a/n: Thank you so much to everyone who's been waiting so patiently for an update to this story. Your reviews, follows, and favorites (and your patience!) mean more to me than you could possibly know.
A special thank you to Court81981, MalTease, Deathmallow, and SponsorMusings for prereading sections of this chapter for me and for their endless support throughout.
My outline tells me that there are about three chapters remaining after this one. My personal life will be getting much busier very soon (all good stuff, fortunately) and so I am very motivated to have this story finished ASAP. Or at least before the end of the summer. Here's hoping I can make that happen. :)
August 1938, Brooklyn, New York
It's nearly dawn, and the first weak rays of sunlight are beginning to filter into Haymitch's flat through the slats in the vertical window coverings.
Peeta stretches and yawns. He's awake at first light, just like always. He doesn't have a job to go to yet of course. But after a lifetime of waking with the roosters Peeta knows he will never be rid of this particular habit.
He has a slight crick in his neck from sleeping in one position for so long. Haymitch's couch is certainly no bed. But it's also a hell of a lot more comfortable than those hard wooden planks that served as both pillow and mattress on the ship that brought Peeta to America, and last night's was the best night of sleep he's had since leaving Frankfurt.
The weather was stifling yesterday when they finally arrived at Ellis Island after ten days at sea. The hot, humid summer air hit Peeta in the face like a furnace blast the moment he and Primrose, their sweaty hands clasped tightly together, stepped off the boat.
He can already tell that today will be another hot day. His hair is sticking a little to his forehead even though his pocket watch on the table next to him shows it's only a little after five in the morning.
It's also going to be a very long day, given that he doesn't plan to return to Haymitch's flat until he finds work.
But neither heat nor fatigue really matter much to Peeta anymore.
Peeta crosses over to the small kitchen window and pushes aside the dainty curtains that he knows, without even having to ask, must be Effie's contribution. He peers out, and marvels at the fabulous view of most of Brooklyn that Haymitch has from his kitchen.
Off in the distance, jutting up from the horizon, Peeta can just make out the outline of those famous skyscrapers that, before yesterday, he'd only read about in school and in letters from Delly.
They're only shadows and angles from this distance in the early morning light. Even still, the very sight of them makes his heart race.
He wonders where he'll find the job that will help him make a home for Katniss once she finally joins him here. Will it will be here, in Brooklyn, close to Haymitch and Delly and Thom? Or will it instead be on one of the topmost floors of one of those magnificent tall buildings across the water?
Peeta is so lost in thought that when Effie comes up behind him and places her manicured hand on his arm, he jumps, completely startled.
"You've just travelled across the ocean, dear," she chides him gently in German. As if he didn't know that already. He can tell by the slight frown on her face that she disapproves of him being awake at this hour. "You really should still be resting, don't you think?"
Effie's already all made up, with giant pink curlers in her hair. She's wearing a big fluffy bathrobe that dwarfs her petite frame. Peeta can't help but feel disdain towards her; she's so naive and so privileged.
But he tries to temper his annoyance, because he knows that the only thing Effie is truly guilty of is having been lucky enough to be born in America.
"I can't rest," he says back to her in English. Peeta never wants to be reminded of Germany again and plans to speak English, and only English, from now on.
"You poor thing," Effie tells him, picking up on his language switch and switching to English herself, her frown deepening. The sympathy he hears in her voice grates on his nerves, even though Peeta knows it's sincere, and he turns his back on her to look out the window again.
"I need to find work today," he says. "I can't rest right now."
"I think it can wait a few days Peeta." She touches his arm again, and he yanks it away from her.
He turns to face her, and he can feel his eyes grow hard.
"No," he barks at her without really meaning to. He winces inwardly at the harsh tone of his voice. "I can't wait a few days."
If he rests in Haymitch's comfortable flat while Katniss is still in Germany, hiding God only knows where, he'll go mad.
To his relief, Effie doesn't press the issue. She retracts her still-outstretched arm and folds both arms across her chest.
"All right, dear," she capitulates, nodding a little. "Would you at least like some coffee? And maybe some breakfast before you go? I'm making some anyway."
Peeta's stomach rumbles, audibly, by way of response. Effie laughs a little at the noise – an innocuous tinkling that further irritates Peeta, even though he knows she means no harm by it.
But he is hungry, obviously.
"Yes," he answers grudgingly. He decides he might as well eat, given how long his day will be. And it feels like he hasn't had coffee in ages. "That would be great."
"And… thank you, Effie," he forces himself to add.
She smiles and shuffles off to the ice box. He watches her as she kneels down and opens its brown wooden door.
"Would you like two eggs or three?" she asks with a quick glance over her shoulder. She turns back to the ice box and rummages through its contents. "And can I make you some toast?"
