A/N: As it seems I start every new chapter with an apology, I'm sorry again for the delay. My new semester kicked my ass from the start so I've been really overwhelmed. This chapter, sitting half-finished for so long was weighing on my mind the entire time though. Also, I have been very busy with Idle No More. Since you are all reading this story I hope you have some interest in indigenous people and so I would recommend looking up any Idle No More protests or marches that are nearby, especially my readers in Canada and US. We Native and First Nations people need all of the support and allies we can get, our rights and way of life are being threatened currently. Anyway, hopefully this chapter was worth the wait!
Chapter 8: Waiting's Wasted Time
My eyes locked together with Peeta's from across the patio. A dimple appeared in his cheek as a small smirk crept across his lips, making a smile spread across my face as well. I felt the weight of Gale's arm across my shoulder shift and looking up I noticed him following my gaze with a cold stare. His large hand gripped the corner of my shoulder tightly, pulling me closer to his chest as he led me further into the crowd and away from Peeta.
Madge was sitting on a stone wall near the pool, sipping from a red cup but stood when she saw us approaching.
"Ahh there you are!" She shouted, grabbing me for a sloppy hug before launching herself into Gale's arms.
He gave me a look as he hugged her quickly, fixing his shirt after. She beamed at both of us and I could tell from the flush on her face that she had already started drinking.
"Delly's in the kitchen, you should go check and see if she needs any help." Madge said, moving her eyes pleadingly between me and Gale.
I nodded, getting the hint and shuffled through the crowd into the house, leaving my shoes in the back entry. The noise from all the voices outside turned to a muffled echo down the hallway, and I took my time walking through Madge's elegant home. The cold of the stone floor felt comforting against my feet as I traced a line along my path to the kitchen.
As I entered the kitchen I could see Delly struggling with a tray from the freezer. I rushed over and grabbed it from her before all of the jello shots fell to the floor.
"Oh there you are, scared me. Thought you were going to come over to help us set up." Delly said, pushing the stray strands of hair that were falling across her forehead.
"Sorry about that… got caught up in some stuff at home." I said, the image of my father's tree flashing across my mind before I pushed it away.
"Pretty much everyone from our school is here tonight, can you believe it?" Delly asked.
I peered out the large picture window above the sink, seeing the growing number of somewhat familiar faces collecting just on the other side of the glass. Delly cared so much more about those people than I did, so I tried to seem excited.
"You saw that Peeta's here, right? I think he was lookin for you when he got here." Delly casually added, peaking at me as she stirred a large punch bowl.
"I may have noticed him on my way in." I said, trying to sound equally as casual.
Delly gave me a long look before shoving the tray of jello shots into my arms. "Come on, let's get back out there. Unlike you, I don't have boys falling all over me so I'd like to try and find one."
Delly tossed me one last look before marching out to the patio with the bowl of punch. We set the drinks out on a picnic table where Madge had set out several other drinks. I stopped and looked around, noticing all of the decorations that she had put up. Fairy lights hung from all of the trees in the yard, along with lights all over and inside the old barn. A boy from our grade had set up speakers and was acting as a dj, loud music blasting through the red wood. The last rays of the sun lay against the ground in dusty orange streaks, slowly stretching out to the edge of the barn and into the fields beyond.
Madge's giggle broke my gaze, pulling me back into the party. She reached over and grabbed my arm, pulling me over to where she stood with Gale, Finnick and his girlfriend. As they stood talking, I let my eyes wander over the party until Gale's hand on my arm drew me back. He turned so that he blocked me from the rest of the group, and I frowned at the serious look on his face.
"Walk with me." He said, leading me off to a quiet spot near the edge of the pool.
The reflection of the lights on the water danced along the ground. Gale's fingers found the tip of my braid, tugging on it lightly with one hand as his other pulled something from his pocket.
"I keep trying to think of a good time to give you this, now seems as good as any." He said quietly, placing a small bundle into my hand.
I waited a second, feeling the weight of the object against my palm, before opening it. Within a small cloth sack was a beautiful beaded bear hair clip. Two strings hung from the bear, with two small stone bears. I raised my eyes to Gale's questioningly and was startled to see the intensity within his black eyes.
"I don't understand" I started before he interrupted me.
"Well, seeing as you've graduated now I thought I should probably make my intentions clear. I always figured I had plenty of time before I had to worry about all of this, but I think certain other people don't understand what we have between us so I need to claim my territory." He reached out to pin the bear in my hair, but I swatted his hand away.
