She studied the moonlight as it filtered through the bedroom window, listened to the faint rustling of leaves in the night air. She could hear his breathing even out, taking on the deep, settled sounds that she knew meant he was asleep. And she knew once he was asleep, he was gone, out like a light until the sun began to peek over the mountains.
It was going to be her one saving grace tonight.
She slid out of bed, tugging the duffle bag from under it that she'd placed there earlier in the day. Her heart pounded, and she swore even in his sleep, he would be able to hear it. But he didn't shift, didn't stir.
Slipping on the old hunting jacket she'd had for longer than she cared to remember, she picked up the case. It contained everything she owned, nothing more, nothing less. Even then it looked pitiful in size. Her life contained in one forest green bag.
Moving to the door, she turned and looked at him one last time. They'd both known it was coming, both known it had been on the horizon for months. She knew it was best this way; neither of them had ever been very good at confrontation. At least not with each other, not about them.
Placing the small envelope on the dresser by the door she moved out into the hall, taking one last glance around the place she'd called 'home' for the last year. And with a firm but resolute nod of her head, walked out of the house and out of his life.
Katniss Everdeen sighed, drying her hands on the worn dishcloth in her hands before dropping it to the counter. It was a tired sigh, but not a despondent one.
For once in her life, she was happy.
Lifting her gaze to look out the large dormer window at the end of the counter, watching the slow but steady lapping of the small waves against the rocky shore, she felt right. Calm. Home. She couldn't remember the last place she'd considered a real home. Certainly not Panem, and the house she'd lived in for a little over a year. She'd tried, she really had. So had he. But it had never felt that way, not a home, not even when she'd bought throws and cushions to make the lounge cozier, or decorated the kitchen windowsill with pots of herbs.
No, it had just felt like she was decorating his home, one she was occupying. She'd always had a feeling it would only be temporary. After all, hadn't they agreed from the very beginning that they weren't looking for anything serious?
The bungalow she'd lived in as a child had obviously felt like home, one full of light and love and her mom's laugh. Until her dad had died of a heart attack on the bank of the lake they used to fish on, taking with it her childhood and the blissful years of teenage irresponsibility. Then she'd lost her mother and sister to a car accident; by 19 she was an orphan; no family, no friends, no ties.
She'd left for Panem the next month, selling off everything she owned except her clothes, a few of her father's books, and the old civic that had belonged to her mom. She'd lived in a drab one bedroom above a bar that served drinks til 2, and called whores for you no questions asked, then in a share house with 3 other girls who had driven her mad with their incessant whining, multiple boyfriends and their penchant of 'borrowing' her jeans. And considering jeans had been the staple item in her wardrobe, it pissed her off enough that when she'd fallen into a relationship by accident, she'd moved into his place faster than he could ask.
Looking back, 10 months after she had left in the middle of the night, she knew she'd made the right decision. And although he'd been hurt, and the first few phone calls following had been full of words they both later regretted, she knew he agreed. Of anyone, Gale Hawthorne knew what it was like to be a lone wolf. Without a direction, she'd hit the road that night - still with the Civic, down one pair of jeans she couldn't locate but swore Glimmer Roberts had pilfered - and waited to stop until it felt right.
1000 miles away, and in a small coastal town in Maine, she'd found it. At first she was surprised, expecting home to feel like woods and peat moss and leaves that were twenty different shades of green. Instead, Quarter Mile Bay, with its rocky shores, thin stretch of beach and sea that drifted between grey and blue, had caused her to pull over, breathe in deep...and knew that was where she needed to start over.
At 26, it was time for Katniss Everdeen to have a life.
She heard the heavy thud of footsteps, and turned slowly, leaning against the counter and waiting for Haymitch Abernathy to mosey through the door. She'd never known Haymitch to rush anywhere in the time she'd known him, not to go to the small corner store run by Sae, not even when he came to get his favoured custard filled donuts she had begun to habitually put aside for him, once Annie had finished making them. The old retired judge was as cranky as he was opinionated, and rarely shut up unless he had a donut or a bottle of whiskey in his hand, depending on the time of day.