July 1938, Frankfurt-am-Main
When it's finally time for Peeta to go home for the day, he brushes the sweaty fringe of hair off his forehead with the back of his hand. He wearily wipes down the bakery's countertops with a damp rag and lets out a long sigh.
Today was brutal, and felt like the longest day he's had in months.
It's Tuesday, and on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, Peeta Mellark's (the new name for what was formerly Herr Beetee's bakery), and all other businesses in this section of Frankfurt that still conduct business with Jewish customers must, pursuant to a new law created six months ago, allow a thorough premises inspection by Gestapo officials.
Despite their inherent intrusiveness, until today Peeta's found most of the inspections to be quicker and more painless than he'd expected they'd be when the law first passed. Not that they aren't still disruptive to business, of course. But the officers are ostensibly only there to search for what the Nazi government has vaguely described in the newspapers and over the wireless as "contraband."
As such, aside from a few routine questions on each visit the officers typically keep to themselves while they're there.
The officers usually just poke around the bakery a bit, approaching the job with varying degrees of seriousness depending on who's doing the inspecting. It's usually clear that the Gestapo officers don't want to be there any more than Peeta or his employees want them there, and Peeta suspects the officers, like himself, view these regularly scheduled inspections as a waste of time.
Today, however, one of Peeta's newer hires – Stohl; a tall boy of about fifteen years, and easily provoked – didn't take kindly to the questions the officer conducting today's inspection asked him. Somehow (and Peeta never did find out exactly how), within minutes of the officer's arrival a fistfight broke out between the officer and Stohl in the back storage room.
It had taken all of Peeta's skill in negotiation, and a sharp blow to his own face, to break up the fight and keep Stohl and two other young apprentices from being carted off in the back of the officer's automobile.
By then, Peeta's employees were all so rattled they were accomplishing literally nothing. Peeta decided he might as well let everyone go home and close the bakery early.
The officer spent the next two hours poring over every nook and cranny of Peeta's bakery, making a very grand production of it and taking copious notes. And so Peeta stood alone in the front room, hands on his hips, periodically dabbing at the slow trickle of blood coming from his nose as the officer finished his work.
Every so often the officer – who couldn't have been much older than eighteen or nineteen himself – would glance up from what he was writing to glare menacingly at Peeta. Whenever he did, Peeta would flinch reflexively as he tried, and failed, to keep from thinking of Beetee.
But the officer left an hour ago, and Peeta is finally free to go home and seek solace in Katniss' arms.
Peeta walks to the front door of the bakery – his bakery, now – and opens it. Even though the altercation with Stohl happened hours ago, Peeta's hands still shake as he tries to turn the lock of the front door with the key. He has to take multiple deep breaths to calm himself enough to manage the task.
This will be behind us soon, Peeta tells himself, as he bicycles towards home along the quiet streets of Frankfurt as quickly as he can. A city that is unrecognizable, to Peeta, from the Frankfurt of his childhood.
Although on the surface, everything in Frankfurt looks much the same as it ever did, nothing feels the same. Peeta cannot remember the last time he overheard children laughing, or saw them playing ball in the streets the way he, Cato, and their friends used to do after school. And it's been ages since he last saw elderly ladies chatting idly together on their front stoops the way they always seemed to be doing when he was a boy.
Nobody talks about it anymore, but everyone knows that the SS's network of spies are everywhere, and that anything someone says – innocuous or not; seditious or not – could be reported to the government by anyone at any time. This knowledge hangs heavy in the air, and puts an invisible, but palpable, strain on everyone.
Even lively, sociable Streu no longer hosts impromptu dinner parties. What happened to Beetee is on their minds constantly, and their little makeshift family of four has far too much to hide from the Nazis to risk hosting friends anymore. They do visit with Finnick and Annie on occasion, but aside from that they more or less keep to themselves now, much as families all over the city do.
Only a few more months. Soon we'll be in New York.
Peeta repeats these words to himself over and over again like a mantra as he bicycles home in the warm summer afternoon, as if repeating them were enough to make them true.
When Peeta arrives home, he immediately takes off his flour-covered apron and hangs it up on one of the pegs by the front door
Peeta turns around and is thrilled to see that Katniss is already here, waiting for him in the darkened sitting room, just as they'd planned in their last series of letters to each other.
Peeta grins broadly and rushes towards her.
It's been nearly six weeks since the last time they saw each other. They don't take chances anymore. Not with the Gestapo, and SS spies, everywhere. And not since Beetee. They usually confine their communications to letters, but carried by hand rather than sent via post because Streu tells them the post can no longer be trusted. And they visit one another in person like this only when they cannot bear being apart another moment.
Seeing her in his home again, Peeta itches to touch her. To carry her to his bedroom and unbutton her dress.
But when he gets to her side he stops short. Her eyes are downcast and her shoulders are slumped. He can immediately tell that something is very wrong.
