A/N: Happy Birthday Court81981! You've all probably read her AMAZING fics and you have all probably seen a shitload of authors in THG fandom thanking her for being their beta, but you probably don't have ANY idea at just what a wonderful person she really is.
She will put other people's work before her own. She will write you (me) a 25K word (and counting!) fic for your birthday. She will write for all the charity challenges and support new writers and give you advice and send you a note just to see how you're doing. Court is honestly one of the nicest/best people in this fandom and I feel so lucky and privileged to call her my friend.
I decided to re-visit this story almost a year after completing it because this was the first story Court and I worked on together with her being my wonderful beta and it felt appropriate to write her an epilogue. Another note about how amazing she is – I've written outtakes from my already existing stories for her birthday these past two years while Court has written me BRAND NEW fics for my birthday.
So happy birthday dear, I love you so so so much and enjoy! To all my former readers of this fic I hope you enjoy this last visit to these characters I love so much. This story was always like my baby because of how much work I put into it. (P.S. Chapter 6 of 'Next To You' will be posted in a few days!) I'm on tumblr ~ thegirlonpeetamellark ;)
3 years later
I can't stop crying. I can't stop second-guessing myself. Was this the right decision? It's only two years, but it's miles away from where I want to be.
Peeta says it will be okay. He'll come visit as often as he can. And we'll talk every night on the phone. And there's always video chat he added with a playful wiggle of his eyebrows that made me laugh.
I miss him so much.
He reminded me constantly when I was trying to make my decision that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that my education was important and that it would open up doors for me in the future. He also pointed out that with Prim starting college this fall I didn't have anything holding me back. Not even him, he insisted, because he would always be with me, no matter how far apart we would be.
After a few years at community college where I excelled more than I ever would have expected, I looked into transferring to a state school or university. And my grades were good enough that not only did I get into the top school I applied for, but I got a full scholarship as well. I still have my suspicions that the letter of recommendation Haymitch—Prim's former social worker who helped me get full custody of her—wrote for my application probably had something to do with that. He swears he didn't write a sob story about me losing both my parents and being forced to raise my baby sister, but I'm sure he slipped it in there somewhere.
So after a lot of consideration and some hesitation I decided to pack up and move 3 hours away from home. Away from Peeta. I'll be here for two years while I get my Bachelor's degree and while I know that's not very long in the grand scheme of things, every day that passes when I don't get to see Peeta is painful.
It is a chilly autumn afternoon in mid-October and I haven't seen Peeta for almost eight weeks now. I'm feeling miserably sorry for myself. I have midterms coming up. I have a headache. I'm lonely. I miss my sister. I miss my boyfriend. Everything sucks.
When I get back to my apartment I shut myself in my room and dial Peeta.
"Hey beautiful, I was just thinking about you."
The happiness with which he answers his phone, the way that just his voice makes me feel better, and imagining his smiling face as he moves around the bakery that he now runs full time all becomes a little too much to process in the moment. I dissolve into tears immediately and cover my face, embarrassed at my weakness and feeling even worse when he starts to sound close to panic, asking if I'm okay or if I'm hurt.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," I hastily assure him as his voice starts to rise to near hysteria, demanding to know what's wrong and if he should call someone to come help me.
"What's wrong Katniss?"
I take a deep breath to get a hold of my emotions. "I just...I miss you so much." My bottom lip is quivering as I struggle not to dissolve into a mess of tears all over again.
"Oh Katniss," he sighs heavily. "I miss you too. So much. More than you can even imagine."
I close my eyes and picture our room back home. I picture his book laying on the nightstand. I imagine his clothes hanging over his desk chair, something he does rather than putting them away properly in his closet or drawers. I think about the collage of pictures I put up on the wall, snapshots of him and I together over the course of the almost four years we've been together. I try and remember the smell of his pillow and how good it feels to slip into that bed with the scent of him all around me.
"God last night..." he laughs a little huskily, "I jerked off remembering when we fucked on the beach last year during our vacation."
I close my eyes and sigh in pleasure at the memory. It was our first trip away together and we went all out; an exclusive resort with private beaches in the tropics.
I can still feel his hips pounding me into the sand, flat on my back on our towel. He lowered his wet bathing suit just enough to free his cock and pushed my bikini bottoms to the side before sliding into me. His solid weight above me, the water dripping off his skin, the sound of the waves, and the sun overhead; every thing about that memory makes me shiver with pleasure.
"Peeta..." I whine helplessly, "I miss the feel of you inside me."
He agrees with a tortured groan. This is the longest we've ever gone since we became a couple without having sex and I don't know how much longer I can take it. Phone sex just can't compete with the real thing.
"I miss being inside you." His voice is low and hoarse and so sexy I have to clench my thighs together in response.
I bite my bottom lip and feel my eyelids grow heavy with lust. I'm practically panting when I ask him what he's doing right now.
He chuckles and the sound brings a smile to my face. "We can't do this right now I'm still at the bakery." It's amazing how well he can read my mind over the phone. He must hear me whimper in protest though because he continues. "Look, this is what I want you to do: I want you to take a bath, get something to eat, maybe get some homework done, and then later when I get home I'm going to video chat you and take care of you properly."
I grin. "Promise?"
"I don't make promises I can't keep."
I laugh, somehow feeling ten times better than when I first called him.
