AN* Last chapter! Thank you all so much for reading!

Chapter 18

I've never had much sympathy for most people. They're corrupt- evil. They cause a lot of their own problems and then never want to live up to those problems. They blame it on the innocent people passing them in the street. The small percent of people trying their hardest, trying their best that never make it anywhere because those corrupt people are holding them by the shirt tail. Pulling them back. Hiding them. Snuffing out what little bit of goodness is left in the world. They're a disease that's in every city, town, neighborhood. Just sitting and waiting.

No. I've never had any sympathy for them. They've never given me a reason too. And, now, looking at this person in front of me, I know they never will. But it doesn't matter. Because while there are people like this man, there are also people like the one beside me. I look up at Peeta, his eyes still fixed on his father and brother in shock. He's one of the few innocent people whose been able to avoid being dragged down. But, no matter how many times he moves on or manages to forget, people still have a way of ruining everything for him.

They're the ones who left him and yet they still come back, ready to ask for his forgiveness and welcome them back like nothing happened. And the sad thing is, is that it'll work. Peeta won't turn them away, and I wouldn't expect him too. But, things might go better if they had stayed away. If they had actually taken him into account when they decided to return. If they had actually shown him some respect in the first place. But, of course, they didn't. And they just show up like it's nothing. I'm not really sure which is worse; them showing up or how they showed up.

I look around us, at the group of people staring at us like we're a television show. My jaw clenches in anger. Does anybody have any sense of privacy? I look behind me, standing in tiptoe as I glance over the people behind me. Annie and Finnick are standing in the back corner with Johanna, sharing the same expressions of confusion and concern. Finnick catches my eye, raising a golden eyebrow as he silently asks what's happening. I shake my head, nodding towards the door. He nods, bending down to whisper something in Annie's ear.

"Alright, everyone!" Finnick calls out, holding his hand in the air to gather their attention. "Let's go!"

Everyone grumbles, frowning at each other like their TV's just been unplugged. They shuffle out slowly, whispering and shooting glances back at Peeta and his family as they go. I glare at them all, waiting until they all leave. Finnick, Annie and Johanna are the last to leave, hesitating by the doorway before they finally leave, closing the door softly behind them. As I turn to look back, I pause. Because, there in the corner is Rye, his arms folded as he glares at the floor. He won't even look up. Not that I blame him.

The room is quiet, the air still. The small area seems even smaller as the situation closes in around us. My shoulder brushes against Peeta's arm. I look up at him, his curls messy, his cheeks flushed. I suddenly wonder if he's ever been mad at his family before. Or at anyone. I don't think I've ever seen him mad. But I guess it doesn't matter. We all deal with things in our own way. He just stares at them, as if he's waiting for them to disappear, or vanish or something along those lines. To leave him again.

His dad steps forward slightly, staring up at his son apprehensively. His eyes are just like Peeta's, but slightly darker, his hair less curly. He opens his mouth several times, but each time it closes again, not a sound coming out of it. I watch as his hands ring together, his knuckles almost as white as his face. He looks pained as his eyebrows knit together, his mouth stretching into a thin line. No one seems to know where to start. A thousand questions are running through my head, but I bite my tongue, knowing it's not my place to ask.

It's Peeta who speaks first, his tone unusually blank. "Why did you leave?"

His father's eyebrows rise in surprise, before quickly knitting together again. He looks around, as if the room will answer the question for him. He sighs, his breath shaky. "You know why, son." He says. When Peeta says nothing, he runs an agitated hand through his hair. "Don't make me say it. Please."

"Afraid of losing his favor, eh dad?" Rye asks, his voice cold as he pushes himself off the wall.

"N-no." He answers, stumbling over his words. "You- you know that's not true."

"Isn't it, though? You go to Peeta first because he would be the first to forgive you, right? Just take advantage of him again. It wouldn't be hard." Rye says, glaring at his father.

Mr. Mellark's cheeks flush. "Now, that's not true. You know that's not true, Peeta." He says, glancing desperately at him.

Rye shakes his head I disgust. "Then why didn't you go home first, or to my house?"

"How do you know I didn't?" He asks, his voice rising in anger. "You couldn't possibly know where I went first."

"Because I know you. And I know you would have went straight to Peeta no matter what. Isn't that what you did?" Rye asks, nearly shouting. "Isn't it?"

"Yes!" Mr. Mellark yells, his face burning. "But you know damn well that I would have gone to anyone first!"

