01: October 2006. 8 years old.
The Mellarks move to the Seam when Peeta is in what would count as the third grade, if he were really going to school. His brothers, surly teenagers to begin with, are much less than happy with the sudden change -- when they lived in Town, they got to live above their family’s bakery and there were two bedrooms to split between the kids, which meant that Rye and Peeta shared and Dylan, the oldest, got his own. Now the boys are all crammed into one room in the singlewide trailer, and with all the Mellarks on top of each other like this, Peeta thinks they all like him just a little bit less.
Which is impressive.
His family already didn’t seem to like him much even before Mrs. Mellark announced her decision to homeschool her children. It’s only gotten worse the longer they’ve done it, too, because while Peeta only really barely remembers first and second grade, Rye and Dylan miss their friends and their teachers.
Peeta tries not to fight with his mother. She gets enough of it from the others. She screams and hits and locks herself in her bedroom and Rye tells Peeta not to bother her but sometimes Peeta can’t help it, because he doesn’t like it when his mother is so sad.
He learns later that it’s less sad and more angry. But still.
They’re in the middle of one such afternoon the day he meets Katniss Everdeen. Rye -- thirteen years old and not able to hold his tongue -- made their mother so angry that she retreated into her bedroom sometime hours ago, and Peeta tried to finish working on his math but it was too hard, and Dylan didn’t want to help him. So Rye just made him a peanut butter sandwich and sent him outside to play.
He’s in the front yard collecting the prettiest orange leaves he can find to press in the back of his books when he sees her for the first time. She’s wearing a red plaid dress and her hair is in two braids, and she’s riding up on a taller man’s shoulders. The man looks like her, too, the same brown skin and black hair, and he’s holding pumpkins in his arms.
The girl catches Peeta staring and waves, and the man looks up towards the little girl on his shoulders, smile on his face and says,
“Did you make a friend, Little One?”
Peeta wants to make a friend so badly. He and his brothers have been stuck inside with their mother since the middle of the summer doing homeschool and he hasn’t seen any other kids around at all. He hops to his feet and stands up straight and introduces himself, very proper, just like his mother taught him.
“Pleasure to meet you, Peeta,” the man echoes, though he looks a little amused by Peeta’s phrasing. “I’m Jack, this is my Katniss. I’d shake your hand, but my arms are a little full.”
Peeta nods. “That’s okay, sir,” he says. “Hi, Katniss.”
Katniss smiles down at him.
He’s about to say more when the front door to his family’s trailer bangs open, but then his mother is shouting for him to come inside and finish his math, so he just waves again and bounces off towards the house.
“Mom!” Peeta says. “I made a friend!”
Mrs. Mellark eyes him, cold. “You’re not supposed to be making friends,” she says as she ushers him inside. “You’re supposed to be doing your school. Why didn’t you finish your math?”
“I wanted to!” he says, closer to a whine than he can get away with. “But Dylan wouldn’t help me, and--”
“Is it Dylan’s schoolwork?” Mrs. Mellark asks, pushing him towards the kitchen table. “Back to work.”
“But--” Peeta starts, and flinches when his mother fixes him with the work that most often precedes a slap. “Yes.”
“Yes, what?” Mrs. Mellark asks, and Peeta has to think for just a moment, because she never insisted on this before a few months ago.
“Yes, ma’am,” he manages.
Her hand ruffles his hair, maybe a little rough. “Good,” she says. “I’ll make you lunch when you finish.”
Across the table, Rye looks up from his algebra book and gives Peeta a little wink. Peeta takes it to mean: pretend like you’re hungry, or we’re both in trouble.
He loves his brother. Even though Rye is so much older than him, he can usually be counted on at least to sort of help calm things down around the trailer. He didn’t see him much, when they all used to go to school. Maybe Mom was right that this would help bring them all together as a family.
“Rye,” he says once Mrs. Mellark has returned to her bedroom, sure to keep his voice very soft. “Can you help me?”
Rye smiles, and Peeta thinks about how he gets over being hit so much more quickly than Peeta does.
“I can try,” Rye says. “But we have to be quiet, okay?”
Peeta nods, very careful when he moves to the seat closest to his brother.
“You made a friend?” Rye asks, scrubbing the eraser over Peeta’s backwards three and leaving little pink flakes all over the page.
Peeta nods again. “I think so,” he whispers back.
“Don’t bring her around here,” Rye cautions.
“But--!” Peeta starts, and Rye just raises his eyebrows.
“Just advice,” Rye insists, smiling tightly. “It’s better if you hang out somewhere else.”
. . .
Peeta sits outside, because his mother said that it was too loud inside with all of them in there, his knees pulled to his chest and his Bible book on his lap. It’s not the real Bible, which Mom makes them all read together after dinner every night. Rye joked one time that the curriculums his mother found for them all come back to the Bible. History, Science, Math and English all reference it at least once per day.
Mom didn’t like that Rye seemed to think that was a bad thing. So Peeta never brings it up. Peeta never brings a lot of things up.
“You weren’t at school,” the little girl from the other day says, her hands curled around the straps of her backpack. Peeta misses having a backpack. His was orange.
“I do school here,” he says.
Her face scrunches up as she considers this. “You don’t do school,” she says. “You go to school.”
He shakes his head. “Nuh-uh. You do both.”
She watches him for a moment, skeptical, and then says, “I was gonna sit with you at lunch.”
Peeta smiles. “Why?” he asks.
“Because my papa said I should be your friend,” she says. “What are you reading?”
