As planned, Peeta leaves work right after lunch.
When he looks back over his shoulder into his office he realizes his desk is little more than a mountain of memos and unfinished projects. It doesn't surprise him. He can't normally afford to take time off like this in the days leading up to his quarterly trip to Guatemala.
But today he doesn't care about any of that. Instead of feeling guilty about all the work he's leaving unfinished by skipping out early he simply sighs and closes the door behind him.
Staying any later would be ridiculous. He already cleared this time off with the Executive Director a few days ago. Ms. Southerland is ordinarily quite the task master but even she agrees that he needs to make tonight special for Katniss.
"Go," she'd said to him on Tuesday, grinning, when he'd asked if he could leave at noon today. She'd even made a shooing motion with her hands to emphasize the point, making Peeta laugh. "On Friday, go home early and celebrate with your wife."
"I will," Peeta promised, smiling back at her.
In a perfect world Peeta wouldn't have even had to go into work today at all. But Katniss texted an hour ago to let him know she'd need to stay at HP&C until at least eight tonight. As much as he hates that Katniss will be stuck late on her last day at the job that's crushed her soul for three long years, the one small upside is it will give him plenty of time to get everything ready before she gets home.
After leaving his office he rides the brown line the short distance back to their apartment in Lincoln Park. He rushes around the neighborhood for the next two hours making certain he's gotten everything he needs for tonight's dinner. He goes to two separate grocery stores – the one they go to for their everyday shopping, but also the specialty one on Fullerton that carries the bulk spices Peeta likes to use on special occasions.
On a whim, he pops into the corner florist shop to pick up a bouquet of yellow daffodils.
When he finally gets home Peeta quickly unpacks everything on the kitchen counter. Before he gets to cooking he pours himself a glass of red wine and sets their small kitchen table with the china his aunt and uncle gave them as wedding presents. It's stupid, ostentatious stuff that they haven't used once in the eight months it's been theirs. But Peeta figures they might as well pull out all the stops tonight.
He puts on some jazz as he cooks, deciding he could get used to the kind of life where he's home at a decent hour to cook and his wife is home at a decent hour to join him.
Katniss says very little during dinner.
She isn't rude to him. She says all the right things: about how good the food tastes; how pretty the flowers are; and so on. She repeatedly tells him how thoughtful he was for doing all this for her on her last day.
She even laughs a little at his jokes.
But her eyes are downcast throughout most of the meal. He made her favorite dinner – beef stroganoff, with the dill and the special sour cream from the fancy market. He made those cheese buns she loves as an appetizer. But she spends much more time pushing small bites of food around her plate with her fork than she does actually eating.
She's not acting like herself at all.
"What's wrong?" Peeta finally asks once they've finished dessert. This isn't the reaction from her he'd hoped for. Or, frankly, expected. He knew Katniss would be exhausted from her long day. From her long three years, really. But every time they've discussed her leaving the firm these past few weeks there was such giddy elation in her voice he just assumed she'd be grinning from ear to ear tonight.
She doesn't answer his question right away. She closes her eyes and sighs before speaking.
"I'm guess I'm still scared, Peeta," she eventually says, very quietly. She looks up at him over the candles he lit earlier this evening. Their flames are reflected in her silver irises, making them warm and sparkling in the dim light of their kitchen.
Peeta reaches across the table and takes her hand in his.
Despite how unpleasant life at the firm was, it took Peeta a long time to convince Katniss that things would be all right if she left. They both knew she'd never make the kind of money HP&C pays its associates anywhere else, and for a very long time that terrified her too much to even think about making a change.
Six weeks ago, however, one of the clients Katniss co-chaired a trial for last year approached her and asked if she'd like to join their in-house team. The pay would be about two-thirds what HP&C paid, and the company was less than five years old. But they promised her varied, interesting work. They assured her she'd rarely be expected to work more than forty-five hours per week.
Katniss really enjoyed working with the people who run that company. Other than the work she did with Peeta on La Maquila it was some of the most enjoyable work she's done since graduating from law school.
And so in the end they both decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up, despite the large pay cut. They crunched some numbers and decided that while it would make things a bit tighter, they could make it work. Katniss happily accepted the position two days after it was offered to her and gave her two weeks' notice to Cinna the following morning.
Peeta doesn't understand what's behind her sudden change of heart. He gently rubs his thumb across the top of her hand, not knowing what to say. After three years with Katniss he knows that sometimes saying nothing at all is the best way to get her to talk to him, and so he stays quiet.
After another few moments of silence Katniss sighs again. She shakes her head a little, a look of determination in her eyes.
"But….well. I was scared before we started dating, too," she eventually points out. It sounds like she's trying to reason with herself. She reaches across the table for Peeta's other hand. Gives it a squeeze.
"You were terrified," Peeta agrees. "You thought dating me was going to ruin your career or… or something? I was never quite clear on what the issue was to be honest." He laughs a little, remembering, although his memories from that time are not fond.
Katniss laughs too, looking a sheepish.
"Or something," Katniss confirms, a slight blush rising on her cheeks. "But…. but then I said to hell with it, didn't I."
"And then after you stopped worrying – quite reasonably, actually – that I was going to freak out on you again, we had sex."
"Yes," Peeta says, laughing again. Happily, this time. "We did."
"And, well," Katniss continues, shrugging her shoulders. "After that, pretty much everything has been great, don't you think?"
"It has been," Peeta confirms. "For me, anyway. I think you feel similarly most of the time, too. Or at least I hope you do."
Katniss smiles warmly at him from across the table. "I do."
For a long while they sit silently together in their kitchen, holding hands, listening to the faint strains of music streaming in from the adjoining room.
"So," Katniss eventually says. She gestures to Peeta, the room they're sitting in, their small apartment. "I guess all of this is proof that sometimes, taking risks can be a good thing. No," she corrects herself, shaking her head. "It proves that sometimes, taking risks can be the best thing."
Peeta grins broadly at her, ecstatic that she's finally thinking this way. He takes off his glasses and places them on the kitchen table. He stands up from his chair and slowly crosses over to her, pulling her into his arms.
"I think it does," he agrees, before kissing her.
"Thank you, Peeta," she mumbles happily against his lips. "For being the best risk I'll ever take."
a/n: This epilogue is an early birthday present for my dear friend MalTease, without whose unending encouragement and support I never would have been able to finish this story. I hope she (and all of you) like the story's conclusion.
Thank you so much for reading.