"Gale, wait!" I'm running like an idiot trying to catch up to him, leaving Peeta behind back by the administration building.
The moment shifted so quickly, I'm feeling disoriented as I reach him. One minute I'm hugging Peeta, totally into our "beat the system" plan and the next I'm seeing Gale, seeing him mad as hell, eyes fixed on Peeta and I.
I grab his jacket and stop him, "Seriously, wait." Why does he look like I just slapped him in the face? It's not like we were together.
I sigh, knowing it's more complicated than that. I know there's an unspoken reason why I was dreading telling him about the situation in the first place. We may have never actually talked about the nature of our relationship, but that has everything to do with my own fear and denial and nothing to do with his feelings for me.
If only I were brave enough to confront my own feelings. To actually consider Peeta or Gale as anything more than people I like to hang out with.
"When were you gonna tell me? You didn't say a word the last time I saw you."
"Gale, it's not what you think-"
"And what is it that I think, Katniss? Huh? That you and pretty boy are a thing now, does that sound about right?"
Gale's been annoyed with me before, frustrated and mildly pissed even, but the look on his face right now goes way beyond anger. He looks...hurt.
I don't know how to deal with hurt. Anger, maybe. Hurt, forget it. I don't know where to begin, so I don't say anything.
"You should've just told me."
"I know, Gale, it's just...it's complicated and I-"
"Well, maybe you can let me know when it gets less complicated."
He walks away from me and I feel his absence immediately. It's the first time I'm fearful of him never speaking to me again. I want to go after him, but I don't know what to say. I want to tell him about the scholarship and about the residence, but I'm not convinced it's the best plan. But then, telling him Peeta and I are engaged doesn't seem like a reasonable course of action given his state of mind either.
So, I just stand there, watching him get further and further away from me. I feel a hand on my shoulder after a moment and know it's Peeta.
"I'm sorry," is all he says.
I've been trying to pack up my stuff, but I'm not sure what I should bother bringing. Peeta will bring most of his apartment's contents with him and his things are much nicer and newer than most of mine. Other than my old desktop and clothes, most things will probably just go back to the Goodwill where I got them from in the first place.
We're travelling home together for Christmas break tomorrow. I'll have to tell my mom and Prim about the new arrangement, aka engagement, but I haven't decided how I'm going to do that yet. We've got a few weeks to be at home before we come back to move and I just don't want to deal with a barrage of questions for the entire time. Peeta's not even going to bother telling his parents. He says they never call or visit or send him anything, so what's the point? He just gets a monthly deposit in his account for bills and that's that. I wonder if the engagement were real if he'd tell them, but the possibility that he wouldn't makes me too sad to think about.
I've left a few messages on Gale's cell. I hate that he won't be in Oak Hill over the holidays. At least there I'd be able to corner him or track him down and have a few minutes alone to explain. He gets so stubborn. Who knows when he'll cool down enough to hear what I have to say.
Peeta's been surprisingly silent about the whole thing. I guess he just doesn't want to get in the middle of it, but it's made his thoughts on my relationship with Gale impossibly hard to read. I've thought about bringing it up a couple of times, but there's never been a good segue and it seems a weird thing to just start talking about randomly.
Soon Peeta will have all the time and opportunity to ask me anything he wants anyways. It's kind of hard to avoid when you're under the same roof.
Peeta's out of the van to carry my bag before I can stop him. When we get to the door of my house he asks, "Do you want me to come inside with you...when you tell them?"
I hadn't thought as far as him being in the same room as my mother when I break the news. I guess it would make sense for him to be around over the holidays, spending time with my family, but it still feels like a strange thing that wouldn't necessarily be happening naturally.
"No, that's okay, but I guess you should come over...at some point."
He's looking at me in that intense, scrutinizing way he does sometimes, like there's an answer he's trying to find hidden somewhere on my face.
Finally, he answers, "I'll give you some time and give you a call next week to talk about it. Sound good?"
I nod without answering out loud. Peeta hands me my bag and then pauses to look at me again before moving. For the first time I start to get nervous about him trying to kiss me. The way we're standing in front of my door, facing each other, there's an expectancy that hasn't been there before.
He reaches out slowly and wipes away a snowflake that has landed on my cheek, pausing like he did once before to brush across my skin with his thumb.
He turns and starts to walk away and I'm...disappointed.
"Prim, we need to talk. Come to my room before bed." I'm speaking in a hushed voice while we finish the dishes. She eyes me suspiciously, but nods.
I chickened out on telling my mom, deciding instead to tell Prim the truth for the extra support when I do. I hate lying to Prim anyways. I feel like there were so many times when I had to, to protect her from the brutal realities of life, and while protecting her remains one of my biggest concerns, the lying never feels right.
