A/N We've reached the end :) Hopefully I'm ending on an up-note (and re-asserting my M rating). This has been fun. In the coming months, watch for an expanded, multi-chapter version of the Merideth/Paul story. For now, enjoy...and I had to throw in a "Get it together, Mellark." I just had to. But it's not coming from the usual person. Hah!
Step 10: Follow Through
...It is important to not let the bow arm fall after the release, as this can become a problem when the bow arm actually starts to fall on the release, making some arrows land low on the target. Also moving the head to see where the arrow went too soon after the release can make the bow arm move sideways. -Graeme Jeffrey, Copyright Centenary Archers Club Inc. 1999-2008
He comes back to 12 in late summer, when the woods are a lush green and the Meadow a riot of wildflowers. As he crosses the square with the colorful paving stones, the hot afternoon sun is reflected back from the sparkling water of the fountain in its center, and he squints, shading his eyes. The fountain is new; the paving stones, he remembers. He remembers the children, too, laughing and chasing one another in the sunshine, wading barefoot in the water, stronger and better-fed than the children of just one generation past.
Though, these must be new children, he reasons. Those he saw during his last visit will have long since grown.
He also remembers the bakery. It occupies a central location just off the square, a large brick building with two plate-glass windows along the front. He sees the multi-layer cakes, pies, doughnuts, cupcakes displayed in one window, just as they were 13 summers ago; the other window shows the dining area occupying the front room of the bakery.
The front door of the place is constantly opening and closing, opening and closing, and it's clear that the people spilling in and out of this warmly-lit space aren't only there for the baked goods. There are old folks gathered around tables, young couples on couches, kids off in corners reading. He sees families with gaggles of children, alongside workers from the pharmaceutical plant with their ID badges still swinging on lanyards around their necks.
Dannick strides across the square, smiling a little; he remembers the man who ran the bakery, an old friend of his mother's who had been very kind to him on his last visit, and he promised himself this would be his first stop today. His long legs carry him up to the front window and he peers in, squinting, but doesn't see the blonde man whose name is above the door; instead, a dark-haired young woman darts about behind the counter, ringing up customers and talking nonstop, seemingly everywhere at once. She has a word for everyone who passes, an eye for everything that's going on in the dining room. The vibrant social atmosphere of the place is mostly her doing.
His vision shifts and suddenly, his own reflection comes back to him from the polished glass. He smirks at himself: a tall, lean man, dark hair gone gray at the temples, lines around the eyes, older than the flattering picture of himself his own mind still conjures.
He is easily humbled by the sight of himself, as he really is...especially when contrasted to what he had been the last time he visited 12: a cocky young man about to be married, someone who'd had his choice of everything in life but had yet to suffer any real trials, someone who did not appreciate what he had, how young he still was and all that still lay before him.
No use, thinking like that.
The smell hits him as he opens the bakery door and the bell jingles: the warm, yeasty scent of bread, the sugar and cinnamon of cookies, the sweet fruitiness of pies. The lighting is warm and golden-yellow. He hears the low hum of conversation, the jingle and slam of the cash register, and above all else, the high, sweet laughter of the woman working behind the counter.
It sounds like music.
His looks at her more closely, now: she's working with her back to him, up on a stepstool and trying to get her hands on a canister of flour on a high shelf. She's still laughing and calling to the woman for whom Dannick is now holding the door, a tiny blonde with an even tinier blonde in tow, also laughing.
"Yeah, let me know how that works out for you, Celia," calls the young woman up on the stool. She's talking over her shoulder, her eyes still trained on the canister she can just barely reach, wavy dark hair gathered into a long ponytail that hangs to the small of her back. Even her speaking voice is musical, lilting and expressive. "I'd love to get in on that secret."
"I'll bet you would," Celia fires back, chuckling, throwing an appreciative glance Dannick's way as she exits with her daughter, both of them munching sugar cookies.
It's a glance he would normally return...but today, he finds his eyes drifting back to the dark-haired woman. The woman whose taut curves are on full display as she goes up on her toes, finally, to grab what she's after. The grubby white apron she's wearing can't fully hide the swell of her breasts, the ties around her waist accentuating the way the seat of her jeans hugs her behind.
