It had been almost three years since Katniss had been back at her college stomping grounds, not that she'd ever be able to tell the difference. Greek Row was still the same row of fraternity and sorority houses with the same obnoxious members outside on the lawns, cat-calling anyone exposing any skin. She still found them irritating though she had to admit – the frat boys in Boston were far worse. She meandered slowly through the nearly emptied campus grounds, passing by the bookstore which was a complete ghost town now that the semester was over and everyone sold their books back. The science building, where she got her first taste of what she loved, the research center where she cultivated her skills and became "an asset to the field" according to her thesis committee. Nothing about this place was different from when she left except herself.
25 years old and Katniss Everdeen felt like herself for the first time in years. It turned out that moving halfway across the country and being forced to dive head first into a highly intensive program – that had a nearly 30% dropout rate in the first year – was exactly what she needed to refocus herself. After graduating, she was offered a coveted year-long research position within the university, and got paid to spend eight months in Oklahoma to continue her research. She was away from everyone she knew and was forced to spend large amounts of time with a small group of fellow researchers, but it was well worth it in her mind since she was finally able to do what she was passionate about on her own terms. If the invite to come back had been sent any sooner, she would have declined it without hesitation. As it was, the card announcing Dr. Beetee's retirement and subsequent party reached her at her highest. Freshly graduated with a few potential jobs under her belt and Katniss felt ready.
The university was sponsoring a party for the retiring professor, ironic given how anti-people Beetee was. 'There's a reason I work with bugs,' he would huff after any prologue social engagement. It was tradition, though, and the biology department had planned a special, more intimate, celebration that night to make him slightly more comfortable.
The science hall smelled the same as when she was last here and Katniss didn't know if that was good or bad. The familiarity and nostalgia washed over her as she slowly walked down the hall. It was as if she was a freshman all over again, one of the few who came to explore campus before classes started so she didn't feel lost. At least, not physically. At the time, she was lost. Her sister had just died, her mother had completely checked out, and she had just broken up with the only boy who ever told her he loved her. It had taken a bit of searching, and some legally-questionable signatures, to get the student loans she needed to finish paying for her first semester of school.
The retirement party was being held in the large foyer of the building, set up with a line of tables showcasing some of Dr. Beetee's achievements at the university. Katniss smirked because on the end of one table was a box of some of his favorite beatle exoskeletons, which were likely to freak out anyone who wasn't completely familiar with Dr. Beetee's work. She signed the guest book and added a short sentence thanking him for providing her with so many opportunities. Short, to the point, not sappy.
She didn't need to see him enter to know he's in the room. Even after three years, just his presence made her body tense and her stomach flutter. She kept her back to him, pretending to still be interested in the "table of accomplishments" the university put together for Dr. Beetee. She's well aware of what he's done in his academic career by now, but maybe it'll detract him from coming up to her. Besides, she thought, surely he's got colleagues here he'd rather talk to.
Another part of her wondered, though, if he would even want to come talk to her. It had been three years. Three years of intentionally missed calls and deleted voice mails. Three years of sexual frustration – which on her part meant at least two vibrators because she ran them completely down. Fuck. Being halfway across the country was bad enough because he was the only thing she ever saw when she closed her eyes, but at least he wasn't there when she opened them. Not like now, where she knew if she turned her head, she'd see that mop of blonde curls, the deep blue eyes that have seen every piece of her former self.
"Ah, Miss Everdeen."
She turned with a smile on her face as the man of the hour walked toward her. She held back the chuckle at his appearance. In all the time she had known him, he always wore the same thing – black dress slacks, a white button down, an argyle sweater, and those thick black frames that made him appear twice as smart as he was. She used to wonder if those were all the clothes he wore or if he was once a wild and crazy grad student; though she had to admit, it was difficult to picture him as anything other than completely studious and slightly odd.
"Dr. Beetee," she answered, turning toward him.
"I'm so glad you could make it. I read your thesis and I have to say...remarkable work, young lady."
Katniss flushed. She knew what she had done was good – her committee wouldn't have passed her otherwise – but she didn't even send the document to Beetee to look at. If he was giving her a stamp of approval then that must mean something.
"Tell me, did you get to do the field work you discussed?"
She nodded and proceeded to tell him about the year-long position she had as a research assistant to a professor in Boston that allowed her to travel to Oklahoma to study the symbiotic parenting relationship of the American Burying Beetle. She could remember when she was nervous to talk about science in front of him, but now the words flowed easily.
"Are you planning on pursuing your PhD then?"
