Katniss has been standing motionless and silent, staring at the ring for at least five minutes. It's made of a light-coloured braided wood. There's a couple not too far from Morgantown that makes them from the trees on their property. I knew as soon as I saw them that they'd create the perfect ring for Katniss.
"I'm not sure what to say," she finally says. "It's a really pretty ring, Peeta."
I'm relieved she hasn't hit me or yelled at me, or worse, laughed at me. "You should try it on. I gave it my best guess, but it can't be re-sized, so..."
She nods her head, but doesn't move, so I take off my gloves, take the box from her hand, remove the the ring and take her hand. I take off her mitten and slip the ring on her finger. It slides down easily and I let out the breath I've been unknowingly holding.
"It's perfect," she says and I don't know if she's talking about the fit or the ring or the fact that I've given it to her.
The most unexpected thing happens next. She leans in, placing her arms around my neck, and gives me the softest, sweetest kiss.
She pulls back, looking almost as surprised by her actions as I am. This time though, I don't miss my chance. I cup her face with both hands and gently pull her back in again. Her cheeks are cold and I can feel the frozen tip of her nose against my face. It's a sharp contrast to the hot breath I feel against my lips and the warmth of her mouth opening slightly with mine.
I feel like I'm in a dreamlike state as we finish our kiss. Years and years of wondering, waiting and fantasizing to create this one surreal moment. I'm not sure I ever really believed it'd get to this point, the place where I'd be holding Katniss in my arms, kissing her, my ring on her finger.
The moment passed, we're now standing quietly, maybe even a little awkwardly, wondering what to say or do next. Katniss is smiling shyly, but I've got a big ol' stupid grin on my face I can't wipe away.
"I guess we better go in," she says and I nod, still unable to form words. I pick up my gloves and her mitten and follow her into the house.
We're greeted by Prim first. "Making an honest woman outta my sister, huh Peeta?" She winks at me again and it's less surprising this time.
"Yeah, I guess so," I answer with a chuckle.
I follow Katniss and Prim into the kitchen where their mom is taking some kind of casserole out of the oven.
"Hi Ms. Everdeen."
"I think we're a little past Ms. Everdeen at this point, don't you? Call me Laurel."
I think she's trying to be welcoming, but I'm suddenly feeling very nervous. "Yeah, I guess we are...thanks for having me over for dinner, Laurel."
"Of course," she smiles. "You'll be family soon enough, after all."
I spend a moment really looking at Katniss' mom. There's far more of a resemblance between her and Prim, but I find the odd Katniss feature in her face. She's an attractive woman, though does bear the telltale signs of someone who's struggled, aging her a bit beyond her years.
I help Katniss set the table. The house is modest but feels homey. It's a nice change from the sterile showroom-like quality that my parents' house takes on.
When we sit down to eat, Prim starts talking about school and her impatience about getting out of Oak Hill to start working towards a medical degree.
"What is it that you're studying, Peeta?" Laurel asks.
"Business, well, entrepreneurship specifically."
"Will you take over your parents' bakery then?"
"I hear you're one hell of a baker," Prim chimes in, grinning. I think Katniss blushes a bit at the revelation that she's talked to Prim about my baking, but she's got her head down closely examining her salad, so it's hard to tell.
"No actually, I'm hoping to open my own art studio, with lessons and a gallery...maybe an art supplies shop attached too."
Katniss' mom arches an eyebrow in surprise, "Oh, that's, uh, interesting..."
"Is that one of your paintings Katniss just brought into the house?" Prim asks.
"Yeah," I answer, now the one blushing a little bit.
"Did it come with that ring on her finger?"
Katniss lets out a choking cough, "Prim! What the hell?!"
"Katniss!" Her mother exclaims in surprise.
Their series of reactions makes me want to laugh out loud, but I'm thinking that's probably not a good idea given the palpable tension between the women in front of me.
"What? He liked it, he put a ring on it. Show us the goods, that's all I'm saying." Prim teases.
Katniss sighs and holds out her hand to both her mother and Prim.
"It's certainly different," Laurel says.
Prim's eyes widen as she stares at the simple ring that already looks like it's always been on Katniss' finger.
"Wow, Peeta, you could not have chosen anything more perfect. It's really beautiful," Prim states more earnestly than anything I've heard her say up to now.
"Thanks, yeah, I thought so," I answer.
Then Prim turns to Katniss, beaming, "You are one lucky girl, sis."
Katniss smiles at me shyly, an expression and gesture I'm still getting used to. I smile back, getting a little red at the memory of our kiss. I would have loved to have had some time to reflect on it, sort out what it might mean before having to switch into the make believe mode we're in now. Trying to figure out how our relationship is actually developing throughout the show we have to put on for other people is going to be annoyingly confusing.