"Claim your territory? As in me? What the hell Gale! You can't just put a totem on me and suddenly have that make me belong to you. I have a say in this." I said, trying to keep the anger from taking over.
"Oh come on Katniss, you knew this would happen eventually. You've always been mine. One day I'll marry you, and our kids will be bear clan just like me. I don't know why you're fighting this." He said, reaching out to me again.
This time as his arm came by my hair I dodged him, swiftly spinning around so that I was behind him and out of reach. The bear clip fell to the ground between us.
"Where is this coming from? We're best friends our whole lives! Suddenly you decide you're going to marry me and don't even ask me what I think about it? Maybe I don't want to be with you, did that even cross your mind?" Despite my best effort to keep calm, my voice rises above the music.
Gale stepped so close to me that I could hear his ragged breathing. I've never seen the expression on his face before, it was as if I was seeing him for the very first time. His anger radiated off his skin like heat from a fire, I could see it burning in his eyes as he stared down at me. Before I knew what was happening his arms were around me, I felt my back rub against bark painfully as he pressed me into a tree. He grabbed my chin with his hand, trying to pull me to him but I gave him a very loud hard slap across the jaw. Gale pulled back, his lip curled in a half snarl as he panted slightly.
"Get off of me." I shouted before shoving him away from me.
"Where are you going?" He asked, a guilty look on his face.
Instead of an answer I turned and ran down the hill away from the party. The grass felt wonderful beneath my bare feet, each step brought me strength. The stars seemed to be leading me forward, the wind blew beside me, and even the trees seemed to lean in to comfort me. I ran until I couldn't hear the music anymore, until the lights and voices were drowned by the rhythmic sound of my running and the chirps of crickets.
I slowed to a stop beside a great magnolia, taking a deep breath and letting the sweet smell of the flowers surround me. My eyes closed, and I could hear my heart slow it's pounding beat by beat. It felt like an eternity standing there, just listening to the sounds of the earth sing a quiet lullaby to my nerves. The warm breeze, smelling of wet dirt and summer, swirled around my body like a hug. When I finally opened my eyes, I noticed that the sun was gone from the sky, leaving only a small line of pale green on the horizon as inky blue night came in. Lightning bugs came to fill the space beneath the early stars, swaying with the wildflowers.
A twig snapped, bringing my eyes back toward the party. A shape made its way slowly through the field, one lone shadow slipping in and out of the tall grass easily. As they got close enough for me to make out who they were, a small smile spread across my lips. The cautious gait along with the outline of well-developed shoulders and arms gave Peeta away. He slowed to a stop at the edge of the field, one hand holding onto his other arm.
"What are you doing all the way out here?" I asked, stepping forward from under the tree.
In the light of dusk, I could see his face clearly. His brow was furrowed in concern, and there was a pain in his eyes that shocked me. They made me want to reach out and comfort him, though I didn't know for sure why. All of the things that had happened between us in such a short amount of time made me feel like I knew him, yet the boy standing before me was still such a mystery. The one thing I was sure of was that I wanted to be closer to him. My feet moved without my permission, taking a big step closer to him.
"Wanted to make sure you were alright." he said after a moment's hesitation.
I gave a tiny nod of my head yes, and before I had a chance to look up Peeta had closed the gap between us so that he was standing directly in front of me. Our eyes locked, and I felt blood rush straight to my face. I was thankful for the moonlight; Peeta couldn't see the red covering my cheeks just from being so close to him. We stood there, between the magnolia tree as it gently dropped flowers down around us like a curtain. The warm southern night seemed to wrap us up into it; there was something between us that just felt so right.
"I'll be fine. Gale doesn't mean any harm I don't think." I said, trying to fill the silence.
Peeta bit his lip, clearly wrestling with what he was going to say next.
"Did you two break up?" He finally asked.
I held back a laugh. "We were never together; he's been like a brother to me."
Peeta's face completely changed, shock wiping off the frown that he'd been wearing. I could see the gears turning in his mind as he took this information in.
"All this time… man I've been so stupid." He said, shaking his head as he let out a laugh.
I raised an eyebrow at him and he shyly looked down at me with a smile so warm it spread to me. Before I knew what was happening, we both burst out laughing. His laugh was rich, coming from deep inside of him and fluttering up past the trees toward the sky.
As our laughter died down, we stood smiling widely at each other. Peeta looked around before nodding his head toward a fence near the barn. I followed a step behind, watching his form move through the tall grass. He leaned up against the fence, his strong wide shoulders on display in the glow of the lights strung up on the barn. The contours of the muscles in his body seemed impossible to look away from, my eyes roamed across his entire frame. I took my time; there was still enough darkness to give me courage that I otherwise would have lacked. Peeta seemed to grow aware of my scrutiny; I saw the muscles in his stomach flex as he straightened out a bit.
