Human beings are not naturally solitary creatures.
Dependency on one another is an integral part of life, companionship and shared experience providing a rich sustenance that ensures emotional well-being and happiness.
There is, however, a noted difference between companionship and connection versus merely being in close proximity. While proximity is important, the actual nature of the relationship is what truly brings meaning to the encounter.
Therefore, someone who is physically distant but remains connected to other people even though they are not always immediately nearby can thrive.
While someone who is surrounded by individuals in their immediate vicinity can feel more alone than the person who is physically isolated.
The first two months of a newborn's life are filled with highs and lows.
Peeta's time with Maddix was no different than anyone else who had ever brought a baby home. There were late night feedings, early morning diapers, mysterious rashes, unexplained crying fits and most importantly, moments of inexplicable happiness that left his heart full and a gigantic smile on his face.
Little Maddix was no longer curled into herself, and her skin had lost the wrinkly redness of a newborn's. Her cheeks were filling out, her neck was strengthening, and she was starting to become more proactive in exploring the world around her. Every day brought a new change in the tiny child, and to Peeta's amazement her growth seemed to unfurl before his eyes.
Right around the eight-week mark, Peeta woke to find his little girl lying on her stomach. At first he was alarmed; he was sure he put her on her back that night, as he did every night. He took instruction very seriously, and in the hospital he had been given a pamphlet on SIDS and the 'Back to Sleep' movement. So it was perfectly natural when he found his little girl on her stomach he was briefly, though unnecessarily, terrified.
Then the reality of what had happened dawned on Peeta - Maddix had mastered a new skill, she had rolled over all by herself.
He was incredibly proud and wanted nothing more than to see her complete this developmental task first-hand. Peeta snapped a photo of her on her stomach, and then set about getting ready for the day. When he and Maddix were completely prepared, he laid a blanket on the living room floor and placed her there on her back while they waited for Gale to emerge so they could drop her off at Hazelle's before a long day of mowing lawns in the hot sun.
Peeta caught her eye with a sparkly toy and then tried to coax her into rolling to one side or the other to no avail. Eventually Gale joined him, trying anything and everything to entice her to roll over. They gave up when it became obvious that they would be late to work before she rolled over again.
Hazelle nodded excitedly at the news of Itty Bitty's newest accomplishment and promised Peeta that not only would she keep an eye out for it, she would try to catch it on video should the opportunity present itself. Gale and Peeta quickly excused themselves, and Hazelle held the little one at the window, waving her tiny hand toward the work truck that was pulling away.
"Why didn't you just tell him that she's been rolling over for a week now?" Katniss's question caused the older woman to turn and face her with a knowing look on her face. "I mean, she did it twice last week when she was sleeping, and several other times when Prim and Posy were playing with her on the floor."
Hazelle passed the infant off into the younger woman's arms. "Because, Katniss, it's important for him to experience these types of things with her first. You'll understand someday." Katniss looked at her with a puzzled expression. She wasn't entirely sure what the big deal was but she trusted Hazelle, so when she said that it was, Katniss dropped it. It wasn't like she was going to tell Peeta anyway, because telling Peeta would require talking to Peeta - something she avoided doing.
It was another week before Peeta got to witness his little girl roll over without aid, and even then he almost missed it. Gale was sitting with Itty Bitty while Peeta showered, when he watched her roll from back to stomach. He called for Peeta who came running, wrapped in nothing but a towel and watched as she rolled over again. Peeta and Gale made a big fuss, loudly exclaiming how proud of her they were and Gale's booming laugh startled the wee one, so instead of enjoying the fact that she had rolled over all by herself she started to cry and needed comforting.
While there were highs and lows, it was nothing of a dramatic sort that some experience. Peeta's little girl was really a very content child. She had her moments of course, as most babies do, and there were times that Peeta feared for her, as most parents do.
