"I can see you, you know." I shake my head and laugh as Katniss tries, unsuccessfully, to sneak yet another cheese bun off the plate on the counter.
"What?" she innocently asks.
"You're going to make yourself sick. That'll be your fourth one." I may be admonishing her, but I couldn't be more pleased. I love that Katniss loves my baking, and that we've managed to fall back into such a comfortable banter with each other after only a few days.
"Well, I wouldn't have to sneak them if you'd make enough for everyone."
I laugh out loud in disbelief. "Katniss, I made two dozen and there are only two more people coming to breakfast!"
She smirks. "Like I said. You need to make some for everyone else." She puts the last piece in her mouth and licks her fingers suggestively.
I never want to go through what we endured last week again – being separated and thinking I would never be with her again. But if there is one silver lining that has come out of all that drama, it's that Katniss has lost all hesitation about indulging the physical side of our relationship - showing affection, kissing, holding hands and more. We've barely kept our hands off each other for the last few days, always touching in some way whenever we're together. I could definitely get used to this.
"You could at least save some for me."
She raises an eyebrow at me, then gets an impish grin on her face that I love to see because it usually precedes something I'm going to enjoy. I keep one eye on the omelet I'm cooking as the other watches her tear a chunk off of yet another cheese bun on the plate. But instead of popping that one in her mouth, she saunters over to me at the stove, and raises the morsel to my lips. I start to open my mouth, my eyes never leaving hers, but instead of feeding it to me she caresses my lips with the pastry before slowly bringing it to her own mouth and opening wide as she drops it in. Tease. But before she turns with a smug, satisfied look on her face, I grab her wrist of the hand that had been holding the treat. I bring her fingers up to my mouth, and lick them, slowly, one at a time, extending my tongue as far as it will go.
Her eyes are riveted to her hand, watching me. Once I'm done savoring the taste of her slender fingers, I lean over to her ear before I release her hand and whisper, "I wasn't talking about those buns." She wilts just a bit, and I'm the one who gets to turn with a smug, satisfied look back to the omelet just as the front door opens.
"Hands off you two!" Haymitch bellows from the front door before even setting foot in the house. Having walked in on us two nights ago, he's a lot more cautious now.
Katniss rolls her eyes as she moves the plate of remaining cheese buns from the counter to the table, which is already set for four. The fact that she swipes the rest of what is now her fifth cheese bun while doing so does not escape me.
"Fully clothed and already cookin'. You two must have been up early today."
"Good morning to you, too, Haymitch," I reply.
"Where's Gale?" Katniss asks.
I surprise myself by only slightly tightening my grasp on the spatula. While Gale and I aren't best friends by any stretch, we've managed to move to a friendlier level of interaction with each other while he's been here. The physical attention from Katniss has gone a long way in reassuring me that I don't need to be worried about him anymore, even though I'm pretty sure she didn't intend it that way. One of the things I'm learning, or relearning, about Katniss is that she's very much a "what you say is what you get" girl. She says she's not interested in Gale, therefore she expects the matter is settled. I'm doing my best to accept that, but wonder if a part of me will always feel just a bit insecure about the two of them. I know he's important to her, though, even if she still feels conflicted about how much she wants him in her life now, and I don't want to do anything to take that away from her. We've both already lost far too much that's important to us.
"He'll be along. Said somethin' about the hovercraft and knockin' some heads around or somethin'."
Gale has actually been staying at Haymitch's house while they've been stationed here. That was the compromise they reached after Haymitch scared off two separate patrols stationed at his house, one by himself and one by siccing his geese on them. Gale said that as a precaution either Haymitch would have to stay on the hovercraft with him or he would stay at his house. I'm sure there was more to it than that, but neither of them would give us the full version of what really transpired. We've had two guards outside my house 24/7, most of whom I've gotten to know by name. At first I thought I'd resent having them around, but it didn't take too long before I grew accustomed to the additional faces. They follow me to the bakery while other soldiers stay with Katniss wherever she goes.
