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Before Dawn

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Chapter 1- Dusk

By the time he finds me my tears have already dried out.

Why? Why did she have to go? And where?

It’s from the laboring in my nights that comes the exhaustion in my days. I never rest. The task of mourning for so many dead never ends.

But my Primrose, my sweet, loving, kind Prim, returns to me every night, before the cruel, cold reality that is now my life demands that she is torn away from me again. So in effect, every morning is just like the first.

Where? And why? There is no anger left in me- I just don’t have the energy anymore. Maybe it would be easier if Snow or Coin was still alive, in a way. Then at least I would have something to fight for.

But there is no one left to die.

Peeta approaches me slowly- as if he is worn out, physically tired from the journey it took to find me. Which I suppose might be accurate as I didn’t exactly leave a note in my haste to escape the suffocating darkness of my house. His face is flushed, pink cheeked with the same blush as the little boy I used to catch watching me in school wore. But the expressions there can no longer be compared to that of a boy’s.

He sits down heavily beside me, and we quietly watch the rippling water of The Lake undulate. How peaceful it must be to be something other than alive, I think to myself. How simple.

“Are you cold?” he asks. His voice is rough and textured, the way it always is in the mornings. It’s strange how I find this odd piece of detail marginally comforting. Routine, says a voice in my head. You see him every day.

It’s true. Every morning both he and Greasy Sae come over, bearing offerings of food and attempts to turn my huge cold kitchen into a warm, conversational display. The first time he came I nearly tripped down the stairs in shock. How domestic, how normal they made it seem. And I guess, after a while, I began to accept it. That they had to try.

“No.” I tell Peeta, even though I am cold. When I ran here, before dawn, I was a fish racing to the surface of the water, and I hadn’t thought to get dressed in anything other than my thin dressing gown and a rough, worn shawl, both hardly sufficing as a match for the biting cool air of dawn in Twelve.

I pick at a piece of moss with my fingernail as his eyes trace the line of goose bumps down my arm, only looking up when I see him begin to shrug out of his jacket and hand it to me. I start to protest, but the look in his eyes silences me. I let him drape the thing around my shoulders.

The silence bears down on us, heavy and muffling, like a huge damp cloth snuffing out any hopes of conversation. If we were once allies, friends even, it sure doesn’t feel like it. It feels like everything has been sucked out of us, a broken corpse and a lost boy who cannot possibly save her again, and I close my eyes, because my head begins to hurt when I think about us too much. There is nothing left, though; that I am sure of, because even if he loved me, the Katniss he fell in love with is gone. She died in the fires that consumed her sister, and for the love of God I cannot summon any of the fire that was hers. She’s gone.

Eventually Peeta rises to his feet, sighing deeply. “I should get back now.” He hesitates. “Are you coming?” I look up at him blankly. “Katniss,” he exhales shakily. “You’re gonna freeze to death if you don’t go inside.”

“Oh.” I get up, my body slumping like a rag doll’s, and follow him. It’s no big deal. I can just come back out when he’s gone.

We walk in silence for the most part, with the exception of the thundering racket that has become customary whenever Peeta is in the woods. He occasionally glances at me, but with concern or exasperation I can’t tell.

We eventually reach the fence, the broken thing that really serves no purpose now other than a reminder of what used to be. What used to be. What used to be was something better, and like the aftertaste of lemons, all I can really remember is how sweet the good parts were. Maybe we weren’t happy then, not happy at all, but we were something better.

Peeta awkwardly works his way through the hole in the fence, and after we are both through, our little trip is essentially over. Back to sitting by the window in the tall cushioned chair, slowly rotting away inside the big shell that is my Victor’s mansion.

We don’t have much company, despite the few neighbours that were forced to move in. There simply wasn’t anywhere else still intact after the bombing, and they took the care to choose houses as far away from us as possible. The monsters may be dead, but the fear isn’t.

When we reach the Victor’s village, Peeta sends me one last fleeting look, before making his way back to his own house, to bake or whatever the hell he does. I can’t bring myself to go back into mine though, so I stand there, lost and confused, waiting for the breeze to blow me away like the dust swirling silently down the pavement. A movement in the corner of my vision catches my eye – a broken bottle lying between the daisies has caught the sun just right. Haymitch.

I haven’t talked to him since we got back here for the first time. Something nudges me forward, telling me to go check on him.

I make my way up the dirtied path that leads up to his house, not bothering to knock on the door before letting myself in. The moment I make it past the threshold the stench of rot and alcohol and other vile things that I don’t want to think about hits me like a brick wall. I hold my breath and beg my empty stomach to stop heaving.

It seems like everything in the house is wearing a coat of dust, and when I enter the lounge I see dirty plates cluttered everywhere, along with countless empty bottles. Haymitch is not doing well.

I spot him slumped down on an armchair in the corner, dead to the world, knife still clutched relentlessly in his fist. So much for babysitting us, I think as my eyes scan the room, totally unsure of what I should do. I sigh and reach for a jug of water, simply because it’s all I know.

This should be fun.

I walk over to him and carefully stand at the side furthest from his knife, before pouring the entire contents onto him. The water rushes down his form, and he starts with a shout, brandishing his knife around pointlessly. “Aaaaargh!” he cries when he sees me, and then he collapses back into the armchair, muttering a string of expletives not so quietly.

“Hey.” I say, kicking his foot. “Thought you were supposed to be looking after us.”

“As if you need looking after.” He scoffs, but then his eyes roam through my tangled hair, my dirtied nightdress. “Go bother the boy,” he says after a moment. “Bet he’d love to take my job.”

I’m angry all of a sudden, really angry, and familiarity of the emotion rises up through me easily, as if it’s being welcomed home after all those weeks of absence. How can he just sit there, drinking, as if nothing has changed?! I grab a dirtied plate to my left and hurl it at the wall, its smash and Haymitch’s expressionless eyes only egging me on. “What is your PROBLEM?!” I scream, taking another plate and throwing it across the room. “We’re DYING HAYMITCH, I’m DYING! Don’t you even CARE?” This time I take a full bottle of booze in an attempt to provoke him, and fling it at the wall, watching the shards of glass and drink explode against the wall.

“They’re dead.” I croak, and then, just like that, the fierceness is gone, and I’m standing there panting and empty-handed, avoiding my Mentor’s eyes. I bite my lip and storm out of the house, not bothering to close the door behind me.

It’s not really Haymitch I’m angry at. I know that. But I can’t exactly throw dirty bottles at myself. I exhale roughly and ease open the brightly painted door of my house. I don’t bother locking it. Like I told myself before, the only danger is inside, not out.

I walk over to the Kitchen and pour myself a glass of water, wondering briefly where Haymitch gets all his liquor before I weakly scold myself. What a hypocrite.

As I turn around to lean back against the counter I feel a pair of eyes watching me, and I look up to find Peeta staring at me from behind a window in his house, those blue eyes burning bright against the shadows of late morning. They flit away, embarrassed, once I catch them, but I do not remove my own gaze. I intently study his dirtied apron, his rolled back sleeves, the freckles of green and blue and brown in his hair. Not baking. Painting.

He turns away, but the shadows conceal him immediately and I cannot see where he is going or why he was watching me. I sigh and take a long sip from my glass, watching the way the light hits the water.


Prim. My little duck is standing, alive, so very alive and well, across the plaza. I begin to walk across the stone towards her, where she leans over, tending to the sick. I can feel my heart pounding, racing with disbelief and elation, when I see the beast. It’s huge, ugly and monstrous, the very personification of horror. The mutt begins to charge towards her, towards my Prim before I’ve even had a chance to talk to her, fangs bared, blood streaming down its jaw. No! I think. No, not again, please! I’m running, but the air has become as thick as mud and I can’t reach her, I just can’t. A terror like no other seizes me, a jagged electric chill washing through me, and the mutt is upon her and she turns-

“Aaaaaagh!” I open my eyes and bolt up, fisting the duvet in my sweaty hands under my knees. “PRIM!!!” I scream. “Priiimm?!!” I see nothing but darkness, and as I register the tears streaming down my face, I remember. “Oh!” I gasp. “Oh!”

I can’t stay in this room, in this bed a moment longer. Death is leaning into me on all sides, like the fog in the Quarter Quell, and I bury my wet face in my hands, stifling my wails with my palms.

I scramble up and out of the clutches of the duvet, running barefooted through to the attached bathroom. I turn the lights on – vainly hoping that the haunted images reeling through my mind can be as easily dismissed as the darkness- but the bright, artificial glare only exposes my red, blotchy face, with the hair of a madwoman.

