A/N - I am so, so, SO unbelievably sorry for the long wait for this chapter. Real life got in the way, and that coupled with an extraordinary writing block as far as this story was concerned, coupled with incredible inspiration for my other story, The Colour of Heartbreak, just meant that this chapter became almost impossible to write.
But it's done! For those of you that haven't already, you may want to read my oneshot called The Second Hurdle before reading this chapter, as this one deals with some of the events from that story.
Thanks as always to Court for making sense of the nonsense I originally sent, and turning this into something readable. You're a star, girl!
It had been a long, long time since Peeta had had so much difficulty in mixing exactly the right shade of paint. He studied the photograph of the snow-white cat, lounging in sunshine and looking rather haughtily at the camera, and clicked his tongue in annoyance. Nothing had come even close to capturing the look of the sun as it reflected off the cat's thick fur, and as he had given £950 as a quote for this particular commission, it had to be utterly perfect.
He looked up briefly from the painting and over at Katniss curled up on his sofa, the laptop open in front of her and a look of concentration on her face.
"How's it going for you?" he called out to her.
The sound of his voice caused her to start momentarily, and she looked up from the screen, consternation briefly flashing across her face before a fixed smile appeared just a split second later. "Fine," she replied. "You?"
Something in her tone and behaviour felt wrong to Peeta. "Fine," he said slowly, after a moment's hesitation. "Struggling a bit, but nothing a little tea break won't fix, I'm sure." Katniss had returned her attention to the laptop, and a slight frown creased her forehead. "What's wrong?"
"Huh? Nothing," she responded, that same smile reappearing on her face.
With one last glance at the canvas, Peeta put down his paint brushes. He could allow himself a few minutes, especially if Katniss was worried or upset about something. Walking around to the other side of the easel, he said, "It doesn't sound like 'nothing.'"
Before he could get too close, Katniss snapped the laptop shut. "It's fine, Peeta. Nothing to worry about."
"Well, when you behave all odd and mysterious like this, it feels like, actually, yes it is something to worry about. What's wrong?"
"I was just…. looking at things for your birthday."
He nodded very slightly. As an excuse, it was plausible—his birthday was just over two weeks away—but he didn't believe it for a second. "Katniss," he began, "you're a terrible liar. What's happened?"
She worried at her bottom lip for a moment before responding. "Please don't hate me." As she reopened the laptop, Peeta sat down beside her, an uncomfortable gnawing sensation in the pit of his stomach as he worried about what Katniss could possibly have done.
"You remember that night we argued? You know, about your brothers?"
He stared straight ahead as the memories, both good and bad, of that night came flooding back to him.
"After you…. after you went out, I was furious. And I wasn't thinking straight. I was so angry, Peeta, and so hurt…. And I…. I messaged them. Both of them."
"And, well…. I just got a message from Rye."
"Doesn't sound very positive."
She swallowed heavily and said, "Do you want to read it? I should warn you, it isn't overly welcoming. I think maybe you were right."
"Oh, really? You think maybe I know my brothers better than you do?" He furiously blinked away the tears that were threatening to spill, and refused to look at her.
"Peeta, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking when I sent it. And you know I don't want to do anything to hurt you. If you want me to delete it right now, and never speak about it again, I will. But if you want to read it, it's up to you."
Did he? He wasn't sure. The fact that Katniss seemed so very worried about it didn't bode well. But his curiosity was overwhelming. Nodding silently, Katniss turned the laptop towards him, and placed it on his knees.
He read Katniss' outgoing message first, dated from way back in November, and wondered for a moment why it had taken so long for his brother to respond.
Apologies for contacting you out of the blue, and I understand if you choose to ignore this message. I am friends with your brother, Peeta. He desperately misses you. I don't know the extent of what happened between you but I believe in letting bygones be bygones, and if there is any way to repair your relationship then I believe you should take that chance before it is too late.
He doesn't know I've contacted you, so ignoring this message won't open the gulf between you any wider, but if you are interested in seeing him again, please let me know.
Tears clouded his eyes as he read her words, and he impatiently rubbed his eyes on the back of his hands. Taking a deep breath, he continued on to Rye's reply.
