A/N - This was a story I started this summer as a Prompts in Panem submission, but it quickly took on a life of its own. The one-shot I thought I was going to write instead became a multi-chapter story. I posted a snippet on Tumblr a few months ago; hopefully this lives up to everyone's expectations.
Thank you so much to arollercoasterthatonlygoesup for offering to beta this for me and being such a great cheerleader for this story.
As always, these are Suzanne Collins' amazing creations; I own nothing.
I turn my phone over and re-read the text for the tenth time.
Prim (sent 2:37 PM): Can you skype tonight? There's something I need to tell you.
Sighing, I drop the phone facedown back on the corner of my desk. How am I supposed to focus on work with this hanging over my head?
I hate surprises. I especially hate surprises from my little sister. The last surprise Prim had given me was the news that she wouldn't be coming home for another three months.
Prim had applied for the opportunity to study abroad in her sophomore year of college. She selected a program in London where she could study child psychology and get the experience of living abroad. We had a tearful goodbye at the airport six months ago, hugging and promising we'd see each other soon.
But when the semester ended, she never came home.
Apparently, she fell in love with Europe and decided to spend the rest of the summer there, leaving me on my own back in New England. Thousands of miles away.
I think I'm starting to rival the original colonists' hatred for their motherland.
She and a group of friends from her program had taken the opportunity to backpack around Europe all summer. She sent me emails every now and then with photos of the museums, cathedrals and ancient ruins they'd visited. But otherwise, she's been off the grid for three months and just got back on campus last week. I can only anxiously guess at what news she might want to share with me.
By the time my phone finally buzzes with the Skype request from Prim, I'm a nervous wreck. I put down the glass of wine I've been nursing and sit forward on the couch in my living room. I paste on what I hope looks like a happy face and accept the chat request.
Prim's face lights up the screen, and I feel some of the tension dissipate. At least she is safe, and in one piece.
"Katniss! Hi! How are you? I miss you so much."
I can feel the fake happy face fade into a genuine smile at the sight of my sister, the one person I truly love in the world. "I'm good, Little Duck. How are you?"
Prim rolls her eyes and smiles. "I'm fine. Too old for that nickname, but I'm doing well."
We chat for a few minutes, both avoiding the elephant in the room. I cover my entire summer in under a minute, then listen as Prim fills me in on more details of her trip. Finally, I can take the suspense no longer. I clear my throat and ask the question I've been dreading.
"So, ah – you said you have something to tell me?"
Prim nods slightly, looking off camera to something in her room before looking down. "Yeah, I needed – I wanted to tell you about something. About someone. Someone I met on my trip."
I sigh in relief. Was that all? She has a boyfriend? That is so much better than any of the horrible scenarios I had envisioned. But why was Prim so nervous to tell me? She's shared stories of boyfriends in the past.
"Ohhh?" I tease. "Is this someone a young man?"
Prim looks up, an angelic smile on her face. "It is."
"Well? Tell me about him! Is he British?"
"No," Prim shakes her head and laughs lightly. "He's American, from outside Seattle. And he's just… incredible. Katniss, I can't begin to tell you how wonderful he is. He's sweet, and funny, and he has such a big heart. He's amazing."
I smile at the screen, grateful to hear my sister sound so happy. "So… How did you meet?"
"He was on the summer trip, and he's actually in the same study abroad program I am. Except he is - well, was - a Senior. He graduated in May."
"A senior?" I question with a frown. Prim skipped a year of school, allowing her to graduate young. She's only 18 now. Just a baby. A senior would be in his early twenties already. "Prim, do you think that's a good idea? How old is this guy, anyway?"
Prim rolls her eyes. "Katniss, I'm not a child. He's turning 23 in October-"
Twenty-three!? "Prim! He's older than me!"
"By six months!"
I won't be distracted by details. "I'm just not sure that it's wise to get involved with someone that old when you're just… barely … LEGAL!" I close my eyes and take deep breaths as I try to compose myself. "It's fine. This can still be taken care of. I'm sure he'll understand if you tell him you aren't ready for anything serious right now."
