Author's Note-Thank you again for all your positive feedback about this story. I appreciate the support.
The mini-series that inspired this story, Harper's Island, is streaming on Netflix. All 13 episodes...and it's great for back to back viewing on a cold Saturday afternoon. If you've seen it or you watch it, though, rest assured that I do not follow the plot beyond the island setting and wedding backdrop. No spoilers!
Thanks as always to my lovelies, iLoVeRynMar, streetlightlove and Pookieh. I love you ladies so much.
Peeta gives the clothes laid out on his bed one final check and begins systematically piling them into his small suitcase. It's not like he can't just run home and grab something if he forgets an item, but given his last real vacation was four years ago, and living with his parents again has been even more frustrating than he had imagined, he'd like to just lose himself once he arrives at the inn, as lame as that sounds.
He jams his toothbrush and razor into his leather cosmetic bag then scans his medicine cabinet for one of his travel bottles of cologne. When his eyes land on a tiny amber vial that is nearly empty, he exhales and reaches for it, turning the little glass bottle over in his hands a few times.
It was always Katniss's favorite scent on him. She had bought him nearly every bottle of it that he had owned. He hasn't worn it since she left, but he also has never been able to bring himself to throw the last of it out.
Sighing again, he slides the cologne back behind a larger, black-tinted bottle and snatches one of the random sample vials that he keeps for travel. He can't even say what this particular cologne smells like, nor does he really care. He tosses it in with the other toiletries and zips the case closed.
When he walks back into his bedroom, his mother is thumbing through his open suitcase. He clears his throat, and she glances up.
Today is not one of her good days. She looks frailer than usual, her skin a sallow, sickly yellow, with deep purple crescents shadowing both of her blue eyes. She did not bother to put on her wig, and the sleeveless, lavender blouse that she wears reveals the sharp angles of her shoulder blades and her twig-like arms, mottled with inky patches from the repeated needle jabs.
"I heard that slut you used to date is back in town."
He sighs. His mother has never been one to mince words. And she also never fails to delight in referring to Katniss by a host of derogatory terms—both when Peeta was dating her and since she broke up with him. A tiny flicker sparks in her otherwise listless eyes while she awaits his response.
"You knew she was coming to the wedding, Mom."
His mother purses her chapped lips at him. "To be frank, Peeta, I assumed she'd flake out. But I guess there is still time for her to run."
He ignores her and walks to his closet, removing his dress shoes and placing them carefully in the little niche he left in the right bottom corner of his suitcase. His mother coughs, a wet, phlegmy sound that invites a wheezing fit.
"Are you okay?" he asks. "Can I get you some water?"
"No," she rasps. "I'm fine." Another series of hacks follows, and she staggers to the desk chair to slump into it.
Peeta was moderately surprised that his parents had left his room exactly as it was when he lived at home. Nothing has changed other than the photographs tacked up on the bulletin board over the desk where he used to do his homework. It used to be littered with memories of him and Katniss—scores of photographs, movie and concert ticket stubs, the card she wrote out for him on his sixteenth birthday. Now it's bare, save for a Humane Society calendar that he had gotten free when he donated last winter. All traces of Katniss had been eradicated from the room by the Christmas after she fled. What he didn't burn or tear into shreds he had crammed into a box that he had begged Dillon to get rid of for him.
"Did you just come in here to slander Katniss, Mother, or was there something you wanted?"
She eyes him critically, her hands steepling in her lap before she folds them neatly and fixes him with a hard glare. "I just don't want you to do something stupid, Peeta. You always had a weakness for that piece of trash. You have a nice girl now."
His mother loves Delly. More than he does, he knows that for a fact. While he enjoys the time they spend together and he can't deny it feels good to have someone to have dinner with and see movies with and fall asleep with, he can't see himself ever loving her the way she deserves to be loved. There's a part of his heart that will always belong to someone else.
But Delly never complains. It's no secret that she exists in the shadow of Katniss Everdeen, but until Delly had told him months ago that Katniss had agreed to be a bridesmaid and would be coming back to Panem, her name had never been spoken aloud between them.
"I told Katniss that I had a girlfriend now," he continues calmly, "and I'm sure that she will respect that."
His mother tries to snort, but it comes out more like another garbled wheeze. "Yes, she's always been so respectful of you. It was so respectful ignoring your phone calls and your letters when she cut you completely out of her life. Or have you forgot—"
"I haven't forgotten, thanks to you and Dill and everyone else always reminding me." He gives the suitcase a once over and zips it closed, then hauls it onto its side and wheels it towards the door. "And now, if you'll excuse me, this pep talk is over. I need to get going."
He lifts the suitcase up and heads downstairs, throwing it in the back of his Jeep. He guns the engine and backs out of the driveway, and begins the short drive up the winding road to the inn.
