A/N - Well, this isn't the epilogue, as I thought it would be. The chapter kept getting longer and longer, so instead of a quick wrap-up at the end, I've decided to write one more chapter for the epilogue. And it will be short! [shakes fist at ceiling] Because I'm really ready to be done with this story. Thanks so much for reading and reviewing. Special thanks to BohemianRider for cleaning up one terrific mess.
I and Love and You
Katniss sat at a table in the Career Counseling Office at Georgia Tech flipping through a large book that listed internships. With just a few months left until graduation, she had been spending a lot of time here. She had put together a resume – and what with her work at both Ridgecrest and Fernbank, she thought her experience looked pretty good – and had begun looking for a job. Most of the listings looked like glorified clerical work, but if it got her foot in the door of a good company, well, that'd be worth it. She wrote down some information for an internship with an industrial engineering company in Atlanta that looked promising. Not many companies had made environmentally-friendly practices a policy or even a priority, but to Katniss, it seemed like the obvious future of all types of businesses. She hoped she'd find something with relative ease. She spent the better part of an hour jotting down information until she came to something unexpected. She read through the listing a few times before looking up at the administrative assistant at the desk near the door.
"Mitchell?" she asked. "Sorry to interrupt, but just a quick question. There's this listing for EcoDesigns, an architectural firm in Asheville?"
He nodded. "Yes, that's B.T. Johnson's firm. He's a Tech grad from a few years ago."
"It's just, Asheville? All the other listings are local."
"Right. He's just one of those alumni who likes to give back, and so he has this internship available for Tech grads only." He shrugged. "Truthfully, it usually goes unfilled. No one's willing to move up there."
Katniss nodded, thoughts racing through her mind. She hadn't considered leaving Atlanta, really. With her Georgia Tech degree, she knew she'd be more marketable here, and of course, Peeta had the bakery. But she didn't really love Atlanta, and when she now considered the idea, she couldn't imagine staying here long term.
Copying the information into her notes, she closed the book and returned it to the shelf. "Thanks," she said, nodding at Mitchell as she made her way to the door.
"Have a good weekend," he replied.
Katniss cut across a few courtyards as she made her way out to Tenth Street for the walk home. It was a typically cold late-February afternoon, and she zipped her jacket all the way up so she could scrunch most of her face down into it to protect herself from the wind. Thoughts swirled in her head as she walked. Peeta had never mentioned any future plans other than his parents' bakery. She was pretty sure it was a future he had never questioned.
At the same time, she had seen how his parents were a consistent source of conflict in his life. He never mentioned it, but she'd witnessed it enough to know that he'd accepted their treatment as immutable. Katniss shook her head. Every cutting remark, every time they underestimated or doubted him, Peeta took it and internalized it. It reminded her of a boxing match she'd seen once when watching TV with her father. It was so long ago, but Katniss had never forgotten the look of the boxer who took one brutal hit after another. "He's too tired," her father had said. The man was leaning on the ropes, his arms pinned in front of his face. "He's given up the offensive and is just trying to make it until the end of the round."
Each day in the bakery, Peeta was like that boxer, taking hit after hit and just trying to survive until the end of the round.
But there was no telling when his parents would officially retire. They could be looking at twenty more years still, and grimly, Katniss knew enough of Mrs. Mellark to know that even when Peeta took over, she would still be there to complain about every decision he made.
The more she thought about it, the more anxious she grew, so that by the time she turned onto her street, she was practically running. She immediately took a shower when she got home, the hot water running over her in steamy rivulets. The pounding heat eased her muscles. It was only 5:00 PM, and she needed to wait at least another hour before heading for Peeta's, so she stayed in, taking a small respite from her worry as the water washed over her.
Like most Friday nights, Katniss was impatient. She hadn't seen Peeta since early Monday morning. When they had resumed dating back in June, they had known they needed to make some changes, couldn't go back to the way things had been. To start, they both needed to keep focused on school. Constantly running back and forth between each others' places last fall had only made things harder, so they'd decided to spend only weekends together. They stayed at Peeta's every Friday, Katniss' every Sunday, and they alternated Saturdays. It had been hard, and they'd relished breaks from school when they could deviate from the schedule, but it had worked.
Katniss looked forward to graduation when they could figure out a better living situation for both of them. Her lease was almost up, and Peeta was already living on a month-to-month lease anticipating a move to settle them both.
