Katniss slammed the door behind her and jumped into her car, her irritation level rising the higher the sun climbed in the sky. After yet another restless night, when she did finally manage to fall asleep, she slept right through the alarm and hadn't enough time to shower or have breakfast before work. It was a bad start to her week.
As she passed through town, she paused at the sight of the Starbucks and decided to stop for coffee. To hell with it, she thought, because she was late anyway, what difference would a few more minutes make? While caffeine might not improve her mood any, it would benefit no one if she didn't get her caffeine fix before work.
As she waited for her order, she glanced down the street towards the bakery, wondering if the reason for her restless night was at work yet. There was no sign of Peeta's truck, but he might be parked out back. She looked away. He probably wasn't there. As far as she knew, Rye was still taking care of the early morning openings. She chewed on the ragged end of her fingernail, as she considered the risk of bumping into Peeta if she went in for some cheese buns.
Katniss hadn't set foot inside the bakery since they had split, but lately Peeta's body wasn't the only thing of his she was craving. She knew Michael or Rye would be okay with her dropping by, but would Peeta? They still weren't exactly on good terms. In the end, she decided against it, grabbing a muffin to go with her coffee instead. Peeta had been oddly withdrawn when she had brought the kids back to him on Saturday night, and though he had tried to act normal, the redness of his eyes had not escaped her. Maybe it was too soon for her to start casually dropping by the bakery.
Back in the car, she headed out of town, unconsciously driving a little faster than she usually did. Just after she turned off the main road, she saw flashing red and blue lights in her mirror, and the driver of the police car indicating for her to pull over.
"Dammit!" she muttered to herself, wondering what she had done to get pulled over, as she watched the officer approach her drivers' side window.
"Morning, Darius... I mean, Officer Miller," she greeted the officer, trying to force her face into a friendly smile as she rolled down her window. "Is something wrong?"
Everyone in town knew Darius Miller. He'd been a member of the local police force for as long as Katniss had lived in town, and he was known for being a reasonable guy. She must have done something wrong for him to pull her over.
"Good morning, Mrs Mellark," Darius gave her a courteous smile, his brown eyes friendly as he leaned down to talk to her through the open window. "Did you notice you ran the stop sign back there?"
"Oh. No, I didn't notice, I'm sorry. I'm late for work, and I guess I wasn't paying enough attention," Katniss explained, biting on her lip. Shit. She could really do without getting a ticket.
"That's how accidents happen, Mrs. Mellark. Licence and registration please," Darius requested.
"It's just not my day," Katniss huffed, rifling through her purse for her licence and handing over the paperwork and the licence. "And it's Ms Everdeen, now."
"Why Everdeen?" Darius questioned, looking back at her with a confused look on his face. He glanced down at the driver's licence she had given him. "Your licence says 'Katniss Mellark', but oh, wait...there's another problem."
"What other problem?" Katniss grew flustered.
"Did you know your licence has expired?"
"What? No! Shit, it has? I didn't realize," Katniss groaned and rubbed at her forehead. This morning was just going from bad to worse.
"Yeah, it's out of date by over a year." Darius added, almost apologetically.
Katniss grimaced. Dammit. How could she not have noticed for a whole year that her driving licence had expired?.
"I'm sorry, Officer Miller, things have just been a little crazy lately. I was out of town for a while, and when I came back I moved into a new house and... um... I'm using my maiden name again," Katniss felt her face redden and she looked away. She hated having to explain her name change. "Peeta and I got divorced."
"Oh. Oh, um, I'm sorry to hear that," Darius said, a look of understanding dawning on his face. He pushed his hat back, scratching his head. "Just when I was hoping you were going to try and get out of a ticket by bribing me with some fresh donuts from Mellark's," he chuckled, but it sounded a little uncomfortable.
He sobered immediately, his expression changing at seeing the scowl that crossed Katniss face. "Sorry, too soon? Was it recent?" he asked, his tone apologetic.
"Was what recent?" Katniss asked, squinting up at him.
"Oh. It was final about a month ago now."
Darius gave her a thoughtful look and exhaled loudly, tapping her licence against his fingertips, as if he was making his mind up about something. "Look... Katniss?" his voice was kind as he slipped into using her first name. "I've been there, and I've known you and Peeta for years, so I'm going to give you a break. Just this once." He glanced back over his shoulder as if he expected to see someone watching and lowered his voice. "I could get in a lot of trouble for this, but I can tell you've been under a lot of stress. Do yourself a favor. Get to the DMV and get your licence renewed straight away. Even if it wasn't expired, you're supposed to replace it within ten days of a legal name change."
"I will, and thanks, Officer Miller, I owe you one," Katniss replied gratefully, heaving a sigh of relief that he wasn't going to ticket her.
"It's Darius," he winked and flashed his friendly smile again. Katniss gave him a small smile in return. It felt nice to have someone give her a break. She didn't feel like she'd had many of those lately.
"Okay. Well, you're lucky it was me and not Officer Thread who pulled you over this time. He'd probably have impounded your vehicle."
"I'll get it sorted out straight away, thanks again... Darius." Katniss smiled.
He nodded and stood back, away from the window. "Drive safely now," he said and lifted one hand as he waved her off.
When Katniss finally made it to work, a quick glance at her phone told her she was nearly an hour late.
"Dammit," she cursed under her breath. She hoped Madge would not be too annoyed at her tardiness. She really needed this job.
She almost broke into a run as she made her way from the parking lot to the small staff room where she usually took her breaks. In her haste, she didn't look left or right as she headed straight to her locker to put away her purse.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she turned around and noticed Madge sitting at the table, a cup of coffee in front of her.
"Madge!" she gasped. "I didn't see you there."
"Well, you looked like you were in an almighty hurry!" Madge smiled at her, looking amused. "Good morning, Katniss."
Katniss was relieved to see she didn't look angry.
"I'm so sorry I'm late, Madge, this morning was one of those mornings where everything that could go wrong did go wrong…"
Madge tilted her head as she took in Katniss' red face and flustered appearance. "It's alright, Katniss, these things happen to us all sometimes. You look stressed out. Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," Katniss exhaled. "I overslept, and then I nearly got a ticket for running a stop sign on the way here."
"Sounds like a rough morning. Do you want to sit down and catch your breath for a minute?" Madge pointed to the seat opposite her.
Katniss didn't want to be rude and refuse, so she dropped into the seat. "That's not all," she continued. "When I gave my licence to the cop, it was expired. Now I have to find some way to get to the DMV and renew it."
"Look, Katniss – it's okay." Madge reached across and patted her hand kindly. "Maybe I can help you out. I have some things I need to take care of this morning, but if you want to take this afternoon off and go sort out your licence, it's not a problem."
Katniss studied Madge hesitantly. She didn't want to seem like she was taking advantage when she'd already been late today. But it would be a good idea to sort her licence out straight away.
"Are you sure, Madge? It wouldn't put you out?"
"Not at all. I have a meeting with Gale here this afternoon anyway, so I'll be here, and Johanna is around too. If you need some time off, today would be a good day to take it. You shouldn't drive on an expired licence, and I know you need your car to pick up your kids and stuff. Go do what you need to do."
"Thank you. I'll make it up to you." Katniss smiled gratefully.