"Not right now," she admitted. "I have some interviews with a few national wildlife reserves around the country."
"A noble future indeed. But do not rule out further education. You would make a fine professor someday."
Katniss held back her snort of derision out of respect for Beetee. Her adviser in Boston suggested the same thing but she had no interest in going back to school at the time. While in Oklahoma she got to work with other MS graduates and found she loved being able to apply her work. That and she was ready to start her life. She had been avoiding any real connections since she started college – even her time in grad school was spent more on school work than fortifying relationships with her peers. She wasn't so afraid now of planting her roots somewhere.
When another professor came to speak to Beetee, Katniss slipped away, away from the eyes she could feel on her from across the foyer. Finding a classroom that was unlocked, she crept in and leaned against the door, letting out a long breath. This was the room she had her very first college course – an honors intro to biology class, Monday morning, at 9 a.m. She wasn't even an honor's student at the time but was accidentally stuck in with the other ten students who were crazy enough to take a 9 a.m Monday, Wednesday, Friday biology class. She tried to explain the mistake to the odd professor who was light years ahead of anyone she had ever met in terms of brain power, but he just gave her a small smirk and told her he thought she'd do just fine. At the time, she had no idea she'd aspire to be like the strange, supportive Dr. Beetee, let alone attend his retirement party.
She walked down toward the front of the class, her fingertips dancing across the rows of desks. If she closed her eyes, she could still hear the unique syncopation of Beetee's voice as he taught them about photosynthesis and genetics. She could remember the way the classroom smelled that first day, like chalk and paper; she remembered the nervousness that settled in her stomach when she realized she was in the wrong class, the pride when Beetee assured her she'd be fine.
"Can't keep you out of a classroom, can we?"
Katniss closed her eyes again, inhaling deeply, her senses flooded with everything Peeta. Her heart fluttered and she found herself caught between wanting him to come closer and keep away. "Seems not."
"How have you been?"
She turned and saw him leaning against the wall, his legs crossed and hands stuffed into the pockets of his dress pants. His hair was significantly shorter than the last time she saw him, his face more wearied and aged. At the sight of her, he offered her a small smile and in that moment, she saw the faintest of spark in his eyes. She had to avert hers, too vulnerable to be swept up into the life they once had. "I've been good. You?"
"Good. I...uh...I've had enough publications to earn a promotion."
"Yeah? That's great, Peeta. I'm sure you deserved it." This felt so wrong, so stilted and uncomfortable. They had never had a conversation that was so impersonal. But she couldn't let herself express the actual pride she felt for him.
"Are you excited about going home, Katniss?"
"I'll be happier when I'm back here," she confessed, picking at the arm of her chair.
"Why is that?"
She didn't answer, only shrugged. Even after three years of working with Cinna, she was ashamed to admit how much Peeta still affected her. She should be over him, over the pain he caused, over the hold he had on her.
"You know that what Peeta did was not the same as what Gloss did. I know it feels the same right now. And I'm not saying he didn't hurt you in a similar way, but from everything you've told me, you know as well as I do that they aren't really comparable."
She nodded. It was the same thing Cinna had reassured her of from the beginning. He couldn't say definitively if Peeta ever really did love her, only that Gloss never did. And while Peeta hurt her, he was not abusive or manipulative in the way that Gloss was. They spent almost two full years helping Katniss really come to terms with what happened with Gloss and Prim. They identified her triggers, created coping mechanisms, taught her to listen to her body for signs of anxiety and stress. And through that all, Cinna always told her "I'm sorry this happened to you."
It was the first time anyone ever said that. "Most people tell me I'm lucky."
"I'm not most people," he answered with a sad smile. It was in that moment that Katniss realized she trusted Cinna. With everything. She told him about her father's death. About turning to Gloss because she had no one else to turn to. About feeling guilty over her sister's death and mother's spiral into self-medication. In return, Cinna helped her finally realize that none of that was her fault, that she was manipulated and used but not at fault.
"Beetee says you did some field work."
She chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip. "Yeah, at a, uh, with some researchers from Central Oklahoma University."
He ran his hand through his hair. "How, how was it?"
"Good. It was good; helped beef up my resume, gave me some on-site experience." She twisted her fingers together in front of her. Her heart was pounding and she felt light-headed and cursed her body for betraying her. Having him so close to her again made all their memories come flying back faster than she anticipated. "What, um, what have you been up to?"
"I quit drinking," he answered quickly. "Uh, I mean, um..."
"That's good," she smiled. "I'm proud of you."
"Thanks," he shrugged, "one vice down, I suppose. Where, uh, where do you have your interviews?"
