seen a single tree in hours, let alone a forest. They were three sweaty adults crammed into a hot Volvo driving through the middle of nowhere, but he was engulfed in the scent of pine and cedar, of leaf mould and damp dirt. He wanted to ask if the others could smell it too, but his mother was in foul temper and silence seemed the most prudent course.
The first time he heard the laughter he nearly drove the Volvo into a ditch.
His mother screamed as he swerved and overcorrected, demanded he pull over, then screamed some more. A litany of vitriol poured out, unstoppable, but he barely registered any of it, confusion and fear rendering him almost numb to her diatribe. By the time she finished berating him, whatever it was he’d actually heard had stopped.
But as he hunched in the backseat, disconcerted and confused, he felt an echo, or maybe a memory, something familiar and almost comforting that had nothing to do with the other people in the car.
By the time they reached the California border he was convinced he was going crazy. Random bursts of emotion kept shooting through him, completely unrelated to his surroundings. An almost overwhelming urge to laugh when his mother was griping about gas prices. A fleeting annoyance in the McDonald’s parking lot. A whisper of melancholy so familiar that he stopped mid sentence just to feel it fully.
But it didn’t click until they were an hour and a half outside of San Francisco and, half-awake and delirious with exhaustion he heard music again. But not the car radio, not a pop song, not even his brother humming under his breath. No, this was a song he remembered from his childhood, a song he had never once heard out loud.
It was a lullaby, and it used to run through her head, and his, when one of them was upset. It was soothing when he was a child but now, after 7 years of silence, it made his heart pound. The myriad of emotions that flew through his mind was nearly unstoppable, the warmth of recognition, the white burst of fear and the clear sweet happiness.
The music stopped abruptly and he knew she had sensed him too. There was a breathless sort of pause where he could sense her confusion, her disbelief. And finally, faintly; words. Is it really you?
His relief mingled with hers, a gentle rain that caressed and refreshed and restored. He laughed out loud and his mother shot him a dirty look over the headrest. He ducked back down, hiding his face and just letting the bliss flow through him. He could feel her own joy, and underneath it the shared confusion. How was this possible?
They’d seldom used words in their minds as children, there was little need to, and sharing feelings and experiences was so much easier, so much more natural. But now, now he needed to know: who she was, where she was, what this was?
She was trying to ask similar questions, he thought, but between them there was a cacophony of images and words, half-formed thoughts, blasts of confusion and laughter, everything swirling together until his mind was nothing but joy.
He was thankful for the darkness that shrouded the car, hiding the smile he couldn’t restrain. Over the last hour of the trip they managed, through the laughter and pulses of euphoria, to exchange names.
Hers was Katniss.
“How far is it to Sacramento?” Brann looked over at Peeta with confusion.
“About ninety minutes, little brother. Why? Nothing there anyway.” Peeta shrugged, twisting the tab on his warm beer back and forth. Brann went back to discussing baseball with his fiancée’s brother, leaving Peeta to his thoughts.
He and Katniss were getting better at communicating with words, but it was still confusing. Peeta had, however, ascertained that she was in California, Sacramento to be precise. And he knew that he had to see her, had to see that she was real.
He could feel that she wanted the same thing.
But she had trouble mentally articulating to him where, exactly, she was. Even getting that city name had been a challenge. When she thought of home he was flooded instead with the green of trees and the scent of pine.
Finding time and space away from all of the people gathered in his brother’s fiancée’s family home was near impossible too. He was completely out of practice with keeping off his face what was going on in his head. More times than he could count over the three days they’d been in San Fran someone had commented on his dopey grin or perplexed expression.
It was easier to connect with Katniss at night, when no one else was competing for his attention, when they were both relaxed and receptive.
Under the cover of darkness she would flood his mind, filling his heart, surrounding him in the scent of her bedroom, her shampoo. Enveloped in her, he had never felt so complete. And she too gave off an aura of contentment, her thoughts sweet and languid.
When his mind inevitably wandered to what it would feel like to have her physically in his arms he could sense her thoughts were in a similar place, though they both tried to hide it. But the soft pleasure of those shared visions made his body come alive.