Peeta closes his book. “School,” he says. “You want to be my friend?”
She nods, and he doesn’t care that it’s because her papa said so. He wants to have a friend so badly. “Do you?”
He nods so fast his neck hurts just a little. “Yes, please,” he says.
02: October 2008. 10 years old
“Ugh, are you sure you can’t go trick-or-treating with us?” Katniss asks from across her couch, her grey eyes huge and pleading. Like the answer wasn’t the same last year or the year before. “We’d be going with my Papa, it’s not like it’s dangerous.” She kicks her leg out to nudge his thigh and he pins it down there with his hand, watching her wriggle against him.
“I don’t even have a costume,” Peeta reminds her, smiling when she gets free and glares at him.
Of course, he would go, if it was up to him. If his mother wouldn’t notice he was gone for a night, he would sneak out and go with Katniss, even without a costume. But he knows well enough to know that he would be caught as soon as he tried to leave and that no matter how desperate he always is to spend even just a little bit more time with his best friend, the punishment he would get for sneaking out on Halloween would be unbearable.
He’d be lucky if it was just that he was never allowed to see Katniss again. And he’s not willing to risk that, even if he might risk the cut of his mother’s wedding ring against his lip every so often to go hang out with her.
According to his brothers, Mrs. Mellark used to love halloween. He was too little to remember, but Rye swears up and down that his mother used to decorate the bakery with fake spiderwebs and little dancing skeletons and that she used to buy bags and bags of candy to put out for children who came in costumes. Before she stopped working.
Peeta doesn’t think he believes that, exactly.
“We’ll probably just go to that thing at church, anyway,” he adds, because that usually gets Katniss to back off, ever since her Papa had a whole talk with her about respecting other people’s beliefs. Even though Katniss and Peeta mostly seem to share the belief that Peeta’s mother spends way too much time at church and that it is incredibly boring there.
At least, he thinks that’s what Katniss thinks. It’s not like her parents let his take her to church with them. He hates that he doesn’t get to see her on Wednesday nights because his mother drags him out to youth group, but he guesses at least it means he gets out of the house.
Katniss wrinkles her face in distrust and says, “Will you at least carve pumpkins with us tonight?”
“Katniss,” her father says as he crosses the room, pausing to ruffle his daughter’s hair. Not the way Peeta’s mother does. Katniss’s father doesn’t do anything the way his mother does. This doesn’t seem like a warning, it just seems affectionate. “Peeta’s family doesn’t celebrate halloween. We need to respect that.”
Peeta eyes the pumpkins on the table longingly. Rye and Dylan said they used to do that when he was still too little to use a knife. Just like they used to take road trips and just like his mother didn’t used to spend what seems like every waking hour at the church.
Rye doesn’t blame Peeta for it. The way their mother changed. But Dylan does. Dylan has never particularly seemed to like him. The older they get, the clearer it is that Dylan seems to believe that it was Peeta’s amputation that really changed Mrs. Mellark.
One time, Peeta asked Rye if that was true, and Rye just said that it wasn’t Peeta’s fault. Peeta was four. He doesn’t remember a time before he got fitted with the prosthetic, not really. Most days, he doesn’t even remember what sepsis means. But Mrs. Mellark apparently prayed and prayed over Peeta’s leg after the dog attacked him and it didn’t help once the blood poisoning set in. So his father took him to the hospital and they amputated, and his mother remained convinced that if the rest of the family had more faith, it would never have been necessary.
“I can’t,” Peeta agrees, grateful for Jack’s intervention. “Mom would kill me.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t kill you, Bud,” Mr. Everdeen says from the kitchen. “But she definitely wouldn’t be very happy with me.”
Peeta pulls his hoodie sleeves down just a little further, just to make sure the bruises on his arms are covered, and says, “You’re right, sir. I’m just being funny.”
. . .
November first, Katniss presses a fisful of candy into the pocket of his hoodie and smiles at him so wide her cheeks must hurt. His do, too.
03: October 2009. 11 years old.
They’re in the sixth grade when Katniss decides that Peeta has missed enough halloweens. It’s two weeks before the holiday -- her favorite holiday, which he really thinks is an insult to Christmas -- and she has him come over to her place and they sit on the couch and watch Halloweentown, a movie as old as they are. Prim is seven years old and Katniss lets her sit with them, but only if she agrees to be quiet. She says the movie is very important. That Peeta has to pay attention.
Peeta doesn’t do a very good job of that. Because Katniss cuddles with him plenty, but there’s something about this -- maybe the fact that it’s so forbidden, the combination of cuddling with a girl and watching a Halloween movie, or maybe it’s just all of the attention Katniss is bestowing upon him. He keeps getting distracted, but only because Katniss keeps looking at him like he’s going to miss something.
He probably is, because three movies in, he really doesn’t see the appeal of the series. That’s okay, though. He sees the appeal of hanging around Katniss all day. Katniss, who has started to wear her braid in one braid instead of two. Who is the funniest and kindest and prettiest person he thinks he’s ever met. Her father returns home and glances at Peeta and then his eyebrows pull together and he says, like he’s been trying to work out how to put it,
“Hey, Bud. Can we talk?”
Katniss sits up, suddenly. “It was my idea!” she says. “I made him! Don’t be mad at Peeta--”
Jack Everdeen laughs, and the sound is so rich and warm and so unlike anything that ever happens in Peeta’s trailer next door. “Nobody’s mad,” he says. And then, to Peeta again, he adds, “You’re not in trouble. Just --” he tips his head towards the bedroom. “Let’s chat.