There was an incident with a fever, which was not so much an incident as a simple temperature hike that sometimes accompanies immunizations. It was hard enough for Peeta to watch as a nurse plunged needles that seemed entirely too large for her tiny legs into her thighs; even harder for him to stomach was listening to Maddix wail in pain. Her tiny mouth opened as wide as it could, her deep red gums extremely visible as she protested the burning pain in her legs. Peeta cried too, just a small smattering of tears on his cheeks, but enough for the nurses to offer assurances and pat him softly on the shoulder as they put brightly colored bandages over the little one's injection sites.
Hours later, when Peeta was beginning to relax and felt that the incident was far behind them, he noticed that it wasn't only her thin legs that felt warm, but also her head… and back…and chest. He wasn't quite sure what to do. Peeta was positive Maddix had a fever, but he was without a thermometer to check (just another of the many things needed for an infant that Peeta did not have).
Even though he would have hated asking for help, Peeta would have relented and sent Gale to locate a thermometer. Alas, Gale was out. So, Peeta loaded little Maddix up into his car and drove her to Hazelle. What else was he to do? He wanted to take her to the Emergency Room, but something inside him said that there was no need for that yet.
Hazelle immediately knew what the issue was as she pulled Maddix from her car seat. "Her shots were today, weren't they?" She asked as she undressed the baby, who fussed when the older woman's hands came into contact with her tender thighs.
"I've never heard her scream so loud," Peeta admitted as he watched Hazelle run soothing hands over his little girl's body and then pull her tight to her chest. "Should I take her to the doctor?"
The older woman smiled in response to Peeta's concern. "I don't think that is necessary right now. Let's check her temperature, and if it's high enough then we take her, but this feels like a low grade temperature to me. If we undress her and give her a cool bath her discomfort should be eased some."
Peeta wondered to himself how Hazelle could just know what Maddix's temperature was merely from feel. That seemed like an important and unusual talent to have, and he couldn't remember his mother ever doing anything like that.
Mrs. Mellark would stuff the thermometer in his and his brothers' mouths, then insist that they sit still and keep their mouth shut. By contrast, Hazelle caressed his little girl's arms and spoke to her in hushed tones while running a temporal thermometer across her forehead, effectively taking her temperature. It was, as she had suggested, a low grade fever, not much higher than normal and nothing worth alarm.
They bathed her in tepid water and then fed her. When Peeta went to load her in the car seat, Hazelle offered Gale's old room if Peeta would like it. She thought he may want to stay - perhaps it would ease the nerves that his daughter's fever had induced in him. Peeta reassured her that it was unnecessary, but he appreciated the offer, which he did. He greatly appreciated the offer to help, but he wanted to care for the child himself.
In the morning light, his concern seemed a bit embarrassing to him. Maddix was fine. He woke to her hungry cries, and the wee one sucked at her morning bottle ravenously, with no trace of fever or discomfort present.
Having Hazelle's assistance was in many ways a life line for Peeta, but really he craved the interest of his parents, specifically his father. However, when Mr. Mellark finally called Peeta and requested to meet his little granddaughter, Peeta found himself hesitant to trust his father's intentions. It was unexpected, and very unlike his father to initiate contact. A part of Peeta feared that there was an ulterior motive to his father's interest, even though he had been hoping for his involvement since Maddix's birth.
Gale could tell that Peeta was nervous. The blonde man had fussed over their shared living space, making sure that it was clean and tidy, and then paced the floor back and forth in front of the living room window, glancing through the curtains to peer down the street. Gale offered to stay - his plans weren't that important anyway, he assured Peeta - thinking that his presence may put Peeta at ease. Peeta refused the offer, but thanked him anyway, waving him off to enjoy an evening with friends.
When he arrived, Mr. Mellark carried a gigantic pink unicorn in his arms. It was large and there was no way that Maddix would even pay any attention to it until she was much older, but Peeta reminded himself that it was the thought that counted. Itty Bitty was tucked in her father's arms, so the two men, father and son, embraced awkwardly around the small bundle. Both men shuffled their feet, trying to think of what to say, and the moment was rapidly deteriorating into a clumsy, bumbling mess.