These thoughts consumed her as she walked up his steps a bit later. He was standing at the stove as she pulled back the sliding glass door.
"What are you making for me tonight?" she asked, coming in.
"I thought I heard your car," he said, looking over his shoulder as he stirred a pot.
She came up behind him, looping her arms around his waist and rising up on her toes to peer over his shoulder.
"Vegetable beef soup," he said, turning the heat off and covering the pot. He turned to her and clasped his hands around her, nuzzling her neck.
"Mmm," she murmured, shucking her coat. "Perfect night for it." She elbowed him out of the way so she could stand at the stove and stir the pot as he held her from behind. "How was your day?"
"Good," he said. "Better now." He moved her hair back so he could kiss the space behind her ear. She flinched away from him. It had been such a bad thing when he'd found that spot.
"None of that," she said. "I'm hungry."
His hands ran up her sides and cupped her breasts. "Mmm, I'm hungry, too."
With a giggle she turned in his arms and backed him up against the counter, kissing him fully as he pulled her in. But she kept her arms firm against his chest and ended the kiss decisively. "I'll get the bowls."
He was smiling as he stepped back to the stove. In a few moments, they were seated across from each other at his rickety card table with steaming bowls in front of them.
"What about you?" he asked, cutting slices from a loaf of bread. "Anything exciting for you today?"
She blew on a spoonful of the thick broth before taking a sip. "Actually, I came across something interesting today in the Career Counseling office."
His eyes rose as he took a bite of his own soup. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," she said and paused. "I was looking at internship listings, and there's this one offered by a Tech grad. His company is an ecologically-minded architect firm. It looks like it could be a really good fit for me."
"That's awesome! When is the deadline to turn in your resume?"
"Soon, but I've got it all together, so that shouldn't be an issue." She put her spoon down and looked up at him. "The only thing is, the company is in Asheville."
He put his spoon down and studied her for a minute before responding. "Sounds like you should apply for it."
"I want to look into it. I was talking to the guy in the office, and he said no one ever applies for it just because it's in Asheville. He seemed to think I could get it pretty easily. I mean, I don't know. But maybe."
Peeta swallowed and continued looking at her. She couldn't read his face. She could tell he was trying to be supportive, but underneath it was something else she couldn't decipher.
She took a deep breath. "Peeta, if I moved to Asheville, I'd want you to come with me."
All the pretenses fell from his face as his eyebrows lowered and the ends of his mouth turned down. "I can't do that. I can't leave the bakery. That's my future. It's what's been planned all along."
"Why can't you, Peeta? Why do you have to be the one to stay at the bakery? And I'm sure there are bakeries in Asheville."
He pushed back from the table and took his still-full bowl to the sink. "But it's more than just any bakery, Katniss! It's my family's bakery! I can't just walk away. All my life, I've planned to stay there."
"You've planned, or they've planned for you?"
"That's not fair. Of course it's their plan, but it's what I've always wanted, too."
Katniss stood up and moved behind him, wrapping her arms around his chest and snuggling her head between his shoulder blades. "This is all premature. Who knows? This will probably be the year that ten people apply for the internship."
"Maybe. But in any case, I don't want to go if you're not going with me."
He expelled a deep breath. "It's just something I've never even imagined before. Never even considered."
"I know. I guess I just wondered if it was at all in the realm of possibility?"
He turned and rested his cheek against hers. "I really don't know."
With some misgivings, Katniss got her resume and cover letter in order the next week and mailed it off to Asheville. She tried not to think about it, but it felt like at every turn, something came up to remind her.
First, Jo told her she was moving out. Delly was graduating and had been accepted into the Master's program at LSU, so they were moving there together. The timing couldn't have been worse. The next day, the landlord called to find out what Katniss intended. The rent was so cheap, it would be a great place for her and Peeta to rent together, but the distance to the bakery made it unfeasible. She told him she'd be moving out, too, though that finality scared her. In a mere three months, she'd be somewhere completely unknown.
Katniss spent the next week trying to forget that she'd applied for the internship, but when her boss at Fernbank let her know that Mr. Johnson had called to check her references, her stomach started churning with possibilities. Over the past few days, her thoughts had vacillated wildly between thinking Asheville was a good idea and thinking she was crazy to try to uproot both of them from their routines. She had never been one to actively seek change, and the idea of not only making this change but also asking Peeta to make it, too, terrified her.