She'd recently come to realise it didn't really matter what the time was, the flask was always in his back pocket regardless.
He stepped over the threshold of the door, missing the footboard they all knew squeaked with a little bit of weight, and watched as he pushed a knotted strand of hair from in front of his eyes. They were a little bloodshot, the grey that looked remarkably like hers dull but stormy. Haymitch was pissed off this morning.
She couldn't be happier to see him.
Without a word, she handed him the donut. He glared at her, then at the donut, before nipping it from her fingers and taking a huge bite. He wordlessly ploughed through it, then wiped his fingers on the edge of the old-fashioned vest he habitually sported.
"And what has you so chipper this morning?" Katniss asked.
"Those fucking kids next door were playing in their damned yard from 6am, pretending to be Iron Man and the frigging Hulk of all bloody things," he grumbled, planting himself on the smooth brown leather stool in front of the counter. "I know it's summer vacation, but geez, I used summer vacation to sleep til 12 and piss away the afternoon."
"Haymitch, the Mitchell boys are 8 and 10," she reminded him wryly. "They really can't piss away any time of day."
He snorted. "They can at least do me the decency of sleeping til a normal hour until they're old enough to. Now I'm here, instead of in a blissful stupor." He eyed off a cream filled éclair, and before he could open his mouth, she'd pulled it from the case and placed it on a plate, sliding it in front of him. For the first time in her life, she understood somebody, somebody who almost felt like a kindred spirit. She shouldn't have been surprised it was him.
He grunted his thanks - she didn't expect anything more or less - and bit into the sweet, the cream bursting from the pastry and covering his upper lip. She smirked to herself, then turned to mark it on his tab. He never paid at the time, but once a month, without fail, Haymitch closed out his tab, swore he'd never eat another donut again, and would then appear on the doorstep a day later with a smirk and a demand for another.
"Ok, so spill it. What's new around here?" Katniss asked. It was the same routine. She asked him this, and he would vomit out all the gossip he had been subjected to by his neighbour, Effie Trinket. No matter how many times he told her he didn't care, she nattered over the fence to him regardless. And in a way of brain dumping everything, Katniss allowed him to tell her - even though she could have cared less. But small towns meant repeat customers, and knowing your customers meant good business.
At least that's what Annie had firmly told her when she'd started working here.
"Bristel Saunders is pregnant again," he started with a roll of his eyes. "And Delly Cartwright is apparently bringing a new man home with her at the end of the month. Dalton is having an affair, with who the fuck knows. I zoned out when all Trinket blathered on about was babies and boning."
Katniss choked on her yawn at Haymitch's words. "Shit, Haymitch, don't say stuff like that," she wheezed.
He shrugged awkwardly. "Not my fault that's all she talked about." They fell into silence, one they were comfortable with, and unsurprisingly, preferred.
Katniss picked up the dishcloth, idly wiping at the counter. "What about the guy in the old Snow house?" She finally asked.
Haymitch studied her through narrowed eyes. "What are you asking about him for?"
"Because you offered to return to him the parcel that accidentally got delivered here, which in itself is out of character for you. Plus the guy hardly ever sets foot out of his house. I've been here for 10 months and I've never spoken to him. Surely you did when you went there."
Haymitch scowled. "So what if I did? Sweetheart, you've been here less than a year. People who have been here for the entire 5 years he has have never spoken to him. Hell, I could count on my hand the number of people who have. There's no point in asking about him; I've got nothing to tell you."
Katniss scowled, and threw the dishcloth back onto the counter. She knew there was no point in asking, but she had to anyway. She wasn't even sure why - the man who lived in the old Snow mansion 10 minutes' drive down the coastline was a non-entity, a man who was becoming more and more of a local myth than a reality.
But the medium sized package from a law firm in New York had intrigued her. And for someone who rarely gave two shits about the private lives of others, her interest had been piqued.