"No. That's where your wrong." Rye says. "You knew that if you went to Peeta first that he would forgive you. And you knew that if he forgave you, it would be more likely that the rest of us did as well."

Mr. Mellark shakes his head quickly, his curls bouncing. "No, that's not true." He says stubbornly.

"I'm not an idiot." Rye scoffs. "You're completely delusional if you think anyone would believe that."

His father's eyes flash. "I may have left, but are you forgetting that I'm still your father?" Mr. Mellark yells in anger. He turns to Rye now, his eyes narrowed.

Rye glares right back, scowling. "I wish I could forget! Maybe life would be easier then."

Peeta speaks up again, his voice loud. "Why did you leave, dad?"

"Because I'm weak!" He shouts. "Because I couldn't stand your mother! Because I couldn't stand watching her hit you- over and over again until you bled! I could stand it! I wanted it to stop, I wanted it to! But I couldn't do anything. I couldn't-" He cuts himself off as a sob overcomes him. "You don't know what it's like. You don't know how it feels to watch your children being tortured and being too cowardly to do anything about it. To feel like you failed at the one thing you were supposed to do; to keep your children safe."

Tears are streaming down his face, his eyes desperate, broken. "I couldn't stay." He says, quietly. "I couldn't stand the look in your eyes when you'd beg me to do something. When I knew that I'd disappoint you again. And again, and again. When I knew that I'd lost your love the moment I walked away as your mother hit you. From that very first moment, Peeta." He stares up at Peeta, his eyes red- raw. His face is red and blotchy, wet from his tears. He looks ready to crumble at any moment. He looks like he's at the end of his rope, like that rope will soon slip, and he'll fall, and he'll never know what to do. "I couldn't."

Peeta watches him, silent tears leaving trails down his own cheeks. But his are not tears of sorrow and regret, but tears of pity. I've seen Peeta cry many times sense I've known him, but it's now- in this moment- that I see something change. He's no longer the broken boy he was when we first met. He's had so much pain in his life, so much sorrow that it's almost as if he can't feel that anymore. As if his body wouldn't even register it if he did. He's had so many scars, emotional and physical, that now it's like nothing can harm him. He's stronger now.

"I don't blame you for being weak." Peeta says. "But I do blame you for thinking so little of me. For thinking I didn't love you because of that."

His father looks up, confused. "How could you?"

"There are some people who actually have the ability to forgive." He answers. "And you never seemed to think that maybe you would have been hurting me more by leaving than actually standing by. Because at least when you were there, I still had one of my parents. I still had someone I could to talk to. You were my dad. How could I not love you?"

"It would have been easy."

Peeta's eyes flicker, then he nods, a sad smile curving his lips. "And that's why some things are better left unsaid."

"I'm sorry, Peeta." Mr. Mellark says, using his sleeve to wipe off his face. "I know I don't even deserve to ask for your forgiveness."

Peeta's jaw tenses. "I forgave you a long time ago." He says, for the first time his voice having a slight edge to it.

Mr. Mellark glances up hopefully.

"Did you really come here first just because you thought I'd forgive you first?" Peeta asks, sounding genuinely curious.

His father wipes his face. "Well- Peeta, it wasn't just that." He says, hiccuping as he tries to control his crying.

Rye laughs bitterly. "Right. Of course we'll believe you." He says sarcastically.

"You should. I'm your father." Mr. Mellark says, his voice growing in strength. He looks back to Peeta, who doesn't say anything, frowning.

Tyler still stands at his side, silent like he has been throughout the entire conversation. His eyes are trained on the floor, his skinny arms folded in front of him. He looks awkward, unsure. His father looks at him for help, but he just looks away. It's suddenly obvious that his kids are no longer supporting him. That he's on his own in whatever he does. If he were to beg, none of his kids would forgive him- not even Peeta. And it's from that knowledge that I realize just how badly he's treated his children.

He looks around, trying to find his support. His eyes meet Peeta's, silently begging for help, for forgiveness. But Peeta does nothing. He stares at his father, his brow furrowed, his eyes never wavering. He grips my hand tightly, and I grip it back just as hard. Mr. Mellark's face contorts, his eyes growing wide in shock. The room goes still. With a wild look in his eyes, he reaches down, grabbing a bag by his feet, jerking it into his arms. He looks once more around the room as if he's lost, tears pooling in his eyes and spilling over his pale cheeks.

As he passes Peeta, he whispers, "I'm sorry I wasn't strong like you."

And with that, he leaves the room, tears rolling down his face, and never looks back.