We spend the rest of the meal making small talk about various neutral subjects – the weather, Christmas traditions, books – interspersed with me complimenting the meal and engaging in witty banter with Prim while Katniss stays relatively quiet.
Prim is so different from Katniss it's hard to believe they're sisters. Prim is clever and sweet with a great sense of humour. Katniss is a little more sarcastic and rough around the edges. She's fierce and natural, determined and self-assured. She's given Prim the gift of getting to be carefree while she's taken on the various high-pressure adult roles needed to keep it all together. Katniss is an old soul, Prim is a young, vivacious one.
Prim would be the perfect sister-in-law, if this whole engagement business were an actual thing. If that ring I put on Katniss' finger meant as much to her as it does to me.
By a little after 9pm I'm standing at the door, getting ready to leave. Prim and Laurel have said their goodnights and have wandered off to some other part of the house, leaving Katniss and I alone.
It doesn't feel like the right time to talk about the kiss, but I definitely don't want to act like it didn't happen either.
"Peeta, your gifts were really...just, thanks again. But it's been a weird and long night. Can we maybe just talk tomorrow or something?"
"Yeah, sure," I say, feeling a little insecure about her shutting down any form of conversation.
"Merry Christmas, Peeta," she says before kissing me softly on the cheek.
"Merry Christmas, Katniss."
"Can I talk to you guys?"
It's the day before we head back to Morgantown and I know I can't avoid telling my parents about the move and supposed engagement any longer.
"I've got to get to a client's place in the city, so I've only got a few minutes," my mother says curtly, barely looking up from the newspaper.
"Yeah, it uh, it won't take long." I take a deep breath and look at my dad who nods at me encouragingly. "I've, uh, I've asked...what I mean is Katniss Everdeen and I are engaged and we're moving into the family residence together," I blurt out.
"You what?" My mom's eyes are blazing. She looks like she could actually kill me this time. "No son of mine is marrying one of that slut's daughters. They're one food stamp away from homeless, Peeta! I hardly think some destitute whore is a suitable match for one of my boys."
"Honey, please," my dad chimes, trying in vain to diffuse the situation.
"Your boys? Are you kidding me? No part of me comes from you. I make damn sure to be anything but you," I seethe. "And she's not a whore. She's ten times the person you are. So's her mother." That part's not necessarily true, but since Katniss' mother seems to be a sore spot with mine, I throw it in for the extra dig.
She stands and at first looks like she's going to storm out of the room, but then she turns and leans into the hardest hit to my face she can muster. "You will not marry into that pathetic family!" She screams.
"She's more of a family to me than you ever were," I spit back without pause.
"Think it'd be that easy? To not be a part of this family and make it on your own? I guess you'll see. Get the hell out of my house!"
"Still putting your reputation before your own son, eh Mom? Fine, have it your way," I say with a wave of my hand. I'm not sure a place in this family is worth fighting for.
"As long as you're with that girl, you're no son of mine. Be gone by the time I get back." She turns in disgust, grabs her purse and slams the door as she leaves the house.
I touch my hand to my face and confirm that it's already swelling around the point of impact.
"I'm sorry, Peeta," my dad says and I wonder if he's sorry for this or his part in my having a woman like that for a mother in the first place. I don't say anything and so he continues, "Congratulations, she seems like a fine young woman. She comes from two really great people."
"Thank you" is my only reply. I'm concentrating on slowing my heart rate and processing what just happened.
"You know son, your mother's choices don't have to be mine. Wait here a minute."
He disappears from view and returns a moment later with an envelope and the keys to the van.
"When you leave, take it with you," he says handing me the keys. "All the paperwork's already in your name anyways. And take this, too," he hands me the envelope. "I've been saving it...for emergencies."
"Dad, I can't take-"
"You can," he says reassuringly. "It won't be enough, but it'll give you kids a good start. Call my cell if you ever need anything, okay?"
We both have tears in our eyes, unsure about how to navigate the intense father-son moment we've found ourselves in. He pulls me in for a tight hug, then releases me and walks away, clearly at his emotional limit.
As I pack my things and prepare to leave my childhood home for what might be the last time, I'm wondering how much I should tell Katniss about what's going on. The stakes of our so-called engagement are so much higher now than I ever expected. I'm fighting to keep her in school as much as I've got to fight for myself. Our complicated situation is now really our situation.
I load up the van and start the engine. Without thinking twice I head towards Katniss' house, not sure how I'll explain the need to spend the night without telling her the whole truth.
She opens the door and the surprised look on her face fades away as she lightly runs her fingers over the swollen side of my face. Without a word she pulls me into her arms and the warmth coming through the open door coupled with the welcome pressure of her body against mine washes away any feeling of loss. I feel instead like I've finally found my home, my family.