Dirty old man, he thinks, shaking his head in disgust at himself.
"Can I help you?" She's calling over her shoulder, and he realizes she's talking to him only when no one else answers her. He's now the only one standing around the display area in front of the cash register; the hum from the dining room is constant and echoes around, giving the illusion that one is surrounded by people.
She's settling the canister against her hip, swiping a few long dark strands of hair out of her eyes.
"Uh, yeah...I'm actually looking for Mr. Mellark?"
She smiles at this; he can see the swell of her cheek as she steadies herself against the shelving and steps down onto the floor. "Would that be my dad, or my brother?"
And then, in an instant, Dannick knows who she is. His mouth falls open, then spreads into a disbelieving grin. "Prue?"
Another teasing smirk, and the woman turns around fully, still resting the huge canister against her side. She must be 25 or so, now; older than he thought...but not by much. "Depends on who's asking," she says, dimples popping out on her cheeks and mischief in her eyes.
The words die out as she catches sight of him. Her lovely face, so much like her mother's, goes slack with shock. Her long-lashed eyes, a dark sparkling blue he remembers well, take in his face, then flick quickly downward over the rest of him. They settle on his face again and she gives her head a little shake.
"Oh my god...Dannick Odair," she says in a half-whisper, and drops the canister.
The top is loose, and the floor all around her feet is instantly blanketed with finely-sifted flour. "Shit," she breathes, frowning down at the floor and then back up at him before stalking a few paces away to grab a broom and dustpan.
He's behind the counter with her in a few seconds. "Let me help."
"No, it's okay," she says, sweeping at the white powder and refusing to meet his eyes. He grabs the dustpan from her anyway, steadying it for her while she sweeps. "Clumsy," she says with a breathy laugh, then shakes her head at herself.
He smiles at her. "I'm surprised you remember me at all." She looks up at him with one eyebrow raised, then quickly down again, swiping at the fine powder that's worked its way into the cracks between the tiles. "Last time I was here, I barely got a good look at you. You were always hiding behind doorways, under tables, up in trees..."
She laughs that breathy laugh again. "Well...yeah. I was a little shy. Around you." She rises with a full pan, and taps the flour into a waste can, raising a white cloud. She sets the broom aside, waving the cloud away from her face and coughing a bit. She meets his eyes and the next words tumble out of her in a rush: "I had a big crush on you, back then."
Her eyes widen immediately and her face flushes the loveliest shade of dusky rose he's ever seen. She wipes her palms on her apron and catches her top lip between her teeth. "Wow...I can't believe I just said that out loud." She smiles, and the amazingly open and inviting expression spreads over her whole face. It's hesitant and vulnerable and radiant, and it makes him feel he can see every thought passing through her mind.
He merely smiles back at her; he couldn't look away if he tried. Little Prue Mellark. Wow. If I was 10 years younger... He mentally slaps himself for such a thought. Her relative youth screams at him, her vibrance and energy are palpable. He is faded in comparison, used up, off the map for someone like her.
She sets the dustpan down and claps her hands briskly, making him jump. "So you're looking for my dad?"
"Yeah. He's definitely the first, on my list of must-visits."
She nods. "Well, he doesn't really work at the bakery much, any more. But you can find him up at the house. Do you remember..." She frowns and again cocks one eyebrow at him. "You know what? I'll show you myself. I need to head back soon anyway." She looks over his shoulder, toward a swinging door he assumes goes back to the kitchen area. "Hey Posy!" she shouts. He jumps again, as her voice thunders past him.
An older woman, salt and pepper hair pulled back into a bun and flour smudged across one cheek, pokes her head around the door. "Yeah?"
"I'm headed out. Are you okay to close up?"
Posy nods, glancing at Dannick with raised eyebrows but saying only, "Cartwright boy should be here any minute. He can help."
Prue rolls her eyes. "He can try. See ya tomorrow."
She unties her apron and grabs a leather satchel from behind the counter, waving to several people in the dining area and walking over to chat with an elderly couple on a couch before allowing Dannick to hold the door for her.
As a mark of respect to her dad, he makes a point of not staring at her ass as she walks by.