"So he just left? Just like that?" Annie asks in astonishment.

Three sets of eyes stare at me. Annie, Finnick and Johanna crowd around me in the stands, all sneaking glances at the locker room door where Peeta and his brothers are finally spending their first bit of time alone. I had left them alone a few minutes ago, figuring they needed their privacy after being unable to talk for over a year. They had barely spoken to each other after their father left. So I left, gently pulling my hand away from Peeta, who looked slightly panicked but grateful. Just as I was closing the door, I looked back and saw a very brotherly group hug.

Ever since I came out, I had looked all over the arena trying to figure out where Finnick, Annie and Jo went. It wasn't until I saw Finnick stuffing his face with a bag of chips that I found them by the concessions stand. As soon as they saw me, they had pulled me back to the stands, bombarding me questions that I've now answered at the three times each. Annie leans in closer, brushing away her brown hair as it falls into her eyes.

"Yes, Annie. I already told you that." I say in irritation. I glance around the arena, the empty packages of food littering the stands.

"And his dad just happened to find Tyler?" She asks skeptically.

"That's what he said."

"And then just decided to come back?"

"I guess, Annie. I don't really know, I'm not them."

"How the hell did he make it all the way to Atlanta?" Jo asks, looking somewhat impressed. "Without dying."

"Who knows. Lots of bus passes I guess." I say, shrugging my shoulders.

Finnick shakes his head as he pops another chip into his mouth. "A miracle." He says in astonishment. "What were the chances, right? His dad just happens to go to Atlantic were his son ran away to. It's just weird." He says, another chip finding its way to his mouth. Johanna scowls at him, staring at the crumbs around his mouth.

"Well... it's like you said. A miracle." Annie says, looking thoughtfully at the ground.

Johanna scoffs. "That's one heck of a miracle. I don't know, but it seems fishy."

Annie shakes her head, her night green eyes looking around. "Let's be serious. It's not fishy or anything like that. It was lucky of them and Tyler should be thankful that his dad found him."

I frown. "Should he?" Everyone looks at me in confusion. "He ran away." I explain. "He ran away to get away from his family. His parents mostly. And from what I heard, he seems to be doing just fine. He was a little skinny maybe, but other than that... I don't think any of them were too happy to see their dad. They basically said they didn't want anything to do with him anymore." My brow furrows, everyone watching me closely, their own expression thoughtful. "I think they're better off without him. If anything it was good he came back just so they could move on."

"So you think Tyler would have been happier in Atlanta?" Annie asks.

"I don't think it was that." I say, shaking my head. "I think he would have been happy anywhere as long as his parents weren't there. And now it's probably better, because now he has his brothers."

"His dad was a jerk." Finnick says bitterly. "I'm glad they got rid of him."

"Finnick." Annie says, frowning at him in disapproval.

He shrugs. "It's true."

"It's still so sad though." Annie says quietly. "I mean, it's like they don't even have parents now. Can you imagine?" She wraps her arms around herself, smiling slightly when Finnick pulls her closer to his side. "It must be worse, too, knowing you have parents, but knowing that everything went so wrong."

Everyone falls silent, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. Annie's words sink in, the reality of them bitter. The air seems cooler now that everyone has left, the lack of body heat greatly lowering the temperature. Goosebumps form on my arms, and for a second I half expect to see my breath. But then I silently scold myself for being so ridiculous, because I know for a fact that it will take a long time before this gym gets cold enough for that. I guess our conversation had something to do with that. Then I remember something, cursing under my breath.

"Where's Prim?" I ask suddenly, rising from my seat.

"Calm down." Finnick says, pushing me back down. I glare at him. "Effie has her. They were going to leave, but Prim wanted to wait for you. I think they're walking around somewhere."

"I'll see you guys at the gym." I say, standing up as I ignore Finnick's hand on my arm.

"Oh!" Annie says. "I forgot... yeah, we should leave. Now." She gives the other hard looks before the two of them suddenly look anxious, getting to their feet just as fast.

"Right. See you later, Katniss." Finnick says, grabbing Annie's hand and practically dragging her out of the gym, Jo right behind them.

I stare after them, feeling slightly uncomfortable. I already know that nothing good can come from that look that Annie had. They probably have some kind of elaborate congratulations party planned for Peeta. I'm not really sure if I should groan or laugh. Maybe both. But I don't have much time to think about it because Effie and Prim are walking towards me, both wearing identical expressions of excitement on their faces. I frown, watching as they try to hide it unsuccessfully. For some reason, this makes me even more uncomfortable than Annie's look.