Hi, wasn't ignoring this, but I only just realised facebook has this 'other' inbox. What the fucks that about lol. So only just seen your message.
Look I don't want to be rude, but if Peeta really wanted to get back in touch he could. Or is he that dumb that he can't work out how to get the telephone number of an established business? Pretty certain the little pleb can remember his own surname. Even if he decided to delete our home number's he could have called Crispian at the bakery any time over the last 5 years but he hasn't.
But whatever. Frankly I'm not gonna put that level of stupidity past him. So if he wants to call my number is 07790346974. The balls in his court. It'd be nice to hear from him but I won't hold my breath.
He felt totally drained. Betrayed by Katniss and betrayed by his family. Trying to make light of the situation he said, "Dickhead writes like he's still in high school," then he passed the laptop back to Katniss, and returned to stand in front of his painting. He had been struggling to finish it before Katniss' revelation, but now? Now it had become an impossibility.
"Peeta?" Katniss' voice seemed to echo to him over a vast distance. He did his best to block it out by snatching up the photograph of the cat once again, pretending to study it closely, but all the while his mind was focusing on what he'd just read.
His brother was right. He could quite easily have called Crispian at the bakery at any time. And he hadn't once bothered to pick up the phone. He'd always said that they'd cut him out of their lives, not the other way around, and yet here was the evidence to the contrary that he had neatly managed to ignore for so long.
"Peeta?" He felt Katniss' hand alight on his shoulder and suddenly felt too tired to shrug her away. "What are you going to do?"
He sagged under the gentle pressure from her hand. "I'll call him," he said eventually. "And if they want to see me… you'll be there, right?"
"Of course I will," she replied
"Thanks. I don't think I could do it alone."
She clasped her fingers over his, led him back to the sofa, and together they sat in silence for a while, Peeta watching as her thumb drew small circles over the back of his hand. Eventually, she spoke again. "You gonna do it now?"
"Now?" he repeated in a slight panic. He wasn't expecting to do this straight away.
"Uh-huh. No time like the present." She offered him an encouraging smile as she picked his phone up from the coffee table and handed it to him. "You call, I'll make you a tea, ok?" she said, placing a kiss on the top of his head as she stood up.
Peeta watched her leave and head towards his kitchen, his heart racing. His phone felt suddenly much heavier in his hands, almost oppressively so, and a thin layer of sweat had formed above his top lip. He impatiently wiped it away and looked down at the phone in his hands. Did he have the courage to make that call? He wasn't certain. But Katniss believed in him, and he did not want to let her down.
Carefully copying the telephone number from the laptop screen into his phone, his paused for a moment, his thumb hovering over the 'dial' button. What would he say? He had absolutely no idea.
In his kitchen, he could hear Katniss pottering around: the gentle clink of two of two mugs being placed on the work surface, followed by the running of water and the flick of the kettle's switch. She always knew precisely what he would want at any given moment, and right now it was tea and moral support. If it wasn't for her boldness, her realised that he would never be even this close to reconciling with his brothers. And so he decided that he would do this, for her as much as for himself. Without another thought, he hit 'dial.'
He could hardly breathe as he raised the phone to his ear, listening to the drone-like sound of it ringing.
One ring….two… His heart pounded painfully in his throat.
Three times… four….his brother wasn't going to answer and he wouldn't have the courage to try again.
Five rings…..six…Peeta was on the verge of hanging up when he heard a familiar voice, as if echoing from the past.
He paused for a moment, his throat suddenly dry, and was silent just long enough for his brother to repeat himself.
"Rye," he said at long last, desperately trying to keep him emotions in check. "It's me."
A slight pause on the other end of the phone, then, "Peeta?"
"I wasn't expecting you to call so soon."
Another emotion-filled pause, drawn out and awkward, before Peeta heard Rye clear his throat with a quiet cough. "You been ok?"
"Yes, thank you. You?" Peeta asked, cringing at how stiff and formal he sounded.
"Pretty good, cheers. A lot's changed since we last saw you."
