When the train makes a brief stop for fuel, we’re allowed to go outside for some fresh air. There’s no longer any need to guard us. Peeta and I walk down along the track, hand in hand, and I can’t find anything to say now that we’re alone. He stops to gather a bunch of wildflowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can’t know that the pink-and-white flowers are the tops of wild onions and only remind me of the hours I’ve spent gathering them with Gale.
Gale. The idea of seeing Gale in a matter of hours makes my stomach churn. But why? I can’t quite frame it in my mind. I only know that I feel like I’ve been lying to someone who trusts me. Or more accurately, to two people. I’ve been getting away with it up to this point because of the Games. But there will be no Games to hide behind back home.
Wanting to get back to the illusions of the train, I almost cringe as I move around Peeta to make my way back.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Peeta asks, placing a firm but gentle hand on my arm to stop my progress.
I can’t explain the guilt or sadness that’s slowly choking me, so I keep my eyes down and try to shrug him off. “Nothing.”
But he doesn’t let go. When his hand slides from my upper arm, to grip my hand, I’m forced to lift my eyes to his. I have no idea what he could be thinking as, he smiles gently at me as I scowl up at him. I even feel my face change from a look of irritation to confusion when I try to tug my hand from his, and his smile widens a little bit. He chuckles.
“Come with me.” He says. Still holding my hand he tugs me back to the train. As he pulls me up the ramp and past Effie and Haymitch in the dining car, my fingers twitch again with the thought of pulling my hand free.
Peeta gives me another squeeze, with what I think is supposed to be reassurance as he leads me farther into the train than I have been before.
“Peeta, where-” I start, just as he pushes a door open that leads to what must be the last compartment of the train. The room we walk into is large and spacious. What makes it beautiful and unlike any of the other cars, is the large glass dome that makes up the walls and roof.
Still holding my hand, Peeta pulls me over to the couch that; apart from the door we entered through, edges the entire dome.
“Sit with me.” He says, giving my hand a little tug.
“Peeta, I-” But he cuts me off again.
“Katniss. Sit.” He says it firmly, yet softly. And despite myself, I find my body complying.
Now sitting, I’m turned to face him as we both sit on the couch and I wait for him to start talking. But he doesn’t. For a long moment we just sit there in silence. It doesn’t take long for the silence to get to me, and I raise my eyes to his. I feel heat erupt in my cheeks and down my neck as I realize that he’s been watching me this entire time. And he’s still smiling.
“You remember, in the cave, when I told you about the first time I saw you?” He asks when I don’t look away.
“I was 5 years old Katniss.” He says. And the way he says it makes me think that he’s really trying to tell me something else. Something that should be obvious.
I stare blankly at him.
“That’s 11 years Katniss.” He says, as though looking for a reaction. “11 years that I’ve been watching you. 11 years that I’ve been in love with you.”
I scowl at him. Is he trying to make me feel guilty?
This time it’s Peeta’s turn to blush, but he surprises me by laughing softly as well.
“Sorry, I know that makes you uncomfortable. But what I’m trying to say, Katniss, is that I know you.”
Now I’m very confused, and my face must show it, because his smile retreats to no more than a quirk of his lips, and his eyes, while still smiling, are a touch sad.
“I know what you did for us Katniss. I know that a lot of it was for the cameras.”
I can’t properly describe or express the emotions that flood me at his words. Inexplicably, I feel tears prick my eyes, and duck my head.
I understand that I changed in that arena. Prior to the reaping, I knew exactly who I was. I was Katniss Everdeen: a hunter, a mother and sister to sweet little Prim. I had a best friend and hunting partner in Gale Hawthorne. I was the sole provider for my family, and many of the residents of District 12 relied on me and my bow. I was largely alone, and I liked it that way. I didn’t need or want anyone’s help. Gale often described me as cold or emotionless. He told me once that Prim was the only person in the world that I cared about, and the only place he ever saw me smile was in the woods. I never thought much about what he said at the time, because he was right. Prim was my number one priority, and the woods were the only place I felt safe… content even.
