Katniss wiped her sweaty palms on the thighs of her jeans, then tugged on the hem of the long sleeved shirt she wore. She chewed on her lower lip, and looked at the uneven driveway ahead of her that led to his house.
And knew that it was beyond ridiculous how nervous she was.
"Damn you, Finnick," she muttered under her breath, and began the walk down the drive.
The instructions from Finnick and Annie had been simple. Ask Peeta as nicely as possible if he would consider helping out at the bakery a few days a week until the Odairs were settled into a routine. They could negotiate pay, of course, and hours, and they would work it around his own responsibilities. If Peeta wanted to introduce any new items into the bakery, he was welcome to do so. And he wouldn't be required to be out the front at all - he would only need to help in the kitchen.
Katniss thought they had a fat chance in hell, but she had to admit they needed to do something. If Finnick and Annie didn't think they'd be able to make it through the next month without help, then help is what she'd try and get.
She just wished they'd listened to her when she'd suggested that weeks ago.
She'd spent a good hour on the beach after lunch had finished, procrastinating and putting off heading to Peeta's house. Finnick had offered his car, but she'd refused, instead preferring to walk. She'd gotten used to it since the old Civic had finally given up for the last time.
Kicking at a rock with her toe, Katniss continued trudging her way up the drive, simultaneously annoyed by and reluctantly impressed at the long, bumpy, uneven path that led to the house, bordered occasionally with trees that he'd intentionally let overgrow. At first glance most people would think it sheer laziness. She didn't think that; not at all.
It was meant to be a deterrent. But it wasn't going to put her off today.
She tossed her braid over her shoulder, walked through the final couple of trees, and stopped in front of the house. She studied the curved lines and woodwork, and the parapet that sat atop the house like an old fashioned look out. She knew, from the runs she took along the beach, that the back was full of windows and glass doors open to the ocean. But here at the front, every window except one directly in the middle of the third floor was covered with blinds that blocked out the world - which was good. Hopefully he hadn't seen her coming, and he wouldn't ignore the knock she was about to pound out on his door. She stepped up onto the covered front porch, raised her fist - at the same moment the door flung open.
The first thing she saw was his eyes - bright and blue, and staring at her as though he saw right through her. Second was the way his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed heavily. Third was the way he drew in and blew out a deep breath, his chest expanding under the button-up shirt he wore.
She opened her mouth, only to have him beat her to it.
"What are you doing here?"
If she was shocked by his abrupt tone, she shouldn't have been. She'd heard it often enough by now, had been on the receiving end of it more than she deserved.
"I came to ask you something," Katniss said bluntly, shoving her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. She curled her lips in a snarl to match the equally unimpressed expression on his face. "But I'm fairly certain it was a bad idea."
"I'm fairly certain you're right," Peeta retorted. He glanced down at his watch impatiently, and she followed his gaze. It was then that Katniss noticed the duffel bag in his hand, the laptop case slung over his shoulder. The words fell out of her mouth before she could stop them.
He smirked. "Why, gonna miss me?"
"Hardly," she snapped back immediately. "I only ask because it would mean me coming to see you wasn't only a bad idea, but also a useless one." She turned on her heel, ready to march away, when she heard the thud of his bag hitting the ground.
"What is it?" He said gruffly.
"What is what?" Katniss retorted, turning back to him.
"What have you come to ask me?"
She folded her arms across her chest, scuffed her Vans into the dirt, sighed. "Are you sure you want to listen?"
"As sure as I'll ever be."
"Fine. You know Finnick and Annie, right?"
He nodded once. "I know who they are."
"Good. Well they had their baby, and now - even though I warned them ages ago - they've realised they need more time to settle in with Dylan, which means they need to take as much time off from the bakery as they can over the next few weeks."
He raised an eyebrow; it was sarcastic, inquisitive and judging all rolled into one. She vaguely wished she could master it herself. "What do I have to do with this?"