"Do you hear yourself?" I open my eyes to see Prim staring back at me, her eyes squinted incredulously. "Katniss, you have no say in who I do or do not date." She sighs and looks off screen again. "This is exactly why I didn't want to tell you," she mumbles under her breath.
"Prim, this is exactly why you should tell me! What if… what if he's some kind of creep who gets his kicks out of preying on young girls? What if something were to happen to you? You're so far away, I can't -"
"I don't need you to save me!" Prim shrieks. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. And for the record, he is not a creep, and he isn't 'preying' on me! I came on to him! I kissed him first, and I'm the one that said we should -"
"STOP." I rub the space between my eyes, wondering how this conversation has gone so terribly wrong. "I don't need to know all the sordid details between you and your… your…" I shake my head before spitting out, "boyfriend." The word hardly feels right for the skeevy, leering man I've begun to envision.
Prim chuckles mirthlessly. "But you do," she murmurs. "Because he's not just my boyfriend." Her voice lowers to a point I can barely hear her. "He's my husband."
My mind goes completely blank. I'm speechless at this announcement, my brain trying to process this news. White hot anger is bubbling up from my throat, but my voice is calm and flat. "He's… your… what?"
Prim looks up, tears in her eyes but with a hardness I've never seen reflected in the blueness before. "My husband, Katniss. We're married."
"How is –" I try to gather my senses, the word married echoing in my head. "There's no way that could be legal, Prim! You're not-"
"Old enough?" Prim laughs as she tries to finish my sentence. "Oh, but I am. Remember? I'm eighteen, Katniss."
I scowl in response. "I was going to say you're not even a citizen, Prim. You're in Europe! How could you possibly get married without getting papers signed and – and – documents – and… I just don't understand."
"It's not totally legal," Prim concedes with a shrug. "Not yet. But we found a priest in a little chapel in Italy who agreed to perform a ceremony for us, so as far as I'm concerned, we're more married than any piece of paper could make us. But we're still going to make it official when we get to Colorado."
I look at the ceiling, tracing cracks with my eyes and trying to calm myself. I have to get control of this situation. My baby sister is a romantic at heart, so I can see why she'd feel sentimental in a foreign country, surrounded by signs of love in places like France and Italy. But she would come to her senses. Surely she wouldn't –
"Wait a minute. What do you mean, 'when we get to Colorado?'"
Finally, Prim has the decency to look sheepish. She looks off camera again, nodding slightly, before meeting my furious eyes. "He's got a job offer there, outside of Denver. He starts next month. And I'm going with him."
"But your school is in Boston," I sputter. "Wait a minute. Are you…? Are you dropping out of school?!"
Prim rolls her eyes again. I'm getting tired of the rebellious teenager act. "Don't be so dramatic, Katniss. There are a lot of good schools in Colorado. I'm going to enroll in a community college, maybe get an Associate's degree and then see what happens from there. Besides, he might not even like the job. I don't want to get tied down to one place just yet."
"Tied down?! You're talking about getting married Prim! You can't get much more tied down than that!"
"Katniss-" she starts. I watch her bite her lip in that way she used to whenever I helped her with her homework and she was trying to work out the answer. She's just a child. "I'm not like you," she continues in a softer voice. "I can't just go through school and settle for a dead-end job just because it's expected of me. Life is so short. I need to live it. Experience things. Feel things."
The words sting more than I'd admit. It's my dead-end job that financed Prim's "experiences" overseas. I gave up my own chance at an education years ago to ensure that Prim could have one. And she is accusing me of not wanting to feel things?
I try to hide my tears with a scowl. "Despite rumors to the contrary, I have feelings, too, Prim."
"I know! I know you do!" Prim shakes her head. "God, this is coming out all wrong," she whispers.
She plays with a strand of her blonde hair, twisting it around her finger nervously. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, Katniss. I appreciate everything you've done for me since Mom left. I know how much you've sacrificed for me. But sometimes…" She sighs heavily. "Sometimes the weight of your expectations is just… suffocating."
I sit back in my chair, heartbroken. "I guess it's good to know where I stand."
"Oh, Katniss don't be so dramatic. You know what I mean. When Dad died, and Mom took off … You kept us alive. I know that. You gave up so much, and sometimes... it just feels like I'll never be able to pay you back."
