a/n: This is it, the last chapter (epilogue, really)! I just want to thank you guys for reading and sending me reviews. I appreciate the support for this story so much! I know a lot of you were concerned about how I could end this story in only one more chapter, rightfully so, and I hope you're satisfied with the ending. It's been interesting exploring the swinger lifestyle and non-traditional/non-monogamous relationships, to say the least :)
Thank you again all!
Peeta was not prepared for the sight that greeted him on his doorstep as he pulled into the parking space in front of his townhouse. In fact, he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't hallucinating. It was possible; he'd just been at the gym—he could be suffering from oxygen deprivation, for all he knew. Actually, he was convinced that was it. It had to be.
No way was Katniss Everdeen sitting on his steps.
He hadn't seen her for months—six, to be exact—since she'd stormed away from him in the parking lot at the newspaper. Not that he hadn't thought about her every day since. He had wanted to see her, but he had no way to contact her or find her. Actually, that wasn't exactly true. As a reporter, he could have done some digging—but that was a line he wasn't willing to cross, for many reasons. If she wanted nothing to do with him, as much as it killed him, he knew he had to respect that, especially after what he'd done.
Peeta put his car into park and cut his engine, but he didn't get out of his car just yet. He was too dazed; he needed a moment to gather his bearings and to just absorb the sight of her. She hadn't budged, her eyes locked on his through his windshield. His heart raced, but once he'd pulled himself together, he slowly gathered his gym supplies and climbed out of his car, locking it behind him. Juggling his towel and water bottle in one hand, he fiddled with his keys in the other as he carefully approached her. He stopped at the bottom step, afraid to move any closer, almost afraid to breathe should he disturb the illusion. She was still watching him intently, her elbows braced against her knees.
"Are you real?" he finally blurted; her eyebrow twitched slightly. Embarrassed, he elaborated, "I'm not sure I'm not just imagining this right now."
She moved then, sitting up straight and rubbing her palms on her thighs. "As far as I can tell," she replied quietly; the sound tugged at his heart. It was almost strange to hear her voice out loud after all this time and not just in his head. He leaned against the railing of his steps to steady himself and took a deep breath.
"Why are you...what are you doing here?" he asked timidly, almost daring to get his hopes up. Surely after six months, she wouldn't come back around just to yell at him some more.
She looked down. "I know it's been a while. You probably don't want anything to do with me at this point, but...I just thought we should talk."
His eyes widened slightly. "That's not true. I mean, about me not wanting anything to do with you. I just..." he faltered and adjusted the load in his hands to run a hand through his damp, sweaty curls. "I didn't have a way to reach you, and I figured it was best to leave you alone."
She nodded, her eyes still trained on her shoes. "It was. I, um, I realized, though, I might have been a little unfair to you the last time I saw you. I didn't give you a chance to speak, and...well, I guess there are some more things I would like to talk to you about, as well."
He felt sick to his stomach with nerves, and he licked his chapped lips. "Okay. Do you...want to come inside? Or would you feel more comfortable going somewhere else? I just got back from the gym," he tacked on unnecessarily, jiggling his keys.
Katniss tugged on her sleeves anxiously and finally peered up at him through her eyelashes. "Um, we can go inside. That's fine." She stood up and stepped out of the way to let him pass by her. He hurriedly unlocked the door and led her inside. He tried not to think about their last time together there; he hadn't washed his pillowcases for weeks after, until the lingering scent of her shampoo had faded away naturally.
Setting his stuff down on the bar, he turned to her. She was surveying the room nervously, her arms crossed over her chest. He wondered if she was thinking about last time, too. "Are you in a hurry?" he asked, and she shook her head. "Do you mind if I take a quick shower? I can be out in five minutes, I swear. You're welcome to watch TV or something," he offered, waving to the couch.
She shrugged and moved in that direction. "That's fine," she mumbled, sitting down. Peeta handed her the remote and hurried into his bedroom to shower. He was pretty sure he'd never taken a faster shower in his life. After he'd changed into fresh clothes, he emerged from his room. Katniss was still perched on his couch, listlessly flipping through channels. When she saw him, her mouth spasmed in the shape of a nervous smile, and she put the controller down.
"Um, can I get you anything to drink or eat?" he asked, glancing toward the kitchen, but she shook her head.
"No, thank you. I'm fine," she answered politely, and he shuffled closer, sitting down in a chair across from her. He cleared his throat, feeling extremely nervous; she seemed equally so, as she wouldn't meet his eyes directly. It was like they were strangers again. The thought squeezed painfully at his heart; he knew it was his fault.
"Katniss...I know I can never apologize enough for lying to you, but I'm sorry," he started. He took a deep breath to continue, but she cut him off.
