Katniss's song: "Home" by Gabrielle Aplin.
Peeta's song: "Big Bad World" by Kodaline.
One Year Later
Two children play in the square, giggling as they chase a mockingjay that flaps around their heads. Watching them relaxes me enough that I clear my throat, ready to begin, and focus on the sea of faces before me. My friends. My neighbors. The people of Panem are gathered together as we have been many times before, but this is not a protest. This is a celebration.
They tilt their heads up to where I'm sitting on the stage. They beam, cheeks and noses tinged from the summer sun, which has begun to sink over the horizon. It's sunset. The cords of light bulbs glow above us. The men salute with bottles, while the women wear waterlilies in their hair like me, except mine is orange. The petals' fragrance floats through the air.
The mockingjay perches on the statue of its own likeness—a monument that I once chained myself to, paving the road for this moment. The children's mother corrals them back to their seats. A collective hush settles over the crowd as everyone stares at me, waiting to be told a story.
This is home. As Old Man Sae begins to play his guitar, and my voice joins him, that's what I sing about.
My eyes close. The lyrics I've written are warm in my chest and light on my lips, following the curl and pluck of Sae's fingers. Of all the stories I've told—with my dreamer friends and with my sister—this is the first time I've created something about the place I truly come from.
This world is not an imaginary setting where faeries exist, where wheatfields grow, or where cobblestones cover the ground. Nor am I a fictional heroine. I'm not medieval lady, or mythological goddess, or a girl at a carnival. I've never met a famous poet or been a secret admirer. And I've definitely never wielded a bow—although I plan on learning someday, the way I learned to fish.
In the end, this is Panem. Endless sky, burning sunsets, white sand, and clear waters.
And I'm just me. While I will never stop telling stories—they are a beautiful part of my life—I no longer rely solely on them. They're not my lifeline anymore. I don't always need to be someone else. Especially not today.
Today, I'm exactly who I want to be. Katniss Everdeen. Wild child. Songbird. Activist. Waterlily. Daughter. Niece. Sister. Friend. And so much more.
I'm his. I see him behind my lids. I feel him in the music, in the slant of my voice, because the things he taught me have become the words rising out of me now. I remember him in this song.
Yes. Everyone I care about is on this island, in this room. Even Primrose.
Everyone except one person. The most important one.
There's only one way to start this letter: I miss you. I love you.
I don't know how to feel about being back. I just want to be in Panem, where everything makes sense.
The night I got home, I kind of panicked. My dad was the same. My brothers were the same, meaning still idiots. Even though Mom isn't here anymore...well, even that feels the same. She was never really here to begin with.
My dad put up this giant "Welcome Home" sign across the bakery, and my brothers toilet-papered my room, but nothing else was different in the house. Once I cleared the toilet paper, everything was exactly like I left it. The paintbrush and wrestling trophies. My pillows. My notebooks. Everything.
That's when I freaked out. I've changed, but nothing else has. Standing there, it was like going back in time full throttle. Like the whole year away hadn't happened. It scared the shit out of me.
I just don't want to forget...
I hope you like these pictures I'm sending you. Dad's old camera still works better than anything.
It's me and him in the bakery (I seriously thought I'd gotten all the flour out of my hair), my brothers (yeah, they're trying to impress you with their muscles because they think your waterlily picture is hot, but as you can see, I'm the one who has Rye in a headlock), the woods by our house (just thought you'd like that), the lake that I told you about (I swim there a lot), and don't laugh at that one of my bedroom. I tripped over my backpack when I clicked the shutter.
The last one looks like it's me on the phone with someone else, but it's really us. I'd just dialed your number and heard your sleepy voice answering...
First day of senior year was a little weird. I felt like a foreigner, but I carried the dandelion seed you gave me in my pocket, like I promised...
I wish you could meet my friends. Thresh is a great guy, and you'd like his girlfriend Rue...
Wrestling is definitely going to happen, but I have to get in shape first...