Haymitch groaned and pushed himself away from the counter, rising to his feet. "Now after that scintillating conversation, I'm going home. I probably won't come in tomorrow. Trying to give up. Waistline isn't getting any smaller you know." He slapped his hand against the paunch that tugged a little more at the dull buttons of his vest every day, and Katniss nodded in agreement. A smile crept across her face as he walked out, and down the uneven pathway outside.
She'd see him tomorrow.
"Everything locked up?" Annie stepped through the kitchen door onto the shop floor, her hand gently rubbing against the soft cotton of the pale blue shirt that stretched over her bulging belly. Katniss couldn't help the twinge of nervousness that filtered through her every time she looked at the willowy brunette. She was terrified the woman would go into labour any moment and Katniss would have to deliver a baby.
It was not something on her bucket list of things to do in life.
"Yep, all done. Just the front door now, after we leave. Finnick coming back to pick you up?"
Annie nodded, and shouldered the bag she held in her hand. "There's no way in hell I'm walking anywhere except between the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom tonight," Annie replied wryly.
Katniss pursed her lips. "Should you still be working? I mean, you know I'm ok handling things here, and Finn can look after the kitchen..."
"I know, Kat. You guys are going to be all over this while I'm out on leave, especially with the new part timer we've hired. Rue's a good kid, and I'm happy she can work the out of school hours. And if we need to bring someone else on, we will. But please," her eyes danced merrily, "Don't confine me to home yet. Let me hang out here for awhile yet."
Katniss laughed, palming the keys she'd dropped on the counter and picking up her small purse from the shelf under the register. "Fine. But you should hang out more than work, okay? You know I don't want you shooting that baby out while I'm around."
Annie chuckled softly, then shifted her gaze as she saw Finnick's old blue Chevy pull up at the curb. "Ok, ok. I'll see you tomorrow." She laid a hand gently on the younger womans arm as a way of goodbye, before stepping outside. Katniss watched as Finnick leapt out of the cab of the truck, hurrying to help his waddling - there was really no other way of putting it - wife into the passenger seat. She caught the grin they exchanged, one meant for themselves and not necessarily for Katniss to see, and she felt a twinge in her belly.
Even with Gale, she'd never felt that, the obvious link between two people that meant they belonged together. She just assumed she wasn't built for that - after all, she'd sworn off love after her parents had died. Why join yourself with someone, and raise a family, only to die and leave that family behind and alone? No frills, no ties and no complications were far better than the alternative.
It didn't mean that occasionally, she didn't wish for someone to be there when she got home.
She locked the door behind her, and began the short five minute walk to the little cottage she'd fallen in love with within minutes of seeing it. The young couple who had rented it before her had moved into the main part of town; a larger house required with unexpected twins in tow. Their surprise was her fortune, and the little 2 bedroom across from the beach, with it's vine covered trellises, a working fireplace and bathroom with piping older than she was, had become home. Home. Finally.
Katniss went through her evening motions - a simple cheese sandwich, toasted, and some cold iced tea she'd steeped that morning for dinner, a load of washing, paying the electricity bill that was a day late - and finally sat down on her back porch, the sounds from the beach, and the occasional honk of a car horn from a street away keeping her company.
Her mind drifted back to the conversation she'd had earlier with Haymitch, one she still didn't completely understand her curiosity about, and remembered the first time she'd seen him...
The clouds had been pregnant with rain, almost black with fury, threatening to spill overhead. Her windbreaker had fluttered behind her and she'd briefly considered shrugging it off and leaving it where it fell. But as the first heavy drops had begun to fall, landing on her head, her arm, any place it could as her feet pounded against the packed sand, she'd decided against it, and kept running.
She ran to feel her heart pound, for her legs to ache, to empty her mind when it became too full.
She'd run, the rain sliding down her cheeks like tears, feeling the burn in her calves, and listening to the crashing of the waves against the shore in anger.
Running when the weather matched her mood was one of the few pleasures she allowed herself. It meant the beach would be empty - for no one was as crazy as the Everdeen girl to do so, she'd heard Sae quip - and she would have a reprieve from the relentless conversation she generally struggled to maintain in the bakery.