"I never asked you to pay me back." I'm pouting. I know I'm pouting. But I can't help it.
Prim sighs. "I know you didn't. But I also know that you want me to go off to medical school or nursing school and become a big time healer or something. And honestly, that's just not me. Sure, I loved to play doctor when I was ten, but I've grown up, and that's just not what I want right now. What I want… is this." She holds up her left hand, spinning the thin gold band that encircles her ring finger.
"I know how you feel about marriage and family, Katniss," she continues before I can interrupt. "But I can't live that way. I can't just close my heart off. I need to give this a shot."
I'm hurt. And sad. And scared. But what comes out above everything else is anger.
"You know, Prim, you've got a hell of a nerve. I've spent the last six years of my life working full time jobs - sometimes two at a time - working overnights and doubles, all so I could take care of you. Make sure there was a future for you. And now you tell me you want to throw that all away? All over some summer fling? This is bullshit."
Prim looks offscreen and I hear her addresses someone else. "I told you this would happen. I knew she wouldn't understand."
"What are you doing, Prim?" I ask. Is there someone else in her room with her? "Who are you talking to?"
I can hear the baritone of a soft voice but she shakes her head and puts a hand up to stop them. "No, this has to happen this way. It's for the best."
She turns to face the screen once again, a determined look on her face. "Katniss, I think we both need some time apart. I need to see where this is going, and you need to start living for yourself."
"Prim, don't be ridiculous-"
"NO. Katniss, you're right. You've spent more than half a decade taking care of me. It's time you start to take care of yourself for a change. Hang out with your friends. Hell, make some friends to hang out with! Go to the movies, travel, get a massage. Just promise me that you'll make room in your heart for someone else. I need to know that you're not going to spend your life alone."
I sigh, sure she's just trying to test my patience. "Okay Prim, whatever you say."
She shakes her head sadly. "I love you, Katniss. I'll write you when we get settled." She disconnects the call.
I try her back several times that night, and into the next week. I send voicemails and texts and get no response except one late night text that reads: I love you Katniss. But we both need some space right now. I'll talk to you soon. 3
The next time I call her, I get a message that the number has been disconnected.
Months go by with no word from Prim. She never even told me her boyfriend's – husband's – name, so I have no way to find them. I try Google searches and phone calls to her college, but no one will tell me anything because she's over eighteen and is no longer enrolled. She's shut down her Facebook account. I'm even getting the cold shoulder over email, with no response after dozens of messages.
My final desperate attempt is a tearful call to her best friend, Rue.
"Katniss, she doesn't want to talk to you right now."
I wipe the snot from my face, sure she can hear the sniveling sounds from my end of the line. "I just don't understand, Rue! What happened? I mean yeah, I didn't have the best reaction, but she threw all this on me out of nowhere! What did she expect?" I try to reign in the panicked shrieks and speak more calmly. "I've had time to think about it, and I'm fine with her being married. I'd accept them both if she'd just get back in touch with me!"
I can hear Rue sigh heavily on the other end of the line. "She's not ready for that, though. She needs some time to spread her wings, and try to figure out who she is, on her own. You have to give her the chance to do that."
"Can you do me a favor?" I ask in a small voice. "Can you just tell her I love her, and I accept her no matter what?"
Rue is quiet for a moment. "Sure."
"Thank you," I sniff.
"She's safe. And she's happy."
I smile sadly. "Thanks, Rue." I guess that's all I'll get.
Five months after she disappeared from my life, I finally get an email response from Prim.
I know you're probably wondering where I am, and what's going on with me. We've never gone this long without speaking before. I'm sure you're hurting as much as I am.
Believe me when I say the decision wasn't easy. But I came to the realization that I need to test the waters of independence. You've been taking care of me for so long, and I need to really feel what it's like to be on my own.
And I meant it when I said that this break is for your sake as well. You've spent too much of your life living for me, and you need to put yourself first for once. I hope that you have been doing that. You deserve to live like the young woman that you are, not weighed down by responsibility for me.
I don't want you to worry about me. PJ is a wonderful man; so good sometimes I'm sure I don't deserve him. Marriage is a lot of work, of course. In some ways, we're still getting to know each other. We don't really fight, but sometimes I joke that our personalities are so similar we'll probably be bored with each other in just a few months!