Alright, alright. I won't get you a laptop or smartphone. I know the house phone works fine, and of course I love our letters, but I just can't help wanting more of you. I know you're scowling right now, but stop it.
What can I say? I'm greedy. I'm forever greedy when it comes to you...
My voice is like a wave rushing across the square. It builds, crescendos, and comes back down to earth. On the last note, it thins out and becomes a gentle lap of water, until it fades altogether.
The crowd bursts into applause. I burst into proud laughter. Old Man Sae enfolds me into a hug and pats my cheek. Cinna winks at me. Greasy Sae blows me and her husband kisses. Gale and Deliah raise a three-fingered salute. Jo and Tigris punch their fists in the air.
Finnick whistles, his green eyes sparkling. We share an easy moment across the square, not spoiled by loss but healed. A friendship that has mended.
Mama dries her tears. Haymitch claps and smiles an "I'll-be-damned" smile.
I'm equally awed. The villagers staged more protests about the fishing permits over this past year. We were relentless, and most times it was dangerous, and each time I made the people I love worry.
Especially Peeta. His father once had to physically restrain him from getting on a plane and flying here to protect me. After that, Peeta became proactive from his home and somehow got a hold of the media's attention. His ceaseless chatter and wordsmith skills brought Panem's efforts into a small spotlight, and at the last protest, camera crews showed up. Unlike the protests that ended in chaos, that final one ended in triumph.
Since the cause had originally been incited by a young and voluntarily mute girl, I became the center of the story. At the same time, I also began writing songs about everything that's happened since I lost Primrose. The little bit of media recognition I'd gained worked in my favor, because a man named Plutarch heard me sing at my uncle's cantina one evening. He'd opened a humble studio on the north shore and thought I might be interested in recording my music there.
It's nothing where I'd have to abandon my life or end up on television. This Plutarch fellow simply envisions me becoming an "indie favorite" with the public. It would mean enough money to sustain my family, to contribute to the island, and to let me stay home. I can do it now that I've graduated. Or I can teach like Cinna. Or I can create my own survival courses for tourists. Or I can do all of it. I have choices, and that's a comforting thought.
Haymitch wraps me in an embrace when I come off the stage. "Not bad for a wild child."
I'm about to pinch him when he teasingly holds up an envelope from District 12. "This came for you."
My heart spins. I snatch it from him. I don't want to leave the party early, but I need Peeta, and I always read his letters alone.
"It's alright," Haymitch says without me having to explain. "I have specific instructions. You're supposed to read it at the beach, at around..." He checks his watch. "Now, actually."
Puzzled over why or how he'd been given instructions, I bolt for the shore. As I run, memories of earlier letters flit through my mind.
...and those spices you sent were an amazing surprise. I love them! Dad remembers them from his exchange year too. We've been trying them in a few recipes. It's nice talking to him about Panem. He understands what it was like to live there...
He just admitted that he's been thinking about opening a second bakery. He's babbles a lot about "life changes"...
I might do this special food management class at night...
God, your last letter. It's all your fault that I'm hard while writing this. I want to kiss you so bad, and throw you on my bed, and...
You're going to finish me off, sweetheart...
And you claim you're not good at saying something.
Those song lyrics you wrote were beautiful. I can't wait to hear you sing someday.
It makes me so happy to know you liked the grad picture of "your Peeta."
That's what I am. I'm yours.
I build a fire at the beach. The low tide rocks peacefully into the horizon while the setting sun is a half-disc disappearing beneath the water, its orange reflection rippling across the ocean's surface and tapering to a point like an arrow's head. Around me, pink and yellow bromeliads bloom from the trees.
The hem of my green skirt brushes the sand as I kick off my sandals. I run my hand over Peeta's white shirt. I wore it today, tied it into a knot at my waist, to keep him close to me. I hope it's enough to prepare me for whatever his letter says. My fingers tremble as I stare, terrified, at the envelope with his handwriting on it. It's not merely a feeling that I have. I know he has something important to tell me.
