By the time it had started getting dark, the bonfire was already built with a crowd of people around it. Most of the residents gathered around were either younger, like us, or those without kids of their own. Exceptions were made, of course, but for the most part that was the trend.
After her conversation with my mother earlier, I was happy to discover that Mrs. Mellark had headed home early. I was unsure of how to repay her, but felt like something needed to be done. I eventually decided to make sure that my mother's time spent at the first festival she'd attended since my father's death would be filled with things that would remind her of how our family used to be.
That was how, after the meal she had insisted Peeta eat with us, we all ended up gathered around the huge fire. Wooden benches had been set up around its perimeter, but I settled on top of an old, worn blanket spread out on the ground in front of them instead. Peeta stunned me by taking a seat behind me, next to my mother. The ease with which they had gotten along that afternoon had been a pleasant surprise for me.
I shouldn't have been as astounded as I was. Peeta was probably the easiest person to get along with that I'd ever met.
I surveyed all of the groups of people that had assembled around the huge bonfire. Even during the festival, there was still a very distinct separation between the people from town and the people that lived in the Seam. Merchant groups were on one side of the gathering, with groups from the Seam situated across from them, the fire in between. With my family, the Hawthornes, Peeta, and Madge, our assortment of both Seam and town residents must have looked completely out of place.
To our right sat a group of miners and their families. From the looks sent our way, I gathered that some of them might have worked with my father years before. My mother smiled softly in their direction, and they waved back politely. I could tell from the flicker of panic that crossed her face as she turned in the other direction that she was feeling somewhat uncomfortable. I scrambled to think of something to make her feel better.
When Peeta's voice cut through the quiet, I breathed a sigh of relief.
"So, Mrs. Everdeen," he started, smiling brightly. "I just wanted to say 'thank you' for asking me to have dinner with you all. I really do appreciate it."
The sincerity in his words made her eyes soften. She reached out to place a hand on his shoulder, and smiled.
"You are very welcome, Peeta." A mischievous glint that I had never seen in her eyes appeared. "And you will have to apologize to your mother for me. I hate that I interrupted whatever it was she was going to speak with you about earlier."
My mouth dropped open, and everyone in our group fell completely silent. A muffled sounding laugh came from behind me and I looked back to see Peeta with his hand clapped over his mouth. It was followed by a very unladylike snort from Prim and soon everyone, even Gale and Madge, was laughing.
"I'll be sure to pass along the message." Peeta finally replied in between snickers.
It wasn't long afterward that Ripper started to make her way around the bonfire, managing to share some of the spiked apple cider that she made every year. As usual, she only visited members of the Seam; people that she knew wouldn't turn her in to the Peacekeepers. The shocked look her face when she saw my mother sitting with us was clear. She took a moment to place the large thermos she had been carrying down beside her, and gripped my mother's shoulder with her hand. As far as I knew, Ripper lost her arm in the mines a few years before the accident that took my father, but she had known him.
"It's good to see you here tonight," she whispered. Before mother could respond, Ripper had filled not only the cup in front of my mother, but mine and Peeta's as well. She swallowed hard while nodding her head, filled Mrs. Hawthorne and Gale's cups, and moved on to the next group. My mom discreetly wiped at her eyes, and followed that action with a huge gulp from the cup in front of her.
Just then, the opening chords of a song that pretty much everyone in the district knew rang out from a guitar not too far away from us. Within seconds, people were tapping their feet, swaying in their seats, and singing along. I was immensely grateful for the distraction from the awkward moment that had just transpired.
I smiled when I noticed my mother's foot tapping along with the music. Peeta must have noticed it as well because he leaned forward then, and placed a hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him and smiled wider. Feeling a little bolder, probably due to the drink in my hand, I scooted backward and settled with my back against his legs. I turned my face back to the fire, and enjoyed the feeling of being so close to him.
I took the time to survey our little gathering once again.
My mother and Mrs. Hawthorne were sitting beside each other, talking. Mother bounced Posy, the youngest of the Hawthornes on her lap, and Vick was clinging to his mother's legs as they hummed along with the music. They had always been friends, but I didn't think that I had ever seen them this relaxed around each other before.