Finally, Peeta's father reached for the baby and asked if he could hold the child. To her credit, Maddix blinked up at her grandfather and made funny faces as she grimaced while she worked through a gas bubble deep in her stomach. Mr. Mellark was immediately enchanted with the precious child and he sat down on the couch, resting her against his legs as he examined her teeny hands and feet.
"Son, you've done well. She's such a precious little thing." With these words, Peeta swallowed hard, trying to rid his throat of the lump forming there. When his father looked up to meet his eyes, his only response was to nod his thanks.
Mr. Mellark stayed much later than he had planned, holding the wee one and giving her a bottle. He even insisted on changing a tiny diaper, marveling at how the diapers had changed so much since Peeta was little, and regaling his son with stories of what he was like as an infant. Turns out Peeta was much like Maddix, content and happy to be in the presence of others.
When the time came for Mr. Mellark to leave, he pressed kisses to the infant's tiny face. The little one had long ago fallen asleep, and her grandfather had been holding her for the last ten minutes, just watching as miniscule breaths filled her lungs. He placed the beloved child back into her father's arms and then he broke. Large tears fell from the older man's eyes. He was ashamed at his behavior, both recently and for the years preceding Peeta's banishment from his home. He begged Peeta to come back to the bakery, and they would work on his mother together. Surely, if she saw little Maddix, she would not be able to turn them away he justified through tears.
Peeta declined, though it was hard for him to keep a straight face. He wanted so desperately to be angry with his father, the man who waited too long to show an interest in him. But as he listened to his father's broken sobs, he knew that he would not be able to harbor animosity for long. In a last effort, a failing effort, to persuade Peeta that he was truly sorry, Mr. Mellark attempted to press money into Peeta's hand.
It wasn't that Peeta couldn't use the money, in fact, he could have really used the money. It was the pride he had in himself for being able to do it alone. He alone was providing for Maddix and that felt good, so he politely declined the money and entertained his father's promises to visit again soon. Being financially capable, and providing for his little girl was one of the only things about being alone that he liked. Peeta liked that he was taking care of everything for Maddix, it was a fact that he was quite proud of, that he alone made sure that she had everything she needed.
Aside from Gale and his new surrogate family, Peeta was indeed alone. His friends from high school had moved on with their lives, and did not have time (or simply did not want to make time) for a young, single father. This fact, the fact that Peeta was without many friends, bothered Gale. It wasn't that Gale wasn't proud of Peeta, or that he did not understand Peeta's enthusiasm for his precious child, really it was more about the fact that he worried about Peeta taking time to enjoy himself. Being alone was fine and all, but surely his blonde friend could use the company of someone aside from himself or his family. Thus, he took it upon himself to ensure that Peeta maintained the friendships he had before Maddix's birth as well as made some new ones- or, at least he tried to do so.
A few weeks after Mr. Mellark's visit, Gale broached the subject of having Peeta accompany him out for a night with the guys. Hazelle was in on it, insisting that she would love to take care of Itty Bitty while promising that everything would be okay and that even the most dutiful parents sometimes needed to take a break for themselves.
Peeta did not like this idea. He liked being with Maddix, and he felt like he didn't get to see her enough during the day now that the heat was spiking and people were more inclined to hire someone else to tend to their yard work. The money was good, he couldn't pass that up; he could however pass up a night away from his little girl.
They were in the truck headed to the Hawthorne's to pick up Itty Bitty when Gale brought it up again. "I don't know Gale, you know I hate being away from her." Peeta's response was tinged with exasperation, enough so that the raven-haired man realized he was wearing Peeta down.
"She'll be with my mom, Peeta. It'll be good for you to get out," Gale smirked. He felt bad leaving Peeta alone a few nights a week, and he really felt that his friend could use a break. There was nothing wrong with getting out and meeting new people he insisted.
Gale's insistence that meeting new people was a good thing did not sit well with Peeta. "I'm not interested in meeting anyone, Gale. You know that." He had misinterpreted Gale's words to mean that his friend thought he should meet a girl, but Peeta only had room in his life for one girl, and that little girl was perfect.
