A/N: Sorry for the long wait on this one, guys. And it was a cliffhanger to add salt to the wound! AP Chem has really been kicking my ass lately, so I've been writing about titrations and acidic salts rather than Katniss and Peeta :( Yeah sometimes I really hate my life.
The pan Rye had left on the stovetop was popping and smoking heavily. Then, all at once and impossibly fast, it erupted into bright orange and yellow flames. My mouth went dry as I stumbled backwards in shock, my throat sealing up and swallowing the scream that was fighting to get out. It felt like my mind was on fire too. Images of the other fire I'd seen danced viciously behind my lids: thick, black billowing smoke, burnt flesh, walls devoured by hungry flames.
When I opened my mouth, the fire had already climbed to the wall behind the stove, reaching its menacing fingers towards the wooden cupboards above. "Fire..." It came out of my mouth like a squeak and my knees buckled under me. I sagged to the left and I found myself suddenly on the floor. I couldn't think, couldn't move, couldn't speak.
Why couldn't I save her? She was right there! I could see her through the smoke now! "Prim!" I finally screamed. "Prim!" I reached out for her lovely, lovely hand. The minute my fingers wrapped around hers, they crumbled in my grip. She burned and fell apart. I watched her sweet face peel away like old wall paper, and her golden hair glow like the sun in the light of the fire before it turned black and charred. I watched my sister burn and burn and fade away until she was just a pile of ashes on the floor.
Shouting voices and the sound of heavy footsteps weaved through the smoke in the atmosphere and I cringed at their hollowness. They sounded far away but irritatingly loud at the same time. On all fours, I began to crawl away from the prying noise. I wanted to be alone. To try to comprehend what I had just witnessed.
When arms wrapped around my waist and hoisted me upwards, I made no attempt to fight them. All my energy was sapped, and I hung there limply as a ragdoll. Though my eyes were partly blinded by the sting of smoke, I could see two spheres of crystalline blue above me: Peeta's eyes. I reached a shaky hand up to touch the face they belonged to...just to be sure it was real.
His jaw was warm and solid under my quivering fingertips. The muscles tightened at my touch, and I could feel just the slightest amount of stubble there. A blast of cold air came, and I could only imagine that Peeta had taken me outside. Yes...away from the fire. That made sense.
Thought of the fire came rushing in again and the nausea ripple through me in a sickly wave. Peeta tried to set me on my feet, but I swayed away to lean against a dumpster before the retching started. My eyes watered; it felt like I was going to puke up my insides right out onto the snowy ground. Peeta did what he could to help: holding my braid and any escaped strands of hair away from my face, keeping a soothing hand in the middle of my back. When I was done, he took off his apron and handed it to me so that I could wipe my mouth.
Completely drained, I stumbled backward, my mind still incapable of clear thought. Ever so gently, Peeta took me in his arms again from behind and walked us backwards until we were sitting on top of a pile of soggy cardboard boxes. I was in in Peeta's lap, my back against his rising and falling chest and my head leaning back to rest on his shoulder. He ran his hands up and down my goosebumped arms to try to rub some warmth into them. It took me a long while to realize that I had tears streaming down my face and I thanked my lucky stars that I was facing away from Peeta so that he couldn't see them.
I didn't know how long we stayed like that. It could have been minutes, hours...days for all I knew. Eventually, though, the back door of the bakery popped open and Rye's face appeared. "Hey, guys...It's all clear. We've got it all out. You can come inside now."
"Yeah, we'll be in in just a sec, Rye," Peeta told him. Rye looked at the pair of us for a moment but then nodded and retreated back inside. "Are you ready to go in?" Peeta whispered to me." I nodded numbly. It's not like we could've stayed out there for the rest of forever, though if that would've been an option, I would have gladly chosen it.
Mellark's smelled wretched with smoke inside, and I thought for sure I was going to vomit again, but I somehow managed to keep the contents of my stomach where it was supposed to be this time. I didn't realize Peeta had been holding my hand until he released it when we reached the kitchen. A tight knot of fear in my gut loosened considerably as I assessed the damage.
I knew from experience that things could've been much worse. The stove and the oven that went with it were obviously ruined, and the fire had burnt away the wall behind it and some of the cabinetry above, but it appeared that the fire had been contained to just that area. Aside from that, the kitchen looked just as it had before.
I saw a discarded fire extinguisher lying on the sooty floor, and Mr. Mellark stood near it, staring at the still-smoking oven. "How bad is it?" Peeta asked him hesitantly. Mr. Mellark turned, just then becoming aware of our presence, and shook his head.
