I can hear my boss sigh loudly over my shoulder as I pull yet another lopsided loaf out of the oven. My head is clearly not in the game today. My baking skills have regressed to a pitiable state.
"Sorry Frank," I say simply.
"You sure you don't wanna just take off for the day, kid?" This is the nicest way he can think of to ask me to leave and stop butchering the bread, I know this, but I don't want to go home yet. I'm not ready to face off with Katniss.
"Nah, I'm looking to put in some extra time."
"This a money thing or a woman thing?" I chuckle when he says this in his gruff voice. I wasn't expecting to have a heart-to-heart with this man. Ever. And he's surprisingly accurate with his assessment.
"A woman thing," I decide to answer honestly.
"That fiancee of yours giving ya trouble?" Of course he would put it like that. I've heard him talk about his wife "breaking his balls" on more than one occasion.
"It's my fault this time though, that's the problem." I'm not sure a guy like Frank can even understand a world in which me, a man, made a mistake. And am admitting to it.
"So you buy 'er some flowers, you say you're sorry, you move on. Women ain't as complicated as they want us to think they are, kid." This man's obviously never met a woman like Katniss.
"You really think it'll be that easy?"
"Sure. You put up with each others' bullshit. That's the deal, that's marriage."
I spend the rest of my shift cleaning and reorganizing the shelves in the backroom. At least I can't screw up anything too badly back here. I can hear Frank chatting with customers from time to time, repeating the same expressions and making comments about the weather. It makes me think of my dad and the way he runs our bakery. I wonder what things are like between he and my mom these days. I'd love to have him to talk to at a time like this.
I hope Frank's right, that Katniss will get past my mistakes and put up with me just the same. I feel like I've already gone through a similar pattern with her a few times now, except I guess her mistakes haven't really been that big of a deal. They're more like, personality quirks than anything. She is who she is and there's no changing her. I knew what I was getting into. Can she say the same?
By the time I get back to the apartment, I'm really nervous. I don't want things to get any worse. Having the situation escalate at this point would be disastrous.
Katniss is on the couch. She doesn't seem to be doing anything, which makes me wonder how long she's been sitting there, just staring into space.
"Hey," I venture.
"Hey. We gonna talk?" I'm surprised she offers this, it's always me who has to initiate serious conversations.
"Yeah, that sounds good."
I sit down beside her on the couch. I'm not sure how close I should get, so I keep some space between us. She turns towards me, bringing her leg up on the couch, closing the gap a little bit. I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding.
We stay silent for another full minute. It seems like neither of us knows who should begin.
I break the silence with, "Katniss, I'm so sorry."
"I know, Peeta. It's just…you lied to me. I hate that you lied to me. I'm not...I just don't trust people that easily and I need to be able to trust you." She speaks calmly and I'm relieved that this will actually be a conversation and not a battle.
"You can. Always. I knew you'd feel responsible for this thing with my parents. I didn't want to put that on you. I get that I should've just told you and trusted that we'd work it out, but at the time, it felt like the right thing to do."
"I know why you did it. I would've freaked out. I just need to know that we're going to be able to talk about stuff. That you're not going to pull this protective crap on me every time something upsetting happens."
She takes my hand, another surprising gesture, and looks at me so intensely it makes me a little nervous. "It's more than that though. My dad is gone, Peeta, I have no choice when it comes to seeing him again. I just don't want you to give up on the possibility of a relationship with both of your parents because of us. Your mom, well, maybe that'll never be possible, but your dad...I just want to know that you'll try someday."
"I will, someday."
"Now, where were we last night?" She says with a devilish grin and scoots closer to me on the couch.
"Mmm... I think somewhere around here," I say as I brush her hair back to kiss the soft skin of her neck just under her ear.
She leans into me showing her approval, so I pull her in and kiss her long and deep, one hand tangled in her long braid-kinked hair, the other reaching down around her hip to bring her closer. She shifts her position, moving the leg already on the couch up over me and swinging the other one over so that I'm holding her close, both of her legs across my lap. We kiss slowly, alternating between eyes closed and looking at each other knowingly, intently.
I shift my weight and begin to push her body back gently so that she's lying down under me across the length of the couch. I lower my body alongside her and begin to slowly unbutton the plaid shirt she's wearing. Katniss looks at me, the most beautiful mixed expression of anticipation, shyness and wanting on her face. She bites her lip as I slide the last button free and push the shirt open, revealing the simple white cotton bra she's wearing underneath. Against her pale skin, with tendrils of her dark hair spilling over her shoulders, it's about the loveliest thing I've ever seen.