She glanced up at him, her mouth suddenly dry and lips cracked. "Quite a few places. There's one around here, a few on the east coast, and one back in Oklahoma."
He nodded. His brain screaming at him to say something. Anything. But he couldn't. The thought that she may return here made his chest tighten in hopeful anticipation. Maybe he hadn't screwed everything up entirely like he thought. He had tried to contact her after she left, but after enough intentionally missed calls and un-returned text messages, he assumed he lost any shot he had with her. He just wanted to explain what happened, why he told her to go, why he knew it was a mistake now but that he needed to make sure she was happy with her choices. That he loved her. That he still loves her. That seeing her again makes him want to run up to her and hold her in his arms and kiss her until neither of them could breathe.
She closed her eyes when he breathed her name that way. She didn't want to admit that she missed the way it rolled off his tongue that way, the shivers that shot through her body, the memories associated with it. He was so close to her now, or maybe she was close to him, close enough to feel the heat radiating from him, to smell his cologne, to tilt her head just slightly up and kiss him. Kiss those lips that took away so much of her pain, that made her feel so safe and secure, that belonged to the man she once loved.
He turned his head slightly, his lips resting a hair away from hers. "Katniss, I'm so-"
"I have to go," she whispered, rushing past him out the door.
"Katniss!" he called. "Please, Katniss. I'm...I'm sorry."
"Do you think you could ever forgive him, Katniss? If he asked for it?"
"I don't know."
Peeta looked up at the wobbling toddler who was smiling brightly at him. "Heya Nicky. Where's your momma?" He pushed himself up off the floor and walked over to Finnick and Annie's son. He scooped the boy up atop his shoulders.
Nicky began to giggle and grabbed fistfuls of Peeta's hair "Peet-ah! Peet-ah!"
"Nicholas?" Finnick's voice echoed through the empty hall. "Nicholas Odair, where did you run off to? Your mother is going to kill me if I can't find – oh. Whew."
Peeta smiled as Finnick turned the corner and spied them. "Lose someone?"
"I swear to God, Peeta, this boy's favorite activity is making me look like an incompetent father," Finnick said with a sigh. He reached for Nicky's foot and the boy gleefully kicked it away hard enough to almost send him toppling off Peeta's shoulders. Which only made him giggle harder.
"That's a pretty lofty ambition for a three year old," Peeta answered, shifting his grip on his godson.
"What are you doing in the hallway?"
Peeta looked in the direction of the door Katniss ran out of. "Katniss was here."
"Yeah? How'd that go?"
"I was sitting in the hallway alone and she left half an hour ago. How do you think it went?"
"Don't get snippy with me. I'm not the one who was too emotionally stunted to be honest with the girl I'm in love with."
Peeta cocked an eyebrow. "According to Annie, you were once."
Nicky laughed at the joke he didn't understand that made his dad make a funny face. Finnick took a deep breath. "That was a long time ago. I learned my lesson the hard way."
"And I didn't? Finnick, look at me. I'm a fu – I'm a mess. I need to make this right with her and I don't know how."
Peeta had just parked his car, kicking himself for still not being man enough to tell her how he felt. To tell her that he waited for her, that he wanted her, that he loved her. He knew what she was implying when she talked about job opportunities – and he knew that this time, she wouldn't resent staying with him. He should have told her everything but he still couldn't. Despite his progress, personally, over the last three years, he still felt like he'd never be what she deserved. At the time, he told himself it was fine because she was only in town for a night – she had said so herself. It wouldn't have done him any good.
"Still living in the same old place, Dr. Mellark?"
His head shot up and he spun around to face the row of cars parked behind him. There she was, leaning against her rental car, twirling the keys around her finger with a smirk on her face. Her signature braid was slung over her shoulder, the few random hairs that never seemed to stay in place blew around her face.
"I'm thinking about relocating, actually."
She cocked her head to the side. "Oh yeah? Why's that?"
"Security," he answered, waving his arms. "Seems they'll let just about anyone onto the property now a days."
"I hear that's a real problem in this part of town. I would have thought residents would change the pass code to get into the lot every once in a while. Turns out, some things never change. Even after three years."
He watched her play with the end of her braid, twisting and untwisting it around her fingers. How he had missed that braid, her fingers, those nervous tics of hers that made her so easy to read once you got past her hard exterior.
"Why did you ask me to come here?" The playfulness in her voice dropped away.
"I didn't think you would," he said quietly.
"You didn't answer my question."