Despite the assurance, Peeta is pretty certain that he’s in trouble. He does know better than to cuddle with a girl. And he does absolutely know better than to watch Halloween movies when his parents forbid them. And even though it was Katniss’s idea, he doesn’t want her to be the one to get in trouble for it. Though something does tell him that there’s a world of difference between getting in trouble in the Mellark house and the Everdeen house.
“I’m sorry, sir!” bursts out of Peeta as soon as they’re alone. “I’m sorry. I should have stopped her. I should have -- sir, please don’t tell my parents.”
Jack Everdeen shakes his head, eyes going a little wide. “Oh, Bud,” he says. He always calls Peeta Bud. “You’re not in trouble. It’s just a movie, I don’t care.”
Peeta draws in a shaky breath. “You won’t tell my parents?” he asks.
Jack smiles softly. “No,” he says. “But I’ve noticed . . .” he starts carefully, and then swallows. “What happened to your eye, there, Bud?”
Peeta blinks. Tries desperately to remember what he told Katniss in school a couple of days ago. What happened never matters in the days while he waits and -- though it’s not what his mother would like him to pray for -- prays for a bruise to fade. It’s whatever lie he chose the first time. This time, he’s pretty sure it was: “I ran into a doorknob,”
Jack’s smile slips, though he’s still got this expression like he’s listening very intently. Like he wants to be sure Peeta doesn’t think he’s in trouble. Which is just like the counselors at the church, who told his mother everything he said about her, which earned him the black eye in the first place.
“And the bruises on your arms?”
Peeta tugs at his sweater. “They’re, sir.”
“I just want to make sure you know that if you ever need a safe place,” Jack says. “Or an adult to talk to--”
“I’m fine,” Peeta interrupts. “Sir, please don’t tell Mom you talked to me, okay? It’s just -- gonna make things worse.” He regrets it as soon as he says it. Worse implies that they’re already bad. Which they are, but he’s already learned his lesson once. “Not worse,” he starts to try to amend, but he can tell he’s already lost the battle.
Jack’s jaw sets. “Peeta,” he says, so he knows it’s serious. “I don’t ever talk to your mother when I can help it.”
A strange, panicked laugh bubbles out of Peeta. “She doesn’t know what movies we’re watching,” he says. “Katniss -- Katniss insisted.”
Jack smiles, just a little. “Sounds like my girl,” he says. “She worries about you, you know.”
When Peeta thinks about that conversation later, he realizes Jack meant: tell me if she has something to worry about.
But right now, he just takes it to mean: Stop making Katniss worry.
When Peeta emerges from the bedroom, Katniss is just finishing microwaving water for hot chocolate.
Everything okay? She mouths.
I’m fine, he returns.
. . .
CPS comes to his house for the first time two weeks after his conversation with Jack.
It isn’t until it’s years too late to ever confirm it with the man himself that Peeta suspects that Mr. Everdeen was the person to report that the Mellark children were bruised more often than not.
Rye -- his hero, who is seventeen years old and about to leave the house anyway -- steps in and takes the blame when the investigators leave and Mrs. Mellark goes on the warpath.
“Was it really you?” Peeta whispers in bed that night, and Rye smooths his hand over Peeta’s hair and says,
“I don’t think that matters.”
Peeta never understands what that means.
04: October 2012. 14 years old.
It’s more than a little risky, smuggling the pumpkins into the Everdeen’s trailer. His mother is off at some church event and all his schoolwork is done for the day, but it’s still a risk. One that he has to enlist Prim’s help with. She’s nine years old and more than willing to carry a paper bag that’s about to rip from the weight of a pumpkin inside of it. Peeta makes sure to show her how to balance it with her arms underneath it, just so it doesn’t fall and smash on the ground.
That would be just like him. Trying to do this for Katniss and fucking it up that irreperably. His ribs still ache from his most recent fuckup at home. His brothers are both gone, now, both moved out and got jobs or started school. But he’s still at home. And though he tried to prepare himself for it, everything is so much worse without Rye.
Katniss is inside, working on both her homework and checking over Prim’s. She barely looks up at the sound of them. It’s been a little more than a year since Jack’s death and Peeta has been very, very careful not to push her. But two years without celebrating Halloween seems like something that her old self would have hated. Something that her father would have hated for her.
“Katniss,” he says.
She lifts her head from her paper. Gives him a very small smile that is somehow reserved for him, still. “Peeta,” she returns. “Hey.”
“I need your help with something.”
“I don’t know how to carve a pumpkin.”
It turns out he really, really doesn’t know how to carve a pumpkin. Katniss pretty much carves both hers and Prim’s, but by the time she’s finished with her own, Peeta hasn’t even finished drawing his initial design onto his pumpkin. Katniss glances over it and snorts softly, and he feels like it’s been so long since he’s last heard her laugh. It couldn’t have been the full two years. He knows she probably only really keeps him around because he knows how to make her laugh. But it’s so much harder now, than it used to be.
This is different. Its new to Peeta, of course, but Katniss and Prim know what they’re doing and sing a little song while they scoop out what they call the pumpkin guts. From what Peeta can gather, Katniss made it up when she was a child and they used to sing it every year.
And Katniss seems like herself. Like, as close to herself as he’s seen in such a long time. She plays some halloween songs that Peeta vaguely recognizes off of her laptop in the corner and she and Prim joke and sing and now Katniss is making fun of him, however gently.
He’s willing to be laughed at, if it means Katniss is laughing.