"That's what I want to hear," he says in response to my laughter.
"I love you," I whisper, my heart beating a loud, thumping rhythm, trying to reach him across the miles that separate us.
"Love you more," he replies.
When we hang up I go and do exactly what he asked me to do. I take a long bath. I even light candles and turn on some relaxing music. I shave my legs. I eat a good dinner and I even manage to read my textbook for about an hour before my phone rings again.
I grin at the sight of my boyfriend's beautiful face popping up on the screen.
"Hi," I answer with a smile, closing my book and getting up off my bed to lock and shut my door.
"What are you wearing?" Peeta asks, completely bypassing any pleasantries.
I laugh, lying back down on my bed. "Um right now? Your college t-shirt and my underwear. That's it."
He groans, making me laugh again. "Fuck that's a good image. I love the thought of you wearing my clothes when you're so far away."
"It makes me feel like you're close. Like you're holding me."
"Katniss, I wish I could touch you right now."
The raw desire I hear in his voice makes my lower belly clench. I can already feel myself getting wet for him. Not surprisingly Peeta has had no problem using his words to turn me on and get me off during this long distance period of our relationship.
"I thought we were going to video chat," I say, "I want to see your face."
"Bad news, my internet isn't working," Peeta explains.
"That sucks," I pout. I was really looking forward to seeing his face and his body and definitely his cock. "Can you text me a picture of your dick? I could probably get off just from looking at it."
He laughs. "Oh so that's all I'm good for then? Give you a picture of the goods and then you can just hang up right now."
"Hmm I guess you could stay on the line for a little bit," I tease, biting my bottom lip.
"Oh yeah? So I can tell you how much I love you? How I would be sucking on your tits and fucking your brains out right now if I was there?"
I moan in response. "Peeta…."
"Take off your shirt," he commands me.
I don't even hesitate. I pull the shirt off me, holding the phone away for just a moment until I'm only in my underwear, lying back on my bed.
"Are you wet?"
"So wet," I breathe, rubbing two fingers lightly on my clit over my underwear.
"I miss you sucking my cock," he says and I shiver at the thought of his hard warmth in my mouth. I miss it too. So much.
I'm cut off by the sound of persistent knocking at my apartment door. I frown in confusion. Who the hell could that be? My roommate has class tonight and we never have any visitors.
Peeta notices I've gone quiet. "What is it?"
"Ugh someone is at my door."
"Just ignore them, they'll go away."
"Yah you're right," I agree. "Now where were we?"
The knocking comes again, louder and longer. I throw my head back in aggravation. This asshole at my door is completely ruining the mood.
"I think I was telling you how much I miss you getting down on your knees for me," Peeta says and my belly floods with warmth.
More knocking on the door.
"Fuck!" I get up out of bed and pull on my robe. "Sorry, let me just get rid of whoever is at my door, they're not going away."
"You're going to answer the door half-naked?" He exclaims in concern.
"Well, yeah I need to get rid of them. I can't have them knocking on my door while we're trying to have phone sex," I explain, making my way out of my room and across the living room to the front door.
"Katniss, you're home alone. Maybe you shouldn't be answering the door by yourself when you're half-dressed."
"It's fine…" I assure him as I unlock the door and swing it open.
"Because you know, if you answer the door half-naked some poor guy might be standing there with all sorts of dirty ideas about what he wants to do to you."
I gape at the sight of Peeta standing in front of me, his phone still pressed to his ear with a cocky smirk on his face.
"Oh my god!" I slap a hand over my mouth, torn between breaking down in tears at the sight of him and screaming for joy.
"Surprise," he says, slipping his phone into this pocket.
I drop my phone on the floor and launch myself at him. I wrap my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist. "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god." I mumble incoherently, my head tucked into the curve of his neck.
"Hello to you too." He steps inside my apartment and closes the door behind him with his foot. His hands cup my behind as he walks across the living room towards my room.
I pull back and kiss him, holding his face between my hands. He tastes so good. I can't believe I went so long without his mouth on mine. "I'm so happy you're here. I missed you so much. Oh my god, I love you." I talk nonsense through our kisses and he laughs against my lips.
He deposits me on the edge of my bed and then starts to tug off his jeans. My robe has fallen open and I immediately tug off my panties. Clearly, we are not going to mess around and drag this out. I actually whimper at the sight of his cock when it springs free. He is so hard and ready for me. I feel like I'm going to lose my mind if he doesn't fuck me right now.
He leans over me and grabs my wrists with his hands. He pins me to the bed and uses his thighs to spread me open. "I can't wait any longer," he breathes into my ear.
When he slides into me to the root we simultaneously groan in shared ecstasy. "Yes! Yes! Yes! Peeta!" I feel like my eyes roll to the back of my head. As much as I have wanted and fantasized about this moment for the past several weeks when we were apart, I find that I am more than happy to let him take complete control. We don't fuck. He fucks me into oblivion. I am not an active participant in this and I am perfectly okay with that. I am there for him to drive into over and over again until we both shatter with the force of a bomb going off.
When I can think clearly again I roll over on to the bed and kiss him. "But besides that how are you?"
He laughs and the sound fills me with warmth. God I missed that. I've missed everything about him. "So much better now that I'm here with you," he replies with a cheeky smile.
"Yeah, how did you pull that one off?"
