I barely remembered getting home after the Reaping. I woke alone in the dark and tried to piece the day back together. I remembered the sheer, overwhelming relief of being safe for another year; Rye angrily stomping ahead of us over something to do with Mom, so flustered he fumbled through his pockets for a full minute before dropping the bakery keys the minute he finally pulled them out. Katniss leading me upstairs without any protest from her mother. Dropping off to sleep the minute I laid in bed. I didn't know how long she stayed, though the faint smell of her hair on my pillow meant she likely laid down with me before going home.
I swung my feet to the floor, rubbing my hands through my hair as Buddy blinked at me from where he lay purring on the windowsill. I was still in my clothes from the Reaping, the shirt soaked through with sweat. The room spun when I stood, and I took a few moments to gain my balance before changing into a pair of linen pants and a clean undershirt. I found Dad sitting in the living room in front of the seldom used television he'd pulled out from the corner it usually occupied, watching footage of the tributes arriving in the Capitol.
“I was starting to think you'd sleep through the night,” he said, looking over at me as I dropped onto the couch beside him and put my feet up on the coffee table. “You should eat. Want me to heat some leftovers for you?”
“Th-that's okay,” I said, shaking my head and staring blankly at the screen. I felt disconnected and numb. I was completely and utterly exhausted, but I couldn't stand the idea of going back to sleep again. A few minutes passed with nothing but the television breaking the silence.
“I'm sorry about your mother, Peet,” he sighed. I tried to dredge up whatever he was talking about. Something had happened, but all I remembered was Rye's anger over it. “I don't know what goes through her head. I talked to her, but...” He trailed off, shaking his head before turning toward me. “You okay?”
“I'm f-fine, Dad,” I said. He nodded, pulling me into a tight hug. When he let go he got up from the couch and went into the kitchen. I watched as the coverage switched to our District, and the sight of Manda trembling and near-tears on the steps of the Justice Hall brought it back to me. Mom going in to say goodbye alongside the Tates, openly weeping over a girl I hadn't even known I was related to until a few months ago. Mom was so far removed from her family the fact that Mrs. Tate was her sister had been news to both Rye and I. I should have felt worse watching her step off of the train in the Capitol, looking for all the world like she wanted to collapse in on herself and disappear.
I felt guilty, but Manda had already moved into the past tense. As soon as a tribute's name was called, they were dead and gone. To do anything else meant being too emotionally involved with the Games, and that was a luxury we couldn't afford. District 12 didn't produce winners, and there was no use in worrying all year about something you couldn't change. If we did that, there would never be a chance for happiness. We would spend all of our school years walking around with the ghosts of former tributes in the hallways. Manda and I had never been close, even though we had the same friends for years and were technically family. I hadn't even known that. No matter how guilty I felt there was nowhere to place her in my mind as anything but a tribute I used to know, just like Shawn when we were 13. Manda didn't stand a chance, and no amount of caring on my part would change it.
Dad returned with a handful of the medications I needed for the night and a glass of water. He passed both to me before sitting back down, and I took the pills one at a time, draining the glass of water before leaning forward to set it down. Rye stumbled home after a while, clearly drunk and leaning against the wall for balance. Dad didn't say a word, just shook his head as Rye disappeared into his room and kicked his door shut, audibly collapsing into bed a moment later. I went back to bed not long after, fitfully drifting in and out of sleep until the sun rose, and I finally dropped off to the sound of Buddy purring on the pillow beside me.
Being out of school, and therefore free of needing to force myself to get out of bed and hold it together throughout the day, I completely fell apart. Phyl and Darla stopped by for a dinner I barely ate and could hardly stay awake for. A week slipped by before the fog of my exhaustion cleared and new aches stopped appearing and disappearing every time I moved.
Katniss was at the bakery nearly every day, and the increase in her hours meant both Dad and Rye were able to take a little more time off. The atmosphere in the house slowly relaxed, in spite of the constant presence of the Games. Dad watched every year, closely and quietly, until our tributes were gone. Then he just put away the televisions and there wasn't a word about it until the following year. He just wanted someone to come home, I think. Both Manda and Wade hung on longer than anyone else had in years.