That was before. I didn’t realize it then, but what little naivety I had left, was taken from me the moment I stepped foot on that reaping stage.
Now, after the Games, I've effectively come out the other side, and I feel as though I've been changed down to the very core of who I was.
On the other side of the Hunger Games, I am still Katniss Everdeen. I am still a hunter, mother and sister to Prim, and main provider for my family. But I almost feel as though too much has changed. I've changed. And I don't know how to merge the before and after. I am a Victor of the Games. I'm a killer. I've been hunted... I'm no longer alone... While Gale is still very important to me, I can no longer claim him as one of the people who know me best in the world. I don't feel numb anymore. I don't want to be cold or heartless. And while Prim is still my number one concern, she's no longer the only person I care about, or want to protect and provide for.
It’s odd to think that it took going through the Hunger Games to wake me up, and force me to live, where in the past, I was content to simply survive.
It all comes back to Pieta. And I don't know how to reconcile that. The thought of loosing him in the arena choked me, and made my blood feel like ice in my veins. I don't know what that means, but I think, if I lost him, in any form, a piece of me would die. And that terrifies me more than any mutation they could send after me. After everything we've been through; I don't know if he even realizes it, but Peeta has become my best friend, and the person I trust most in the world, second to Prim.
I don't realize that tears have been racing down my cheeks until I feel Peeta's thumb gently brush them away from where he's lifted my head so he can see my face clearly.
"I'm sorry." I whisper, unable to stem the tears that I can't seem to stop.
"Hey, come here." He says, his eyes no longer sad, but slightly smiling again. The hand that was under my chin slides to the back of my neck, causing a shiver to race from the top of my head all the way down my spine. With the slightest pressure, he pulls me forward, and despite myself, I move without reservation to lay my head in the crook of his neck. His arms come around me to hold me against his chest, and I can feel a tremor under my skin until he raises a hand to stroke the back of my head and play with my braid.
Peeta doesn't wait for me to get a hold if myself before he starts talking again. And I think that he really must know me, because even I know that, if given the chance, I would run at the earliest opportunity to escape the embarrassment.
"Katniss, I need you to listen to me, okay? It's important. No matter what I say, or how badly you want to run, I need you to stay and hear me out, okay? Can you do that for me?"
Reluctantly I pull back to look at him. It occurs to me just how much I trust this boy, because, despite the slight trepidation I feel at agreeing; I know that he would never hurt me.
"Promise me." He demands, starting intently into my eyes.
I don't feel the need to look away as I nod. "I promise."
He nods slightly, and his little smile is back.
From where his arms are still around my back and waist he gives me a sudden tug forward and twists around so that I somehow end up sitting across his lap. The move is so unexpected that I can't help the little squeak that escapes me. The chuckle that shakes me as I'm pressed against him causes my face to heat again. When I meet his eyes, they're laughing again, and his smile is wider. Playful.
"I thought we were talking." I say, and I can feel that my scowl is less than the situation would usually call for.
He chuckles again, lifting one hand to the back of my head, encouraging me to rest my head once again on his shoulder, as the other rests across my legs. It strikes me that, had any other person other than Peeta or Prim tried to get this close to me I would have, at best, run from the room, and at worst, broken their arm.
I feel more than hear Peeta take a deep breath as he continues to play with my braid.
"Actually, I'm going to be doing the talking, and you're just going to listen for a bit. I have a lot I want to say, and I don't want you to feel pressured to say anything. The reason we're sitting like this, other than because I want to hold you, is because I know that what I'm going to say is probably going to make you uncomfortable, and I want you to be able to hide but still listen to me." He takes another deep breath as though to fortify his next words, and as soon as he speaks I understand his nerves, as they make me tense. "We're also sitting like this so that, if this talk goes wrong, I'll have gotten to hold you at least once without it being for the cameras."
Inexplicably, my face finds the curve between his neck and shoulder once again and I breathe him in as I try to understand the flash of fear that shocked my heart at the thought of never being this close to him again.