"Bet you'll be sorry to see him leave, Haymitch. I think you've enjoyed having a housemate who can actually hold a conversation and doesn't just squawk to get more bread out of you." I can't resist needling him a little this morning – I'm in that good a mood.
"Yeah, well, it takes one to know one, don't it kid?"
I have to bite the laugh that erupts from me at his dig at Katniss' sometimes lacking communication skills and seeming addiction to all bakery products. Her scowl at both of us makes Haymitch guffaw so hard he practically chokes on the berry he just popped in his mouth.
"Aw, don't fret, sweetheart. At least you've graduated from slug to goose."
I can see her about to bolt, so I opt to intervene.
"Katniss, could you help me with these?"
She glares at Haymitch as she comes over and takes a couple plates with omelets for me to the table. There's a knock at the door this time, and in walks Gale.
"Mornin'." He nods to me and gives Katniss a quick, casual hug before sitting down at the table.
"Everything alright? Haymitch said you had to go to the hovercraft this morning." Katniss doesn't waste any time expressing her concern. I briefly wonder if Haymitch's antics this morning were intentional as a diversionary tactic.
I turn off the stove and join everyone at the table now that breakfast is fully ready.
"Actually, everything's fine. Just got off with Beetee." Gale grabs some toast and butter then takes a big gulp of milk.
"And?!" Katniss hasn't moved from the spot she's been standing since Gale hugged her.
He swallows and grins. "It's confirmed – no more mutts. Those were the only two that made it to completion, apparently. They found the rest of the 'attempts' and the missing scientists near District 5 and detained them. It's over."
Instinctively I look to Katniss, and she's already staring right at me. I smile at her, and she returns it, her shoulders visibly relaxing as she does so.
I turn to Gale. "That's great, man. Thank you. For everything." I hold out my hand, which he takes, and we shake. I mean it. I could not be more grateful for his timely arrival and the news that we won't have any more unexpected visitors. He looks me right in the eye – so many unspoken words in one look…
"You're welcome." He releases my hand and looks at Katniss. "We've taken care of your other problem as well." He reaches for some bacon, and scoops an omelet onto his plate.
Katniss glances at me nervously before saying, "Thanks, Gale."
"Care to clue me in?" I have no idea what they are talking about.
Gale looks between us, as does Haymitch. One looks surprised, the other amused. I'm trying not to get suspicious.
Katniss tries to pretend it's no big deal, which immediately makes me think it is. "Yeah, well, when we were out hunting the other day I asked Gale if he could help get rid of some pests in the forest. No big deal."
I turn to Gale, though I have a feeling I know what this is about now. "Pests?"
"Well, not exactly what I would call tracker jackers, but yeah, guess you could call them that."
Katniss is looking sheepishly at me. I suppose she's worried I might be upset about her asking Gale for help.
"And you got rid of them?" I ask Gale for clarification.
"Uh huh. Found three nests in those woods. We took care of them, though, and no signs of any others, so you should be fine now."
There's an awkward silence as Katniss and Haymitch wait to see how I'll react to this news. I suppose I could be upset that they didn't tell me about this, but then again, what does it matter? Just another reason to celebrate, in my opinion.
I look at Katniss pointedly. I hope she feels the same way I do, and I'm definitely going out on a limb here by saying it in front of these two.
"Well, then, maybe we can hike up to that meadow again so I can finish my drawing of it for you?"
I can feel Gale looking right at me as I stay focused on Katniss, awaiting her reaction. Her face is neutral, then breaks into a small smile. "Definitely." I return the smile, and motion for her to take a seat at the table before I sit myself.
"So, does this mean I can finally get your ass out of my house, Commander?" I don't think I've heard Haymitch refer to Gale by name the entire time he's been here.
Gale glances at me quickly, then looks to Katniss. "We leave this afternoon," he says quietly.
Katniss doesn't respond, then looks back down at her plate.
"Where are you headed? Back to Two?" I ask, trying to fill the awkward silence.
"Actually, we'll be stopping at the Capitol to debrief with President Paylor first. Then, I think we may be headed to District Seven. Apparently no one has heard from Johanna Mason in a few weeks. They want us to track her down. Don't suppose any of you have heard from her?"