“You’re not gonna be able to actually carve that,” she says. “It’s all negative space. You can’t get details like that.”
“But I--” he protests, and she raises her eyebrows in what’s a clear challenge.
And Peeta Mellark can never pass up the chance to impress Katniss Everdeen. Which is how he ends up with a super fucked up pumpkin that’s practically just the entire front of it punched out. And how he ends up cutting his hand on accident and sending his best friend into a total panic.
“Your mother can’t find out about this,” she says, forcing his palm under the faucet. He winces at the cold water, such sharp contrast to the heat he always feels when she touches him at all. “If she realizes--”
“God, Katniss, I know,” he says. Something else his mother would kill him for: using god so casually. “It’s fine. She won’t even notice.” That’s a gamble. But he’s very good at coming up with lies to cover how he got hurt. “I’m gonna tell her we were cooking. I was chopping lettuce and the knife slipped. Stupid mistake.” He swallows. “And she’ll tell me I’m a dumbass and that I got what I had coming to me for not paying attention, and it’ll be fine.”
Katniss looks up at him, suddenly, and he’s seen her cry so many times, but he isn’t prepared for the tears shining in her silver eyes. Especially when he’s the one bleeding into her kitchen sink.
“Katniss--” he starts.
“I hate her,” Katniss says. It’s not the first time she’s expressed this, but it is certainly the most fervent. She shakes her head, just a little. “I fucking hate her,” she says again, a little softer. “I’m gonna see if my mom has some bandages.”
She wraps his palm up so carefully. It’s probably overkill, but he doesn’t exactly stop her. Especially when she runs her fingers over the gauze and then brings his hand to her lips and kisses it, so gently that he can’t even feel it through the bandage.
“What?” she asks when she catches him gawking. “That’s what --” she drops his gaze. “My parents just always . . . did that.”
He blinks. “It’s nice,” he says, but his voice is weird. Hoarse. “I was just surprised.”
Katniss rolls her eyes. He knows it’s because it’s easier for her to be angry than it is for her to be embarrassed. “Yeah, well I bet your mother never--” she starts, and loses steam abruptly, clearly realizing whatever she was going to say is true. “She should have,” Katniss finishes instead.
“My mother should’ve done a lot of things,” Peeta agrees, resisting the urge to brush Katniss’s hair away from her face. “But it’s okay.”
She shakes her head, just a little. Just enough that Peeta can imagine her telling him that it isn’t. But she knows him well enough to know that would be completely overwhelming, because instead she says,
“Peeta. You’ve never seen Casper, have you?”
He wants to roll his eyes, but he thinks it’s endearing. “When would I have seen--?” he starts, but she’s already jumped into action.
“Prim! We’re gonna watch Casper, can you go get it?”
. . .
He doesn’t have to tell his lie. His mother doesn’t even dignify the bandage with a single question. It’s better that way, he knows. But he can’t stop thinking about Katniss kissing his bandage like that.
Her father said she worried about him. That must still be true. Somehow that seemed like a much worse thing when Jack Everdeen said it.
05: October 2013. 15 years old.
His brand new wrestling coach is the one to notice the worst round of bruises yet. The one to call bullshit on his excuse about roughhousing with his brothers. He’s the person who calls CPS on his mother for the second time. Peeta doesn’t even know he planned to until he comes home from practice and finds his father’s truck parked out front beside a shiny black car he doesn’t recognize.
Whatever it means, Mr. Mellark leaving the bakery on a Wednesday, it can’t be anything good. Most of the time, his father is at the bakery for upwards of thirteen hours in a stretch. It used to be different, Rye always says, before his mother quit. They used to work together, and they all used to live in the apartment upstairs. But Mrs. Mellark felt like she was being called by the holy spirit to stay at home and raise her family. And without her working at the bakery, it made more sense to lease the apartment above the bakery and rent a cheaper place. A trailer in the Seam, a trailer park that Mrs. Mellark always used to swear she would never live in.
Peeta knows his father can’t afford to leave the bakery alone in the middle of the day. So something bad is happening. He barely reaches the front door before his father appears, holding a plastic walmart bag with some of Peeta’s things and looking a little contrite.
“Son,” says Mr. Mellark.
Peeta sees over his shoulder that a woman he’s certain he’s never seen before is sitting stiffly beside his mother, who looks apoplectic.
“What’s--?” Peeta starts, and Mrs. Mellark rises to her feet, eyes wild but her face quickly smoothing into a mask that he finds so much more terrifying than her obvious anger.
“No, let him come in!” she says from behind his father. “Let him come in and tell us why he’s trying to destroy our family. Again! Tell us why--”
“Please,” his father says to his wife. “Go sit back down. I’ll be in in a moment.”
Then he steps out and says, “Peeta.”
“Dad?” Peeta asks. “I don’t understand-- I’m not trying to ruin--”
At least Mr. Mellark looks contrite. “I know you aren’t,” he says. “But hey, I have some of your things here, and I thought . . . maybe you could see if you can’t spend the night with the Everdeens. Just until things calm down.”
Until things calm down. He’s never spent the night with the Everdeens before. Even once things are calm, his mother will never get over him spending the night at a girl’s house. Even one like Katniss, who he’s sure he’ll never be lucky enough to kiss.
“Dad,” he starts.
“You’ll need to stay over there for a few hours, at least,” he continues. “Because I need to send Sheila over to speak to you once she’s finished here. Okay?”
Peeta works to swallow the lump around his throat. “Dad. Who’s Sheila?”
“Sheila is with CPS,” his father says.