I let out a shaky breath as I tear my eyes away from the mirror, fighting the oncoming hyperventilating. Not real, Katniss. Not real.

But the woman in the mirror is real, and so is her madness; those crazed eyes, puffy and bruised from nightmares, swiveling helplessly as she grasps onto the edge of the sink, cold sweat running down her spine. I’m worse than Peeta was, I think. I’m worse than everything.

Choking, I turn on the tap and reach down to splash the cold water over my face. I suddenly realise how thirsty I am, and begin to gulp down the water greedily from my cupped hands, nearly coughing in my eagerness. I towel my wet face and turn back to the bedroom, avoiding the mirror’s cool gaze.

When I enter the bedroom, I notice a peek of sunshine filtering in across the edge of the bed and blink. Dawn.

I’m momentarily confused, because normally my nightmares occur earlier in the night, but clearly not today. At that moment I hear a steady thumping across the hallway, and turn just in time to see Peeta, gently knocking and swinging his head round the door.

“Katniss?” he says. “I finished baking and saw your light on.” His eyes scan over my red-rimmed eyes, wild hair and thin nightgown. “Are you okay?”

“What?” I ask, confused. I push a piece of hair away from my face and cross my ankles over nervously. “Yes- I’m fine.”

He says nothing, just pierces me with those blue, blue eyes, so wide and vibrant and deep. I feel like I’m dreaming, dazed but not unhappy. No, this is no bad dream. Not anymore. There is Peeta, and right there is the sun.

“I brought breakfast.” He offers after a moment of silence. “Would you like to eat with me?”

My heart is beating and his eyes are warm, so I say yes and walk over to him. He pauses, ever so slightly, and then picks up an unwashed cardigan strewn across the sofa chair and wraps it round my shoulders.

I follow him down the stairs, and the scent of bread trails after him with me.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two- Knives

I sit down at the kitchen table and watch silently as Peeta starts to un-package the large plastic bag in front of me.

“Sae can’t join us today, by the way. Her niece just came back, so I said I’d take care of everything.” He looks up at me. “Is that ok?”

I shrug.

He pulls out two loaves of bread and some intricate-looking pastries with fancy icing on them, but I bow my head and stare down at my bare feet. He can’t know how pastries remind me of the bakery. How they remind me of Prim.

“Do you bake all night?” I say, and my voice is cracked and dull. I feel like the sound of it disturbs the silence I’ve become so well-acquainted with. Peeta must too, because his head snaps up in surprise and he looks at me, his gaze heavy on my skin.

“Yes.” He says after a moment. “A lot.” He doesn’t need to say anymore. I know.

He produces four cheesebuns from his magic bag then, and places them in front of me. I feel my heart miss a beat. The last time I had one of these we were still in Twelve, before the Quell, before the war. I’m surprised at how vividly my mind floods with memories- moments that were so fearful and pained then, and so bitter-sweet now. Meeting Bonnie and Twill in the woods. Making plans to run away. Kissing Gale after he was whipped. Peeta sketching in the plant book. Prim.

I look down at them, saying nothing.

“You remembered.” I croak out eventually, and I look up to find his eyes trained on me, an unfathomable expression across his features.

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “I…I remember a lot.” He says the last part quietly, but I know that he means for me to hear it.

He begins to eat, and I take one of the cheesebuns in my hands and shift it from palm to palm, before tearing off a small golden chunk and bringing it to my lips. I can feel his gaze on me, and I hesitate, before tentatively taking it in my mouth and beginning to chew.

It tastes just the same. As good as I remembered it, if not better. The soft, fluffy bread melts in my mouth, and to my shock, I feel my eyes begin to well up.

My vision of the oven becomes blurry as I beg the tears not to fall, but they do, and I turn my head away from Peeta so that he can’t see.

He’s at my side in a moment, although he seems almost ridiculously conscious of not touching me. “Katniss, what’s wrong?” he asks desperately, and I drop my head into my arms, hiding my face from the world.

Get out! I want to scream. Go away, please, if only for a moment. I can’t do this front of him. I can’t.

“Katniss…” I feel a hesitant hand at the base of my neck, rubbing in what I think is supposed to be a reassuring manner. But this just makes me cry harder, ugly, naked sobs racking up through my chest, because my Peeta would not have touched me like this. My Peeta would have gathered me up in his safe, warm arms and pulled me into his lap. He would have pressed kisses into my hair and murmured sweet nothings into my ear that weren’t nothing, and would have calmed the world for me, could have warmed the cold abyss that is now my heart.

But this man is no longer my Peeta, and I can never be his Katniss.

“Katniss, I’m sorry, I never meant to-“

“Please.” I find my voice then, and interrupt him before he can say anything else I don’t want to hear. “Stop.”

I don’t know what I’m asking of him anymore, but somehow, he must. Because despite all of my expectations, I feel one of those gentle, warm arms encircle my shoulders, and my body goes rigid at his touch.

Thank you, I prayer silently, tears pouring down my face. My God, thank you.

Peeta doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t need to. There is nothing to be said. No pitiful promises to be made, no white lies to be cooed. But I’m okay with that. I’m glad.

My sobs have died down and I relish in the feel of his touch. It’s not like this is the first time we’ve touched since the war exactly, but it feels closer, and then I realize that this is the first time since he arrived in District 13 that Peeta has seen me cry.

I take in a deep, shuddery breath and slowly sit up, not bothering to hide my swollen eyes from him. Loathe as I am to doing so, I still awkwardly extricate myself from his arms, avoiding those pitiful blue eyes.

“I should get dressed.”

I can feel his concerned gaze follow me as I disappear around the corner.

On step at a time. One foot in front of the other. I only make it to my bedroom before I crumple down on the floor, my back pressed up against the cool, smooth surface of the wooden cabinet. I stare ahead, watching the dust motes swim through the sunlight.

There is some rustling and thumping downstairs, and I assume Peeta has gone. But a few moments later I hear a knock at my door, and I look up to see a pair of wide blue eyes.

“Sorry, I just wanted to make sure you were ok.” He says, but begins to frown as his eyes run up and down my haggard form, still clad with my nightgown from breakfast. “Katniss,” he says, coming over to crouch down in front of me. “Are you ok?”

NO! A part of me wants to scream. Of course I’m not ok! Not now, not ever! But the more dominant part of me, so heavy that I am forced to collapse in a corner under its weight, is just sitting there, tasting that word. Okay? What does it mean anymore, to be okay?

I’m not okay. I’m ill. I’m sad and broken and torn. I’m a poor, mad girl from District Twelve who has just lost her sister and most of her friends. I will never be okay.

But instead of telling Peeta any of this, I just whisper, “Yes.”

His eyes run over me once more, and he sighs.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” I shake my head and he eventually stands up, walking over to the door. “Katniss, I…” he pauses, one hand resting on the edge of the door, his mouth parted as he hesitates.

But he doesn’t say it. He closes his mouth and tells me he’s just across the road if I need him, and then, with a forced smile, he’s gone. Off to make more offensively- intricate pastries and paint paintings I’d rather forget.

I moan quietly and drop my head back against the cabinet, relishing in the sharp stab of pain that shoots through my skull.

 


 

Do you know what it’s like? To be buried alive in your own pain? To drown in the memories of your loved ones dying, to be unable to move from the floor for the whole day, cemented to the ground in despair?

No one knows what it’s like. Inexplicable it is- the pain is inexplicable. It’s like someone poured acid down my throat, or smashed in my skull with a rock. It’s like dying from thirst in a room full of people who have glasses of water in their hands. It’s like being torn, limb from limb, by a pack of fanged nightmares. It’s like being trapped awake on a surgeons table, utterly paralysed as they proceed to cut open my organs. It’s like exploding.

There are a lot of ways to be in pain- a lot of ways to die. But I think sadness might be the worst of them all.

 


 

When Peeta comes back for dinner, I start screaming at him and eventually wind up shattering the ornaments arranged on top of the cabinet around his feet.

“Katniss, what’s wrong?!” he yells at me as I reach for a clay statue of a horse. “Katniss, please talk to me!”

“Get out!” I scream, hurling the horse in his direction. “JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”

The moment he finally leaves I feel my palms fall open to the ground, and without even a chance to catch my breath, I burst into tears.

I suppose it was coming on anyway. But this time my gasps are too shallow, too painful, and I find that I can’t breathe. My head is pounding. There is a sharp stabbing sensation running up the center of my chest, and I clutch my middle, curling up into a defenseless ball as I rock back and forth.

I can’t take it anymore. It’s too much. Too much.