"You're not kidding," replied Peeta, his mind still entirely blank. This conversation was proving to be even more difficult than he had anticipated. "So," he said after another awkward pause, "you're a dad, huh? I can't believe it."
"Me neither at times," chuckled Rye. "Nate'll be starting school in September. It's gone so quick."
Peeta felt a dull blow to his stomach. His nephew would be starting school soon? Did this young boy even know he had another uncle? More evidence of just how much he had missed out on. It was time to rectify this. "I think... I think I'd prefer to have this conversation face to face," he said, swallowing the nerves that threatened to overcome him.
"Yeah..." replied Rye after a moment or two. "Me too."
Rye agreed to speak with Crispian and find a time when the two brothers could come up to visit. Eventually it was decided that on the 19th of March, two days after Peeta's birthday, the Mellark family would be reconciled— or torn apart irrevocably. 'No,' thought Peeta furiously, as that particular idea came to him unbidden. He would not allow himself to think the worst.
He awoke even earlier than usual on the morning of the 19th, and sat in his kitchen nursing a large mug of tea. Katniss was still asleep; he hadn't wanted to disturb her so early, especially as she looked so beautiful and peaceful in her slumber.
And so he sat alone in his kitchen with nothing but his own anxiety for company, watching the minutes slowly tick past. To try and distract himself, he began measuring ingredients into a large bowl. Flour first. Margarine second, which he delicately rubbed into the flour. Yeast, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar next, which he crumbled into the mixture. Warm water, which he added a few tablespoons at a time. He could make this simple bread in his sleep.
He turned the dough out onto his work surface and began kneading it, forcing his fear and anxiety out as the mix slowly turned from a soft, shaggy blend into a springy, pliable dough. Once satisfied, he placed this inside a freshly oiled bowl and set it to one side to rise. The sense of calm he felt did not last long, and he began to make some cupcakes to restore it once more.
Katniss favoured anything chocolate flavoured, whereas he preferred the warming spice of cinnamon. 'Why choose between the two?' he thought, as he began measuring ingredients once again.
By the time Katniss awoke and joined him in the kitchen, he had gone entirely overboard and had sat down for a moment, a fresh cup of tea in hand. He heard a slight shuffling sound as she entered, and he looked up to see her wrapped in his dressing gown. "Are you thinking of opening your own bakery?" she joked as she looked around at the bread, cakes, and cookies all set out on various plates around the kitchen.
"Oh shit," he answered. "Is that what it looks like? Do you think Cris'll think I'm having a dig at him?"
"No," she said, wrapping his dressing gown tighter around her slender form. "It looks like you wanted to make an effort. It's a good thing." She paused for a moment. "You ok?"
"Mmm," he grunted, feeling a nerve in his jaw twitch slightly. His non-committal noise clearly hadn't convinced Katniss, for she reached out and cupped the side of his face. He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch.
"No, you're not," she said. "But you will be." She placed a soft kiss on the crown of his head and said, "You know they'll be just as nervous as you?"
"I doubt that's possible," he murmured. "They've got each other for support."
"And you've got me," said Katniss in response as she cupped his face and forced him to look at her. There was a blazing determination in her eyes that softened after a moment or two "What can I do? How can I help you relax?"
He couldn't help the almost shy smile that crossed his face at her words. "Well, I can think of one sure-fire way."
The hungry, lustful look in his eyes as she grinned and dropped to her knees in front of him would, he was certain, stay with him forever.
As the clocks rolled inexorably closer to two o'clock, the time that Crispian and Rye had said they would aim to arrive, Peeta's nerves became almost unbearable. He alternated between sitting stony-faced staring at the television, to pacing back and forth in his living room, occasionally looking out of the front window to see if there was any sign of his brothers, to fussing around in the kitchen, worrying that he hadn't prepared enough food.
When at long last he heard the distinctive sound of a car pulling up in his driveway, and as Belle began to bark at the front door, he turned to Katniss, his face drained of colour and said, "I can't do this."
"Yes, you can," she answered, as she straightened his collar and kissed his lips. "Just keep calm and be yourself."