Peeta’s heart hits the ground. “I didn’t--” he starts, remembering how bad this was last time. “Dad. I didn’t--”
“I know,” his father says, and though it’s been so long since his father has even attempted to comfort him physically, he folds Peeta into a weak hug and says, “Go on over, all right?”
Katniss is on the couch with her homework on the coffee table in front of him when he lets himself in. “Hey,” she says, looking like she’s actually happy to see him, even though Peeta feels like he’s maybe not completely inside of his own body. “Is everything okay?” she asks. “Why is your dad home?”
He swallows. “I don’t --” he starts, and then realizes that he’ll be caught in the lie once Sheila from CPS comes over to talk to him. “I guess someone called CPS again.”
“Oh, fuck,” Katniss says softly. “Are you okay?”
No. God. Of course not. “I’m fine,” he says, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Probably my coach, I guess. I don’t think my brothers would, after last time.”
“And they let you come over here?” Katniss asks, already on her feet. She throws open a cabinet and pulls down a box of macaroni and cheese. Because she knows he didn’t have a lunch packed for practice.
He swallows. “You don’t have to--”
“Please,” Katniss scoffs, and Peeta realizes that he loves her more than absolutely anybody in the world. Not because she’s cooking for him, but because nobody else has ever known him better than she does. And Katniss never makes a big deal about it, either. She knows he’s hungry, so she’s going to feed him. Simple as that.
“I, uh. I guess I have to talk to the CPS lady after she’s finished with my parents,” he says. “She’s gonna come here. I guess? And Dad said to see if I could stay here tonight.”
“Oh, shit,” Katniss says, very softly.
“Um. Can I?” Peeta asks, because that’s not a yes.
“Um, can I?” she mocks, somehow the only person who could make him smile right now. “Of course you’re staying here. Mom’s working late tonight. Prim and I were just gonna finish her Halloween costume.” Her eyes light up. “You can come Trick or Treating with us.”
He laughs, just a little. “I don’t have a costume,” he says. His old standby. “And things will probably be back to normal by tomorrow night.”
“No offense, Peeta, but I know your parents. If your dad thinks you shouldn’t stay at home tonight, things aren’t gonna be back to normal by tomorrow. Go take a shower and I’ll finish lunch.”
Katniss is right. She usually is.
He sits in the bedroom she shares with Prim and answers every question that Sheila from CPS has. And then has to let her take pictures of his bruises. He did this before, years ago, but it’s still so mortifying.
“You guys dropped the investigation, though,” Peeta says.
Sheila from CPS tucks some hair behind her ear. “We had different information a couple years ago,” she says.
“Is -- am I gonna have to move?” Peeta asks. Because he doesn’t know what he would do if he got put into foster care this close to turning 18 and lost Katniss forever. And that’s not what he should be thinking about, right now, but it is.
“I’m not going to make any predictions,” Sheila says. “But my recommendation is going to be that either you get removed from the house or she does.”
Peeta tries and fails to focus on Hocus Pocus on the TV in front of them while Katniss and Prim make caramel apples and hot chocolate. Once or twice, he swears he can hear his parents shouting at each other.
Katniss just turns up the volume.
. . .
Katniss is right. Things aren’t back to normal by Halloween. She fashions him a ghost costume out of an old bedsheet and says, half joking, that it makes him anonymous.
He doesn’t feel anonymous, though. He’s out on Halloween with the girl he’s had a crush on since before he knew what that felt like.
Things are bound to only get worse at home after this. But for that one night, he feels absolutely fucking invincible.
06: October 2014. 16 years old.
Prim doesn’t want Katniss to take her Trick or Treating. She has her own friends, now. And Mrs. Everdeen is working, and Peeta’s father is . . .
Peeta isn’t really sure what his father is doing. Just that ever since his mother moved out, Peeta is on a much longer leash than he’s used to. So he’s allowed to go hang out with Katniss way more often. Katniss, who forces him onto the couch with her again, like she did all those years ago. She wraps a blanket over them both and presses play on some scary movie she got from the library.
An actually scary movie, which Peeta has seen exactly none of, considering his mother’s whole thing. And it was one thing to watch silly fake-scary halloween movies with her and Prim, but Katniss doesn’t actually seem to care much about having a fun night with Peeta. Instead, she wants to get the shit scared out of her, because it isn’t very often that she gets to watch these kind of movies on the TV.
When he falls for a jumpscare, Katniss laughs at him, very softly, and he thinks -- god. He really does have to be the biggest idiot on the planet, doesn’t he? He has to fall in love with his best friend. His only friend, practically, because it’s not like anyone else was around during his parents’ custody battle. Nobody other than Katniss, who practically had him move in with her and her family until it was settled.
He tenses again and Katniss’s hand finds his under the blanket. It’s a small reassurance, but one that keeps him distracted enough that the movie isn’t scary at all. Because he couldn’t possibly recap it with a gun to his head. Katniss is holding his hand. Katniss Everdeen is holding his hand. And they’ve held hands before but this seems . . . different.
God. Everything feels so different. His heart is pounding in his throat. On the screen, something particularly gruesome happens and he says,
“Katniss. I’m sorry. Do we have to--?”
And then she’s.
Oh my god, holy crap, jesus christ, every other thing his mother would beat him for saying, Katniss Everdeen is kissing him. Kissing him! And it’s -- not like what he thought being kissed would be like? It’s different. More awkward, and her lips are chapped and he feels frozen. A little bit like he’s about to have a panic attack, but also like he’s never been this happy before in his entire life.
