Stay With Me

Chapter 9

Chapter 9


Yesterday was the predictable disaster I assumed it would be. My mom had too much to drink, making her comments especially acerbic. My brother's wife was in tears before the turkey hit the table. My dad kept finding convenient excuses to escape into the bakery or out back and my other brother actually just got up and left without a word before I even served dessert.

I did my best to play peacemaker and make the day as normal as possible, but there was no saving the holiday from my mother. She was hellbent on making the whole thing as unbearable for the rest of us as it clearly was for her. It's such a weird spot to be in; constantly pining for her attention, then desperately needing an escape once you get it. It's never the kind of attention one wants from their mother. Well, who knows, there are a lot of people with messed up values out there.

Today I get to see Katniss though, so I'm finding myself, once again, jittery and longing. She's taking me to some place she knows about in the woods. She mentioned a lake and a little hunting shack. I'm a guy, so I find the whole idea of it sexy as hell. I can't deny that I've played out a few R-rated scenarios in my mind about what kinds of things could take place in a secret cabin in the woods by a lake. Realistically, it'll be more of the same: talking, working, more talking, and if I'm lucky, a few furtive glances causing blushing cheeks. And maybe I'll get to touch her hand again.

I'm torn about what to bring. I'd love to bake her something, but I don't want to deal with the questions and comments it would elicit from my family members. Instead, I walk through the bakery on my way out to see what we've got that's already made. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see my dad's the one minding the shop. My mom would never let me get away with taking something that could be sold.

"Hey Dad," I say casually.

"Hi Peeta. Heading out?"

"Yeah, I'm going to work on that project I was telling you about...with Katniss."

Without saying anything he turns to the display shelf behind him, grabs a small white box and fills it with an assortment of cookies, small tarts and squares. When he hands it to me, he smiles and says, "You kids have a good time."

I smile back, say my thanks and head towards the door, but before I reach it he says after me, "Did I ever tell you that I knew her mother when we were young, I mean, in high school she and I, we..." and suddenly my dad gets flustered in a way I've never seen before. I think he might be blushing.

"No, you never really mentioned, I didn't know that."

"Well, it was a long time ago." He looks like his mind is drifting off to a far away place. A place where he's young and not yet married to my mother. A place where he flirts with girls like Katniss' mother, carefree and happy.

"I'll see you later, Dad." I can see that he's not really listening anymore, so I leave him to his musings and make my way to Katniss' house.

Prim is standing out front when I get there. She has a furry, miserable looking cat on a homemade leash. I can hear her talking to it as I approach.

"Oh hey, Peeta," she says, looking up with a big smile.

"Hi Prim. Nice cat you got there. He doesn't seem to be enjoying that leash though."

"He's used to running around loose, but he's been getting into trouble lately, so it's the leash or nothing at this point."

"Yeah, he looks like trouble," I say as I bend down to give him a scratch. He looks at me with a disdainful look, but permits my touch just the same. "What's his name?" I ask as the cat repositions himself for optimal behind-the-ear scratching.

"It's Buttercup. You're a brave man, Peeta. He's not a very friendly cat."

"I like the challenge of winning the tough ones over."

I look over at Prim with a big grin, and to my surprise, she winks at me and says, "I bet you do."

I'm stunned into total silence. Wait, what did I say again? Weren't we talking about the cat? Why does she have that smug look on her face? Mercifully, Katniss appears so I don't have to respond.

"Hey, ready to go?" Then she looks back and forth between me and Prim and asks, "Did I miss something?"

Prim smiles and simply answers, "See you guys later," then she turns and walks her cat back towards the house.

I'm still floored by Prim winking at me. When did that kid get all grown up? I guess I missed it while I was paying all the attention to her sister.

It's a cold enough day to see our breath. We duck under some broken wires in the fence separating the town from the wooded area we're headed into. Katniss is unusually quiet as we walk. I've gotten used to a certain amount of silence when we're together, but she hasn't said a word since we started walking. It's also awkward to try and make eye contact, especially since she seems to be purposefully walking a few steps ahead of me. So, I follow her lead, both in direction and silence until I see her eyeing the white box I'm carrying in my left hand.

"From the bakery," I answer without waiting for the question. She nods and shifts her eyes from my direction quickly to avoid the possibility of meeting mine.

'Did you know my dad and your mom hung out together when they were teenagers?" I venture, hoping to get her talking.

"I didn't. Were they...?" She trails off, but I know what she's getting at.

"I don't know. He told me right after giving me these," I say, holding up the box, "and I think he kinda blushed, so, maybe. He could've just had a crush on her, too, I guess." I say it casually, wondering out loud, but Katniss gets the strangest look on her face and still won't actually look at me.