In her more calm moments, however, she couldn't help but think that Asheville was a good place for both of them to start their lives. She had nothing to base it on since she knew nothing about Asheville, but her gut was telling her that this was a good decision.
She and Peeta hadn't really mentioned it again except for when he asked if she had mailed her resume. He'd nodded and said, "Good," – nothing else – when she told him she had.
But when she came home one evening to a message from Mr. Johnson asking for a phone interview, she knew they couldn't avoid the topic much longer.
Her interview took place a week before Spring Break. Katniss was currently in the state of mind where she thought the whole plan was crazy, so she was able to approach the interview with very little nervousness. She had almost convinced herself that the entire idea was preposterous.
Except that talking to Mr. Johnson did everything but change her mind for good. The company sounded like a great work environment: progressive and forward-thinking in the realms of both architecture and business. And although the pay would be minimal – it was an internship after all – it would be only three months, at the end of which if all had gone well, she could expect a job offer.
"We're looking to grow the firm, Ms. Everdeen," Mr. Johnson had told her. If you fit in well with our team and you enjoy the work, there's a good possibility we'll offer you a full-time position."
She hung up the phone and lay down on her bed feeling sick to her stomach. She wanted the job. She wanted it, and she wanted Peeta to go with her, but she didn't think he would leave Atlanta.
Pulling herself up off the bed, she threw some clothes into her backpack, grabbed her keys, and called to Jo, "I'm going to Peeta's!" as she headed out the door.
He wasn't expecting her, but he also knew her interview had been that afternoon, so he didn't seem too shocked when she showed up on his doorstep.
Grabbing her hand and pulling her inside, he shut the door behind her. "How did it go?" he said. "Tell me everything."
She walked into his arms, kissing him briefly and settling her head on his chest. His heart beat steadily under her ear as his hands ran up and down her back. She allowed his warmth and strength to calm her for a moment before she released him and walked into his living room. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms, waiting for her to speak.
"It was awesome, Peeta," she said, shrugging her shoulders and holding out her hands. "I don't know what to think. It sounds like a great company, I liked him, and I even think he liked me. His company is doing a lot of things I've only studied about, never had hands-on experience with, and truthfully, I haven't run into any other companies in Atlanta that are doing the same thing. At least, if there are, they're not offering internships."
She sank down on the couch and leaned back against the cushion, looking up at the ceiling. The room was quiet for a moment, and then Peeta crossed to the couch and sat down next to her.
"You have to do it."
"Come with me."
He shook his head. "I just don't know how I can, Katniss. I can't disappoint them like that."
"How many times have they disappointed you?"
He didn't reply, his silence making his reply for him.
"Did you see your mother today?"
"No. You know she usually doesn't come in when I'm working."
"When was the last time you saw her?"
"Uh, Monday? Tuesday? Earlier this week."
"And why did you see her? What did she have to say to you?"
He turned away from her, clenching his jaw and shaking his head. "Why are you doing this, Katniss?"
"What did she say to you?"
He got up from the couch and paced across the room, frustration radiating off of him. "She was mad because I changed our pie crust recipe. Added vodka to it. And it's better! Even my dad thinks so! But mom won't hear of any changes."
"Did your dad say anything? Did he back you up?"
Her words crept into the room and expanded, taking up all the space until there was room for nothing else, no other words he could possibly say in reply.
Finally she stood up and put her arms around him.
"We don't have to go anywhere, Peeta. I want to be with you, and if you want to stay here, I'll stay here, too. I can find a job anywhere. But I hate seeing you get beaten down by them, and it happens every day. Even the days you don't see her, it's there. It's in the walls of that bakery. It's in every recipe you make. It's like disappointment covers that place, and I'm worried it's eventually going to bring you down."
Later on in bed, Peeta was restless. When he rolled over for what felt like the hundredth time, she rolled, too, and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Her fingers combed through his hair gently."What are you thinking?" she asked quietly.
She felt as much as heard his deep exhale. Her fingers continued to work in his scalp as she waited for him to speak.
"It's just that," he began before pausing again. She backed up and gave him space when he fidgeted under her. He rolled onto his back and gazed at her a moment before continuing. "It's just that, I've always known what I was going to do. It was just given, an expectation, but not one I disliked or anything. But now, I don't know. Maybe I do want to try something different. It's just a lot to think about."