Peeta sighed. It was now or never. Finnick told him he needed to man up, to admit everything if he even wanted a shot at forgiveness. 'The more uncomfortable you are, the better.' He stuffed his hands into his pockets, sure he'd have a permanent red mark on the back of his neck otherwise. "I...um..." He glanced up, right into the expectant grey eyes that left him feeling so completely alone.
"I quit drinking."
"You said that," she answered quietly.
"Yeah. Um. Cold turkey. It's been...two and a half months. I remember sitting in my living room for days and was just...God, Katniss I couldn't feel a damn thing. It didn't feel worth it, you know? All the stupid shit I had done just led me to that moment where I lost you."
"You told me to leave."
"And you didn't fight back. I wanted you to stay, I wanted you to want to stay. But you didn't. You just left without...without even a word. And I knew it was my fault but I had to do it. I couldn't be the one who decided you'd stay. I couldn't make that decision for you!"
Katniss narrowed her eyes. "I never asked you to make that decision for me!"
"You didn't have to!" He screamed. "I could tell. I could hear it in your voice and I could see it in your eyes. You didn't have to ask me to but you wanted me to. You didn't want to make that decision and I...well, fuck, Katniss I didn't either."
"But you did."
"For you. It was always for you. You deserved a life outside of this. Beyond your comfort zone – at a place you'd be pushed. And you were. I read your thesis, Katniss. You never would have written that here."
He closed his eyes, attempting to refocus the jumble of thoughts floating inside his brain. "I messed up. I let you go without telling you that I was doing it for your benefit. I did a lot of stupid shit to try to forget you. To justify what I did to you. And none of it worked. I couldn't drink enough to get you out of my head. I couldn't write anything without imagining you and wondering what you were doing. I just...I was so lost."
Katniss didn't say anything. She watched him come unraveled in front of her and was paralyzed to help him. Because she knew. She heard the voice mails, words slurred and full of regret that no amount of alcohol could mask.
"I thought about you. All the time, every day, I couldn't get you out of my head." He paused. "Did...did you ever think of me?"
The other students in her department organized a night out during their first week to get to know each other and have fun before the program got too stressful. Katniss hadn't wanted to go but the prospect of being the only person not going was stronger than her aversion to socialization. And she told herself she'd stay out for a few hours – long enough to get to know a few of her cohort before they got too wasted – and then back to her sparse apartment alone.
She liked a few of the other students well enough, particularly the girl who studied plants, the boy who was interested in mating calls of songbirds, because they were intelligent but quiet – and looked just as uncomfortable being out with the rest of the group as Katniss felt. She spent the majority of the night with them and quickly lost track of time as they talked about some of their biggest fears and insecurities with the program.
"I'll get the next round," she offered at one point. She slid out of their booth and saddling up to the bar, using Gale and Darius' tips to catch the bartender's attention. She never understood why even her tiny breasts were enough to capture a man's eye, but like Darius always told her, boys don't make sense so don't question it.
Katniss looked over at the blonde man who slipped in beside her at the bar. "Hi," she offered, turning back to try order her beers.
"Think you'd mind ordering my drink when the bartender gets back? He's not nearly as interested in what I have to offer."
She slowly looked back over at him. He was smiling, his blue eyes dancing in delight at his own joke. He held up a five dollar bill between two fingers and she swiped it from him. "Fine. What do you want?"
"Whatever you're having..." He raised his eyebrows expectantly at her.
"Katniss," she offered, knowing what he was looking for. When the bartender brought her beers over, she shamelessly flirted with him, asking him to bring 'just one more, please?' which he obliged with a smile.
"You're very talented, Katniss."
"I've learned a trick or two in my day." She acknowledged. She thanked the bartender for the extra beer and handed it over to the man. "Here you go..."
Her smile dropped and she stared at him like he grew a second head right in front of her. "Wh-what?"
"My name. It's Peter."
In her head, she was aware that he said 'Peter' and that it was his thick Boston accent that made it sound like...like Peeta. And there were so many blonde haired men in the bar, it wasn't like she was a magnet for them. And anyone could have eyes that blue. She blinked and suddenly it wasn't Boston-accented Peter standing in front of her, looking so concerned. It was her Peeta, with this unruly curls that she used to run her hands through when he fell asleep, it was his smirk that made her knees weak and stomach flutter. It was the Peeta that, despite everything, she missed.
"I, uh, I have to go." She spun around, dropping the bottles off at her table with no explanation, leaving her new-found friends and Boston Peter completely bewildered.
"No," she whispered.
"It's just...You hurt me," she spit out.