"It doesn't matter. Whatever it is, we'll fix it. All that matters is that no one got hurt." He came forward to hug us both, and I felt immediately guilty.
"I'm so sorry..." I mumbled, looking down at my shoes. Rye, Peeta, and Mr. Mellark just stared at me.
"What on earth are you apologizing for, Katniss?" Mr. Mellark asked with complete incredulity.
"This whole thing is my fault," I admitted hoarsely. "If I hadn't made Rye help me with that recipe, the pan never would've caught fire and this whole thing would never have happened!"
"Katniss, I offered to help you. It's my own fault that I forgot about the fucking pan!" Rye cried, waving his hands in frustration.
"God, I just feel like I ruin everything around this place. Maybe-"
"Well, you don't," Peeta said firmly, his eyes flashing with what I almost mistook for anger. They softened quite quickly, though. He turned to his father. "I'm taking Katniss home. I'll be back in a little while."
"I have my car," I protested while Peeta grabbed his coat from the hook and put it on.
"Well...I'm driving." He extracted the keys from my coat pocket before he handed it to me. I followed him to my car without a word; the only sound was that of our footfalls crunching in the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk. I was grateful when he turned off the radio in the car so that we could ride in silence. A couple minutes into the drive, though, he spoke. "You can't blame yourself for everything, you know."
"I don't," was my flat reply.
"Yes, you do." I kept my mouth shut and trained my eyes on the buildings moving past us through the window. I was embarrassed that he'd seen me so emotional earlier. So utterly paralyzed by a little grease fire. It made my skin crawl and I felt exposed and vulnerable. We didn't speak the rest of the way until he pulled up in my usual parking space in front of my apartment. He put the car in park and killed the engine, but made no move to get out. "You know, maybe you should take some time off. Rearrange your plans so you can go see your mom for Christmas. We can sort things out at the bakery alright."
"Peeta, I'm fine," I said tartly and swung my door open to step out into the frigid air once again, starting to stomp towards my steps.
"Umm...no, Katniss, I don't think you are." I was infuriated that he was treating me this way-like some fragile child that needed to be taken care of-but I bit my lip to keep from saying anything while I fumbled to find my keys. "You just had a panic attack!"
"Yeah, well...fire's a bit of a touchy subject for me," I grumbled.
"I can see that. Which is exactly why-"
"You want to know the truth? About why I'm not going to see my mom?" He paused and looked at me intently. "The truth is, she didn't invite us. In fact, she hasn't called or wrote in over five months. And you wanna know why?" I sucked in a deep breath. "Because when my dad died in a mining accident when I was eleven, my mom fell apart and it became my responsibility to take care of my little sister. So when she died in a house fire six years later and I couldn't save her, my mom fucking blamed me. And now all she has left is a disappointment of a daughter who got knocked up when she was nineteen and had to drop out of college. Going home just to be reminded of what a fuckup I am isn't going to help me."
My heart was racing, my exhaustion replaced with frenzy. I fought to take deep, steady breaths but I could feel myself cracking like an eggshell. Why couldn't I just find my goddamn keys?! "Look, Katniss," Peeta said after a moment of watching me carefully, "I know what it's like to feel like you're being blamed for everything, and it fucking sucks, I know. But you've got to realize that you had no control over something like that-"
"Stop! Ju-just stop!" He shut his mouth sharply, taken aback. I leaned against the stair railing and pinched the bridge of my nose to lessen the ache in my head. "I just...I don't want a lecture right now, Peeta."
"If you want me to leave, just say so." His voice was so bleached of emotion that it made me rethink the 'yes' that was defensively present on the tip of my tongue. Did I want him to leave? I sighed and sunk down on the top step, shaking my head.
"Good, 'cause I have your keys." Peeta held up my key ring, which had both the keys to my car and to my door on it. I almost laughed. Almost.
Deftly, he slid in next to me on the step. Instead of meeting his eyes, I focused on his feet and noted that he double knotted his shoelaces. "So, I know you don't want a lecture," Peeta began, "but can I tell you a story?" I shrugged in consent. Why not? His gaze became distant for a moment, trying to decide where to start.
"My mom had the prettiest smile." I looked up at him, but he was focusing on something far away on the horizon. "And she smelled like apple pie all the time because that was her favorite thing to make. She used to roll the dough for the crust and then have me crimp it into the pan." Peeta smiled nostalgically. "It was great. She was so happy all the time...until she just wasn't anymore. It was like someone flipped a switch and she became an entirely different person."