Her dad asks Dannick to stay for dinner, of course, since he is incapable of not being a gracious host, even now. He even makes the effort to cook, talking to his old friend's son all the while; like this is something that happens every day in his house, chatting with a guest while bustling around the kitchen.
Like his daughter hadn't had to remind him to please, please take a shower today, as she left before dawn this morning.
She would chide him for still keeping baker's hours, if it wasn't so sad that he didn't need to keep baker's hours any more.
"So what brings you back to 12?" Peeta asks, and Prue watches their guest for his answer, hiding her curious eyes behind the rim of her wine glass.
"Ah, well, I'm a teacher," he answers. "There's an opening for a senior-level instructor at the secondary school here, and...I needed a change of scenery, I guess." His voice is like butter: smooth and rich. His eyes are the most amazing shade of green, his skin tan and smooth, like some kind of ocean-city god. Just as she remembers. His dark hair has just enough gray, now, to make him interesting.
And she has been trying so hard to look like she's not staring that she's missed whatever it was he just asked her.
"Huh?" is all she has to say, in reply to his expectant silence.
She doesn't miss her dad's eye-roll at this, and throws him a dirty look. Dannick only smiles and repeats, "I was just saying that the schools here have developed quite a reputation for excellence. I teach history, and I've been told the standards are quite rigorous. Was that your experience?"
She lets her gaze drop to her plate, shrugging. "I suppose so. I feel...educated?" Really? "You'd have to ask my brother; he was always more school-oriented than I was." Oh, excellent answer. What the hell is wrong with me? Get it together, Mellark. Focus.
But Dannick is smiling, charming, smoothing over any awkwardness. "Oh, yes, I remember your brother. Cute little chap. Where is he now?"
Peeta actually smiles at this; of course, mentioning the Golden Child can always coax a smile. "If you have any questions for him, you'll have to ask quickly; he and his family will be leaving within the month for the Capitol."
"He has a family, does he? Wow, that makes me feel old." Dannick shakes his head with a wry smile, and it makes Prue smile too. 'Old' would not be the word she would choose.
"Yes. Their son Paul is two and a half, and Rosemary is their newborn. Sage has been taking correspondance courses for the past two years, and he's starting medical school in the fall." Peeta is clearly getting ready to talk Grandkids, the one subject on which he can still effortlessly discourse.
"Paul...wasn't that..." Dannick is frowning.
"He's named for my mother's father," Prue says quickly, with a nervous glance at her dad. It's the first time her mother's come up all night, and Prue has been dreading it. Not because of the hot pool of lead that still fills her belly at the mention of her mother, even three years later...but because of how her father may react.
But all she can see, so far, is a tightening of Peeta's fingers around his fork and a flexing of his jaw; things you wouldn't even notice, if you didn't know him.
"Oh," Dannick frowns, and before she can stop him, he goes on. "My mother and I were so, so heartbroken to hear about...Katniss. I know that my mom considered her a..."
But Peeta is gone. He has risen very quietly and walked out of the room, the way he always does when his late wife's name is mentioned. Prue lays down her fork and stares after him, knowing he won't show his face for at least a day, now.
"Oh," Dannick says again. "I'm sorry...did I-"
"It's okay. It's not your fault. I should have warned you not to mention my mother." Dannick looks so distressed, and he's making movements like he's going to get up and go after Peeta, which is the worst thing he could possibly do. Her hand shoots out and falls on top of his, and their eyes meet again. She is struck by the warmth he exudes, the steady calm. "He just, um, took it really hard. When she...died."
Dannick nods. "Yes. He would, wouldn't he." He flips his hand over and gives hers a squeeze; his palm is calloused, his rough fingertips brushing her wrist, and her heart leaps. Oh, god. Say something. She opens her mouth.
But suddenly she is twelve years old again, all elbows and knees and matted hair, 5 feet tall and meeting handsome Dannick Odair with her dad at the train station. Shaking the young man's hand and looking into his sea-green eyes and feeling a warm pulse of...something...course through her body for the first time. Not being able to take her eyes off of him on the walk back through town. Terrified of being in the same room with him, for fear she would blurt and say something embarrassing.