I climb down the stands, meeting Effie and Prim halfway through the isle. Prim beams at me, her blonde hair shining brightly under the fluorescent lights. Even Effie, whose whole appearance is already like a neon sign, seems brighter. I raise an eyebrow at them, half expecting them to burst out with some secret or gossip they just discovered. But they say nothing as they continue smiling at me. Prim tries to hide a giggle behind her hand, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. I bite my lip, trying not to let my irritation show as she giggles once more.

"Me and Prim have to get going. She just wanted to say goodbye before we left." Effie says, her voice higher than usual.

"Are you going back to the gym?" Prim asks, her blue eyes eager.

I eye her skeptically. "I have to see mom first." I answer slowly. "Why?"

"Oh, I was just wondering." She says airily, rocking back and forth again.

"Prim, you're not very good at hiding things."

Her mouth drops open in shock as her rocking suddenly stops. She looks up at Effie, her eyes silently begging for help. I smirk. Effie stumbles, brushing off her skirt, adjusting her blouse as she tries thinks of something to say. With no help from Effie, Prim opens and closes her mouth several times, her cheeks turning more and more rosy as each second passes. He grabs one of her braids, tugging on it as she bites her lip, her brow furrowed.

"I don't know what you're talking about." She says finally. Her eyes never leave the ground as her eyes dart from one piece of trash to the other.

"You know that's the worse answer you can give someone to convince them that you are, in fact, not hiding something, right?" I ask, smirking.

"Well- well I don't know what to tell you, because I'm not hiding anything." She says defiantly.

"And my hair isn't brown." I say sarcastically.

She looks up, her eyes twinkling. "You're right. It's more of a dark, chocolate brown. Not just plain brown."

"Prim." I say firmly. "What's going on?"

"Oh, dear! Look at the time." Effie says suddenly, her laugh a strange tinkling sound. Adjusting the hot pink bag on her shoulder, she grabs Prim's hand. "It's time to say goodbye."

"Thank you for bringing her." I say through gritted teeth, my irritation finally showing.

"You're welcome, dear." She says, shuffling awkwardly.

I kneel down in front of Prim. She smiles at me, her blue eyes sparkling from the light. I tug on one of her braids playfully. She giggles, her smile growing even more.

"I'll see you soon, little duck."

She nods, before suddenly her smile fades. "Mom came to visit me." She says quietly.

My hand falls. I stare at her blankly, as if she just spoke in a different language. But I know I heard her. I know what she said... but it doesn't make sense. My mind reels, trying over and over again to see if I heard wrong. "What?" I ask finally, my mouth dry.

"She came to visit me last week." She explains, watching me closely. "She even brought me a scarf."

I stiffen, knowing that I had heard right. For a second my mind seems to stall, this knew information shutting it down for a split second in my shock. Then it picks up again, running twice as fast. Anger builds in me, my fists clenching. This news should make me happy, but it doesn't, because all I can think about is that she waited this long to come and see her. I take a deep breath, ignoring the burning in my cheeks. And suddenly I want nothing more than to take Prim's hand and hide her away. Someplace where she won't get her hopes up every time my mother gets a wild whim to come visit her and doesn't come back for another three months.

"Forgive her, Katniss." Prim says, her eyes silently begging me to understand. But the problem is, is that I do understand. "She's trying. And that's more than she's ever done."

I shake my head. "Prim... you know she gets like this."

"It was different this time!" She says, grabbing onto my hand and squeezing it tightly. "She looked better. Her eyes weren't hollow. And for the first time she actually seemed to see me. Katniss, she's getting better. I know she is."


"Try, Katniss. Help her." She begs.

Her eyes plead with me, so intense and full of emotion that I find myself nodding. She smiles at me, tears forming as she throws her arms around my neck. I bite the inside of my cheek- hard. Effie takes her hand, and the two of ten head for the door, Prim waving goodbye as she goes. I take a deep breath, wishing and praying that, once again, she doesn't get her heart broken over false hopes. It's happened too many times for her to handle it anymore. She's only thirteen. Eventually she'll become immune, but it's usually too late, and I'd rather not have that happen to her.

The door closes behind them with a soft bang. The arena seems strangely empty, as of it's not meant to be this quiet. Footsteps echo behind me, ricocheting of the walls. Quickly, I turn around, my braid flying behind my back. Peeta smiles as he walks over, his eyes slightly red as if he's been crying. His hair is mused, and tangled. His whole appearance looks crumpled. Everything beside his smile, which is the brightest I've seen in a while. He takes me hand, pulling me gently towards the door. I follow him, my brow furrowed.