I worked with Katniss or Rye when I could, though I had a hard time shaking my exhaustion some days. There was always an influx of weddings in the summer; families moving forward once they knew their loved ones were safe, and people taking advantage of finally aging out of the Reaping and getting on with their lives. That meant cake orders, and Dad made a few gentle attempts to urge me toward decorating again. I couldn't quite bring myself to it. The furthest I could get was filling, stacking, and basting the cakes before my hands began to shake and I had to stop.
Most afternoons ended with Katniss and I upstairs, either napping in my room or curled up on the couch. We'd lost our studying excuse, and as a result lost some of the privacy we'd been able to steal during the school year. She leaned against me on the couch, her arms hugged around my waist as we watched coverage of the Games.
“I hate this,” she said quietly. “And I hate that I still watch it every single year.”
“Me, too,” I said softly. I had felt nauseous most of the day, and wanted to lean forward to turn it off, but didn't quite trust myself to move. The dizziness I'd felt just walking upstairs hadn't completely passed. I frowned as the smell of something burning downstairs filled the room, lifting my chin and wondering how Dad or Rye could have lost track of something that completely for the smell to be so strong, and then my body slipped away.
“Twain!” Katniss shouted, practically kneeling in my lap, her hands on either side of my face. When she turned back to me her expression was completely horrified, tears in her eyes. Her hands fluttered nervously over my skin, her mouth moving, though I couldn't quite register the words. She called my father's name again and I straightened up, reaching for her hands to pull them away as Dad thundered up the stairs.
“What's going on?” he asked, and I heard the same panic in his voice that had been in Katniss'.
“I don't know,” she said, her voice small and scared and completely unlike how it usually sounded. I tried to tell them I was okay, but I couldn't quite get my mouth to cooperate. “I think it was a seizure, but it wasn't—I don't know. It was different. Scary.”
“Peet, can you hear me?” Dad sat on the coffee table in front of me, leaning forward and touching his hand to the side of my face.
“Yes,” I forced out, jerking away from him. I squeezed my eyes closed as my head began pounding. The room felt too bright, and every noise they made hurt my ears. “I n-n-need—um—t-to lay d-down.” I pressed my hands over my face, trying to figure out where I was and how to get from there to my bed without throwing up.
“Could you go get your mother, please?” Dad said, and Katniss squeezed my arm before getting up from the couch. I heard her leave, and Dad tried to help me lay down. I wanted my bed, not the couch, and I couldn't figure out why he didn't understand that, or why I couldn't get myself to move on my own. I tried to push his hands away, but all it earned me was a few frustratingly gentle reassurances before he finally gave up and went into the kitchen. He returned with a glass of water and a couple of pills and stood over me until I took them both. I laid down, turning toward the back of the couch and trying to block out the light until Katniss returned with Mrs. Everdeen.
I sat through a barrage of questions, forcing myself to answer through my blinding headache. I listened as Katniss described what had happened, trying to understand how time had somehow passed without me being aware of it. Mrs. Everdeen couldn't offer anything to help but the suggestion I get more rest. Katniss helped me get to bed, the one thing I'd been wanting for hours, and I heard Mrs. Everdeen tell my father she'd make sure I got an appointment to see Dr. Lawrence as soon as possible.
“Rye, no,” Dad said, his voice laden with exasperation. “You're staying here and you're helping Katniss.”
“I run this place by myself all the damn time,” Rye said. “She can handle it.”
“You've been doing this a hell of a lot longer than six months. She hasn't,” Dad said. “Now shut up and get the hell back to work or I'm gonna stop across the square and tell Delly you're trying to go hit on that assistant again.”
“Ugh, fine,” Rye rolled his eyes, slumping into the storage room as Dad turned toward me. He nodded toward the back, leading me and Mrs. Everdeen out. I trailed a few steps behind, shooting a grimace toward Katniss before I passed out of sight. I heard her laugh quietly before I shut the door behind me.