“Katniss--” he manages when she pulls away.
She studies his expression. Bites her bottom lip. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she says, decisive.
He blinks. “No?” he asks weakly.
She sets her jaw and looks forward at the TV. “I think I’m gonna go to bed,” she announces. “You can let yourself out, right?”
“Yeah,” he manages.
. . .
“Hey, Peet,” his father says when he comes back into their trailer. His mother has been gone for months now, and while Mr. Mellark claims he didn’t realize what was going on right under his nose, Peeta and his father still aren’t close. “How was your first real Halloween?”
“Uh,” Peeta manages, and then realizes that he can’t dig up the right adjective. “It was fine. I’m gonna go to bed.”
07: October 2015: 17 years old.
“What? No!” Katniss says, like she hasn’t had a boyfriend for most of the last year. Gale Hawthorne, who dumped her a few months back, right before he graduated, because he didn’t want to have a girlfriend in high school after he went away to college.
Not that Peeta thought Katniss ever seemed really cut up over it. Gale was always treating her like such a kid, even though he wasn’t more than a year or so older than her. Peeta knows he isn’t particularly unbiased, though.
Things had only just seemed to be getting back to normal between them after the stupid halloween kiss when she started dating Gale. And that made everything feel so much worse. So much less stupidly hopeful that maybe, someday . . .
But it doesn’t matter. Because Peeta is going on a date tonight, and he needs to get over Katniss, anyway.
“What do you mean, no?” Peeta laughs, not looking up from his sketchbook. Katniss came to find him back behind his trailer when she got back from class and had launched straight into planning their evening. “I have a date. You can’t just veto that.”
“On Halloween,” she repeats, like this is some grave offense. “Peeta. Halloween is my thing. With you.”
With him. “You celebrated Halloween without me plenty of times,” he reminds her.
Katniss scowls. “But I shouldn’t have to anymore,” she says. “Because your bitch mom is gone.”
He’s surprised she doesn’t correct herself or apologize. Maybe Mrs. Mellark has been gone long enough that Katniss forgets what it was like when they were afraid of that. He wishes he could say the same.
“Well, Cashmere wants me to take her to a haunted house, so--”
“A haunted house?!” Katniss repeats, distraught. “I’m sorry, Peeta, but the answer is no. You’re not going to your first haunted house without me. That’s--”
He glances over his shoulder at his house, where he should probably be getting ready for his date with the girl he met at the Homeschool Co-Op his father enrolled him in this year and says, “I wasn’t really asking, Katniss.”
She looks . . . surprised. Like she really did think she had a total monopoly on him. Which to be fair, he guesses she did have for years. But he’s seventeen and this is his first date. Which is more his mother’s fault and less his best friend’s fault, but she’s easy to get annoyed with, because it’s not like she even wants him. She kissed him and then asked him to leave. Said it was a mistake.
So she doesn’t get to be upset that he’s going on a date, he doesn’t think.
“Do you even have a costume?” she asks.
“It’s not really that kind of a date, I don’t think,” Peeta says.
It’s mean. But he can’t say he hates the disappointed look that crosses her features.
“Well, the rest of us, we always thought you were weird,” pretty, blonde also-homeschooled Cashmere is saying while he buys their tickets.
He almost can’t even blame her. Cashmere’s parents actually, like, bought her books and enrolled her in extracurriculars. Peeta got to have exactly one season of wrestling and he’s been left to fend for himself as far as curriculum online since about the tenth grade.
“And I don’t -- usually hang out with people from the Seam,” she adds gently, like she’s complimenting him by saying this.
People from the Seam. Peeta translates that easily enough in his head and has to fight his scowl. He thinks about how he can’t wait to tell Katniss about this, and then he remembers he shouldn’t be thinking about Katniss on his first date.
“Well, you are tonight,” he says, trying to be charming.
Cashmere laughs, just a little forced. “But your dad owns the bakery, right?”
“We still live in the Seam,” he says, not fully understanding. He had a few casual friends on the wrestling team, who all know well enough not to talk shit about where he lives. It’s not like he or Katniss -- no! Stop thinking about Katniss! You’re on a date, asshole.
It’s not like he has some great loyalty to the trailer park his he and his father live in, but it is his home.
“You just don’t seem like--”
“Trailer trash?” he interrupts to supply.
She laughs softly. “Relax,” she says. “I’m trying to compliment you. I always knew that if you ever got away from there, you could be halfway normal.”
He’s not halfway normal, is the thing. And not because he lives in the Seam, but because his mother fucked him up good, and because he was raised incredibly sheltered and because he does not! Want to go to a stupid haunted house with Cashmere! Equally because he doesn’t enjoy being scared and because if he was going to do something stupid like this, he would want to do it with Katniss.
He wants to do everything with Katniss, he realizes. And he’s being an asshole to punish her like this. If she wants to take him to a haunted house, then who the fuck cares if she doesn’t want to go as a date? He would so much rather be here with Katniss than with Glimmer, who thinks he’s halfway normal Seam Trash.
He would rather be anywhere with Katniss than with Glimmer. Or anyone else.
“Hey, I’m gonna go,” he says, and he’s still holding both their tickets, and Cashmere is staring at him, absolutely astounded. Like he ought to at least give her one of the tickets he just bought. He doesn’t even think about that until he’s already back in his father’s truck, though, where the CD Katniss bought for him at a thrift store starts playing.