"Shouldn't you be with Tyler?" I ask.

"I'll have plenty of time to talk to him now. I just wanted to escort you home myself." He says, winking.

"Peeta, I've already told you. I've been going by myself for over a year now. I'm not going to get kidnapped." I say.

"It'd be my luck, and yours, that tonight would be the night a kidnapper was on the loose."

I scowl. "You're going to be one overprotective husband."

He stops suddenly, turning around to stare at me. His eyebrows raise, his mouth slightly open in shock. I stare at him in confusion, before suddenly I realize what I said. My cheeks grow scarlet.

"That's not- I didn't mean... I just meant... you know... in the future." I finish lamely.

We stand there in an awkward silence for what seems like several minutes. You idiot, I think. Way to completely throw marriage into the conversation without even meaning to. Genius.

"Well," Peeta says slowly, a smile creeping onto his lips. "You're going to be one stubborn wife... in the future."

And with that, he pulls me along again, smirking slightly as my cheeks grow even redder. I scowl.

Peeta pulls into the driveway, the breaks squealing loudly as he rolls to a stop, and I flinch. Only the living room light is on in the house, creating an eerie glow on the rest of it. The bare tree in the front scratches against my window like always, that same annoying sound that keeps me up at night. We climb out of the truck, the cool night air brushing against our skin. Only a few clouds are in the sky, barely covering what little moonlight there is. I take a deep breath, breathing in the air that's rarely clear of smog, savoring the clean taste.

As we climb the steps to the porch, they creak and groan, the old splintered wood nearly falling apart. I frown, knowing that any day now those boards are going to break, and it will mostly likely be when I'm on them. I glance over at the house next to ours, at the rotting stairs, and falling shingles. At the old couch sitting in the lawn that's turned green from being left out in the rain. My jaw clenches. This place is a dump as it is, I'm not letting our own house contribute to that. I still have some of my pride left.

I open the door, the handle cold in my hand. The entryway is dark, a small sliver of light falling in from the living room. I look back at Peeta to see him gently closing the door behind us. He smiles slightly, his eyes already roving the area. As we turn the corner to the living room, I stop. My mother sits on the couch, her feet curled up underneath her, a book propped up in her lap. Her hair is combed, pulled back in a messy bun, a few stray blonde ringlets framing her face. She looks up, her blue eyes widening slightly at the sight of me and Peeta.

And for the first time I realize what this must look like. Me coming home in the middle of the night with Peeta right behind me. I shift uncomfortably, my cheeks flushing in embarrassment. I mentally slap myself. I had expected her to be in bed, asleep or staring at the wall like usual. But this, seeing her out of bed and looking so normal for the first time, was definitely unexpected. I stare at her in shock, tugging on the end of my braid. For the first time in over a year, I feel like I've been caught doing something bad. Like I actually have a parent back.

"Who's this, Katniss?" My mother asks, eying Peeta in a mix between curiosity and skepticism. She stands, closing her book gently together.

"Peeta." I say simply, before realizing that that probably doesn't help the situation. "My... um..."

"Boyfriend?" She supplies.

My mouth snaps shut and I nod.

"Oh." She says. "We'll it's nice to meet you Peeta."

"And you Mrs. Everdeen." Peeta says, extending his hand to her, his own cheeks slightly pink. She shakes his hand, smiling in a very motherly fashion that I assume is supposed to ease his nerves. And it does the trick. His smile grows, turning into his usual charming smile.

"I just wanted to check in." I say, feeling as if I'm in a dream. "To make sure everything was okay."

My mother looks down, her smile dropping. "I'm fine, thank you." She says weakly. Then she looks up, plastering a fake smile on her face. "I take it you're not home for the night then."

"No." I say. "I'm going back to the gym. We're having a small party to celebrate Peeta winning his competition." I bite my tongue just in time from asks if that was alright with her. It's not like she's cared before, so why should she now? "We actually need to get going. Did you need anything?"

"No, no. I'm fine. If I need something later I'm sure I can get it myself." She says, folding her hands in front of her, her smile not altogether happy. My brow furrows as I watch her, trying to fix this image with all the other ones I have of her, but nothing seems to fit.

"Well... I suppose I'll see you in the morning then."

"Okay." I say, unsure if that's the right answer. She smiles sadly at me, and something seems to close in my throat. I turn away quickly, barely hearing Peeta's goodbye. As we head for the entryway, my mother's voice calls out again, this time sounding much louder than before.