"You don't have to decide anything yet."
"We. Right? I want it to be a decision we make together."
Katniss nodded minutely. "Yes, but this is so huge for you. I wouldn't want to push you into a decision you might regret later."
"I kinda want to go up and visit," he said after a moment. "I wonder if I could find the place where my grandparents had their bakery."
"That'd be cool. Then I could meet Mr. Johnson in person and actually see the company. It'd be nice to be able to visualize it."
He rolled on his side to face her, and their eyes met in the darkness.
"I can probably get off work on Saturday."
She nodded before scooting closer to wrap her arm around him and nestle her head into his neck.
It was awhile before either of them dropped off to sleep.
They left that Friday night as soon as he could get off of work. The drive took three and a half hours, the last hour and a half winding through the mountains.
"It'll be nice to do this drive again in the daylight on Sunday so we can actually look at the scenery," Katniss mused.
They found a cheap hotel off the main exit in Asheville and settled in for the night. Katniss had an appointment to meet Mr. Johnson and a colleague the next morning for breakfast at 10:00, and Peeta was going to spend the morning wandering around Asheville.
When Peeta dropped Katniss at the restaurant, she was nervous – more nervous now than she had been for the phone interview. She stepped inside, looking around, but no one seemed obviously waiting for her. When a waiter approached and found out who she was, he ushered her to a table in the back where a wiry man of about thirty stood to greet her.
"Katniss, so glad we have this opportunity to meet," he said.
"Nice to meet you."
"Please," he said. "Call me Brad." He turned to the woman sitting with him. "And this is Julianna Paylor, a partner at our firm."
Katniss reached across the table to shake hands with the woman before sitting in the proffered seat. Only after she sat down did she notice the huge window behind the table that overlooked a large creek rushing by. It reminded her of Gap Creek at Ridgecrest, and it made her just a little more comfortable to see it.
"How do you like Asheville, Katniss?" Julianna asked.
"I haven't gotten to see much yet," Katniss admitted. "We got in late last night and so this is my first real outing in daylight. But it seems beautiful. It reminds me a lot of home."
"Where is home?" Brad asked.
"Blue Ridge, Georgia. It's in the North Georgia mountains, about an hour or so from the North Carolina border. Not too far from here, I'd guess."
"Are you looking to live in a smaller town?"
"Well, I don't know. Atlanta's okay, I guess, though I can't see myself settling there permanently. But Blue Ridge is tiny. I don't really want to go that small again."
Brad and Julianna exchanged looks as she admitted this. "You might find Asheville the perfect size," he mused.
"Maybe," she agreed.
After ordering, conversation then turned to EcoDesigns as the two tried to give more detail to Katniss about what kinds of projects they worked on. Katniss found she could join the conversation more than she'd thought, could understand the challenges they faced, and was intrigued by the solutions they'd put together so far.
They had finished eating and were sipping their coffee when Brad turned to Katniss and said, "Katniss, we'd like to offer you a position at the firm. I know you're here looking for an internship, but the fact that we've gotten to spend time with you and talk details of environmental design – well, we both think you'll be a good fit. Most of the interns we've had in the past haven't had the experience you do. I don't think we need an internship with you to see if you can do the work."
Katniss looked back and forth between them in shock, her eyes wide.
"We still would love to show you the company," Julianna put in, "but we feel sure you'll be a real asset to our company. What do you say?"
Katniss took a deep breath before she spoke. "Wow, I'm so surprised," she said, "and so flattered! Thank you very much." She swallowed and clenched the cloth napkin in her lap. "I need to think about it, if that's okay. But I'd love to go with you to see the company."
"Great," Brad said, signaling the waiter for the check. "Please do think about it."
It was a whirlwind tour of the company. They spent time looking at blueprints of projects they had completed as well as ones they were already working on, and Katniss was surprised by how comfortable she felt with them.
When Brad dropped her back off at her hotel, they shook hands.
"Thank you very much," Katniss said again. "I just need a little time to consider the logistics of how to make this work. But I'm very excited by the prospect of working for you."
She walked slowly up the stairs to their room and turned the key in the door. Her mind was swirling with a thousand thoughts and questions.
Peeta was on the bed propped up against the headboard and watching basketball.
"Hey," he said, sitting up and muting the TV. "How'd it go? Did you like them?"