I think of the look on Peeta’s face, the desperation and shock and pain in his voice when he called my name, asking me to please stop, to talk to him, and I wail loudly, a shredded, heart-breaking, broken sound keening out of me, tearing its way up through my throat. I think of Rue, and her mockingjay, the feel of her little heart thudding hopefully against mine as I held her beneath the fake stars. I think of her grin, eyes bright and young, and I can’t help it when I think of the spear through her stomach, her quick breaths and trickling tears as her eyes latched onto mine with the light inside of them dying.

I think of Cinna, of the way he held me, grounded me, reassured me that everything would be okay. I think of his gold eyeliner and twinkling eyes and the approving nod of his head after I tried on one of his masterpieces. I think of the blood stains on his jacket.

I think of my Dad, the smell of pine and leather and happiness, of the kisses he exchanged with my mother and the ones he pressed to my chubby, and then hollow, cheeks. I think of his hands on mine as he positioned me with the bow that became me, and taught me how to shoot for the first time.

I think of his song voice, cutting through the woods like a shard of moonlight in the middle of day, like an arrow that pierced my mother’s heart. I think of the coal dust that stained my ten-year-old fingertips as I kneeled over on that fateful day, reaching for my Dad through the ground, wanting him to hear my prayer, craving a piece of him back. Oh Dad, I think as I dig my teeth into the heels of my hands and feel saltwater trickle over my tongue…If you could see your little girl now.

And I think of Prim. Last of all, I think of my little duck, of the sister that stayed up all night with me, exchanging secrets beneath the holey covers, of the giggling baby that I tickled and sang to sleep when I was five, of the young women that I watched her mature into, with her gentle head held high, her kind eyes and her healing hands that brushed tears from my face. I think of the pink in her cheeks when she told me of her first crush, and the design for her wedding dress she drew and showed me at six, and I think of her laugh and blood on her pinafore, and of bombs and the recognition in her eyes before-

 

 

I’m sobbing so loudly I’m surprised I can hear myself think, but it still doesn’t stop.

I think of Finnick, of Madge, of the Baker, of Boggs and Cressida and Mesalla and a little girl in a yellow coat, screaming and crying over her dead mother, clutching onto her collar before a streak of red cuts through her mid-wail. I’m thinking of everything, everything that I’ve seen and done- a landscape of tears and blood and unhappy endings- and then I’m thinking of nothing, nothing at all. Nothing but the inescapable agony.

My tears eventually subside, but the pain doesn’t. It feels like a thousand blades, slicing through my lungs, a million tracker jackers planting poison in my heart, a hundred jabberjays screeching in my ears.

Nobody knows what it’s like. No one ever realizes how much one person can hurt until they’re in it.

I’m not afraid when I find my cheek pressed against the cold, hard floor of the bathroom. I’m not afraid when I slowly, but inevitably, crawl over to the edge of the bath.

Because when you already live in hell, it is not possible to fear death.

I reach over and twist the little knob on the sleek, silver tap, freeing the water to gush out in a roaring waterfall over the white plastic.

I stand up and pull my clothes off, stepping into the round, vast tub. I wait until the water laps over my ribs before reaching for the knife.

It still lies there, cold and unquestioning, from when I last pared off my fingernails at Greasy Sae’s suggestion. I take it now, smoothing my fingertips over the metallic surface, examining the way it glints this way and that under the artificial light. Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen, it seems to whisper. I thought we agreed not to lie to each other.

My hand doesn’t shake as I hold out my left arm, pale and translucent now. I ghost the knife edge over my wrist, right above where I can see a vein. It’s funny how I always assumed pain left you right before the end. I always thought you were supposed to be numb.

But there is no such relief for me.

I press the knife down, sliding it across the length of my frail wrist.

Blood. That’s the first thing I register. So much blood- and so bright. It trickles at first, leaving a vibrant, crimson path in its wake. And then it begins to stream, gush, pour out of the thin even line beneath my palm, down my arm, dripping onto my bare breasts, my stomach, my thighs, the bath water. Suddenly, I’m sitting in a mosaic of streaky scarlet.

And still my breathing is even.

The hand with the knife edges over to the painted flesh of my arm once more and teasingly traces a path parallel to the first. Isn’t there another way?

I close my eyes.

“Katniss…” I shudder as I hear my Father’s voice, luring me back into a distant memory, one so far away and jarring I thought it to be lost. I’m sitting on the ground beneath a yellow and bronze- leafed tree, weeping ashamed and angry tears into the muddied roots and my cracked hands. “Katniss,” comes my Father’s voice again. He is crouching in front of me, a hand on my shoulder and the other under my chin, beckoning me to meet his eyes. “Katniss, my love, don’t cry.” He says, and I look up to the softest, purest grey eyes I’ve ever seen in my whole life. The sun is cracking over my shoulder, and the amber light hits us just right, so that I can actually see the black rims around his irises, the distinct eclipse of his pupils.

We’d been hunting all night, for this winter we were famished, and there was nothing left to eat. The mines had been closed for over two weeks due to a recent accident with the lift, and that meant no pay. No pay and no food.

My Father had taken me hunting, deciding he could at least provide a distraction for one of his daughters from being hungry, but we’d found little. The animals were scarce- having either already disappeared into hibernation or from hiding from the sharp wind inside their little warm burrows- and despair had been thick in our throats. Until five minutes ago.

My Father had spotted a deer, a whole round deer, plump and bright. A deer that size could have fed us for weeks, let alone buy us all the bread we needed! My Father had raised his bow to shoot- he was the best shot in the whole of Panem- and was just about to send the arrow flying when I stumbled and fell backwards, startling the deer and chasing it into the undergrowth, out of our reach. My Father’s arrow went flying a second too late, and instead of striking the animal that would have saved our lives, it struck the empty, fruitless trunk of a tree.

“Oh, Katniss,” says my Father, brushing away a strand of damp hair and pressing his thumb against a tear. “You’re forgiven. You’re a million times forgiven. I love you.”

 

I open my eyes. The bright light causes me to blink fervently, and my breathing is now laboured. Oh, Dad.

My gaze drops to the steel edge still pressed against my arm, and this time it is not my Father’s voice I hear, but my own. I’m on that beach again, the one in the Quarter Quell, and there is a presence behind me.

“I do,” I hear myself say as the cerulean ocean laps up onto my feet. “I need you.”

I need you. The seconds tick by, and then something in my chest flutters ever so slightly.

And I know.

I push myself up out of the bath, the still water suddenly splitting and crashing over the sides boisterously to let me through, and I drop the knife behind me with a- splash! - as I stand. Water drips down from my naked body as I cross the room, covering every tile in evidence, but I don’t care. I grab the nearest towel and press it hard against my wrist, tying it off as tightly as I can. I then stumble weakly into my room, collapsing on the bed and wrapping myself up in duvet to dry me off. I feel so tired though, and before I can do more, a certain darkness draws me in and claims me.


 

 

When I wake I’m damp and cold, and there is an unrelenting throbbing in my left arm. I blink, trying to adjust to my surroundings when I feel the fluffy surface of the towel. Oh. I grind my teeth together as an onslaught of memories rush back to me.

I push myself up in a strained motion and slowly unravel my make-shift bandage. It hurts, something I didn’t notice at the time, but it’s hard to ignore now. I pull back the towel and try to examine my cut in the faint moonlight.

It’s not stopped bleeding. That’s the first thing I notice. The white material of the towel is completely covered in dramatic splatters of browns and reds. I bite my lip at the bloody sight of my wrist.

And then I remember something my Mother told me, such a long time ago, when my Father was still alive and the word “mother” still meant “care-taker”.

“Use flour,” she had said, smiling down at a six-year-old-me. She bent down and gently kissed the edge of my scraped knee. “It always stops bleeding.”

I roll off the bed and weakly make my way downstairs, draping my fingertips through the shadows for support. Stumbling into the kitchen, I reach down and start rummaging through the draws. I vaguely remember Peeta leaving a bag around here once when Greasy Sae’s granddaughter asked him how to make cupcakes.

I curse as I bang my knuckles against the edge of a counter, sending shocks down to my cut. I could turn on the light, but there is something about waking up in the darkness like this that has disorientated me, and I find that I’m afraid to disturb the quiet of tonight.

My fingers graze along something smooth and papery, and with a flush of relief I pull it out and bring it to the table where a square of light has fallen, illuminating the pale cast of my skin. I bury my fingers into the flour and dust it all along my cut. After packing on an unreasonable amount, I brush the snowy fall outs off the table, and put the bag of flour back in the draw. Without even intending to, Peeta has just saved my life again.