He was desperate to see her, to touch her, breathe her in. Convince himself that he hadn’t lost his mind, that there was another person behind the thoughts and feelings invading him.
And he was running out of time.
The wedding was in three days, they’d be leaving in 5. Who knew if he’d still be able to hear her once he went back to Panem? He had to find a way to get to her, to see her in person. It might be his only chance.
Peeta’s opportunity came the day his father flew in. While his mother and brothers piled into the Volvo to head for the airport he begged off, feigning an illness. It wasn’t a hard sell; he looked like shit from days of poor sleep and mental overactivity, with deep purple bruises ringing his eyes.
His mother gave only a cursory grunt of displeasure at leaving him behind, more for show than from any real desire to have him along.
The car had barely pulled out of the driveway when Peeta headed out, armed with a map he found in his future sister-in-law’s junk drawer and his wits.
It was remarkably easy to hitchhike in California. He’d only tried a handful of times back in Panem, with mixed results, but here everyone was happy to offer a ride and a story. With every mile that passed his excitement grew, tinged with a strange kind of fear that he recognised was not his own.
She was afraid to meet him. Maybe not afraid, exactly, but nervous, much more nervous than he himself was. He could taste her fear, acrid and bitter. He could also feel her response to his soothing thoughts, and it almost felt like teasing. Like flirting.
The trucker he rode with for that final 40 miles dropped him off at the Tower bridge, the only landmark Katniss had been able to show him clearly with her mind. It was only when he was standing by the foot of the bridge, looking over the boats bobbing below that he realized he didn’t even know what she looked like.
Her laughter, musical and effervescent, filled his head as soon as the thought formed. It was all-encompassing, clear and bright; he could feel her presence, could sense that they were both hearing the same sounds, smelling the same scents, breathing the same air.
It was something otherworldly that compelled him to turn around.
He knew he was looking at Katniss the second he saw her, not because her glossy black hair or sharp grey eyes were familiar. No, he knew it was her because every nerve in his body lit when their eyes connected.
Then she was running towards him, covering the few yards in a dozen soundless steps. She launched herself at him, and though he knew it was happening, knew the second she’d decided to do so in fact, he lost his footing and they tumbled in a heap on the grassy bank of the Sacramento river, Katniss landing on top of him, a relieved little laugh escaping her.
“It’s you,” she breathed, and her voice was like the sweetest song. “You’re the voice in my heart.”
“You’re really real,” he groaned, cupping her face, the happiness so acute it threatened to choke him. “You’re real. You’re here.”
For several long moments they simply laid in the grass, staring at each other, thoughts and feelings flying between them like lightning, hands gently tracing, committing to memory the things only sensed before.
They arose from the grass together, a fluidity so at odds with their outward status as strangers. But they weren’t strangers. They had never been strangers.
Hands entwined they found a bench. In a wonderful combination of words and thoughts and gestures they shared everything.
Her eyes filled with tears when he thought about the crushing loneliness he’d lived with over the 7 years they were apart. His heart hurt when she remembered her lost family. But even their shared pain was euphoric, as they both experienced every thought, every sensation freely, holding nothing back.
They inched closer without even realizing, their faces a hairsbreadth apart. Peeta couldn’t tell if the kiss was his thought or hers, but when their lips met it was the most searingly perfect moment of his life.
They were gentle kisses of discovery, each preference absorbed and integrated. The mental sensation of their shared arousal was new, they’d never experienced anything like that as children, and Peeta knew, intrinsically, that he would never feel anything like this with anyone else, ever.
As that thought filled his mind another accompanied it, and Katniss pulled back abruptly, lips swollen but eyes wide. “No!” she cried, and several passersby shot them dirty looks, but she was undeterred. “You can’t leave, you can’t!”
“They’re going to miss me soon,” he replied. He didn’t have to tell her that he didn’t want to go, she could feel it, but her bottom lip trembled.
“Peeta,” she whimpered, and the sound of his name on her lips was the most erotic thing he’d ever experienced. “I only just found you. I can’t lose you again!” Though her words were only a pale shadow of the emotions she was radiating throughout his very being, they were like arrows puncturing his soul.