I trace a few fingers along the soft skin just above the top edge of her bra. Katniss raises her torso enough to help me slip the shirt over her shoulders, allowing me greater access to the bare skin I haven't been able to touch yet.
I kiss her neck, her collar bone, the skin on her chest where my fingers just were. She runs her hands through my hair, up my back, along the side of my face. She starts to pull at the hem of my t-shirt and this time, I don't hesitate to pull it up over my head. I lean back down, anxious to feel her skin against mine. It feels like I'd always imagined, like becoming whole, like coming home.
Everything is running on overdrive. I want everything to be perfect for her, for us. I'm contemplating whether to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom or continue to undress her right here when a booming, sadistic voice cuts in from the hallway.
"You think you can leave me, bitch? You'll never get away from me!" And then the horrifying sound of flesh hitting flesh, hard, followed by a pained whimper.
Katniss and I look at each other startled, with a terrified expression. My hands are already reaching for my shirt. "Call the police," I say, already halfway to the door.
"Peeta, wait, that guy's crazy..."
"He hit her, she's not safe."
I rush out the door before I or Katniss has the chance to think anymore about it. When I get into the hallway I see Cato dragging his wife down the hallway as if she were a piece of driftwood. I hear her sobbing uncontrollably and I'm filled with a rage I've never felt before.
I run at a full sprint, but still don't reach them before Cato gets her trapped securely behind their apartment door. All restraint goes out the window as I begin to pound my fists against the door furiously.
"Cato, open the door!"
"You hear that, bitch? It's your fault the whole building knows our business. I don't need this shit, Glim. You're gonna pay."
Now I'm panicking. "Come on man, open the door. The police are on their way. You don't have to do this. Just let your wife come out and take some time to calm down."
"Police? Is that what you want you selfish slut? To see me go to jail so you can be free to screw whoever you want? Well, guess what? There's no way in hell I'm ever gonna let that happen."
"No, Cato, please no!"
My heart stops and the whole world goes quiet when I hear the gunshot. The few seconds it takes for me to register what's happening are the longest of my life.
I can't hear the girl's whimpering anymore, only the sounds of a man breaking down. I start putting my shoulder backed by all of my body weight into breaking down the door.
"Cato, open the door, let me get your wife some help."
With no warning the door swings open and he crashes into me. I fall backwards and hit the ground hard. It takes me a moment to notice he's holding one hunting rifle and has a second slung across his body.
He looks at me with a cold detached look I've never seen on the face of a human being. It's like he's not really seeing me, like he's not really seeing anything. He raises the gun, holding my gaze, and fires.
I know I'm hurt, but I don't feel any pain. I stay on the ground, eyes closed and hope Cato thinks I'm dead. When his heavy boots walk past me and are seemingly around the corner, I crawl into his apartment and try to figure out where I'm hit. It's my thigh and as the blood starts to pour out, my limbs start to shake and I start to feel my body going into some kind of preservation mode.
I check Glimmer and it's clear she's not breathing. Her wound is horrifying, right through the chest. The blood, the sight of it...I can't process that this is what a person can look like when half of them is inside out. She's gone and if I can't help her, I have to get the hell out of this apartment before Cato comes back.
I don't think I'll make it back to our place, not with the blood I'm losing and the pain that's starting to seep through the shock. I grab a blanket off the couch and drag myself the short way to the laundry room.
When I get inside I wedge myself between the wall and the dryer. I hear more gunshots and every part of me wants to run to Katniss. How could I live with myself if he hurts her? I try to rally myself to move, to make sure she's safe, but the dizziness gets too intense and I can feel my grip on consciousness slipping.
I pull the blanket around my leg as tightly as I can. I can't be sure how much blood I'm losing. The bullet must have missed an artery, otherwise I'd be dead by now. I haven't heard Katniss' among the screams ringing out on the floor above. I can't imagine what horrific things are happening up there. I could have stopped him, I should've...
My mind fights to work out a plan. What I should've done then, what I need to do now, but everything's getting fuzzy. I can feel the pain winning, feel myself welcoming unconsciousness to stop it. I'm holding onto an image of Katniss, to her voice, to her touch, to our sweetest moments.
I'm letting go, easing into a painless place when I hear it. Hear her. "Peeta! Peeta! Shh...don't move. It's okay. You're going to be okay. Stay with me..."
I'm fighting, fighting to stay with her. "Always."