"You don't—you don't have to keep apologizing, Peeta," she interjected, playing with her braid. "I'm sorry I yelled at you. Actually, I'm not sorry for that specifically, though I'm a little embarrassed in hindsight. But I put all the blame on you without hearing you out, so...I'm sorry I didn't give you a chance to speak."
He blinked rapidly as he absorbed her words, flabbergasted. He wasn't sure how to respond. "I...thank you for apologizing, but I never felt like you owed me that."
She shrugged, smiling slightly. "I'm sure I put you in an awkward position having to explain that scene to your coworkers." An embarrassed flush colored her face.
Peeta chuckled at the recollection, scratching his jaw. "Ah, yeah, well, actually, it's not that uncommon to get irate readers storming into the newsroom, so they weren't necessarily shocked. Um," his eyes flickered over her face. "Don't worry, I didn't explain to anybody what it was about. Well, Jo figured it out, obviously. But I didn't tell anyone else." Johanna had given him so much shit about it, too. Which, normally, might have made him feel better, even if it was at his own expense, but it was hard to see the humorous side of things when his heart was broken. He hadn't been back to Snow's since, obviously; Peeta and Johanna were still friends with Finnick and Annie, but Johanna was the only one between the two of them still actively involved in the swinger lifestyle. Peeta had never been interested in swinging, anyway. Just Katniss.
"Well, thank you," she said, and he nodded stiffly. Looking down at her hands, Katniss began picking at her nails as if she were stalling. "Um...I told Gale."
His heart stopped. For some reason, he had not been expecting that. "Oh?" The sound caught in his throat, and he coughed to clear it. His eyes darted to the door, suddenly wary that her husband was going to barge in and tackle him for daring to sit in the same room as his wife. "I, ah...how..."
"We're not together anymore."
His stomach bottomed out, his mouth falling open. No, that was definitely the last thing he'd been expecting. He noticed for the first time that she wasn't wearing her wedding ring. Oh, God, had he actually ruined somebody's marriage? The thought made him ill. When he brought his wide-eyed stare back to her face, he realized she was watching him apprehensively. He swiped a hand through his wet hair and leaned his elbows against his knees. "I'm sorry," he murmured, stunned and unsure how to respond. His heart started to beat a little faster again.
Katniss clasped her hands together, her shoulder bouncing in a shrug. "Thank you, but, um, it's not your fault. I don't want you thinking that."
Peeta frowned, threading his fingers together. "Okay," he said uncertainly.
Wetting her lips, Katniss tugged on her hands, her sleeves, her hair, whatever she touched. "We, uh, we separated about three months ago. We're getting a divorce."
His chest tightened at her words; he actually had no idea what he was feeling. She watched him expectantly, her face reflecting his anxiety. "Why?" he found himself asking. It was a dumb question, but he didn't know what else to say.
She sighed, dropping his gaze again. "We just...the whole swinging thing brought a lot of issues to light. Um..." She glanced at him and made a face. "This is hard to talk about for me—can you not look at me?" she laughed a little sheepishly, and his eyebrows lifted.
"Oh, um, okay," he agreed, twisting in the chair so he was looking the other way toward the kitchen. He heard her take a deep breath.
"Um, anyway. We just realized we weren't really compatible, um...sexually, I guess you could say. And I know that sounds silly because obviously marriage is more than that, right?" He wasn't sure if she was prompting him to respond, and he almost opened his mouth to answer, but she continued, "And we have a lot of other things in common, but I think it just became obvious that Gale and I wanted different things when it came to our sex life, and I guess it really wasn't fair to make him deny his urges just because I'm not interested in those things. I mean, I didn't want to make him do that, you know? And if it were reversed, I know I would be unhappy."
The pause went on longer this time, as if she was actually expecting a response, so he hurried to chime in, "Uh, yeah, I can understand that."
"And I didn't want to keep him in our marriage unfulfilled just because I'm unwilling to compromise any more. He should be happy, and he should be with someone who is compatible with him in all these things, not someone who feels obligated to him. I realized that wasn't a great basis for a marriage."
His throat felt dry, but his palms were sweaty. He rubbed them together as he digested her words. He knew she told him not to apologize, but the guilt was roiling in his stomach again. He felt responsible. He was responsible. And he felt terrible. He was compelled to speak. "I'm really sorry, Katniss. I really hate that I contributed to this in any way," he apologized sincerely, keeping his eyes trained on the bar. "I never...I'm just sorry."
"It's okay," she said softly. "You can't really break something like this unless it's already fractured, I realized. This was just...a catalyst, I guess. We tried couples counseling for a little while after. We did try. But we just realized that perhaps it was best to dissolve the marriage now while there are no kids involved, you know? Before we get years down the road and realize we're angry and resentful of the other for doing things or not doing things we want, whatever the case is. I think it was the most maturely we've handled anything, honestly."