I climb back upstairs and into my bed, curling up into the cold blankets until I become a ting, shivering ball in my cocoon, and pray for sleep to take me quickly.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 - Dream

A good dream. That night I have a good dream, and it’s so, so sweet that for a moment I actually believe that I accomplished my mission to die and have gone to that place called Heaven.

I’m in a field; a beautiful, floral-smelling field, lush with thick green grass and quenched with drops of dew scattered across the landscape like diamonds. I hear laughter, the sound of it like a bubbling little brook of delight, and I look up, searching frantically for the sound because it’s been so long since I heard a sound so full of joy. It awakens something buried deep within me, a sanctuary I’d forgotten existed.

And then I find the source. Two children, chubby little angels with grins as wide as their innocence and cheeks as pink as the colour of the sky when it’s fallen in love, come running towards me, stumbling a little in their haste. I open my arms and they collapse into my embrace, clamping onto me; the girl swinging in my arms and the little boy wrapped around my leg, pressing giddy kisses onto my shin. I kiss the girls beautiful round face too, kiss them both as much as possibly can, and they giggle heartily in turn. It’s contagious- I find myself laughing with them, and the sensation is like a river of hope gurgling up through me, trickling into all the haunted crevices and chasing away their heaviness like gold chases away poverty. I hold them tightly to me and smile, soaking in the happiness that seems to diffuse out of them and into the air.


 

My eyelids flutter open, and I lie there just for a moment, in an incomparable bliss, before realizing where I am. Just a dream. Oh! Just a dream. I reach up to feel dampness on my face, and I choke back a sob. Just a dream, yes, but such a beautiful, happy, one that I wish I’d never woken up. It’s been so long.

I exhale slowly and feel a twinge of pain shooting up my forearm. I bite my lip as I remember last night- for some reason, in the fresh, luminous, glow of morning, it’s hard to believe that the horror I can’t erase from my mind actually happened. I find that I’m glad though, that I didn’t finish the job, if only for that dream.

And such a strange dream too. To dream of children, a boy and a girl that I’ve never even seen before, yet so familiar. They seem to have automatically filled out a place in my heart, a place I didn’t even know existed, but one that fits them so perfectly it seems as though I was made to love them. It’s such a warm adoration and protectiveness that I almost wish they existed, that they were really here in my life.

But I could never wish those children something so ill.

I sit up and minutely unwrap my arm. The towel is stained with a deep, ugly shade of red-brown, but the cut looks better, and the bleeding seems to have stopped. I hope it doesn’t get infected.

I stare up at the blank cream wall across from me. I can’t shake the lingering joy. It sits inside me, and it’s like that feeling when you accidentally swallow a cough sweet, and the sharp, tingling relief starts to burn there instead, just above your heart.

Something is burning inside me, but for the first time in a very long, it feels almost good. Ridiculously sweet, but good.

Something bubbles to the tips of my tongue, and I hesitate, as afraid as ever of the unknown.

Suddenly, there is a knock at my door, and frustration courses through me as if it has never before. I grind my teeth as I close my eyes and try to tame the volcano inside me.

“Katniss?” Greasy Sae starts to open the door, but I remember my arm and momentarily panic.

“I’ll be down soon.” I tell her. “Don’t come in.” There’s a moment of hesitation before I hear her footsteps tread back down the hallway.

I glance down at my arm and decide right then and there that Peeta must never know.

Crawling out of bed, I pull on some clothes and fuss with my long-sleeved top until I am sure it completely conceals my cut. Then I head downstairs.

Peeta isn’t there. Greasy Sae is at the stove, cooking something in a pan. I try to ignore the sour sinking feeling in my stomach.

She turns around when she hears me come in and smiles. “Where’s Peeta?” I ask.

The door opens behind me just at that moment. I turn around to a flash of golden hair, pink cheeks, and the smell of almond and yeast. He is carrying a loaf of bread under his arm and a bag in his other hand as he stomps in, pausing to place his goods on the table.

There is a pregnant pause as he looks up and meets my eyes. My mouth goes dry.

“I’m sorry” I mutter eventually as I divert my gaze and inconspicuously adjust my sleeve. “About yesterday.”

“It’s ok.” He says softly, and when I look up his features are kind, but weary.

He’s trying so hard I realize. He’s trying so hard to reach across the huge, foggy wall that has grown up between us, and he’s just exhausted. I wonder vaguely if he’s giving up.

“Here you go. “says Greasy Sae as she steers towards the table with a plate piled with hot pancakes, and the moment is broken as Peeta instantly turns to help her. He’s better, I realize. Whatever the world on his side of the glass wall is like, it is a much better place to be than my own.

I can hear some birds making a fuss outside the window as we all eat in silence. As I swirl my fork around the edge of the plate, my gaze catches on the boy opposite me. He’s wearing a dusty sky blue jumper today. I briefly wonder if he is aware of the favours it does for his eyes.

I look down before he catches me staring.

Once the dishes are cluttered away and Greasy Sae has bid goodbye, I find myself leaning against the counter again, my hipbones aligned roughly against the oven handle. Peeta hums, ever so quietly, as he swipes away the last of the mess, and so do the birds, their pretty songs mingling with the cool fresh air of morning.

And I feel it again. The burning in my chest now feels like one of the birds, fluttering around frantically inside my rib cage, struggling to be free. I rummage about inside me for the latch it’s searching for, knitting my brows in frustration. And then all of a sudden, I find it.

The sound pours out of me like a waterfall, crashing down onto the cracked, parched landscape of my desert.

This man I know

Has an apple tree he’s hoping will grow

It rushes over the crevices and emptiness like a wild creature, like a balm over a cut. I close my eyes and let it soar.

Day after day

He waits and what does he see

Not one apple on the tree

 

…I take a deep breath, one hand grasping onto the edge of the counter. There is a flush of lightness inside me, and I hurry to contain it before it goes out. Just like the desert, I must hurry to absorb what I can; one lone moment of relief, before the insufferable thirst returns.

I start when I spy Peeta, frozen in the doorway, a forgotten tea rag in his hand. His eyes are wide, bright and shining with something like…awe? I can’t quite place the emotion in them, but his lips are tugged up in the corner, and for the first time in God knows when, I see Peeta truly smile.

I breathe in a ragged gasp, loudly cutting through the silence. He blinks, and his expression falters as he observes my reaction. Neither of us realized I was holding my breath.

“Sorry,” he says, clearing his throat, though his ruddy cheeks suggest otherwise. “I didn’t mean… I, uh, didn’t intend to…”

“It’s fine.” I say quietly, and he glances up at me from under his lashes. A moment of pleasant uncertainty passes between us, and there is nothing to hold him back from saying it this time, the birds outside chirpily cheering him on. He opens his mouth, hesitating.

“Could you maybe…” Peeta says. “Could you maybe finish the song?”

 


 I surprise us both by leading him through to the lounge. He sits down, cheeks glowing, on the edge of the sofa, and I stand by the window, from where I can see the swirling branches of the trees, where the birds I heard should be.

“Close your eyes.” I instruct him, and his gaze runs over me with a foreign intensity, before he obeys. I immediately feel silly, and bite back the heat rushing to my face, before deciding to close my eyes too.

This man I know

Has an apple tree he’s hoping will grow

Day after day

He waits and what does he see

Not one apple on the tree

It is easy to get lost in the sensation of hearing my own voice, of feeling the notes stream out of my chest like blood. My nervousness melts away like butter.

This man I know

Waits all winter but the tree will not grow

‘Till late in spring

With still no fruit to be found

He goes out to chop it down

 

Lo and behold

Like a miracle swept in from the sea

Lo and behold

There’s a fog so thick the man can’t see

To cut the tree

 

Next morning he

All excited

He come running to me

Up there for all to see

Way up on a bough

Small and weak but hanging on

Somehow

Is a baby apple now

 

The last high note rings through the room, filling it up with the sound of unspoken words. I open my eyes to find Peeta’s wide open, and the blood instantly begins to burn in my face again.

The way he is looking at me is hard to explain. It brings to mind images of lost sailors seeing land through the fog after a storm, and of half-dead men finding an oasis in a desert. It’s the way you look at your last sunset, and your first dawn.

He starts to give me a smile then, a sweet, dazzling smile, and it blossoms on his face like the first buttercup of spring, awakening a landscape of beauty.

I can’t help but be reminded of my dream, and flush a little as I feel a bit of that warmth wash through me.

“That was a one-off, by the way.” I say bluntly. I don’t mean for it to be funny, but he chuckles anyway.

I purse my lips and drop my gaze, watching the way the sunbeams skitter across the wood panels, and my bare feet.


 

You would not believe what it’s like.

I feel as though I understand my mother better, I decide one day as I rock back and forth in a little ball on my bed. I do not forgive her, no, but I understand.

