A/N - Here's a little Thanksgiving gift for you all! My husband's on vacation this week, so lots of family time and little writing time, so I know I won't finish the one-shot at the quality I'd be happy with. I'll just leave this story incomplete and update with an alert (don't worry, I'll take it off after a couple days!).
Here we goooooooo! It's bittersweet to bring this baby to an end. But I love seeing a project come a completion. Hopefully we can take another ride together in a sequel… crossing fingers!
Disclaimer – I do not own the Hunger Games, its characters, or ideas. I wish I did so I could meet Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence. But instead, I must settle for using them as my virtual puppets.
Chapter 21: The Morning After
It had been nearly a month since Gale's arrival and Peeta's and my – for lack of a better word – break up. Peeta and I hadn't seen or spoken to each other since that incident. I saw him once at Seneca Crane's trial when I showed up the day the verdict was being delivered, but he was sitting up front behind Haymitch, and I watched with my mother from the very back of the courtroom. I doubted he even saw me there. I wasn't really there to see him anyway. I just felt the need to find closure with my involvement in the situation. And I suppose I did care about what would eventually happen to Haymitch and Peeta.
The trial and investigation didn't last long. It turned out, the evidence in the folder was pretty incriminating as far as motive and opportunity goes. What wasn't documented in the file was easily traced as the investigators followed the paper trail. Apparently, he had taken Haymitch's investment and hid it in an offshore account. Shortly after, he started the Cornucopia Project in order to launder the funds through the charitable foundation. Due to the overwhelming evidence against him, he eventually changed his plea to 'guilty' and hoped for some kind of bargaining. Crane was officially indicted for embezzlement and money laundering and sentenced to five years in prison; however, due to his guilty plea, he may be up for parole in as early as one year.
After Seneca Crane's assets were liquidated to pay his attorney fees, Haymitch was subsequently recompensed for his previous losses. He was generous enough to designate the money that was donated to the Cornucopia Project towards its intended purpose – funding performing arts in local schools – but he still made out pretty well. At least, he had more than enough to leave his job and his home at the Sunset Shores Country Club, taking Peeta along with him.
That was the last I had heard of either of them. When the trial came to a close, my mother felt badly about having given Haymitch and Peeta such a hard time. Once she was enlightened about the nature of the situation, she understood their secrecy. She sympathized with Peeta's need to look out for his uncle, even going as far as to say that his protectiveness was reminiscent of my own. It was a relief to have her thaw out towards him, but it was really inconsequential at that point.
Gale moved into his on campus dormitory at USC. He chose to major in mechanical engineering – an ambitious feat for a staunch football player, but he said he wanted to have a useful back up plan in case getting drafted after college didn't pan out. He was keeping very busy, so I wasn't seeing much of him either except for his once-a-week visits for dinner.
Gale and I still hadn't discussed the 'incident' before I left for California. It was the big proverbial elephant in the room that we both knew we'd have to address sooner or later, but we had an unspoken understanding that it simply wasn't the time. We needed to rebuild our relationship – make up for lost time and reestablish ourselves in our new setting. Our bond still felt too unstable to start dragging the skeletons out of the closet.
Besides, I was certain moving across the country was going to be a big game-changer for Gale, similar to the way it was for me. Maybe he'd meet a girl in college, fall in love for real, and he and I could just go on being what we were best at. I figured it would be better to let him spread his wings and immerse himself in the independent college experience, before opening up that subject of him and me.
I never told him the extent to which I was involved with Peeta. Judging by the look in Gale's eyes, he probably had his share of suspicions, but it was easier to mask without Peeta around. Or at least it was easier for me to keep a façade with Gale without having to worry about Peeta's feelings about him. Maybe Peeta's disappearance spoke louder about his significance than his presence did. I couldn't be sure what Gale's hunches were since that was another topic from which we made sure to stray.
As for my family, we spent an extra week at the club before we made the move to Victory Village, a "cookie cutter" neighborhood dotted with similarly designed stucco houses capped with clay tile roofs. My grandparents owned a rental property there and, as a concession, my mother agreed to pay them rent to live on our own.
The house was big enough to fit three of our old apartments inside of it. There were four large bedrooms, so Mom, Prim, and I each got our own quarters while the fourth stayed vacant. Initially, my mother offered the downstairs bedroom and bathroom to Gale, but between his work, school, and football schedule, he felt it was more convenient for him to live on campus – much to my own relief.