Sergeant Joel Cray yawns and checks his watch one more time. The second hand seems to be moving slower than it should, sluggishly jumping on its march around the dial. He's got two more hours on his regular shift, but tonight he's essentially pulling a double.
When Sheriff Abernathy asked for volunteers to work overtime as a precaution, considering the Undersee wedding, Cray jumped at to pick up the hours. It seemed fortuitous timing; he had just received word that his vulture of an ex-wife had managed to get his child support checks bumped up by 25%, and between that and his alimony, she was slowly bleeding him dry. And the bitch failed to mention to the judge that she is all but married to the fucktard she left him for. But she'll never let the asshole put a ring on it; oh, no…that would cost her the six hundred dollars he forks over to her each month for no reason other than his lawyer sucked.
He reclines in his seat and rests his arm on the door in the open window. From the angle he has his patrol car positioned at facing the only road bisecting Panem Island, he has a decent view of the ocean, an undulating ribbon of aquamarine between the dunes. The occasional car or Jeep lumbers by, most adhering to the strict 30 miles-per-hour speed limit that is a necessity, thanks to the hairpin curves and blind turns on the serpentine street.
But traffic is light; it is Thursday, after all. Most of the rentals turn over on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and the daily beachgoers are still firmly entrenched under their tents or umbrellas, soaking up the last precious rays of the day. And nearly all the out-of-town guests for the Undersee wedding are staying right on the premise at the old inn.
A family of five cruises past on bicycles, the father towing some kind of a trailer-canopy thing with a toddler who is clearly not happy to be stationary. His screams drown out the distant roar of the waves and the occasional squawks of the greedy gulls on the pier. Cray cringes and is relieved when they are out of earshot.
He exhales noisily and reaches for the Red Bull in the console, draining the rest of the can, and glances at his watch again. Move, dammit. Now the minute hand is mocking him too. Only two minutes have passed since the last peek he gave at the fucking thing.
Grabbing his iPhone from the console, he pulls up his 'Words with Friends' app and sends his older son a game request. Then he completes plays in the other games he has in progress. He's about to score 88 points thanks to 'quarks' strategically placed across a triple-word and two triple-letter spaces when the drone of an engine rises, and a motorcycle appears in the distance. The hum increases as it nears, and it's not hard to discern the excessive speed at which the vehicle travels on the single-lane thoroughfare.
Cray sets down the phone, grabs the steering wheel with his left hand, and throws the car into 'drive' before flicking on his lights. The biker zooms past, throwing a triumphant middle finger into the air as he does, and Cray's eyes narrow. Who does this fucker think he is? He veers onto the road, sending gravel and dust spitting all over the sandy shoulder.
As soon as he starts his pursuit of the biker, he immediately estimates the guy is doing twice the posted speed limit. The motorcycle bobs and weaves, straddling the double yellow line like a sidewinder snake. "Son of a bitch," Cray mutters, laying on the gas pedal to keep pace with the bike. The rapidly increasing speed of the motorcycle starts a wave of apprehension swelling in his stomach; he's never had a high-speed chase before in his twelve years on the force, and the narrow strip of asphalt exacerbates the danger.
"Shit!" Cray yells as the motorcyclist closes in on a Ford Explorer about a half-mile ahead. He pumps the brake once and frowns when he doesn't feel his patrol car slow at all. The bike deftly swerves into the opposite lane, narrowly missing a Suburu coming from the other direction. The driver of the Outback lays on his horn as the bike veers back in front of the Explorer. "Fucking hell!" Cray swears again, switching on his sirens and jerking his vehicle across the double-yellow line to pass the Explorer.
The motorcyclist pivots around on his seat, waggling one gloved hand at Cray in a condescending greeting. Cray seethes and tightens his grip on the steering wheel, white blooming over his knuckles. "Son of a bitch! Who the fuck are you?" He squints at the back of the bike, but it doesn't appear to be a North Carolina plate. In fact, the plate is nearly completely obscured by some kind of neon frame. That will be another citation when he catches up with this asshole.
But the faster the bike goes, the more Cray's anxiety mounts. They're approaching a particularly treacherous curve on the road, right before a large shopping center with a pizzeria and several surf shops and the island's rental offices. There is bound to be any number of cars coming and going from the plaza. He taps his brakes to turn into the curve, and again, the car fails to decelerate at all. Bracing himself, he yanks the wheel hard and skids through the nearly blind curve, relieved that he can regain control before a Nissan Murano drives past on the southbound side.
But his relief is temporary.
Because when he directs his eyes back to the road, he sees that the motorcyclist has turned down a side street, one of scores that lead to the modest beaches on the sound side of the island. The homes are more modest as well, many occupied by year-round residents and retirees.
Cray's own little bungalow is a mere two blocks from here.