Madge got up and went to rinse her cup at the sink. "No problem. I'd better get back to the office and get started on my books. And Katniss…" Madge winked at her. "Next time just send me a text if you're delayed, okay? Don't run any more stop signs."
"I won't," Katniss grinned. That was the second act of kindness she'd been shown today. Maybe her day was looking up. Following Madge, she made her way out to the greenhouses, flying through her routine tasks in record time.
Lunchtime came quickly, and she headed back to the staff room to grab her stuff. Pulling her phone from her pocket, she quickly searched for the local DMV office and looked up what she needed to renew her licence.
State law requires any application for a driver's license to include proof of the applicant's full legal name…
"Proof of full legal name…" she mumbled to herself in dismay. Her passport named her as Mellark, so that wouldn't do, now that she was Everdeen again. Glancing back at the screen she scrolled further:
Acceptable documents for the purpose of providing this information include a passport or birth certificate…
"Birth certificate…" her brows furrowed, and she rubbed her forehead in frustration. Where the hell was her birth certificate? She'd have to find it. It was the only piece of ID she could think of that was in her maiden name. She didn't recall seeing it when she unpacked the things that Prim had brought over from Peeta's house. Flicking over to her message screen, she fired a quick text to Prim, asking if she remembered packing it.
"No, I only emptied the closet. Are u ok?" came her sister's reply a few minutes later.
"Yeh, I just need it for something. I'll work it out." Katniss texted back.
"Ok. See you for dinner tonight? Gale will be here too. :)"
"See you then."
Katniss slipped her phone back into her pocket with a groan. She now had a new dilemma. Peeta had always been the one to take care of all these kind of things; she was only beginning to appreciate how much she had relied on him for all the small things he did. Her birth certificate was still in Peeta's house, and she needed it now, but he'd be at work. Should she call him? She knew exactly where it was, and it would only take a second to retrieve it.
He'd be pissed though, if she dragged him away from the bakery in the middle of his day to meet her at his house. She recalled the strange mood he'd been in the last time she'd dropped of the kids. He didn't seem disposed towards doing her any favors at the moment.
There was another option. She still had her key, and she could use it to let herself in, grab what she needed and go… couldn't she? There was no need to bother Peeta at all. He wouldn't even know she'd been there.
But was it the right thing to do? The twinge in her conscience told her probably not, but it was definitely the easiest option.
Katniss held her breath as she pushed open the door to the bedroom she used to share with Peeta. Stepping across the threshold, she paused to take in the familiar décor. At first glance, it looked like nothing had changed since the last time she had been in this room.
The soft blue shade of the walls soothed her instantly, as it always had, and the same familiar hand-stitched quilt that had been a wedding gift from Hazelle still covered the bed. As she looked around, Katniss couldn't help but smile sadly, remembering when they had first moved into the house as newlyweds and they had bickered for weeks over what color to paint their room. Peeta had wanted soft orange, his favorite color, while she favored green. Peeta had eventually suggested blue as a compromise, and Katniss had given in to him, never admitting that it was an easy compromise for her – she loved the color blue because it reminded her of Peeta's eyes.
She moved slowly across the room towards the bed, stroking the material of the quilt with her fingertips. The urge to lie down for just a minute and bury her face in the pillows, to breath in Peeta's familiar scent, was strong. 'Focus, Katniss,' she told herself, taking in another shuddering breath.
Instead, she reached for the drawer of the bedside table. As she leaned across, she noticed the silver-framed portrait of them taken on their wedding day was no longer resting in its place on top of the bedside table where it had always stood. She looked around the room, but she couldn't see it anywhere. Peeta must have put it away out of sight. Her shoulders sagged a little. It made sense he would not leave such a sentimental item on display, when they were no longer together. The portrait had been a gift from Peeta to her, a candid shot of them together, him with his arms wrapped around her, gazing down at her as she smiled back up at him, the mutual adoration in their eyes clear for all to see. They had looked so blissfully happy, so… together. She loved that photo.
Katniss pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, half hoping she might find the portrait inside, but it wasn't there. She would have liked to have had it, and she should have remembered to tell Prim to take it when her sister had packed up her things. But, even if she could locate it now, she wouldn't feel comfortable taking it with her. What if he noticed it was gone?
Reaching in towards the back, she quickly found the envelope containing her birth certificate and passport. She breathed a sigh of relief. At least they were still there. She could now get her license renewed without having to go to all the trouble of getting a new copy of her birth certificate. But just as she was about to close the drawer again, something else caught her eye.
Katniss shifted through the remaining items in the drawer.
Katniss blinked and looked again. The glint that had caught her eye had come from Peeta's wedding band. It looked like it had been thrown carelessly into the drawer loose, without its box. Tenderly, she picked it up and touched the cool metal against her lips. When had Peeta taken his ring off?
But as she went to put the ring back where she found it, she froze in shock, her eyes drawn to a small, powder blue box resting at the bottom of the drawer, half hidden by the other contents surrounding it.
Katniss recognized the distinctive packaging immediately, her head beginning to swim at what this discovery implied. There could only be one reason why did Peeta would have condoms in their – his – bedside table, wasn't there?
They had only used condoms briefly while they were in college— never once in the all the years since they had been married. With trembling hands, Katniss carefully lifted the packet from the drawer. The plastic shrink wrap was gone, and the box had been opened. On the side, it indicated that the pack should contain twelve condoms. Katniss counted quickly. There were two missing.
Feeling even more light-headed, she sat down heavily on the bed and closed her eyes, fighting against the dizziness now threatening to overcome her. They'd only been divorced a month. Did an opened box of condoms by the bed really mean Peeta was already sleeping with other people? Katniss tried to fight back the nausea induced by the thought of Peeta touching another woman. Had the hands that once touched her so lovingly torn open this box in a moment of passion with someone else?
Even thinking of any other man but Peeta touching her made Katniss feel ill. How could he be with other women already? She swallowed tightly, crushing the box in her fist as she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and tried to control her ragged breathing. She supposed she should have known this was a possibility, even an inevitability, but she hadn't been prepared for it to happen so soon. She wasn't ready to deal with this.
Her eyes jerked open at the sound of Peeta's voice. She stared at him blankly as he stood in the doorway, eyeing her suspiciously.
"Katniss," he repeated. "What are you doing here?"
Katniss shook herself out of her daze. "I was looking for my birth certificate. I… I need it for something, and Prim overlooked it, when she packed my things. What are you doing home in the middle of the day?"
"I'm home because I have an appointment this afternoon, and I needed to change," Peeta answered her, putting heavy emphasis on the word "home." He strode across the room towards the closet. "You should have called me first, Katniss. Do you think you can walk into this house and look through my bedroom without even asking me?" His voice was steady, but there was an angry edge to his tone. "We're not together anymore, Katniss. You don't get to do that."
"You told me that if I ever needed anything I should use my key," she muttered as she looked down again at the crushed blue box in her hand.
"That was when we were still married, Katniss. The rules have changed."
"So I see." She dropped the packet of condoms onto the bed between them and glared at him. "What are these, Peeta?" she asked softly.