"I know. And I know nothing I say will make that go away. But I am so sorry. You know I never meant to-"
"I knew about Johanna."
His body stiffened. After the night he and Johanna spent together, the two realized they were both using each other for the same thing – to forget. But in reality, it had done the opposite. Their friendship was on rocky ground for a while, until Johanna started dating someone new. Now it's like it never happened, a distant memory they could both forget.
Except. Apparently, they weren't the only ones who knew. "I told you I did stupid shit."
"I...I thought it would help. But it didn't. It made things so much worse." Another glance up. She was still looking at him, maybe he hadn't lost everything yet. She hadn't run off, hadn't said anything horrible yet.
"Do you believe in soul-mates, Peeta? That there are two people who are just destined to find each other no matter the circumstances?
In a few steps, Peeta crossed the distance between them. He held her face in his hands. "Katniss Everdeen. I am so sorry, for everything. Please, let me try to make it up to you." And he kissed her, closing his eyes tightly. He felt her mouth resist at first, and a wave of depression crashed over him, until the tell tale sign of her kissing him back. Her body melded into his and he could swear he felt her smiling. When they parted, he rested his forehead against hers. "Does that mean-"
"I want to forgive you, Peeta. But-"
"No. No, Katniss please. I love you."
She turned her head as tears slipped down her cheeks. "It's not enough."
"Yes it is. It has to be."
She shook her head. "No. It's not."
He felt his body give up when she kissed him once more, got into her rental car, and drove away.
"No," he whispered to the empty parking spot. "No."
She sped back to her hotel using every back road she could remember, knowing the cops wouldn't pull her over for her excessive speed and veering all over the road. She was glad her mental map of the town was still strong because she was fairly certain she was driving completely blind. Her eyes were flooded with tears that she didn't bother wiping away. Because she did forgive Peeta. And she hated herself for giving in so easily.
It felt like a weakness.
And Katniss Everdeen was not weak.
Rather than taking her to her hotel room, Katniss' body took her down the familiar road that led to the rundown country bar with loud music, cheap drinks, and too many memories. It was another one of those things that hadn't changed a lick in three years. It was familiar and safe, like everything else in the town. There was the same line of people standing outside, having the same conversations they always had, waiting for the same band to play, taking the same shots they had for years. It was as if this town were stuck in some time vortex that stood still while the rest of the world moved on.
"Look who the cat dragged in."
Katniss smiled at the doorman. "Hey, Gale. I didn't know you were here this weekend. Is Madge with you?" Last she knew, Gale and Madge were still seeing each other, making the long distance thing work until Gale could finish his degree. Somehow he worked it out with the bar to spend most of his weekends down in Kansas City, with her very rarely coming up to visit him.
"Nope. I'm a free man this weekend. Why? You looking to finally make things happen between us?" He asked with a sarcastic wink.
She gagged. "Seriously. No. Never. Just no. Get that out of your head, Hawthorne."
"What are you up to, Catnip? How'd the retirement party go?"
Katniss rolled her eyes. She told Madge she was going to be back in town for Beetee's party and apparently Madge sent the information onto Gale. She had to wonder if that had anything to do with why Gale was still in town as opposed to visiting his girlfriend. Maybe Madge knew Katniss would have a hard time being back in this town. Katniss has to admit she'd do the same if she could for her former roommate. "Fine, as far as retirement parties go, I suppose. I, uh, I ran into Peeta. Or, he ran into me."
Gale's eyebrows shot straight into his hairline. "Really? And..."
"He apologized," she answered. "Said he's been thinking of me and felt really stupid for what he did."
"Sounds about right."
She narrowed her eyes. "What sounds about right?"
Gale sighed and visibly contemplated telling anything more to Katniss about it. "He...he stopped in here a while back. He was real messed up, Catnip, I shouldn't have let him in but he said he just wanted to talk. I took him out to the back alley so no one would hear us, and he just, I mean, he poured everything out to me. I mean, I'm pretty sure he had no clue what he was saying but, damn, he was in a lot of pain."
Katniss huffed. "You don't know what he did, Gale."
"True, but I know a thing or two about being a guy who fucks up. I mean, shit, just ask Madge about when I forgot her birthday last year." He chuckled, "I remembered that night but boy was I in the doghouse for a while."
She snorted. "Forgetting a birthday isn't the same as using someone to cope with pain."
"You think that's what he did? Really?"
"It's what he does," she said. "It just took being on the outside to see it."