The motorcycle races down the residential road, speeding towards a cul-de-sac before making a sharp left turn. Cray utters another curse and tries to make the right turn, but at the nearly seventy miles per hour that he is currently going, the tires squeal, and the patrol car fishtails wildly, his heart hammering against his rib cage as he rights the vehicle. What the fuck is wrong with his brakes? He jams his foot against the pedal repeatedly. Nothing. Panic cascades through him, and he sucks in a shallow breath when he nears the end of the street.
He reaches for his radio, his hand trembling as he fumbles to connect to dispatch. The radio crackles. "Panem County Dispatch."
"Octavia, I've got a 10-75 out off Highway 12. Seam Street. Motorcyclist. And my fucking brakes are not working. I repeat, 10-75 on Seam Street approaching the sound."
"Officer Cray, can I get a description of the bike? A license plate for backup pursuit?"
"Fuck!" he screams. "10-78. Office in need of immediate assistance!" He drops the radio as the motorcycle makes a hard left, the bike teetering perilously close to parallel with the pavement, and he instinctively brakes to no avail. The patrol car continues its forward trajectory, barreling through a yard between two well-kept bungalows with manicured lawns that are both—unfortunately for Cray—renter-less this week.
He continues frantically pressing the brake pedal to the floor as the car nears the edge of the sound. The front tires hit the bank, and the patrol car launches into the air.
All that bullshit about life flashing before your eyes is just that—bullshit, he thinks as he braces for impact, and his mind reels into survivor mode. His hand fumbles with the switch for the automatic window, which he knows will short out the second the car is submerged in the water.
The window doesn't budge.
And it doesn't matter in the end. As the car slams into the sound, the impact sends Cray's head crashing to the steering wheel with a jarring blow and a sickening thump, and as the patrol car begins to sink, his last conscious thought is that if he dies, at least his ex-wife won't be the one who ultimately bled him dry.
Peeta reaches the landing of the second floor after checking in and gazes down the corridor. The bridal party has the entire western wing to themselves. He knows Katniss's room is at the very end of the hallway straight ahead of him, and his room is closest to the staircase. Even though Madge had assured him of it, he had shamelessly batted his lashes at the young girl behind the desk until a few keystrokes of her computer confirmed Katniss's room number.
With a sigh, he heaves his bag onto his shoulder and ambles towards the room assigned to him. He swipes the key through the electronic keypad and steps into the room, frowning when he sees the tornado that Delly has left behind. Dresses are strewn all over the unmade king-sized bed, mismatched heels litter the floor, and a half drunken glass of some kind of white wine—probably chardonnay, which she tends to favor—stands on the dresser. She, however, is nowhere to be found.
He sets down his bag in front of the dresser and walks over to the sliding glass door, pushing aside the heavy curtain and gauzy under-curtain to stare out at the gently rolling ocean in the distance. Hauling the door open, he steps onto the balcony, the sultry summer air enveloping him instantaneously. He inhales deeply, and the fragrant blooms from the gardens below drift up. Laughter lifts too, from the hotel guests enjoying a late afternoon cocktail or early dinners on the verandah. His nose twitches as he tries to discern the other smells intermingling on the breeze.
Leaning against the railing, he scans the horizon, the soft hues of the early evening sky fade into the sea like melted crayons, and the overwhelming effect of all the blues and purples disorients him for a moment. He turns away from the scene, and cuts his eyes towards the sound to the east of the inn, and as he does, he sucks in a sharp breath at the sight of Katniss leaning on the railing six balconies away.
She stares straight ahead, and the distance separating them is too far for him to discriminate her expression, let alone any of her familiar features. He can tell that her hair is damp, and she's wearing some kind of short, satiny robe and holding a nearly empty wine glass in her left hand. So she's a wine drinker now. How many other things about her have changed in six years?
One thing that hasn't changed is her physical beauty. Other than the profound sadness that seems to now be a permanent fixture in her mercury eyes, she looks exactly the same as she did the morning he last saw her. She's still slender, perhaps a little too skinny, but she clearly makes an effort to keep herself toned and in shape.
He darts a glance down to her bare legs, but the bars of the balcony prevent him from getting a too good of a look. As her head tips back to drain the last of the red wine, his eyes trace the column of her throat, remembering how well his tongue and lips and mouth used to map the same path. The wisp of breeze in the air causes the sleeves of the robe to flap lightly, and he watches as she rolls the stem of the now empty glass between her palms.
Finally, after several silent moments of him studying her from afar, she straightens and sets the wine glass down on a small table, then raises her arms over her head, stretching leisurely, and he holds his breath as the robe rides up. When she lowers her arms and rolls her shoulders, the silky garment comes dangerously close to slipping open over one breast. He averts his eyes instinctively, but when he glances back, she has her arm wrapped around herself as she turns, retrieves the glass, and disappears back into her room. Sighing again, he walks back inside his own room, pulling the door closed behind him.