Katniss snorted. "Wow," she said. "You're really not going to make this easy, are you?"
"According to my friends, I've lost all ability to communicate, so probably not," he replied blandly.
"No surprise there," she retorted wryly. "I didn't think you were a regular conversationalist." Peeta shrugged, but she caught the glint in his eye that hinted at amusement. For someone who wasn't exactly a people person, she'd managed to draw a positive reaction from him. Huh. Score one for her. "Anyway," she continued, and her words began to rush out with nerves that returned full force. "They want me to...ask you to help out in the bakery for a few weeks, just while they get on their feet. They'll negotiate pay, hours, will work it around whatever it is you already do to earn money-"
The response was firm, sharp, and when she looked in his eyes again, they were cold, closed off. Any and all of the amusement that had been in them had fled.
So much for drawing him out.
"You don't have to answer me right-"
"No." This time he reached down, hoisted his bag back over his shoulder, and stepped out onto the stoop, forcing her to take a step back. He pulled a set of keys out of his pocket, turned a large silver one in the front lock twice before clutching them in his fist. He slowly pivoted back to Katniss. "I can't help them."
"Can't or won't?" She challenged, and he shrugged again.
"Same thing," he said. He looked down at his watch, then shoved his hand in his pocket. "Look, I have to go, I need to get to Portland to catch a train to Boston." He slid around her, headed to the garage that looked like a new addition to the house. She scowled at his retreating back.
"So much for our peace treaty!" She yelled, just before he stepped into the side door of the garage.
Peeta turned slightly, tipped his head towards her in recognition. "You enjoy the rest of your Sunday, Katniss."
She watched him drive away, annoyed, flustered and knowing I told you so would figure heavily into her response to Finnick.
The train station was bustling, packed full of people returning to Boston from a weekend in Portland, or long distance commuters heading back for their work week. Peeta had turned on his iPod the minute he'd gotten out of his car, blocked out the world with some Bowie. He was annoyed, confused and had a stomach full of butterflies that felt remarkably like attraction that he didn't want to acknowledge.
The last thing he'd needed before getting on a train on his own, with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company, was Katniss.
She'd shown up at his door, all wide eyes and faded green shirt that made the smattering of freckles across her nose stand out. He'd gotten defensive, she'd gotten snappy, then she'd dropped her question on him out of the blue. Shit, the last thing he'd expected was for her to ask him to work in the bakery. Though, he supposed, he'd all but walked into being asked. The afternoon he'd stormed into the bakery, he'd let his emotions - and his quest for baked perfection - get in the way of his aim to be free from messy ties.
After 5 years, he was a little worried Katniss might be the one to start undoing the figurative double knots he'd put in place around himself. He was determined that he would continue to do what he could to keep her at arms length.
Peeta reached the ticket counter, picked up his pre-purchased ticket with little trouble and headed towards his platform. As he moved through the terminal, he felt the phone in his pocket vibrate, but he ignored it. If it was important, they'd leave a message. If not - he didn't care.
He arrived at his allocated car and stepped on board, sidestepping a couple of kids arguing in the passageway. Halfway down the car he slid his duffel into the overhead compartment, settled into his seat and dumped his laptop on the seat beside him - one he'd bought and paid for as well. Lifting his hips up from the seat, he pulled the phone out of his back pocket. The icon screen showed one missed call, no message.
From his dad.
Knowing it had been weeks since he'd checked in at home - regardless of whether the old man had left a message or not - he pressed redial, closed his eyes while he waited for his dad to pick up.
"Hello, you've reached-" Peeta sighed as it went to voicemail, then couldn't help his chuckle as he heard a clatter over the line, a curse, followed by another thud and a second, more descriptive curse. Finally his dad was on the line, breathless.
"Peet!" He muttered. "Frigging dropping my phone all over the place. Your mom is gonna kill me if I break another one."
"Technology is your friend, Dad, embrace it," Peeta smiled.