Our house was sparsely furnished with some extra items my grandparents had and a few we bought ourselves, but generally, it still felt too big and empty for my taste. On the days our mom was working, it felt even more overwhelming. Despite our new arrangements, Prim and I would often wander into the other's room at night and sleep together. Even though we were used to our mother's busy work schedule, we had always had the hustle and bustle of club guests to keep us company. The new living situation felt far more isolated and no less temporary. I knew it would take a while before it felt like a permanent home.
I decided to contribute some of the money I had saved up from lifeguarding to purchase a used car so Mom wouldn't have to take the bus to work and, once I learned to drive, we'd have a way to get around town. In the meantime, my days consisted of sitting at home, watching television or playing board games with my sister, waiting out the last few days before school started. Prim, of course, quickly made friends with the other neighborhood kids, but the only time I went outside of the house was to water the lawn or check the mail.
The thing about these newer home developments was that a dozen houses shared a common mailbox. Ours was about three houses down, so on one particular day, I slipped the small key into my pocket and headed down the street to collect our mail. I didn't expect much besides the usual store advertisements and coupons. I opened the box marked '12' and, as expected, junk mail. A breeze came up and blew a back-to-school postcard out of my hands, sending it into a crevice in the neighbor's fence. I chased it down since it was probably the single item in the mail that was of any relevance.
It was nestled in a thick bed of dandelions, which gave me pause. I vaguely remembered Peeta telling me that dandelions were hard to find here, but even more rare in a neighborhood characteristic of perfectly landscaped and manicured lawns. Certain the homeowners wouldn't mind my taking some of their weeds, I took a handful and gave it a gentle tug to loosen them from the earth. I stood there a minute brushing the dirt from their roots and admiring the sunny faces.
"I keep telling the kid to pull out those stupid weeds, but he insists we keep them," a grumpy voice bellowed at me from the other side of the fence. "I'll be damned if the Homeowner's Association starts badgering me about 'em."
My heart skipped a beat as I dared to lift my gaze to him.
The smug drunkard was reclined on a patio swing, already throwing back a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels.
"Hey, Sweetheart," he slurred, staggering down the walkway towards me. "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"
Did he just say what I thought he said? "You live here?"
"Yup! Closed escrow a few days ago. Personally, I thought this place was a dump, but my beloved nephew convinced me to downsize my lifestyle until I got 'back into the game' or something to that effect." Haymitch braced himself on the fence and grabbed hold of the stack of mail in my hands and sifted through them. "Ahh… so the Everdeens are our not-so-friendly neighbors, eh?"
I winced and took a step back to avoid the acrid smell on his breath. "So where's Peeta anyway?" I asked, afraid to sound too eager.
Haymitch waved his hand dismissively. "He's got that community service to fulfill. Didn't quite get off as scot-free as you."
"I should go." I snatched my mail back from his possession and turned to go home.
"You could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve him," he called after me, effectively stopping me in my tracks. "He's too good for people like us."
"Like us? I didn't realize you and I fell into any common categories."
"Sure we do, Sweetheart. You know, cynics that spend our lives screwing up everything good that comes along. Afraid to have what you want because you think it'll all go away…"
"You only believe that because you're a drunk," I said, rolling my eyes at him.
"No, I'm a drunk…" He gulped back his urge to vomit before continuing. "Because that's what I believe. Don't get the two mixed up."
"I'm nothing like you, Haymitch," I spat, my tenacity wavering.
He took a swig of his whiskey. "I hope not. Peeta deserves a lot better than that."
A familiar rumble of an engine grew closer when Peeta's red jeep pulled up and maneuvered into the driveway. My fight or flight reflexes were at a complete malfunction, and I couldn't decide whether it would be better to stay and try to make amends or go back into hiding. Before I could make my stealthy getaway, however, he was already dismounted from his car and heading in Haymitch's and my direction.
"Katniss?" he eyed me curiously.
"Hey, Peet!" Haymitch called out and pointed the butt of his whiskey bottle at me. "Look what the cat dragged in!"
Peeta approached tentatively, as if afraid I'd bolt if he advanced too quickly. "What are you doing here? How'd you know where to find me?"
"Oh, this is a good one," Haymitch said, amused. "You're going to love this, Peeta."
Peeta and I both glared at Haymitch, hinting at him to shut up or leave. Thankfully, he opted for the latter and excused himself to go back into the house under the guise of needing more liquor. Peeta and I were left standing awkwardly at the edge of the yard, waiting for the other to initiate the dreaded conversation.
"So…" Peeta began.
"So… how's community service?" I asked, treading in neutral territory.
He hiked the strap of his backpack higher up on his shoulder. "It's cool. I really like it actually. Hard to believe it's supposed to be punishment."