She may only be a few doors away, but the distance between them feels more like a chasm, and it's one that Peeta is unsure he's ready to bridge, as badly as he wants to pepper her with questions and get some semblance of an explanation as to why she left him the way she did.
He sheds his clothes and goes into the bathroom to take a shower, and he's toweling off and scrubbing at his damp curls with the towel when an intrusive, obnoxious series of knocks beats on his door. Wrapping the towel around his waist and securing it tightly, he strides to the door, and peers through the peephole, groaning inwardly when he sees his brother, Dillon, standing there.
"How the hell did you know my room number?" Peeta asks as Dillon grins widely and pushes past him.
"The little piece of ass down at the front desk got her Mellarks mixed up and tried to give me your room yesterday afternoon when I checked in."
Peeta blinks and shifts his towel higher on his hips. "You checked in yesterday?"
Peeta shrugs. "I thought you were on duty last night."
"I got off at eight. I needed a good night's sleep. Gloss always has his fiancé over anymore. Those two don't know the meaning of the word quiet. And two straight weeks of the overnight really fucks with your circadian rhythm, ya know?"
He doesn't know. Peeta has generally been an early riser thanks to years working at his parents' place and his mornings at the high school start at precisely seven a.m., necessitating a five-thirty wake up call from his alarm daily. He's usually in bed by ten.
Dillon's job as an officer on Panem Island's small police force yields a much different schedule. His brother rarely works consistent hours, and thus, much of the burden of helping their father with their mother's chemo and doctors' appointments and monitoring her at home has fallen to Peeta because of Dillon's unpredictability.
Not that Dillon has ever been the most responsible of the Mellark boys. Peeta has long suspected that his brother's abrupt decision to major in criminal justice came from his healthy disrespect of the law as a teenager.
Dillon pushes past Peeta and snorts at the mess on the bed. "I see Hurricane Delly was here. What, she take a nap in here already?"
"I guess," Peeta shrugs. "I haven't seen her since last night."
"I heard Katniss is back," his brother says bluntly, tossing aside a few of Delly's dresses and pulling up the comforter slightly so that he can sit on the edge of the bed. He arches his brows at Peeta. "You ready to see her after all these years?"
Peeta adjusts his towel again and arranges his clothes for the evening on the other side of the bed. "I saw her earlier today," he replies quietly.
A low whistle escapes Dillon's front teeth. "Where? How?"
"She was outside the bakery."
"She came looking for you?" he exclaims, aghast.
Peeta shakes his head. "No, I think she had been walking down on the beach. I don't think she came there with the intention of seeing me, and I just caught her off guard."
"Did you talk to her?"
He nods and relates the awkward reunion he had with Katniss, and how he had cut her off when she had started what he assumed was going to be an apology.
"How did she react to the news about Delly?"
"I don't know. She seemed surprised, I guess, but not shocked." It's not entirely true. The pain in her eyes was palpable when he told her he was seeing someone. "But I didn't mention Delly by name. I only told her I had a girlfriend now."
"Well she's clearly not keeping tabs on you then, cause your status on Facebook has read 'in a relationship' for months now, Peet. And did she really expect you to pine around for her and not move on after six fucking years?" He rolls his eyes. "It's not like she made any effort to contact you."
"Can you spare me this conversation, Dill? Mom already did her part in the "remind Peeta just how badly Katniss Everdeen broke his heart" daily sweepstakes today."
"Yeah, okay." Dillon gives him a sympathetic look. "I'm just looking out for you, bro. You've always been weak when it comes to Katniss."
"Yeah, she reminded me about that too. Now get the fuck out so I can get dressed. I'll see you later."
"Nothing I haven't seen before, baby brother," he smirks as his phone pings. Fishing around in his pocket, he pulls out his cell, and Peeta watches Dillon's blue eyes widen, and his brother's jaw drops. "Holy shit…Holy shit."
Dillon leaps off the bed and jams his phone back in his pocket. "I gotta go, Peet. There's been an accident."
"What? Dill, what? Who?"
His brother reaches for the doorknob. "Cray. His patrol car went into the sound about an hour ago. I gotta get down to the station. I'll keep you posted."
Peeta nods as Dillon hastily exits and slams the door behind him.
Joel Cray was a deputy when Peeta was in high school, and he had a bad reputation for abusing his power and preying on underage girls. He wielded his badge with malice in his eye, and there were a few occasions where Cray had busted him and Katniss fooling around in his Jeep, and the way the older guy had leered at Katniss, half naked in Peeta's lap, had always raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He didn't like the guy then, and he hadn't grown much fonder of him over time.
Still, he knows Cray has kids now, and seeing how traumatized Katniss had been by her mother's death, he says a quick prayer for the sergeant's health, if anything, on behalf of his children, and begins getting ready.
"What about this one?"