"She started getting really upset if me or my brothers left messes around the house or if something we baked didn't turn out right. And then she would just say all this stuff that she would've never said in a million years; like...she would call me an idiot if I didn't get the math homework she was trying to help me with, or tell my dad she was sorry she ever married him. She locked herself up in her room for most of the day and told us to leave her alone because she wasn't feeling well. That went on for months. One day it was like she just snapped..."
I could see that his hand was gripping the rung of the stair railing excruciatingly tight. His knuckles were pale and shaky. "Me, Rye, and Cal had just bought this new video game, but the PlayStation we had wasn't working that day for some reason. Of course, my dad was at the bakery - this was before Mellark's was here in the city - so we couldn't ask him. So I, being the youngest, was sent by unanimous vote to go ask my mom if she could fix it. I knew I wasn't supposed to bother her, but I didn't really have a choice at seven years old with two older brothers calling you chicken. So I went in, and I guess the door opening woke her up." He paused and started fiddling with the hem of his pea coat.
"That was the first time she ever hit me." I cringed at his monotone voice. It was the complete lack of emotion that startled me more than anything else. "She gave me two black eyes and broke Rye's ribs before my dad figured out that there might be something wrong with her. We took her to the doctor and it turned out that she had 'early onset frontotemporal dementia, often characterized by personality change and aggression'. So we had to put her in the hospital to keep her from hurting herself or us and she was there up until four years ago. Apparently, she saved up a month's worth of her medication doses and took it all on New Year's Eve. Guess she just didn't wanna be around anymore."
I gaped at Peeta's openness. His entire soul was bared to me and he hadn't even flinched. How did he do it? I wanted to say I was sorry, but that felt like the cliché thing to do. Instead, I found my mouth opening and closing as I floundered for words to form an appropriate response. He spoke again before I could. "I'd just seen her the week before for Christmas. That last thing she ever said to me was that if I had been a better son, I would have taken care of her instead of putting her in the hospital. My mom died blaming me for the hell her life was." The wind whistled against the overhang of the roof above us.
"I guess we both know a thing or two about the blame game, then," I murmured.
"Yeah, I guess we do."
Without hesitance, I reached out and took his chilly hand in mine. We clung to each other like we would lifeboats in a stormy sea.
"Are you sure you don't wanna stay for dinner, Jo?" I asked, tossing a bunch of orange zest into a bowl. It was Christmas Eve and Johanna was over guiding me through a recipe for Orange Glazed Christmas Ham that I'd found on the internet. Neither of us were exactly gourmet chefs, but between the two of us we'd manage to turn out something edible.
"Yeah, I'm sure. Wouldn't want to intrude on you and Peeta's romantic evening." She winked.
"Since when have you been opposed to intruding?" I said, choosing to ignore her insinuation. "Besides, I don't think romantic is going to be the correct word to describe it. For one thing, Mia's going to be here. For another, Haymitch is coming, too."
"What? You invited the drunk, homeless man but not me?!"
"I just invited you!"
"Yeah, well I've got plans anyway. Finn and Annie are having me over, and no offense, but Annie's a way better cook. She's gonna have crab cakes and homemade mashed potatoes, and apple crisp that tastes like sex. Ugh...I literally have to go to the gym for like five straight weeks to work off all the food I shove in my mouth at their house. It's ridiculous."
"Just glaze the ham, you psycho." I shoved the bowl of glaze into her hands and gestured to the spiral-cut smoked ham sitting in a heavy roasting pan on top of the oven.
"I still think it's fuckin' weird that you people have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. You're supposed to wait until tomorrow," she explained matter-of-factly.
"This is just the way I've done it since I was born. Not changing anytime soon. Sorry." I took stock of what I still had to do. The ham was about the most culinary crafting I could handle, but I still had a few other minor dishes to prepare: rolls from Mellark's needed to go in the oven, the salad was waiting to be fixed, frozen potatoes needed to be cooked and mashed with butter and salt and pepper. I sighed and leaned against the counter. "Remind me never to do this hosting dinner thing again. It's a hassle and a half."
"You're not even doing anything! You grated some orange zest. Big whoop. I'm over here, slaving away over a hot stove for you..." Johanna grumbled, making me laugh.
"No but seriously, I told Peeta and Haymitch five o'clock. Its 3:50 already." Suddenly, I heard a small crash and the sound of something breaking, followed by Mia's shriek. Perfect. "I'll be right back. Keep glazing." I shuffled into the living room and found Mia standing over a sharded glass ornament - one of the silver balls, I thought. She looked up at me with wide eyes.