His hand continues to stroke my hair and fiddle with my braid.
"I love you Katniss. You know that. But more importantly; I know you. I know that Prim is the most important person in your world. I know that you feel you can never forgive your mother for abandoning you and Prim and giving up so completely when your dad died. I know that you had to grow up too fast, and that you still have nightmares about your dad's death. I know that the woods are your favorite place to be, and that there's still a part of you that's sad that Prim doesn't like adventure. You're favorite season is spring. You say that you shoot your game through the eye to preserve the pelt, but it's really because you don't want the animal to suffer, and you like the challenge. You have two main fears; anything happening to Prim, and turning into your mother. Everything you do is to provide for and protect Prim, and you don't ever want open yourself up to anyone, in the fear that they'll be taken from you and you'll lose yourself just like your mother did. To most people you come off as cold or distant, but you're not. Your life hasn't been easy, and so you don't trust easily. But the other side of that coin is that your judgment of people is amazingly accurate. I've never seen anything like it; the way you draw people in. You don't see it, but you have this amazing talent for attracting the good, and warning off the bad. And you have no idea you're doing it."
At some point during his speech, I had lifted my head to look at him in wonder. How could he possibly know all of that? He must have felt my stare, because he turns to look at me with this expression of what I think might be wonder or incredulity. Both options make me uncomfortable, so I duck my head to once again hide my red face. He chuckles again, and I feel him brush a kiss against my forehead.
"I may not know every little facet of you, but I know the core of you Katniss. I know the heart of you. To be brutally honest, there's a large part of me that's thankful that I got reaped with you."
I can't help but sit up suddenly to stare at him, silently demanding that he explain himself immediately.
He meets my eyes without flinching.
"What we went through Katniss; that changes a person. On a core level, we're different from the people we were even on that first train."
This time it's my turn to look at him in wonder. Was I not thinking this exact same thing earlier? And I'm struck with the realization that my worry about Peeta's understanding my confusion was never really the issue; but the consequences that came with that understanding. The relief that came with the realization that not only did Peeta understand, but he was still here, with me, allowed some of the nerves to leech out of me. Relaxing slightly, I allowed myself to cuddle closer, and even wrapped my arms around his waist with my head back on his shoulder. I no longer felt the need to hide from him.
Peeta tightened his hold on me in a strong hug for a moment, and it was a shocking revelation to realise that, for the first time since my dad died, I felt safe in the presence of another person.
"You see; if I didn't go through the Games with you, I would never be able to understand you the way I do now. I understand why the sight of yellow, purple, or white flowers makes you flinch. I understand why, every time you're reminded of my leg you unconsciously reach for me. I know why any sudden noise makes your heart race. Why you occasionally fiddle with your left ear as though to make sure it's still working, just like I sometimes reach down to scratch my fake leg. And when you stare off into space and start to shake, I know that it's because you're caught in a waking nightmare. I know, because I have them too, and I see a lot of the same things...If I hadn’t gone through those trials with you...I wouldn’t know you as well as I do. As well as I always have."
Peeta's arms tighten around me again for just a short moment. A brief squeeze, and then he goes back to playing with my hair. I wonder if he finds it comforting or if he does it to distract himself.
"What I'm really trying to say with all this, is that...I know you Katniss. I feel like I've always known you. I know that you didn't like me, let alone trust me, when we first got on this train-"
"That's not true." I interrupt before I actually make the conscious decision to speak.
Peeta turns his head to look at me where I still rest on his shoulder.
My eyes connect with his without my having to lift my head.
"I may not have known you, but I knew you. You were the 'boy with the bread'. You saved not only my life, but Prim's and my mother's as well. You provided for my family when I couldn't and nobody else would. You took a beating for me. And the next day, when I caught your eye and turned away; I saw a dandelion and it reminded of everything my father had taught me about hunting and survival. I would be dead twice over if it wasn't for you. So while I didn't know you or understand your motives, I didn't completely distrust you. And I didn't dislike you...you just, confused me."