Please don't blame him for this separation. He has begged me to reconsider, but I'm just not ready. There will come a time when I'm prepared to share everything with you, but I'm not there yet.
I will be in touch again, but for now, I need to focus on myself and my marriage. I hope someday you can come to forgive me. I never meant to let you down.
Love always, Prim
I scan the email a dozen times for hints at Prim's life. She sounds happy enough, I suppose. At least I know the name of her husband now. Though, without a last name or an address, it puts me no closer to finding her. No matter how much she tries to protect him, a part of me still resents this PJ for stealing my sister away from me.
The months pass by quickly. Before I know it, over a year has gone by. I check in with Rue from time to time, and she passes my love to Prim when they speak. She still asks that I don't try to contact her, and I have no choice but to respect that.
I decide to try to honor Prim's wishes and focus on my own life, but it's hard. I've spent so many years taking care of her that I find I'm having issues relaxing. I make plans with my friends, practice my archery, join a yoga class and try to keep busy.
But night after night, I'm alone in my bed with nothing but my thoughts.
One Sunday in early December, I'm unloading groceries when my phone rings with a number I don't recognize. In my old life, I would have ignored such a call, most likely a telemarketer of some kind. But it's been a year and a half since Prim moved away, and any time a strange number appears, I have to answer. Just in case it's her.
It's not. A male voice asks for Katniss Everdeen, and I reply with my stock answer. "I'm not interested. And take me off your list!"
But before I can disconnect, he interrupts me with a frantic edge to his voice. "Katniss, please, wait. It's P- PJ. From… I'm Prim's husband."
Confusion washes over me, but I can barely stutter out a greeting before he's talking again. His voice is hoarse and gravelly as he stumbles over his words.
"I don't know how to tell you this, but… there's been an accident, Katniss... She's gone. Oh god, I'm so sorry. Prim's gone."
His words send me to the floor in a heap. I'm speechless, frozen, but I can't hang up the phone. The voice on the other end is soothing, comforting. He keeps talking, hushed words of comfort. She went quickly. There was no pain. His deep timber is the only thing keeping me grounded to the earth right now.
Prim had been out doing some Christmas shopping and was in an accident on the way home. There was a pileup on the highway involving several trucks and cars, including Prim's. She was killed instantly.
For what seems like hours, my mind is swirling, trying to process this. How can she be gone? She's been gone from my life, essentially, for almost two years now, but how can she be gone for good? Gone from this planet? It's too much to take.
"I can't… I have to go. I need some time… I need to figure out what to do."
"I understand," PJ says, his voice breaking. "Of course. Take all the time you need. I'll be here. I'm so, so sorry."
I feel terrible for a minute; in my own pain, I've forgotten that this man is probably hurting, too. "Thank you. I'm sorry for you as well. Can I – is this the best number to reach you?"
"Absolutely. This is my cell number. I'll be here whenever you're ready."
I hang up the phone and lean my head back against the cabinets. I spot a goat magnet I got Prim as a joke for her twelfth birthday on the refrigerator. At the time, she was harboring ambitions of starting a petting zoo when she grew up, surrounding herself with animals and inviting the world in to love them with her. It seemed like such a ridiculous goal to me – so many logistics and liabilities. But not wanting to dash her dreams, I bought the magnet and presented it as her first charge. She laughed and named it Lady.
She was always such a dreamer. And now …
I can feel the grief pouring out of me in waves. I hold my head in my hands and let the tears flow.
Somehow I haven't moved all night. The sun has set and has risen again. The floor is cool and hard on my back, and my bladder is screaming at me. But still I don't move. I'm curled up on my side, staring at a spot on the wall, completely numb. I have no idea what to do next.
My phone buzzes with PJ's number, but I ignore it. I can't deal with him right now. I have to get my own grief contained before I can handle that of the widower across the country. I let it go to voice mail, and drag myself up to bed.
I spend nearly every moment for the next forty-eight hours in bed. I fight sleep, but when it finally pulls me under, I wake to visions of an accident, my sister terrified, hurting, needing me. But I'm not there.