Over time, Peeta did what I predicted he would do. He reconnected with friends. He went to parties. He maintained a friendship with Madge, though he didn't see her often, and I trusted him.
At the same time, he did what he predicted and kept his promise. His heart remained mine alone, never once straying to other people. And my heart has remained his as well. We've been dedicated, persistent, and perhaps simply lucky.
Though we haven't been specific about what will happen between us now that school is over. In his phone calls and letters, I've sensed him considering many things but withholding his thoughts, which is unusual. He's been mysterious about college, about this second bakery idea of his papa's, and about other possibilities.
Peeta has assured me that he's finding a way to bridge the miles between us. He hasn't given me a reason to doubt his love, but love may not be enough, and I've been too cowardly to question or push him. Perhaps I'm about to regret that.
The briny ocean breeze wafts into my nostrils. Dragging my thumb along the envelope's seam, I agonize whether to sit or stand, then set my chin. I'm Katniss Everdeen. I will stand.
Keep standing. Also, please don't be afraid to read this. It's me, remember?
I'm the one who should be nervous. It's taken me forever to get this letter right. You might think words come easily to me, but they don't where you're concerned. Never where you're concerned. It's impossible to find words that live up to those endless gray eyes of yours and that endless voice.
I miss your voice all the time, Katniss. Even right after we hang up with each other, I miss it instantly.
You sang today. I hope you thought of me when you did and felt me there, because I was. I promise.
In the interest of preserving that promise, I have a proposition for you. You know I came to Panem for a year to have the same experience as my dad. He and I have talked about it a lot, and Katniss? It's the best thing we've ever shared.
So we thought, why stop there?
Keep standing, my love. Read carefully. In the north shore, there's a building off that pedestrian street by the Internet cafe. If you go there, you'll see a sign that says it was bought. You see, my father liked the picture I took of it. It's crazy how a random photo, a shot taken by mistake because my finger slipped, can change the future.
The building caught his attention more than I expected. Turns out, the second floor is an apartment and the first is exactly the kind of place two Mellarks can sell a few loaves of bread. At least, that's our plan.
It's dawning on you now, isn't it? Katniss, I've been mulling this over for months, but the choice turned out to be simple. I've already been doing what I want to do my whole life. The bakery's it. There's a second branch ahead for my father and me, and there's no question where it should be. Or where I belong.
Panem is home. I went there because of my dad. I want to stay there because of me.
Because of you. You're my home, Katniss. You've been my home since the moment I met you, and I don't want to miss you anymore. I want a bed with you and the ocean with you. I want your arms. I want us. That's what I want.
I'll dance with you. I'll tell stories with you. I'll fight with you. I'll tease you. I'll make sure you sleep and kiss your stubborn chin when you wake up. I'll grow with you. I'll jump off a thousand cliffs with you.
Will you allow it?
If yes, then turn around.
The letter flutters to the sand. I whirl around, my heart in my throat.
It's that stray, pesky tendril of hair I see first, sticking out from the rest of the windswept blond locks. His silhouette appears next, a dark outline of broad shoulders. As he takes a step forward, his hands in his pockets, the dusky light swims across his face. His smiling face.
Blue eyes, steady and familiar. Full of longing.
I scream. Letting out a prolonged and girlish shriek, I sprint across the distance. He meets me halfway, arms outstretched to catch me as I take a flying leap into the air. I barrel into his chest, my legs entwining around his waist, but the impact sends us plummeting to the ground.
Sprawled across his body, I attack him with my lips, planting kisses all over his jaw. I'm touching him, seeing his smile, hearing his laugh.
"Hey there," Peeta says when I finally pull back.
"Hi," I say, matching his grin.
We gaze at each other for ages. His complexion has lost its sun-kissed Panem glow, but that's no surprise from the the pictures he's sent me. He's as fair as the day I met him, and he's more toned from sports and his country's generous food supply, but he still smells like melted sugar. His hands still know how to hold my hips.
His clothes are new to me. A light blue v-neck, dark grey shorts, and...a necklace. A black leather strap with a tiny jar dangling off the end. The dandelion seed.