It must have been the relaxed atmosphere he had created in the room with his earlier confessions, or maybe it was the comfort I felt in being so close to him, but even I was surprised by everything I said, and the truth of it all.
I think I must have stunned Peeta as much as myself, because all he said was: "huh." Before falling silent.
We sat like that for a quiet moment, just letting our words hang in the air around us.
"You know, looking back, I should have seen that." He says eventually. He smiles down at me, and his eyes almost look lighter. I feel myself relax even more as I realize that the look is happiness. I made him happy with my revelation. I smile, nudging his neck slightly with my nose, to which he responds with another kiss to my head where I can feel his smile.
"So, we've established that you didn't hate me on the train. I think our next big miss communication was the interview."
I nod and retract my arms from around him, starting to pull away.
"Hey, none of that." He says, one arm wrapping around my shoulders, and one around my hips, firmly securing me in place against him.
"Katniss, listen, I know I embarrassed-"
"It felt like a betrayal." I interrupt again, this time softly.
I'm still stiff in his arms, so when he pulls me up to look at me, I'm grateful for the distance. As he holds me at almost arm’s length.
"What?" He asks, brows furrowed.
"It felt like a betrayal." I say again, continuing softly. "First you were mad at me for my 11, and wouldn't speak to me. Then you went to Haymitch and asked to be coached separately. I didn't understand why. When I asked, the only thing they told me was that 'this sort of thing happens at this stage in the game. After all, there can only be one victor'. I didn't want to believe that my boy with the bread was preparing to kill me."
I find that I have to stop for a moment and clear my throat. The thought that I might have lost Peeta to the Games was still a painful one.
"And then you did your interview, and said that you had had a crush on me since we were kids. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. The only reasons for you to say such a thing, that I could think of, was either you meant it, or you were trying to make me look weak. I was furious and hurt that you might have meant it. Not because you felt that way; but because you told the Capitol before me. If it was real, you had just taken something that I would consider private and special, and handed it over to the shallow Capital to play with. And if it was real, I couldn't understand why you wouldn't tell me first, why you couldn't tell me what you were going to say. That's why I didn't want to believe you. I wanted to believe that you said what you did to make me look weak and vulnerable in front of the other tributes. I didn't mind that angle as much because, for a moment, I thought that I could use it to my advantage; let them think I was weak...but then I realized that wouldn't work because of my 11. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn't find your angle, and I couldn't figure out why you insisted on doing it alone, why you wouldn't talk to me. I pushed you because the anger was easier to deal with than the thought that I was losing my boy with the bread. That the Games had taken you from me before we had even entered the arena."
The look on Peeta's face is one of complete surprise. It's not until I get uncomfortable with his lack of response and try to move off of his lap that he seems to jolt back to himself. "Fuck me..." Peeta mumbles, running the hand that was gripping my hip firmly, through his hair, giving it a hard frustrated tug. "So much for knowing you, huh?" He says it dismissively, but it's obvious my revelation has really shaken him and taken some of the confidence that had allowed us to start this conversation. Inexplicably, I feel an overwhelming need to reassure him.
Still sitting stiffly on his lap with one of his arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders, securing me in place, I speak up.
"You do know me Peeta." At the sound of my voice, his eye come back into focus and lock on mine. "You knew that I wouldn't like what you were going to say, and so you made sure I wouldn't stop you, or do something foolish like try to use that angle myself in an effort to help you." Cautiously I raise a hand to his face, placing it softly on his cheek, making sure that I have his full attention. "You couldn't have known how I would react Peeta... because you didn't know what you meant to me."
I am completely unprepared for his reaction to my words. One second Peeta's starting at me with this look of surprise, and maybe a little wonder, and the next, his lips are on mine.