Does the thought of it creep her out? Is it bothering her to even speculate because of her dad? I don't know how to read her expression, so I stop trying to talk for the time being.

Watching Katniss deftly navigate the grown over path is an incredible sight to behold. Her body moves easily, with a natural grace that reveals how at home she is among the trees. I'm nowhere near as elegant with my heavy step and obvious inexperience. She's kind enough not to point this out or maybe isn't even paying attention to me at all. Either way, I'm starting to think that maybe it's a bit of a blessing that she's walking ahead of me.

We come up to the small lake, if it can even be called that, and I can finally see the shack up ahead. Shack is definitely the right word for it. It falls way short of sexy, that's for sure.

"My dad and I used to come here. He taught me to swim in the lake. We'd use this place more in colder months," she explains.

I follow her through the door and take in the space. It's clearly been vacant for a while, but still feels cozy. There's a rustic fireplace along one wall with a bench in front of it. There's a small table and two old chairs in a corner and a shelf against another wall with an oil lamp on it, a few books, a wool blanket and a couple of lighters.

"Chilly? She asks. "We could build a fire."

"Yeah, sure." I answer while I set the pastry box down on the table where Katniss has deposited the backpack containing our school stuff.

"I'm gonna make some tea too, I think. Want some?"

"Sounds good." She still hasn't really made eye contact with me and I'm starting to think she's been purposefully staying further away from me than usual. I think back to the other night, trying to figure out if I did something to cause the distance. I did touch her hand. I had even surprised myself with the contact, but I couldn't help it, there are these moments with her when I just want to close the distance between us so badly. I gave in to an impulse that ended up feeling completely natural. And she seemed okay with it then, but maybe she's thought better of it since.

After another ten or fifteen minutes she finally sits down across from me. The fire she built has roared to life, creating an ambiance of crackling wood and flames, a warming glow and a rich, smoky scent. It's intoxicating. She sets the tea down in front of me and the earthy aroma of what I suspect is some kind of green tea blend is relaxing me already.

Katniss' eyes dart to the box of sweets. "Let me guess, you're thinking...lemon tart?" I ask.

"Pecan square," she grins, but still won't meet my eyes, and instead starts incessantly tapping the side of her mug with her fingernail.

"Katniss, is everything okay?"

"Yeah, sure. Why?" Her tone is unconvincing and now I really know something's up.

"Because you're about to tap a hole right through that mug."

She loosens her grip on the cup, but instead takes on an awkward looking protective posture.

"Did I do something?" I ask, more seriously.

Katniss looks at me for the first time today, startled. "Uh, no, what? Why would you think that?"

"I don't know, you just"

"It's probably just being back in Oak Hill. It's weird, you know?" she answers dismissively.

"You sure?"

She only nods her head and bites into her pecan square.

"Peeta?" She asks in a quiet voice after a few moments of chewing.

"Yeah?" I answer, my mouth now also full of a shortbread cookie.

"Did you know I was going to WVU when you decided to go there too?"

Her question is innocent enough, but I'm working hard not to choke on my cookie. I don't know how to answer her. I guess because I have no idea why she's asking. I can't bring myself to lie to her though, so I just go for straight up honesty. "Yeah, I did. I heard Prim talking about it with my dad in the shop."

She's quiet for a minute, looks thoughtful, then asks, "Is that why you decided to go there?" She looks embarrassed to even be asking the question. Or maybe nervous, mixed with a hint of dread.

Here goes. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a factor." More like, the only factor.

She stays silent for another moment, then smiles and says, "I'm really glad we're at the same school." Then she pauses before finishing with, "Good choice."

We smile at each other, and the full weight of her words starts to sink in. She has no idea how much her reaction means. For the first time I feel like maybe the truth won't scare her away completely, like she might not bolt if she finds out the extent of the impact she's had on my choices over the last ten years.

A new-found confidence takes over and before I can stop it, I reach across the table to tuck a stray bit of hair back behind Katniss' ear. Once I do, I allow my fingers to wrap around, tucking them under the hair leading to her long, loose braid while I run my thumb over her cheekbone. We stay frozen in the moment. I can't be sure, but I think we both might be shaking a little bit. She cocks her head to the side just enough for me to feel the pressure it creates as she presses her cheek into my hand.

In the next breath, she breaks contact, opens her notebook and says, "Should we get started then?"

I'm in a bit of a haze, but before I can second-guess myself on what just happened I look over to see a blush in Katniss' cheeks and a small, shy smile I've never seen before playing on her lips.

"Yeah," I say, "we definitely should."

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