"I love you."

I freeze, my heart hammering in my chest. And suddenly tears are forming in my eyes, my throat closing. My hand reaches for the wall. It was up until this moment that I had convinced myself that she no longer cared. That she no longer remembered. She was just there, existing, but not living. Not loving. I see my father leaving for work, me and Prim leaving for school, her voice calling out the same three words to us. And it's so much like before, so much like when my father was alive that I can't stand it. A tear falls down my cheek, and I brush it away roughly.

I turn around, almost afraid of what I'll see. But there she stands, watching me anxiously. I want to cry out, to scream and tell her this isn't my mother. That she's been gone for over a year, and she can't just show up overnight. That she should stop acting. That she should just go back to her room, and sleep, and dream and forget everything. To drown in her misery like she always does. To stop bring my hopes up just to shatter them as if it's nothing, as she doesn't even care. But I can't, because something is telling me that this isn't an act. That I won't come home tonight to find that glassy stare back in her eyes.

I want to say something. I want to tell her I love her back, but the words lodge in my throat. I turn back around, nearly throwing the door open in my haste. Cool air brushes against my cheeks as I stumble onto the porch, another tear falling to the ground. Peeta follows right behind me, his hand grabbing my arm to steady me. He holds my chin gently, lifting my face to look at him. The concern in his eyes seems to crack something in my chest, and I sob, grabbing onto his arm tightly.

He wraps me in his arms, pulling me to his chest. I cling on, holding onto my one bit of reality. We stay like that for several minutes, his hand running soothing circles on my back. Eventually I calm down, feeling more ridiculous than ever. I stay with my face buried in the crook of his neck, my arms wrapped tightly around him.

"What a day we've had." Peeta says lightly. And before I can help it, I'm laughing. I pull away, wiping my eyes.

"Do you think we'll ever have a normal day?" I ask between chuckles.

He smiles, wiping a stray tear off my cheek with his thumb. "Probably not. But I like it that way." He bends down, placing a soft kiss to my lips.

"Do you know about this?" I ask, gesturing to the oddly quite gym in front of us. We stand in front of the dirt covered doors, trying to peer into the building beyond. But the dirt is so thick, we can't even make out the front desk. I scowl, knowing that something ridiculous is going to happen. The lights are all turned off, not a sound heard from inside. Peeta shakes his head, his blonde curls bobbing slightly. I sigh, grabbing the handle, ready to get this over with.

The door opens with a screech... and nothing happens. The room is still, the silence stretching over us like a blanket. I close the door behind us, cautiously walking in, half expecting someone to jump out from a corner. The wooden floor squeezes under my shoes, the sound reverberating off the gym equipment. I squint, trying to make out any sign of life. Peeta walks up beside me, his hand feeling against the wall for the light switch. But just as I'm beginning to wonder if everyone went home for the night, the light flickers on.

Cheering erupts from the small group by the back wall, their smiles wide with excitement. Finnick, Annie and Jo all stand in the front, were the same smug look on their faces. A table sits next to them, a small banner sloppily painted with the words 'Congratulations Peeta' hangs off the side. Bowls of different snacks and chips rest next to the bottles of soda. I look around, staring at the different balloons floating around the room in all colors, streamers hung loosely from the ceiling as they almost dangle to the ground.

"I knew this was going to happen." I say under my breath. Just barely, I hear Peeta chuckle.

We walk over to the group. They swarm around us just like they did at the arena, clapping Peeta on the back as they congratulate him, their voices loud and excited. I try to scoot out of the group, frowning as more than one sweaty body bumps into me. But every time I get close to the edge of the group, someone grabs my arm and pulls me back. Finnick smirks at me, his arms crossed against his chest, his green eyes barely concealing his excitement. I glare at him, silently groaning with the knowledge that the surprises aren't over for the night.

And just as I suspected, Finnick walks into the middle of the circle formed around Peeta. The crowd falls silent, all casting eager looks at one another. I scowl, watching as Annie practically bounces up and down. Finnick waits, apparently trying to build up the suspense as he raises a hand in the air to silence the already quiet people. They shift anxiously on their feet, stepping closer. More than once I catch someone looking at me, smiling widely as if they know something about me that I don't. I look back at Finnick to see him watching me as well, a brick forming bit the pit of my stomach.

"While this party is meant to congratulate Peeta on his triumphant win against that beast of a man, Cato-"

"Amen!" Jo interrupts.