"Oh, Katniss..." His gaze drinks me in. He looks like he's about to say something sentimental, but then he plucks my collar. "Nice shirt."
Tears sting my eyes, but I play along. "You can't have it back."
"That's okay," he says sweetly, brushing my cheek with his knuckles. "I've got everything I need now."
I lean into his palm. I just want to hold him. I've yearned for his skin, his warmth. "You're here," I say. "You came back to me."
His free arm wraps around my body, securing me against him while his other hand continues to stroke my face. He smiles as though I should know better. "Let me be clear: There's nowhere else I want to be. I'll always come back to you. I love you." His grip on me tightens. "Say it, Katniss. Tell me."
Words aren't enough to convey how much I want this boy. But I say it anyway, because the words are still true. I press my forehead to his. "Peeta, I love you."
He sighs in bliss and relief. "You sang so beautifully."
I veer up, my hands flat on either side of his head. "You were there?!"
He blushes, guilty. I would have been elated to see him in the audience. He should have told me.
"I'm sorry," he says, reading my expression. "And I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was coming, or about my plans with Dad. I just didn't want to say anything about the bakery until it was for sure. Believe me, I was dying to spill it. And then I got this harebrained idea to make a grand romantic gesture and surprise you, and I wanted our first meeting to be here, alone, but I couldn't get a flight earlier than today, otherwise I would have, you know, done the whole reunion thing first, and then I wouldn't have had to go all cloak-and-dagger and watch you perform from a distance. Anyway, I was stupid."
"You were," I agree. "But I've missed you too much to scold you."
"Don't even get me started on how much I missed you back." He rubs his nose over mine. "Dad's gonna be here in a month, once he's done finishing up some stuff in District 12. I have the apartment above the new bakery, but it's not furnished yet, and besides I'd rather stay with you until then. That is..." Peeta smirks. "I mean, if that's what you want."
His flirting makes me chuckle. "Yes," I answer. "Stay with me."
"Always," he says.
He tries to kiss me. As much as I want that, I jump up and swagger backward. Come and get it, American boy.
This time, Peeta does. He chases me down the beach and around palm trees until he finally catches my waist, pulling me close, his eyes the only two stars that matter. It's nightfall now. Our lips connect in the dark. The kiss tastes familiar, like sunshine. Like home.
Everyone is in the square celebrating, but we're here, tugging each other's clothes off. They land in a pile on the sand. I straddle him by the fire. My gaze locks onto his as he fills me, trembling and triumphant. We move so deep and quiet, our hips rocking softly. No need to rush.
My hands brace on his shoulders for leverage. His hands wander over my spine. Color flies up Peeta's throat, and his eyes fight to stay open, but he's there. We're there. He crushes me to him and cries into my mouth. The feeling rushes up my limbs, the sensation akin to leaping into the air.
After our bodies have recovered, Peeta grins and laces his fingers through mine. "Together?"
I nod. "Together."
We stand and race to the ocean, running into the waves, the surf spraying around us. We hoot and dive in like wild ones. And when we pop back up to the surface, our hands still clasped, we can breathe again.
Swoon. Sigh. Smiles.
From the beginning, I mentioned that I was once an exchange student. Lots of little memories wove themselves into these chapters, yet this was very much Everlark's tale. I hope you guys enjoyed where the tide took them.
Many thanks to each of you for reviewing, following, and favoriting. Also to my illustrious betas, Chelzie and Court81981, for their support, perception, and wickedly funny (oftentimes naughty) notes. To Ro Nordmann for the romantic banner. And to Everlart for the beautiful Waterlily fan art that surprised me on tumblr yesterday.
Most importantly, this story is dedicated to my boy from the Baltic Sea. Thank you for being there when I landed, for inspiring me to live a little wildly, and for that spring afternoon when everything changed.
I'm at: andshewaits (d0t) tumblr (d0t) com, where I'll also be posting details about my novel Touch as time goes by.
Have a brilliant summer ~HGR