"Yeah well when this phone can make a loaf of bread for me so I can sleep in past dawn for once, then I'll embrace it. In the meantime, I'll keep pretending I know how to text." He blew out a breath. "Thanks for calling me back, kiddo."
"Dad, I'm 32, quit it already."
"C'mon, you'll always be my kiddo, even when you're 50."
"Yeah yeah," Peeta replied, the corner of his mouth turning up in a smile. He left calling his dad for so long sometimes, he forgot how much he enjoyed speaking to him. Nolan Mellark was one of the few people Peeta still trusted wholeheartedly, and he couldn't see it ever changing. "What's going on?"
"Figured I'd call, see if you were thinking of coming home for Thanksgiving this year. Both your brothers are, and Ethen's bringing Ellie and the baby. Thought you might want to see your niece again?" There was a hint of hopefulness in the older man's tone - Peeta hadn't been back to his hometown in at least four years and he knew it bothered his family, particularly his father.
"Dad, that's still a month away," he replied, avoiding the question.
"You're avoiding my question," Nolan said bluntly, and Peeta blew out a breath in resignation. The old man saw through him every time.
"You're right. Sorry. Look, I…" he glanced out the window, at the people hurrying past to get on the train. He was prepared to turn his dad down flat - but at the last minute, something stopped him, and he sighed. "I don't know, Dad. Things have changed in the last few months."
The pause at the other end of the line was pregnant. "Really?" The surprise, and curiosity, in his tone was evident when the question finally came. "In what way?"
Peeta scratched at the back of his neck. "I…I don't really know. Things just feel different. I can't promise anything. But…maybe."
A hoot echoed down the phone. "Kiddo, I will take a maybe any day of the week!" His dad sounded so excited, Peeta felt the pang of guilt so heavy and strong in his chest he wondered if an anvil had somehow landed on it.
Geez, guilt was rearing its ugly head a lot lately.
"So what's the change?" His father was asking as he tuned back in, and Peeta's stomach pitched at the next question. "Have you…have you met someone-"
"No!" Peeta replied abruptly, loud enough for a couple of people across the aisle to look at him strangely. He turned his back so he was facing out the window as the carriage began to move from the platform, and willed away the thoughts of Katniss that had sprung up immediately at Nolan's question. "No, I...I've just had a few people tell me I should start moving on. Plus I got that.." he cleared his throat. "I, uh, got that box back."
"Ahhhh," Nolan replied, and Peeta could practically hear the wheels turning over in his head. "Well, it sounds like these people are right. You do need to move on, you deserve to. Starting with that box. Keep it, throw it, but move on, Peeta. You need to."
"I know Dad, but-"
"No buts, kiddo. I mean it. I want to see you at Thanksgiving, and if these friends of yours are making you think beyond the square you live in for once, then they're good friends to you." Peeta heard a beeping echo on the other end, heard the scuffle of a hand as Nolan covered the mouthpiece of the phone. There was a muffled yell, and when there was no reply, the line became clear again. "Sorry, son, I gotta go. I've got cookies in the oven and your Mom must still be next door having coffee with Adele. It's been good talking to you, Peet. Love you."
"You too, Dad."
He ended the call, pocketed the phone, and continued staring out the window at the landscape as it rushed past. Nolan's, Cinna's and Haymitch's words reverberated around in his head for the rest of the train trip. He knew they were right, had known it for a while, he just hadn't been ready to admit it - until last night. His Dad's firm words had all but solidified the decision he'd made.
The box was carefully tucked into the duffel bag overhead, wrapped up in an old sweatshirt he'd had since university. He was done waiting; he was going to face it head on. Starting in Boston.
Katniss shifted on her sofa, propping both legs on the arm at one end and punching the pillows under her head. She tucked the phone in between her ear and her shoulder, kept her eyes on the muted television.
"He said no, Annie," she said quietly. "I'm sorry."