Peeta's eyes widened slightly as he glanced down briefly at the condom box lying on the bed, taking in one of its foil-wrapped contents that had fallen on the floor before he looked up and returned Katniss' gaze. She watched as a flash of something that looked like shame passed through his eyes, before it quickly morphed into his now usual mask of indifference, and he looked away again. Katniss had become very familiar with that look over the last few months. It was the face he wore to shut her out. But for once, she didn't care. Shakily, she stood up from the bed and stalked towards him, her shaking hands clenched at her sides.
All this time, she thought, the betrayal she couldn't help but feel beginning to make her blood simmer. All this time she had been barely keeping it together, lying awake night after night beating herself up for the mistakes she had made, for hurting him, grieving for what she had broken, and he was already sleeping with other people?
"I think you know what they are," Peeta answered as if it were no big deal. He turned away and began picking clean clothes out of the closet.
Katniss watched his movements, the way he was avoiding her stare. "We've been divorced for a month, Peeta, and it's been years since we used condoms. Just one month, and you're already sleeping with other people?" she tried to sound calm, as she swiped at her eyes with the corner of her sleeve. "Did you even wait for the divorce to be final?" her voice breaking on a barely repressed sob.
Peeta spun on his heel to face her. "Now wait a minute, before you start accusing…"
"Am I so easily replaceable to you?" she interrupted him, wrapping her arms around herself to stop herself from shaking. "How long did you wait for my body heat to cool from my side of the bed before you began inviting others in to take my place?" She looked up at him then, her eyes stinging as she blinked back the angry tears that filled them. She wouldn't let them fall. Not in front of him.
"It's not what you think, Katniss," he finally met her gaze, but she couldn't decipher the look she saw there. He almost looked like he was surprised that she was saying these things to him.
"Well, what is it like then?" she pushed, her voice beginning to rise. She could feel herself becoming more hysterical. She wanted to punch him, to claw at his face, to beat her fists against his chest and make him feel the pain she was feeling.
"Tell me!" she burst out. "Explain to me how this could be possible, because I know I'm still grieving the loss of everything I thought we had." She picked up the box of condoms by the very corner of the box and flung them at him, watching as it bounced off his chest and landed on the floor. "Is this why you found it so easy to shut me out? Why you stopped trying to touch me after Aran was born?" Her eyes bore into his. "Is this why you were so quick to divorce me?"
Peeta clenched his jaw and raised his arm, leaning heavily on the door frame of the closet. "What do you want from me, Katniss?" he growled, his eyes darkened. If his tone was any indication, then his frustration with her was quickly morphing into anger. "Even if any of that were true, we're divorced now. I haven't done anything wrong. And I am free to explore new relationships, if I want to…"
Undeterred, Katniss pointed her finger at him, cutting him off while she voiced her accusations. "In our bed, Peeta? In the same bed where we shared so much? With our kids in the house? How could you?" her voice broke again as she looked at him, hurt and disgust evident on her face.
"Don't be such a bitch, Katniss," Peeta snapped back. "I wouldn't bring someone home where my kids are. Give me some credit. And in case you've forgotten, it's not our bed anymore, it's mine, and only mine. You're the one who left it, remember?" He raised an eyebrow as if daring her to try accusing him again.
"But you have been with someone else already, haven't you?" she whispered.
She searched his face for some reassurance that it wasn't true, but she found nothing in his cold eyes or clenched jaw to reassure her. But if Peeta believed their bed really was only his now, she certainly seemed to have snatched it back from him for a moment. Katniss wondered if he would be able to bring a woman into this bed comfortably again after such an awkward encounter. Perhaps not, or at least, not for a while anyway.
Katniss watched as Peeta let out a long exhale and then took a deep breath in, clearly trying to keep himself calm. "I don't have to answer that… I don't owe you any explanations," he responded, his tone dripping with bitterness as he watched her from his defensive position in the doorway. "But, how dare you suggest I would sleep with anyone else while we were still married."
Katniss let out a short sarcastic laugh. "What, like you've never accused me of the same thing? It's not a very nice feeling, is it, Peeta?" She knew by his reply that her words had struck a chord with him, and he was getting angrier by the second. Yet Katniss could tell he was still holding himself back and for some reason, she wanted to provoke him—to evoke some kind of emotion from him, not this cold indifference he'd been hiding behind for months.
His eyes snapped up and locked on hers at the sound of her laughter.
"I have never accused you of sleeping with anyone," his voice was low, though there was a guilty edge to it.
Katniss laughed again. "No, maybe not in so many words, Peeta, but you implied it heavily, more than once. Don't deny that."
"Well, have you?" he threw back. "Do you expect me to believe that you haven't been with someone else? If not before the divorce, then after? Or is it just coincidence that Gale happens to visit town regularly now? So, tell me, when he visits does your friend still stay overnight in his brother's house, or does he stay at yours?"
Katniss' body stiffened from head to toe in rage, her fists clenching, but she smiled coldly. "How many times have I told you, Gale has only ever been a platonic friend to me. Since we were kids, all he has ever done was try to support me through the difficult times in my life. That was part of what went wrong between us, Peeta, you never did trust me when it came to Gale!" she was yelling now.
Now it was Peeta's turn to laugh sarcastically. "With good reason. He wants you, Katniss. He must be so delighted that I'm finally out of the way. Now he can give you all the support you want."
Katniss shook her head in disbelief and moved towards the bedroom door. "I've had enough. I give up, Peeta. You can believe what you want. The Hawthornes, including Gale, are part of my family, and I know they'll never give up on me. I'm done defending my friendship with Gale to you. I don't have to anymore." Peeta darted quickly across the room towards the door, blocking her path. She wanted to squeeze her way past him, but she backed away, not wanting to touch him.
"You're forgetting you're the one who left me first, Katniss," Peeta seethed. Katniss could tell by his eyes, so dark now that they were almost black, that she had succeeded in forcing his mask to slip— he was completely furious. He pointed his own finger to his chest angrily. "I was supposed to be your family. Supporting you was supposed to be my job. You took something that was supposed to be mine and you gave it to him."
Katniss took a step towards him, and tilted her chin defiantly. "I didn't give him anything that was yours, Peeta. I was always yours. You always had my heart, and I never wanted a divorce." Her eyes glittered as they bored into his. "Just so you know, I've never been unfaithful to you, and I have never broken my vows to you. I never did that. I would have done anything you needed me to do, to make everything up to you when I came home but you wouldn't let me try. Yes, I'm to blame for messing us up, but it was you who gave us up."
"How can you say that?" Peeta raked his hand through his hair, tugging at the roots, a sure sign that he was close to losing his temper. "How can you say you never broke your vows when you deserted us, Katniss! You left your kids behind! I was left behind to try and clean up your mess and comfort two babies who didn't know where their mother had disappeared to!" Peeta shouted.
"And you've been punishing me for that mistake over and over since the day I came home!" Katniss screamed back. "No matter how many times I wanted to try to talk you didn't want to listen… when will you have punished me enough, Peeta? Wasn't divorcing me punishment enough?" Katniss bit her trembling lip and turned away from his accusing eyes, visibly shaking. She couldn't take much more of this.
Peeta suddenly deflated when he saw her shaking. He dropped his hands to his sides, breathing heavily. "We're just going around in circles here," he muttered. "But seeing as we are here, just be honest with me." He stepped closer, placing his hands on her shoulders and turning her to face him. "Answer one question for me. Be honest. What is it that he gives you that I couldn't, Katniss?" The pain in his eyes as they searched hers was obvious for even Katniss to see.