Gale shook his head. "I don't know, Catnip. I don't think it was that easy. If he was just using you to cope why would he be such a train wreck after you left? I mean, damn, he slept with his best friend to try to get over you. Honestly, it'd be like you sleeping with me to get over him." Katniss made a face of sheer disgust, which made Gale laugh. "Exactly my point. Look, I'm not saying what he did wasn't stupid – it totally was – but I just think that maybe he's not the horrible guy you think he is. Maybe you should..."
"At least consider telling him the truth. I'm assuming he told you how he felt, Katniss. Maybe you owe him the same. You were happy when you were with him and he was good to you. You don't just throw that away."
"I gave up parts of myself to him."
"Is that always so bad?" He shrugged one shoulder. "You give and take and if you're lucky, you get rid of the bad and get the good."
Katniss turned her head away from him. When did Gale get so damn insightful? Was he right? Was that what a relationship was really was about? She hadn't thought about it in that way, hadn't had that experience. All of her relationships were one-sided: she gave and if she ever did get anything back, it wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't anything that made her feel good about herself. Looking back, she found it hard to think of a moment when Peeta didn't try to make her feel good about herself. Up until the end, he was the selfless one and it was her who kept taking from him. What did she she offer him that he couldn't get from any other girl? She wasn't particularly pretty or special, nothing compared to most other women. She was a train wreck when she was with Peeta, a mess of emotions and instability, she had no real identity and was clinging onto the few people in her life to keep her from going under.
Cinna helped her overcome that. Helped her develop her sense of self that was beyond what happened to her past. Those were things that happened, not who she was. The moment that realization finally hit her, she experienced a new found clarity. If she had stayed here, with Peeta, in this life, she may have never known who she really was away from her relationships. She would have forever defined herself in terms of him. Or Beetee. Or Gloss. Or Prim. But she was more than that, more than just "someone's something." If she had stayed here, she would have been like this town – stagnant and flat. She'd be the same old Katniss with the same triggers and the same emotionally-charged knee-jerk responses.
"I have to go."
Katniss paced back and forth in her hotel room, her thumb hovering over the 'send' button. She had typed and retyped the message at least six times. Did she ask him to come over? Did she tell him to stay away? Even with the realization that pushing her away did end up being the best thing that could happen, she didn't know if she was ready to see him yet. She didn't know if she was strong enough to stand her ground against those knee-buckling eyes, that heart-melting smile. Those lips and hands and that heart. The heart that somehow forgave his mother for years of abuse. That forgave the ex-girlfriend for breaking him. The heart that was so capable of loving and protecting. She was no match for a heart like that. For a love like his.
10:15pm. Katniss. /I lied./
She tossed her phone on the bed and plopped down beside it. There was nothing else to do at this point but wait. Wait to hear from him, wait to find out if that damaged heart survived. If there was a wall clock in the room, she'd be impatiently listening to the monotonous ticks of the second hand as time passed impossibly slow. Instead she was cloaked in a deafening silence that became too much for her. No next messages. No new calls. Nothing.
She stripped her clothes off and headed straight for the shower, turning the heat on as high as it would go to fog up the mirrors. She decided to call Cinna when she got out, maybe he would know what to say, could explain what had happened and how she was supposed to get through it. How to deal with the guilt that finally overwhelmed her. The shower water burned her skin but she didn't care. Her legs gave out and she sat, curled in a ball, under the cascade. Her tears mixed with the water, running down her legs and spiraling down the drain. She stayed that way until goosebumps plagued her skin. With a significantly colder shower, Katniss quickly washed her hair and jumped out. The mirrors were still fogged up and she couldn't stop herself from writing over the glass with her index finger like she and Prim did when they were children. Right in the middle of her nonsensical notes was his name. P-E-E-T-A. She stepped back when she realized and watched the drops of water slid down the mirror from the letters.
She used her hand to wipe away everything she had written – all of it relating to him – and forced herself to stare into the now clear mirror. Taking a deep breath, she remembered Cinna's 'fake it' tricks. Back straight. Shoulders back. Head up. Eye contact. This was her now. Strong, confident, Katniss Everdeen. 25 years old. Survivor. Fighter. Capable and deserving of love and happiness. She braided her wet hair, flipping over her shoulder, and slipped into the terry-cloth robe. She tightly cinched it shut and padded back into the bedroom. Her phone remained dark.
"That's okay." She told herself. "It's okay. I'm Katniss Everdeen. I'm 25 years old-"
A loud pounding at her door caused her to jump and drop her phone back on the mattress. She grabbed the bible out of the side table drawer, in case she needed to hit whoever was behind the door, and quietly slinked across the room. She made sure the chain was still in place and cracked the door open.