I can feel myself succumbing to the same emptiness I saw in my mother's eyes after she lost my father. I want to pull the covers over my head, hide in a closet, or go to sleep and never wake up. But I can't let that happen right now. Not when Prim's body is halfway across the country. I need to bring her home first.
This isn't a task I can tackle alone. I call Haymitch Abernathy, our family friend and attorney. He was a childhood friend of my father's, and promised he would always look after us after dad died. He helped me navigate the system when I was eighteen, abandoned by our mother after years of neglect. With his help, I was able to keep Prim with me, find a good job, and take financial control of the house.
"Oh, sweetheart… I'm so sorry to hear that." His normally gruff voice is noticeably softened. For a former marine with a hardened shell, he's got a big heart. Prim, with all her golden features and glowing smile, always had a special place in it.
"So tell me: what I need to do? How do I plan a funeral? How do I get her body back here – I just don't even know where to start."
"Well, wait a minute," he cautions. "She was married, you said? You don't have automatic rights to all of that anymore. It's really up to her husband to carry out her burial wishes. Do you know if she had a will?"
I scoff. The idea of 20 year old Prim, so full of life and happiness and dreams having a will seems preposterous.
Then again… She's been gone for over a year. Married to a man I don't even know. How can I say anything for sure anymore?
Haymitch clears his throat, and I can tell he's going to give me advice I don't want to hear. "Sweetheart, you're gonna have to buckle down and just call this boy. See what he knows about her legal affairs. Find out if you can work together to make the best choices for her. Besides where and how she'll be buried, there are all kinds of decisions about her financial affairs, remaining school loans, disbursement of property. You'll really benefit from working together on this."
I close my eyes, starting to feel overwhelmed with the logistics when all my heart wants to do is grieve. When I don't speak right away, Haymitch continues.
"Just give the boy a call. You're both in mourning. It sounds like he could use a friend right now, too."
"I'm not good at friends," I scowl.
Haymitch chuckles. "Truer words were never spoken."
I wait a few hours before taking Haymitch up on his advice to call PJ. I pour myself a glass of wine and drink most of it before finally sighing heavily and dialing his number.
He picks up after only two rings. His voice sounds smaller than it did the other night, laced with exhaustion, but I can hear an edge of relief to it.
"Katniss. I'm so glad you called me back."
"Hi, PJ. Sorry, I just needed some time to process everything."
"Of course," he assures me. "I completely understand. How are you doing?"
"I … don't know. I'm okay. I guess the shock is starting to pass." I try to remember Haymitch's advice. Make friends. Be nice. "How – how are you doing?"
"I'm okay, too. I guess. There's just a lot to think of right now. I'm trying to keep it together, for her sake." He sighs. "I can't fall apart on her now."
"That's good," I reply. "Did you…" I start, not really sure how to broach this. I figure I should just jump right in and find out if he's going to cooperate. "Listen, PJ –"
"Um. My real name is Peeta. Prim was the only one who ever called me PJ. It started out as kind of a joke." He laughs softly, continuing when I don't respond. "Our escort in France was this quirky woman who was obsessed with etiquette. She insisted on using everyone's first and middle names, so for the entire trip, we were 'Primrose Joy' and 'Peeta John'. Prim thought it was funny that we had the same initials, so she started calling me PJ. It kind of stuck." He clears his throat. "But all of my other friends just call me Peeta."
I am nowhere near ready to consider myself one of his friends yet, but I take this as a sign to move forward.
"Okay…. Peeta. I wanted to talk about Prim's … wishes. Do you know… did she have a will?"
"Yes, she did."
"Um – oh." I'm taken aback, a little shocked by his immediate answer. "Okay."
"She thought it was the right thing to do, to make wills and get life insurance policies. Before-" He pauses, and his voice becomes quieter. "Of course, we never actually thought we'd use it."
I can sympathize. I certainly never thought I'd be having a conversation like this.
"So, what… did she have..." I stutter, not sure how to phrase this. "Did she have final wishes? For where …"
Luckily, Peeta understands what I'm asking and interrupts me. "Where she'd like to be buried?" he asks gently. "No, not specifically." I sigh, relieved. "She just made it clear that she wanted to be cremated."