It’s been three something weeks since we came back to Twelve that I realize this. About 70% of my time has been spent staring into space.

I always figured falling into depression would be just like falling into a big, black hole dug into the ground. Sure, it sucks, but there are worse things in the world. After all, since you can’t get back out, chances are no one is going to really bother you down there. You just get used to the monotony.

But I was wrong. Because that is not what it’s like. At all.

Because you see, once you fall into that hole and get past that horrible, spineless rush of succumbing to the greater forces of gravity, you suddenly realize that there is a hell of a lot of time to think inside that great, big pit.

It’s all you do.

Every moment of every hour of every day of every year you spend, sitting there, thinking. You think about life and loss and purposelessness. You think about torture and guilt and crying and self-worth and everything bad there is possibly to think about- particularly yourself. And when you think too much, you go mad.

I would compare it to a journey. There are bricks, far too many, that you must carry on your shoulders, and there is the vast, grey road, looming out in front of you. There are no bathroom breaks. No other paths. Your only choice is to continue.

People have always commended those that have endured great suffering, but to endure it is not an act of bravery. It is an act of surviving. If there was another way, no matter the cost, I would take it.

I would do anything.

 

 

“You aren’t doing well.” Peeta says to me one day, when he finds me curled up on the windowsill in my bedroom for the third day in a row. I lift my head up slightly, staring at the brown stain on his left shoe. Normally, he doesn’t start like this. Normally, he starts by coming over and murmuring soft words, before lapsing into a hopeless silence.

“You can’t go on like this.”

I look at him then, properly, and he levels me with a determined, even stare. The confidence in his expression irritates me.

“I can, and I will.” I reply in a dead, steely voice, though I know he’s right.

“No, you can’t.” My neck snaps up, and I glare at him, ready to throw some harsh, unfeeling comment towards him when he abruptly crosses the room in three steps and leans down to scoop me up in his arms.

“What are you doing?!” I screech, tearing at his sweater. “Put me down, you-“ He gives up on being gentlemanly and throws me over his shoulder, so that my backside is raised to the ceiling and the only purchase my punches find is on his belt, slung low around his hips. I proceed to scream and curse and attack him for the rest of the journey, right up until a blast of icy wind whips up against my poorly-defended skin, and I am shocked into silence for a moment.

“Think you can be carried with some dignity without being tempted to tear my eyes out?” comes that condescending voice.

“I think you can go to hell, you selfish, inconsiderate brute.”

He pulls me over so that I fall into the cradle of his arms again, and I suddenly find myself face to face with those startlingly clear, blue eyes.

“You didn’t really mean that.” He whispers softly, and I can feel the warmth of his breath wash over my jaw.

I stay silent for the rest of the journey.

Eventually he lays me gently down on a hard, wooden chair, and I realise we are in his kitchen.

“What are we doing here?” I ask cautiously.

“We,” he says much too cheerfully. “Are baking.”

He goes over to a long, marble counter and starts pulling out ingredients and utensils from various draws.

“I can’t bake.” I say.

“Well, I can teach you.” He smiles warmly at me, and I frown.

He brings over bowls and cartons of eggs, and even I what I think is a banana, a luxury so rare I had hardly seen it before going to the Capitol.

He shows me different mixtures and measurings, demonstrating tricks and what I am sure are perfectly interesting explanations of the artistic meaning behind flavour, but the moments that I find myself most aware of are the ones where he is quiet, and my gaze traces the curves of his arms as he works, running through the golden strands of hair that are getting too long, and observing the intensity in his eyes as he concentrates.

“Here,” he says after a while, handing me a slice of a browned cake-like square. “Taste it.”

I part my lips and take a bite, and feel my eyebrows lift. “Mm,” I say through a mouthful of the cake. “What is this?”

“It’s banana bread.” He replies, a gratified smile lingering on his lips, his cheeks rosy. “I’m guessing you like it.”

I nod absentmindedly, staring at a grain of sugar on his top lip. Banana bread. I suppose I’ve had bananas on their own, or in sweet sauces before, but this has a homey, unique flavour to it. Comfort food, my Father might have said. It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel safe.

I look up at Peeta, seeing his eyes glisten under the light as he smiles at me, and decide then that, no matter how strange this day, the flavour of banana bread will now always be inseparable from him.

We sit there in the faint sunlight, chewing the desert together in a silence. I look over at Peeta, who appears so tranquil, and I have to wonder if there is a battle raging through him like there is in me. Am I the only one in this relationship who is always so uncertain?

But for better or worse, I can’t bring myself to suffer silently. The quietness that has fallen between us seems to have been carved out just for me, just for these words to be said.

And there are some battles that I don’t want to win.

“I don’t know what to do.” I whisper, and I feel his gaze arrest me.

It’s not a lot, maybe, just a handful of clumsy words pieced together, but having seen what I’ve seen, and done what I’ve done, I know that he will hear right through to what I really mean.

We sit there in perfect understanding for a moment, and I watch the sun go down in the few seconds we have to bathe in mutual empathy.

I hear his intake of air as Peeta takes a deep breath, and he rubs his neck before looking at me. “Katniss…” he begins. “Can you do something for me?”

I look up at him and search those eyes, watching a mixture of desperation and hope and something else swirl through their pools.

I tip my head slightly.

“Could you please call Dr. Aurelius?”

I blink. That was not the response I was expecting.

“Why would I call him?” I huff.

“Katniss, it helps,” Peeta says, his gaze locking onto mine. “He did a lot for me. Please, just try.”

I open my mouth to protest, but his eyes are so bottomless and deep that I find myself drowning in the emotion I see there, and before I realise what I’m doing, I nod.

“Ok.” I breathe, and he reaches over to take my hand.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4- Crying Glass

Although I would probably never admit it to him, the very next day I decide to follow Peeta’s suggestion.

It wasn’t my intention- in fact I wasn’t sure if I’d even manage to ever keep my promise, but as soon as I crossed the threshold, the gloomy darkness drew me under again, and each second began to feel like a year.

Pain does funny things to people.

After locating the number and enduring more than a few unhelpfully cynical thoughts, I manage to dial in the number. I’m in the study, the only room with a telephone, and I lean back against the mahogany desk, drumming my fingers on the shiny surface as I wait nervously for the phone to be picked up. There is brring-brring, and then I hear a man’s voice pipe up through the earpiece.

“Katniss!” it says. “You called. Finally.”

Already he has said more words to me than I ever heard him utter my entire time in the Capitol. It is both a little unnerving and slightly irritating. I bite back a snappy response.

“Yes.”

“Thank goodness. How are you doing?”

“How do you think?” I reply dully, internally cursing myself for listening to Peeta.

“Do you want help Katniss?” He says after a pause, and I feel my eyebrows lift to the ceiling. Who knew the quiet, insignificant doctor from the Capitol could be so…blunt?

No, I’m tempted to reply, but something makes me hold my tongue. Do I need help? That is obvious, although I’m not sure there is anything left in this world that can save me. But do I want help?

It’s funny how, once you are immersed in the sadness for a while, you no longer think of it as the enemy. It is like pulling yourself out of a cold bath- unpleasant in, but once you try to get out you discover the prospect of staying where you are not wholly undesirable. I understand how it is, that after a whole night of courting the darkness, one might come to loathe the dawn.

“I’ve learnt not to expect what I want.” I tell him, and the phone line descends into silence.


 

I keep talking to Dr. Aurelius. Not because I believe that he can cure me, but because it makes sense. You are ill. You must see a doctor.

I keep listening to Peeta too. Sometimes he stays a little while after breakfast or dinner, simply accompanying me in my solitude, and I don’t question that anymore. It’s just who he is.

Though it isn’t always easy. How can I help but wonder about what is going through his mind when our memories are eating me alive at night? Images of shining pearls, warm nights on trains, and lips that taste of melting sugar, swirl around and around my head; sometimes at the back, but sometimes right up in the forefront of my mind, until they are all I can see.

“Well, I suppose it would only be natural to get a little confused when a man confesses he has spent his whole life loving you, only to proceed to strangle you, and top it all off by planting some bleeding Primroses in your garden,” I sometimes whisper to myself in hushed angry tones, when everything finally stops spinning beneath me.

But if I’m honest, my heart and mine seem to be two completely different entities these days.

“How is Peeta doing?” I eventually wind up asking Dr. Aurelius, halfway through one of our phone calls.

“I’m not entitled to give you that information, Katniss.” He says, and I close my eyes.

“Look.” I tell him. “No one else will. No one else will tell me anything about him! I have a right to know. He’s my-“

But then I get all caught up, because I do not know what he is, except that he is certainly not mine.

