Five years after that awful day, when Katniss turned away from me and walked out of my life, I have finally made it back to District 12. They let me out of the hospital more than a year earlier and for that time I stayed in the Capital. It seemed too painful to come back to 12 and have to face the evidence of Katniss' relationship with Gale. I couldn't bring myself to do, and I figured I was going to be alone no matter what so I might as well stay. I got a job in one of the bakeries and spent most of my off time painting.
Until I met Macey, she walked into the bakery one night while I was handling the orders and her bright eyes and calming smile captured my attention immediately. She stopped by on the way home for a cookie, a treat after a hard day, and I couldn't help myself from striking up a conversation with her. Over the next month she came in often, and finally I got up the nerve to ask her out. That first night we had dinner and I felt alive again, for the first time in many years. Luckily, she took to me as much as I did to her, and we've been together ever since.
After Katniss left, I never thought I'd find someone to love again, and I doubted that I was capable of being loved by anyone. It took years to come to terms with what happened, and I no longer think that she is a Capital mutt. I also don't think of her as someone who I love or who loves me, this took me even longer to internalize. I could love her all I wanted, but she did not love me back, so what was the use? I was so surprised when I first felt the fluttering of my heart when I was with Macey.
The first time I saw her, touching her hand for the first time, and our first kiss, these moments were magical with her. It was different then it had been with Katniss, but that was good. Macey and I had no secrets from each other and she knew all about my past, including my relationship with Katniss. She didn't run away from me after that, and when she first told me she loved me it was the happiest day of my life. She was even willing to come back to 12 with me to live.
She had worked for several years at the same company but knew how much I missed my home and the quieter pace of life in a small town. I didn't hate the Capital anymore as I used to, but it just didn't feel right to me. Thanks to the money I received from the Capital after everything was over I didn't really need to work and I really wanted to do something good for others. After a lot of thought, I decided to go back to 12 and spend my time and money baking for the people of the District with less. I wanted to make sure that everyone has access to food, and not just those in the town.
Times had improved greatly since the war, but there were still some people who were struggling, and there likely always would be. Macey loved the idea and suggested that she could spend her time keeping a large garden and growing crops that we could distribute to anyone who needed it. Luckily the grounds of the Victor's houses were large and there was plenty of room. My old house, which has sat vacant this entire time, was waiting for my return and was already outfitted with industry ovens. So, we decided to go for it and gave up our jobs and apartments in the city. We packed all of our things and boarded a train within a month of deciding on the idea.
That's how I find myself here instructing the new clerk at the small store front where we distribute baked goods and vegetables to anyone who comes in and asks for it.
"So, when someone comes in give them one of these, "I point to a stack of brown paper bags "and show them where we keep the bread and how the vegetables are sorted." I point to the left wall, were loaves of bread, and bags of rolls line the shelves. I walk towards the right and point out the bins, which contain the varieties of vegetables Macey is growing.
The young clerk grins and nods for me to continue, "Basically, you give them the bag, tell them where to find things, and ask that they take what they need, not more and not less." I reach under the counter and pull out a small notebook. "Here try to keep track of the number of people that come and what they take with them, so we can know better what people want."
The clerk is nodding again, "OK" and I continue to explain to her the opening and closing procedures. Originally we had planned to man the store ourselves but found that we were quite busy during the day baking and tending the crops. This way we could employ a few people from the community and do more good.
Many people in the town have made donations to me, and I am grateful for them. The attitude of people who have money looking down on those who don't has mainly gone by the way side, as everyone has now experience having nothing during the war. The division between the town and the Seam is gone, and all the streets are paved and the houses have both running water and electricity.
After I am sure the clerk knows what to do I arm her with my phone number and walk back home. Macey is in the garden as always weeding the area around the cucumbers and she looks up and grins as I approach her. I walk to her side and kneel down beside her, wrapping my arms around her waist and lower my mouth to her head to give her a soft kiss.
"Hey you" she grins as she wipes a gloved hand over her forehead at the sweat that is forming there.
"Missed you." I say to her and brush the loose hair from her face. I sigh in happiness as I close my eyes and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I never thought I would be happy again, but here I am, living a wonderful life with an amazing woman at my side.
Gale and I have settled into a routine over the years and it is as close to perfect as I can imagine. Days go by where I don't think of the Games, the Capital, but never a day without thoughts of Prim. While it is still painful to think of her, the pain is dulled and I think of the happy memories more than those last few moments of her life. Gale and I talk about her often and I am glad that her memory is living on with us, as I am afraid that trying to forget her will make it as if she never existed and that thought is too painful.