His friend's dark grey eyes rolled at Peeta's insinuation. "I know, Peeta, Itty Bitty is all you need. But it's just going to be the guys. Your brother is going to be there, and we even scored some beer. It'll be fun." A night of beer and video games did sound fun, but Peeta couldn't shake the feeling that his nights were supposed to be filled with diaper changes and lullabies.
Peeta eventually agreed though, and soon the night came. He tried every excuse he could muster, but Hazelle just hushed him and said that Itty Bitty, Posy, and she were going to have a girls' night.
The pizza was hot, the beer was cold, and the video game was a loud, jarring, war multi-player that instantly pulled Gale in. Peeta tried, he really did, but all he could think about was how he should be home with Itty Bitty giving her a bath or singing her songs.
Peeta refused a beer, seeing as he really had no intention of staying long, and tried to engage in what all the other guys were doing. He was distracted and could not focus. Peeta pulled his phone out, checking the time and seeing if he had any messages, before finally he left. His life was different now; it wasn't a bad different, he was just different and that was more than okay with him.
However, it was this night that made Peeta realize just how different he was from Gale and that their living arrangement, while beneficial for Peeta and Maddix, may not be the best fit for his dear friend.
Thus, the fruitless apartment search began.
While Peeta was doing well by his standards, landlords were less than impressed with his income, lack of credit, and age. He didn't even bother mentioning his tiny roommate because he wasn't completely sure if her presence would help or hinder the process and he felt it best to keep that information to himself until he had at least made it past the application step.
He rarely made it past the initial application process for the places that he felt were the standard in which his little girl should be living. It just so happened that the places that cared less about credit and more about whether or not a renter could pay cash up front were less likely to be the type of place that Peeta cared to move his sweet daughter into.
Peeta did not speak one word to Gale about his search, not because he was afraid that Gale would be mad, in fact it was the opposite. He feared that if Gale knew he was looking for somewhere else to live then he would push them out before they were ready, before they had found the perfect place to call home.
Fate, as it often does, intervened much like it had with the ultrasound photo and Mrs. Mellark. Gale found a marked up classified section of the paper. "Hey man, what's this about?" he asked one evening, tossing the paper down in front of Peeta's feet that were propped up on the coffee table. It should be noted that there was an edge to Gale's voice, not because he was angry, but because he didn't understand. He feared that he had unintentionally pissed Peeta off or done something to upset the blonde man. Typically, any emotion that Gale felt - anger, sorrow, confusion, embarrassment - was expressed with a discernible edge in his voice. This was just how he operated.
"I've been looking for a place so me and the kiddo can get out of your hair." Peeta noticed the unease in Gale's voice and feared that he had made an error in judgment by not saying something to Gale at first.
Gale's face was set in a scowl, "There's no need for that." His response came out gruffer than he intended, and he hoped that Peeta knew him well enough to understand not to take it personally. "Itty Bity's not a problem at all, her dad on the other hand, now that guy is a real tool." Gale quipped, settling the unease in the air with a bad joke.
Peeta smiled in response, "It's not that I don't appreciate everything that you and your family have done for us, Gale. I do. It's just…I feel like such a burden, you know?"
"Nope. I refuse to hear any of that pity party bullshit." His thick shoulders shrugged indifferently, "Look, I want Itty Bitty and you here. Besides, if you move I have to find another roommate and I doubt I can find one that cleans up after himself like you do."
Gale's words made sense to Peeta, but he still felt like he was being placated, and he was unsure how Gale could deny the obvious burden that he and his daughter had been on him. The dark-haired man noticed Peeta's reluctance, so he spoke a language that he knew Peeta would understand, money. "Besides, it's better for the business having you here. You know, for scheduling and shit."
The blonde man stared at him, considering what he said, and before he could respond Gale leaned down and took the infant from Peeta's arms. "Plus, I like having my Itty Bitty here to keep me entertained." He cooed at Maddix who focused her bright blue eyes on his nose, causing them to cross.