"Well, I must have been able to read your mind and realized that you were going to need me today because I was planning on this little surprise trip before you even called me."
"Yup, I had actually just left when you called me."
"Well, I'm so glad you're here. I was so down earlier. I was so sad and feeling sorry for myself and second-guessing even being here in the first place." I admit the last part quietly, not meeting his eyes.
"Hey, it's okay," he assures me, reaching out to cradle my face. "We're going to get through this together. And yeah it's going to be rough at times, but if we always have that kind of sex to look forward to when we're reunited?" He grins widely, a spark in his eyes. "I sure as hell can make some sacrifices for the benefit of your higher education."
I laugh and curl into his side, running my hand over his chest. I don't think I have ever been more grateful for Peeta's positive attitude and optimistic outlook on things. I know that right now I need that from him most of all if I want to get through these next two years.
I grab his hand and kiss his palm, closing my eyes contently. "You're right. We'll get through this. Together."
5 years later
Peeta is acting weird.
And it's starting to get on my last nerve. He's been like this for almost two weeks now and I can't stand it. It worries me. He's acting different. He's not himself. He's quiet and distant and sometimes he can barely look me in the eyes.
It makes me want to cry.
In the dark, back corner of my mind I wonder briefly if he's going to break up with me. We've been together almost six years now and while I thought things were going great, obviously something is wrong. And the worst part is that for the life of me I can't figure out what it could possibly be.
Maybe he's just tired of me. Maybe he's not in love with me anymore. Maybe we just got too comfortable with each other and fell into a rut. I don't know.
It couldn't possibly be our sex life, I think to myself stubbornly. Six years together and we still fuck with a passion and intensity that leaves both of us dazed and trembling when we finish. In fact, the only times he has seemed to be himself these past two weeks is when we are making love, whispering into my ear how much he wants me and how much he loves me.
Suddenly the thought of actually losing him, of him telling me that things are over, fills me with panic. I won't accept that. I won't let him give up on us. I refuse to.
God it doesn't even make sense! We've talked about getting married and having kids together before. Three weeks ago we were as happy and in love as we ever were, and now I'm doubting our entire future.
The sound of his keys opening the front door of our apartment breaks me from my thoughts. He shoots me a tired smile as he walks in and puts his things down. Immediately I go to him, wrapping my arms around him and pulling his mouth down to meet mine.
I kiss him deeply and hungrily, feeling that spark between us that has never come close to extinguishing. I sigh in contentment when he responds enthusiastically, wrapping his arms around my waist to pull me more firmly against him.
"Well, hello to you too," he mumbles against my lips when we break apart for air. "What was that for?"
"Do I need a reason to kiss the love of my life hello?"
A warm, loving smile spreads across his face and it soothes all my earlier worries immediately. He looks like I just told him he won a million dollars. I don't know what has gotten into him lately, but I refuse to accept that it has anything to do with him not loving me as much as he always has.
"Not at all," he assures me, patting my behind affectionately as we break apart. "I'm going to hop in the shower."
While he showers I make dinner and think about how best to approach this. It's not like Peeta is closed off or hard to talk to but I think whatever it is that is bugging him is going to be a little harder to get out of him than usual. I decide to wait until later tonight in bed. He'll probably be much more willing to share after a couple of orgasms.
When he reappears from the bathroom he's wearing nothing but a t-shirt and boxers, towel drying his damp hair as he moves towards the kitchen for food.
I'm checking my e-mail as he comes to sit beside me on the couch with his dinner. "How was your day?" he asks between bites.
"Better now that you're home," I reply, shooting him a sweet smile. And I mean it too; now that he's here beside me I feel less worried and anxious than I did earlier. Maybe nothing is wrong. Maybe it's all in my head.
One corner of his mouth tilts up in a crooked smile and he grabs my hand and places a kiss to the back of it, somehow giving me butterflies like he did when we first started dating.
But the moment soon vanishes when I see an e-mail that catches my eye and reminds me of something.
"Oh, I wanted to tell you, I was hoping we could drive up to see Prim next weekend at school. It's her fall break so she has a long weekend but she can't come home because she has some sorority thing she has to attend."
My little sister is a junior in college now and thankfully her school is only a two-hour drive away. I don't like not seeing her every day, but I'm so proud of her and how grown up she is. I still remember her as the little 14-year-old girl who told me it would be okay when she had to go live with our mother's second cousin, Effie Trinkett, before I was named her legal guardian.
"What? No!" Peeta protests this idea with such vehemence it actually startles me. I look back at him in total confusion, wondering what in the world has gotten into him.
I can't form words for the longest moment, staring at him like he's grown an extra head. Finally, I manage, "Um...why not?"
He flushes and looks away from me. "Next weekend is just...not a good weekend for me."
I bristle at the statement, hurt that he has more important things to do than come with me to see Prim. "Fine," I mumble, "I'll go by myself."
"No!" he protests again, just as emphatically.
"Excuse me?" I gape at him, trying to figure out if he really just told me I couldn't go see Prim.
"I just…" he is flushed and clearly upset and struggling for words, which is so unlike Peeta. "I mean…I was hoping we could just spend some time together next weekend. And Prim will be home next month for Thanksgiving anyways, right?"