So she'd been surprised as she'd turned around a small outcropping of rocks to see a figure clothed in black shorts and a white t-shirt that clung to his skin, running towards her with as much vengeance as she.
The figure came closer, and she'd admired his form, the strength in his legs as they moved along the sand, shoulders broad and finely muscled under the second skin of cotton. And then she'd caught a glimpse of his face and knew.
After 5 months, she'd just encountered the mysterious man who was still a subject of gossip and innuendo 5 years after he'd moved to Quarter Mile Bay.
She'd faltered in her step as they'd locked eyes, his a brilliant blue that seemed guarded, angry and confused. His eyebrows had narrowed together as he unabashedly looked her over, before his lips firmed into a straight line, his gaze moving back to the sand below his feet.
They'd passed each other in the rain, a chance encounter on a lonely beach. And Katniss wondered how anyone could have a look in their eye as tortured as Peeta Mellark's and still be alive.
He swiped a hand across the board, scattering pencils and the remains of an eraser to the ground. His fist pounded against the thick, white paper covered in lines, a multitude of perspectives and inches.
It still wasn't right. And at this stage, it never would be.
He pushed back angrily, sending the small black stool on wheels flying across the room, where it thudded against a plain white wall. He'd long since learnt not to put anything against it, and now all the wall carried was the scars from his stool. Of those, there were many.
Stalking to the kitchen, he yanked open the door to the refrigerator, plucking a Stella from the shelf and popping the top, sucking half of it down in one gulp.
It was hot in here, but that was his own fault. He'd forgotten to turn the AC on, had gotten lost in the design until he couldn't see straight.
Which could explain why everything he'd just drawn looked like shit.
He leant his forehead against the cool stainless steel and sighed. He knew what was distracting him. That box.
It remained on the dining table, unopened. He'd almost keeled over when Haymitch Abernathy had dropped it off the week before, smelling of stale whiskey, with compassion in his eyes and an explanation of where it had been delivered. For once, he had been unable to talk to the one man in town he could give any time of day to. He'd simply closed the door, dumped the box and had crawled onto the couch, letting sleep overtake him.
He'd expected nightmares, expected the same images to haunt him as they always did. Instead, he'd woken up sweating, heart racing, guts twisted in anticipation and confused as to why he had been dreaming about the girl who worked at the bakery. He'd only ever seen her about 4 times since she'd moved here, fleeting images that really shouldn't have stayed with him. But for some reason, following Haymitch's visit, she was the one stuck in his mind.
Guilt, all-encompassing and overpowering, had swallowed him until he'd purged himself of everything he'd eaten that day. But the box remained unopened.
He had no desire to open it. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Pandora's box needed to stay closed.
His eye caught the flashing red light of his answering machine on the counter as his head tipped back to take another sip, and with a sigh pressed the little black button.
Beep. "Hey, it's Aaran. Mom is pissed you haven't returned her calls. Guess who gets to be messenger. Just call her back one time to shut her the hell up, would you?"
Beep. "Kiddo, it's your dad. Been awhile. Give me a call."
Even at 32, his dad still called him kiddo. His finger hesitated on the button, but...Delete.
Beep. "Uh, hello, this is Fulvia Cardew from the offices of Heavensbee, Paylor and Boggs. It's come to our attention that a package for you was delivered to an incorrect address. As it does include some items of quite a high importance to you, we would appreciate if you could confirm-" He pressed the button frantically, cutting it off mid-sentence. Shit. Even his answering machine was doing nothing but reminding him.
Peeta Mellark didn't want to be reminded of anything. He wished he could forget.
He knocked back the rest of the beer in one gulp.
A/N - This was originally written for Fandom4LLS in 2013. I'll be continuing this as a WiP, alternately with my other fic, Portrait of a Victor.
Thank you so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
With thanks to tinytns for the lovely cover art.
You can find me on tumblr at sponsormusings :)