Distressed, Peeta dropped his head into his hands and curled his fingers through his hair, tugging on it. What a mess. And all for a damn article. Had it been worth it? He wasn't sure. Professionally, nothing had changed, really, aside from getting to expand the kind of stories he wrote. Personally...he was ashamed to admit it, but he didn't know if he could regret meeting Katniss. It was selfish, and he felt sick thinking it, especially knowing what it had cost her.
"I wish I had been honest with you from the start, Katniss. That's where I fucked up," he bemoaned. "I thought it would do more harm than good to reveal my intentions at the time, but, well, in hindsight, I know better."
"I wish you had, too," she replied. "But, honestly...even if you had, I don't know how different things would be now. And I'm almost at peace with the way they worked out, so...in a way, it wasn't all bad. I love Gale, but...I think I realized that I married him for the wrong reasons."
Peeta frowned and started to turn around when he remembered he wasn't supposed to look at her. "What do you mean?" he asked.
She sighed heavily. "I've known him a long time, and he's always been there for me, especially when my parents died. He helped me a lot, and I guess I kind of...felt like I owed him these things, to be this woman he loved, who loved him, too. And I do, still, but I just don't know how in love with him I was," she said, and then she laughed lightly. "I mean, at Snow's, I got more upset about you sleeping with other women than him, so I don't know what that says about me."
His heart leapt into his throat at her words; this time, he couldn't stop himself from turning around to fix his wide eyes on her. She looked equally shock, as if she'd just realized what she'd said. "What does that say about you, Katniss?" he asked, his voice strained, as he tried to stop his mind from reeling, from filling in the blanks. It was no good to get his hopes up...
She looked stricken, but then her face crumbled into an anxious grimace, color filling her cheeks, and she fidgeted with her hands again. "Ah, well, I guess...I guess that's the other part of why I came here to talk to you," she said nervously. Clearing her throat, she flattened her palms on her thighs. "At first, I really thought I was just misinterpreting my feelings of anxiety and confusion as, um, feelings—for you, that I'd latched onto the comfort you provided at these things—at Snow's, I mean. I told myself...no way was I stupid enough to—to care about somebody I hardly knew." Her lips twitched in a faint smile. "I guess I am stupid. Months later, and I still can't shake you."
His breath stuttered in his chest, and he stood then, circling the coffee table to sit down on it in front of her. "Katniss..." he murmured, gingerly taking her hands in his. She didn't resist, and he nearly sighed out loud at the first touch of her skin in six months. He glanced up to hold her gaze; her eyes shimmered like graphite in the soft daylight that filtered through his windows. Licking his lips, he forged ahead, "I hope you know that I like you, and I care about you. A great deal."
Her eyebrow curved upward, her mouth listing to the side. "Yeah?" she asked; he could hear the smile in her voice. Peeta nodded, gently rubbing his thumbs over her knuckles. Her own thumbs moved to caress his fingers, and their mirrored actions seemed to lull them both into a dreamy daze.
"I'm sorry," she said suddenly, breaking the trance. "I just show up, and I don't even know if you're—if you're seeing somebody. Of course, you're probably seeing somebody—"
"Katniss," he interrupted with a brief chuckle, squeezing her fingers. "I'm not seeing anybody."
"No?" she asked; there was hope in her voice.
He shook his head. What a ludicrous idea. "No. I haven't been able to shake you, either."
She smiled coyly at that, looking away. The blush that highlighted her cheeks was endearing; God, she was breathtaking. He swallowed thickly, nerves knotting his stomach as he considered everything.
"So, what do we do now?"
She looked back at him but quickly averted her eyes, sucking her bottom lip into her mouth. "Well...someday, I'd really like it if we could...get to know each other again," she said shyly, rushing to add, "if you're willing. I just...I need a little time right now. It's a little soon for me to be dating, I think. I hope you understand. I just—I didn't think I could wait any longer to see you. I was afraid you'd disappear or something, I guess."
Was this real? Suddenly, he couldn't remember how to breath—was he still pushing air in and out of his lungs? He laughed, almost deliriously, a short, gasping sound, and he shook his head, partly in answer to her question and partly to test that his muscles still worked. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll wait as long as you need. I'd love to take you on a date someday down the road when you're ready. If you want."
Katniss smiled at him. "Yes, I'd really like that," she agreed. Her smile widened into a teasing grin, and she tugged on his fingers. "And you won't even have to draw my keys this time."
He dropped his forehead to rest against her hands and chuckled. Shaking his head, he lifted it to peer up at her, a smirk spreading across his face. "So, I take it our first date shouldn't be at Snow's mansion, then?" She just laughed heartily and shoved his head away.
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