“You won’t lose me,” he promised. “Never again, Katniss. We’ll find a way.”
He did go back to San Francisco, hours later than he’d planned, and only his father’s calming presence prevented his mother from taking her displeasure out on her youngest son’s face. But he was a wreck. The days leading up to Brann’s wedding were a haze, he tried to keep his face impassive but inside he was dying.
He and Katniss both wracked their brains, looking for a solution, a way for him to stay or her to follow. But they were 18, with no money, no cars, and most horrifying, no way to guarantee that their connection would survive the distance. They agreed that it felt so much stronger now, but was that only because they were near each other again?
The morning after the wedding Peeta was up early, heartsick and in agony. His father was flying out that morning, he and his mother and brother due to follow the day after, and still he’d figured no way to stay with Katniss.
It startled him to discover his father standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, though it shouldn't have. A life-long baker, he was up before the sun every day, and with the time zone change he was awake even earlier. The two cups of tea beside him suggested that he was far less surprised to see his youngest son wandering the house in the darkness.
They took their tea outside, settling onto a rickety picnic table, lit by the moon. All it took was a gentle smile and a nod of encouragement, and Peeta confessed. Not everything, of course, nearly a lifetime of hiding their bond had made him cautious, but he told his father about the woman he loved, and about the conundrum of leaving her behind.
And Peeta was certain it was love. He loved her both as a piece of himself, and as a fascinating, gorgeous young woman in her own right.
His father offered him a grain of hope, a promise that when they got back to Panem he’d look into sending Peeta to college in California instead of in-state.
It wasn’t much, but it was something. And he clung to it like a lifeline.
Katniss showed up the night before he was supposed to leave; his heart raced as he felt her come closer and closer. When she climbed out of the passenger side of a rusty old pickup truck his thoughts were briefly diverted to the dark haired man driving. A pulse of jealousy shot through him, hot and sour, echoed by her puff of annoyance. But in the blink of an eye both emotions were gone; he could see that the tall dark stranger wasn’t in Katniss’s heart. Reflected in her silver eyes he saw only himself.
They had two precious last hours together, two hours filled with tearstained kisses and desperation, promises and pain.
He held onto her thoughts as long as possible; driving through California and even partway through Nevada they laughed and teased. His mother relented on taking the interstate and the drive was far smoother, far more pleasant, at least for that first day. He even slept well, the first night, in a stuffy motel room of pepto bismol pink. She was with him, in his head and heart, singing him to sleep.
But she got fainter and fainter as they drove. The connection lasted far longer than he’d dare to hope, but by the time they stopped for the night on day two she was gone.
Days turned into weeks.
They kept in touch on the phone, long conversations deep into the night that left him feeling empty. She was still his Katniss, still funny and sweet and sassy, but the absence of her thoughts and emotions felt like breathing through a straw. He knew exactly what he was missing. And it killed him.
Even 3,000 miles apart there were times when he swore he could sense her, in a whisper or a breath, a faint flutter of an emotion that wasn’t his own. But it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.
His father’s promise of help was as empty as all of his other promises.
The morning Peeta stood in the bakery, despondent, staring at the large oven and remembering his childhood self purposely burning his hand in a desperate attempt to reach Katniss, that was the morning he broke. He went home, climbed into bed and didn’t move.
The word reached him through gauzy violet-tinted mists as he dragged himself from slumber, another of the near constant dreams and nightmares he’d had after walking out of the bakery four days prior.
But this time it was followed by a plea. Where are you?
A loud plea.
He bolted out of bed, throwing on stained sweatpants and heading out the door before he could question the urge. Her thoughts, strong and clear but full of fear reached for him, and his laughter sounded maniacal to his own ears. This couldn’t be real, but he didn’t care, he would follow her voice to the ends of the earth.
But she was real, standing at the Greyhound station in downtown Panem. “I need you,” she said as he clutched her tightly, her lips and heart repeating it like a mantra as his own mind promised forever.
“Stay with me?” he questioned against her lips, and their simultaneous answers wrapped around them, binding them for always.