This is not usually a problem. Navigating romantic waters has always been laughably easy for her. She does not get nervous or flustered; she is usually in control. He's out of your league, she chides herself. He still sees you as some little kid who climbs trees and hides under tables. He said it himself.
He hasn't given you a thought.
The whole district is crowded in and around the bakery tonight, the last night in 12 for Sage Mellark and his small family. The gorgeous but exhausted Suzy shepherds their little boy Paul, who has Suzy's tight curls and coffee-colored skin, and grey Seam eyes leveled far too seriously at the world. And Rosemary, the tiny queen of the evening, sleeping through the din in her grandfather's arms for most of the night, her silky curls glossy and dark against Peeta's fair skin.
Prue finds Dannick just outside, munching on a cheese puff pastry with mushroom pate and staring up into the sky.
"Enjoying the hors d'oeuvres?"
He smiles, his mouth full, his heart incredibly light. She raises her eyebrows at him, and he holds one finger up, chewing and swallowing, a smile pulling at his lips when he finally answers. "Very much. My compliments to the chef."
She leans back against the brick, crossing her arms over her chest. "Compliments accepted."
"You made these?"
"Wait...did you make all the food in there?"
Her eyes slide down, then to the side, and she catches her upper lip between her teeth. He has to smile again at her now-familiar, nervous gesture. "Maybe."
"You're very talented." He steps closer, and she tips her head up at him, and his brain goes numb.
How does she do it? She has worked her way into the periphery of his life, in the month he's been here.
She shrugs, and one shoulder of her shirt slips down enough that he catches sight of a lacy black bra strap. "Much good it'll do me, right?"
Maybe she's closer than the periphery. Maybe she's working her way further in.
"You never know," he says. He reaches out and brushes her arm with his rough fingertips, running them up and down once, elbow to shoulder and back. And god, her skin is soft. When he touches her, it feels like she might melt. "I'd love to see what you can really do."
Her long-lashed eyes flash up at his, suddenly, and he feels her look with a jolt.
One of her friends leans out of the door, then, laughing and a little drunk, and yells for her to rejoin the party.
"In a minute," she calls over her shoulder, keeping her eyes steady on him.
"Okay," Prue says, smiling down at the answer key to the exams he has been grading. "Answer me this. In what year was the Panem Pact ratified?"
Dannick leans back in his chair, resting his head against the wall behind him, and lets out a booming laugh. "I thought you were going to challenge me. That's the third question on the exam; they get harder from there."
A smile steals onto her face. "Just answer the question. Quit stalling." It's a Tuesday night, 15 minutes until closing, and the bakery is deserted. Dannick has been working at a corner table all afternoon and evening, grading winter exams and term projects.
He leans forward. "The answer is 76. Can we move on now, please? I want to dazzle you with my knowledge."
She looks up, eyes teasing, and shakes her head. "You'll have to dazzle me some other way,"
He frowns. "What? You know I'm right."
Oh, how she loves catching him out. "Well," she says, drawing the word out and inspecting her fingernails, "I guess I wouldn't expect you to know something like that. Being from a district with such inferior educational standards..."
He swats at her with a rolled-up paper, but she ducks him easily. "Come on, next question."
She levels a challenging look at him. "It's not 76, by the way."
He lets out a puff of air and widens his eyes. "It is, everyone knows that."
"Everyone is wrong." She leans forward. "You remember my mom's old friend, Minister Hawthorne?"
"Um...yeah. From 12, right? Fought with distinction in the Capitol Seige. Headed up the Committee to..."
"Right. Him." She inclines her head back toward the kitchen area; the clanking of pots and pans and the spray of water are just barely audible. "Brother to my co-worker back there, incidentally."
"Mmm-hmm." She catches his eye again; he is fighting back a smile; the corners of his mouth twitching.
"Is there a point to this? Because if not, I have exams to grade."
"How can you grade those if you don't know the right answers yourself?"
He drops his pen onto the tabletop. "Fine. Out with it."
"Hawthorne had an ongoing feud with the Representative from 7. Mason. She loved to wind him up, and if she could do it in a professional capacity, so much the better."
"Kind of like someone else I know."