Gale arches an eyebrow at his fiancé and shakes his head. "Madge, babe, every single dress that you have tried on looks amazing. Pick one and be done with it." He glances around at the colorful array of garments littering the bed and floor. "What, did you empty your entire closet and bring it with you?"
Madge huffs and struggles to undo the zipper on the back of the dress. "Forgive me for wanting to look nice for you."
Gale rises from the bed and gently brushes her hand aside, dragging it down for her. "You're not trying to look nice for me," he murmurs, nipping at her earlobe as the dress pools around her feet, leaving her standing in only a nude strapless bra and a pair of matching panties. "Because you know damn well this is my favorite look on you. And I'd much rather spend the rest of the evening holed up in this suite with you than mingling with your parents' friends and acquaintances.
She kicks at the dress with one bare foot and pouts, pushing at Gale's shoulder. "Stop. We have to be downstairs in an hour and I'm nowhere near ready!"
"Sweetheart, you're stressing over nothing. This is a silly little cocktail party. You're going to be beautiful in whatever you wear." He grabs a pale blue dress from the bed and holds it up. "This one always looks nice. It matches your eyes."
"I wore that to Daddy's campaign donor banquet a few months ago."
"And they're all going to remember," he scoffs, laying it back down, exhaling slowly. Madge's eyes are daggers as she saunters to the closet and pulls another dress off a hanger.
"So I talked to Peeta earlier," she begins, as she slips the deep blue dress over her head and settles it onto her shoulders.
"Oh?" Gale moves to help her fasten the zipper and the tiny button at the nape of the neck.
She nods. "I told him that Katniss did indeed come over with us, and she's here."
"And how did he seem with that?"
Madge adjusts the bodice of the dress, pivoting back and forth in front of the full-length mirror, wrinkling her nose critically at her reflection. "He seemed distracted, honestly. But I can't blame him. It's going to be really hard for him to see her again."
"Just like it's going to be hard for Katniss to see him," Gale points out gently. "She knows she made a mistake. If she could do it all over again—"
"But she can't," she interrupts, "she doesn't get a do over. And she crushed him, Gale." She shakes her head and peels the dress off, tossing it into the 'reject' pile.
"I know. But she's suffered just as much as he has, maybe more. You know that."
"Six years, Gale. She's had six years to fix things—to call him, to email him, to get her ass on a ferry and get here to see him. And she's done none of those things."
"She tried," he reasons quietly. He and Madge have never been able to see eye to eye about the discord between his best friend and her ex. Naturally, he sides with Katniss—he knows the efforts she made to try and contact Peeta, to try to plead her case with him, and he saw the utter defeat in her eyes when she came to the realization that he wasn't going to return her emails, and the repeated phone calls went to an automated voice mail each and every time...
"Catnip, you have to get dressed," he pleaded with her, tossing a long-sleeved tee shirt on the bed before rummaging through her narrow dresser for a pair of jeans. The pillow muffled her reply, and Gale sighed, crossing to the bed to pull the covers back. Katniss's arm flailed out, catching him mid-thigh, and he locked his fingers around her wrist.
"Gale, let go of me," she cried, but it only served to cause him to tighten his grip on her.
"Not until you get up."
"I don't want to get dressed."
"You sound like Posy when she used to have one of her temper tantrums. Get your ass out of that bed. You can't keep yourself squirreled away in here forever."
"Why not?" she groused, finally sitting up, pushing her tangled tresses out of her eyes, t the remnants of a snarled braid hanging over her left shoulder.
"You look like hell."
"I love you, too," she snapped, yanking out the elastic and finger-combing the knots.
"I'm worried about you, that's all. I know you're depressed, Catnip, but you have to come to terms with this and move on. It's not healthy."
Katniss narrowed her eyes at him, and slowly, she swung her feet over the edge of the bed until her bare feet hit the floor. Then she reached for her cell phone on the nightstand, and Gale watched her face fall.
"Still no message?"
She shook her head sadly and set the phone back down. It was quiet for a moment, and then she whispered, "I have one of his messages saved. Sometimes I listen to it, just to hear his voice—to hear him happy, to hear him saying he loves me, even if it's not true anymore."
"Oh, Jesus, Katniss," he sighed, folding her into his arms. "You can't keep torturing yourself like this." He stroked her knotty hair and felt her body shudder with the effort of breathing. "It's been eight months."
"He's probably on Spring Break right now somewhere. Somewhere warm. Tropical. Laughing, having the time of his life. And he should be. I hope he is. He deserves to be normal. I couldn't give him that." She hiccoughed, and he knew she was fighting back tears.
Gale sighed again. He had opted to spend his own Spring Break from UNC visiting Katniss in the tiny town where she and Prim had initially moved with their father. He was hoping to get her out of her self-imposed prison, and take a few day trips together like they used to years earlier when their families vacationed together.