"It went really well," she said, putting her purse down on the desk. "They offered me a job."
Peeta stood up and hugged her. "That's great! I knew you'd get it!"
"No, Peeta," she said, pulling back slightly from him. "Not the internship. They offered me a full-time position."
Peeta's eyes went wide as he looked at her. "Wow. I'm not surprised. This job was made for you," he said, but his voice was less animated. "You have to take it. This is an opportunity you won't find again. You have to take this job."
There was a pause as they stood looking at each other. "But what does that mean?" she asked quietly. "This isn't a job that I'll work at for a few months while I look for a better one in Atlanta. If I take this job, I think I'll be at this company for a long time."
He turned away from her, running his hands through his hair.
"I don't know, Katniss. I don't know how I can do what you're asking me to do. I don't know how I can leave them."
"Come with me, Peeta. I want to be with you. I can't imagine starting a life away from you."
"But what would I do here?"
"I'm sure you can find a job here. We'll find a cheap apartment we can afford with just my salary while you look for something. Whatever you want." She grabbed his hands and looked at him, wanting him to feel excited at the idea like she was. "It'll be the first time in your life that everything isn't planned out for you. Start fresh! You could spend a year painting if you wanted!"
He was shaking his head as she spoke. "I could never do that."
"Why not? You could! You could do that. Work at a bookstore or a coffee shop and take some time and decide what you want. Peeta, your whole life you've been told what you want. Are you sure that that's really it? You've never been given a choice. But you can have one. You should have one."
He stepped back and sat on the bed, not looking at her. Her heart was breaking – for herself, but also for him because he couldn't see what she did.
She knelt in front of him, wrapping her arms around his knees. "When you're with your parents, you're a different person. You lose your life. I'm worried that if you stay there, they will beat you down, smother all that's good in you. I don't want you to live a life where you're constantly disappointed." She looked up into his eyes, trying to decipher his thoughts before going on. "And I know that you try to act like how they treat you doesn't matter. But it does. It does matter. I don't want you to live like that. I don't want that to be part of every day for you. Don't you want more than that?"
He reached for her, pulling her up into his lap and wrapping his arms around her. She sifted her fingers through his hair, trying to soothe him as he sighed under her. He shook his head slightly, but he said nothing more.
They spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the downtown district of Asheville, poking through shops and getting a feel for the town. They ate dinner at a rustic Italian place, sharing a bottle of wine. They'd implicitly agreed to leave the topic alone for awhile, but with the question so large in their minds, the evening conversation was sparse. They chatted some but also sat in a comfortable silence, their ankles entwined under the table and their hands clasped across it as their plates were cleared away and they finished their wine.
The night was cold as they walked back to their hotel, and Katniss linked her arm through his, clutching the crook of his elbow and burrowing against his side.
The silence grew heavier, and she sensed he was ready to start talking again. Finally he stopped, turning to look at her and bringing her hands to his chest.
"I don't how to explain this to you. I'm embarrassed that this is such a hard decision for me."
"No, Peeta," she interrupted, "I understand..."
"But it shouldn't be a hard decision," he said firmly. "I love you, Katniss. You are the most important thing to me. Everything about this makes sense, and I'm too chicken shit to confront my parents. I mean, that's what this comes down to. Right?"
She looked up at him, stricken at the distress pouring out of him. She had provoked this, knowingly, and now she worried that maybe she was wrong to do so.
"I know it's not an easy decision, Peeta. They're your parents."
He nodded. "Yeah." They walked on a moment. "I really like it here, and I like the fact that my grandparents were from here. I don't know . . . it makes it feel like this could be a home."
Katniss remained quiet, just gently squeezing his hand even though a tentative hope was building inside her.
They reached their hotel a few short blocks later, and he paused at the door. He looked up at the sky, the night clear, and a few stars visible despite the light from the street.
"It's beautiful here," he said, taking a deep breath. "I have no idea what kind of job I would look for. I mean, I have never once considered doing anything other than working at the bakery." He raised his eyebrows, his eyes wide, incredulous.
"You have a business degree from a prestigious school, and you have more artistic talents than I can name. What can't you do, Peeta?" she said as she smiled up at him.
He shook his head, still seemingly mystified. "And you'd be okay with that? I mean, being with me even without a good job or a planned career path? I mean, who knows what will happen? I could end up a bum sleeping on your couch and drinking your beer all day."