I'm immediately concerned, but Haymitch is laughing. "Trust me, Johanna will be heard from when she wants to be heard from. Probably out in the forest building herself a nice log cabin as far away from humanity as possible."
His lack of concern is a little reassuring, but I'd still like to know she's okay, and I have a letter I had meant to send her sitting upstairs.
"No, we haven't heard from her. But would you mind taking a letter for her with you? I meant to send it, but it'll probably get there faster with you."
"Sure, no problem."
Breakfast continues uneventfully, until finally it's time for Gale to go.
Haymitch leaves first, taking a new loaf of bread for his flock.
Katniss and I walk Gale to the front door, with mutual assurances between the two of them to stay in touch and call or write with news from now on.
At the door, Gale turns to Katniss first.
"Well, Catnip, I wish it had been under different circumstances, but I'm damn glad I finally got to see you again."
"Me, too, Gale. Thanks again, for all your help."
He hesitates, eyes peering right into hers. "I meant it, you know. Anytime. Anything you need. I'll always be here for you, as much as you'll let me."
Katniss bites her lower lip, and I can tell she's trying really hard not to tear up. Instead, she reaches up and wraps her arms around Gale's neck, pulling him in for a hug. It's definitely weird for me, standing right there, but I try not to intrude.
"I know," she whispers.
They hold each other for a moment, then she backs away, awkwardly wiping her hand across her cheek.
He turns to walk out onto the porch, and I take a step forward as well. When he turns back to face me, I'm surprised by the intensity of his look.
"You take care of her, Peeta. I'm trusting you."
His tone is solemn, filled with unspoken threats, implicated pleas and a resigned acceptance of our respective roles in her life now.
"You have my word." I hold out my hand to him once more.
He looks over my shoulder at Katniss, standing in the doorway watching us, and then back at me. He grips my forearm instead of taking my hand, and nods.
Then he's gone.
(three months later)
"Hey, Sae, I'm about done. Do you need any help?"
"No, no, I'm all good here. You head on home now. And tell Katniss thanks again for that turkey – gonna get a lot of mileage out of that big bird for sure!"
"I will. Have a good night."
I shut off the light in Baker's Dozen and pull the door closed, locking it behind me as I step out into the wintry evening. The snow is coming down in large flakes, adding to the half-a-foot we already have on the ground. Makes it harder to walk from the bakery to home, but I don't mind. I love looking at the way the newly installed street lamps glow on the fresh white mounds around them. And the muffled quiet the snow blanket casts upon the town is comforting and calming, and affords me a good opportunity to just let my mind wander as I walk.
We opened the bakery and café two months ago and I love it. I work six days a week, and Hasmik helps out as well. With training, he's actually taken to baking pretty quickly, and in another few months I think he could actually handle a shift without me. And working right next to Sae all day long has been, in a word, fun. She has a sharp sense of humor, and doesn't hold back her opinion on anything. Listening to her interact with her customers is always amusing and brings a smile to my face. We're pretty much only selling basics – hearty breads and rolls, an occasional cookie or cupcake for a special occasion. Most of the residents in Twelve still don't have much to speak of. But slowly we're starting to see some regular customers, and expect in the Spring to have a whole new influx of newcomers to add to our potential customer base. For now, I'm just thrilled to be able to help ensure that no one in Twelve will go without food this winter. And every Friday I make sure to put out a plate of a special sweet treat – all the kids from the school come over and help themselves. I love seeing their squeals and laughter as they indulge in this small reward for working in school.
Across the square I see Thom and Annaliese hanging green garland on the gazebo and wave as I walk by. They're helping decorate in preparation for our first ever holiday concert in the square. The school children will be singing winter songs they've learned in school, I'm donating donuts, and Katniss, Haymitch and I have all given Nigel Landry money to supply everyone who attends with a cup of hot chocolate. Everyone is looking forward to celebrating together tomorrow evening. After so many bleak winters, those of us here in Twelve now are eager to start some new, happy traditions.