"Do you want to hear the story, or not?" He presses his lips together, makes a 'zipping' gesture with his fingers. "So when it came time for all the districts to ratify the treaty, she waited until the absolute last minute on the day of the deadline. And she kept holding it up. And holding it up." She grins at the memory of her "Aunt" Johanna. Queen of mischief. "It was a different excuse every month. She'd found some technicality in the wording that she didn't like. The courier got held up. The train was late. She told him anything she could think of. Finally, he got frustrated enough to pack up his staff and make a special trip up there to fetch her signature himself. But by then..."
He sits back in his chair again, eyeing her skeptically. "Let me guess. By then, it wasn't 76 anymore."
"Nope. It was 77. In honor of..." She spreads her hands out, palms up. "District 7."
"Wow." He stares at her, and she doesn't look away, fighting to keep her eyes wide and honest. It's almost too much. But he breaks away first, shuffling a few papers on the tabletop in front of him. "You know, I'm going to have to verify that independently."
She covers her heart with her hand, feigning offense. "What? My word isn't good enough?"
He chuckles, his eyes crinkling up in the corners. "No, I believe you. I just can't believe I've never heard that before."
"Well, Hawthorne was pretty embarrassed about it."
"I'll bet." There is a pause; he's running his fingers over and over one of the papers and she has an overwhelming urge to reach out and grab his hand. "Wait. Weren't they married, eventually? Hawthorne and Mason?"
She smiles, and coughs out a small laugh. "Yeah. They were."
He shifts in his seat, and suddenly she remembers. Dannick was married before, too. Divorce is still uncommon enough in the Districts that, when word came that the son of the victor Finnick Odair was splitting with his wife, the talk had reached even as far as 12.
No one knew what had happened. And Prue hadn't asked. I needed a change of scene; hadn't he said something like that?
Stupidly, it hadn't even entered her head until now. "Oh. I'm…sorry. I didn't mean to-"
He shakes his head, his expression suddenly somber. "I should get back to grading these."
She nods. "I should go close." She gets up, unwraps her apron from the back of the chair, pulls it over her head. "Hey…are we still on for Friday?"
He looks up, momentarily confused.
"I'm…cooking you dinner. My place?" The apron strings seem larger and harder to maneuver than usual, and she twists her body to frown at them. "You said once that you wanted to see what I could really do." A pause. "In the kitchen."
A faint smile. "Oh yeah…"
"Well. I intend to show you."
She retreats back into the kitchen, pulse pounding in her ears, his bewildered look burned into her retinas. What did I do? What did I just do?
Dannick's arms around her in the Meadow, after dinner, are warm and unexpected, and she slowly lowers her own arm from pointing out the constellation Cassiopeia, to rest it lightly on top of his, which is now circling her waist.
"Hi," she breathes.
"Hello." He brushes her hair aside and lowers his head so that his breath tickles her neck. "Do you mind?"
"N-no." She says it too quickly, far too softly. This is not how it usually goes. She is never taken by surprise.
But she is taken by surprise when he kisses her. He is very gentle and very cautious, still standing behind her and tilting her head back, and she is consumed, her hands gripping his arm, skin warm and throbbing.
"I don't like it," Peeta says.
She freezes. "You don't like what?"
"I'm not an idiot." She turns slowly away from the door, which she's been trying to close as silently as possible. "He's 16 years older than you."
"I can count, Daddy." She levels a glare at him, but can't meet his eyes in the shadowy hallway. She can tell he never got dressed today, probably just got out of bed, from the rumpled look of him. "And I'm a grown-ass woman."
"He doesn't have the best track record," her dad says. "With women. Grown-ass or otherwise."
"Lot of problems in the world, Dad," she says, trailing her hand along the railing as she climbs the stairs toward the room she's occupied since she was born. "Other people's love lives register pretty low on the list, wouldn't you say?"
"I don't like it," Peeta says again, and she hasn't heard his voice sound dark and menacing like that since…ever.
She whirls to face him when she reaches the top of the stairs; he's at the bottom, still in shadow, the moonlight making his white hair glow silver. "Well why don't you actually get out of bed tomorrow morning and come to the bakery with me. Then you could, oh I don't know, actually talk to him, instead of making assumptions."