And he told himself last year that he was never going to press her again, never going to try to get another kiss from her, because she said that it was a mistake. Only, now that he’s thinking about it, he guesses what she really said was that she shouldn’t have done that. And things can change, maybe. And even if things don’t change . . . she’s right. Halloween is her thing. He should be with her.
Because, god. He really does still love her more than he’s ever loved anybody. He parks in Katniss’s front yard and practically falls out of the truck in his haste to get to her.
Katniss is inside, knees pulled to her chest on the couch and watching The Babadook, which she insists Peeta would like if he gave it a shot. At the sound of the door banging open she straightens, smiling like she expects to see Prim, and then deflates some when she sees Peeta. But he’s let himself in a thousand times already and he doesn’t think she’s actually mad about that. She’s still upset he was on a date.
This stupid, hopeful voice pipes up in the back of his mind and tells him that it’s not the worst sign.
“Thought you were on a date,” she says. “With Cashmere.”
This morning he had been so annoyed by the derision she said the name with, but now he realizes she was right. She’s always right.
“I don’t want to be on a date with Cashmere,” he admits.
She studies his face for a minute and then turns back to look at the TV. “This is almost over,” she says. “You can pick the next movie. But it has to be seasonally appropriate.”
He deflates some. Of course, Katniss doesn’t really care about Cashmere. She wanted him to be here to watch movies with her because she doesn’t like watching them alone, as tough as she pretends to be.
Still. He pushes forward. “No,” he says. “I don’t want to be on a date with Cashmere, because . . .” fuck it. Because maybe things have been ruined since the kiss last year, anyway. Which she kissed him, anyway, thank you very much. “Because I want to be on a date with you.”
Her head snaps back over towards him so fast it must hurt. “Because what?” she asks.
His hand is shaking when it digs into his pocket to produce the tickets. “I want,” he starts, and then clears his throat. “Katniss. You were right. I should’ve gone with you. I was just -- I was kidding myself.”
Katniss blinks. “Kidding yourself,” she repeats dully. “About what?”
“About getting over you,” he says, strained. “And I -- I will. If you need me to, I’ll start right now. But I don’t . . . want to live in a world where I kissed you exactly one time and then didn’t even try--”
“You didn’t even like it,” she interrupts, and he wouldn’t have heard her at all if he didn’t hold her breath as soon as she started speaking.
“What?!” he chokes, too loud. Her mother is asleep in the next room. He knows she hasn’t left yet for her night shift. But Katniss isn’t making any goddamn sense.
Katniss is silent for just a moment, her eyes so serious while she studies him that he’s at least pretty sure she isn’t making some kind of a sick joke.
“Katniss. I never said I didn’t like it when you kissed me,” he says, crossing to the couch and setting the wrinkled tickets to the haunted house down in front of her, on the coffee table.
“You didn’t have to,” Katniss says. “It was like kissing a wall. I could tell--”
“Because I was in shock!” Peeta says. “Because -- because I’ve been in love with you since you were eight and I thought you never--”
And then Katniss leans forward and kisses him again, and he hasn’t even kissed anyone in the year since, so he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do to make it better this time, but he does allow his hands to come up to rest on her jaw.
“You’re supposed to move your lips,” Katniss says, very softly, right into his mouth. “Just -- like,” she tries to demonstrate again, and Peeta feels like his heart in his throat because oh my god, Katniss Everdeen is not only kissing him but fucking teaching him how to kiss.
And then, suddenly, they’re both laughing. Not because it’s funny but because it’s so fucking ridiculous that they’ve been so stupid for a whole year. For longer than just that year, maybe.
. . .
“I only went out with Gale because I thought you weren’t into me,” Katniss admits as she climbs into Peeta’s father’s truck. “And then I talked about you our whole first date.”
“What? No way,” he says, his lips still kind of . . . tingling? He thinks? From all the kissing, earlier. Which he at least hopes he’s gotten a little bit better at.
“Yeah,” she says. “He thought we were dating, so he was like, asking. Making sure he didn’t have anything to worry about. And I just -- told him about you. Not that I like, had a thing for you. But that was probably implied.”
“Oh my god,” he says weakly.
“We wasted so much time,” he laughs, and she rests her head on his shoulder.
“We got here, though,” she says softly.
Here. Wherever that is. Right before they have to leave for college.
He forces himself to stop thinking about it.
08: October 2016: 18 years old.
Katniss is renting one bedroom in the basement of a house in Boston. She has six roommates, all together, though Finnick and Annie are dating and share a room, so she jokes that they count as one. She holds onto his hand very tightly during their awkward interaction with Johanna, her most intimidating roommate, who ends up in the kitchen while they’re trying to finish making their caramel apples.
“We kind of thought the boyfriend back home was fake,” Johanna admits, her eyes trailing over Peeta. “All the, like, too pure for this world shit she always says about you.”
Peeta flushes, glancing over at Katniss. Why would she say that about him? Especially to pierced, tattooed, shaved head Johanna who is looking at him like he’s particularly weak.
“I don’t say that,” Katniss says. “Shouldn’t you be with your girlfriend?”
Johanna snorts. “Delly is volunteering at the youth center tonight,” she reminds Katniss, talking right over Peeta, who has no idea who anyone is. “Because she actually is too pure for this world.”
“Um. Volunteering is good,” Peeta says stupidly, and Johanna glances over at him again.
“So you’re moving up here for school?” she asks.
Peeta swallows. “I -- I’m applying to a few places next year,” he admits. He’s not exactly gonna get an academic scholarship, and he has no test scores to back anything up, once the rejection letters started coming in last year he just started taking classes at the community college. “That’s the goal.”