A broken sound escaped Katniss's lips, half laugh, half sob, as she shook her head in disbelief at his question. He still thought this was about Gale.
"Nothing," she answered, looking right into his eyes. "Does that answer your question Peeta? There is nothing Gale gives me that you can't. There never was. Though, there are lots of things you've given me that he couldn't have. The one thing you still fail to understand in all that's happened, Peeta, is that my leaving that day had nothing to do with either you or Gale, or my feelings for either of you. It was about my feelings about myself."
"No, Peeta!" Katniss jerked his hand from her shoulder, unable to bear the frisson of electricity that travelled through her at his touch. "I've answered your question. So now I get to ask one in return. Now that we're over and you're free to find someone who can love you better than you seem to think I do…"
"Let me finish for once!" she barked at him, "if you doubted my feelings for you so much, doubted me enough to think that I'd cheat on you, why did you ever marry me?"
"I can't believe you have to ask me that," Peeta stared at her. "I married you because I loved you, Katniss, I don't think I ever gave you any reason to doubt me. And I did believe you loved me once…"
Katniss noticed but was not surprised by his use of the past tense.
"…but I'm older and wiser now. Maybe I could have forgiven you for running away and leaving me behind, but I won't forgive you for doing that to the kids. I won't let you put them through what your mother put you through. I will always put them first, before either of us."
"Don't you dare…" Katniss wheeled on him, "…don't you dare bring my mother into this. If you want to start bringing up our mothers, let's look at yours. How much is she to blame for the fact that you've never completely trusted me? How many times did she ask you not to marry me, whisper poison in your ear and tell you I wasn't good enough for you? When did you start believing her?"
"That's not true." Peeta stuttered, but Katniss ignored him.
"It is true! If it wasn't, you would have known there was no need for you to feel so threatened by Gale. Did you ever wonder how your distrust felt to me, Peeta?" She gulped. "It made me feel like how I loved you wasn't good enough for you."
They stared at each other in silence, stony gray eyes meeting icy blue, both struggling to control their emotions. Peeta was the one to finally break eye contact.
"I think we're done here," he said, his tone low and hard. "This is getting us nowhere. I have some place to be, and I need to shower. If you found what you were looking for, you can let yourself out. Leave your keys before you go, please."
As he paused in the doorway to the bathroom, he looked back over his shoulder at her, piercing her with his eyes one last time. "In future, call me before coming over here, in case it's not a good time. You never know. I might have company."
Katniss flinched at the venom behind his words as he slammed the bathroom door closed. With trembling fingers, she grabbed the envelope she had come for and forced herself to leave the bedroom. She hated letting him have the last word, but she needed to get away from him. As she descended the stairs, she tore her housekeys from her keyring, flinging them into the bowl on the hall table.
"Fuck you, Peeta..." she whispered to herself as she slammed the front door behind her, a few angry tears escaping and flowing down her face. No, she told herself sternly as she brushed them away. Enough. No more. She refused to shed any more tears for Peeta Mellark.
Peeta dropped the frosting bag on the table, cursing under his breath as he began to remove the delicate pink flowers from the cake he'd been decorating for the last half-hour. He was pretty sure the customer had not ordered pink flowers on a birthday cake meant for a five-year-old boy. He couldn't concentrate, and he was beginning to mess up the orders. Leaning his elbows on the table top, he rested his pounding head in his hands. It felt like he had a permanent headache these days.
He closed his eyes and tried to re-focus his mind. But, no matter how much he attempted to distract himself with the intricate work, his thoughts kept going back to a few days earlier, replaying the ugly scene that had unfolded when he'd found Katniss sitting in his bedroom over and over again. He hadn't been able to erase the hateful words they had thrown at each other from his head ever since. How did he let things escalate between them so quickly?
After he'd shut the bathroom door, he'd waited until he heard Katniss slam her way out of the house before he'd slumped down to the floor, balling his hands, only recently healed from the burns they had sustained, into tight fists in his hair. Eventually, he let a few of his own frustrated sobs escape, shaking as adrenaline continued to course through his veins. When he finally regained control of himself and opened his eyes, he caught his own reflection in the mirror. What he saw shocked him. His face was pale and angry, his eyes dark and red-rimmed. Pulling himself to his feet, he fought the impulse to pound his fists against the wall until they bled.
When he'd first spied Katniss in their bedroom, her back towards him, his first thought was to sneak up behind her and capture her in his arms. He wanted to sweep her hair aside so he could lay kisses on the base of her neck and across her shoulders and then pull her down on the bed beside him, like he once would have done. For one sweet, pain-free moment, he'd actually forgotten they weren't together anymore. He was halfway across the room when reality had come rushing back to him.
Their bedroom had always been their sanctuary from the outside world, and finding her there, sitting on their bed like she had never left just brought the enormity of all that he'd lost crashing down on him again. The pain was swiftly followed by the bitter swell of resentment, as he remembered that she had no right to even be in the house without his permission. What was she even doing there?
Even though he was angry at her intrusion, Peeta knew his Achilles heel was his inability to see Katniss suffering any kind of distress. So when she had thrown the box of condoms on the bed, the contents spilling out onto the quilt, and asked him had he been with someone else, he had to fight the instinct to go to her, to reassure her and explain that he wasn't ready for that, he hadn't even thought about it. That she was still the only woman he wanted.
He had recognized the depth of hurt and betrayal in her beautiful gray eyes, saw the glistening of the unshed tears he knew she would never let him see fall. For the first time, he thought maybe it was possible her pain was as deep as his own. Or maybe she was just angry. But knowing that he was responsible for putting that look in her eyes had cut him deeply. However, the second she had implied that maybe he'd cheated on her, he'd felt his temper flare. How dare she accuse him of being unfaithful?
He sighed out loud. He should have just been honest. Why didn't he just admit the truth from the start?
'Because you were being stubborn, asshole. She hurt you and you wanted her to hurt her back.' He grimaced at the thought. That wasn't the guy he was. It wasn't the guy he wanted to be, but he couldn't seem to help himself lately.
Peeta knew that the evidence looked bad. Katniss had probably seen his wedding ring loose in the drawer too, along with that damn box of condoms Rye had given him. He hadn't even known it was open. Deep down, he couldn't really blame her for jumping to the conclusions she had, because he knew if it had been the other way around, he would have thought the same thing.
But now he couldn't get her accusations out of his mind.
"Is this why you found it so easy to shut me out? Why you stopped trying to touch me after Aran was born? … Is this why you were so quick to divorce me?"
Those words would be burned in his memory forever. It crushed him to think that Katniss could think so little of him, that she'd believe he would sleep with anyone else while still married to her. She knew he hated cheaters—he'd told her how humiliated he'd felt when he'd discovered his high school sweetheart had cheated on him with one of his best friends. And she knewhow he felt about casual hook ups. They'd dated for nearly six months before they'd been together for the first time. How could she possibly believe his attitudes could have changed so much?
'Because you didn't deny it. You let her believe you were with someone else. You wanted her to think someone else could want you.'
He shook his head. Did she know the effect her poisonous words would have on him? She had fired each one with a deadly accurate aim. Now he was left filled with doubt, questioning everything that had happened between them over the last year.
