Stay With Me

Chapter 18

Chapter 18


I wish some things in life were automatic, like knowing how to be a half-decent girlfriend, for example. Peeta's unwavering patience with me is a constant source of amazement. Okay, well maybe not entirely unwavering, even he loses his shit like the rest of us sometimes, but for the most part, his calm response to my complete and total lack of social graces is nothing short of saintly.

There are times, and sadly they happen pretty frequently, when I hear these awful things coming out of my mouth before I even know they're on the way and I think, Damn it, Katniss, where's your filter?!

He was so cute on Valentine's Day and I didn't even hesitate to shut down everything he'd done. I panicked. I saw the candles and the roses and it was like, how did I get here? I don't want to be just someone's girlfriend and I don't want to become some programmed robot who wants everything popular media tells me I should want just because I'm a girl. And I don't want Peeta to have to be the guy who thinks he has to do that. Of course instead of having that conversation like a grown-up, I flipped out and then felt like shit for being such a jerk about it.

Miraculously, Peeta just totally rolled with it, that night and even the next day when he did it all over again just so we could have a nice evening together in a way I would feel good about. For every moment of uncertainty I have he's right there, making everything okay. It's guilt-makingly consistent.

I was especially thankful for Peeta's solid-as-a-rock presence the other day when I ran into President Snow. God that man gives me the creeps. There's something so sinister about him and that practiced smile of his. I'm sure he was threatening me, sure he wanted me to know he's holding all the cards. I honestly have no idea what I was thinking going through with this lie. And now I really actually care for Peeta, which somehow is just making this whole thing so much worse.

Peeta's right though, this thing we're doing, us, it has to be on our terms and not because both of our futures are riding on us making it look good. We have to figure out how to keep it all separate and I'm starting with tonight. I've never felt the way I do about Peeta about anyone else before. He makes me feel safe, and valued, and...loved. I want him to know that and know it in a way I could never express with words.

He gets home from work in the early afternoon. I don't have to work today, but he put in an early shift at the bakery, so he's already been working a full seven or eight hours. I hug and kiss him when he comes through the door, already an uncharacteristic outpouring of affection on my part. He's grateful for it, I can tell, and heads off to shower and change smiling from ear to ear.

I've planned an afternoon in the woods for us; I'm anxious to take him on one of my favourite trails where we'll hopefully catch the early sunset on our way back. The day is clear and not too cold, so it should be perfect.

We're both pretty quiet for the first bit of our walk. We hold hands until the terrain starts to require the kind of balance that comes from two free arms and plenty of space. Plus, Peeta knows I get into a zone in the woods that precludes most PDA.

As we get going Peeta starts to chat about his day at work and how the bakery stuff's okay, but that he thinks he'll start looking for more arts related work sometime soon.

"You'd be perfect at that," I say.

"I don't think it would pay much, but maybe I could do some art therapy stuff at the community centre or in schools...I don't's just such a good outlet for people needing a way to get stuff out."

I don't know much about art, or therapy, or expressing feelings for that matter, but I get where Peeta's coming from. His art is so varied. Sometimes the subject matter is obvious and poignant. Sometimes, though, it's just the ghost of an emotion, an impression, a strong feeling you're left with by looking at something as innocuous as a street lamp. You know that something is being worked out in those subtle images, you can feel that it's been transferred from him to that canvas in a way that's real and raw.

"Seems like it could be a pretty powerful thing," I say and I know that I actually mean it.

There's a lightness to our time together today that feels good. Peeta's playful and flirty and I've let all the usual chips fall from my shoulders. It's like we're...happy. It's not the same as my quiet comfort with Gale or the unbreakable bond with my sister. It feels natural and like it all makes sense. But there's also a feeling of exhilaration, like I can't wait to find out what's going to happen between us next. Where I would have normally found ways to eliminate the opportunity for greater closeness or intimacy, I find myself daydreaming as we walk about all the different scenarios that would guarantee it.

By the time we get to the lookout to watch the sun spread its colours across the sky and dip below the horizon, I'm vibrating in anticipation of our contact. Peeta takes my hand and I can feel him looking at me as I look out across the snowy valley.

"We're supposed to be here for the sunset," I say, still looking ahead.

"I never agreed to that," he grins. "Besides, it's got nothing on you."

I shake my head and keep it turned to hide the redness that's spreading across my face.

Peeta pulls on my hand, drawing me to him. My heart is beating wildly as he leans in and presses his lips against mine. I feel a warmth that spreads down to my toes, fighting off the chill that's creeping in now that the sun's going down.

I want to be closer to him, but our winter clothes are making it impossible. I'm feeling an urgency that's completely unfamiliar to me. I've craved things, been hungry, but this, this is something different. It's a whole different kind of need.

I feel Peeta's wanting matching my own.