"I dropped it."
"I can see that," I chuckled, moving to the closet door to grab the broom and dustpan. "You've just gotta be real careful with the glass ones, okay button?" While me and Johanna blundered around in the kitchen, Mia was in charge of decorating the little fake tree I'd set up in the corner by the fireplace that morning. Looking at it now, I noticed that most of the ornaments were concentrated in one particular area that was easiest for her to reach, though I doubt my design would've been much more artistic. "Lookin' good so far. Here, I'll put on some music for you."
I flicked the dial on the ancient stereo atop the corner table and tuned it until I found something Christmas-y. "White Christmas" seemed to suit Mia just fine; she was twirling around the room like a ballerina, hanging ornaments gracefully as a swan. Satisfied, I wandered back into the kitchen and dumped the glass shards into the trash bin. "Everything okay?" Johanna asked.
"Yeah, she just dropped an ornament."
"She's definitely your kid, Katniss."
"Get back to work, you."
We finished prepping dinner in record time. At five o'clock on the dot, Johanna was slipping her coat on and heading out the door. "Oh, I almost forgot," she said with her hand on the door knob. She pulled a clumsily wrapped gift out of her bag and handed it to me. "Merry Christmas, love." She pecked me on the cheek and went on her way. Half curious, half dreading what Johanna had given me, I gingerly ripped it open. A tiny slip of paper fluttered to the floor. I bent down and snatched it up.
Merry Christmas. Get laid.
Dumbfounded, I ripped the wrapping paper the rest of the way off. A box of Trojan condoms. "Oh my god, Jo..." I said to myself, wishing she was still here so I could smack her. Ding dong. I froze. Here I was with a box of condoms in my hands, and either Peeta or Haymitch was ringing my doorbell. Whoever it was was relatively on time, so my bet was on the former.
"I got it!" I heard Mia call from the living room. Shit. Mia darted past me and to the door. My room was too far away. Panicking, I turned to the kitchen and looked around frantically for a good hiding place. When I heard the door opening, I had no other choice but to shove the box deep into the back of one of the seldom-used drawers.
When I turned back to front room, I saw Peeta kicking snow off of his shoes, his arms laden down with several containers he was trying to balance. "Oh my gosh, here." I rushed forward to relieve him of his load.
"Thanks," he said gratefully when he could finally take his coat off.
"What is all this stuff?" I was spreading the containers out over the kitchen table. There was one large one and then five or six smaller ones.
"Open it up and see." I pulled the lid off of the big container. Inside were about two dozen holiday-themed sugar cookies. They ranged in shape from Christmas tree to Santa hat to bowed present, but all of them were unfrosted. Catching on, I peeked into one of the smaller containers and saw that it was full of thick red frosting. "I thought Mia might like to do some cookie decorating. And you and I, of course." Peeta smiled widely.
"Yay! Cookies! Are these the same ones you made me before, Peeta?" Mia chirped excitedly, flitting around to open all the containers and reveal their contents. We had red, green, yellow, and blue frosting plus two containers of sugar crystal sprinkles.
"You betcha. Now you get to decorate them however you want."
"Can I do it now?" Mia looked from Peeta to me expectantly.
"Go for it," I said warmly. Mia had a cookie out and a butter knife in hand in about two milliseconds. Turning to Peeta, I poked him with my elbow and said, "You need to stop bringing delicious, sugary items to my apartment. I'm going to get diabetes."
"Just eat some broccoli for dinner. You'll be fine," he joked, nudging me back. "Speaking of dinner, what are you making? It smells amazing."
"Oh, uh...thanks. It's some orange-glazed ham recipe I found online. Johanna was just over here helping me make sure I didn't totally screw it up."
"Yeah, I just saw her walking to her car when I got here. She said you'd probably wanna show me the present she gave you?" I blushed, mortified. Johanna Mason was going to get a few choice words from me the next time I saw her.
"Oh, probably not. Just some new shoes. Girl stuff," I covered lamely. "Let's decorate these cookies. It could be awhile before Haymitch turns up. If he even turns up at all."
"Haymitch?" Peeta asked as we joined Mia at the table. "As in...Haymitch the homeless guy you told me about that one time?" Oh no. Had I forgotten to mention that Haymitch would be coming, too? Would it weird him out?
"That's the one. Sorry, guess I kind of forgot to tell you I invited him." I paused and waited for him to scratch the back of his neck like he did when he was uncomfortable or nervous. Instead, he shrugged.