The barking in the hallway became louder and more excitable with the sound of footsteps approaching the front door, and Katniss took hold of Belle's collar, leading her away from the front door. Moments later, a loud knock resounded and Peeta stared at the door, feeling momentarily frozen to the spot. Almost against his own will, his feet moved him forwards until he opened the door and found himself face to face with his brother, Rye.
He drank in the face that he hadn't seen in years, and hovered awkwardly on the doorstep, unsure of how to proceed.
"You gonna invite us in then?" said Rye after a moment, breaking the tension, and at his words Peeta flung his arms around his brother's neck, clutching on as if for dear life.
"Alright," said Rye, extricating himself from Peeta's vice-like grip. "Let's just try and get through today first, ok?"
Peeta stepped back and nodded, feeling the heat rush to his cheeks. It was clear that there was still going to be tension between the three brothers, even after all this time.
It didn't take long after Rye's arrival for Crispian to show up as well. Peeta had known Delly, Rye's wife, since childhood, and had always gotten on well with the bubbly blonde. She was immediately affectionate towards Peeta, and introduced their son, Nate, as if no time had passed between them at all. He was grateful for their childhood friendship, feeling that her being present may well make the day so much easier.
However, he had never before met Crispian's wife, Lavinia— and she seemed oddly quiet and stuck-up. Her near-silent presence made Peeta hugely uncomfortable as her large, reproachful eyes kept watch over him, as if she were quietly judging everyone in the room.
He couldn't stop his leg from twitching, a sure-fire sign of his nerves. Katniss' presence by his side kept him as grounded as possible. Her arm settled across his back and he clutched on to the top of her thigh while trying to maintain regular breathing. All the attention in the room was drawn by Nate who was singing a nonsense song about a rabbit called Stephen. Delly was sat on the floor with him, laughing and singing too, and Peeta couldn't help the small smile that spread over his lips. But it was tinged with sadness. He'd missed so much of this, and as far as Nate was concerned, he wasn't family. Not yet, anyway.
In the kitchen, he heard the kettle click and was about to stand up when Katniss quietly said, "It's ok. I'll go."
He watched her walk away and let out a long exhalation, suddenly feeling like a stranger in his own home. The five other people sat in his living room were a proper family, and Peeta had no idea what to say to them.
"So," said Rye, once Katniss was in the kitchen, "I take it she's more than just a 'friend,' then?"
Peeta nodded, still watching Nate as he sang.
"What happened to the other one?"
"The other one?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah. What was her name?"
"Jenn? Or Jenny?" interjected Crispian.
"Yeah, that's it. What happened to her?"
"She left me," answered Peeta.
"Good. Couldn't stand her."
Despite accepting that his brothers had been right about Jenn all along, it didn't stop the comment from stinging somewhat.
He was saved from having to answer by Katniss returning with a tray bearing teas and coffees for everyone. A few moments later she returned again with a plate of Peeta's beautifully decorated cupcakes and cookies.
"Oh, Peeta," said Delly, as she took a cinnamon cupcake from the plate, "these look wonderful! I'm so happy to see you've kept this up! I always loved your cakes."
"Thanks, Dell," smiled Peeta, grateful for her presence.
"I think it would be best if we get this out in the open sooner rather than later, don't you? Then maybe we can have a nice, normal afternoon once everything's resolved." said Crispian, cutting into Peeta's hopeful line of thought. His heart pounded uncomfortably in his chest at the thought of the inevitable confrontation, and as he wiped his sweating palms on his jeans, he wondered, not for the first time, if he had made the right decision in telephoning his brother.
Kneeling down in front of Nate, he said in a gentle tone, "Do you like animals, Nate?"
"Yes!" replied the young boy, jumping up and down on the spot.
"Yeah? What's your favourite animal?"
The boy looked thoughtful for a moment, before a wide grin spread across his face. "Peppa Pig!" he said.
"Peppa Pig? Wow…. How would you like to meet a real-life Peppa?"
Nate's eyes widened. "Yes please!"
"Well," said Peeta, "I reckon if you ask Auntie Katniss really, really nicely, she might take you and mummy and Auntie Lavinia outside to meet them."
"Can we, mummy?"
"You'll have to ask Auntie Katniss, pickle."