Finnick cracks a grin before continuing, his voice low, serious. "There is also another reason for this jubilant gathering of the town's good people."

"And what is that oh village joker?" Annie asks, smirking as Finnick frowns in playful disapproval. The group tries to smother their laughter.

"You must wait, fair maiden. For I, the king of this land, have decided it so. So don't question." He adds. He pauses dramatically, closing his eyes for what seems like a good minute before he opens them again, staring straight at me. I glare at him. "My dear friend, Katniss." He drawls. "It is on this night, this glorious night of triumph and good will, that I present to you-"

"Hurry it up already!" Someone shouts from the back, causing the group to burst out laughing at Finnick's deflated look. I smirk, crossing my arms just as he had earlier.

"Alright, alright." He says. "Bring 'em out!" He shouts to the area of the stairs.

For a second it doesn't seem like anyone heard them. Then, from the shadow of the stairs, I catch a glimpse of hot pink. Effie emerges, quickly followed by Prim and Rue behind her. Then, Haymitch right in the back, scowling. My brow furrows deeply as I look around at Finnick in confusion. They gave me my sister, Rue, Effie and Haymitch? What? I look back over, Prim smiling brightly next to Rue, nearly skipping as they walk over. They stand in front of me, all smiling except for Haymitch, who just glares at me, his silver eyes not quite as hard as usual.

"Do they get to stay for the night?" I ask Effie, wondering why Haymitch would need to be with them for that.

Effie nods fervently, clapping her hands together in delight. "And the next night and the next, and the night after that!" She exclaims, giggling as she speaks.

My eyebrows rise in surprise. "They get to stay for the week?" Prim giggles.

"More." Effie says.

"Will you just spit it out?" Haymitch says gruffly, scratching at his beard.

"Well why don't you tell her, Haymitch. That seems more appropriate."

He glares at the back of her head. "Fine." Then he turns to me. "I'm adopting them."

I stare at him blankly, waiting for the joke. He just stares back, still glaring at me.

"Wait... are you serious?" I ask.

"No, I'm kidding." He says sarcastically. "Of, course I'm serious!" He gestures me forward with a lazy flick of his hand. "Come on. You, too, Peeta."

I turn around just as Peeta emerges from the crowd, just barely watching me from underneath his eyelashes.

"You knew?" I ask in a mix of surprise and anger.

Haymitch laughs bitterly from behind me. "Knew? He was the one who organized it, Sweetheart."

Haymitch sits at his desk, leaning back casually, his feet propped up on the old wood. His boots are covered with dry, caked on mud; some of it flacking off into the desk. For once his office isn't littered with empty beer bottles, the room free from the smell of booze. The dim light casts a yellow glow on his beard, causing the small bits of food and particles to stick out against the dark brown hair. His eyes are hard, as if daring me to say something. I glare at him, wanting more than anything to wipe the smug look off his face.

Me and Peeta stand across from him, waiting for him to talk. I cast a sideways glance at Peeta, watching as he stares resolutely ahead, his hair falling into his eyes. Haymitch smirks as he sees the anger on my face. I scowl, my hands clenching into fists. How could he have thought this was a good idea? How could he even do this without asking me first? How in the world is this going to help anyone?

"Do you even know how to care for kids, Haymitch?" I snap.

"I'll learn." He says simply, leaning back even further.

"You'll learn?" I ask, scoffing "You know that takes time, right? You have to care for them, and watch over them. Be a good influence."

He glares at me. "I have the money."

"But you don't have the influence!" i protest in anger. "You're a drunk, Haymitch."

"I'm working on it, sweetheart." He growls, leaning forward, his finger pointed at me in warning.

"I don't want my sister growing up in that kind of environment."

"And you think that the one she was living in was any better?" He asks harshly. "Use your head."

My fists clench. "She had family there."

"You think she'll spend all of her time here? No, she'll be having daily sleepovers at your house." He says. "Think about it, sweetheart- your sister will be right here in town, right were you work. She'll get to spend as much time with you as possible. You'll see her for birthdays, graduation. She'll be here instead of at some stranger's house halfway across the country. Which would rather have?"

"Here of course." I say in irritation. "But you don't know anything about taking care of young girls. Two of them."

"Peeta's staying here, too. He'll do most of the work."

I look up at him. Of course, he would do just fine with them. He loves kids. "But what about when he starts working, or goes to school?" I ask.

"Hopefully I'll have learned by then." Haymitch says, smiling slightly.