"Alright, cool. I made plenty of cookies to decorate." I didn't want to crush his positive attitude by saying that Haymitch really wasn't the cookie-decorating type, but it was the truth. I grabbed a Santa hat and got started.
We worked in harmony, chitchatting and at times singing along with the carols on the radio. After a particularly passionate rendition of "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town" by Peeta left Mia and I in tears of laughter, I put my elbow in a dish of frosting and we gave up trying to be serious. When the doorbell rang for a second time and Mia hopped out of her chair, I stood up and told her I would get it, prepared to turn Haymitch away if he was drunk. I liked him, but I wasn't going to have him in my house and around my child completely shitfaced.
When I opened the door, I was confused at first. A stranger was standing on my steps. His greeting of "Hey, sweetheart," was the only thing that clued me in. Haymitch looked like a completely different person. The scruffy blonde beard usually on his face had been shaved smooth, and his hair looked clean...styled even. His clothes had no mysterious stains or trace scent of alcohol on them. I practically had to pick my jaw up off of the floor, it was such a dramatic transformation.
"Haymitch...holy shit," I gasped. He burst out laughing, and his stained teeth looked out of place now that he looked presentable. "You clean up real nice. You should do this more often."
"Yeah, well when you can find me permanent access to a shower and a washing machine, you let me know. Now...are you gonna let me in, or are you just gonna gawk at me. I know I look good, but I'm starving."
"Are you sober?" I asked him wearily, planted in front of his entrance. He wasn't getting in without a solemn oath to his un-intoxication.
"Dry as a bone. I haven't touched a drop this entire week to get it outta my system." When I eyed him up and down, he snorted and said, "What? You gonna make me walk in a straight line and say the alphabet backwards? Where's your breathalyzer, chief?" I laughed.
"I can't even say the alphabet backwards sober. Come on in, Haymitch." He followed me in, and I caught him looking around at the apartment discreetly. Mia's greeting was not immediate; she was just as perplexed as I was about Haymitch's new appearance. She paused to take him in, her knife full of frosting and poised over a cookie. Haymitch cleared his throat.
"Well...this is a Hallmark scene if I ever saw one," he said gruffly.
"Haymitch?" Mia gaped. "You look funny..." He guffawed with laughter.
"I guess I'll take that as a compliment." He turned his eyes to Peeta then, who was watching the interaction silently. "Haymitch." He stuck his weathered hand out. "I don't usually look this good." Peeta met the handshake with a smile.
"Peeta Mellark. I don't usually look this good either." Haymitch smirked and looked at me.
"I like this one, Katniss. Little too nice, but I'm sure if he hangs around with you often enough, some of your hostility'll rub off on him."
"Haha, very funny." I said sarcastically. "So...who's ready to eat?" My question met with a resounding chorus of 'yes'. We put our frosted cookies on a platter and cleared off the table to make room for the food. Peeta helped carry the dishes out to the table and then graciously carved the ham for me when he saw me trying to wield the carving knife.
I couldn't believe how well this had all come together. The food was actually decent, Peeta was here, Haymitch was sober, Mia was happy. This was by far the best Christmas I'd had in quite awhile. "Oh my god, Katniss, this is delicious," Peeta raved. "And here I was believing you this whole time about you being such a terrible cook."
"Most of this is Johanna's work, but thanks."
"Be better with a little wine," Haymitch grumbled under his breath. We managed to polish off two helpings each of everything on the table and then had some of the cookies. By the time seven o'clock rolled around, we were all sitting in the living room in food comas, contentedly watching Elf. This was my favorite Christmas movie; Mia and I watched it every Christmas Eve and then often spent the rest of the year quoting lines from it to make each other laugh. I even caught Haymitch trying to conceal a few smiles at some of the funnier parts.
"Hey," I whispered to Peeta about half an hour in, "I'll be right back. I'm gonna go start on some of the dishes."
"I'll come help." He stood up to follow me, and I didn't see any point in protesting. Mia was engrossed in the film and didn't appear to even notice our departure, but I saw Haymitch watching us out of the corner of my eye. Quietly, Peeta and I gathered the empty dishes and carried them to the sink. Anything leftover I put into a bag to send with Haymitch when he left.
"So...was this better than your original plans?" I asked Peeta while the sink was filling up.
"Oh yeah," he said emphatically. "By about a million times."