Annie's sigh was low, but resigned. "I figured he would. We always knew it would be a long shot."
"What will you do?"
"We'll think of something. It'll be ok, Katniss. We won't close the bakery at all."
"I can keep putting in extra hours-"
"Kat, you already work full time as it is, and we're relying on you a lot right now. We'll figure something out, I promise." She heard a baby start to wail in the background, and Annie laughed. "Ahh, Poor Finn. He's been trying to put Dylan down for about an hour now, and the baby doesn't want anything to do with it."
Katniss smiled, switched the station from a nature documentary to a mindless reality program. "I'm sure Finnick will forget all about it tomorrow when that boy is staring up at him all baby-eyes and chubby cheeks."
"Ayuh," Annie agreed. "Mostly, Dylan's been great. But when he doesn't want to sleep, he doesn't want to sleep."
"My mom always said-" Katniss trailed off. Annie knew, of course, what had happened to her mother, and to Prim, how she'd lost them on that rain-swept road on a February evening. It didn't make it any easier though, all these years later - it still gave her heart that little tug of emotion. She hoped, though, that one day it would be easier.
"Yeah?" Annie prompted gently.
Katniss cleared her throat. "Um, from when Prim was about 6 months, my Mom would put a burner with lavender oil in it on the top of her bureau. It worked, every time, something about the scent. But I guess Dylan has a few months until you can use something like that to try and help though."
"Yeah," Annie said ruefully, "He's probably still a little too young and his sense of smell too sensitive. But I'll keep it in mind for when the time comes."
They continued to chat, and Katniss was - as always - surprised at how easy it was for her to connect with Annie. Her first impression had been of a quiet woman; elegant, delicate and reserved, and she'd immediately determined they'd never get along. And while she'd been right in that Annie was elegant and delicate and generally quite serene, she also had hidden aspects to her that had been a pleasant surprise. She had one of the best senses of humour Katniss had experienced; she tossed back whiskey like she'd been born with a tumbler in her hand and swore like a trouper when Finnick pissed her off. She'd become one of Katniss' closest friends.
Katniss glanced at the clock on the wall, her mind beginning to drift, and covered her mouth with a yawn. "Annie, I think I'm going to head to bed."
"It's not even 9pm!" Annie said with a laugh.
"I know," Katniss sighed, stretched her arm out to the ceiling. "Talking to Peeta must've worn me out."
Annie hummed. "Peeta, huh?"
"Yeah," Katniss replied sarcastically. "That's his name, remember?"
"Oh, I remember," Annie said knowingly. "I think Finnick is right. I think you like him."
Her face flushed, and she was glad that Annie was on the other end of the line, not in the same room as her. "Shut up, Annie. You think he's hot, and I won't deny that he's attractive."
Annie laughed. "Katniss."
"Have you thought about him naked?"
"Geez, you're as bad as your husband. Good night!" She hung up to the sound of Annie's continued laughter in her ear, and dragged herself to bed. Once snuggled under the warm quilt, she stared up at the ceiling, at the thin stream of moonlight that snuck through the gap in the curtains. And pursed her lips in frustration.
So what if she had? It didn't mean anything. He was everything she didn't want or need.
Even though she was exhausted, it took her a long time to get to sleep that night.
The hotel was the same one he always stayed at when he was in Boston. He was a creature of habit - he liked Nine Zero, with its views and its proximity to the Common. It was more modern than a lot of the other hotels he stayed at when he was travelling, but he liked the juxtaposition of the modernity of the hotel with the old history of the city around him.
He'd settled into his room after checking in, called Cinna to confirm their 9.30am meeting with the client, then ordered room service. The steak had gone down well, the side order of clam chowder even better. He'd clicked through what felt like hundreds of mind numbing hours of television, all in the name of procrastination.
The box taunted him.