Had he not been as good a husband as he thought? Even before their latest fight, this was something that had been playing on his mind. He'd spent a lot of lonely evenings dwelling on everything that had happened, and when he thought back he realised just how little time they'd had devoted to each other in the last year.
For the first time in their relationship, they had let their sex life dwindle to the point where it was nearly non-existent. Most nights they were both been too exhausted to do anything but sleep. He didn't really mind. He did miss sex, but loved the closeness of just sleeping in each other's arms.
When it did happen, it was usually initiated by Katniss, moments together hastily snatched when both kids were asleep. Knowing how tired she was, he'd been hesitant to initiate sex more frequently, because he didn't want her to feel pressured by his needs. He'd thought they would get back to normal when Aran slept better. But now he regretted not talking to her about it. Katniss had felt a little self-conscious about the changes to her body after having two children, and he'd reassured her she was just as beautiful to him as she always was, if not more, but could she have mistaken his hesitancy for a lack of interest? Every day he told her he loved her, but did she know how much he still desired her? Now he wasn't so sure she did.
Peeta admitted to himself that he was scared of what she would do now. If the ugly scene in his bedroom made Katniss truly believe he was moving on to other people, would it push her into doing the same? A shiver went through him as he contemplated the possibility. Katniss could be impulsive when she was angry, and there was no doubt she was furious when she slammed out of the house. He'd found her keys, with his, flung into the round bowl that sat beside the front door. She had thrown them hard enough to crack the glass.
He could never bring another woman into their marriage bed. It was too full of memories of her, of them together, for him to ever consider that, and it killed him that she would ever believe he could.
Why did he have to let his stupid pride get in the way? When she'd flung the condoms at him, she had asked him a straight question, and now he regretted not giving her a straight answer. He'd seen her searching his face in that hope that her assumption was wrong. Would this be the thing that finally pushed her right into the arms of another man? Into Gale's waiting arms?
He hurriedly tried to push away the thought of any other man's hands on Katniss. Another man kissing her, winding his hands into her dark hair- but he wasn't picturing just any man's hands. It was Gale's hands. Just thinking about it made him feel like he was suffocating.
'You're not her husband, she's not yours anymore,' he repeated to himself over and over, counting each breath in and each one out in an attempt to quell his anxiety. He'd told her that he had the right to explore new relationships, so he had to accept that so did she. But it was so hard. He might be a single man again, he didn't feel like one. The bond he felt to her was too strong, he felt like he still belonged to her. That she still belonged to him.
Peeta thought about what she had said about her vows. Did she really feel that way? She had said it with such conviction. Her reaction to finding condoms in his bedroom left him in no doubt that she still felt possessive over him. For some reason, that gave him a strange flicker of hope, deep in his belly. Hope for what, he didn't know.
Distracted, he rubbed his thumb against the empty place on his ring finger where his wedding band used to rest. Their marriage may be dissolved on paper, but it did not feel dissolved in his heart. He didn't know if it ever would be...
There were things he felt guilty about too. He should never have brought Katniss's mother into their argument. What had happened to Lily Everdeen was not her fault, and it was low of him to use that against Katniss.
However, there was some truth to what she had said about his mother. Evelyn had never wanted him to marry Katniss, and right up to the morning of their wedding, had tried to talk him out of it...
Evelyn came through the door of Peeta's suite, where he and Rye were getting ready for the biggest day of Peeta's life. Peeta was glad of Rye's company as his brother's jokes and merciless teasing distracted him, and helped to calm his nerves.
"Rye, could you excuse us, please?" Evelyn ordered her older son with a look that left them in no doubt that it wasn't a request. "I wish to speak to Peeta. Alone." Peeta stiffened immediately. He noted she was still dressed in the clothes he'd seen her wearing at the breakfast buffet that morning, not her "mother of the groom" dress.
"Rye, you should go check in with Dad and Graham, and make sure you haven't lost the rings yet," Peeta exchanged a knowing look with his brother, and nodded reassuringly. Rye left, closing the door tightly behind him, as Peeta steeled himself for whatever it was his mother was about to say. He knew whatever it was, it was too much to hope that it would be complimentary or her wishing him well, on his wedding day.
"Mom, aren't you going to get dressed? The wedding starts in half an hour," he asked her calmly, hoping she hadn't decided to refuse to attend the ceremony.
"So you still haven't come to your senses? " Evelyn sneered, wringing her hands in front of her and staring at him with open contempt in her icy blue eyes. "You are really going to go through with this?"
"Yes, Mom, I am. I love Katniss and she loves me." Peeta asserted. "Why can't you be happy for me that I've found someone so special?" It hurt that his mother could not be happy for him.
"Because she is not special. You could do so much better, Peeta." Evelyn began to pace up and down the room, stopping by the open fireplace and running her finger along the mantel, checking for dust. "I can't even believe I had to come to this wretched place and stay in that disgusting motel room just to attend this ridiculous wedding."
"Hazelle offered to let you could stay with her, Mom…"
"I don't want to spend any more time with these people, Peeta. What's required for the wedding is more than enough."
Evelyn swatted the air with her hand as if to dismiss everybody who meant anything to Katniss. Then she took a step towards Peeta and clutched his arm, her grip vice-like as she dug her sharply filed nails into his skin through his shirt. Peeta tried not to flinch. Best not to let her see.
"Heaven knows with your limitations, you need the right kind of woman beside you if you are to make any kind of success of yourself. It's bad enough that you went against my wishes and studied Art in college, but I didn't raise my sons to embarrass me by marrying Seam trash. Stop this wedding now, Peeta, before it's too late. It'll be much worse once you're married, and she'll be able to truly take from you then… take everything you have, which may not be much, but…"
"No! She won't!" Peeta interrupted, jerking his arm away. He was unable to listen to any more venom about his fiancée from his mother. Katniss was the only woman who had ever shown him love for any length of time. He couldn't imagine hoping for anything more in his wife. "Katniss is not like that!"
"You're a fool, Peeta. You could have married Delilah Cartwright. Or Clove Harper," Peeta's mother pointed out. "Both are nice, respectable girls from decent families, not some, some... urchin, from a backwoods town who goes out to kill her own food. Ugh." Evelyn shuddered in revulsion. "Haven't they heard of stores here? What's next? Will there be squirrel carcasses on the back steps of the bakery?"
"Mom, stop it, that's enough! I've told you before. Even if I never met Katniss, Delly is my best friend. That's all. We were never going to be anything more than that. And Clove, ... Clove cheated on me! How could you want me to be with someone like her?"
Evelyn shook her head, again waving her hand in the air dismissively. "A minor indiscretion when you were both teenagers. It could have worked out. You were just too stupid to forgive her. These things happen when you're young."
"I caught her having sex with another guy in his car at our senior prom, Mom! That is not what I call a minor indiscretion!" Peeta bit his lip, feeling himself beginning to shake. He didn't need this from Evelyn today. Today was supposed to be the best day of his life; he was marrying the woman he loved and his mother was determined to taint it for him.
"Stupid boy. Love—" Evelyn practically spat the word "is not the only thing that matters when considering the basis for a solid marriage." Evelyn sniffed.
"You make it sound so clinical," Peeta muttered sadly. "I feel sorry for you."