From that day forward, it was like a weight had been lifted from Peeta's shoulders. Gale's insistence that it was better for the business and ease with his little girl was enough to make him feel like less of a burden. However he still couldn't quite believe that Gale really enjoyed his presence, and that the living situation was just as advantageous for him as it was for the two Mellarks he was sheltering.
Having not grown up in a functional loving family often put Peeta at a disadvantage to understanding that taking care of one another was simply what families did. Even if he did not set out to become one, Peeta (and now Maddix) had become an honorary Hawthorne, so when Gale said that he wanted them there he meant it. Despite it being difficult for Peeta to understand how the arrangement was beneficial for both parties, he appreciated living with Gale, more than he would ever be able to articulate.
Toward the end of the summer, a big thing happened in Peeta's surrogate family. Despite the fact that he was not there to witness the actual moment, he heard about it plenty in the weeks preceding and following the event. Katniss Everdeen was going to college, and not the local community college; she was attending a university two hours away from their hometown.
The day that Katniss left for college was one filled with tears. Hazelle cried, Prim cried, her mother even managed to shed a few tears, but Katniss herself did not cry. Gale even acted stoically, leaning down to pull her into a hug. "Katniss, remember, I'm here if you need anything." Her dark-haired best friend even pressed a kiss to the crown of her head and encouraged her to text him when she got there before slapping the hood of her truck twice and excusing himself, claiming that he needed to get back to Peeta and the yard he had left him working on.
One-by-one the three youngest Hawthornes gave her hugs and well wishes before Prim gave her another hug and pressed a box that Katniss had not packed into her hands. "Take it," her sweet, blonde sister whispered. "Take it and think of us when times get tough." The box was filled with photos and trinkets and everything meaningful to the youngest Everdeen.
Itty Bitty was the last one that Katniss said goodbye to. Over the last two months, Katniss had come to really enjoy her time with Maddix. In the mornings, she would join the Hawthornes for breakfast, with the intent of doing bookkeeping and things of that nature. Often she would find herself with Itty Bitty, whether on a blanket beside Katniss while she worked, or held tight to her chest as she caught up on emails and other things. She enjoyed the presence of the tiny child, and didn't mind offering Hazelle help with her, especially when Peeta was helping the business bloom.
Gale and Peeta would come for lunch, many times taking Katniss back out with them to finish their afternoon jobs. All-and-all it was a good arrangement, and it would take a while for Everthorne Lawn and Landscaping to find a new rhythm when Katniss left for school. They would miss how quickly she could get the bookkeeping done, and that extra set of hands on difficult jobs. And Katniss? Katniss would miss her quiet interactions with the sweet infant, who would coo and gurgle when sung to, and was always calm and relaxed when Katniss was around.
The boxes she brought were few, and for the most part remained unpacked, but she joined the rest of the freshmen in the common area. Katniss was overwhelmed and thrilled at the thought that no one in the room knew her. So far, she had been unimpressed with her roommate, a thin girl with curling hair and an obvious affection for fake eyelashes, but she wasn't concerned. She had put up with her mother and her erratic mood swings since her father died, she could handle this.
"Is anyone sitting here?" The clear, masculine voice startled her from her thoughts, and Katniss shook her head 'no' at the guy towering over her. He was tall and lean, with thick brown hair and lovely hazel eyes. Instinctively her arms wrapped around her chest; boys either pissed her off or made her nervous, especially good-looking ones. This one made her nervous as he smiled down at Katniss and introduced himself.
Later, when she pulled her new comforter over her shoulders while trying to settle in for the night, she thought to herself that this wasn't going to be so bad at all, especially when she had already made a handsome new friend.
Katniss leaving for college really had no effect on Peeta, aside from the impact on work. He was happy being a daddy, and while he enjoyed her company, they rarely spoke unless they had to, and even then it was often awkward between them. For the first few weeks, Gale was preoccupied and obviously missing his best friend, while Peeta became preoccupied with something and someone entirely different.