She snorted. "Our couch. And our beer. And I highly doubt that." She raised her hands to his cheeks, which were cold under her warm palms. "I just want to be with you, Peeta. However I can have you, I want you," she said, reaching up to kiss him quickly. "Please come with me."
His arms wrapped around her tightly as his lips descended on hers. "I love you," he said between kisses. "I want to be with you." He pulled on her lips, running his hands over her face. "However I can have you."
Figuring out the best time to tell his parents was difficult. Peeta felt like he needed to tell them right away so they could have as much time as possible to figure out what to do, but if he did, he'd still have to work with them for the next few months. Katniss couldn't imagine what that would be like for him.
"Would you want me to go with you?" she asked. It was Sunday afternoon, and they were driving back from Asheville. She'd called Brad Johnson that morning and accepted the offer, so it was official: they were moving. They spent the morning driving around, trying to decide where they might want to live and writing down the phone numbers of a few apartment complexes before beginning the trip back to Atlanta. Holding hands over the center console of Katniss' car, they were captivated by the scenery during the drive, talking only intermittently about the step ahead of them.
"Ah, I don't know," he admitted, scratching at the back of his neck. "I mean, yes, definitely, I'd like to have you there. But I'm worried about what she's going to say." He turned in the seat to face her. "I know she's going to take it all out on you. I don't know if I want you to go through it. You don't need to."
She glanced over at him quickly. His face was anxiously studying hers, and she smiled briefly at him before turning her attention back to the road.
"Peeta, can I say something?" She paused before plunging in. "I hate your mother. The only good thing she ever did in this world is bring you into it, but I can never forgive her for the way she's treated you. She can say anything she wants to me. She doesn't matter." Katniss gripped his hand tighter. "You matter. That's all for me."
He brought their clenched fists to his lips and kissed her knuckles. He nodded, still holding her hand to his lips.
By the time they had reached Atlanta, they had formed a plan. Every Friday evening, the Mellarks had cocktails at 6:30 before a late dinner. The following Friday, Katniss and Peeta drove over to his parents' together.
"I told them I'd be by to pick up some stuff," he said wryly. "Which I will. After this, I might not be invited back any time soon."
"Do you think they'll eventually come around?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. Doubt it."
Walking into the Mellark's kitchen was a surreal experience. Katniss hadn't been back since that first time – hadn't been invited back since that first time – and she felt awkward and unsteady though she tried to hold it together. This conversation wasn't really about her. She just needed to support Peeta in whatever way she could.
"We're here," Peeta called as they walked in. The kitchen was empty, but Peeta led the way into the living room where his parents were sitting in separate chairs and drinking vodka tonics. "Hey," he said.
"Well," his mother said, putting her drink down. "I didn't realize you'd be bringing Katniss with you."
"She stopped by the bakery," he said noncommittally. "I'm just going to run upstairs and grab a few things." Katniss and Peeta locked eyes for a brief moment before he walked into the hallway and took the stairs two at a time.
Katniss walked the few steps to the couch and sat down on it, perching on the edge.
"Katniss," Peeta's father said warmly, "it's so good to see you. It's been awhile. Can I get you something to drink?"
"No, thank you," she said quickly.
"How's the end of the semester coming for you? You have, what, a month left?"
"A little more," she replied. "But yes, it's soon. Almost done."
"And what was your major again?" Mrs. Mellark asked, her tone dripping in derision.
"Environmental Studies," Katniss replied. God, that woman could make the Lord's Prayer sound like a condemnation.
"Mmm. Yes. I couldn't even begin to tell you what that means!" she said.
"Well," Katniss began, "it's the study of the impact of . . ."
"Oh, honey, no," Mrs. Mellark interrupted with a small laugh. "I wasn't asking."
Katniss nodded. Fine, she thought. That's how it's going to be. She sat back, relaxing for the first time since entering the house.
"I imagine you just went to school to get your MRS," she said, rolling her eyes. "Do you even plan to work, or are you just going to sponge off of Peeta for the rest of your life?"
Katniss felt her face flush in fury, and she worked to control her voice as she said, "Actually, I just got a job offer last weekend. I got hired by a firm in Asheville."
"North Carolina?" Mrs. Mellark sat up, reaching for her drink again. "So you'll be moving." A smile played on her lips as she drank, and she looked over at her husband triumphantly.