I left my cane at home, hoping to wean myself off of it for shorter trips. I was still a few steps behind Dad and Mrs. Everdeen, though. The sunlight and the heat were overwhelming. Dad raised his hand, hovering nervously at the small of her back for a moment before just going for it and setting his hand on her waist. Mrs. Everdeen glanced at him and smiled, shifting her path to walk closer to him. Even from where I was behind them I could see the smile it put on Dad's face. When we arrived at Dr. Lawrence's office the two of them stood in the hall, quietly speaking with Mrs. Lawrence while I followed Abbie into one of the exam rooms.
“I'm sorry about Manda,” she said softly, pausing midway through taking my blood pressure.
“Um—th-thanks,” I said, unsure of how else to react. Manda had died the night before, finally succumbing to an infection from a days-old snakebite and reducing the field to eight remaining tributes. Wade was still among them. Rye had just switched off the television and muttered something about being grateful no one would show up and try to interview our mother. I couldn't help but wonder what was going on at the Tate's. Abbie offered a sad smile, finishing her tests and notes before slipping out the door to pass off her clipboard to the doctor. Dad and Mrs. Everdeen stepped into the room, with Dr. Lawrence close behind them.
Mrs. Everdeen had been to appointments with me before, but it had been a long time since the last one, and a lot of things had changed since then. It was already bad enough to have a full audience, but adding a woman to it made it much worse. A woman who happened to be my girlfriend's mother. I could feel myself tensing just a the thought of it. I was so afraid that I missed the beginning of the conversation they were having about me.
“So his seizures are no longer controlled by his medication?” Dr. Lawrence said, looking down his nose at the notes before glancing back toward Mrs. Everdeen.
“That's right, although it's more that they're getting worse,” Mrs. Everdeen said. I sighed, scratching my fingers up under the edge of my hat. My eyes drifted up toward the water stain in the corner of the ceiling as I braced myself for another round of being spoken about as if I weren't even in the room. “It's not that they've just returned; they're more frequent.”
“And worse,” Dad tacked on. He reached over and squeezed my knee. I startled, not quite prepared for the contact, and he grimaced and mouthed an apology.
“Worse how?” Dr. Lawrence asked, looking up from the clipboard at my father.
“I haven't seen it myself, but Katniss described one to me,” Mrs. Everdeen said. “She said his eyes rolled back and he went rigid, and started having convulsions in his arms and shoulders. She said the movements were relatively small and he was sitting down already, so he didn't collapse. It lasted a minute or two. Once it passed he yawned deeply, had some difficulty speaking, and was confused and disoriented for a few minutes.” Dr. Lawrence nodded, taking a step toward me. I straightened up as he pulled a small flashlight from his pocket. The spots from when Abbie had shined hers in my eyes hadn't even cleared and he did it again.
“Has anything else changed, Peeta?” he asked. “Your headaches worsened at all?”
“No,” I said, squeezing my eyes closed and covering them with my hand to try to relieve the pain from the light as soon as he switched it off. “I've b-been more tired, I guess.”
“Are you sleeping more or is it just fatigue?” he asked.
“F-fatigue,” I said.
“He slept for about a week after the Reaping,” Dad pointed out.
“I think every kid in the District did,” Dr. Lawrence said, a faint smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Do you hear or smell things that people you're with don't?”
“Um—smell,” I said. “S-sometimes. I th-think.”
“What do you smell?” he asked, flipping through a couple of pages on the clipboard to make notes.
“Smoke,” I said. He nodded, finishing what he was writing before looking up at me.
“And you are still taking the medication, correct?” Dr. Lawrence raised an eyebrow, that smirk still present.
“Yes,” I said, unable to stop myself from rolling my eyes.
“I'll back him up on that one,” Dad said. “He's been much better about his meds.”