I look between the two of them, my mind unable to fully wrap around what's happening. "How did you guys even work this out?"

"I've known Effie since I was a kid." Peeta says, speaking for the first time. He looks down at me, giving me an apologetic smile. Then it fades as he continues talking. "I was around eight or nine, and one of the neighbors reported seeing us with bruises all the time... kind of like why happened with you and Prim, just minus the bruises. Effie came out to take a look around, but it wasn't until a couple weeks later, and by that time our bruises had healed. She talked to us and I had told her about mom, and how she hit us. But, of course there was no proof so she couldn't do anything.

"She kept checking back for a while, trying to see if she could get anything worthwhile. She never did, of course, and eventually she had to drop it, but she kept in touch." He stops, throwing a quick glance at me. "So when you told me about Prim going to the community home, I called Effie. She's been watching out for Prim, giving her advice on how to act when couples come to see her- like sticking her tongue out."

"So that day we went to visit her..." I say, realizing that it had all been an act.

Peeta nods, looking slightly guilty before he continues. "I've been talking to Haymitch about it for a while now, and eventually he agreed. So on the weekends I took him to the community home to visit Prim. Thankfully, the first night we went, he was feeling compassionate and decided to adopt Rue as well." He says, chuckling. Haymitch glares at him.

"So all those times I saw you guys whispering and the secret meetings in your office- that was all about adopting Prim." I say, feeling slightly irritated, but happy. "Why didn't you guys just tell me?"

"We wanted it to be a surprise." Peeta says, smiling more bright now that he sees I'm not going to blow up on him. "And besides, we were a little afraid of what you would say when we told you."

"You're like a feisty kitten when you're angry." Haymitch says, his eyes crinkling with mirth.

I shake my head. "Why are you doing this?" I ask quietly.

Haymitch looks between me and Peeta, his face serious. "You kids have been through hell and back but, despite everything, you came out stronger than before." He says, his voice strong. "It's kids like you who make a difference in this world. You're fighters. And that's something that has the ability to change the way things are done. You don't know how many people would kill to have that kind of strength. Don't waste it."

For the second time tonight, my throat closes as I stare at this man in front of me. His words echo around my head, and despite the fact that I disagree with him, I say nothing. Because for once, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I think of Prim being so close, about not having to worry is she's safe or cared for, knowing that she'll be just a few minutes away. I brush a tear away before it falls, my cheeks growing red. Haymitch rolls his eyes, his own moist.

I walk around the desk, bending over to give him a hug around the middle. He grunts, pushing me away, but not before I seen a hint of a smile hidden behind his overgrown beard.

"Thank you." I tell him, my voice thick.

"You're welcome, Sweetheart. But just know that this means you'll be working doubles from now on."

I chuckle. "I already work doubles."

"Triples, then."

Me and Peeta sit outside on the curb, our fingers laced together. We watch the shadows moving back and forth through the alley, their shapes running back and forth. Inside the party is still going, the sound of laughter and cheering drifting out from the open door. I look behind us, watching as Prim and Rue dance with Annie and Jo, their faces flushed, their eyes bright. Finnick, Rye and Tyler are all hanging around the boxing ring, cheering and hollering, watching as Thresh and Gale fight.

I smile, feeling for the first time since we moved here, that everything is going to be all right. Like for once, the next day won't be filled with darkness. Like for the first time the sun has broken through the clouds. Like everything has reached its breaking point, where the only option left is recovery. It feels peaceful, calm. Peeta wraps his arm around me, pulling me in close to his side. I let my head rest against his shoulder, closing my eyes as I soak up as much of this serenity as I can.

The breeze drifts by, chilling the heat on my cheeks. Cool.

"Thank you." I say quietly. "For helping me."

"I love you, Katniss, and I'd do anything to help you." He whispers, his breath tickling my ear. My stomach seems to erupt in butterflies, and I pull away to look him in the eye. They watch me closely, waiting to see my reaction. I smile, leaning over to kiss him.

"I love you, too." I whisper against his lips. He kisses me back, pulling me impossibly closer, his hands wrapped around my waist as mine slide around his neck. I shiver, my cheeks regaining the color I'd lost, as my chest seems to burst. We pull away, our faces inches apart. He laughs blissfully, hugging me back to his chest. I couldn't keep the smile off my face even if I tried. And I don't. Because there's no point in hiding anything.

"Do you believe in fate?" He asks, his voice quiet.

I look up, his eyes that same bright blue I'd see on the first day I met him. He smiles, and I smile back.

"I do."