The suddenness of his action causes me to freeze for a moment, but as soon as my brain catches up to what's happening, I relax into him. This kiss is nothing like any that we've shared before. This kiss is hunger, and passion. His hands are on my face, holding me in place, and when his tongue sweeps across my bottom lip, the sensation is enough to make me moan and open for him, my hands slide into his hair. Our tongues meet for the first time and we both sigh at the feel of the other. We stay locked together for as long as we can before the need for air forces us apart.
“I’m sorry.” Peeta pants, resting his forehead against mine while we both catch our breath. “I didn’t mean to attack you like that.”
The little grin he’s sporting tells me he’s not sorry at all, but neither am I so I’ll let it go, and I tell him so.
Peeta laughs, and his grin widens.
We take another minute to calm down, and I find myself enjoying the feeling of simply being able to sit and enjoy this moment with him.
After another minute, Peeta sighs.
“I brought you in here because I knew we needed to talk. I could see you struggling with going home. With everything I know about you, I don’t really know how you feel, obviously.” He says with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t truly know how you feel about me. I know that, in the arena you were playing a part for the cameras. You were doing what you had to to keep us both alive.” When I don’t respond, Peeta nods to himself. “But…” He’s incredibly tense underneath me, and if I didn’t feel the shuddering breath, I would have thought he had stopped breathing. “But there were moments…a kiss or two, touches, whispers…they felt different. They felt real. Like you were actually there with me, and not just doing it for the Capitol.”
There’s a long beat of silence. I should really stop being surprised by Peeta’s insight where my actions and motivations are concerned.
I think that my lack of a reaction should be confirmation enough. He’s right. There were moments where I kissed him just because I wanted to. Moments where, just for a second, it was just me and Peeta.
“Katniss?” Peeta prompts, giving my head a little nudge with a shrug of his shoulder.
I guess an actual answer is needed.
So, because I can, and I want to, I move my face to brush against his neck and place a light kiss just under his jaw causing him to suck in a sudden breath.
“You’re right.” I whisper. I can’t put my finger on it, but this moment feels special. Private. “There were moments. They were real.”
The breath Peeta releases is a combination of a laugh and a dry sob. Both arms surround me, and he squeezes me to him with enough strength that it would hurt if it were anyone other than Peeta. Peeta would never hurt me. Instead his strength makes me feel safe, and protected, and…loved.
“Thank you.” He whispers into my hair, pressing a long kiss to my forehead.
We continue to sit in the quiet of the train car for a moment as the land outside rushes by and Peeta once again collects his words.
“I can’t tell you how worried I was to ask you that. Or, well, I was worried you would tell me that I was just high with fever at the time and that I had imagined it all.” He finally says with a forced laugh.
I nuzzle into his shoulder a little. I think I may easily become dependent on the feel of his arms around me. “It wouldn’t have mattered Peeta.” I say, still rubbing my face into him. At this point, I have no idea what has come over me, and am simply enjoying the sensation.
“Why do you say that?” He asks, undoing the band at the bottom of my braid and combing it out with one hand while the other has dropped to draw patterns on my hip.
“Because, even if I had lied and told you that it was all for the cameras; you always know when I’m lying. You would have known either way.” I thought that was obvious. Peeta chuckles and nods. “That’s true. You are a horrible liar.” My annoyed response is on the tip of my tongue…and then Peeta’s large hand is massaging my scalp where my braid usually sits and anything I might have said completely escapes me.
I’m vaguely aware of the little moan that escapes my throat as my entire body sags.
My boneless body shakes with the force of Peeta’s laugh.
“I think I’m going to have to add this to my arsenal of ‘How to tame Katniss’ tricks.”
Eyes now closed, I think I grunt at him.
“You still with me?” He asks, still massaging my head.
I grunt again.
“I want to talk, are going to stay awake for me?”
I brush his neck with my nose again to acknowledge him, but otherwise make no move or sound.
This is the most relaxed I’ve ever been without being unconscious.
“I want…” My interest peeks when he hesitates, and my eyes open when his hand in my hair stops rubbing. “I want to talk about Gale, and what’s going to happen when we get back.”
My eyes remain open as I think over his words and his fingers go back to combing through my hair.