“Good,” Dr. Lawrence said. “Have you found them helpful?” he teased, looking down at his notes again, “I do actually know what I'm doing from time to time, you know. I'm not going to bother asking about your panic attacks, given the time of year. Or...” he sighed, shaking his head. “Not a very good time to deal with the psychological side of things, is it? Or any of the rest of this. Hm. We'll keep it brief. How's your appetite?”
“Fine,” I said, trying to remember when my last appointment with him had been, and what my answer was then. “B-better.”
“Is the ducosate working out better than the bisacodyl?” he asked, barely even looking up from his notes.
“Yes,” I said, staring at the floor as it dawned on me that he was going to push through this line of questioning with Mrs. Everdeen still in the room. It had been a while since she'd covered any of this, and since then she'd gotten a better idea of exactly what Katniss and I did in our spare time.
“Any changes in sexual function?” he asked.
“No,” I forced out quietly, my face burning.
“Really?” Mrs. Everdeen asked. Dad shifted in his chair. “Maybe we should ask Katniss about that one.” I just pressed my eyes closed for a moment, glancing at her as she shifted her stare from me to my father. The look on his face was probably identical to the one on mine. We both wanted to find a hole somewhere to crawl into and hide from her. I couldn't help but wonder who she was more angry at.
“Oh,” Dr. Lawrence looked up from his notes. “So you're sexually active now?” He didn't even bother hiding the surprise in his voice, and I couldn't stop myself from feeling insulted by it. “Now, has that-” he cut himself off, finally picking up on the tension in the room. He looked over at my father and then to Mrs. Everdeen. “Right. Let's save the domestic issues for later, please.”
“No issues, doctor,” Mrs. Everdeen held up her hands before folding her arms across her chest, her glare at my father remaining utterly unchanged. I couldn't help but feel relieved that Dad seemed to be the one in trouble.
“I need to do a bit of research before we do too much to treat these new seizures,” Dr. Lawrence said, turning back to his notes and scribbling something in silence for a moment. “It could also just be the stress of the past few weeks bringing them on, and if they cycle out on the regime you're currently on I'd like to stick with it, as it's had the fewest side effects thus far.”
I woke a few days later to laughter downstairs, and as I dressed and took my medication I was able to distinguish Katniss, Gale, Madge, and Delly's voices along with Rye and my father's.
“So you're starting to get it now,” Rye said as I made my way downstairs. “What I've been living with my entire fucking life.”
“Yes,” Gale said before turning toward my father. Katniss looked over at me with a warm smile on her face, holding out her hand as I approached. “I just don't understand how he's even your son, Twain.”
“Gale started his new job,” Katniss explained quietly, slipping her arm around my waist and leaning against me. Before school ended, Madge had talked about the job her father lined up for Gale, doing more or less the same thing Phyl did for the District. Phyl had spent plenty of time complaining about the man Gale was replacing, and I had no doubt the next time Phyl stopped by we'd hear plenty about Gale, as well. “The other guy retired a month ago, so Phyl has to train him.”
“He's just-” Gale cut himself off, gesturing futily.
“He's an asshole,” Dad supplied with a chuckle. “I know he is, you can say it. Most of my kids are.” Dad looked over at me and winked.
“Yeah, I'm the good one,” Rye hooked his arm around Delly's waist and pulled her into his lap. Dad just scoffed, rolling his eyes and turning back to the sink to resume washing the pans soaking in it.
“Sure you are,” Madge said, leaning forward and snatching one of the biscuits off the plate sitting in the middle of the table.
“Maybe you and Rye can join forces to make his life miserable so Madge and I don't have to put up with you two making things so painful every time we want to hang out together,” Delly said, flashing a smile at Gale as she draped her arms around Rye's shoulders.
“It would be nice if we could stop worrying about your cat fights, girls,” Madge smirked, offering half of the biscuit to Gale.