With a resolute sigh, he rose from the bed, dumped the now empty plate on the desk in the corner, and retrieved the box. He'd always remembered it as bigger, but in reality it was the same size as a shoebox, elaborately carved from mahogany and lined with velvet. It hadn't seemed like her taste, but he supposed in the end he'd never really known all of Cass - and she'd never really known all of him.
Sitting down on the bed with his legs stretched out in front of him, he placed it down on the quilt, his heart pounding out of control as he slowly lifted the lid. He still wasn't sure whether he'd be ok once it was done - but he knew he needed to. That was exactly why he hadn't wanted to open it at home, why he'd taken it miles away. He wanted neutral territory, somewhere that wasn't his old life, somewhere that wasn't his new.
The hinge squeaked as it finally opened all the way, and the first thing he saw was the ticket stubs.
It came back to him as clear as day.
The nameplate sat shiny and brassy on her uncluttered desk, her name staring him in the face, mocking him, teasing him.
She'd never wanted to take his name - 3 years older than him and established in her field, she'd already built a career with her own, and he'd never had an issue with it. He'd liked the fact she was so driven, strived to be at the top of her game. And when he'd whisper in her ear at night, joking that their kids would one day be 'Merelarks' she'd laugh along with him, would kiss the tip of his nose, the hollow of his throat, down his chest, then envelope him in her mouth until he couldn't remember either of their names anyway. It had never bothered him.
He raised the bottle he held to his lips, not caring that wayward amber droplets landed on his shirt as they missed his mouth. Why should he care, anyway? Didn't matter. Nothing mattered. He had nothing to live for, right?
Propping his booted feet on the desk, he looked around. Nothing was out of place, everything was in order, just like he'd thought it would be, just like he'd expected. Cass had always insisted on a clean workspace, even in her home office. He'd often teased her about it as she worked on a case of an evening, until eventually she'd throw a pencil or a wadded up ball of paper at him, cursing him until she was blue in the face. But she'd always had a smile on her face as she did it, always looked at him with a look in her eye that turned his stomach to jelly. They'd almost always turned each other inside out on those nights, had barely been able to get enough of each other. He was fairly certain those were the nights they'd christened a new surface in their apartment every time.
Shit. How had it come to this?
"Peeta." He looked up, saw Plutarch Heavensbee - head partner of Heavensbee, Paylor and Boggs - standing at the door, his dark hair slicked back and his rotund belly barely contained within his charcoal suit jacket.
"What?" Peeta asked bitterly, leaning back in the chair a little more and dropping the now empty bottle to the carpeted floor. "Come to kick me out?"
Plutarch reached up, slightly loosened the tie around his neck. "Why are you in Cass's office in the middle of the night?"
"Where else am I gonna be? Huh?" Peeta lifted his chin challengingly. "At home in my 'marital' bed?"
Plutarch sighed. "Perhaps instead I should ask how you got up here?"
Peeta snorted, lifted the keycard that hung from a lanyard around his neck into the air. The movement tightened the strap against the skin at the nape, and he revelled in the twinge of pain. He welcomed it - after all, he'd felt nothing but dead inside for the last three weeks. It was nice to feel something, to bring him back to reality.
Plutarch crossed the room, lowered himself into the seat normally reserved for clients. "I'm sorry, Peeta," he said quietly. "We're all sorry."
He rolled his eyes. "Fuck you. What do you know?"
"I know that I've had the pleasure of knowing you for almost 3 years, and I know that you're hurting. But I also know you getting wasted in her office isn't going to bring her back. She wouldn't want to see you like this." His voice was calm, unaffected - Peeta knew he'd won court cases on the reasonable tones all on their own - but even he could sense the emotion behind it.
The fight and the anger in Peeta dissipated like smoke. He let his feet fall to the ground, dropped his head to the desk with a thud. "What am I going to do?" He muttered desperately. "We had everything sorted and now..." He raised his head again, eyes bloodshot and suddenly sheened with tears. "And now I don't know anything."