"Katniss?" Peeta asks, alarmed, kneeling down next to her on the floor. She turns to look at him and she's paler than he's ever seen her. Her eyes, though trained on his, seem to not really see him, and it deepens his alarm. "What's wrong? What happened?" he asks, his words coming out in a rush.
She holds up a thick manila envelope by way of response. "I picked up your mail on my way here," she says, handing it to him. Her voice sounds strangled and Peeta notices, for the first time, that her face is streaked with the tracks of dried tears.
One glance at the postage and the writing on the front tells Peeta that this package is from the federal government of the United States. He hastily flips it over and sees the government seal has already been broken.
Katniss must have opened this package already.
If this is from America, it's obviously what they've been waiting ages for. The documents they need to emigrate.
But why isn't she happy? Peeta wonders, worried. Katniss' reaction is the exact opposite of what he would have expected.
Peeta lifts the flap of the envelope and quickly pulls out its contents.
"Katniss, what…? I don't understand…" he begins, as he searches through the pages for some possible cause of her distress. "This is what we've been waiting for, isn't it? Here's my paperwork; here's Prim's… And look – the dates of departure are right here. Everything seems to be in order…"
"Only your papers and Prim's are in there," Katniss says in a monotone. "Go on, keep looking. There's nothing in there for me or my mother."
His eyes snap to hers at her words.
"What?" he demands loudly. "That can't be right," he mutters, but he's starting to panic now, as he hastily rifles through the papers a second time.
"It's the truth," Katniss says, flatly.
"Then yours must be coming separately…" Peeta says evenly, eyes on hers. But his voice is shaking, belying the confidence he's trying to convey.
"No," she tells him. She shakes her head and squares her jaw. "They rejected our applications. Look in the back. There's a letter there explaining… everything." Her voice catches on the final word.
But by the time she's finished her sentence, he's already found the letter she's talking about.
Peeta reads it, thunderstruck. Or he tries to, anyway; tears are beginning to prick his eyes and they obscure his vision. He can't really focus on the letter, but he's able to read enough of it to catch the thrust of it, and a few words stand out in sharp relief: "Jew Quota"; "Undesirable"; and "Next year."
"Katniss…" he begins, and trails off. He shakes his head. "We'll wait, then. All of us. We'll wait until -"
"NO!" Katniss cuts him off forcefully, making him jump. "You are going to America, Peeta. With Prim. On the date of departure," she insists, jabbing her index finger at the papers in Peeta's hands.
"Oh, like hell I am," Peeta says back. "You really think I'm going to leave you behind?" he demands. "How the hell are you and your mother going to eat with me gone? Who's going to protect you from -"
"Goddamnit, Peeta!" Katniss cuts him off again, yelling this time. To his utter surprise she actually takes off one of her shoes and hurls it at him. It hits him square on the chest, and he cries out involuntarily when it strikes him. "What happened to Beetee could happen to you!"
Peeta grits his teeth. "No. It couldn't," he lies, knowing it's a lie and knowing that Katniss will see through it. "Streu and I are so careful, Katniss. Nothing will happen to us," he continues, evenly, trying to sound as sincere as he can.
Katniss scoffs. "Peeta," she begins, her voice shaking. Peeta glances down at her hands, clenching and unclenching rapidly at her sides and he realizes, in shock, that her voice is shaking in anger. "You've been hiding a Jew in your house and passing her off as a member of your family for years now. You're fucking a Jewish woman!" She's shouting again. "If they find out, they'd take you off to one of those camps or kill you!"
"Katniss, you really think I could leave you behind?" he demands. "Because I can't. I can't." It's unthinkable. He's pleading with her now, begging her to see reason.
"And you think I could live with myself if something happened to you because of what you and your brother are doing for my family?" Katniss counters. "Or if something happened to Prim because America won't let me join you yet?" she asks, in a much quieter voice.
Peeta doesn't have an answer to that. Prim is Katniss' entire world, and he knows it would destroy Katniss if anything happened to her.
But Katniss is his entire world.
"Katniss…" he begins, but trails off, not knowing what to say next.
Just then, as if on cue, his recently injured nose starts bleeding again. Peeta groans and tries to hide his face from her, knowing that his injury demonstrates the truth of Katniss' words. But she pulls his hands away from his face, exposing himself to her.
She takes a handkerchief from her pocket and wordlessly dabs at the trickling blood. She leans in and kisses his cheek as he closes his eyes.
"Let me go," she asks him, gently. "Please, Peeta. I'll join you as soon as I can."
"I can't, Katniss," he tells her, his voice catching on her name. "Don't you understand that?" he asks, pleadingly, and bursts into tears.
Katniss gathers him into her arms, moaning a little and whispering his name. He sobs helplessly against her shoulder.