"That's not the point, I want to see her before that! I haven't seen her since she left for school almost two months ago." The words come out harsh and biting but I can't help it because I'm pissed off now. I don't understand what he has against the idea of seeing Prim and I don't understand why he has been acting so strange lately.
"Come on Katniss, please. I was going to plan a nice weekend together."
"Peeta we can do that any other time, what's the big deal?"
"I just want to spend next weekend together, can you just do this one thing for me?" His words are angry and curt and I feel something inside me go cold. This is not my Peeta, this is someone who is hiding something from me and it makes me sick.
"No, I'm going to see my sister," I say with an air of finality.
"So you don't want to spend time with me?" He challenges. "I'm just not that important to you?"
"Oh my god, do you hear yourself?" I get up off the couch and start pacing around the room. "You're being ridiculous. All I said is I want to go see Prim and you're acting like I'm being totally unreasonable. What has gotten into you lately? You've been acting like you're hiding something from me for a while now."
He almost flinches, like he hadn't expected or realized that I've caught on to his strange behavior recently. I see the exact moment when he tries to shut down and hide his emotions from me and it makes my stomach drop. And of course my mind instantly starts imagining the worse. Because now I'm afraid that all those horrible scenarios I've been picturing lately are true—that he is going to break things off with me, tell me it's over.
"What is it?" I start to cry and seeing the pain on his face does nothing to ease my worries. "Please just tell me," I beg. "I can't keep living like this, wondering why you're so off, thinking it has something to do with me, something I've done wrong. I can't keep waiting for things to blow up. I'm so afraid of what it could be, please Peeta, just tell me."
"Katniss…" he doesn't say anything else, he just sighs and looks away from me. And it's this blatant refusal to put me out of my misery and come clean that undoes me.
I burst into tears and run straight for our room, slamming the door shut behind me.
I collapse on our bed as sobs rack my body and I've cried myself to sleep.
I wake sometime later to the feel of a large, warm hand pushing the hair away from my face.
My eyes open slowly to find Peeta kneeling on the floor by my bedside. He's looking at me with such love and adoration it almost makes me start to cry again. He uses his thumbs to brush away the tears that have long since dried on my cheek.
"I really messed this up, didn't I?" He gives me a weak, regretful smile and shakes his head.
And then he reaches into his pocket, pulls something out and places it in front of me.
My breath catches. It's a small, square, velvet-covered jewelry box.
"Peeta..." my voice wavers. My heart is beating so loud and so fast I can feel it everywhere.
"You're right," he says softly, "I can't keep a secret from you. You know me better than anyone. You know everything about me."
I sit up in bed a little more, my eyes darting between him and the jewelry box.
"I made a decision a few weeks ago that I was ready—that I felt we were ready—to take the next step, and I haven't doubted that decision since." He sighs and reaches for my hand just to hold it, lifting it to his lips and pressing a kiss to the back of my palm. "But suddenly I had this huge, monumental, life-altering secret I had to somehow keep from you, all while trying to act completely normal and plan out the best way to ask you at the same time."
He opens the box and there it is. A diamond ring that I don't even really see, a ring whose details I don't even notice. I don't notice the band or the cut of the diamond or how big it is because all I can think about is what it represents. My eyes start to shimmer with tears.
"Do you know how absolutely nerve-wracking it is to realize you're going to ask the woman you love to marry you? It doesn't even matter if you already know what her answer is going to be, it's fucking scary."
A laugh bursts from my lips and I realize the tears are already starting to flow.
"So then of course I drilled it into my head that it had to be perfect and special and the most romantic thing that anyone has ever done ever, because well it's you...and you deserve that and more." He smiles up at me, reaching out to wipe my tears away. "I was going to surprise you with a trip up to the country next weekend, spend the weekend at a bed and breakfast, make love all night and propose in the morning."
I close my eyes and shake my head, a smile on my lips as everything starts to make sense now.
"God, I don't even know why I panicked just now," he laughs. "I already told Prim my plans. She probably would have helped me out and made up some excuse for me as to why you couldn't come see her next weekend."
We lock eyes. We're both smiling now. He reaches down for the ring and plucks it from the small box. And then he shifts on the floor so now he's only kneeling on one knee.
"Peeta..." my voice trembles as I say his name, as if I'm pleading for him, calling out for him even though he's right here in front of me. I can feel my entire body shaking. Even though he just spent the last 5 minutes telling me what he plans to do, I still feel caught off guard.
He reaches for my left hand and then looks up at me, his face serious and intent. "Katniss...will you marry me?"
"Yes!" I cry the word. I gasp it like it's the only possible thing I am capable of saying at the moment, and it is. I am a crying mess of tears, smiling so wide it hurts my cheeks as he slides the ring on my finger.
He moves to get up so he can sit beside me on the bed and we throw our arms around each other. He tells me he loves me over and over again. When I pull back to kiss him it is gentle and achingly sweet. It feels like we are sealing the promise of our future together, of the rest of our lives bound to one another as husband and wife.
"I'm sorry," I finally manage between kisses when I can start to process things again. At this point he's already lying me back down on the bed, moving to hover over me as I welcome his weight between my legs and flush against my belly and chest.
"What are you sorry for?" He mumbles, his lips trailing a hot path along my jaw line and down my neck.
"I ruined your surprise. I freaked out."
