Stay With Me

Chapter 23

Chapter 23


I've been in the hospital a total of 16 days now. The first few went by mercifully fast; I was so sedated that I slept most of the days away. By day 5 or 6 though, the time got long and volleyed between extremely painful and unbearably boring. I stopped being able to sleep nights, replaying all that had happened over and over again in my mind whether conscious or not. Katniss stays the night sometimes, when the nurses willing to look the other way are working the night shift. Those are the nights I sleep best. Somehow her breath in my ear and hand on my chest makes all the difference.

Doctors say it'll take 6 months for my leg to heal, at best, and that I should get used to using a cane once I'm done with my crutches. Real physiotherapy will start once the wound has healed enough to move my leg. I can do small things now, just to keep the muscles firing, but I've had to keep it from moving at all for the most part.

Today they're letting me go home, or at least leave the hospital. Understandably, no one really wanted to go back to the building after the shooting, so a handful of local hotels and apartment buildings donated space to all us residents until more permanent alternatives can be sorted out. My dad helped Katniss move as much of our stuff as could fit into our temporary apartment and her mom and sister helped make it cozy for her. It's been reassuring to know she's had family around while I've been in here.

Katniss knocks on the door, still a little shyly after all this time. The blush in her cheeks at seeing my bare chest makes me chuckle.

"Mornin'," she says, "Are you, uh, gonna put a shirt on before we leave?" It's hard to tell if she's joking or actually worried.

"Yeah, but I think it'll still be awhile before I get to go. There are some final checks and my doctor won't be in to sign the discharge papers for another hour or two.

Her face scrunches up before she realizes I'm watching her and she relaxes it again. "Okay, I, uh, just need to make a quick call."

"Need to delay the surprise party, huh?"

Her eyes get wide, then she smiles. "How did you know?" She's still smiling as she walks towards me.

"Well, there are times when you're the hardest person ever to read. And then there are times when you're really just the worst at hiding things," I tell her while reaching up to bring her face closer to mine.

She exaggerates an offended expression, "I might just call to cancel your party altogether for that."

"Fine by me. I want you all to myself." I pull her in for a deep kiss and she invites the intensity, telling me all is forgiven. She places a hand gently on my chest before pulling back and I make a mental note to be shirtless more often. The feel of her skin on mine tops just about anything I've ever felt. "Good morning," I answer her greeting from earlier.

She smiles and pulls out her cell phone. She texts rather than calls Prim, I assume. Then she drags a chair up beside my hospital bed.

"It's been pretty great having her here, huh?"

"Prim? Yeah, it's been really nice to spend so much time with her. You don't realize how much you miss people until you see them again sometimes." She nudges me and I know that's her saying she misses me too. She's not so hard to read these days, my girl.

"They're going back the day after tomorrow though…now that you're coming home."

I nod. Everything was so heightened the day of the shooting. Our emotions came pouring out of us so easily, or I should say out of Katniss; I've always kind of worn my heart on my sleeve. It's been different between us since then, we're closer for sure, but the days of professions of love for each other ended after that first day out of surgery. She's back to her emotionally guarded self and I can't help but wonder what our lives will be like when it's just us living together again.

The nurses start to come in one by one to say goodbye. Some of them take my vitals for the last time and record the final numbers on my chart. There are so many people to see and thank and exchange well wishes with that I'm surprised when my doctor arrives to give me final clearance to go home. He talks me through my prescriptions and the physiotherapy plan then pats me warmly on the back before carrying on with his rounds.

After gathering my things, I'm wheeled downstairs where my dad is waiting to drive us to our temporary apartment.

As I suspected, when I hobble through the door on my crutches I'm greeted with a loud, "Surprise!" as our families and friends welcome me home. Katniss' mom and Prim are proudly holding a big cake that my dad no doubt had a hand in.

Katniss kisses my cheek and stands aside as a sea of hugs, kisses and handshakes swallows me up.

I end up flanked by Katniss and Prim after my dad sets me up to sit in one chair and keep my leg up on another. Katniss clearly doesn't trust what her sister might end up blurting out and Prim gets that much more pleasure out of shocking her with her words and questions because of it.

The conversation starts off being very polite and kind, but it's not long before Prim is back to her old cheeky self.

"So I guess this whole deal," she gestures up and down my leg, "will put a damper on things, you know, in there," she finishes, nodding in the direction of our new bedroom.

Katniss is appalled and I chuckle. "Prim!"