The bible fell from her hand and she slammed the door shut. Oh. Fuck. "How did you find me?"
"There are only so many hotels in town. I just checked the parking lot for your rental."
"Why?" She called through the door. Silence. "Why?"
"You know why."
"Tell me," she answered in a shaky voice.
"Let me in, Katniss. Please."
She unlocked the chain and slowly opened the door, allowing Peeta to step inside. He closed the door behind her but made no move toward her nor any attempt to speak. If waiting for his text was bad, this was torture. The tension swirled between them and filled every corner of the room. She noticed the redness of his eyes, the splotches on his cheeks, the way his hair was disheveled from him running his hand through it constantly. She saw that he kept his eyes on hers, never dropping to the skin exposed from her robe.
"Why are you here?" She asked again.
He took a deep breath. "I know I hurt you, Katniss. But if you're trying to get back at me then-"
"Get back at you?"
"With that text. Look, I get it, okay? I know I wasn't easy to be with and I had a lot of problems, but you could have just left town again. You didn't need to tell me that you lied about how you felt about me. I could have gone a long time without knowing that."
He wasn't angry. He should have been angry, but he wasn't. He was broken, lost, hopeless. And it broke Katniss' heart. "That's not what I meant," she offered quietly. He glanced up at her and she turned away, unable to look him in the face. "I lied...I...I lied about other things."
"Like what?" He had moved, was now right behind her. She could feel his breath on her neck. From the corner of her eyes, she could see how hard he resisted to run his hands over her arms. "I knew every time you published." She played with the edge of her braid and continued, "I, uh, I had your name saved in the database at school."
"Is that all you lied about?"
She shook her head. "I did think about you, all the time. Every time you called, I wanted to answer. I was so mad at you but I missed your voice. I missed everything about you. But I couldn't, because every time I thought of you, I saw you...you and..."
"You don't have to say it," he said, dejectedly. "I just, I just want you to forgive me. So I can forgive myself."
"I just wonder...if you had known, you know, that I slept with someone else, could you ever forgive me?"
"Yes," he answered immediately. "I would forgive you as soon as you asked for it."
"How can you be so sure?" She asked, turning back to him. "It took you years to get over Delly. How do you know you could forgive me so quickly? How could you act like nothing happened and go back to normal?"
He smirked. "She was right."
"Who?" Katniss demanded, not really understanding what was so funny about the conversation.
"Delly. When we talked. She told me..." he shook the thought from his head. "I would forgive you, Katniss, because, because you're the girl who after three years still makes me feel like someone of worth. You make me feel like my flaws and problems are part of who I am, not who I am. I look at you and I feel...I feel complete. I would forgive you because I love you, more than I've ever loved anyone else before."
"I did," she admitted. "After...after I found out about you and Johanna, I did. I was mad and hurt and lonely."
He shook his head. "I don't care. You could have slept with every guy in Boston and I wouldn't care."
She snorted. "Every guy in Boston?"
"Every single one. And even a few girls," he added with a smile, taking her hands in his. "I mean it, none of that matters to me right now. All that matters is you, giving me another chance."
"You're an idiot," she muttered after a few minutes.
His smile grew. "Seems to be the popular opinion." He gave her hands a squeeze. "What do you say? One more chance?"
"I've...I've never been in an actual relationship before, Peeta." She raised her eyes to meet his, "you're assuming a lot."
She nodded slowly, a smile breaking out across her face. She let out a sharp cry as he picked her up and spun her around, which quickly dissolved into a laugh that made her stomach hurt. He set her down and kissed her deeply, pressing his lips firmly against her, marking her as his. They pulled away, breathless and smiling like fools. "No sex," she said.
"For...three months. I...I don't want to feel like a coping mechanism for you."
He nodded, the smile never leaving his face. "Three months, I can do that. But can you?"
"Please, I've gone three years, okay?" She closed her eyes and covered her mouth with her hand. Had she really just blurted out that she hadn't had sex since she left? And saying it out loud she realized just how long it had been. Three years was nothing when she wasn't thinking about it but now that it was there, she couldn't ignore the tingling throughout her body and the desire to have Peeta take her right then. Shit.
"Three months. Three years and three months for us both. But first, a date. A proper one – out in public with...people around," he suggested. "Tonight."
"Tonight?" Katniss looked over at the digital clock on the nightstand. "Peeta, it's past midnight. Where are we going to go?"
"Well, if I remember correctly, I owe you breakfast."