Once we're in my room with the door closed, I start to get nervous about telling her. She's my little sister, but she's so much more intuitive than I am when it comes to relationships and love and feelings.
"Which one?" She asks, gushing like, well, a girl.
"Who'd you choose? It's Peeta, isn't it?"
"What? No, Prim, listen-"
"Huh, so Gale, eh? He is really hot. I get it."
"Oh my god, Prim, stop!"
She doesn't say anything, just looks stunned. Her face quickly turns to concern when she sees the serious look on my face. This is, after all, one of the strangest things I've ever had to tell her.
"For now it's neither, okay? I really have to tell you something."
She nods, staying silent while I tell her about the scholarship, Haymitch, the residence and what Peeta has agreed to do to keep me in school.
"Nobody can know it's not real, Prim, no one. You're the only person I'm telling."
"What about Gale?"
"I don't know, I haven't figured that out yet."
"Wow, Kat, this is all...so romantic!" Her face is bright with excitement again.
"Romantic? Prim, come on. It's a way to get around the system so I can graduate, that's it."
"No, Katniss, you come on. Peeta is risking everything to help you and the two of you will be living together pretending to be engaged? That's hot. Even you have to see that."
"It's not hot, it's practical. And Peeta has his own reasons for doing this, it's not just about me." I sigh. I can't deal with this. My education is on the line, Prim's future is on the line; I can't be throwing it all away for the distracting, likely passing, affection of some guy.
Still, a voice I'm barely in control of deep down inside is trying to scream "But it's not just some guy, it's Peeta!"
"Just, help me out when it comes to mom and everyone else, okay? Everyone's gotta believe it's all real."
"Jesus, Kat, will you wake up and smell the hormones? Peeta is into you. You guys'll be a real couple in no time. You don't have to worry about making anything believable."
"Go to bed, Prim."
"Fine, but you'll see. And Katniss?"
"This is a really good thing. I'm happy for you."
With that Prim heads off to bed, leaving me with too much to think about while trying to fall asleep. Again.
"Stop! Okay, for real, for real this time. Stop." I'm laughing freely, hysterically. It feels good. Peeta has just finished pummeling me with his third round of snow balls. I can feel the icy water dripping down my back at this point. My most loathed of winter feelings. Peeta thinks this is hilarious, naturally, and so continues to do it despite my protests.
Peeta and I are killing time before going into my house. We've walked around the block and are now hanging out in my front yard before heading in.
"You're safe for now, Everdeen, but there's a whole lotta winter left," he grins. His smiling face is fast becoming one of my most favourite things. I can count on Peeta's good-natured grin like I can count on a walk in the woods or a surprise email from Prim to make me feel better. I smile back at him big and wide.
"So, it went okay? With your mom?"
He's joining us for Christmas Eve dinner. His first introduction to my mother as my fiance.
"Yeah, I mean, we don't really talk much, so it's not so farfetched that I'd be with someone without her knowing about it until now. I don't know...she didn't say a whole lot, she just wanted you to come over and spend some time here."
I hadn't realized until saying it out loud how much it actually bothers me that my mother barely reacted to the news that her oldest daughter is getting married. Is our relationship so non-existent that we're not even going to be able to share life's normal, happy moments together?
"I think you might have to tell your parents though, she may end up mentioning it to someone in town and it could get back to them."
"Yeah, I know. I sorta figured that would happen. I just want to wait until we're ready to leave. Trust me, you don't want to suffer through a dinner at my house, not yet. We'll worry about that at like, Easter, or something."
"Deal. Let's take it one mom at a time," I reply with a chuckle.
"So, before we go inside, I thought I'd give you your Christmas present."
"Christmas present? Peeta, I didn't-"
"No, I know, it's okay. It's uh, it's in my van."
He disappears for a moment inside his van and comes back out with a large square package wrapped in brown paper and twine. It's quite obviously a painting. When I peel back the paper I'm touched to find Peeta's uncanny rendering of the hunting cabin in the woods. He's painted it in springtime with buds and blossoms and greenery everywhere. The lake is in the background glistening against the sun. The contrast of the aging shack against the teeming life of the forest makes it beautiful and a little depressing all at once. I love it.
"It's incredible, Peeta, really, it's amazing. Thank you!" Without hesitating, I throw my arms around him, enjoying the comfort that I find there.
"That's not all," he says, close enough to my ear for me to feel his warm breath against my skin.
"But the painting, it's more than enough..."
"Well, It's nothing really, it's just, if we're supposed to be engaged and all, you're still missing..." He pulls a small black box out of his pocket, "This."