Nate chose that moment to turn shy and turned into Delly's arms, clutching tightly to her.
Katniss smiled and said, "It's ok. We'll go and make friends with the piggies, and then maybe you and I can be friends too. Deal?"
Nate nodded shyly, clambering to his feet, and following Katniss from the room, Delly and Lavinia following in their wake. At last, the three brothers were left alone. No one spoke for a long while, until Crispian finally broke the silence. "Well," he said, "I guess we have a lot to talk about."
Peeta nodded, unsure of how to start. He tried to recall the details of their last conversation, but couldn't remember specifics, only general accusations. One of those accusations leapt to the forefront of his mind. "I wasn't disrespecting Dad when I sold the house."
"That's what you said back then, Peeta. But it sure felt like it," said Crispian, placing his mug on the floor beside his feet.
"I don't know how you could say that."
"Oh, come on, Peet," said Rye. "We hardly see you at all while Dad's getting ill, then within days of the Will being settled and finalised you're getting the place valued."
"I couldn't get away!" he protested, stung. "I tried, but it was easy for you to see him, he was just up the road, but I was a couple of hundred miles away, I didn't have a car, I couldn't get much time off work, and I couldn't afford the train fare. It wasn't because I didn't want to see him, you have to know that!"
"Yeah. You had no time or money to see him while he was alive. Funny how you had no problems getting down once he was dead."
He felt the conversation slipping away from him. They had no idea the torment he had gone through when his father was diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable brain tumour, given just a couple of months to live. At the time he had taken a job as an office junior, the only work available that he could find, and they weren't exactly sympathetic to their newest employee taking so much time off. Train fares were expensive as it was, and if he could have gone during the week it would have been a financial strain, but at weekends the fares shot up. It wasn't a case of not wanting to go and visit. He simply was unable to get down there.
He had been beyond devastated to learn of his father's death. And at long last his employers gave him compassionate leave to head down to the south coast to try and deal with the aftermath of the death.
"Look," he said, swallowing the hard lump in his throat, "I don't expect you to understand. But I'm telling you the truth. We were struggling every day to get by and—"
"You could have come home if you were struggling that badly," said Rye. "Nothing was keeping you up here. Except that little tart of yours."
"Don't call her that," said Peeta. His family had never really liked or approved of Jenn, and the fact that they were right about her all along didn't make hearing them badmouth her any easier.
"Why did you split up, anyway?"
Peeta felt a phantom twinge in his left foot. He didn't get too many phantom feelings in his missing limb these days. Certainly not as many as he used to. Only when he felt under a great deal of pressure. His brothers still didn't know about his accident. Nor about the subsequent hellish depression after Jenn had left him. And he wasn't sure if he could cope with the mingled looks of horror and sympathy if he explained precisely what had happened.
"I told you," he said at last, "she left me."
"Please tell me you didn't put her name on the deeds when you bought this place. Please, tell me you did something right, at least," said Crispian.
"It's in my sole name."
"Thank god for that."
"How much did you get for the place in the end, Peeta?" asked Rye.
Peeta swallowed back the bile that was rising in him. His brothers were not going to like the answer he had for them. "Six-twenty," he said quietly.
"Six hundred and twenty grand," repeated Crispian. "And I'd be willing to bet this place didn't cost you anywhere near that much."
He looked around, desperate for Katniss to return, for the support and comfort that her presence offered, but was unable to answer. His silence spoke volumes to his brothers.
"Well, that's answered that."
"What do you want me to say?" said Peeta at last.
"For you to admit you only cared about his money," replied Crispian.
"But it's not true!"
"He worked hard his whole life to provide for us and you threw it away the instant he was gone."
"Not true," he repeated, shaking his head vehemently.
"What do you think he would have said? If he knew you were going to do what you did?" asked Rye.
Peeta thought about everything he had done with the money that he had received from the family home. He had bought his own property. Paid off all his student debts. Set up his own sanctuary, as well as set up a shelter for rehoming abandoned cats. He had founded a reasonably successful art business on top of that, and was one of the few people that he knew of from his time at university who was actually making use of their degree. "I think he'd have been proud of me," he answered with a quiet defiance.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Katniss, stood framed in the portal of the door. She offered him a small half-smile. 'Yes, he would,' it seemed to say. 'And so am I."