John Everdeen no longer lived with his daughters. After his failed suicide attempt six weeks after her mother's murder, Katniss had made the difficult decision to have him committed to a psychiatric ward fifty miles from Rocky Mount.
Wade and Hazelle Hawthorne had assumed custody of Prim, and she was back on Panem Island, living with them.
Katniss was alone. Her father's pension continued to pay the mortgage on the very small condo he had bought, so at least Gale knew she was in a safe little community, but she was alone nonetheless.
He wondered if Peeta knew that. Would he answer her then, be the bigger man and put his bruised ego aside to show some compassion to the girl that, for years, he so vociferously claimed to love?
He couldn't say that he faulted Peeta for avoiding Katniss's phone calls and messages—both texts and emails—at first. It had killed him to admit it, but he knew how much the guy did love Katniss, and how much she loved him.
From the time he was young, Gale had always assumed that he and Katniss would end up together. But he had never stood a chance from the moment Peeta Mellark professed his love to her. He had prepared himself for the day that he'd inevitably have to stand up and watch Peeta make Katniss his wife.
But now, months later, Gale found it was a little unfair of Peeta that he was effectively cutting Katniss out of his life completely. He didn't have to forgive her, and he could play the wounded ex as long as he wanted, but didn't loving someone that much warrant them some closure?
Katniss chewed on her bottom lip, which was already chapped and cracked. "I bet he's got some beautiful girlfriend that he met at Tennessee. One of those willowy blonde girls that looks like she stepped out of a country music video or something."
"He doesn't have a girlfriend, Catnip. I know that for a fact." She raised an eyebrow at him disbelievingly. "He and Madge still talk. She told me he did say that he can't imagine seeing anyone else right now."
"But he doesn't want to see to me."
"Give him some more time. You have to have hope."
"You don't understand. I don't want him back, Gale," she says quietly. "I broke up with him so he'd move on. He deserves so much more than me. I couldn't let him throw away all the good things in his life on my account." She issued another quivering breath. "I just want to get to a point someday where he can be in the same room as me. Maybe we can be friends again."
Gale frowned. "You really think you could be in the same room with him if he's moved on, and he's with another woman, looking at her the way he used to look at you?" He doesn't tell her that he doesn't think that Peeta will ever look at another woman the way he looked at Katniss.
Katniss smiled sadly. "My heart's already broken. I don't think it's possible to hurt more than I do. And I truly, truly just want him happy."
He nodded, squeezing her shoulder reassuringly. Again, he doesn't say it aloud to her, but he strongly suspects that Peeta Mellark will never truly be happy with anyone but her.
"You're more worthy of him than you think, Catnip." He lifted her chin and forced her to look up at him. "And you need to start treating yourself better. Do me a favor. Go take a shower, wash your hair, get dressed, and let's go drive to King's Dominion or Busch Gardens for the day."
"Gale…" she whined, but he silenced her with a harsh look, knowing his eyes were just as steely as the ones staring back at him.
"I'll even start the water for you."
"You're relentless." But then her eyes glinted imperceptibly, and her lips twitched. "Is this how you landed Madge Undersee?"
He smirked back. "I didn't need to land her. She pursued me because I'm that irresistible."
"She's a lucky gal." Her eyes darted to her phone again, and Gale snatched it before she could pick it up.
"This stays here today. Got it? Let's just go have fun, Catnip."
It had been a nice enough day. But the whole time they strolled through the amusement park together, Gale had never once seen the haunted look leave Katniss's eyes, and she constantly mumbled things under her breath, like, "that was the first roller coaster I ever rode with him," or "he wasted eight dollars in quarters at that shooting range trying to win me an ugly stuffed dog because my mom wouldn't let me have a real one." She hadn't said his name, but Peeta was everywhere they were that afternoon.
It had taken her a while—nearly eighteen months—but eventually Katniss had stopped mentioning her ex, and she had also asked Gale not to bring up Peeta anymore. She no longer asked Gale if Madge had heard anything from Peeta about her, and she stopped torturing herself with the saved phone message, though Gale believes she never did delete it.
"She tried," he repeats, "and we've had this conversation a thousand times, Madge. After so many rejections, it was better for her mental health and her emotional recovery if she removed herself from the situation."
"I'm just worried, Gale, that he's finally taken the steps to move on, and this weekend is going to derail that."
"They're both grown adults," he chides, taking her hands in his again, "and so at some point, babe, you have to take a step back and stop trying to protect him. Peeta is a smart man, and I can assure you that while Katniss has never, ever stopped loving him, she just wants him happy. It's the whole reason—"
"Yes, yes, I know. She loved him enough to let him go, I've heard it before, Gale."
"Then let's stop talking about it." He slides one hand up to playfully snap at her bra strap. "How long do we have before the party starts?"
"An hour. I just told you that."
