Chapter 38: Long Way Home

(Katniss POV)

The last day at Camp Panem had finally come.

Katniss sat up in her uncomfortable cot and cracked her back, looking around the room. Several of her bunkmates were already up and moving around, packing the last of their things before leaving. She caught Rue's eye from across the room and gave the younger girl a mournful wave. Her body ached slightly from the previous night's activities on the soccer field and she had to bite back a small smile as she threw back her covers.

"Worst day of the summer," Johanna muttered under her breath, dragging her feet as she made her way to the bathroom. "Can we please all promise to come back next summer? Or visit?"

"I'm definitely coming back next summer!" Delly announced happily, her blonde curls bouncing.

"Said the girl who bitched all summer about mosquito bites," Johanna snapped playfully.

Delly rolled her eyes as she shoved the contents of her underwear drawer into her suitcase. "Okay, well…next year I'll know to pack accordingly," she grumbled.

"I'm coming back for sure. Where else could I go that no one knows or cares who my dad is?" Madge laughed.

Katniss grinned at her as she walked over. "Are you riding home with Gale today?"

"Yeah, why?"

Madge sighed. "Please convince him to visit me. I think he wants to date this fall, but…if he changes his mind, I swear I'll die. Will you give him this letter?" she asked timidly, holding out an envelope.

Katniss gave her a confused glance. "Aren't you saying goodbye to him?"

"Yeah, but…my dad is sending a car up to get me and just in case, I didn't want whoever it was to see me hugging and kissing some guy and go tell my dad."

Katniss frowned. "Are you embarrassed of Gale?"

"No!" Madge said quickly, "But I do want to keep our thing a secret. I think you know about those, right?"

Katniss' expression softened. She knew how it was to not be ready to tell anyone about a relationship because of how it might be received. Her frustration quickly bubbled down. "Yeah, I do. I get it."

Madge exhaled slowly. "Thank you, Katniss."

"You're sure?"

"It doesn't have anything to do with Gale. If my dad knows I have a boyfriend or someone I'm even talking to, he'll make my life a living hell. He has connections that could seriously get me into trouble at school. I could be put on daddy-lockdown if I'm not careful. So…secret romance for now. You and Peeta did it."

"Yeah, we did. It was hot," she laughed quietly. Katniss took the envelope with a sigh and shoved it into her purse to give to Gale later. "I'll give it to him," she said, giving her friend a hug. She liked Madge a lot and hoped that it worked out between them. She didn't want to see Gale get his heart stomped on by some rich girl. So far though, Madge had exceeded her expectations.

"Thank you."

"You got it," she smiled.

Rue walked up to her next. "Promise you'll come back next summer when I'm a real counselor?"

Katniss nodded. "I'll try. I can't imagine spending summer anywhere else. And keep me posted about Thresh, ok?"

Rue smiled. "He promised to come visit me on his fall break."

"Good," she laughed. "Keep that boy in line."

Before she knew it, she had finished packing and so had her bunkmates. As they walked outside, they saw that Haymitch had put a small trailer on the back of his golf cart and was taking their luggage up to the main parking lot. Katniss sighed as she realized she was finally leaving Camp Panem. Her heart panged with pain as she spied Peeta up ahead walking next to Gale and Finnick. He was talking and laughing with his friends, but she could tell there was a forlorn haze to his eyes.

Today was the day she would finally leave him.

He would go to his home and her to her own and they would be separated for at least a month. With his school commitments and her limited funds and transportation, there was no easy way for them to see each other until at least September. It was only the middle of August.

September felt like it was so far away it made her want to cry.

She rested against one of the posts of the Mess Hall and watched as the counselors that had driven up for the summer load their cars up. A small bus was taking some of the counselors to the bus station in town for those who didn't, which included Peeta. She watched as he sat his large duffle bag and backpack down next to the bus and walked over to where she stood pouting.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and placed a short kiss on her cheek. "You're cute when you pout, you do know that don't you?"

Katniss wriggled in his grasp and laughed. "Shut up, I am not. And I'm not pouting."

"No, you really do. You're cute when you pout. I love the way that lower lip sticks out," he whispered, pulling her tighter against him. She laughed and let him plant another wet kiss on her cheek. "I can't wait to see you pout on Skype and tell me how much you miss me."

Katniss stilled in his arms and looked at him sadly. "It's not going to be the same, is it?"

For the first time in a long time, a spark of fear ignited in his blue irises. "Yeah, it will be. Maybe. I don't know."

Katniss stared at him, searching his eyes for doubt. "I don't want things to change that much. I don't want things to change at all between us actually…"

"They won't. I love you, Katniss. That's all that matters. You're…you're it for me and I know it. People make it work, people who know."

She sighed. "But sometimes distance takes care of that for them and they just…don't. What'll we do then?"

"It won't. When things are hard I'll just…jump in my car and come to you, okay? It's an hour."

"And an hour back," she reminded him.

"I don't care, it's worth the drive. An hour is worth the drive for our relationship. You're always worth the drive to me, okay?" he asked, holding her cheeks in his hands. She blinked back a tear.

"Thank you," she mouthed, her voice suddenly not working.

He kissed her forehead and hugged her to his chest. She could tell people were getting ready to leave for good and they would have to hurry their goodbyes up. She just wasn't ready.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to saying goodbye to you," he murmured against her hair.

She looked up at him. "Hopefully someday we won't have to."