"Good." I lowered the mashed potato bowl into the sudsy water and started to scrub. Peeta waited with a towel next to me. "Did you guys get that oven fixed up in time for the Christmas rush?" I hadn't been into work the last three days since Mia was home from school on Winter break. After the fire, Mr. Mellark had put caution tape around the worst area of damage and instructed everyone to just leave it be until he could get a repair guy to come in. I was hoping they'd been able to get it working before all the orders came pouring in for the big Christmas dinners.
"Yeah, we've had some guys in there working on it the last couple days. Looks good as new. We just need to wait for the new oven to come in." I nodded. I still felt like what happened was partially my fault, but I knew that if I apologized or looked even remotely sorry, Peeta would launch into a campaign about how I couldn't have controlled what happened. I handed him the clean bowl for him to dry. I heard creaking by the door and both of us looked up.
"Hey, sweetheart, I'm headed out. Thanks for dinner."
"You're very welcome, Haymitch. Thank you for arriving sober."
"The things I do for yeh...sheesh." He laughed good-naturedly.
"Oh hey, don't forget this," Peeta interjected, holding up the bag of leftover food. "Katniss made it up for you." I waited for him to make a big fuss about me giving him handouts, but he accepted the food without a peep.
"That reminds me, Peeta. You look like a handyman, yourself..." Haymitch began.
"Uh...not exactly," Peeta admitted, puzzled.
"I noticed part of the stair railing outside was kinda wobbly. Mind if I show you so yeh can see if you might be able to fix it up?"
"Umm...sure, I guess."
"Haymitch, what are you talking about? The railing is-" I started to say, but Haymitch waved me off.
"Don't worry, sweetheart. Won't take but a minute." Peeta shot me a look that said 'I have no idea' and then trailed after Haymitch out the front door. I tried not to be curious, but I couldn't help it. After two minutes passed and they still hadn't shown back up, I set the plate I had been scrubbing on the counter and tiptoed to the door to see if I could hear any of what they were saying. A stealthy peek through the peephole showed that they were still on the porch. I pressed an ear to the crack in the door.
"-nice guy, but I wanna make sure you know what you're getting yourself into." I caught the tail end of whatever Haymitch was saying. "She's had a rough go of things, what with the daddy not being in the picture and no family to go home to. Hell, I used to see her at the shelter some nights when she was about this big around, pregnant as you can get. That woman accepts help from no one. She's a fighter, but you can only fight so hard. You just better be sure you're good to her, or you and I are gonna have a problem."
I couldn't believe it. Haymitch was practically giving Peeta the 'what-are-your-intentions-with-my-daughter' speech! Breathless and dizzy, I pulled away from the door and hurried back to the sink. My thoughts were jumbled together. What did Haymitch mean by what Peeta was getting himself into? A relationship? With me? My heart pounded. Did I want that? I didn't know.
I jumped when I heard the door open. Peeta came back to where he was standing before and picked up the towel again. I sensed a far away look in his eyes. "Everything okay?" I tried to ask casually.
"Yup," he nodded. We finished the dishes and then shuffled around the kitchen uncomfortably to put them away. I noticed that he rubbed at the back of his head whenever he had to ask me where something went.
"Mom!" Mia called, running into the room. "Can I stay up until Santa comes?" Uh oh.
"Button, you know Santa doesn't come until you're asleep."
"I'll be really quiet. I can hide. He won't know I'm awake," she begged. I sighed. It was getting more difficult every year to get her to sleep on Christmas. The girl wanted to see Santa with her own two eyes. Thankfully, I had Peeta, who's honey sweet voice could persuade her (or me for that matter) to do just about anything.
"Oh, but he would know if you were pretending. He has elves in all the houses tonight to tell him when the kids are sleeping so he knows when to come."
"Really?!" Mia squealed, looking around for elves.
"Yeah, and you know what would be good to do? If you leave Santa some cookies, the elves will see you did it and tell him. Then he'll know for sure that you're a good girl and make sure all your gifts get here on time."
"Good idea! I'll get the cookies." She darted to the leftover ones on the platter from earlier. "He can have my two best ones." She held up a frosted star and Christmas tree.
"Awesome," Peeta agreed. "Now we'll just put them on a plate and leave him a glass of milk, and then you've gotta hurry up and get ready for bed so he can come." Mia watched while I put the cookies on a small plate and poured the milk.
"Look good?" I sought her approval.
"Yeah. I'm going to go brush my teeth. Then you can tuck me in."
"Jeese, why don't you just do my job?" I said to Peeta jokingly when she'd left the room. He chuckled and shrugged. "No, but seriously...you're good with her."
"I need all the practice I can get. My brother's wife is pregnant, so I'll have a little niece or nephew soon."