He's standing silently in the shadows, still, when her bedroom door slams behind her.
"Robbie just finished his exams, back in 4."
They are lingering in the back room of the bakery, where all the dry supplies are stored; her hair is mussed and her bra is undone; his shirt is untucked and her hands are splayed across his back.
At the mention of his son, she pulls back, peering up at him. "So they get a winter break in 4 too, huh? Even though there's no winter?" She plucks at the skin of his side, trying to tickle, but he grabs her hand, planting a kiss on her palm and then cradling it between his two hands.
She still feels so soft, to him. Like she could slip out of his grip and away from him, at any time. He says, "Yeah, they do. I'm going back there for two weeks, to see him before school starts again." Her face falls immediately, and his heart trip-hammers. He doesn't know he's going to say it until he already has: "Come with me."
She frowns. "To 4?"
"Yes. To visit. You say you've visited before, to see your grandmother? You liked it, right?"
She pulls her hand away, leans against the back wall of the store room. "I…don't know. If I could just leave like that."
"Think about it. I'd…" Oh, hell. "I'd like you to meet him." Robin, he means; his son. Aged 10. Robbie. They've talked about Robbie before. But never as someone that Prue could ever potentially meet.
"I'll let you know, okay?"
They take separate compartments on the train, of course.
It is an overnight trip from 12 to 4, the train thundering southwest across the continent while the passengers sleep. She strips down to a long t-shirt and fights back a smile at the soft knock on her compartment door, just after midnight.
She opens the door without hesitation, smirking at the sight of him, still fully dressed but rumpled-looking. She leans against the doorway, crossing her arms, both of them swaying a little with the movement of the train. "What are you doing here, Mr. Odair?"
His face blanches in panic, then relaxes as her smirk grows into a warm smile. One he remembers, from the first day he saw her. Hesitant, yet inviting and open. All that defines her. He glances down at her bare legs, and his eyes are dark and heavy when he looks up again. "Why don't you tell me."
She catches her upper lip between her teeth. Lets it go. Parts her lips. Snakes out one hand and grabs his belt buckle, pulling him into the tiny compartment.
Another swaying movement of the train sends them crashing into the wall, limbs tangled in an instant.
He grabs her backside and lifts her; with a shaky sigh, she brings her legs up around his waist and grips his shoulders with sweaty palms. They cling together and kiss like teenagers, barely coming up for air.
He is gentle, pushing into her slowly, agonizingly slowly. She pulls at him, moaning, but he doesn't yield.
"Shh," he says. "Easy." He brushes her hair away and rests his face against her shoulder.
She can feel his breath, as he gasps against her. Cold on the inhale, warm and wet on the exhale. In, out.
"Easy," he murmurs again. "Enjoy this."
She does. Oh, she does.
His son, Robbie, is a tall, slim 10-year-old with glowing auburn hair, bronzed skin and his father's green eyes. The eyes are skeptical as they regard Prue; she squints in the bright sunlight sparkling off the ocean and wonders if everyone in 4 is born with beautiful, smooth bronze skin and a perfect physique. It seems so.
The boy does not trust her; he does not like her. He's seen more than enough of the heartache love can bring. She approaches him slowly, talking, asking him about school and sports, hunting seashells with him as they all stroll down the beach together, Prue and Dannick and Robin and Prue's Grandma Merry. Merry is in her 80s now, but still able to keep up, her body still lean and strong, her smile knowing as she watches her granddaughter.
Prue and Robbie race down the beach, leaving Dannick and Grandma Merry far behind. They stop in front of the abandoned mansion at the far end of the beach, perched there alone where the sand peters out into long grass.
"What's this?" Prue asks, turning to Dannick as he catches up with them and lays a hand across her back.
He glances at the empty house, then back at her. "All that's left of the Victor's Village," he says.
"Oh." She frowns. Then, before he can stop her, she trots over and climbs the rickety stairs, picking her way across the wrap-around porch and shading her eyes to peer in through the broken glass of a side window. "Huge kitchen," she calls back over her shoulder. She moves across the porch and pokes her head in where a huge plate-glass window used to be. "Oh wow," she says, "Look at this living room. Beautiful."