“I think you should try and spend some time with him.” Dr. Aurelius says, and I blink.

“We spend time together.” I say.

“No,” Dr. Aurelius replies. “He spends time with you. You have not displayed any interest in spending time with him.”

“Of course I’m interested in him.” I exclaim.

“But you haven’t displayed it. The boy isn’t a mind reader. He is having a hard enough time figuring himself out, let alone you.”

I grit my teeth and have to clench and unclench my fist around the phone wire. Sometimes I’m not sure why I even bother with talking to Dr. Aurelius. How he got this job in the Capitol is beyond me.

“Well, when I get over my desire to commit suicide, I will make sure that that is the first thing I accomplish.” I say in a measured voice, and then put the phone down.

Instantly, I feel bad. Shame washes through me like sour poison, and I take a deep breath. Does it ever pass?

My eyes drift up to the clock above the doorway, and I frown. Peeta should be here by now.

A glance out the window tells me it is already dark, and a tight little ball of anxiety starts to spin in my stomach. He’s never been late before.

I sit around and wait for a while, trying to bury my mind in something else, but I can’t, and my eyes keep fluttering up to the clock as I shred a tissue in my hands. One minute passes. Two. Twenty minutes have passed since our designated dinner time.

I look across the road and squint through the black, spotting a light coming from his kitchen. Something isn’t right.

I slowly stand up, and swallowing back a thick lump of apprehension, grab my boots and pull them up over my bare feet.

The walk to his house is brief, but it feels so much slower than it should. It’s almost like I’m stuck in my nightmare again- wading through a fear as thick as mud, my heart rate speeding in my throat. The night sweeps past me tantalizingly, sinister whispers hissing in my ear. I shake my head and reach for the door.

It’s empty. I blink until I see a faint yellow glow splayed across the floor, and with a familiar hunter’s tread, I follow its path.

It takes me to the entrance to the kitchen, and I can hear panting as I clench my fists, before turning the corner.

Peeta. He is lying on the ground, his face concealed from my view, his knees curled up in a defensive posture. Even from where I stand, I can see that every muscle in his body is strung tense, and his breathing is audibly laboured. And then I notice the glass shattered around his body.

No one told me he was still having episodes. I can feel my heart stutter in my chest, before galloping on.

I spot another chair on its side in the corner, and I daren’t breathe. He could kill me. If he hears me, he will hurt me. There is no one else around.

I take a step forward.

He doesn’t react as I draw closer to him, and when he is a few feet away, I deliberately lower to my knees, holding my palms towards him.

“Peeta,” I whisper. “Peeta, it’s me.”

His finger twitches unnaturally. I try again.

“Peeta, it’s Katniss. I’m here. It’s not real. Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not real.” My voice does not sound like my own.

There’s a low moan, and then he sobs, and I can see the tears glistening from his cheeks.

I dig my nails into my palm so hard they leave half-circles and lean over to him, ever so gently, reaching out to touch his arm. I hear another sob, a splintered, half-strangled wail, and in that moment my resolve crumbles into sand, and hijacking be damned, I crawl over to him and wrap my arms around his shaking torso, burying my fingers in that golden hair. “Ssshh,” I breathe. “Ssshh, you’re safe now.”

His sobs start increasing rapidly, and I panic. I can feel his fingers digging into my waist, and I take a deep breath, before sitting up and pulling myself up onto his lap, my legs falling apart at his hips. When his hold on me only gets tighter, I relax a little.

I should probably be disturbed about my own lack of self-concern, but I’m not.

I can feel his own tremors run through me, and he gasps for air in a manner which reminds me of drowning. I feel like I’m drowning just watching him.

But then I feel his heartbeat, thudding purposefully against my chest, and despite being somewhat uneven, and much too fast, it anchors me. It’s probably wrong, depraved even, to feel the warmth that I do diffuse through my body, spreading out from the focal point where his heart pulses through the layers and skin, and against my own. But I don’t fight it- everything about this feels right.

I’ve never been one for comforting- the process has always left me feeling unnatural and awkward- but not right now. He needs me. I’m not good for him as a whole, and mostly I just drag him down, but in this moment I am needed. And that is what I’m clinging to.

His head hits my shoulder and I feel his hands tremble at my hips, his breathing growing erratic. My mouth opens, an instinct, and the words begin to pour out unbidden.

In the darkness

Don’t forget the sweetness

That lent good love to thee

In the shadows

Don’t forget the widow

I’d become if you left me

 

Oh sweet child

Don’t cry now

Oh sweet melody

 

Oh sweet love

Don’t hurt now

Now I am here for thee

 

I feel his body relax against mine and his breathing grow easier, the tension seeping out of him and into the air. But when I press my lips against his hair, his head lifts, and I momentarily panic, before seeing the freshly spilt tears on his cheeks. He won’t look at me.

“Katniss,” he says, his voice breaking, and then his head drops back down to my shoulder. His whole body starts shaking with the fierceness of his sobs, and I hold onto him tighter, my hands fisting up in the material of his jumper.

“You weren’t…supposed…to…” he tries to say, but I hush him and hold him to my chest.

“It’s over,” I murmur against his ear. “It’s over.”

It’s only when I choke a little on the last word that I realise I’m crying too, and if the moment was more forgiving I might laugh. But I don’t, and we cling to each other, a stupid, broken, lovesick pair, rocking back and forth on his kitchen floor. My gaze trails over the broken bits of glass scattered around us, and it’s then that I realise that the huge wall that was between us has finally been shattered too, and for the first time in much too long, I can really feel him. I feel his pain, tugging at my heartstrings, and his heavy shame, his desperation. I can taste the bitterness in his tears, and I can read the hesitations in his sentences. I feel him, right between my lungs, and I cry, cry for everything that we have both become.

You might think it would weigh you down, taking a piece of someone else’s pain as well and making it your own, but the truth is it doesn’t. It makes you feel less alone, less frightened, as if you have now a lamp on this lonely road. It gives you hope.

“Don’t leave.” He whispers after a while, and I want to tell him that of course I won’t, that I can’t, that I’ve missed him so, so much. But words have never been my friends, and so instead I lean down, trailing my nose down his body until I am right above his heart, and then I rest my ear over it and listen.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5- Catching Flies

We don’t talk about it much, but it seeps into every little action that is required to fill up our days.

We’re closer. When I come down for breakfast in the morning, I can always meet his eyes, sometimes even affording a smile. A little more conversation fills up the empty rooms when it’s just us two, and there are no more awkward breaks, a cool, fogged up barrier in our way. He’s changed, but then so have I, and we are both used to making do.

I wish I could say that it is suddenly easier, or that one morning I just wake up and rediscover happiness, brushing off all my demons like a distant dream. But I don’t, and I learn that that isn’t how it works. It works slowly, methodically and painfully precisely, each piece of my soul being carefully picked up off the ground and examined, before being deemed fit to be put back inside me.

But there are mornings that are a little easier than others, and moments when Peeta can persuade a careless grin across my face. But then the bad days come, like a whirlwind, a hurricane, and my gentle dandelion seeds are simply blown away, blitzed into a mess of screams and cries, tears dripping across my cheekbones and claws tearing at my face. I’m getting better, Dr. Aurelius tells me, but it isn’t half-easy.

And yes, there are times when it is just as bad as that night, the night that gave me the scar I am always so careful to conceal, and the lure to give up again can be just so strong.

But I don’t.

And then I get the letter.

It comes mid-afternoon, and I can’t ignore it like I normally do because Peeta is there, and he goes up and picks it up for me. He frowns when he reads the address, and then places it in front of me on the wooden table.

My eyes flicker to my right and scan over my name. Miss Everdeen, it reads. I do not recognize the neat, slanted hand-writing.

I pick it up in my hands, and it is heavier than an envelope should be. My fingertips trace over the slight bulge in the back.

I pull the envelope open, and dip in two fingers to retrieve a pretty pink shade of paper, with more of the unfamiliar hand-writing scrawled all over it.

Dear Miss Everdeen,

I know that we never really got well acquainted with each other, and I realise I may not be the most desirable friend to have, but times are rough, and I would like you to know that I am here if you ever need me, regardless. I suspect the war has united many of us in mourning.

I dearly hope you are well. Or as well as can be. I understand that you and Peeta were good friends with Finnick, and I must thank you for all you did for him.

In light of this I hope that it would be possible, if at some point convenient for you, you might come and see me, or me you. I perfectly understand if you do not, or cannot, do so. Please do not feel obliged in anyway.