His hand has reached out to cup the swell of my breasts through the thin t-shirt I'm wearing, sans bra. He is doing his best to leave a mark on me and I don't even care. He's licking and sucking and biting my sensitive flesh and I don't want him to stop. I want him to mark me as his because that is what I am, what I have always been, and what I always will be.
He laughs ruefully as I gasp and arch up into his touch when he starts to tweak my nipple. "You didn't ruin anything, Katniss. First off, it was my own damn fault I couldn't act more normal around you. And secondly, I'm so glad to have that off my chest. I hated keeping a secret from you."
He reaches down and pulls my shirt up till it reaches my collarbone, baring me to him completely. He leans down and takes my nipple in his mouth, licking, sucking, and biting until I am wet and throbbing for him.
"Besides," he adds, pulling away from my breast long enough to look up at me with a little smirk, "you just said you'd marry me. I'm the happiest man in the world right now. Nothing for you to be sorry about, believe me."
I laugh, tangling my hair in his blonde waves and pulling him down to my lips for a kiss. Our clothes fall away, and there is both an urgency and a slow deliberateness about the way we undress and touch each other. When he finally pushes inside me I wrap my legs around his waist and cling to him, marking his back and ass with my nails.
He raises up a little on his knees, using his arms to hold himself up as he pistons his hips against me faster and harder. I whimper as the pleasure builds and grows into a burning inferno.
"You are the only woman I have ever loved," Peeta grunts, "the only woman I will ever love. You're mine Katniss...forever."
And it's those words, that promise that I know without a doubt we will both honor for the rest of our lives that sends me off the edge exploding in his arms.
6 years later
I stare at myself in the mirror and adjust my tie. The suit I'm wearing is the nicest one I've ever worn but it's a small detail really. I take a deep breath and wonder if there is ever going to be a moment today when I'm not smiling like an idiot.
I know your wedding is supposed to be the happiest day of your life, but this feels like more than that. This feels like I'm finally alive and awake, this feels like what I've been waiting for my whole life. It feels like everything before this moment was black and white, grey and dull. But the moment when Katniss came into my life colors started to bleed through. And today, when we commit ourselves to each other forever, the colors of my world will permanently sharpen and brighten.
I'm broken from my sappy, over emotional reflection when there is a knock at the door of my dressing room. Finnick, my best man, enters without waiting for a response and looks me up and down, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
"Not bad, Mellark, I got to tell you."
I scoff at him and shake my head. "Don't be weird. I don't need you telling me how handsome I look." I take a deep breath, for some reason nervous to ask this next question. "Did you do what I ask? How is she?"
When he doesn't respond right away I feel my stomach drop. I immediately start imagining all the worst-case scenarios of Katniss freaking out and having second thoughts.
"What is it?" I demand, trying to keep my cool.
"She uh…" Finnick scratches his neck and looks down at his shoes, "…she's crying."
I swallow hard and try to ignore how those words make me to feel like I've just been punched in the gut. I feel the panic start, my heart thumping frantically in my chest as I try and compose myself.
"Why? What's wrong? Is she okay?"
"It's not about you," Finnick tries to reassure me. "She just uh…I guess it was umm…" he trails off and shrugs, shooting me sheepish look. "I actually don't know what it's about, but Annie assured me it wasn't her having cold feet or anything." He sighs and comes over to me, placing a hand on my shoulder. "I think you should go talk to her."
"Now?" I gape at him, wondering if he's serious. "I can't go see her right now. We're supposed to get married in 45 minutes!"
Finnick shakes his head at me like I'm annoying him. "I know you're a romantic buddy, but untwist your panties and go talk to your future wife. She needs you right now. That not seeing each other before the ceremony crap doesn't matter."
I take a deep breath and realize he's right. I have to go see if she's okay. I can't sit here for the next half hour twiddling my thumbs when she needs me to be there for her.
"Alright, lead the way."
When we make our way to the room where Katniss has been getting ready I try not to start jumping to conclusions or make myself even more worried than I already am.
When Finnick knocks Annie peaks her head out of the door and smiles when she catches sight of me over her husband's shoulder.
"Oh good, you came. Hold on, let me go talk to her and tell her you're here." She shuts the door before we can say anything and Finnick turns back around to shoot me a look. He pats me on the back, attempting to be reassuring.
"Don't worry dude. It'll be fine."
Before I can respond Annie opens the door again and steps out into the hall. She smiles and comes over to me. "Okay, she wants to talk to you, but she doesn't want you to see her before the ceremony. So I put up a partition in front of the vanity mirror so you can sit on one side and she'll be on the other and you can talk to her and still wait to actually see her in her dress until the ceremony starts."
"Annie, what's going on? Is she okay?"
She sighs and looks at me sadly. "Just go talk to her Peeta."
I relent and step inside Katniss' room, closing the door quietly behind me. In the corner there is a partition that looks like the kind of thing they used to use in the old days to get changed behind. Behind it I can see the top of a full-length mirror and since the partition is made from a sheer, translucent material I can see Katniss' silhouette as well. Her shadow is highlighted from the sunlight pouring into the room. She's sitting there in her dress and I can see the profile of her face and hair and long flowing dress. My heart seizes in my chest at the brief glimpse of the woman I love.
I see her head turn. "Peeta?" she sniffles.
"Hey, it's me." I walk over to the partition and pull up a chair so I'm sitting on the other side. I scoot right up to the edge so I can literally feel her just a few feet away from me on the opposite side. "What's wrong?"