Gale still works doing mostly back end work for the military. Instead of designing weapons of destruction he spends his time helping to coordinate the building of infrastructure in the various districts. He works from our house and I am fascinated by the types of projects that he has been involved in. The logistics of building a highway that spans a thousand miles seems impossible to me, but Gale's calm confidence handles it seemingly effortlessly.
Because of his job we've had the chance to travel to so many places and we spend as much time traveling as we do at home. While Gale works during the day I discover the plant and animal life in the location. Sometimes I find some roots or herbs that I know my mother would like and I send them to her. Mostly I just observe and document, taking in the different landscapes with enthusiasm. At night Gale and I get to know the town, trying their local cuisine and taking in the entertainment. Most places have their own type of dancing and I enjoy learning all the variations.
Things with my mother have easer over time. We'll never have a true mother/daughter relationship but I think we both realize how much the other loves us. I can feel my mother's love in every hug and hear it every time we talk, and I try to show her the same thing. I see her every few months by coming to visit her, or having her join us at Gale's location. She never comes to visit us at our home, and I can understand. Many things about the District remind me of Prim, and my mother does not need the reminders.
Gale's family comes to visit every few months and stay with us. The rate at which his younger siblings have grown is amazing. Posy remembers some of the bad times, but much of her life has been lived in the new Panem , free from President Snow's tyrannical rule. The weeks they spend at our home are some of the best I have ever had, and I love watching Gale's eyes light up with them around. Hazelle entertains me for hours, telling me stories about Gale before I knew him, when he was younger. She seems to have a never ending amount of these embarrassing tales.
"Katniss, are you happy now? Truly happy?" Gale asked me out of the blue.
I had to think about it for some time and, he waited for me very patiently. "I think so, I love my life right now, and I don't live in fear every day that it will be taken from me like I had for a time." I turned my body so I was facing him, "But what is 'truly happy' anyhow. I'm not sure I'd recognize it if I saw it." I laugh, meaning this in a light hearted way rather than seriously.
Gale shook his head, "You know what I mean, are you at peace now?" He gave me a meaningful look and I suddenly knew what he was getting at. "No unfinished business?" he raised one eyebrow and looked at me expectantly.
"Peeta" I whispered and hung my head.
"Is that something you'd like?"
We've been avoiding each other since he came back, and thanks to Gale I realize that it is finally time to face him. When I think about Peeta I no longer feel the sharp shame and regret that I felt for the first few years. I can almost think of some of the good memories of our time together without the searing pain shooting through my chest. There is no reason why we cannot coexist here and be friends or at least cordial with each other.
I was so thankful at first that he was not here. The thought of living so close to him after my betrayal was unfathomable then. It was so much easier to go on living my life when I could shove my memories of him away in a corner of my mind. I just made sure never to think of him, and except for the few times I walked past the new bakery in town, I got very good at this. When he was released and decided to come back the idea of dealing with all those memories again was daunting. I pulled off the band-aid all at once and let everything spill out of the corner where I had locked them up years before.
Once allowed myself to think about him again I realized that I could view the things that happened from a different angle. I had left a man who I didn't love, and I couldn't be expected to spend my life with someone I wasn't in love with. The atrociousness of what happened came from the way that I strung him on and allowed him to cling on to the hope that I would come back to him. Had I told him the truth the moment I realized it, things would still have been bad, but my conscious could be clear.
In the arena and during the war I had certainly acted as if I was in love with him, and I definitely felt like I needed him safe to continue to function. Looking back, it wasn't the romantic love that I feel for Gale. It was different in some way, and I have never been able to find the right category to place it in. He was my first experience with love, and so much of our relationship was manufactured for the cameras. We were under a microscope for a long time, and throughout we were to act as if we were in love. Eventually, it began to feel true. But, once all the danger was past and I was able to settle into a life for myself I realized that it was Gale, and not Peeta that I needed to live. Even after the times in the arena when I literally needed Peeta to stay alive, it was Gale who I could not live without.