Prim and Rory were sitting side by side, holding each other's hands, and laughing about something one of them had said. Prim had never had any difficulty showing affection, so it didn't surprise me when she leaned over to kiss Rory's cheek lightly. His eyes caught mine, and he blushed.
Madge was sitting on the same bench, with Gale beside her. I watched as she sat, her legs turned toward him, listening intently to whatever he was talking about. She smiled, and her laugh rang out over the music. Her eyes flitted over to me, and I quirked an eyebrow at her. She winked at me, and her smile widened. Gale followed her gaze, and locked his eyes with mine. He offered me a small smile, and nodded slightly at Peeta's hands that were still on my shoulders. He quickly looked away, and continued talking to Madge.
The songs continued for a long while. As my family's happiness and content washed over me, I started to enjoy the night more and more. I hadn't felt so at ease in a very long time, and allowed myself to loosen up and relax. I found myself leaning a bit more onto Peeta's legs, and involuntarily shivered as I felt his fingers graze the back of my neck.
He and Gale had actually started up a conversation, and he was leaned over Madge to speak with him. He started to absent-mindedly play with the shorter hairs that had escaped my braid at the nape of my neck. That behavior wasn't what I would normally allow, but for some reason I couldn't find any want to fight it.
The songs continued on, and though I knew most of them, the opening notes to one really grabbed my attention. I sat up a little straighter, and noticed from the corner of my eye that my mother and Prim were doing the same.
The man singing didn't have a voice nearly as beautiful as my father's had been, but just hearing the words again stirred something inside of me. My father had sang and taught me many songs, but that one always stood out because he'd constantly said it reminded him of my mother, and their courtship.
I leaned back a little more, resting the back of my head on Peeta's knee, and closed my eyes.
"Once again she steals away
Then she reaches out to kiss me
And how she takes my breath away
Pretending that she won't miss me
Oohh I would bleed to love her
Bleed to love her
Oohh I would bleed to love her
And once again she calls to me
Then she vanishes in thin air
And how she takes my breath away
Pretending that she's don't care
Oohh I would bleed to love her
Bleed to love her
Oohh I would bleed to love her
Somebody's got to see this through
All the world is laughing at you
Somebody's got to sacrifice
If this whole thing's going to turn out right
Oohh I would bleed to love her
Bleed to love her
Oohh I would bleed to love her…"
I hadn't realized that I was actually singing until the song ended and I opened my eyes. Everyone sitting near us had fallen silent, and I swallowed hard as my mother whispered something to herself. She looked up then, and I could see that her eyes were shining with unshed tears, but there was a smile on her face.
"I had forgotten…" She cleared her throat. "I had forgotten that you have his voice."
"Mom, I -," I started, not wanting to upset her, but was interrupted.
"Thank you. I'd missed hearing someone I love sing."
Hours later, once the crowds had started to scatter and everyone else had gone their separate ways, Peeta and I remained by the fire. Even though the spot beside him on the bench was no longer occupied, I chose to remain seated in front of him.
Any sideways glances, or dirty looks that came our way from merchant and Seam residents alike, I was able to ignore. The feeling of Peeta's fingers still playing with the hairs at the nape of my neck, and the comforting tone of his voice as he told me stories about him and his older brothers growing up comforted me. They reassured me that being there with him was the right choice.
"You know," Peeta said as his fingers stilled and his voice got lower. "I remember the first time that I heard you sing."
"What are you talking about?"
I searched my mind for any other opportunity Peeta might have had to hear me sing, and came up with nothing. I turned to face him, my head hovering slightly above his knee. He let out a soft laugh, and looked at the fire in front of him instead of at me.
"That same day that my father pointed you out across the school yard. That day, in the music assembly, the teacher asked who knew the valley song. Your hand shot right up in the air. She stood you up on a stool and had you sing it for us. And I swear… every bird outside the windows fell silent..."
I watched as he opened his mouth to continue, but closed it instead. I sat, in awe of his memory. I could barely recall that happening at all.
"I must have really made an impression," I replied, my voice came out softer than I had meant for it to.