Joining her, Dannick looks over what used to be the spacious living area and back terrace of a Victor's home. Both look out over the sparkling ocean. He says nothing, but holds Robbie back with a hand on his shoulder, preventing him from going in and picking through the ruin.
"Wouldn't this make a great restaurant," Prue says, looking back at him, her eyes shining. Enthusiastic. Not a hint of sarcasm or teasing, for almost the first time since he's known her. "Perfect location. The kitchen's more than big enough. And this back room, and the terrace? That would be the dining room. We could use it year-round, it never gets cold here…"
She trails off, then, because of course, there is no We. And she will be doing nothing of the kind. She will be returning to 12, to the bakery, to her father. She glances from Dannick to Robbie, to Grandma Merry, climbing the rickety stairs behind them. She drops her eyes, catches her upper lip and bites down, hard.
"You should have seen it, Daddy," she gushes. "It was so beautiful. Just like I remembered." She's flitting around the kitchen, fixing a light supper for the two of them. Peeta watches the fluid ease with which she moves, from cupboard to fridge to burner to cutting board.
"And this old house? Right on the beach. Perfect location for a restaurant. It's just standing there, abandoned." She glances at him; her smile is so genuine, so open, that it cuts into his heart.
"So many houses are, there. So many people in 4 are just…floundering. The Capitol used to keep the fishing stock built up, somehow, but now they can't, of course, and a lot of fishermen are out of work, and the place is just crying out for business, now that people from the Capitol don't go there as much. It's such a beautiful place, and so sad…and all this building needs, really, is a little bit of work. It would employ so many people who need a job. It would…" And on and on.
Peeta watches her, his eyes narrowed, his brown furrowed.
Eventually, she goes quiet.
"Come with me," murmurs Dannick, pushing his nose into her bare back, his voice a low rumble against her ribs.
She's known this was coming, for some time, now. He's going back to 4, at the end of the school year. They want him back. He misses Robbie.
"I can't," Prue whispers, barely audible. She doesn't want to be saying it. "I can't leave him."
He trails kisses up her back, following the dip of her spine until he reaches her throat. "Come back with me," he murmurs into her hair, flicking his tongue out and tasting her earlobe.
"I can't," she says, again. "I can't…he's…worse now...oh." He's running his fingertips over her nipples, over and over. "Don't stop. Don't..." One of his hands drifts lower, knuckles ghosting over her hip, finally cupping her wetness with his whole hand.
"Come with me," he whispers, and this time he means something different.
And she does. This, she can give to him.
Dannick leaves 12 on a sunny day in late June, and that day, Prue works a double shift at the bakery, opening to closing. She keeps busy, laughing, chatting, restocking, mixing and baking.
Posy is not fooled. "You know," she says, walking up just behind Prue at the workbench and making her jump. "My Galen is graduating this year. Gonna be looking for a job soon. Told him he should think about coming here."
Prue frowns. "Oh?" Galen is a tall, handsome, but absentminded lad of 18, who has worked at the bakery off and on for years, after school and over summer and winter breaks. She never thought he showed a great aptitude for it. "Okay. Tell him to come by next week-"
"You're not fooling anyone, you know."
Prue spins to face Posy, who's wearing a knowing smirk.
"What do you mean?"
Posy sighs, turning back to her mixing bowl. "Life is too short not to chase what makes you happy," she says. And that's all she'll say, no matter how Prue presses her.
"If there's one thing I have always hated, it's being used."
Prue's head snaps up from her book; in truth, she's been reading the same line over and over. She hadn't realized her dad was still awake.
"Um, Dad? What are you talking about?"
Peeta is standing in the doorway of the dining room in three-day-old pajamas, his white hair sticking up in the back. He looks her in the eyes, and his expression is neutral, even matter-of-fact. He continues as if he didn't hear her. "My mom used to use me, to get back at my dad."
Her mouth drops open in shock. If talk of her mother is rare and painful, talk of his mother is unheard of. "The people in the Capitol used me for entertainment, dressing me up like a doll and then throwing me into the arena," he goes on, advancing into the room and grasping the back of a dining-room chair. "President Coin used me, when she decided she wanted your mother dead." He laughs, a dark, dry sound with no humor. "Boy, did that backfire."