She's trying not to cry. Knowing that she is in pain and being powerless to help her or even reach out and touch her is driving me crazy. "Talk to me, Katniss."
"It's silly," she laughs through her tears. The sound alleviates some of my deepest fears and I take my first easy breath since Finnick told me that she was upset. It can't be anything too awful if she can laugh at herself about it.
"Doesn't mean I don't want to hear about it," I tell her gently.
She hesitates for a moment and I hear her take a deep breath. "You remember our first kiss?"
I scoff at her. "You think I would ever forget it?"
It was a few days after my dad died. After weeks of getting to know each other and growing closer, we had a falling out that happened to coincide with my dad's health rapidly deteriorating. We made amends right before he passed and she was the first person I sought out after I pulled myself from the endless pit of grief. I walked over to her apartment in the pouring rain and she undressed me and told me to take a warm shower. Afterwards, as we sat on her couch and talked over cups of hot chocolate, I knew I couldn't wait any longer to kiss her.
I can picture her smiling at me, shaking her head. "You remember that night? You slept over in my bed and we didn't do anything, but you held me and you told me…you said…"
"I love you." I repeat the same three words I told her that night, lying in bed together.
"And you remember how I reacted?"
It takes me a second, searching my mind for my memories of that night. The ecstasy of finally kissing her and admitting how we felt to one another, the fact that she was finally mine, outweighs the other details.
"You…started crying," I say at length, chuckling now as I recall the way she broke down in my arms when I said those three little words. When I asked her why she was crying she told me she didn't know, but that she loved me too.
"I started crying because I was so happy I was terrified, Peeta." It takes a second for that to sink in; for me to realize what's she's telling me now. I take another deep sigh of relief.
"So right now…they're happy tears?" I ask her for confirmation.
"Yeah…well, kind of…" she says a little shakily and I can tell there's more so I stay silent and wait for her to continue. "I just…Peeta I'm scared. This is the best day of my life. Marrying you is all I've ever wanted and I know we're going to spend the rest of our lives happy and loving each other."
"So what's wrong then?"
"What if it's too good to be true? What if something horrible happens, Peeta? I just…I feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's hard to believe that something this amazing and good is really happening."
I close my eyes, forcing myself not to stand up and move around the partition so I can take her in my arms. While Katniss' fears may seem silly and irrational to some, it makes perfect sense given the life she had up until we met. She lost both parents before her 20th birthday and then had her sister taken away as she fought to become her legal guardian. While she's come a long way since that first day when she walked into the church basement of my grief counseling group, she still has some of the same fears and worries that have always plagued her. She's not a naturally optimistic person, she hopes for the best, but fears the worst.
"Katniss…you deserve to be happy. It's not too good to be true. I love you. You love me. We want to spend the rest of our lives together. Today, we're going to stand up in front of our family and friends and commit ourselves to each other forever. I know it's scary, but anything this good and anything worth having in life is going to be a little scary."
I hear her take a deep, shuddering breath and her voice sounds more steady when she speaks next. "I know, you're right."
"I always am," I tease her.
She laughs and I know she's feeling better. "Will you do me a favor?"
"Anything," I respond without hesitation.
"Stand up and close your eyes."
"Um okay…" I do what she says, waiting for her next command.
"You have to keep them closed okay. Promise?"
I grin. "I promise."
I feel her near me and with a start I realize she's stepped around the partition and is standing right in front of me. I squeeze my eyes shut as tightly as I can, resisting the impulse to open them and see how beautiful she is.
Her arms come around my neck and instinctually I reach out and wrap my arms around her waist, pulling her in closer to me. I feel the satiny, lace material of her dress and I know she looks more gorgeous than I can even imagine. I can't wait to stand up there in a little bit as she walks down the aisle towards me.
"I love you so much," she breathes into my ear, causing a shiver down my neck. I cling to her tighter and press a kiss to her neck, my eyes still closed.
"Get behind that partition or else I'm going to kiss the bride before it's official."
She laughs and slowly pulls away from me.
After a moment, she speaks up again. "Okay, you can open your eyes now."
I open them and immediately head for the door. "I have to go before I lose all willpower. I want to get this show on the road so I can finally get a good look at you."
She laughs. "I'll see you soon."
"See you soon."
I practically run back to my dressing room and it's a good thing to because Effie—who somehow convinced us to let her run this whole thing—is starting to lose it, asking Finnick questions about where I am, and complaining about how the ceremony is about to get started any minute.
Before I know it I'm standing at the end of that aisle, anxiously awaiting my bride.
And when the music swells and everyone stands up and I see her for the first time I do exactly what she did when I told her I loved her for the first time.
I start to cry because I'm so fucking happy it's overwhelming.
8 years later
I see Katniss at the end of the aisle.
I smile at the sight of my 7-month pregnant wife. She is beautiful. She is wearing a clingy dress that hugs the roundness of her belly. She has one hand braced on her lower back in support and the other moving animatedly in the air as she talks with someone.
The aisle of the grocery store is crowded since it's a Sunday evening and there are a handful of people separating us. I can't see who she is talking to, but I see the way she loving caresses the swell of our unborn child.