Wishing you the best,

Annie

I look over at Peeta, and his curious eyes meet mine. “Annie.” I say, and his eyebrows rise.

I rummage around in the envelope until the thing I felt earlier falls out into my hands. It’s made of glass, and has a swirling elegancy in its shape. Holding it closer, I see that it is actually a perfume bottle, the lid a huge, iridescent clam shell, the liquid inside a faint peach. I feel my mouth fall open.

“She’s given me a…” I trail off, looking up at him, and his eyes are just as wide as mine.

“That’s incredibly generous of her.” He says, and then he smiles at me.

“Here, read it.” I push the letter towards him, and while he reads, I unhook the clam shell, pressing my fingertip to the bottle opening and briefly tipping it upside down. I bring my finger to my nose and sniff.

It smells of the ocean. But not just that- there is something sweeter, more feminine. I inhale again and catch a whiff of lavender and vanilla orchid. I close my eyes, and I can picture the waves, crashing into foamy white embraces on the rocks, the clear water sparkling against a pink backdrop. That’s what it smells like. Freedom.

When I open my eyes, I see Peeta watching me.

“Can I?” he asks, and I stare in confusion until he gestures to the bottle.

“Oh, um…” I hesitantly hold out my fingers to him, and he takes my palm in his large, warm grip, before leaning down to smell the perfume. His lips lightly brush against my fingers as he gives me my arm back, and combined with the slightly saccharine scent that still lingers in the air, the action makes me feel a little light-headed.

“So…” Peeta’s voice snaps me back to reality, and I blink.

“Sorry?” He is watching with a slightly questioning gaze, though the corner of his lips turns up.

“What do you think?” He says. I breathe out slowly through my nose and stare at the envelope.

“I don’t know. I’m not allowed to leave Twelve, but I…” I look up at him for help, though we’re both a pair of lost sheep.

“…Maybe Dr. Aurelius can pull some strings?” he suggests, and I almost scoff a little. But we both know telling Annie no isn’t really an option.

So I finally gather the courage to call Dr. Aurelius. I could have asked Peeta to ask him, but I didn’t particularly want to explain to Peeta the reason why I had snapped, and he would have undoubtedly gotten it out of me if I mentioned it.

Besides, I should apologise.

The phone rings for two, and then that familiar voice says, “Hello?”

“Hey,” I say cautiously. “…It’s Katniss.”

“I know.” He says. “What is it?”

I mean to apologise. I really do.

“Why didn’t you tell me Peeta was still having episodes?”

There’s a brief moment of silence, and then he replies in a somewhat professional tone.

“He specifically instructed me not to tell you. I have to respect his wishes.” Not to tell me? I frown, and that’s when it hits me.

Because I’d been so wrapped up in my own prickly netting of depression, of selfishness, that I’d been too blind to see what I should have. That Peeta’s been hurting too. And that he’s been hiding it from me- probably because he doesn’t want to make things harder than they already are.

Stupid, stupid boy.

And stupid me! I bang my fist down on the desk in heat, and curse loudly when a shock of pain rushes through my knuckles.

“Are you ok?” Dr. Aurelius asks

“Great.” I mutter under my breath. “Was there any other reason you had for calling?” He asks after a moment.

“Yes.” I tell him. “…Do you know Annie Cresta?”

“…Yes,” He replies slowly. “…She won the 69th Hunger Games, didn’t she?”

“Yes. I received a letter from her today. She says she’d like to see me.”

There is a moment of silence.

“I…don’t know if that would be possible. I’m not sure her health would allow her to journey all the way to an unfamiliar district. And as for you…in theory I suspect the trip might do you good, but it’s unlikely you would be approved to leave.”

My shoulders slag.

“Are you sure she can’t come down?”

“Pretty sure.” He confirms. “Last time her reports were studied she was not fit for such.”

I bite my lip and stare out of the dusty window opposite me. It’s starting to feel like a prison. I’m a small animal, caught up in my own well-laid snare.

“Katniss,” Dr. Aurelius sighs, a sympathy seeping into his tone. “…I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” I whisper into the phone, and watch as the first raindrop lands on the glass pane.

 

I wait five days.

But, for what it’s worth, they don’t pass too slowly.

It’s not that depression always means I’m sad, I learn to understand. It’s just that it’s always there. A dark undertone, on top of which a thin layer of content or amusement can be painted on. But beneath the tones of yellow and lilac and orange, it’s presence is always detectable, a constant in mood.

Sometimes it scares me.

But there is a comfort in a steady life, right after such a destructive, fast-paced fire. I’m learning to enjoy what I can of the slow-burn.

And it’s a relief, whenever Greasy Sae busies herself with a kindness that can’t yet be returned, or I catch Peeta’s eye beside the hot, crackling fireplace, and I realise I have an eternity to decipher the intensity in his eyes. It’s a relief, when nothing more is expected of me.

The only thing that concerns me in these moments is the fear that they’ll leave me soon.

“Katniss!” The doctor’s voice greets me, unusually enthusiastic even for him. “It’s all sorted!”

“What is?” I ask, though it’s a little hard to sound nonchalant when I am about to burst from anticipation.

“The trip! It’s been discussed, and basically, the conclusion is that you are free to go, as long as you are accompanied.”

“Accompanied? I’m not taking Haymitch.” I warn him.

“Not necessarily. Peeta, I suppose, could work. Wasn’t he invited anyway?”

“But he still…he’s still…” I struggle with the words, which are stubbornly unwilling to come out.

“He’s not a danger Katniss.” Dr. Aurelius says quietly.

“But he still has episodes.” I point out, my voice blunt.

“But he isn’t dangerous. Not anymore.”

My mouth falls open in a “O” as I understand. I slowly release the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

“Ok…”

“Okay?”

I allow myself small smile.

We don’t have much to pack, so it really doesn’t take long before I find myself sitting on one of the plush grey seats, staring out of the train window. We called Annie before we left, and though she seemed surprised to hear from us, she did seem grateful. And we bid goodbye to Greasy Sae, and a drunk, forlorn Haymitch, whom Peeta confessed he had been checking up on every week.

I swear to myself, as the trees outside begin to blur into an indistinguishable landscape of muted greens, that I will help take care of him the minute I learn to take care of myself.

Peeta sits opposite me, those blue eyes sparkling with something like excitement. Because the only way to travel between the districts is by the old storage trains, it will take something like a few days to get to 4.

There is something sweet in my mouth, a lightness in my chest, and I can’t help but feel a surge of something like delight rush through me. We’re going away, I think, like a giddy little girl. Finally to be free.

I conjure up the image of blue waves crashing against battered rocks, streams of peach and gold casting their magic upon the tanned skin of sand. I want to be like that, I think rashly. I want to be embraced in the wildness of the ocean.

My eyes focus on Peeta again, and I see that he’s watching me, his gaze fixed on the tiny grin that I didn’t realise had crept up on to my lips. When he sees me looking, he meets my eyes and smiles back.

“Excited?” he says.

I shrug uncomittedly, looking over my shoulder at the greenery and vegetation I’ve known all my life race past me. The train itself is quite empty, what with the system being so new, and there are rooms provided for journeys longer than a day. A thought occurs to me, and I’m surprised when I feel my heart rapidly skip a beat and palms get sweaty. I don’t understand. This should be no big deal.

Oh, but it is.

“Peeta…” I start, my throat suddenly dry, making it hard to swallow. He looks up at me.

“I, um…was wondering…” The words refuse to leave me, clinging to my tongue in terror. Just spit it out! A voice inside me growls.

“…If you would like to sleep with me?” The moment it leaves my voice he blinks, a fiery blush flooding his entire face. It takes me a little longer to realise my mistake.

“No! I mean- not like that!” I hasten to explain, though I can feel a slight tingling in my cheeks. “Peeta!”

“Oh…um, sorry, yeah I know.” He says, clearing his throat. “Sorry, um, I wasn’t…uh….”

I shake my head and stare out the window again, face hot. Seriously, why would he even assume that?

“So?” I say, once I am sure my voice is fully composed. I don’t look away from the glass.

“So…? Oh!” he replies, catching on. “Um, yes- of course.”

I vaguely nod, but there is a tight little ball of anticipation and fear clenching and unclenching in my stomach. I shake my head slightly, dismissing the unsensical feeling.

We are provided dinner- nothing particularly fancy, just rolls and salad and a few slices of ham- and then we prepare for bed.

It is no momentous event. There is nothing really awkward or romantic about the whole affair, despite my slip up earlier. But it does send a shoot of warmth through me, spreading through my chest like molten rock. Peeta is a comfort, and I’m surprised how grateful I am that I will not have to endure this night, if none other, alone.