The day wore on into the afternoon, and I realized that it was the first time we had all hung out without any sort of tension. It was certainly the first time Madge had spent any time in the bakery that didn't involve having to drag her boyfriend away before things turned unpleasant. Rye and Gale had finally established a sort of peace through their common bond of despising Phyl, and even I felt at ease. I barely spoke, but I didn't need to. Being there with my friends was enough. For the first time since my injury, I found myself feeling not quite so alone in a crowd.
Wade was the last to die in the Arena. The excitement of coming so close to having a Victor after so long had rippled to every corner of the District. It took three days for the boy from Two to finally track him down and another day of fighting that he just barely survived himself. Nearly everyone poured into town when Manda and Wade's bodies were returned, and most businesses, the bakery included, closed for the duration of the funerals. Dad went, but Katniss, Rye and I stayed home, choosing to avoid the crowd and instead watch what the rest of Panem was seeing. We packed side by side on the couch in front of the television. It worked out for the best, since not one of the three of us could stop ourselves from laughing as Effie Trinket struggled to cope with the legion of ragged, barefooted Maynards that turned up for the proceedings.
“They are terrifying,” Rye said. Interviews with the family had been kept to a purposeful minimum. Asa had stopped into the bakery shortly after the first camera crew arrived and laughed about how appalled they'd been by the Maynards' sheer existence. “How many of them are there?”
“You know that northern corner of the Seam past the old mine?” Katniss asked, vaguely drawing the shape of the District's northern border in the air with her finger. Rye nodded, and I did my best to dredge up the memory of what our district actually looked like. “That's theirs. Not in the sense that, y'know, no one can visit. It's just that no one really wants to.”
“All of it?” Rye cocked an eyebrow, and she nodded. He snorted, dropping his head against the back of the couch as he laughed. If I remembered right, that was nearly a quarter of the residential portion of the Seam, and the sheer number of them following the black painted pine box stamped with the Capitol seal from the train to the cemetery on the outskirts of town started to make a little more sense.
“They're nice enough, mostly,” she said, talking over some commentary on the pride the families felt about having their children chosen. The propaganda turned my stomach. “They're just a little—I don't know. Clannish? And intense. I mean, if Wade couldn't finish that Cato guy I don't think there's a single person in Twelve who could.”
As soon as coverage cut away to recaps of the Games Katniss leaned forward to switch off the television. Without a word, Rye got up and moved it back to the corner where it would stay until next year before going into his bedroom and kicking his door shut behind him.
“Feeling up for a walk?” Katniss asked.
“Are you g-going to drag me into the woods again?” I asked. She nodded. “Then yes—d-definitely.”
“Come on,” she clapped her hand against my knee, pushing up to her feet before turning around and holding her hands out to me to pull me up with her. It was still early, and we didn't know quite how long the funerals would take. I left a note for Dad, letting him know where we'd gone, and hoped that either we'd be home before he decided to reopen or Rye wouldn't take off before he did. Katniss went into the storefront as I wrote with her bag over her shoulder and returned as I finished, tucking a paper bag inside.
We took a different route out of town, skirting as far from the cemetery as possible to avoid bumping into anyone. Katniss and I followed the fence further into the Seam than the last time, slipping through the fence in a spot with less tree cover but still out of sight of anything but a skeletal, collapsing shed. She explained the caution her father had taught her; never developing habits that could be tracked, using different points of entry and exit whenever possible, and never passing through the fence in sight of someone's home, whether they were living there legally or not. She said squatters were even more likely to turn informant in exchange for the peacekeepers overlooking their own lawbreaking.
“Most of them don't care, though,” she said, passing me the water skin she'd brought along as we stopped to rest. “Cray cares the least and he's supposed to be in charge. Darius definitely doesn't. He told me the only reason he dragged your brother home that time was because he though it'd be funny to watch Twain yell at him.”