He grinned through misty eyes nodded. "Right. But for now…I'd better get going. Besides…we said our goodbyes last night, remember?" he asked mischievously.

Boy did she ever. The night before had been something she wouldn't soon forget, both physically and emotionally. "Tell me about it," she said quietly. "I was sore today."

Peeta winced. "I'm sorry."

She shook her head and sighed, wrapping her arms around his torso. "No, don't be. That's the best kind of…soreness," she giggled. "I'd better get going. Looks like Gale is ready to go, so…"

"Yeah, that bus looks like it's ready to leave too. Can I call you later?"

She nodded, handing him a piece of paper with her school email and home phone number on it. "I don't know what dorm I'm in this year yet, so I won't know that number for a few weeks. I can maybe get to the library and email you when I get it? Or I guess I could call from my home phone if I keep it short."

Peeta sighed and tilted his head to the side. "Suuuure I can't offer to buy you a cell phone?"

Katniss' shoulders slumped. "That's so…sugar daddy-ish though, isn't it?"

Peeta let out an exasperated sigh. "If it's our only way to communicate, then yes. I'll be your sugar daddy Katniss."

She laughed with him as they made their way down the Mess Hall steps. Gale gave her a wave from his truck and she nodded to let him know she had seen him. "Well…I'll think about it," she said. Peeta pulled her to him for one last hug.

"I love you, okay? That's enough."

"I think so too," she said quietly.

Ignoring a few lingering glances from the other counselors who were saying their goodbyes, she pulled Peeta close. He smiled down at her before letting his lips mold against hers in a searing kiss. She laughed against his lips as he attacked hers again and again in one last lingering goodbye.

"I love you, Katniss Everdeen. These weeks will fly by and we'll see each other again it will just be like…fireworks. Okay?"

She nodded, still reeling slightly from his passionate kiss. "Fireworks. Right."

He grinned and gave her another sweet kiss. "Call me tomorrow when you can, alright? Or maybe tonight? I'll just…I'll have my phone on me, I swear."

She nodded and bit her lip with uncertainty. This was the part she had been dreading ever since the first 'I love you'. This was the goodbye.

"I'll see you…soon," she choked out. "Soon."

"Right," he echoed. "Soon."

"Hey Catnip! We gotta go, his bus is leaving!" Gale called over the noise.

She nodded and quickly pressed one last kiss to Peeta's lips. He groaned quietly and kissed her back, his eyes fluttering open as they broke apart. "I love you," she whispered.

"Love you too," he mumbled sadly, holding onto her hand until the last second. Their fingers finally slipped apart and it was done. She was leaving.

She climbed into Gale's truck and slammed the door. He looked over at her before starting the old truck up but didn't say a word. Katniss gazed out the open window and bit her lip to keep from crying as the truck jolted into gear and started rolling. She could see Peeta's bus behind them in the rearview mirror as they made their way down the gravel drive to the camp. It grew smaller and smaller until they finally pulled out onto the main road.

Summer was gone.

"You'll be alright," Gale said, patting her leg.

"Will I?" She asked quietly. "I don't feel alright."

"You'll miss him a bit, but….it'll get easier Catnip, I promise."

She turned her head to look at Gale as he drove down the winding country road. "Will you miss her?"

"Madge? Already do," he said sourly. "But I can't change that. I wouldn't take this summer back for anything."

"I wouldn't either."

"Oh, that reminds me," she muttered, grabbing the letter out of her bag. She tucked it in his glove box for later, knowing he wouldn't want her to read it to him. Gale was private like that.

"Reading material for later," she said softly.

He snickered as he rested an elbow on the open window. "So I guess you had a good summer then?"

"Of course I did, why would you ask that?"

Gale laughed louder, his shoulders easing out of their slump as the mood in the cab grew lighter. "Well I seem to remember a Miss Everdeen sitting in that same spot two months ago saying, 'Oh Gale, maybe I shouldn't have signed myself up for this!'," he laughed. "You sure changed your tune."

"I know I did. I wouldn't take this summer back, no."

And she knew she wouldn't.

What had started out as a simple summer job to conveniently get Prim away from home and all of her problems had turned into something more. It had been a chance for Katniss to break away from her normal routine and come alive- she had learned to love that summer, plain and simple. Of course she loved Prim and Gale and her family; but not the way she loved Peeta. No, she had learned an entirely new kind of love that summer. The selfless kind that mad one put their heart out there to be stomped on, but left them trusting the other person not to.

She had gotten more than she had originally bargained for, that was for sure. What had started out as a summer job had ended up being the summer that had changed her life. She had come up to the mountain to ensure her sister have the summer of her life; instead, she had gotten that as well. She had no idea that two months could have that effect on her. But it had.

"One heck of a summer," Gale muttered.

Katniss gazed out the window, wondering what was in store for her that winter. She had no way of knowing what the future would bring, but she felt she was ready for it. "Yeah. One heck of a summer."


The Cruel Summer sequel 'Shades of Winter' will be posted on 11.13.12! Add me to your alerts!

Wow, emotions as I end this story. Holy crap. I had an epilogue planned, but I'm still on the fence about posting it. Did this wrap it enough for you all or would you care to see it? Still not sure...

Thank you all for supporting my first venture into HG fiction. I love you all.

I'd love to hear from you all as this is the last chapter - this took a lot of time to write, so I would love to hear your thoughts.