“I don’t know.” I say honestly with a little shrug, my body still relaxed. Peeta’s hand stills for a second before continuing.
“Okay, let’s start with Gale.” He says, and can hear a tightness in his voice.
“Ya, Gale’s not going to be happy.” I say, feeling a little of the previous tension return.
“Why do you say that?” Peeta asks, and even though I think he knows why, I know that he wants me to answer him anyway.
“Because of me, and because of you.” I say with another little shrug, because it’s obvious. When I don’t continue, Peeta’s hand stops, and I know that he won’t continue until I do. I sigh and his hand continues.
“Gales knows me well too. He’ll have been watching the games, obviously, and will have thought, like Haymitch and you, that it was all an act. Gale has no idea about our history or how special you’ve been to me since the day you saved my life. He knows that I never wanted a relationship. I always said that I would never fall in love. Never get married. Never have children. Gale knows how guarded I am. So, as soon as we get off this train, I think he’ll expect everything to go back to the way they were before.” The thought makes me so deeply sad that I have to bite my lip in an effort to hold back the tears. Because nothing will ever be as it was. The past is over. And, as hard as it was…for what it was, it was simpler.
“But nothing’s ever going to be the same ever again. It can’t be.” Peeta says, as though agreeing and echoing my thoughts.
“No, it can’t.” I whisper. “And that’s something Gale won’t just accept. He won’t understand why I’m not the same person was. Why I want to talk to Cinna and Effie even though they’re ‘products of the Capitol’. He won’t understand why I bother to force Haymitch over to my or your house for at least one real meal a week. And he really won’t understand why I want to spend time with you, when, to him, it was all a lie to keep us alive in the Games.”
I feel Peeta kiss my forehead, and then he just rests his lips there. I can feel the breath from his nose tickle the little hairs at the edge of my scalp as we sit quietly while he thinks.
“And me? What will Gale’s problems with me be?” He asks after a moment, and somehow I know that this isn’t really the question he wants to ask, but answer him anyway.
“Well for one; you’re a Merchant.” I can’t help my smirk even as I say it. Peeta must hear it in my voice because he gives a playful little tug on one of my strands.
“Oh? And I suppose that means I’m soft, have never gone to bed hungry, and wouldn’t know real work or hardship if it came up and bit me.” Peeta says sarcastically. I look up at him just in time to see him roll his eyes.
“Oh, so you’ve already had that conversation.”
The look Peeta shoots me is enough to make me grin. And when he rolls his eyes at me, I don’t fight the light laughter that escapes me.
Feeling a little daring in this light atmosphere, I move my arm that was resting around his waist to place my hand lightly on his chest under the pretense of giving him a little pat of consolation.
Neither of us say anything when my hand remains, sweeping little circles and patterns over his heart, just as his continues to do on my hip.
“What else?” Peeta asks, and I sigh a little.
“Well, he might have a problem with how fast it all happened…” I guess. I mean, I’m not exactly the world’s authority on what goes on in Gale Hawthorn’s head, but he’s been known to be - protective at times. “He may think that you’re using me or leading me on or something.”
“Leading you on?” Peeta’s voice is heavy with confusion.
“I really don’t know. Gale’s so angry a lot of the time, I’m not always sure what’s really bothering him.” I shrug.
Peeta nods, and then his fidgeting turns nervous, and I know that we’re finally getting to the question that he had been wanting to ask for a while.
“Katniss, what, I mean…are you…damn it I don’t know how to ask this!” Peeta fumes at himself, lifting the hand on my hip to tug roughly on his hair again. Using the hand that was resting on his chest, I reach up and gently pull his hand away.
“Just ask me Peeta.”
He takes a deep breath, puffing it out his cheeks.
“What…Shit. Have…God damn it!” This is the first time I’ve ever seen Peeta so at a loss for words. “Okay…Are you and Gale…no, were you two ever…you know, together?”
After how hard that obviously was for him to ask, I am still completely unprepared.