Prue bolts to her feet, backs away from the table. What? What is he saying? He isn't making sense.
"And now you." His voice is low and deadly, like that night in the front hallway, when she'd just barely been afraid of him, again. Like she is now.
"Me? Dad." This is not him. He must be having an episode. He hasn't really had one since her mother died, but maybe they're returning. She takes a few deep breaths, tries to remember what to do, what to say. It's been so long. "Why don't you-"
"You. Using me as an excuse."
"Um..." She doesn't know what he wants from her. What to say.
"You're afraid to go to 4. Afraid of what it might mean. So you're telling yourself you're staying for me."
Oh god. How could he know that Dannick asked me to go with him? "I am staying for you."
"It's not. Have you seen yourself lately?" She is on the verge of tears, suddenly and without warning.
"Have you ever had a relationship before, that lasted more than two months?" The answer is no. No, not until Dannick. And he damn well knows it. "What do you think your mother would say? If she knew you were afraid and you couldn't face this? The idea that someone loves you?"
That stops her. He's said it in such an even tone and so calmly, it doesn't immediately register that he's talking, voluntarily, about her mother.
"That someone needs you? Someone who's not me?"
"I'm not afraid." But her voice, broken and weak, betrays her.
"Bullshit." He steps closer to her, and she can't meet his eyes. "You care about him, like you didn't care about the others. You've never felt this, and it scares you."
"I'm not going to pretend I like it. I'll probably never like it. But you are just rotting away here, Prue, miserable. You put a good face on for everyone else, like I always could. But I've seen it."
"And what about you, you hypocrite?" The anger blazes up in her, and the words flow as from a hot spigot.
His mouth opens, shocked. "What did you say to me?"
"You heard me." She rounds the table, bearing down on him, and when they are nose to nose, they both realize, with a start, that they are now of a height. Equals. "What do you think Mom would say, if she could see you now?"
The wound she has given him is visible, palpable, lethal. He takes a step back, gripping at his chest through his thin shirt. "Don't you...dare..."
"Come on, Dad. Look around." She throws her arms out, to encompass the room, the house…the whole world. "You don't paint. You don't bake. You barely remember to tie your shoes. You barely leave the house, except to wander into the woods and camp out on her grave. You are a shell of the man I once knew."
"What? Tell the truth? Look at us. Both of us." The tears are flowing down her cheeks; she doesn't remember when she started crying, only knows that she now can't stop. He comes to her slowly, like she's a wounded animal, and wraps his arms around her in that gentle way of his, letting his own tears fall onto her shoulder. "What happened to us, Daddy?" She gives a loud sniff. "What the hell happened?"
There is a long silence. Then, he pulls away from her, looking into her face, calm and serious.
"You love him. Real, or not real?"
"Real. Or not real." He is looking right at her.
She never could lie to him.
"...Real. I love him. Real." She dissolves again. This time, smiling. Relief.
"Then you have to go." He kisses the crown of her head, the part that was soft when she was first born, that they'd had to protect. But no more. "I'll miss you, Blueberry." Haymitch's old name for her.
They cry, together. Then, Peeta lumbers upstairs, showers, dresses, and heads for the bakery.
He's got some catching up to do.
She comes back to 4 on a warm day in early September, walking straight from the train station to the school, lugging her bag over her shoulder. It's a long walk, but her back is straight and strong, and her head is clear.
She waits until the children have gone for the day. (She was right, she thinks; they are all just born gorgeous and tanned, here.) Then she slips into the front office and asks in which classroom she can find Dannick Odair.
She waits in the doorway, watching him. He is running his fingertips over and over his temple, gripping the pen tightly in his other hand. He must have a headache. He looks up.
She smiles, hesitant but warm. "I bought the place," she says. And his face lights up with understanding. "I brought my recipes." He stands, moves around the desk. She takes a few steps forward. "I'll need to hire some people; a cleaning crew, some carpenters, construction workers. Eventually, a staff. There's a lot to do. I talked with the District council-"
She is cut off by his mouth on hers, suddenly, insistently. She wraps herself around him, and it's like they never left one another, like there was no long summer in between their last touch and this one, here, now.