Every time I think about how she is carrying our child and that in a couple of months she will give birth to a baby we made from our love, my heart feels so full I think it might burst. She has always been gorgeous, but the curves from the extra weight she has gained during her pregnancy get me hard just looking at her. Her breasts are full, her hips are wide, and in total spirit of the cliché, she is positively glowing.
When I am halfway down the aisle I stop, frozen in place when I see the person she is talking to.
We haven't seen him in years. For all the talk he and Katniss made about staying friends despite what happened between them, neither one of them made much of an effort to stay in touch.
I'll be honest and admit that fact doesn't bother me too much. Logically, I know he isn't a bad person despite everything. He was her friend for far longer than he was her boyfriend and he genuinely cares about her.
But that doesn't mean those old feelings of jealousy and anger don't suddenly flare up at the sight of him. I remember that night at the bar when I discovered for the first time that she had a boyfriend. The knowledge that this amazing, beautiful girl I had been falling for during our sessions together was already taken had hit me like a punch to the gut.
He had her and I didn't. And he didn't even seem to realize how lucky he was, which just pissed me off even more. I remember thinking, if Katniss was opening up to me so much, breaking down in my arms and sharing the pain of her past, she obviously wasn't getting the support she needed from him. I hated him.
He didn't deserve her. He has never deserved her.
I close my eyes as flashes of how things had eventually imploded between the three of us, comes to mind. I shake the memories off, not wanting to dwell in what has already been done.
By the time I reach her at the end of the aisle Gale is already gone. I come up from behind her as she gazes thoughtfully at the shelf of canned foods and wrap my arms around her. I cradle her belly in my hands and place a kiss to her neck.
"Hey you," she hums, resting her hands on top of mine.
Hmm...I know that tone of voice. She wants me right now.
Katniss has been particularly...needy…ever since her morning sickness passed. Knowing that the closer we get to her due date, the more likely it is that she'll be too uncomfortable for those kind of activities, I've been enjoying it while it lasts.
"You ready to get out of here?" I whisper in her ear.
She turns around and nods at me coyly, biting her bottom lip.
Shit I want her. I take her face in my hands right there in the middle of the aisle and kiss her, slow and gentle, a promise of what's to come.
She grins at me when we pull away, knowing full well that I will take care of her like she needs to be when we get home.
I grab our cart and start pushing it down the aisle. She wraps her arm around mine and trails along beside me.
"Oh God, guess who I just ran into?"
I make a brief noise of interest as she tells me about Gale and the fact that he was in town visiting family. Apparently he lives on the other side of the country now. I can't help the bitter, shallow part of me that is glad to hear that news.
I change the topic as we make our way towards the checkout stand, not particularly interested in hearing about her ex. I have to take a deep breath and tell myself to calm down as irrational feelings of anger start to rush over me.
If Katniss notices how I'm suddenly quiet and distracted on the ride home she doesn't say anything. She keeps up a constant stream of chatter until we are finally back home and unpacking the bags from the store.
I haven't really been listening to what she's been saying, too preoccupied with my own thoughts and still hung up for some reason on seeing her talking to Gale earlier. When all the perishables are put away I grab her hand and pull her into the living room.
She stops mid-sentence and looks at me with a sly grin on her face. "You mean you haven't been listening to me ramble on for the last half hour? Shocker."
I laugh and tug her down to sit on my lap as I take a seat on the couch. "Sorry, I've been thinking about that look you gave me in the store aisle. I know you were having ideas." I lean in to kiss her and she returns if full force, pushing me back against the couch and pressing her breasts into my chest.
"That's true," she breathes when we break away. Her hand moves down to my crotch, stroking me over my jeans. "I was having ideas about this."
"Yeah?" I'm panting now, fully hard and needing to be inside her.
She stands up with a sly grin and reaches under her dress to tug her panties to the floor. Simultaneously I undo the button and zipper on my jeans, lifting my hips to push my pants and boxers to the floor so they pool around my ankles.
"Come here." I tug on her hand to bring her back to my lap.
I pull her dress up around her waist and position her so her back is flat against my chest. Since her stomach got big and round this has become our new favorite position. It's the closest I can get to her when we're making love and the need to be close to her while she has been carrying our child drives me insane.
I drop my hand down and rub her clit as I start pressing kisses along her neck. She whines breathlessly, begging for me to fuck her. I slide two fingers along her folds and find that she's dripping wet. I take myself in my hand and tease her entrance a little bit before pushing inside her.
She gasps my name and her head rolls back to rest on my shoulder. Her legs fall open and I use my thighs to spread them wide, lifting my feet up on the coffee table in front of us to use for leverage as I start thrusting my hips into her. I lose myself for a minute, roughly pumping away as I focus on nothing more than the feel of Katniss in my arms and my cock sliding into her wet heat. She goes soft, melting around me as I pound her into orgasm and then continue my assault between her legs. She cries out when I come inside her, my own orgasm pulling another one from her already sated body.
We just hold each other for a while, sweaty and breathless and completely satisfied after that round of lovemaking.
"Feel better now, caveman?" She finally speaks up with a wryly tone, patting the arm that is holding her belly.
"After fucking you senseless? Definitely." I know that's not what she means though. I guess I wasn't as good at hiding my irritation earlier as I thought.
"Talk to me," she probes gently, running her hands over my arms so we're both caressing our unborn child.
I take a deep breath. "I just…I hate remembering when you were with him. I know it's ridiculous, but I feel sick when I think about when you weren't mine."