He turned his face back to mine, and I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he gulped. I tracked its motions with my eyes, and felt my face start to heat up. After a moment, I moved my eyes up to meet his and it was my turn to swallow hard at the intensity that I saw.
I stood up abruptly, and gathered the blanket I had been sitting on into my arms. I turned to a confused Peeta, and extended my hand for him to take.
"I want to show you something."
I breathed a sigh of relief as he took my hand without question. As we walked away from the bonfire, hand in hand, I fought an internal battle with my resolve. We were nearing the outskirts of the Seam when I looked over at him; all of the confidence of my actions was returned when I saw the shy smile on his face. I started to walk faster, urging him to keep up.
Once we started nearing the fence, I glanced around to ensure there was no one nearby. Since most of the district's residents had returned to their homes for the evening, the Peacekeepers were nowhere to be found. I felt Peeta's grip on my hand tighten as I began to lean down in order to shimmy underneath. I turned back to look at him, my face tilted up. He looked down at me, uncertainty written across his features.
I squeezed his fingers with mine, and offered him a smile.
"It's alright. Trust me."
I let go of his hand then, and gathered the skirt of my dress to one side. I quickly slipped underneath the fence, and spun around to look at him through the wires. He looked down at the hole beneath the fence and back up at me. It was easy for me to forget that it wasn't a normal occurrence for others to sneak under the fence the way that I did multiple times a week.
"Come on, Peeta. If Gale can fit under there, so can you."
He raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to the side. I bent at the waist and grabbed the lowest section of wire, raising it as high as I could in order to make him feel more comfortable. I looked back up at him, and swept one hand out in front of me in an exaggerated gesture for him to go under.
He smiled at me, and bent low to crawl underneath. I took a deep breath to try and calm the bubbly feeling in my stomach. I hadn't realized that I was staring at the muscles in his back and shoulders until Peeta looked up caught me in the act. I was grateful that my face was hidden in a shadow, pivoted on my heel and beckoned for him to follow me.
After walking for a minute or so, I retrieved my bow from its spot in the hollow log. I expected Peeta to question me on that action, but he didn't. I guessed that he understood the possible threat that the wild animals in the woods posed. I slung the bow and quiver over my shoulder and we were then on our way.
The woods were dark and I had never made the journey at night, but there was enough moonlight to lead the way. I also knew the path like the back of my hand, so I wasn't terribly worried. We had been walking for quite a while when Peeta's hand slipped back into mine. No words were spoken, but it was a comfortable silence between us.
I was jerked to a stop when the toe of Peeta's shoe got caught up in a tree root. He stumbled, but righted himself quickly. I could hear the embarrassment in his voice when he began to apologize.
"Sorry… Sorry. It's just that I've never been out here before. Things are a lot different."
"You don't have to apologize. The first time my father brought me into the woods… Well, I fell into a mud puddle because I wasn't watching where I was going. There's a lot to take in."
"This is what you wanted to show me, right? The woods, I mean? Or was there something else?"
"You'll know it when you see it." I smiled at him, and we continued to walk.
We walked for almost an hour before we arrived at our destination. If Peeta had grown tired, he didn't mention it. I moved from in front of him, and stood silently at his side once we got to the clearing. I watched his face as he set his eyes on the lake for the first time, and wasn't disappointed by his reaction.
His eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open at the sight in front of him. I observed the way that the pale moonlight highlighted the planes of his face, and caught his eyes as they moved around to take in everything in view. He dropped my hand and took a step forward slowly. He turned to me, just as slowly, and smiled.
I had never seen the lake at night, either. It would never compete with the beauty it held during the day, with the sun glinting off its surface, but it was breathtaking nonetheless. I walked past Peeta and headed closer, to the stone house that sat near the shore. I reached the door, ready to walk in when he spoke up from behind me.
"Nobody… No one lives here, right?"
"No. This place has empty for as long as I can remember. For as long as my dad could remember, too." I paused to look back at him, only to see that he was still staring out at the water. "You can wait out here if you want. I'm just going to start a fire."