As I make my way up to what was formerly Victor's Village, but is now, thankfully, becoming known simply as Northern Hill, I deeply breathe in the smell of burning wood fires coming from a few of the houses, including ours and Haymitch's. It's a clear night, with brilliant stars shining, cold enough for me to see my breath, and so quiet the only sound is the crunch my shoes make in the snow as I trudge up the hill.
The warm glow of lights from inside the house illuminate the porch and yard, and I find myself stopping to just take in the sight. I know that Katniss is waiting inside, waiting for me to arrive, waiting to tell me about her latest foray into the woods or the newest entry in her plant book. Waiting for me to share entertaining stories about the customers who came in today, or the latest news from town. Moments like this remind me just how hard it is to believe that this is my life now. The girl of my dreams is now the woman I share my day-to-day life with. I have my own bakery, we live in a peaceful country with no more senseless slaughter of innocent children. I'm actually alive, and well, and happy. It's so much more than I thought possible a year ago it stops me in my tracks. It's so far removed from the horrors we endured such a short time ago, it's so normal, that I know part of me thinks it cannot possibly be real.
But I shake that thought loose before it can take hold and make my way up the walk to our porch, stomping my feet and brushing the snow out of my hair before opening the front door and walking inside.
"Katniss? I'm home." I immediately smell something enticing wafting from the kitchen.
"I'm in here!"
I hang up my coat, take off my shoes and walk back to the kitchen. "You cooked."
Since the weather turned colder and hunting has been less and less productive, I have started to show Katniss how to make some simpler dishes. Watching her in the kitchen has been more amusing than appetite-inducing, but I admire her tenacity and determination to learn the basics. She'll never enjoy cooking and baking as much as I do, and I probably derive more pleasure from watching her hair fall apart as she unwittingly rubs flour, sugar, salt and what-not into it as she works than I'll ever get from actually eating what she creates. But we both enjoy spending time together in the evening as we prepare our dinner. Tonight, however, it appears she's taken matters into her own hands.
She turns toward me, a smudge of sauce evident on her cheek, hands covered in what I presume is flour, and cheeks flushed from her efforts.
"I wanted to. I…well, I felt bad about last night, and I wanted to make it up to you."
I had almost forgotten. That's just one of the differences between the two of us that are coming to light as we figure out this new life with one another. As idyllic as my new life may seem, it is certainly not without its own trials. Katniss' temper is still alive and well, and makes a fairly regular appearance. I tend to be more even-keeled, but know that I get on her nerves in my own ways as well. When we do disagree, it tends to stay with Katniss longer, whereas I usually move on fairly quickly.
Last night, I had made a comment about her clothes being all over the bedroom floor. I was tired, and know I didn't handle the situation properly. She had immediately gotten defensive, threatening to take her clothes and herself back to her own house if I was so inconvenienced by them. Unfortunately, I had made a sarcastic comment in reply, knowing that she hasn't slept at her own house in months. We had continued escalating things, stupidly, until I had finally come to my senses enough to talk us both down from what was quickly becoming a full-blown argument. When we had gone to bed, having both apologized to each other, I had let it go and left this morning before she was even awake.
"Katniss, you didn't have to do that. Last night was just as much my fault."
She looks at me with a warning. Right. She doesn't like it when I don't just accept these gestures from her, whether I agree with her perceived need for them or not.
I hold up my hands and smile, "Sorry! Let's try that again." I walk out of the kitchen and come right back in.
"Katniss! You cooked! Thanks so much!"
She laughs at me now, and I relax once more. I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing that. If she had just laughed at my comment last night I would have let her throw as many clothes on the floor as she wanted to.
I immediately take her in my arms, carefully dodging the sauce-covered ladle she's brandishing, and catch her gaze before lowering my lips to hers. I brush them, lightly, relishing every detail about them – small, soft, chapped lips that I never want to stop kissing.
"You can cook for me anytime," I whisper.
She leans into me, parting her lips just enough for the tip of her tongue to lick mine. She tastes of tomatoes and basil.
"Sit down, Peeta, and stop distracting me."