“He was r-right,” I smirked, handing the water back to her. She laughed, tucking it back into her bag and taking my hand as we continued the hike. It was far hotter than our first trip out had been, but the walk didn't feel as strenuous. It may have just been less of a climb, but it still made me feel better about my own strength. She disguised our stops to rest as excuses to point out one of her snares, or to stop and gather the few pitifully small blackberries that were just barely surviving the beginnings of the summer drought. We reached the top of the hill at a different point than our last visit; the grass was longer and more coarse, yellowed from the heat and the lack of rain in the past weeks. Even the summer thunderstorms that usually whipped through every afternoon had been few and far between. I stood leaning on my cane, looking out over the valley as Katniss walked ahead of me, pulling a blanket from her bag and spreading it in a spot where the tall grass was already mostly tamped down and broken.
We sat side by side, watching thick white clouds roll by overhead and whistling increasingly complicated tunes for the mockingjays to imitate, laughing to each other on the rare occasion we managed to trip them up. Katniss had brought muffins for us to share, and when they were gone I laid down, wrapping my arms around her as she settled her head on my chest.
The peace of the woods felt like such a stark contrast to what was going on back inside the fence. Two families were burying their children, and it wasn't very long ago I was so afraid I would have been one of the people watching someone I loved being lowered into the ground. I had to force the thought of the two remaining Reapings Katniss and I had ahead of us out of my mind.
“I love you,” I said, tightening my arms around her for a moment and pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
Katniss turned toward me, pulling my hat off to comb her fingers through my hair before lowering her lips to mine. I smiled into the kiss, the expression fading as I opened my mouth to hers and she shifted on top of me, straddling my hips as her tongue moved against mine. I pulled the hem of her shirt up as we kissed, smoothing my hands over her warm, bare skin. She felt so perfect in my arms, the faint sweetness of the blackberries still clinging to her tongue only making her taste better, and as she settled her weight on my growing erection I wished I'd had the foresight to bring a condom with me. I wanted her, but I was happy to settle for the next best thing to being inside of her.
I reached between us and unbuttoned her pants, lifting my head to deepen our kiss. She moaned softly as I slipped my hand into her underwear, and the feel of her wetness under my fingertips made my head swim. I rubbed against her clit, watching her face as she pulled back from my lips just far enough to gasp for breath. Her jaw dropped as I pushed two fingers into her, moving them in her for a moment before pulling back to rub her clit again. Katniss leaned down and kissed me hungrily, rolling her hips against my hand.
“Peeta,” she breathed, pulling back and reaching for her hunting bag. I kissed her neck as she fumbled around in it for a moment, and she gently pulled my hand from her pants before rolling to the side and dropping a condom on my chest. “I know you didn't think of that.”
“I'm g-glad you did,” I said, watching her lift her hips to push off her pants. I watched her as I undressed, amazed at how much more beautiful she looked in the sun; the deep brown and gold it brought out in her dark hair, the glow it gave to her skin. I rolled the condom on before settling myself on top of her, cupping her breast in my palm and kissing her softly.
“I love you,” she said, sliding her hands to my waist as I reached between us to guide myself into her. She felt hot and tight and perfect, and I dropped my face to the crook of her neck, burying a moan against her skin as I rocked my hips. Katniss hiked her legs up to my waist, tilting herself toward me and drawing me deeper. I hooked my arm around her hips, pulling her closer and pressing slow, wet kisses to her throat as she tilted her head back. I loved the feel of her moans vibrating against my lips, her hands on my back holding me against her. She said my name as I dragged my lips to her breasts, wrapping her legs around my waist as I scraped my teeth and tongue against her nipple. I pumped into her, truly losing myself in it for the first time without fear of being caught, moaning along with her as she tightened around me.
I felt her fingertips against my cock and looked down to find her rubbing her clit. I leaned back, watching for a moment before nudging her hand aside to do it myself. I wanted to be the one to make her come, and her pussy clamped around me as soon as I replaced her fingers with my thumb. Katniss' jaw dropped, her back arched, and she shuddered beneath me, crying out as she came. Her walls pulsed around my cock, dragging me over the edge with her as she reached for me. Katniss pulled me into a hard, deep kiss as my hips bucked against her, and I moaned into her mouth as I emptied into the condom.