"What, we'll be family soon, I can't point out the obvious?"

"Ugh, Prim, come on. You two are not seriously gonna talk about that stuff together."

"I'm just saying what he's thinking," she says and smiles at me. I smile back and add a wink, realizing that I've definitely missed Prim's sass.

It's not long before Haymitch makes his way through the crowd to my side. "You're supposed to be the best of us, Peet, what the hell?"

I chuckle and shrug my shoulders, "What can I say? I like to keep things interesting."

Turning to Katniss he teases, "Looks like you've got your work cut out for you the next little while, sweetheart. Time to practice all those wifely duties." He winks at her and she subtly gives him the finger from beneath her empty cake plate.

Between Prim and now Haymitch, Katniss is fuming and I'm enjoying the familiarity of it all. It's been heavy in the hospital, all that's happened, it feels good to be here with the people I like best, joking like we would have before this whole mess.

"I'm surprised to see you here, Haymitch," Katniss answers, "Don't you, like, hate people?"

"Yeah, but the drinks are free and who doesn't like this one? The kid's like a professional human being, he puts us all to shame" he says nodding in my direction.

"Cheers, man," I say clinking my glass with his.

Surprisingly, even Gale makes an appearance. He spends most of his time with Katniss' mom and Prim, but does come over to say hi at one point. I can tell things are still a little strained between him and Katniss, but they seem better. I'm still not sure how I feel about Gale or their relationship, but I know I have to keep trying for Katniss' sake.

After a couple of hours of cake and chatting I'm exhausted. Katniss seems to intuit this almost as quickly as I'm feeling it and starts to encourage people to be on their merry way.

Her mother promises to be back in the morning to help out and even though Katniss tells her repeatedly she doesn't have to, she says she'll be over by 10am. It's not lost on me that my dad places a hand on Laurel's lower back as he follows her out the door. I can't help but smile to myself; it's been a long time since I've seen that spark in his tired eyes. I decide not to mention anything to Katniss, she's not so good with romantic subplots. Prim and I exchange a glance over it though; she knows what's up.

It's so very quiet now that we're alone again. Katniss is busying herself with cleaning up the paper plates and glasses that her mother missed. We chat idly while she's doing it. She fills me in on all the gossipy bits that can't be said while everyone else is around. I feel guilty that she's doing everything herself around the apartment, but know it'll be awhile before I'll be able to manage any kind of contribution.

Once it seems like most of the tidying is done, I lift myself onto the couch and pat the seat next to me with a grin. I'm extremely grateful for the upper body strength a lifetime in the bakery has given me. I don't even want to think about what it would be like to have to have Katniss try to haul me around on her own.

She smiles and sits down next to me. "What now?" she asks. I don't answer at first. Instead I spend a few minutes tucking strands of her hair behind her ears and thinking about everything that's happened over the last 8 months.

"Now," I begin, "we spend some time being…us."

She smiles again and says, "You know, when I was packing up our stuff to move it over here…I found those paintings…the ones of me. Of us."

I turn a little red. I'd totally forgotten that I'd told her about those. There were many paintings in there of just Katniss, but also ones of us, older, with a boy and a girl bearing our features.

"They're really beautiful, Peeta, thank you. To be honest, I'm not really sure how I feel about…all that. But, it can be nice to think about sometimes."

I don't say anything in response. I tilt her chin up towards me and kiss her softly at first, then harder, more deeply. She gives herself back fully and all at once I remember what I was fighting for, what she fought for that day in our old building.

"I know we can't, that with your leg right now we can't, but I'm ready," she whispers. "When it's time, I'm ready and I'm so happy it will be with you."

"It's always only ever been you," I answer and continue kissing her lips, her cheeks, her neck. My mind drifts to just how long it will take for me to be healed enough to be with her in the way I want to be. A week, a month…it could be awhile. "Maybe we could get creative between now and then," I grin against her lips and she sighs, seemingly game for whatever I mean.

She snuggles up against me, half of her body on mine. It's one of those moments where you want time to stop, for the earth to slow down, for seconds to stretch into days.

"For two kids who haven't had much going in our favour, we're alright, you know?" I say, my leg, the shooting, my mother, all melting away.

"Yeah, I know," Katniss says with a sigh against my neck. "Now, how long before I get me some cheese buns. I'm totally in withdrawal over here."

We both laugh and I squeeze her even more tightly to my side. "Right now I don't want to move. I just want to be right here, with you."

She looks up at me and replies simply, "Always."

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