"Are you so sure she loves you Peeta?" A tight-lipped smile crept across Evelyn's beautiful but cold features. "What about that handsome 'cousin' of hers, hmm? What's his name? Gale? He sure doesn't look at her the way cousins are supposed to look at each other. But then, who knows what kind of sordid carrying on happens in a place like this? Inbreds. That's probably what's wrong with them all and why they can't do any better."
"I said, that's enough, Mother!" Peeta shouted, reaching the end of his tether. "And besides, your opinions don't matter now. I love Katniss. She loves me. We're getting married and we're going to be happy and you'll just have to accept it."
Evelyn smirked at him. "Does she love you, or does she love the esteem that comes with marrying so high above her? Mark my words, she is going to break your heart. Girls like her always do once they've gotten what they want. Just don't come crying to me when it's all over and all the decent girls are married to other men. Mother is always right, Peeta." ...
The sound of the bell over the outer door ringing, announcing the arrival of a new customer to the bakery pulled him from his unhappy thoughts.
Peeta was glad Rye was out front today. He was not in the right frame of mind for smiling and making polite small talk with customers, and given how fast Rye had volunteered for it, that must have showed on Peeta's face when he arrived at work this morning.
He'd already fallen behind on the day's orders, having over kneaded the last batch of dough while lost in his own thoughts, and now he had to re-do this birthday cake.
A few seconds later, Rye's head came around the kitchen door. "Eh, Peeta?" he said.
"Sorry Rye, the next batch of loaves will be out of the oven in a few minutes, I'm just a bit distracted today…"
"That's okay bro, but um, there's someone here who wants to see you. Out front."
Peeta looked up. Rye sounded nervous. He didn't meet Peeta's eyes as he shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
"Who is it, Rye?" Peeta straightened up and started wiping his hands on his apron. "I've got to get the rest of the orders into the ovens and start prepping for tomorrow…"
"How about I finish that while you go see what he wants. I think you should go talk to him, Peeta. It's Gale Hawthorne."
Peeta's head jerked up on hearing that name.
Gale Hawthorne? What the hell was he doing here? Had Katniss gotten in touch with him after their fight?
"I can tell him to leave if you want," Rye offered, half turning, as if to head back out front.
"No, it's okay, Rye," Peeta reassured his brother, noting the concerned look on Rye's face. He really didn't need this today, but now that he was here, there was no point in avoiding Gale. "I'll deal with him. This shouldn't take long." He squared his shoulders and made his face blank as he pushed his way through the swinging door out into the front of the bakery.
He immediately spotted Gale, leaning casually against the counter, looking down at an iPhone in his hand. He still looked the same as he did when they had first met, just a little older. Gale was taller than Peeta, though not as broad, with the same dark hair, gray eyes and olive-toned skin as Katniss. It would be easy to think they were related.
Jesus, Peeta thought. Why did so many things have to remind him of Katniss? Even her friend's skin tone reminded him of her.
As he noticed Peeta approaching, Gale slipped his phone back into his pocket and stood up straight to greet him.
"Mellark," he stepped forward, a small smile on his face as he offered his hand to shake Peeta's.
"Hawthorne," Peeta replied coolly, stopping behind the counter. He looked at Gale's outstretched hand. For a split second, he considered ignoring it, but immediately decided that would appear aggressive. So he swallowed his distaste and took Gale's hand and shook it. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" he queried, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
It wasn't missed by Gale, who dropped his hand back to his side, rubbing his palm against the material of his khaki pants. "I think there are some things you and I need to discuss," he replied, meeting Peeta's gaze steadily. "To clear the air, so to speak."
"I'm kind of busy right now," Peeta answered, indicating the bakery around him. "You know, business to run. It's the middle of the working day."
"I know you're working right now, but can you meet me in the bar up the street when you finish your shift?"
"What for?" Peeta growled. "Why would you think there is anything that you and I need to discuss?"
Who the hell does this guy think he is? he seethed inwardly. Wasn't it bad enough that with his encouragement, Katniss had stayed away from her family for two months?
"Because what I have to say relates to Katniss. And I think we both care about what's best for her, that's why. At least, I'm guessing you still care, seeing as she is still the mother of your children, after all." Gale was watching Peeta carefully, his gray eyes calm as he waited for him to reply.
Peeta simply glowered at the other man for a moment, considering his request. Could he really refuse? Whatever Gale had come to say, it was probably best he hear whatever it was directly from him. "I'll meet you there at five." Peeta eventually conceded. "I have to pick my kids up by six, so I hope you're not wasting my time."
"I wouldn't dream of it." Gale smiled. "I've no intention of wasting anyone's time." He turned and walked towards the door. "I'll see you there at five then," he confirmed with a nod, and with that, he turned and left the bakery.
As Peeta watched him leave, his thoughts started spiralling rapidly. What the hell was that all about? What did he mean when he said he had no intention of wasting anyone's time? Had he come to tell him the he and Katniss were finally together?
Peeta kicked the door as he slammed his way back through it into the kitchen. Rye looked up, his eyes worried as he watched his younger brother. Peeta's expression was angry, his face and neck flushed red.
"So, what was that all about, little bro?" he asked cautiously. "What did tall, dark and covetous want?"
"What he's always wanted," Peeta muttered darkly, pacing up and down in front of the prep table, his hands on his hips. "My wife."
At first Rye didn't reply; he just stood watching Peeta as he angrily began throwing ingredients into a bowl.
"Say what's on your mind, Rye," Peeta snapped, knowing without looking that his brother was holding back.
"She's your ex-wife Peeta," Rye replied gently, his tone apologetic.
"I'm aware," Peeta replied, his shoulders sagging. He also knew by Rye's tone that he meant it kindly. "I'm sorry, Rye, I shouldn't take it out on you."
"S'okay." Rye grinned, patting Peeta's shoulder.
Peeta nodded his head back towards the door. "You can head back out to the front now, if you want Rye. I'm okay. I'll be leaving at five. Hawthorne wants to meet me later. Apparently he has some things he thinks we need to discuss."
"Want me to come along?" Rye offered. "You know, in case you need any umm…. support?"
"Don't you mean backup, Rye?" Even though smiling was the last thing Peeta felt like doing, he felt one corner of his mouth turning up, and he couldn't help but be amused by his brother's offer.
"Well, yeah." Rye grinned. "But seriously, Peet... you do know I'm here if you need to talk about anything right?" he stuttered a little, trying to get the words out. "I mean, it has to be tough, what you're going through, and I'm no relationship expert, but I'm a good listener. Or I can drink beer with you... so... umm.. yeah." Rye's face flushed a little.
Peeta looked up at his older brother and gave him a small smile. Rye was not usually a man who offered to talk about stuff, so for him to offer meant a lot. Peeta felt better knowing his older brother was looking out for him.
"Thanks," he said simply. "But I can handle Hawthorne. I'm not going to go and start taking swings at him, cause he'd probably love it if I did. It would make me look like the bad guy to Katniss. I'm just going to hear what he has to say, and then I'm going to walk away."
"Okay," Rye agreed. "That's a good plan. But just so you know, my offer still stands… on the backup, or the talking, or the beer. Whatever you need."
"Good to know," Peeta forced another small smile, and Rye clapped his hand on his brother's shoulder briefly, before turning and walking back through the door to the front counter.