After I understood that I felt much less guilty. I hadn't tricked him, we had both been tricked. Unprompted I would never had pretended to love someone I barely knew. He was so genuinely kind and good it was easy to admire him and feel an affinity towards him. At some point it stopped being pretend and become the way I felt. My inexperience and stressful circumstances helped the make-believe story become my reality. None of the things I did or said were malicious, and at one point I wanted to die in order for him to come home to his family. He was a better person then me, and I knew the depths of his feelings for me far surpassed mine.
But, there is no changing the past and he is here now, and we live in the same place. Both of us are with the ones that we love, and happy with our lives. It seems silly that we shared so much together in the Arenas and the war, and yet I avoid entire areas of the town for fear of running into him. My fears are about how he feels about me, and whether he is still angry. If I were him I can imagine feeling anger for the person who left me behind so callously, but I know he has always been the better person of us.
I have a happy life, but there is still something missing and I think it might be him. I will never have him in my life the way he used to want, and I don't think he would want that anymore either. But, surely we can have something. Friendship would be nice someday, but we need to start somewhere. Luckily for me, he extended the olive branch to me first and wrote to me asking me to come see him some evening. That's how I find myself tonight, drudging over to his home, squaring my shoulders and trying to control my breathing.
I reach his door shortly after the sun set for the night and I could see his living room blazing with light, and I know that someone must be home. At the side of the door someone has installed a doorbell and I ring it anxiously. I can hear hurried footsteps coming down the hallway from the kitchen and try to plaster a smile to my face. The door is quickly flung open and just inside the doorway he is standing and nervously smiling at me. The door is quickly flung open and just inside the doorway he is standing and nervously smiling at me.
"Katniss, you came!" his voice full of surprise and his smile reaching his blue eyes.
"I uh, yes, I wanted to see you again." I stammer, and curse my lack of ability with words.
"Well thank you, come in please." He steps aside and I walk into the house and follow him down the familiar hallway to the kitchen.
"Thanks." My voice sounds meek and I can barely recognize myself in it as my nerves run amok in my stomach. I hop into the chair at the island that he waves me towards and turn myself to face him.
"Coffee? Juice? Something sweet?" his voice is sure as he offers me his hospitality. There is no anger in his demeanor and I relax slightly.
"Nah, still can't stand the taste of coffee." I cringe as I bring up something from our time in the Games.
To my relief, he chuckles, "Heh! Me neither, but I still love that hot chocolate stuff."
And before I knew it we were joking around together, both of us remembering our time together as something other than painful. But, there are some serious things to discuss, and we need to voice these things so they won't hang so heavily between us.
"Katniss, do you think we can know each other again? I mean, who we are now and not who we were?" he finally got to the heart of the matter, the subject change so sudden.
I took a deep breath and looked directly at him. "Yes, I think we can. I know I want to. I am not the person I was then, and I am not sure that at the time I saw things as clearly." I think about my immaturity and lack of experience of a world outside of District 12.
"We were children Katniss. Both of us." His soft reply brings me out of my remembrance.
I nod, "Yes. I don't know everything now, and I am sure I never will. But, at the time…" I trail off and let myself have a moment to compose my thoughts again. "Let's just say knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have done things the same way." Peeta smiled lightly and I pressed on. "I'm sorry Peeta, I can't take anything that happened back, but I would love to know you again, and to have you in my life.
He beams with a smile from ear to ear as he lurches forward to wrap me in him arms. "That's what I want too." He lets me go and leans back in his chair looking surprised at him reaction. "And I am sorry too." He holds his hand out as I begin to protest. "No, really. How could you have gone on with your life without hurting me? There was no way, no real options. I was in the nut house. Not quite right."
His eyes were laughing and I couldn't help but let out a short giggle. "Ok, everyone is sorry."
He nods. "Everyone but the people the blame really belongs to."
And just like that it becomes serious again and we both sit with our own thoughts for a few minutes.
"OK, so what now?" I finally say, breaking the silence.
He raises a brow to me and bites his bottom lip in mock concentration. "Friends?" his voice is hopeful a feeling that we going to be OK settled in to me.
"Yes. Definitely friends."
I am sorry for how long it took me to get this thing finished (and maybe a bit rushed at the end.) But, to be honest once I read the Twilight series all I wanted to write was fiction based on those characters. But I made myself a New Year's resolution. I had to finish writing my Hunger Games fan fiction before starting any more Twilight fiction. So finishing The After is my next project.
I may be back with new Hunger Games fiction, as I plan to reread the books before seeing the movie. Thank you for all those who have read and stuck with this until the bitter end.