"Yes." Katniss glanced at Mr. Mellark, whose face had suddenly changed, lines running deep across his forehead as he looked at her closely.
At that moment, Peeta reemerged carrying a box with a duffel bag slung across his back. "Okay," he said, and Katniss smiled up at him. "I think I have what I need."
"What are you taking, Peeta?" Mr. Mellark asked, and Katniss could hear the echo of alarm in his voice.
"Oh, just some stuff that's been sitting around up there. Old records. A few books. Stuff like that."
"Katniss tells us she's moving to Asheville," Mrs. Mellark said, smiling up at him.
Peeta put the bag and box down and moved to sit next to Katniss on the couch. His arm came around her, and she reached for his free hand, holding it tightly in her lap.
"Yes, she is. And I'm going with her," he said, glancing at her and smiling before turning back to his parents.
The room was quiet as his mother and father looked at them in shock and Katniss and Peeta looked back, waiting to see what would happen next.
Just as his mother began to speak, saying, "You're what?" his father's face fell and he shook his head.
"No, son," he said, and there was genuine despair in his voice.
"I'm sorry Dad," Peeta said quietly. "I don't want to hurt you. But Katniss has a job opportunity she can't turn down, and I want to be with her more than anything else."
"But what on earth can you do in Asheville," his mother said.
"Whatever he wants to do," Katniss said, her eyes flashing fiercely.
"So you'll sponge off your girlfriend," Mrs. Mellark said. "Perfect. Just perfect. We scraped and saved to send you to Emory, and this is what we get in return."
Mr. Mellark turned to his wife and put a hand over her knee. "Scotta," he said, "please, don't drive him further away."
"Why? He's used us in every way he could, so now he's leaving. Well, good riddance! I was always appalled at the thought of you running the bakery some day! Why do you think we sent you to Emory? To instill some sense in you, but that clearly didn't work. Your big ideas for the bakery involve children's classes." She sighed heavily. "You have always been just one big disappointment."
Peeta stood up with Katniss right behind him. "Well," he said. "You just made my decision that much easier." He reached down for the box and slung his bag over his shoulder. "Why don't you try getting Ben or Kane to help you with the bakery? Good luck with that!" He reached for Katniss' hand and began to pull her out of the room.
"I don't need any of you!" his mother shrieked to their retreating backs.
As they made their way across the kitchen, Peeta scooping up his keys from the kitchen island, his father caught up and stopped them, gently pulling Katniss by the shoulder to turn her around.
"Please, Peeta," he said, and his voice sounded strained as he looked back and forth between them. "Please don't leave like this. We need you in the bakery, but more than that, we want you. We want you in our lives. Please don't leave like this."
Peeta looked at his father for a long time before answering. "Dad, I know you need my help," he said quietly. "But you'll find someone else to help you run the bakery. I'll be there through the end of May, so that should give you time enough." He looked at Katniss for a moment before facing his father again. "But you don't need me beyond the bakery. You never have. I'm a responsible employee to you – that's all. That's how you've treated me all this time."
"No, Peeta, that's not how we feel . . ."
"No, Dad, that's how I feel. I don't care how you really feel, that's how you've made me feel for years! So, like any other employee, I'm giving notice so I can find something new. And I have no idea what that will be." He smiled at this, as if the thought still amazed him. Katniss clutched his hand tighter. "But I know it will be better, whatever it is."
He took a step back toward the door, still facing his father. Katniss saw the life slowly draining out of this man who had been so kind in so many ways yet had been cruel in just as many.
"Goodbye, Dad. I'll see you tomorrow."
Mr. Mellark nodded. Katniss knew he was devastated and would use the next six weeks to try and convince Peeta to stay. But it didn't matter. Peeta had said all he needed to say to his parents in order to make a clean break, and Katniss was confident that he'd be able to keep up a civil front at work while they made plans for Asheville.
Peeta held the door open for her and after stepping through it, she reached for his hand, pulling him to her and hugging him tight. He reciprocated, his arms squeezing her as she moved her cheek against his.
"I love you," she said quietly. "I know you did that for me, and I . . . I won't take that for granted."
He pulled back but kept his face close to hers. "I did that for us," he said. "But I also did that for me." He kissed her. "I needed to."
He took her hand and they walked together back to the car.