"Something to do… with your father?" he asks carefully. "She mentioned she didn't want to spend eternity trapped in a box beneath the earth…"
"Oh." Of course. Our father worked for the city, mainly repairing sewer lines deep underground. He was killed when a road collapsed on their construction site; it took them hours to dig him and the other crew members out. "You haven't…?"
"No, no," he reassures. "Not yet. I would never do that without talking to you first."
"Thanks." I swallow back the tears that are threatening to choke me. "I guess that's fine. I just... I'd really like to bring her home. Here."
He clears his throat. "Oh, um, yeah. Sure. I mean, we don't have any other family out here, so I can see why that would make sense."
I'm slightly relieved that he's not going to fight me on this. "I'm not sure how to get her back here," I think out loud. "There must be procedures for this..."
"Well, wait a minute. I was kind of hoping you'd come out here first."
My relief fades. Of course it wouldn't be that simple.
"I mean, I'd love it if we could all meet," he continues, his voice fading and coming back as if he had moved away from the phone. "There should be some kind of ceremony. If it weren't for the baby, I'd say we could just do it out there, but I think I should try to honor our life here, too, for her sake. Even if it's small. Prim did make some friends that would..."
His rambling continues, but my mind is struggling to keep up. One phrase echoes oddly inside my head: if it weren't for the baby. What baby?
"Peeta, I'm sorry," I interrupt him. "You said, 'If it weren't for the baby'? What baby did you mean?"
He chuckles. "Well, Lily, of course."
"Who's Lily?" I ask. The silence on the other end of the phone carries on much too long for my liking, making me increasingly more uncomfortable. "Peeta?" I repeat. "Who is Lily?"
"She never told you." he says, a slight question in his voice. "I thought by now she would have told you," he mutters so quietly I can barely make it out.
"Peeta!" I'm getting nervous now, and trying to deny my suspicions. "Please, just tell me."
"Lily –" he starts. "Lillianna - is my daughter. Our daughter. Mine and Prim's."
He's done it again. Is there no end to the number of times this man will pull the rug out from under me? First, he marries my baby sister and takes her across the country away from me. Then he tells me she is gone forever. And now – this. She had a daughter? A child she never told me about? I'm speechless.
"Katniss?" Peeta asks carefully. "I know… I'm sure this must be a shock –"
"She was a mother?" I finally make out. "How … how long? How old is… Lily?"
"She's eight months old." Eight months? I try to do the math, and realize that Prim must have gotten pregnant shortly after they got married. Or… before?
"I think… maybe you should talk to Rue." Peeta interrupts. I ignore the fact that he's on a first name basis with Prim's best friend as panic grabs me: does Rue even know that Prim passed away? In my grief, I haven't had the energy to reach out to any of her friends.
"I've already spoken to her about Prim," he continues. "She was going to make the phone calls to their other friends to let them know."
"Okay. Thank you."
My head is spinning. This isn't where I thought this conversation would go. I'm overwhelmed by this news, and starting to feel like I didn't know my sister at all. Prim was married, and a mother, and had this entire life I knew nothing about, and somehow the thought makes me feel like I'm losing her all over again. Tears spring to my eyes. I wipe my nose with my sleeve and sniff into the phone.
"Katniss." Peeta's voice is gentle. "I just want you to know… I'll never pretend that I knew Prim as well as you did. You were her sister for her entire life, and I got to share less than two years with her. But I do know this: she loved you. So, so much. You meant the world to her, and your opinion was so important to her. She only wanted to make you proud."
"I just don't understand." My voice breaks. "Why didn't she tell me? Of course I would have supported her! She was my sister. I loved her."
"I know you did. She talked about you all the time, and I know how much you did for her over the years. You did nothing wrong, Katniss." Somehow his voice is able to reach me, and I try to compose myself. "Just – give Rue a call. They talked a lot, and she can help you understand Prim's mindset."
"Okay. I will." I sigh, wiping my eyes. "Thank you, Peeta."
"Of course. And give me a call when you've gotten some rest so we can discuss the next steps. I'd really love for you to meet Lily."
"Okay." I try to sound positive, but I'm not sure how to get through this.
Thank you for reading! You can find me at tumblr: sothereff