A clearing of his throat drew my eyes back up to his face. Suddenly a thought struck me.
"Why did you all change your mind about me?" I asked, climbing up to sit on the fence.
Peeta cocked his head at me, contemplating his answer. "What do you mean?"
"Why are you suddenly nice to me? We've known of each other all of this time, and you never spoke a single word to me. Now here you are searching through a field to find me in the dark…" I let my words trail off into the heavy air.
There was movement as Peeta climbed up onto the fence to sit beside me. He turned his head up to the sky and stared up, those big eyes reflecting all of the stars. A long moment passed between us, so long that I feared that he was offended by my question.
A small sound came from his throat before speaking. "I've been dying to come up with a clever way to talk to you for years. Years. The moment you walked into that school with your long black braids, nose in the air, I felt this… need to have you in my life. I just couldn't figure out how to talk to you, and then when we got older and you just kept getting more and more beautiful… it got harder to imagine you'd ever want to know me back." His voice came out so soft, I had to lean in to hear.
"You were intimidated by me? You're one of the most popular guys in town Peeta. I'm just some poor outsider." I said, looking at my knees.
"You are so much more than that." Peeta said, nudging his knee against mine.
Something fluttered in my stomach at the contact, making me flush as I looked up at Peeta. He had been looking down at our knees as well, when he looked up a strange emotion flooded my entire body. He bumped my knee with his again, and when I nudged his back and scooted a little closer a smile crept across his mouth.
"So if I was so intimidating, what changed?" I asked, focusing on the warmth of his leg against mine.
Peeta shifted, glancing out of the corner of his eyes at me. Even in the light of the southern moon hanging above us, I could see that his cheeks were colored. A bridge of pink went across his nose and all the way to his ears. His brow furrowed, and again I worried that I had offended him or pushed him too far. Crickets and heat bugs sang out, filling the humid air with music as we sat in silence.
"I don't know how to answer that without scaring you off." Peeta said finally.
The defeat in his voice was hard to take. I turned to him, reaching out and touching his arm. When he looked up at me, there was something deeply sad within his eyes.
"I knew that I'd never see you again after graduation. It killed me, picturing you out there somewhere, going on with your life. Not knowing how much I … care about you." He hesitated before looking back up at me through his eyelashes.
His words reached me slowly; I let them swirl over and over in my head as I tried to digest them. He's cared about me this entire time. So much so that he actually pictured my life without him and it hurt him. The realization of what he was trying to tell me hit me like a ton of bricks.
"Well I know now." I said.
Peeta's brow furrowed further at my words, his mouth falling open slightly. I had the sudden urge to run my thumb over his full bottom lip. He noticed my gaze and very slowly ran the tip of his tongue along his lip, smirking when I took in a quick breath.
"Come here." He said.
Gently picking me up from the fence he spun me around in his arms. A huge smile swept across my face at the action. I slid slowly down his chest until I was standing on tip toes, and grabbed one of his hands while the other held onto his shoulder. His smile was cautious, unsure as he watched me. I began to dance, slowly swaying back and forth in rhythm with the crickets until Peeta followed along. The faint sound of a slow song drifted down to us from the party, making it easier to keep rhythm. As we danced, I rested my head against his chest. His heart was beating so fast I thought surely it would fly straight out of his chest. When I leaned my head up to look at him, Peeta had his eyes closed. There was a look on his face that I couldn't quite register. He looked both at peace and ecstatic, his mouth kept creeping up further and further into a grin.
Peeta stilled as the song finished, his hand moving from my shoulder to the small of my back. His large palm almost completely covered my waist as he gently pressed me closer to him.
Tentatively he reached out a hand to me, and when I didn't pull away he gently grazed the outline of my cheekbone with the palm of his hand. A sigh released itself from deep within my chest at his touch. The hand that was resting against my cheek pulled me forward, and I closed my eyes as our noses touched. I rubbed my nose slowly against his, my breath hitching in my chest as he stilled me with his hands. His lips ghosted over mine, so gentle I wasn't sure if I'd imagined it. My hands slid up to his neck, my fingers finding his hair, and pressed my lips firmly to his. It was the first time I had ever kissed someone; I was surprised by the jolt that went from my lips straight through my entire body to my toes. I pulled back, sure that my hair would be standing on end.
"I couldn't stand the thought of not being with you." He whispered.