Katniss presses the plate into his hands and then says, “Okay, Bye Johanna.”
Peeta follows her down into the basement and jokes, “Did you pick this room because it’s the scariest?”
Katniss laughs. “It’s not that bad,” she says.
It’s not. It’s just dark and a little creepy on the way down, and the staircase creaks and groans. Her bedroom door is open, soft light spilling out into the hallway. He glances around and says,
“Does anyone else sleep down here?”
She shakes her head. “There’s the laundry room there, a bathroom, and some storage.”
Great. Because what he meant was, do we have to be quiet?
“You’re not going to make me watch something actually scary, are you?” he asks, as if she didn’t already promise not to when they first planned for him to come up for halloween.
She rolls her eyes. “Please,” she says. “I know you have CNN updates on your phone. That’s scary enough.”
“Please don’t make me think about the election,” he laughs. “We’re never gonna have sex tonight if you make me think about Donald Trump.”
She laughs. Pulls him down by the hand to sit on her mattress, which is right on the floor, and then curls herself up against him. He glances around the room. There are a few unframed pictures taped up to the wall -- a lot of which, he realizes with a smile, he features in -- and a cork board by her desk that has some of the cards he sent her pinned to it.
“I miss you,” she admits.
“I miss you,” he returns. “Prim does, too.”
“She’s very mad at me for stealing you away,” Katniss agrees, laughing. Peeta knows they facetime nearly every night. “She told me if I’d just stayed home we could be married by now and nobody would even think it was weird.”
He laughs, but it’s breathless and choked. She’s right. Half their classmates are engaged by now. “So that’s not a Boston thing?” he asks.
“Guess how many years Finnick and Annie have been dating,” she says. “They’re like twenty-four.”
“Uh, three,” he guesses.
She shakes her head. “Seven,” she says. “They started dating the same age we did. And they’re not even engaged.”
“Well, neither are we,” he says, forcing himself to sound casual. He would. If she told him to buy a ticket to vegas, he would do it tonight.
They lay back against the mattress. Peeta recognizes the glow in the dark stickers he bought for one of her care packages and smiles.
“Hey, what if I don’t get in?” Peeta asks. “To one of the colleges around here. What if I can’t make it?”
“You will,” she says, and he scoffs softly. It’s not like he’s stupid, sure, but he’s probably not gonna get into some elite New England college with a mostly bullshit homeschool diploma because his mother didn’t want him to learn about evolution.
“Or you could just . . . move here anyway,” Katniss adds, her voice a little soft. “Get a job, help me with rent. Community College is the same wherever you go, right?”
He feels like he’s legitimately fucking dying. “You --- you’d want that?” he asks.
“I was gonna make myself wait until I’d shown you around a little more, first,” she murmurs. “But -- if you wanted.”
“Holy shit,” he croaks.
. . .
As soon as he turns his phone off of airplane mode, he gets a text from Katniss. An indeed search for jobs in Boston.
09: October 2017. 19 years old.
“This costume is so fucking stupid,” he reminds her, laughing as she tries to untangle the mess of white ribbon and muslin from around his arms. She’s been trying to work him through all of the essential halloween costumes, and this year decided that he should go as a mummy.
“You love me,” she reminds him. “And even if it takes until we’re thirty before you like your halloween costume, you’re going to let me keep trying.”
She’s right, of course. “But at thirty one,” he says. “If I don’t like your choice, you’re cut off.”
“Fine,” she says. “If I have a decade and I still can’t get it, you have every right to stop me.”
He wouldn’t, though.
“Did you have fun?” she asks, something anxious in her eyes as she finishes pulling loose a long strip of fabric.
“I know you’re not super into Halloween,” she continues. “And I know-- my friends can be a little much.”
“I’m not,” he agrees. “I’m not super into Halloween.”
She knew this, he’s sure, but her face still falls.
“But I’m so into you,” he finishes, and it’s corny but it makes her laugh. He’s only been up here for a couple months -- he got added to the lease on September 1st, but Katniss insisted he move up in the middle of August, because “Allston Christmas is a nightmare.”
He thinks also because she was impatient. Which is okay. He was impatient, too.
Katniss’s new Boston friends very much enjoy teasing her for dragging her hick boyfriend all the way up to Massachusetts. The hick part is implied, of course. But Peeta has a much more pronounced accent than she does, because her father didn’t grow up in Panem, Arkansas. And the longer she’s been in Boston, the less she’s been drawling on words like syrup.
He said he should just show up in overalls and a straw hat, but she absolutely refused. Probably didnt want to add fuel to the fire.
“If I can make a suggestion, for next year,” he says, laughing when she gets impatient and grabs a pair of scissors. “Maybe something a little easier to take off.”
10: October 2025. 27 years old.
“Wait, wait,” Katniss says, struggling to walk fast enough in her fitted black dress. “We have to take another one.” She sets the timer and clicks back across the front of their porch. She took her costume too seriously, Peeta thinks, though she does look . . . incredible. As Morticia Addams.
The little girl turns to look up at Peeta, hair in two braids instead of one, just like her mother the day they met, and Katniss says,
“Okay, everyone smile for the camera and say Pubert.”
The little boy, dressed as Pugsley, shouts the name and then says,
“Mama. What’s that?”
Peeta remembers the name vaguely from when Katniss made them watch the movie a few weeks ago, but it doesn’t fully register in his mind until Katniss says,
“It’s the third baby’s name, from the movie.”
Maybe he gets the whole Halloween thing.