After their late-night breakfast, which lasted well into the morning to watch the drunks stumble in after bar closing, they spent hours talking about the last three years, never once with an uncomfortable silence. When they ran out of things to talk about, Peeta reached across the table and intertwined his fingers with hers. He dropped her off at her hotel room with a chaste kiss, but as he began to pull away, she refused to drop his hand and pulled him inside.
"Katniss," he warned in a hushed tone.
She shook her head and silently led him to the bed, pulling him down onto it with her. Side by side, they laid, facing each other, letting their hands roam over their clothed bodies, re-exploring what they had lost. Slowly, their clothes came off, followed by innocent touching and soft kisses. His body was still firm despite the long hours and late nights he had been spending in the office; hers began filling out slightly when she gave up smoking completely, but the biggest changes were the ones they couldn't touch. His eyes shone more brightly, she smiled more easily, they both knew what to ask for what they wanted.
"When do you leave?" He asked as they huddled under the sheets. He wrapped his arms around her and she rested her head against his shoulder.
"Will you come back?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Do you want to?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"So stay. Stay here. With me."
It took five years after their initial meeting to get engaged. As soon as Katniss got back to Boston, she took the job that would let her be closer to Peeta. He flew out a few days later and helped her pack up her apartment. It wasn't always easy between them, they had fights and arguments over silly things but were better apt to fix them without walking out on each other. And after three months, they found that sex was a great way for them to work out their aggression at each other – but only if they agreed to actually talk afterward. The engagement ring that Peeta offered her was nothing spectacular, which was exactly what she wanted. They picked out wedding bands together and she surprised him by having them engraved. When placed side by side, they created the structure for oxytocin, the neurotransmitter associated with love and pair-bonding.
She tried to back out once. He relapsed twice. Somehow they ended up outside a courthouse with $50 between them. Madge whined into the phone when Katniss told her they weren't going to do a big ceremony. She wound up on the doorstep of Peeta's apartment a few days later and told Katniss she wouldn't allow her best friend to not have a wedding reception. Thanks to her father's connections, Madge was able to rent out a banquet hall on short notice, decorated with evening primroses and a fondant covered wedding cake with little Peeta and Katniss figurines on top.
It took ten years after their initial meeting for Katniss to become pregnant with their first child. Annie and, surprisingly enough, Delly, became lifelines, coaching Katniss through her fear and insecurities. The first time the baby kicked, Katniss thought she was going to pass out and wondered if it was too late to reverse the decision. The worst part of the pregnancy was the nausea she got anytime she smelled any hint of curry powder, which was still Peeta's go-to food option when he was working on school-related stuff. He had just recently been promoted to Associate Professor and was still working on earning tenure and becoming a full professor. Cuts to funding had hit his department particularly hard and they had a few years of stress when he didn't know if he'd still have a job the next year.
Labor was an excruciating process for Katniss. She had been in the middle of a presentation about the risk of the latest heat wave on the natural insect population in the wildlife refuge when her water broke. Twenty six hours, at least a dozen "this is your fault" yells at Peeta, and three threats directed toward her doctor, a dark-haired, light-eyed baby girl made her entrance. And all the fear and insecurities the pair had about being parents vanished the first time Katniss held her and she wrapped her tiny fingers around Peeta's. His initial question about having another was met by a deep-set scowl and a few nights on the couch, but eventually she realized that her daughter needed to be a big sister. Katniss loved the time she had had with her sister and she knew Peeta would have given anything to have siblings around him.
It took fifteen years after their initial meeting for Katniss, Peeta, their two kids, and Buttercup (who was a grumpy, fat, but somehow still alive, cat) to move into their own house and feel like a complete family. Katniss set up an archery range in their expansive backyard to teach her kids how to shoot. Peeta helped them with every piece of homework they had – often being a little too helpful according to his wife. They went to every soccer game, summer camp parent days, and girl scout meetings. Katniss had some breakdowns, like when her youngest daughter's eyes caught the light just right and looked like Prim's. And some nights, after a particularly rough day at work, Peeta would come home and bury himself in Katniss without a word.
But every night, before they fell asleep, Peeta would hold Katniss in his arms, running his fingers through her hair, and ask her if she still thought she made the right decision when she decided to come back and stay.
And every night, she answered, "Always."
That's it, you guys. Thanks to everyone who has stuck by me and these two idiots through out this story. I hope the you enjoyed their adventure and their ending. Please, everyone give their thanks and praise to the wonderful Sunfish for all the hard work she put into this as well. This is her last chapter as beta (hopefully just for now but no pressure, lady) and I will miss her snarky comments within my stuff. Even if I hate her. ;)