I rested my forehead against hers, waiting for the valley to stop spinning around me before I collapsed onto my back beside her. I closed my eyes, scooping my arm around her to pull her against me. Katniss laid her head on my chest, taking my free hand in hers and lacing our fingers together. Neither of us spoke, and I don't think we needed to. In that moment, for the first time since my injury, I felt like none of it mattered. I didn't care that I wouldn't make it back without both the cane and Katniss beside me in case it wasn't enough. I didn't care that the exertion of the day would have me laid up in bed for at least a day afterward. I didn't care about anything but having her there with me. As we caught our breath, I tried to think of a way to say it to her and came up completely empty.
Hours had passed by the time we started back toward the District, and I knew my hope of getting back before Dad opened up the bakery for the afternoon was long gone. Katniss and I talked about how we'd spend the remaining couple of weeks before school started again, walking as close as we possibly could without tripping over each other. I kept a tight hold on her hand, though once we were out of the woods and back on the comparatively even ground of the District I didn't need to rely on her for balance quite as much as I thought I would. When we got back to the bakery we found Dad and Mrs. Everdeen in the kitchen, standing awkwardly a few feet apart and staring straight at us when we stepped in from the mudroom.
“I was wondering when you two would be back,” Dad said, an odd smile on his face as he glanced toward Mrs. Everdeen.
“Katniss, could you, um, take care of a bit of shopping I need done?” Mrs. Everdeen said, stepping around the table and pulling a list and a bag of coins from the pocket of her dress. Katniss raised an eyebrow, wordlessly accepting the list and the money as her mother all but ushered us back the way we came. “And take Peeta with you. Please.”
“Okay,” she said, looking at me before casting a look back over her shoulder at her mother. I bit my lip, holding back laughter as she closed the back door behind us. Katniss sighed, looking back toward the house as we rounded the corner of the bakery toward the square.
“I think we int—interrupted something,” I chuckled, taking her hand and lacing our fingers together.
“Could they possibly be any more obvious,” Katniss rolled her eyes, looking over the shopping list her mother had handed her.
“Why d-does their relationship bother you so much?” I asked, smirking at the scowl on her face.
“It's not that it bothers me,” she said, dropping the list to her side and sighing. “I don't know. It's just weird. Isn't it weird to you?”
“Seeing my d-dad happy isn't weird—it's nice,” I said, taking her hand in mine as we crossed the square to the apothecary. “He hasn't b-been in a long time.” Katniss paused as she opened the door to the shop, looking at me for a moment with a small smile on her face before going in.
Lee Whitaker was sitting behind the counter, a vacant, bored look on his face and a book laying open in front of him. I'd completely forgotten that his family owned the shop and did my best to steel myself for whatever shit he'd try to sling in my direction as we approached the counter. He looked up from his book, recognition flashing across his face for a moment.
“Hey,” he said, his voice and expression carefully neutral. His mother stepped out from the back, a warm smile spreading across her face when she saw Katniss.
“Did Lavender send you in her place today?” Mrs. Whitaker stepped forward, holding her hand out for the list Katniss had brought.
“Yeah,” Katniss handed the list over, briefly raising her eyebrows. “She's busy.”
“I'll be right back,” Mrs. Whitaker chuckled, taking the list and disappearing into the back again.
“Kinda nuts about that Maynard kid, huh?” Lee said awkwardly after a moment of tense silence. “Almost thought we were going to have a Victor.”
“The Maynards can be a little scary,” Katniss said. Lee chuckled, scratching the back of his neck and glancing toward the open door to one side, his brother's laughter echoing from somewhere else in the building.
“Listen, Peet,” he turned back to us, folding his arms against the edge of the counter. “I'm sorry. I was a dick. My brother's a dumbass and Merx is an asshole, and I'm sorry it took me this long to figure it out. I shouldn't have said the shit I did.” I straightened up, staring at him for a moment and trying to figure out how to respond. I glanced at Katniss for help, but her face was unreadable. “Sorry. You don't have to say anything. And I know we're not going to be friends or anything; it's fine. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Um—thank you,” I said. Lee nodded before pulling his book closer and resuming his reading as his mother returned from the back, a small box in hand.