He nodded, and walked closer to the lake. I watched him until he stopped to lean against the very tree I had sat against only a week before. Satisfied that he was okay, I stepped through the door.
Just as I had suspected, the concrete dwelling was cold and damp inside. I pulled a few pieces of wood from the pile I always kept stocked up in the corner, and went to work on starting a small fire. Once I was convinced that it wouldn't go out, I went back outside to join Peeta.
I crouched down beside him, resting on my knees so I wouldn't get my dress dirty. He looked over at me, and placed a hand on my forearm.
"Katniss, this place is amazing. I mean, up until now, the largest body I've ever seen in person was my bathtub."
I laughed at the joke, and smiled so wide that my cheeks started to hurt. The fact that he seemed to appreciate the beauty of the lake as much as I did meant more to me than I thought it would.
"I'm glad that you like it. My father showed it to me. We used to come here together before he died."
"I love it. I wish that I could paint it… but daylight would probably be needed to really capture all the details…"
"I didn't know you painted."
He simply shrugged, and we fell back into a comfortable silence.
We sat there for who knows how long, just staring out over the water. At some point, Peeta had shifted closer to me, and my side was resting against his. The night was rapidly cooling off, and I shivered slightly.
I moved my hands to the back of my head and began to undo my braid. Once I was finished, I shook my hair out, letting it fall down my back and over my shoulders. I moved my head to see that Peeta was staring at me, his lips parted slightly.
"What?" My question came out in a whisper.
"I've never seen you with your hair down before."
"Oh… umm… My, my neck was getting cold…." I started to push the hair back from my shoulders, but stopped when Peeta grabbed my wrist. He moved my hand back down to my lap, and brought his up to move the hair back into its previous place. His fingertips lightly trailed down the length of my hair, barely grazing my shoulder and forearm in the process. I was unable to suppress the tremble his touch elicited.
"Katniss, earlier when I was talking about the first time I heard you sing…"
Peeta's voice was low, and he was leaning in closer. My breathing was becoming more labored than usual, and once again, I could actually hear my heartbeat. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only sound that I could hear. I jerked back and jumped to my feet, pulling Peeta with me.
"What's wro—," Peeta started to speak, but I quickly placed my finger to his lips.
"Ssshhh…. Do you hear that?" My reply was spoken in a whisper. I didn't wait for him to speak his reply because I saw on his face that he heard the howls as well. "Well, Peeta, looks like you'll get to see the lake in the daylight after all."
I started to direct him toward the house and noticed the confused look on his face.
"Those are wild dogs. And they're getting closer." I explained to him as we reached the door. "I'm not sure how happy they'll be to see us here, but I do know that I'm not really prepared to take on a whole pack in the dark."
He nodded in reply, and I shut the door behind us. I moved to the window, made room for Peeta to stand beside me, and looked out at the other side of the lake. Sure enough, within just a few minutes, I could see the pack of coyotes making their departure from the trees on the opposite side of the water.
I looked over at Peeta and pointed my finger.
"See? They'll more than likely smell that we're here. They aren't used to humans being in the woods at night, or at all, really. They probably won't leave until morning."
"So, we're here for the night then?"
His face showed little concern at his conclusion, and I felt a smile tugging at the corners of my lips.
"We're here for the night."
I turned from the window and went to tend to the fire. The room was heating up surprisingly well and, for that, I was thankful. The only other source of heat we had was the thin blanket I had brought from the bonfire. I slid down the wall that faced the fireplace, crossing my legs out in front of me, and realized there was still an excellent view out of the window.
Peeta sat down next to me, and I bumped his shoulder with mine.
"Eh, I can think of worse things." He smiled at me, and reached over to grab my hand. "Besides, it'll give me time to work up the nerve to finish what I started to say outside."
I had almost forgotten what he was talking about, but suddenly the feeling that I'd had outside underneath that tree, as his face had leaned closer to mine returned. The fire in the pit of my stomach started to bloom upward, and my chest tightened.
"Oh?" I replied, trying my best to keep my voice even. "And what was it that you were going to say?"
"You'll know it when you hear it," he essentially repeated my words from earlier to me and smiled.