She takes my hand and presses a kiss to my palm.
I force myself to admit the next part, basically confirming the caveman comment she made earlier.
"I hate that he was your first."
She is quiet for a long time but she doesn't move away. I start to get anxious, wondering what she is thinking about.
She sighs. "Peeta we're sitting here running our hands over my pregnant belly." She lifts her left hand up and spreads her fingers. "That is your ring on my finger. And…" she leans forward and grabs a piece of mail off the coffee table. "This bill came addressed to Katniss Mellark."
She turns around to look at me and there is no anger, annoyance, or coldness in her eyes. She's soothing and loving as she pushes the hair off my face and leans in for a gentle kiss. "I'm having your child. I'm wearing your ring. I have your last name."
I smile at the feel of so much tension melting off my shoulders. It's amazing how well she knows me, and how she can make me feel so much better with just a few words. I think for what feels like the thousandth time since we got married how lucky I am to have her in my life and how much I love her.
"I know, you're right."
She kisses me again. "I wish he hadn't been my first either, I'm not going to lie. But it doesn't matter. It's so insignificant compared to what you and I have."
I kiss her gently and then pick her up in my arms as I stand up off the couch. Even 7 months pregnant Katniss barely weighs anything. I walk her to our bedroom and deposit her on our bed. I whip off my shirt as she pulls her dress off and we cuddle up under the sheets completely naked.
"I feel guilty sometimes when I think about it." I break the silence and whisper the words into her hair as we hold each other. "If you hadn't seen me that night at the bar—" I don't even get to finish my thought.
"Stop," she admonishes me firmly. "You are not responsible for my actions or the way I chose to deal with that. And you aren't even at fault for what you did that night. I had pushed you away, I wasn't ready to accept what we had and I was scared. And you were dealing with your dad on top of everything else."
I exhale, realizing that what she is saying is true, even if I don't want to accept it. I wish things hadn't happened the way they did, but there is nothing I can do to change it now. And like she said, it's pointless stressing over the past. She's mine now. We have our whole future together.
"Why are you the one calming me down? You're pregnant. You're suppose to be irrational and hormonal and out of control with her emotions."
She laughs and leans into kiss me. "Hey, I haven't been too bad with my emotions and mood swings, have I?"
I pinch my lips together, trying to hold back a smirk. Last week she started crying because she forgot to pickup my dry cleaning. And no matter how much I consoled her and assured her it was no big deal she was distraught about it for a couple hours.
"You've been perfect," I tell her, kissing her on the nose. She wrinkles her nose at me and narrows her eyes.
"Of course I am, you think I'd tell a pregnant woman she's been acting crazy?" I tease her, loving how her eyes go wide and her mouth drops in indignation.
"You jerk!" She slaps me on my arm and I pull her against me, pressing kisses to her neck.
I laugh and revel in the fact that all those earlier worries have melted away and any thought of Gale seems like a distant memory. He doesn't matter. He can't touch this moment. All that matters is the two of us, and our future together.
"I love you," I sigh against her skin, reaching down to caress her belly reverently.
"I love you too and you're going to be such a good daddy," she tells me and my throat gets tight with emotion.
I pull back and kiss her and then move down her body until I can kiss and whisper to her belly, our nightly routine. I tell our unborn child how lucky they are to have Katniss as their mommy as she runs her hands through my hair.
Life is good.
It will keep getting better.
12 years later
My baby sister is getting married.
And my beautiful daughter is the flower girl.
I watch Peeta hold her in his arms, cuddling her, tickling her, whispering in her ear, being silly, distracting her until the ceremony starts.
The sound of her laughter, her childish squeals of delight, is the only sound I need to hear for the rest of my life.
The sight of her in his arms slays me. It has since the moment she was born. My first truly clear memory after gazing down into her blue eyes when I held her for the first time is of the two of them together. He was crying and she was grabbing his finger with her fist.
I didn't think it was possible to be happier or to be more in love than I was with Peeta the first few years of our marriage, but she changed everything. Our connection has magnified to something powerful and undeniable because of her. I run my hands over the growing bulge of my belly and think about how adding another little one to our family will only deepen that bond.
That's not to say there aren't still moments of fear and worry and doubt. I wonder if I'm raising her right, I fear something bad happening to her or him, and a number of other different things that I have to push out of my head to stop the flood of anxiety from coming on.
When I do that I remember the first real interaction I had with Peeta all those years ago when we first met in his grief-counseling group.
There must be something in my expression, a look on my face that tells him what complete and utter bullshit I find this to be, because he looks at me questioningly.
"Do you have anything to add, Katniss?"
Against my better judgment I find myself responding. "I'm just not a big believer in the whole 'the sun will come out tomorrow' attitude. Life is a lot more complicated than that." I tell him bluntly.
He looked at me for a long time, studying me, trying to figure me out. Eventually he just smiled and replied, "You're right it is."
Life will always have its highs and lows and I work hard each and every day to try and accept that without letting it drag me down. When I'm feeling weak or scared or prone to fear and depression, I think about Peeta's unrelenting strength and belief in the beauty of life. I think about how he has always preached about the possibility of joy and love if you work hard enough to allow it into our life.
He is the tie that anchors me, and the guide that leads me.
He is everything.
I am grateful.