"My apologies," he grins, his fingers working the clasp free. "I seem to get so easily distracted when you tell me things while you're nearly naked." He peels the bra down her arms and lowers his mouth to her left breast.
"Gale," she breathes, "I have to get ready."
He chuckles, feeling her fidget against his lips as he wraps them around one rosy pink nipple. "I can be quick."
She moans softly when he suckles and rakes her fingers through his hair. "Not the thing a girl wants to hear most of the time."
"What do you want me to say?" he mumbles against her skin. "Fuck this stupid party, so I can fuck you in here all night long?"
"That's what honeymoons are for, Mr. Hawthorne," she scolds, shoving him away with a playful gleam in her eye. "We'll have plenty of time for that a few days from now. So go get your ass in the shower. If you're a good boy, maybe I'll lose these—" she hooks her fingers inside the waist of her panties, "—to give you something to think about during the party."
"That better be a promise," he shoots over his shoulder as he strides towards the bathroom, leaving her studying the piles of dresses again.
Katniss tugs down the hem of her dress as she pushes open the door to the lounge on the fourth floor of the inn. The pale orange dress hugs her body like a glove, clinging to the meager curves she has, but she is not used to wearing such short things.
She knew it was wrong to buy a dress that is the exact shade of Peeta's favorite color, but the second the sales associate crowed that it looked like the sunset she bought it. She couldn't help herself.
Of course, now that she knows he has a girlfriend, she wishes she had more to choose from than the few dresses she packed. She has no choice but to wear the orange one, because she only brought two dresses other than her bridesmaid gown, and the other is for the rehearsal dinner. And she can't very well splurge on a third dress when the girls all go for their final fittings tomorrow. No, that wouldn't look suspicious at all—nor can she really afford it.
But the beautiful orange dress now looks more like a pathetic cry for attention. There will be no cinematic heated gazes across the room, no hungry look in Peeta's eyes as he takes her in his arms, and she pleads for forgiveness, and he kisses away her tears before initiating incredible, long overdue make up sex.
No, she'll be lucky if he gives her a second glimpse tonight after the venomous glares he aimed at her that afternoon.
She should feel better, having taken a nearly three-hour nap after she had showered and had a glass of wine, but when she woke up a little while ago, she felt groggier than when she had drifted off, and a glance at the clock warned her that she was already nearly an hour tardy to the cocktail party.
The seductive notes from the baby grand in the rear corner of the lounge rise as she enters and scans the room. She sees mostly older couples mingling and laughing, and only a scant few don't hold some kind of wine glass or snifter or tumbler in their hands. Several look vaguely familiar, and she takes notice of Madge's father and mother near the massive but dormant fireplace, impeccably dressed and both beaming. And why shouldn't they be happy? Their daughter is getting married in three days…to a great guy who loves her more than anything…who will give them beautiful little grandchildren to spoil and dote on and to someday leave their fortune to.
A profound pang stabs through her as she tries not to imagine how happy her mother would have been to help Katniss plan a wedding. She had adored Peeta; Katniss remembers jokingly complaining on more than one occasion that her parents favored her boyfriend more than their own daughter. Peeta could do no wrong.
She sighs and waves her hand over the bottom of her dress again, and walks towards the bar, where a rugged looking guy that's all tanned skin and blinding white teeth gives her a coy smile. "What your poison tonight, beautiful?"
She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing, and she peruses the array of spirits available, bypassing the silly specialty cocktails that are displayed on ornate placards. "I'll take a vodka and Diet Sprite with a twist."
"No Diet Sprite. Only diet we've got stocked is Diet Coke"
"Any preference on the vodka?"
"The best you have."
He flashes her a toothy grin and plucks the bottle of Grey Goose. "On the rocks?"
He fills a highball glass with ice and pours the vodka over it, eliciting a sharp crackle from the liquor bouncing over the cubes. He tosses in the lime and slides it across the bar to her. She smiles politely and leaves two singles on the bar.
Swirling the straw to jab at the curl of lime floating atop the ice cubes, she turns to head to the outdoor patio, where she assumes the bridal party and the rest of the other guests have already assembled. It's a balmy but otherwise beautiful night.
She cringes at the thought that anyone will assume her tardiness is to make an entrance. The last thing she wants is to draw attention to herself.
But when she steps onto the terrace, she's grateful for her tight grip on her drink. The sight of Peeta turns her blood to ice, and it feels like an iron fist has rammed her square in her gut.
Clinging to Peeta's arm, head thrown back in laughter, is Delly Cartwright.
It's like déjà vu. Because it's the exact same way Delly's head was tilted back that afternoon when Katniss stumbled upon the clandestine lovers under the pier—one of which was unmistakably Delly.
But it wasn't Peeta's lap Delly had been bouncing on.