When Katniss wakes up two hours later, Peeta's bedroom is bathed in long shadows.
She rolls over a little and looks up at Peeta's sleeping face in the weak, waning light still coming in through his open bedroom window. The arm that's not wrapped around her is slung across his face and his mouth is open slightly as he snores softly.
She sits up – carefully, so as not to wake him – and tugs a sheet up to cover herself.
She looks at Peeta for a very long moment and tries to memorize his features. His beautiful, wavy blonde hair. His long, blonde eyelashes that she always half-expects to tangle together when he blinks. The soft smattering of freckles that just faintly cover the bridge of his nose; his cheeks; his bare, broad shoulders.
Katniss knows she cannot risk waking him. She'll never be able to go through with this if he wakes up. Even if she could, he'd never let her.
But she also cannot bear to not be touching him in what will likely be their last moment together for a very long time.
And so she reaches out to gently, gently trace the contours of his chest with her fingertips. As her fingers dance across his skin he mumbles something unintelligible in his sleep and shifts a little in bed. She immediately pulls her hand away, taking his murmuring and movements as a sign that she needs to leave this room, now, and stop putting off what must be done.
Katniss bends over and quickly finds the clothes he tore from her body after he carried her into his room. She dresses as quietly as she can. Reaching into the front pocket of her dress, she pulls out the letter she wrote in the hour before he got home.
She lays it gently on his bedside table so he'll be sure to see it as soon as he wakes.
Tears in her eyes, Katniss walks as quietly as she can towards Peeta's closed bedroom door. Before she walks through it she turns to face Peeta – her brave, wonderful Peeta – one last time. She kisses her fingertips and raises them towards him in a silent goodbye.
To her great relief, Johanna is home now. Katniss finds her alone and reading the newspaper at the kitchen table.
"Jo," she says, breathlessly.
Johanna turns from her newspaper and frowns at her. "What is it?"
"I need your help." She pauses at the quizzical look Johanna gives her. "And Streu's," she adds hastily.
Katniss crosses her fingers behind her back and prays silently that Jo and Streu will be able to help her execute her plan.
Johanna sets down her paper. "What kind of help?" she asks, one eyebrow raised.
"Hide me?" she begs.
Johanna's eyes go wide as saucers.
"Sit down," Johanna says, motioning to the chair next to her. "You need to tell me what's happened."
Peeta's bedroom is completely dark when he wakes. He's a little disoriented (as he often is after waking from a long nap), and jumps a little when he pats the bed next to him and realizes Katniss is no longer there.
She must have already gone home. Without saying goodbye. His heart clenches painfully, and he wonders if she's still upset with him over their argument. He'd assumed, when she'd willingly and enthusiastically made love to him this afternoon, that they'd reached an understanding – that he would not, and could not, leave Germany without her.
He'd assumed that she had accepted this and agreed with him.
But she never, ever leaves without saying goodbye – they see each other so infrequently, after all. He swallows the lump in his throat as he realizes this cannot mean anything good.
Peeta fumbles around in the dark for a few moments until he reaches the switch on the lamp on his bedside table. He flicks it on and immediately sees the carefully folded sheet of paper lying next to it.
He picks it up and unfolds it, his heart already breaking, and he begins to read.
My dearest Peeta,
When you read this letter, I will already be gone. Hopefully somewhere you will not be able to find me.
I knew, from the moment I saw that you received permission from America to leave and I had not, that you would not let me go. But you have to, Peeta. I cannot, and will not, allow you to stay here for me.
Take Primrose and leave for America next month as indicated in your documents. I want this for you and Primrose more than I've ever wanted anything in my life, Peeta. Please give it to me. I need to know that life can be good again for you and my darling sister.
I'm here, and with help I will soon be hidden. And I am safe. I will follow after and find you as soon as Uncle Haymitch can bring me over. I promise.
In the meantime, I will be loving you and thinking of you, endlessly, as always. And dreaming of America, a place where our children will be safe.
All of my love,
Peeta reads the letter a second time, and then a third time. He carefully sets it down on the nightstand.
He reaches over and picks the lamp off the nightstand. With a shout, he throws it as hard as he can across the room. It hits the far wall of the room and its glass base shatters satisfyingly into a thousand brittle pieces.
"Peeta?" Primrose's worried voice appears on the other side of his closed bedroom door. "What's wrong, what's happening?"
Peeta buries his face in his hands, wondering if Katniss left a similar letter for her sister.
"Just a minute, Prim," he mumbles loudly enough for her to hear her. He still isn't wearing anything, and he needs to dress before he goes to talk with her.
"She's gone, isn't she," Prim says quietly from the other side of the door. It isn't a question.
Peeta closes his eyes and swallows the lump forming in his throat.
"Yes, Prim," he tells her, trying to keep his voice as even as he can. "I believe she is."