It had been two months.
Sixty-one days had passed since the last time he had seen Maddix's mother. She had not called, or emailed, or even sent a text message. They were still friends on social media, and Peeta had published photos of his little girl, knowing that her mother could see them, and hoping that possibly her adorable chubby cheeks and rapidly disappearing hair would garner a bit of interest in her.
It hadn't though, and now Peeta remembered what she had said - she would be attending college, which was fine and all, but didn't she at least want to come and say goodbye to Maddix? Peeta failed to realize that this sentiment was odd, seeing as how she hadn't even wanted to say hello to the child. The heart wants what the heart wants though, and Peeta's heart wanted his daughter's mother to care about her.
The pictures that he saw of her on her page and others depicted a smiling, carefree person that he felt he had never truly known. There were all sorts of photos of her with her friends, and even a few of her kissing a guy that Peeta had played baseball with, but the new guy in her life didn't disturb Peeta as much as the expression that she wore on her face. In all the months they spent together, even those before the burden of pregnancy had worn her down, he could not recall seeing her look so relaxed and happy.
Did it matter?
Should it matter?
Did she think of him and Maddix?
Should he call her?
He settled on a text message instead, a simple one without text, just a video. It was his favorite so far, it was from the morning he had first heard his little girl's voice. Not a scream, or a whimper, or a cry of hunger, but Maddix's real voice as she cooed at him after her morning bottle. Knowing that Gale was down the hall, getting ready for the day, Peeta called to him and asked him to video the moment.
The clip was short, not even a minute, but the adoration in Peeta's voice was palpable as it opened with Maddix and Peeta sitting in a second-hand rocking chair, sun streaming through the window. His voice, clear but lilting higher than his normal speaking voice, "There's my little girl, there's my baby, and her belly is so full, isn't it?" Then, clearly and quite adorably so, the little one's mouth opens wide and she gurgles playfully in response to her father's cue.
The moment is one that would enamor the hearts of most. However, Peeta never got so much as a 'thanks,' or a 'she's so big,' or even a 'why did you send me this?' from his ex-girlfriend. That hurt, even though it shouldn't. He was perplexed as to how she could not have been moved by the video. It was the most endearing thing that he had ever seen. Hazelle agreed, and after Peeta showed it to her she had promised that she would soon elicit a gurgling smile from Maddix as well. While Hazelle and Prim and even Gale's interest meant so much to Peeta, he still found himself wanting the interest of the one woman he would not receive it from.
In many ways it felt as if he had spent his entire life seeking the approval of a woman who would never give it to him; he simply transferred his desire for approval from one woman in his life to another. Peeta tried desperately to push it from his mind; he didn't want to desire her approval, and in many ways he told himself that he wanted it purely for Maddix's benefit.
That wasn't entirely the case though. No, he was fixated on the fact that despite having a wonderful support group in his new-found surrogate family, he still felt alone in all of this. The one person who should have been his partner, even if only in parenting their little girl, was not interested in her.
He wasn't alone, but Peeta Mellark had never felt more lonely. This was not for lack of trying on the part of the Hawthornes. It was as if Peeta was not quite ready to accept that those he had expected to receive support from were not there for him. He was mourning the loss of connections he never really had instead of celebrating the ones that he had unexpectedly made.
Eventually he would recognize his surrogate family for what they were to him, but for the time being Peeta reminded himself that Maddix was his family now and he would never be alone again. This was a comforting thought that prevented him from lingering too long on circumstances that he was unable to change.
His little girl was enough to keep those thoughts at bay.
"But you didn't have cut me off. Make it like it never happened and that we were nothing. I don't even need your love, but you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough."
Goyte 'Somebody That I Used to Know'
Thank you so much for the outpouring of support for this fic! It's so close to my heart and I love writing it! You can find me on tumblr (kismetff) for sneak peeks and other fic related things.
I really want to thank e-marina for letting me pester her constantly about this fic when she is busy with things of her own, and my wonderful, talented beta's Wildharp and katnissinme!