"I think we need to get home. Now," I say purposefully, tearing myself away from his sweet tasting mouth.

We're almost running home, giddy like kids let out of school early. We don't say anything, both desperate to preserve the urgent, electric feeling between us. Peeta grins at me whenever our eyes meet and I'm sure I'm smiling back like a lunatic, happy to lose myself in this strange new feeling.

We get to our apartment and tear off our outer layers with no regard to where anything is going. When I get to the clothes underneath, I don't stop stripping down. I pull my sweater up over my head and am considering losing my t-shirt as well when Peeta catches my hands mid-pull.

"Katniss, before we... I just want... We have to talk." His face looks worried, which worries me. But also pisses me off. I don't want to talk. I feel like I've finally figured out how to express what I'm feeling and it has nothing to do with words.

He must see my expression shifting because he looks at me, pleading. "Please," he says and I know I'm going to hear him out now. How could I not when he's staring at me with that serious and pained look on his face.

We sit down on the couch and Peeta starts, "My parents, well my mom really, she uh, she didn't take the news as well as I let on at Christmas. She sort of, um, she kicked me out...and, cut me off."

I hear what he's saying, but I'm having trouble believing it. "What do you mean? Like, disowned you? Because of me?"

"I've told you what she's like. It wasn't worth-"

"Wasn't worth what? She's your mom, Peeta! That's your family! So, the job? The here..."

"It didn't start out that way. In the beginning I just wanted to help you and to stop taking so much from them. But then when I told them, she just got was awful...and I couldn't do it anymore. And I didn't want to make things worse for you, you were already so stressed out about this whole thing. It's really not that big a deal..."

"Not that big a deal? Peeta, it's a huge friggin' deal! You lied! And I can't be the reason you... And if we get caught... I can't believe this!" I feel completely overwhelmed and can't be around him anymore, can't have this conversation. I storm off to the bedroom and slam the door.

I'm expecting Peeta to follow me, but he doesn't. I don't know if that makes things better or worse. I can't believe he lied to me. I can't be responsible for him losing his whole family. Or him getting kicked out of school and not getting his degree. The whole thing...the pressure of it. He's right, I never would have gone along with any of this had I known.

It takes me a long time to cool down. I'm furious at Peeta for lying, feel guilty about jeopardizing his future, and am processing countless things related to his mother being so opposed to his union with me that she would abandon her own child. She's a crappy mom and a pretty awful person, so normally it'd be easy for me to not give a shit about what she thinks. In most cases, a person like her makes me want to do opposing things just out of spite. With Peeta though, she's right, he is too good a person for me. A fact that I know deep down, but that's making it harder to hold onto my anger and I want to be angry at him right now. I don't want to throw buried feelings about my own inadequacy and endless flaws into the emotional mix.

I'm also guessing that Peeta met with Haymitch about all this without me, something that also fills me with rage. The thought of the two of them plotting and leaving me out... It's a betrayal. Haymitch is a drunk and a jerk, but he's always been the drunk jerk in my corner.

At one point Peeta knocks on the door, "We don't have to talk right now, but you should still eat something." He waits for a response and when I say nothing I hear him set down a plate. It's another hour before I get hungry enough to open the door and pull in the sandwich he's left.

I eventually fall asleep, but it's that restless, unsatisfying kind of sleep that leaves you no better rested in the morning. Peeta never came back to our room. He must have slept on the couch.

When I finally feel ready to see him, I throw on a pair of jeans and an old comfy sweatshirt before wandering into the main room. Instead of finding him waiting for me though, there's just a note left on the kitchen table.

Took a shift.

Thought you might want the space.

Talk later?

Is he avoiding me? Afraid of me? I'm pissed off all over again. What I'm most afraid of is that he's being genuinely nice to me. Trying to understand how I'm feeling and give me what I need. I don't want perfect Peeta with his endless patience and sweetness right now. I want to get to be mad and I want to not be so selfish that I continue to be the reason everything's at stake for him at the same time.

I start frantically looking for things to do to keep me from stewing. I tidy up a bit and then decide to go check our mailbox in the lobby. I take the long way around to walk past that creep, Cato's, apartment. When I get within a few feet of it, the door bursts open and his wife crashes into me, dropping the duffle bag she's carrying. I reach down to get it for her and see that she's crying or has been, it's hard to tell.

"Sorry," she says, her voice unsteady.

"No worries. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I, uh, I just need a night away, you know?"

"Yeah, I do. Hey, if you ever need anything-"

"I'll be fine," she cuts me off and starts to walk away. "Thanks," she says over her shoulder, but doesn't look back. I can't fault her for wanting her privacy, I more than get that.

I get the mail – nothing even remotely interesting – and wander back to the apartment to wait for Peeta. For what might be the first time in my life, I'm actually anxious to talk. Somehow after running into blondie in the hallway, I'm just not as angry anymore.

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