At a few minutes to five, Peeta finished up his prep for the next morning, washed his hands, and grabbed his jacket from where it hung on the back of the office door.
He headed out front, shouting goodbye to Rye over his shoulder, and heard him calling good luck in return, as he left through the front door, and turned right heading for Cartwright's Bar and Grill just up the street.
As he walked into the bar, he was greeted by a friendly wave from Delly, the owner and one of Peeta's oldest friends. Delly had taken over running the place from her parents a couple of years ago, and they had been friends since they had played together as kids.
Delly was a pretty, vivacious blonde and was happily engaged to her long-term boyfriend Thom. They were due to get married in a few months and Peeta was already planning her wedding cake.
From the time Peeta was old enough to show an interest in girls, Evelyn had tried to push him towards Delly. Her motivation was not Peeta's future happiness though. She'd harbored an ambition to combine both businesses, but neither Peeta nor Delly had ever wanted more than friendship from the other. Evelyn never forgave Peeta for disappointing her by not pursuing Delly and marrying Katniss instead. She complained loudly and bitterly about "lost opportunities" when the economy downturned and things got tougher at the bakery, blaming it all on Peeta. Delly, on the other hand, loved Katniss and had grown close to her too and was really upset for both of them when the marriage ended.
"Hey stranger!" Delly came out from behind the bar to wrap him in a tight hug. "Good to see you! You don't come by enough. How are you doing? What'll it be, the usual?"
He returned her warm hug gratefully, inhaling the flowery scent she always wore. It felt nice to be shown some friendly affection. "Thanks, Dell," he said nodding. "I'm doing okay. I'm here to meet Gale Hawthorne. Have you seen him come in yet?"
Delly leaned back and looked at him, an eyebrow arched inquisitively, clearly surprised at who he was there to meet. She knew there was no love lost between him and Gale. "Gale? I wondered what he was doing here. He came in a few minutes ago. I think he's in the restroom."
"I'll grab a table then. Thanks, Delly."
"No problem, Peeta. I'll bring your beer over."
Peeta took a seat at a table near the back where they would have some privacy. A minute later, Gale joined him, sliding into the seat opposite.
"Thanks for agreeing to meet me," he said. "Have you ordered?"
"I'm here," Peeta replied shortly. "But I have to admit I'm wondering what you think we could possibly need to talk about."
They were interrupted briefly, as Delly appeared with two ice-cold bottles of beer.
"What's this?" Gale said, picking up the bottle and looking at the dark green label. "Sierra Nevada Torpedo? I prefer plain old domestic."
"It's Peeta's favorite, and it's on the house," Delly scowled at him, looking about as fierce as an angry kitten. "Be grateful."
"Oh, ok, thanks," Gale aimed his winningest smile at her. Delly didn't look impressed.
"Enjoy, and play nice boys," Delly gave Peeta a sly wink and walked back towards the bar.
"So, what brings you here, Gale?" Peeta began again once Delly was out of earshot, sitting back and crossing his arms in front of his chest.
"I thought it was time for you and I to get a few things out in the open, now that a little time has passed," Gale replied, lifting his beer to his mouth and taking an experimental sip. He grimaced at the taste.
"Things like what, exactly?" Peeta asked, taking a perverse satisfaction that Gale didn't like the beer.
"Like what happened when Katniss was in Seam, for a start." Gale replied, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'll get straight to the point. Katniss hasn't told me the whole story, but I know you were upset that she stayed at my place when she needed some rest."
"I won't deny that was part of it," Peeta answered. "Is that what she called it? Resting?"
Gale shrugged. "She looked exhausted when she arrived. She said that's what she was came for, that rest and some time in the woods was what she needed. Why would I doubt her?"
Peeta shrugged in return, but said nothing. He wasn't about to put words in Gale's mouth or make this easier for him.
"That's not all." Gale paused. He eyed Peeta carefully, as if trying to read his mood. "I know Katniss has already tried to tell you this, Peeta, but I wanted you to hear it directly from me. Nothing happened between us while Katniss was in Seam, if that's what you were thinking. In fact, I wasn't even there that much. I was working most of the time. The most time we did spend together, was when we would hunt." Gale placed his bottle back on the table, shifting forward in his seat. "Nothing has ever happened between us, Peeta. I know you've had doubts, but I'm not the kind of guy who would try to take advantage of Katniss like that. And Katniss doesn't feel that way about me anyway."
Peeta remained silent, mulling over Gale's words in his head. They validated everything that Katniss had always claimed. But he didn't expect anything else from Gale. And while he believed that Katniss had never crossed the line and actually cheated on him, he'd never been able to shake the suspicion that Gale was a threat that couldn't be trusted.
Gale cleared his throat. "I gather something happened between you and Katniss at your house the other day," he continued, dropping his gaze to the table. He didn't look at Peeta. "I've never seen her so upset."
"Oh she told you about that, did she?" Peeta clenched his jaw, immediately going on the defensive. He began to feel the slow burn of jealousy creeping through his veins again, that same old feeling that surfaced when he found out that Katniss had talked to Gale about something that was bothering her.
Gale shook his head. "Not me directly, no. I overheard her talking with Prim. She's devastated, Peeta. Whatever has gone on between you, she does love you, you know?"
Peeta blinked. He was surprised by Gale's use of the word love, not loved. After what had transpired the other day, these last few months, could it be possible that Katniss still loved him?
"I also overheard her tell Prim that you made some..." he paused, rubbing his chin as if searching for the right word, "...comments about my sleeping arrangements when I'm in town." Gale brought his hand back down, and returned his gaze to meet Peeta's steadily. "For your information, when I stay in town, I stay at my brother's house." Gale's tone was calm, but his eyes were stormy, letting Peeta know Gale was not to happy about the questions Peeta had asked.
"What I don't understand is why you're here now, Gale," Peeta hissed. "Why didn't you come talk to me months ago? What are you trying to achieve by coming here today, talking to me like this? You and I were never close. You were always Katniss' friend, not mine. I always got the feeling it was you who just tolerated me being around, even though I was her husband." Peeta was aware he sounded bitter but he was beyond caring any more.
"I've never had anything against you, Peeta," Gale sighed and sat back in his chair again, crossing one leg over his knee. "And I didn't come to you before because Katniss asked me not to interfere. But I'm going to be very honest with you now, and I hope you're listening. Because I don't like having to repeat myself. I've been friends with Katniss since I was thirteen. I'm not going to try and bullshit you into believing I don't have feelings for her, because you and I both know that I do."
Peeta froze, every muscle in his body tensing. Finally. An open admission from Gale himself that he had feelings for Katniss. His right hand tightened around the neck of his beer bottle, as he could feel his left hand clenching into a fist under the table. Maybe he should have brought Rye, because at this moment, Peeta did not know if he would be able to control himself, if Gale's next words were that he and Katniss had been together.
"No Peeta, we haven't been together. I already told you that and so has Katniss." Gale continued, looking pointedly at the hand Peeta had on his beer bottle. "She has no idea how I feel. So relax and calm down."
"When did you realise you had feelings for my wife, Gale?" Peeta spat out. "Was it before or after she married me?"