"Really?" I asked with genuine interest. "You're not just picking up trash on the side of the highway?"
"Nah." He scrunched his eyebrows still avoiding contact with my gaze. "I'm volunteering as a Big Brother to this little 8-year-old boy, Jax. Cool kid."
"Cool." I felt so stupid just standing there, not knowing what else to say. Naturally, I'd want to dispense accolades about Peeta's generosity and humanity, but it just didn't seem like my place anymore. "Umm… congrats," I said awkwardly. "On the trial. And the house, I guess."
He scratched his head nervously and shrugged. "Haymitch probably deserves the congratulations. They're both his windfalls."
"Yeah, but he's got you to thank for both." Peeta simply replied with a nod. I kicked a pebble with my toe. "So it turns out, we're neighbors again."
His face lit up for a split second before returning to its impassiveness. "We are?"
"Yeah, we're just renting a few doors down. Crazy coincidence, huh?"
"I don't really believe in coincidence," he answered. "But yeah, that's pretty crazy."
I understood what he meant about coincidence. Not that I was normally one to put much faith in fate or providence, but even I had to admit that we had both come a long way – in both time and distance – and had our paths cross far too many times to be random.
"Well, you know what I mean." Another uneasy silence followed. Peeta was usually the one who carried the conversations and he always did it with ease. Now I was burdened with the conflicting impulses to both excuse myself as quickly as possible and prolong the conversation as long as I could.
"You got to stay for the harvest after all," Peeta said cryptically.
"The dandelions." He pointed to the small bouquet in my hand. "You said you wouldn't be around when the seeds spring up, but you are." He shrugged to show his nonchalance. "I'm glad."
"Oh." I looked down at the flowers then back towards his house. "Is this where you found the one you gave me?"
"Yeah." Again, the awkward hush. "Well, I should head inside," he announced. "Make sure Uncle Haymitch hasn't drowned in his own puke or anything."
"Eww." I grimaced at the imagery. "Alright. I guess I'll… see you around?"
"Yeah, I'll see you." He turned to walk towards his house then back to me. "Hey, if you need a ride to school on Monday… I usually leave around 7:30," he offered. "I mean, if you want."
"Thanks." I smiled back at him. "But I have to walk Prim to her first day."
"Alright," he replied simply then turned again to walk away.
"Maybe Tuesday?" I called after him when he'd already reach the front door.
Peeta nodded before disappearing into the house.
I thought about the summer we had. It went by like a blur and was just now coming to a close, but it seemed like a lifetime ago. It all began 2,300 miles away from where I now stood in a place where I was comfortable and complacent. I had a best friend and a memory of a boy who saved my life, and that was all I needed.
The unexpected journey I had undergone these past four months brought a dichotomy of fondness and regret. It pushed and challenged me beyond my comfort zone, often leaving me to wonder who was staring back at me in the mirror. I wrestled with keeping my integrity, but also realized that change wasn't all bad.
In the end, my fears won out. My fear of change. My fear of not recognizing myself. My fear of not being in control. My fear of disappointing people. My fear of investing in something I cannot keep. My fear of having to care about anyone else but my family. My fear of not building my life on the foundation I had spent five years laying down.
Who I am and all I've done has been for one purpose - to survive. It's strange to think that after one summer, I was at a crossroad in my life. Not to decide who to choose, rather, what to choose for myself – to simply survive or to live.
When I look at the dandelions in my hand, I think that maybe there's still that promise of life, a minute chance, a tiny ember of hope. And maybe, just maybe, that sliver of hope is the only thing that is stronger than my fears.
A/N: Okay, NOW you can all throw your rotten veggies at me! Yes, THAT'S how I ended it – wide open for a sequel, but resolved enough that it can be left at that. That's how THG ended, right? Not with Katniss choosing, but wondering. That was just enough to give the audience hope. And like Snow said in the film – it is the only thing stronger than fear. :) Gotta entice you to stick around for a Part 2!
Anyway, this chapter was so titled "The Morning After" which I'm sure you've realized is not literally the morning after the last chapter ended. The figurative sun set on their summer. It's come to an end, but the end of one day marks the beginning of another. So there's always a morning after to start anew. This will also be the title of the eventual sequel. More likely than not, it won't go up until after the holidays. Hopefully that'll give me enough time to brainstorm, write a couple chapters, and, well, have a life.
Don't forget to add me – Janerey – to your Author Alerts if you want notification of the sequel! (*EDIT - Sequel is now up! The Morning After)
One last time for old time's sake – give me your review! What did you think of the ending? Be honest… but gentle!