I laughed and we fell back into an easy silence, both watching the clouds cross over the moon through the window. Over the next couple of hours, we went back and forth from quietly staring out the glass, to talking about whatever popped into our minds. After a while, I yawned and heard Peeta chuckle from beside me.
"Maybe we should get some sleep," he suggested.
I nodded my head and got up to put some more wood in the fire to ensure we wouldn't be too cold. I picked up the threadbare rug that was laid out in front of the fireplace and shook it out the best that I could. I placed it back down in front of the flames.
"I figure it'd be best to sleep closer to the fire…," I offered lamely. I sat down on the edge of the rug and waited him to do the same. I saw that he was hesitating, and rolled my eyes. "Oh, lay down, Peeta. It's okay. Promise."
Peeta took his spot on the rug and immediately lay down on his side, his back to the flames. I followed suit, lying down on my side to face him. I stretched my left arm out and rested my head on the crook of my bent elbow. He mirrored my position, our elbows barely touching.
"Can you grab the blanket on the floor behind you?"
He turned and picked the blanket up from the floor. His body shifted as he rolled back over, lessening the distance between us. After spreading the blanket out over us, he returned to laying on his side, this time our elbows touching, and faces closer. He took the hand that wasn't cradled underneath his head and sought mine out between our bodies below the cover.
Despite the less than ideal surroundings, and the hard floor underneath us, the intimacy of the moment was not lost on me. Unable to think of anything to say, I slowly started to hum the song from earlier in the night that had been stuck in my head ever since. I had begun to close my eyes when Peeta started to speak.
"Katniss," he started; his voice low and soft. "That first time… when I heard you sing, I… Well, I knew then…"
His voice trailed off, and I opened my eyes completely. I lifted my chin so that our faces were level and watched as he unconsciously wet his lips with his tongue. I felt as if I was about to burst into a million pieces when I met his eyes with mine.
My voice came out as barely a whisper.
Peeta pulled our interlocked hands up, and carefully released mine. He then gently pushed a section of my hair out of my face and back over my shoulder. I let out the breath that I had been holding, and stilled as his brought his face closer to my own.
The implication of his actions washed over me and I blinked slowly. His hand moved from my shoulder, up my neck and came to a rest, gently cupping my cheek. He leaned in closer, and the pad his thumb lightly grazed my lips fractions of a second before he pressed his to them. His lips were warm and soft, moving against my own and I shocked myself by returning the kiss almost immediately.
I had no idea what I was doing and thus, followed Peeta's lead. The heat that had pooled in my belly was quickly reigniting into the all-out fire from earlier. I moved my lips against his own, and was surprised at the quiet moan of pleasure I elicited from him as I gently took his bottom lip between both of mine. In one swift motion, he pulled me closer so that my head was resting on his arm, our bodies nearly flush against each other. The hand of the arm I was lying on supported the back of my head while the other was still caressing the side of my face.
I was vaguely aware of the fabric of his shirt that was bunched in my hand as I grasped at his chest. The other hand found itself wound into the blonde curls at the back of his head, urging his face even closer to my own.
When we finally broke apart a shaky exhale passed through my lips, and I looked over at Peeta. His face was flush, and the rise and fall of his chest was fast. When our eyes finally met, nothing could have stopped the smile that overtook my face. With a sudden boost of confidence, I leaned in once more to place a light kiss on the corner of his mouth. Peeta's hand moved from my cheek down to my waist, and he offered a smile of his own as he brought me even closer.
"As wonderful as that was… You still didn't answer my question," I somehow managed to say through the fog that was clouding my brain. "You knew what?"
I pulled my lower lip in between my teeth and grinned at him. As he brought his lips close to my ear, I shivered involuntarily at the feeling of his warm breath on my cheek. He softly kissed the skin beside my ear before he whispered his reply.
"That I was a goner."
Author's Note: I just want to thank everyone that's stuck with this story 'til the end! I've had a lot of fun writing it, and am so appreciative of all of the reviews and alerts it's received. :)
I have another HG story in the works, but it could be a week or so before I upload the first chapter here, but hopefully you'll enjoy it as well!