"You don't have to know anything or everything," Plutarch said calmly. "But you know we'll all be here for you."
"No you won't," he muttered, swallowing heavily to keep the tears at bay. "Not everyone."
He glanced at the box that sat on the desk, and pushed it towards the older man. "I thought it was bad enough to see my wife die in front of me," he began quietly. "I thought it was bad enough having to bury her. But this?" He looked back at the box, which he'd found in the bottom drawer of her desk. He'd just wanted to start collecting her personal belongings, that's all. But he hadn't expected to find this. "I can't do it. I don't want to look at it again. I don't want it."
Plutarch's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "I'm not sure what that is, Peeta. I've never seen it before."
He felt his blood boil, even while his heart panged at the same time. "Neither had I, until I found it. I don't want it and I never want to see it again. Get rid of it. Throw it away."
"What is it?" Plutarch cleared his throat, but didn't make a move to open it.
"Apparently everything important to her. And I don't want it."
Plutarch sighed. "You'll change your mind, Peeta, I promise you. You'll want to keep her memories."
"No I won't," Peeta hissed, thinking of the photos, the movie ticket stubs, the little notes on familiar paper, the folded up documents inside - the fucking faded flower, of all things. No, those memories were better left where they were, in that box. How could he keep living if he was reminded of them every day? "Throw it away."
"I'm not going to," Plutarch said firmly. He steepled his fingers together, placed the pointer fingers under his chin. "I'll do you a deal."
"I'm not a client, Plutarch, and I'm not someone you're grilling, either. I don't do deals."
"Peeta, I promise you, in 2, 3 years time the pain will still be there, but it won't be as fresh, as harsh. You'll want to remember these things. So here's what I'm proposing. Let me speak to Chris and Andrea," he said, referring to the two other partners in the firm. "We'll keep the box for as long as you want us to, and then we'll return it to you."
"I won't want to look at it."
"Then don't. Throw it away when we give it back. But don't throw it away now and regret it later."
Peeta swiped a hand under his nose, considered what Plutarch was saying. Maybe he was right. Maybe, in something like 5 years he'd be okay with it all. Maybe he'd be able to deal.
"Fine," he muttered. "5 years. In 5 years, send it to me. I'll decide what I do with it then.
"Good," Plutarch said, and reached for the box, tucking it under his arm, before rising to his feet. "You need to go, Peeta. You can't stay in her office. And I need her pass back too."
Peeta pulled the lanyard from around his neck, tossed it over. "Here."
"Thanks. And Peeta...we are sorry. Cass was a terrific lawyer, and you always seemed so happy together. I'm sorry you didn't get more time."
"Me too," Peeta muttered. He pulled himself to his feet, stalked away from her desk and her office without another word, then out of the building and out of her workplace.
His wife was dead. She was never coming back. But he'd obviously already lost her a long time ago.
He left New York a week later without a second thought.
Closing the lid, Peeta laid back on the bed, scrubbed a hand across his face. It still hurt, even after all this time - but Plutarch had been right in telling him not to throw the box away. He'd needed it, for closure more than anything else. There were good memories in there - the notes, a photo from their wedding, the movie stub from their first date. But there were others, ones he didn't necessarily want to be reminded of. It was those items - the ones that showed that clearly, somewhere along the line, Cass had moved on - that broke him.
But it would be the last time he'd look at any of them.
He threw the box in a bin in the middle of downtown Boston the next day, and didn't regret it one bit.
Later that night, after a day full of successful meetings, Peeta booted up his laptop, did a quick Google search, found what he wanted. The email was short, sharp and to the point.
To: info at crestingwavebakery . com
Finnick, Annie, Katniss,
I'll help - but I'll bake from my house. I'll call to discuss terms when I return.
A/N - So...I promised some Peeta background in this chapter, and I hope it didn't disappoint. There's still more of his story to tell, but this was the part that needed to be told for now ;)
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