"Honestly? I knew I had those kind of feelings for her as far back as my senior year in high school. Before she ever met you. But back then, we were firmly in the friend zone." Gale dropped his gaze to the table, for the first time looking away from Peeta. "I never told her how I felt. I didn't think it would be fair to Katniss to try and start something with her when I was heading off to college in a few months. So I let the opportunity slip by me."
Gale lifted his beer, taking a long draught from the bottle, before setting it back down on the table, grimacing again at the taste.
"I regretted that. By the time I finished college and came back home, Katniss was in college and already dating you. I admit I hoped it wouldn't last, and that I would get another opportunity, but it never happened. When you got engaged, I still held out hope that maybe it wouldn't work out, but when you got married, I accepted it. I buried my feelings for Katniss and decided that the only thing I could do if I ever wanted to be happy was to accept her choice and be happy that she was happy. I decided I'd try to move on and look for someone else."
"But you're here to tell me that things have changed now," Peeta stated. It wasn't a question.
"Yes, I am," Gale replied. "Look Peeta, I did respect you as Katniss' husband, and I accepted that she loves you. Hell, I even liked you. I knew you loved her and were good to her. It would've been better if you were easier to hate. But for her sake, I wanted you to hear, from me, that I never tried to do anything to break up your marriage..."
"Except you allowed her to stay in your home and didn't tell her to go home and talk to me any time she showed up at your house. The last time, for two months," Peeta interrupted. "If you were so supportive of me as Katniss' husband, why didn't you tell her to go back home where she belonged and face her problems with me, instead of letting her hide from me?"
"I guess that's fair," Gale said, sucking in his breath. "I deserve that. I can understand why that would piss you off. But if anyone should know what Katniss is like, it's you, Peeta. You were married to her for ten years. When she makes up her mind about something, there is no changing it. I could have told her to go home, but she wouldn't have listened to me. Whatever was going on with her, I knew she needed the space to work it out for herself. I knew she'd go home when she was ready."
"Did you even try to find out what was going on with her?" Peeta asked.
"Honestly? No, not really," Gale said frankly. "But my mother did. And my sister did too. I asked if she wanted to talk, and Katniss said no. I figured if there was something she wanted me to know, she'd tell me in her own way, and in her own time. If there is one thing I know about Katniss, she is very loyal to the people she loves. And she was always very private about her relationship with you. She didn't like to discuss it with anyone, so I didn't pry."
Peeta studied Gale's expression, searching for signs that he was bullshitting him.
"You must have wondered though, Gale," Peeta scoffed, "or at least questioned why she would up and leave her home and her kids behind. If you're such close friends, were you not concerned that I was hurting her in some way? Because that's the first thing I would have suspected if a married woman turned up on my doorstep without her kids."
Gale smiled knowingly. "I know you well enough to know you'd never hurt her, Peeta. And I know Katniss would never leave her kids with someone she didn't trust with her own life," he answered. "You may not believe me when I say this, Peeta, but you and those kids mean everything to her. Her leaving them behind with you when she knew she was messed up... that was a testament to how much faith and trust she has in you." He tipped his beer back. "It's a pity you let your distrust of me blind you to that. It's what made her feel like she had to lie to you about where she was."
"Her own mother abandoned her as a child, Gale!" Peeta spat out, irritated by Gale's words. "She knows what that feels like. It doesn't make sense to me that she would do the same to her own kids, even if she had as much trust in me as you seem to think she had," his voice becoming hollow. But deep in his gut, he knew Gale was right. His words had a ring of truth to them. Katniss had tried to tell him the same thing, but it took the words coming from Gale's mouth to make him hear them. Peeta suddenly felt cold all over.
Dear God, had he really gotten everything so wrong?
Gale looked at him, his expression almost sympathetic. "You didn't know Katniss' mom like I did, Peeta. You didn't actually see how messed up she was after Katniss' dad died. Being out in the woods is what gets Katniss through when things are getting too much for her. They sustained her after her dad died, and if spending time there occasionally is what it takes to stop Katniss falling into the same pit of despair that her mother lived in, then I wouldn't discourage her. I care too much about her. I thought you would have understood that she needed that too. I mean, didn't you even see the signs that she was struggling?"
"I'm not going to discuss any part of my relationship with Katniss with you, Gale," Peeta snapped. He drained his own beer and pushed the empty bottle away, signalling that he'd heard enough.
"Okay, fair enough," Gale said, bent forward in his chair, looking Peeta straight in the eye again. "I'll just cut to the next purpose of my visit then, shall I? Katniss is single again. I'm fully aware she is suffering right now, she is not over you, or what happened between you yet. She probably won't be for a long time. And I've no intention of pressuring her." He set his own beer down on the table.
"But one day, Peeta, she will be over you. And I'm letting you know now that when an opportunity presents itself for me to convince Katniss to take another chance on being happy again, this time with me, then I am going to take it. I won't let it pass me by again. I don't know if she'll go for it, but I hope that if something does ever happen between us, that you'll show me the same courtesy that I've tried to show you for the last ten years or so."
There it was. Peeta felt like he'd been punched in the gut. Gale had put it right out there on the table. He didn't even say if, he said when. How on earth did he expect Peeta to respond to that? It was all his worst fears coming together. Gale had just told him straight out he planned on pursuing Katniss.
His head began to spin. What he really wanted to do, was punch him, threaten him that if he even breathed near his wife, - ex-wife - that he'd kill him. But Peeta knew he couldn't do that. Because every word Gale had said was true.
"What do you expect me to say to that, Gale?" he stood, pushing back his chair. "You asked me to meet you so you can tell me how you intend pursuing my wi.. ex-wife? "
"I don't really need you to respond, Peeta" Gale said, looking up at him. "I'm just letting you know as a courtesy, because you have kids with Katniss. That's all. And I wanted you to know that if things do work out the way I want them to that I'll always be good to them."
Peeta's head jerked up, his eyes blazing. "You will never replace me in my children's lives, Gale. That is one thing I will never allow to happen."
Gale shook his head and held up both his hands, palms facing outwards. "You misunderstood me, Peeta. I would never attempt to try and take your place in your children's lives. That is the last thing I would want. I just wanted to be honest about my intentions towards Katniss in the future."
"Fine. You've let me know. So if you're finished, I have to go pick up my children." Peeta could barely finish his sentence. He needed to get out of there so he could breathe again.
Gale stood and held out his hand, like he had earlier in the bakery. "I hope you'll find happiness again someday too, Peeta," he offered.
Peeta stared down at his hand. But this time, he turned and walked away, without saying another word. He nodded his goodbye to Delly on his way out, leaving Gale to stand and watch him leave.
Many thanks as always, to my amazing friends and support team, KnottedEnergy, Kismet4891, and an extra special thanks to the incredibly patient Court81981, who kindly beta'd this chapter for me a second time, after I messed it up and changed it around again! Without the help of all these ladies, I would never have gotten this chapter finished.
Also a special thank you to Therebelliondies. "Miller" was her choice as Darius' surname in her incredible story "Be Still And Know I Am". It stuck with me, and she very kindly agreed to let me use it here. If you haven't read it, please do so, but be warned. You will cry.
Now, for those who feel like you're drowning in angst right now and can't take any more – I'm sorry. But there is a reason why I chose to call this chapter "Rock Bottom". It's because, it really is.
And once you hit rock bottom, the only way left to go, after that, right? ;)