“Here you go,” Mrs. Whitaker slid the box across the counter to Katniss, the list resting on top. “There's an extra bottle of peppermint oil in there to make up for being out the last time she stopped in. And let her know she owes me a visit.”
“Thanks,” Katniss said. After she paid for the order we left, and I glanced back from the doorway, watching Lee shrug off an affectionate kiss from his mother before we walked out the door. Katniss looked down at the list, tucking the box under her arm and ignoring my offer to carry it for her. “That was a little weird. And awkward.”
“Yeah,” I smirked, shrugging off the look she was giving me. “He's, um—the smarter of the t-two of them.”
“Well, that's nice. I guess,” she said. I shrugged again.
“What else?” I asked, nodding toward the list. She passed it to me, and the two of us worked our way through the rest of it, saving a stop at the sweet shop and a visit with Darla's sisters for last. The exertion from the day and the thickening heat of the afternoon finally caught up to me, and I tugged her toward the front door, in desperate need of some fresh air.
“Are you okay?” Katniss asked as we stepped outside.
“I'm fine,” I said, taking a slow breath and wiping a bead of sweat off my brow. “It's j-just—hot.”
“Do you mind if I go back inside and get something for Prim before we head back?” she asked, gesturing back toward the shop. “I meant to on the way out.”
“Go,” I said, nodding back toward the door. She smiled, leaning in to kiss me and setting down her bag by my feet before going back inside. I picked up the bag, moving back into the shade of the canopy in front of the building to wait for her. As I leaned against the side of the building the familiar sound of sharp little footsteps approaching caught my attention, my heart dropping to my feet before I even turned to look.
“What the hell are you doing?”
I found myself face to face with my mother and unable to speak, unable to even breathe. The last time I saw her this close she'd been raising a rolling pin. I pressed my eyes closed, shrinking back against the wall, my shoulders hunching forward involuntarily. A tiny, pitiful noise escaped my throat and I dropped the bag by my feet.
“I asked you a god damn question,” she hissed, stopping inches from my face. “I am still your mother and you owe me an explanation for what the hell you are doing in public with that girl.”
“M-Mom,” I squeezed out, struggling to suck in a lungful of the stiflingly hot afternoon air.
“Is there any end to the humiliation you and that asshole you call a father will put me through?” she said, something unfamiliar creeping in around the anger in her voice. I opened my eyes to look at her; her lip quivering, tears gathering in her eyes. “Parading that woman around as if she's anything but a meddling whore and that disgusting scene he caused in the Justice Hall before poor Manda was taken and you.” She paused, poking me in the chest. I startled at the contact and bit down on my lip. “You're exactly like him and you always have been.”
“I—I know,” I said, pushing her hand down. She stared at the motion as if I'd set her hand on fire.
“So what do you have to say for yourself?” she said, her voice breaking, the corners of her mouth twisting into a hard frown. “What are you doing with that girl?”
The door to our left opened and Katniss stepped out onto the sidewalk, stopping short at the sight of my mother. Her shoulders dropped and her expression shifted to fury in an instant. I tilted my hand toward her, low and out of my mother's line of sight; the signal Rye and I had been using to ask each other to hold off on intervening for years. I just hoped she caught it and knew what I meant by it. I moved to stand between Katniss and my mother, cutting off their sight line and lowering my voice so only she could hear.
“I'm going to marry her, Mom,” I said softly. “Th-that's what I'm doing with her.” She blinked at me, her tears finally spilling over. Her jaw worked uselessly for a moment before she spun away, stalking off in the direction she'd came. I stood and watched her until she disappeared between the hardware store and the Tate's clothing shop, and let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding.
“Are you okay?” Katniss asked quietly, stepping up beside me and taking my hand in hers.
“Yeah,” I said, and I meant it.