"Oh, well...if you want more practice, you can help me put Santa's presents under the tree." I motioned toward the closet to show where they were hidden.
"What?!" Peeta gasped in fake horror. "You mean Santa Clause isn't real?"
"Shhhh!" I shushed him through a laugh and grabbed onto his arm. We quickly moved all the gifts under the tree and then I went to go make sure Mia was in bed.
Not surprisingly, she had been more exhausted than she'd realized. She was hardly awake when I went in to throw the covers over her small frame and peck a kiss on her silky forehead. When I came back to the living room, Peeta was standing in front of the mantel over the fireplace with his hands in his pockets. "Is this your family?" he asked when I was standing beside him. He reached out and grabbed a small, silver frame from the mantel. It was dusty, but I could easily make out which one it was.
A family picnic from when I was six or seven. Prim would've been about three then. We were all sitting on a blanket in the sand. My dad had a sunburned face, and he had his arm around my mom. I knelt beside them with a popsicle dripping down my arm, and Prim was curled up fast asleep in my mom's lap with her stuffed goat, Lady.
I swallowed. "Yeah. Fourth of July outing to the beach, I think." I took the photo gently from Peeta and ran my finger over the glass separating me from my family. If only that were all that separated us now.
"You look just like your dad." Peeta whispered. I couldn't help but laugh out loud.
"That's what everyone says. According to my mom, I got all my stubbornness from him, too." We were quiet while I examined the memory in my hands - I hadn't looked at these in awhile, as evidenced by all the dust.
"Hey, let's play twenty questions," Peeta suggested out of the blue. I furrowed my eyebrows.
"Like, where you pick an object and I have to guess it by asking you questions?" He shook his head.
"No...the grownup version." I felt my eyes widen. What exactly was he suggesting? "I feel like I don't really know anything about you. We each take turns asking questions and whatever question we ask, we both have to answer it." I nearly let out an audible sigh and my heartbeat slowed significantly.
"Okay, yeah." I sat down on the couch and wrapped a blanket around myself. "You go first."
"Alright..." He thought for a second. "What's your favorite color?" I blinked. That's what he wanted to know?
"Umm...green. What's yours?"
"Really? Like Effie-Trinket's-hair orange?" I questioned, referring to the obnoxious current judge on American Idol, whose hair was an orange Creamsicle hue.
"Ugh, no." Peeta shuddered. "Like sunset orange." I nodded; I could see it. "Okay, your turn."
"Hmm...what's your favorite song right now?" That had Peeta scrunching his face up in thought.
"'Meet Virginia' by Train," he finally said. Now I was scrunching my face.
"What, you don't like that song?" he asked, faking a hurt expression.
"No, I did...when it came out like twenty years ago."
"For your information, that song was released in 1999, and it happens to be a classic," Peeta rattled off in a haughty voice.
"Okay, whatever. Next question."
"What? You still have to answer your own."
"Oh yeah. Well...I don't really have time to listen to a lot of music," I admitted. "I'm not really sure why I asked that question, to be honest."
"Fine, then what was the last song you listened to?" he conceded.
"'Santa Clause is Coming to Town' by Peeta Mellark." That got him laughing.
"Okay, but we never speak of that again." I laughed but nodded in agreement. "Next question, then. What's your secret hobby?" That was an easy one.
"Archery," I stated with a smile, and it was like I could feel the weight of the bow in my hands.
"Really?" Peeta looked surprised. I supposed it was kind of a random hobby. I didn't really know anybody else that did it.
"My dad used to take me hunting when I was little. He taught me how to shoot an arrow when I was five and I've loved it ever since," I explained. "There's not a lot of places you can shoot around here, though, so I don't get to do it as often as I used to. I'm probably rusty."
"Still, though...remind me never to piss you off."
"Damn right. What about you...what's your secret hobby? And you can't say baking, because I already know all about that."
"Obviously. But...um...my secret hobby would have to be...painting. Or sketching. Anything art related, really."
"That's neat. Do you do it a lot?"
"Well, that's what I was going to college for before I dropped out. Columbia University for a degree in visual arts."
"Why'd you drop out?" I asked. If he was able to get into a school like Columbia, he must've been good.
"Oh you know...this and that. My dad had a lot on his plate at the time, so he needed some extra help at the bakery. That and the fact that I realized maybe the whole starving artist thing wasn't really the best career move."
"Well, as you can see," I gestured to Mia's room, "college didn't really work out so good for me, either."
"Where were you at?" Peeta asked with genuine curiosity.