"Proud?" said Crispian.
Peeta flashed Katniss another glance. She nodded him encouragement before retreating back outside, and he became emboldened by her action. "Yes," he said. "Look at this place. This is what I've always wanted. And I've done this myself. I've overcome depression and disability and I ran this place single-handed for years and—"
"What are you on about, 'depression and disability'?" said Rye.
Peeta stumbled. He hadn't meant to mention the accident at all. "Nothing," he said hastily. "I just mean that after Jenn left me I was alone, but I still kept this place running, I still kept working."
"Odd choice of words," continued Rye.
"Why'd she leave you, again?" asked Crispian.
Peeta paused for just a moment. Even though he now knew the truth— that Jenn had left him because she'd been having an affair, and that his accident was her opportunity to leave rather than her reason— he still found himself blaming the amputation. He'd spent so long believing that had been her reason that it was hard to undo the years of conditioning. "Turns out she was sleeping with someone else," he said at last.
"Should have listened to us. We all said she was bad news."
Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Peeta said, "Yes, Cris. Well done. Captain Hindsight wins again."
"No need to be snarky, mate. We were just looking out for you."
"Endless criticizing, and then cutting me out for living my own life. That sure is a great way of showing how much you cared."
"And as always, you're over-simplifying and over-dramatizing. "
Peeta paused once more. He could feel the conversation slipping away, in much the same way it had the last time he and his brothers had met. "Look," he said, once he had composed himself once more, "I'm not asking you to understand why I wanted this, but…can't you just be happy for me? Please?"
Rye turned away from his brothers and looked out of the window. The full extent of Peeta's property could not be seen from that particular window, but Peeta watched as his brother stared out over his patio, which was currently covered in cherry blossom falling from the nearby trees. At that moment, one of the cats entered the room, meowing loudly and demanding attention from his master. Rye turned from the window as Peeta scratched the noisy cat behind the ears.
"You're happy?" Rye asked.
"Yes," answered Peeta, barely containing his own exasperation.
"Well, you're right. I don't understand this fascination you've always had, with thinking you're saving the world. And I don't think I ever will. But I guess if you're happy…" Rye shrugged his shoulders, and Peeta held his breath as he waited for acceptance at long last. Rye stood up and walked over to the window. "You planning on staying here a while?" he asked.
Rye nodded and let out a long, deep exhalation. "It'd be a good place to bring up a kid, one day. You two got any plans to…?"
"It's a little early for that kind of talk," said Peeta with a nervous laugh, although at his brother's words a vision of a happy future came to his mind, where Katniss had moved in and they were married with children of their own. It was a truly joyous thought. However, there would be plenty of time to dwell on that particular dream in future. He turned his thoughts back to the present. Clearing his throat with a small, nervous cough, he said, "So, does that mean…?"
He tried to catch Rye's gaze, but Rye had turned back to the window, and was trying to look through the honeysuckle archway, and down the length of the garden to where his wife and son were meeting the animals. And so instead, Peeta looked to Cris expectantly, wanting to hear the words that he had been longing to hear.
"If you're happy, Peeta, we are too."
It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. "Thank you," he said quietly, quickly wiping his eyes on the back of his hand. "Thank you." With shaking hands, he lifted his mug of tea to his lips, and pulled a face when he realised it had gone cold. "Does anyone want another?" he asked.
"Got anything stronger?" asked Cris, and Peeta nodded, climbing to his feet and hurrying out to the kitchen.
As he opened the fridge door, he felt a gentle touch on his back and turned around to see Katniss looking at him expectantly. "I've just come to get Nate some orange juice. Everything ok?" she asked, in a hushed tone.
His face cracked in a wide smile. Yes. Everything was ok. And it was all thanks to the beautiful woman who stood before him. He swept her up in a fierce embrace and kissed her again and again and again, while the image of her as a mother to his children popped back into his mind. "Perfect," he said to her, as he reluctantly let her go. "Everything is just perfect."