Her stomach clenches, and a swell of nausea rises, threatening to crest. Peeta's girlfriend is Delly Cartwright. She's finally landed him after all these years. And the heartless bitch is cheating on him.
Katniss wishes the deck of the terrace would open up and swallow her whole. Her heart aches for Peeta, partially from her own longing for him, but more out of her embarrassment for him—an embarrassment to which he is not privy. She suddenly wants to turn around and run from the party before anyone spots her.
"Katniss! There you are! We were just talking about you!" Madge calls.
Too late. Katniss feels the majority of the eyes on the expansive balcony land on her. She swallows and plasters her best fake smile on her face, and she walks further out onto the deck.
"Hi." She approaches Gale and Madge and the friends clustered around them. She carefully avoids Peeta's eyes, but she is all too aware of Delly's big blue orbs fixed on her. Gale leans over and envelops her in a warm hug, and as she winds her arms around his waist and up his back, she accidentally locks gazes with Peeta. Is it her imagination that he's standing a little straighter? Probably. She can't help but notice his left hand rests easily on Delly's curvy hip. Her stomach clenches again, and she closes her eyes, letting Gale's hug comfort her.
"Try to keep smiling, Catnip. I know tonight isn't going to be easy," he murmurs in her ear before he releases her.
She feels Peeta's gaze still on her, and she widens her eyes to nonverbally plead with Gale to take her aside so they can talk. He understands immediately and quickly presses a kiss to Madge's temple. "I'll be right back."
Gale leads her around the corner, where a number of guests are seated at tables, and an outdoor bar has been set up. They walk to the far edge of the deck, and Gale leans against the railing, crossing his arms and giving her a sympathetic look. "You're strong, Katniss. You can do this." Gale only uses her real name when he's irked at her, or he's being particularly serious.
"Delly? Delly Cartwright, Gale? Of all the women he could have decided to date, it's her?"
"I knew I should have told you," he sighs, scrubbing at his jaw.
She sighs too, pain radiating through her chest. She hadn't realized it was indeed possible for her heart to physically ache any more than it has been hurting for the last six years. "No, I don't blame you for not telling me, Gale. I'm not mad at you. But…" She swallows past the lump crowding her throat and closes her eyes briefly. "It hurts. I knew it would. But it hurts so much. I fucked up. I never should have hurt him. I never should have left him…I…" She hears the waver in her voice, and he pulls her into his arms again, stroking her hair gently.
"I know," he whispers. "I know."
"He hates me. I see it in his eyes."
"He doesn't hate you, Catnip. But when you love someone so deeply, and they walk away from you…"
She shakes her head and Gale falls mute, the rest of his thought abandoned. She knows all too well where he was going with it.
"I still love him," she whispers. "I never stopped. I did what I did because I loved him so much. And he'll never know."
"I know, Catnip. But you can't lose hope that he'll finally talk to you, let you at least explain yourself."
"I was a fool to think he'd want anything to do with me again." She laughs bitterly. "But Delly Cartwright," she echoes, pushing away from Gale and leaning her elbows on the railing. From the eastern railing, she can see both the sound lapping gently against the nearest dock and hear the roar of the waves crashing on the shore.
"What about her?" Gale prods. "Delly is a nice girl. She's always been nice."
Nice. She turns to her right and stares at the ocean in the distance, considering the knowledge she now holds in her hand. She saw Delly—there can be no mistaking it—with another man, having sex with a man who was not Peeta. Yeah, it's real nice to cheat on your boyfriend.
But she's helpless to do anything about it.
Because if she tells Peeta she looks desperate. If she tells him, she runs the risk that he won't even believe her. If she tells him, she invites him to unleash all the pent up rage and anger that has been festering for the past six years. And her fractured heart won't survive that; the looks he's been giving her are agonizing enough.
She toys with telling Gale. It would feel good to confess what she saw, get it off her chest, and ask Gale's advice if she's doing the right thing by staying quiet—even though she already knows the answer. But to dump her emotional melodrama on him given the circumstances seems patently unfair.
"Catnip, I need to get back," Gale murmurs, shaking her shoulder lightly. She turns and faces him, nodding numbly. She wants nothing more than to stand here alone for the rest of the night, but if she doesn't follow Gale back, she knows he'll just have to answer more questions. This is his party. This is the happiest time of his life. She shouldn't be his burden tonight.
"I'm going to need another drink," she declares, trying to force her lips into a smile. Gale exhales and squeezes her shoulder again.
"You can have as many as you want. You're not driving."
She laughs weakly and reluctantly falls into step beside him, steeling her tattered nerves to endure the next few hours.
The second death I had alluded to last chapter got moved to Chapter 4. ;)
Since this is my last update before the big premiere, I just want to say thank you to this fandom for making it so much fun to anticipate a movie, and I hope everyone loves the film and has a blast however many times you see it.
Thanks for reading. ~C