I slide my hands down to her bottom and squeeze, "Only if you promise I can distract you later…" I suggest.
She playfully swats my arm with her free hand and I walk over to the cupboard, grabbing two glasses that I fill with water before sitting down. She's made pasta topped with meat and red sauce – nothing fancy, but quite an accomplishment for her on her own.
We chat through dinner, and I catch her up on the bakery, café and town news. Hasmik works with me in the bakery, and I share with her that he's been spending time with a newly-arrived woman from Thirteen, Jenna. She shares that Haymitch stopped by earlier, apparently after receiving a call from Plutarch Heavensbee talking about doing a "one-year-later" show and interviewing the three of us. She then says she can't repeat what Haymitch told him to do with that idea or what he threatened to do to Plutarch if he tried to make it happen. He stopped by to give us a heads-up in case anyone called us about it.
After we clean up dinner, we sit in the living room in front of the fire, Katniss nestled against my chest and under my arm, playing with my fingers. I am so content, so fulfilled, that I find myself feeling overly emotional. In spite of everything we've both lost, what I've found with her can't even begin to compare to the meager dreams I used to have about us being together when we were young. I can't help but wonder if she feels the way I do about how far we've come.
"Can you believe it's been a year? Some days it seems like only yesterday we were in Thirteen, and some days it feels like a lifetime ago."
She doesn't say anything. I know she's thinking about Prim, though. She's always quiet when she's thinking about Prim. We've only had a couple of conversations about everything that happened – as much as I want to talk with her, I understand that it's about the hardest thing I could ask her to do. I know that over time, as she feels ready, she'll open up to me more and more about everything. So I don't press, usually. But tonight, I'm wanting to know where she is, how she feels about all this.
She surprises me.
"Prim would be happy for me, I think."
It's the first time I've heard her say her sister's name without crying. I'm not sure what to say, but I want her to keep talking.
"You think so?"
She nods. "Yes, I do. She always wanted me to be happy."
My heart skips a beat. I'm almost afraid to ask for confirmation of what she's implying. "And are you? Happy?"
She turns to look up at me, her beautiful face aglow from the firelight, the flecks of color in her grey eyes seemingly dancing as the light in the room flickers.
"Yes, Peeta, I am."
I pull her into me fully, squeezing my arms around her lithe form as I squeeze my eyes shut to hold in the tears of joy that threaten to ruin this moment. I am elated. I never, ever want this to end – Katniss being happy, with me. Without thinking, without realizing I'm even saying it, the words erupt out of me.
She doesn't move, doesn't even breathe. Neither do I. My mind starts scrambling, desperately seeking a way out of this that doesn't result in Katniss running for the hills. I am such an idiot. What have I done? I know how she feels about marriage. I know I've quite possibly just ruined everything. When am I going to learn?
"Katniss, I…" I have no idea what I'm going to say, but I have to get us out of this.
I back away from her. "No, it's okay. I'm so sorry. Please, just don't freak out. I know you need more time, or maybe never. I…it's just. Oh God, can we just…"
I stop rambling at her tone. She's looking at me with the strangest look on her face.
"I'm sorry." I whisper as I pull her back into an embrace. "Please don't be mad, okay?"
I freeze, completely confused by what I've just heard. We're still holding each other, and I'm not sure what to do. I pull back slowly, my hands moving to her shoulders so I can see her face fully.
"Yes, you won't be mad at me?" I breathe. I am incapable of producing anymore sound than a mere whisper.
She smiles at me, a huge, uninhibited smile, and I'm undone. "Yes, I will marry you," she says again, firmly, leaving no room for doubt.
I pull her into me again so forcefully she may not be able to breathe now. As my hand cups the back of her head and tears escape the corner of my eyes, I place my head in the crook of her neck and whisper into her ear, "I love you…so much!"
"I love you, too, Peeta."
A/N - I hope this chapter doesn't disappoint. I know it jumped ahead a bit, but honestly, we're coming to the end of the story. I hope some of you will leave reviews to help inspire me to write a worthy ending! As always, thank you for reading, following and reviewing!