"NYU. For Biology. That's why I moved out here in the first place. Somewhere far away from home." I chuckled. "Then I got pregnant with Mia, and I figured I better get a job stat, 'cause I could barely afford Ramen noodles, let alone feed and diaper a kid. Yeah...yeah, life gets in the way like that sometimes, huh?"
"Sorry if this is overstepping a boundary, but..." Peeta began, looking at me tentatively. "What about...Mia's father? He wasn't in the picture?" I knew he could see when my face got stony, because his own paled. "You don't have to answer that if you don't want to. Sorry, I shouldn't have asked."
"No." I said quietly. "Gloss wasn't in the picture."
"Gloss? That was his name?"
"His last name. Spencer Gloss. Gloss was a nickname from high school." Just his name left a bad taste in my mouth. "I met him Freshman year. He was a friend of a friend. Met him at some party. And well...you know the rest of the story."
"Let me guess...he wasn't thrilled with the idea of having a kid, so he packed up and left?"
"No, he wanted her. He was over the moon about it. But Gloss has...some problems." Peeta looked at me quizzically. "He drank a lot, and partied a lot. He was wild. And he wasn't a loveable drunk like Haymitch. He got mean. And he had a temper if you got him mad. I told him he needed to clean up his act if this was going to work. I guess he wasn't quite ready to settle down. So I left him."
"And that was it? You never saw him again?" I laughed darkly.
"Oh, I saw him again alright. When he confronted me on the street on multiple occasions and told me he was going to kill me if I didn't come back to him."
"What?" Peeta gasped in shock. "Are you fucking serious?"
"Oh yeah. I finally managed to get a restraining order on him. He packed up and moved out to Ohio to stay with his sister about three months before Mia was born. That's the last I heard of him."
"Jesus." Peeta ran a hand through his hair.
"He was an alright guy if you caught him on his good days. I guess I just thought I could fix him. Apparently, I was wrong." I wrapped the blanket tighter around my shoulders and yawned.
"I guess I should probably let you get some sleep. I'm sure someone will want to be up early tomorrow morning to look at all the presents."
"Guilty," I joked, raising my hand. I stood up and started to put all of his containers into a large paper bag so that they'd be easier to carry while he put on his shoes and coat.
"Well, thanks so much for having me. It was fun. Same thing next year?" He smiled.
"Definitely." I handed him the bag and opened the door so he could step out. He lingered in the doorway, and we were so close together, we were almost chest to chest. I felt my body heating up despite the cold weather. Delicately, I put an open palm on his chest, over his heart. "Your heart's beating so fast..." I murmured in amazement, feeling it's racing pulse underneath my hand. I could feel flakes of snow landing in my hair and on my shoulders. He brought his free hand up to brush some of them away. Then his eyes looked upward. I followed his gaze.
"What?" I asked softly. There was nothing up there but the rim of the doorway. Very non-exciting.
"I was hoping for mistletoe so I'd have an excuse." He dropped the paper bag on the snowy ground and moved me closer to him with his hands on my waist. My arms were folded up between his chest and my own. Intoxicated by the beat of pumping blood in my ears, I traced my fingers over his broad pectoral muscles.
"You don't need an excuse," I breathed, the corner of my mouth against his. Peeta held my face between his calloused hands and brought his mouth slowly down to meet mine. It was sweet and dreamy, slow and intense all at the same time. His warm lips moving against mine cleared all thoughts from my brain. Tenderly, he brought his hands down to my waist once again and pulled me flush against his body. I slid my fingers through his golden hair and tugged until I heard him suck in a breath sharply before a guttural moan escaped from deep in the back of his throat.
"Katniss," he hissed, pulling away to rest his forehead against mine. We stayed there, and I watched the snow swirling around us and blowing in through my open door. It sparkled on my rug and the linoleum, but I didn't have a care in the world just then. It felt like a Christmas miracle. I was tempted to pinch myself to see if I would wake up, because never in a million years did I think I would ever be able to feel this way again. The carefully constructed walls I'd built around my heart (to save it, to protect it from getting hurt again)...this boy holding me was chipping away at them day by day.
I should've felt threatened, afraid even. Every instinct I had told me to run away as fast as I possibly could in the opposite direction. But I didn't. Something held me there. Peeta held me there. For the first time in a long time, I felt safe where I was. "What now?" I asked shakily, my nose brushing his cheek when I spoke.
"Now?" Peeta laughed breathlessly. "Now...I kiss you again," he said and returned his lips to mine.
A/N: There's Nutella on the Q key of my laptop...