He disappears into the bathroom down the hall to clean up, and I sit cross-legged on the bed, wearing my leggings and a thin, papery shirt, as I run my fingers through my unplaited hair. The room is small but neat, with few decorations or embellishments, save for the rich plum covers and pillows of the bed. There is a window on my left, a wide frame accompanied by a pair of curtains embroidered with poppies, and from it I watch the evening landscape speed by us.

I turn around when I hear the door open. Peeta walks in, toweling dry his darkened curls, which are even curlier when damp. He gives me a small smile, and goes to hang the towel on a chair, while I snuggle under the covers, waiting for him. Soon enough, his arms are around me again, holding me gently, as if I am made of glass.

I rest my hand over his, feeling the warmth pulse through me. He smells of shampoo, but also of snowy flour and spilt honey, and something distinctly natural, Peeta. I breathe in deeper, finally feeling a heartbeat that is not my own, and as his body starts to relax into slumber behind me, I know that this night, for the first in many, I needn’t be afraid.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6- Full moon

The very next morning, I plummet like a bomb right back into the deep end.

I refuse to get out of bed. Peeta tries, to no avail, to get me to eat breakfast, but I barely touch even the water. Instead I sit there, an unmoving statue, staring out the window.

I don’t know why it attacks when it does. But I am always entirely defenseless; an easy victim, unable to withstand the crush.

It just hurts.

No breaks. No relief for me.

I sit there for so long, so silent that I can almost feel the rays of worry radiating off Peeta, who sits with me, sometimes talking, sometimes stressed and quiet. But I can’t do it, not even for him.

It feels like I have to scream, but I’ve suddenly lost my voice box. So instead of my mouth, my soul screams, cries, tears itself to shreds, moist with anguished tears that refuse to escape from my bone dry eyes, and I die inside.

But quietly. So very quietly- like a woman starved of joy. I imagine my body thin, ribs easily visible, an emaciated corpse rotting away in her sick bed while her loved ones clutch to her hands desperately, as if that can stop her from fading away.

It never grows old.

When Peeta finally leaves, I barely register his disappearing footsteps, barely wander where he’s gone. It seems natural for him to go. Everyone else already has.

But he comes back, and when he does it is dark out. There are no stars in the sky.

“Katniss?” he says softly, his voice rough. I blink.

“Can I show you something?” I slowly direct my gaze onto him, staring blankly.

“Please?” he says. “I think you might like it.”

I don’t move for a moment, but then weakly, I reach over, my stiff muscles groaning, to take his out-stretched hand. He gently helps me to my feet, and then pulls me along carefully, like a little child. My feet move of their own accord.

When we get to the small communal living room, it is totally empty. He guides me to a well-hidden corner, and then I see it.

“It’s a den.” He tells me, smiling softly, with no judgment in his round eyes.

I look at it. In reality it is a pile of mismatched rugs and bed sheets, stretched over to create a sort of cave-like structure, and at the corner there is a small space through which I presume I am supposed to enter.

“Do you like it?” he asks. I nod tightly, my breathing slightly laboured. I focus on the warmth of gratitude, spreading through my veins like hot chocolate, as if if I try hard enough, I can project the emotion to him.

I drop to my knees, and slowly crawl through the entrance. I feel about five again. When I get inside, I realise there are more pillows and rugs scattered everywhere, like a nest, and there are fairylights strung across the roof. I shuffle over into a corner and curl up, a bird with broken wings.

Peeta’s face appears in the entrance. “You ok in there?” he asks. I give a tiny nod.

“May I come in?”

My eyes meet his, and I nod again.

It’s a tight squeeze in the small space, but I don’t mind. I like the presence of another human, his body heat enveloping me with those large, strong arms, sealing me in an intimacy. He feels close.

The throbbing in my heart has not yet stopped, and I doubt it will today, or even for the next week, but I look up at the fairylights that sparkle above me, lighting the room with a sort of magical, mauve glow, and I hold onto the thought that for tonight, Peeta has given me the stars.

 


 

When we arrive at 4, I momentarily believe we have stepped into another world.

It’s not like 12. We saw very little in our time here during the victory tour, and what we did only hinted at the wonders that this district possesses. The war has not affected it like 12.

We barely turn the corner of the small station when the breath of the ocean hits us. I inhale the cold, salty breeze, and open my eyes to a glittering array of indigo waves, stretching out along the entire coast and beyond. The sun is still high in the sky, beaming down on us, and I grip my suitcase tighter as we step into a slice of shallow sunshine. I turn to look at Peeta, suppressing a smile.

It quickly falls off my lips.

Something magical happens to Peeta in the sunlight of 4. His eyes twinkle, alight with vivaciousness and sunbeams that reach right down into the depths of those sapphires, and polish them brighter. His skin is cream and honey, soft and beckoning under the blue sky, and the syncopated blasts of wind rake wildly through his golden hair, mussing it with an artist’s spontaneity. His lips are parted, healthy and red like apple skin.

I struggle to tear my eyes from him.

In fact, I barely look away until he catches me staring on the rattling mini bus, and my head whips around comically. I can feel his gaze coaxing the warmth onto the back of my neck. Thankfully, he is too kind to say anything.

Which sort of makes it worse. Because, of course, I do not look anything of that type of pretty underneath the sun.

When we finally arrive at Annie’s, the first thing I realise is that she too, lives in a Victor’s house. It’s an obvious observation, but the thought never occurred to me before. Though I suppose, being a career district, she had a lot more company for a while.

But then, so did I.

She is leaning against the doorway, her lacy white dress fluttering in the breeze, her gaze lost in the distance. The Victors’ Village in 4 is not like the one in 12- with white, smoothed walls and rounded edges, it is situated right by the sea, the foamy white fingers of the ocean almost stretching out to claim the front yard.

When we step off the minibus and have collected our luggage, Annie notices us and an aged, but genuine smile lifts her cheeks. She strolls down the front path to greet us, and it’s only when I brush back a sweaty strand of my hair and am starting to smile that I spot the way her hand rests protectively over her belly, or the slight but definite bump that protrudes from her small body.

I feel my mouth drop open. “Annie…” I gasp quietly, my brain struggling to catch up through the shock. How long ago was it? Really? Since, we’ve been back I’ve lost all sense of time, and 13 feels like a distant memory, another lifetime’s happenings. But it can’t have been that long if…

“Hello.” She says quietly. “Would you like to go inside first?”

She smiles at us warmly as she busies herself around the kitchen table, a teapot in her hand. A quick glance at Peeta confirms his mutual astonishment, so I summon my voice first.

“How…” I clear my throat noisily. “How…um, far along are you?”

She brings over the two steaming cups of tea and puts them down, before leaning back against the sink. “Well…four months.” The smile that seems to be permanently sown across her face never falters.

Peeta coughs then, and fumbles for the words that are both wandering through our minds. “Is it, um, his-“

“Yes.” Annie says briskly, avoiding our gazes. Then she shakes herself and looks up again. “Thank you so much for coming, by the way.” She smiles again, but this one is true with gratitude.

There’s a slightly awkward pause. We didn’t get a chance to know Annie much in 13, and now we will be staying with her for 5 days.

“Would you like to see your rooms?” she asks eventually.

As we’re lead through numerous corridors, I can’t help but notice how tidy the whole place is. There isn’t a speck of dust in sight, and I can’t help but marvel at how clean she has kept everything, when I, in my grief, could barely leave my bed.

We are brought to the doorway of a large bedroom, and when I enter I see that the room is huge.

“You can sleep here if you’d like, Katniss.” Annie tells me, a pink flush in her cheeks.

In the center of the room there is a vast, four poster bed, with rose gold sheets draping down over the mattress. A filmy white canopy dances in front of an open window, and beside it is an aged, turquoise rocking chair. There is a matching closet against another wall, and huge, intricate dream catcher adorns the other.

“Thank you.” I breathe.

While Annie shows Peeta his room next door, I begin to unpack. Just as I’m putting away the last of my shirts there is a knock on the door, and then Annie’s head peers round the corner.

“Are you ok?” she asks, coming in. “I was just coming to give you your towel.”

“Thank you,” I tell her and she lays it down on my bed. She is just turning to leave when I call out. “Annie!”

I’m not sure why I do it. I’ve never been one for socialising, and conversation with anything other than loved ones is always awkward at best, but something in me has softened since arriving at Annie’s.

Or maybe it just takes one broken soul to recognize another.

“How are you?” I ask, wiping my palms on my trousers. She smiles and her mouth parts as if to say “I’m fine,” but then she catches herself, and slowly, the smile slips off her face.

She sits down on the bed in front of me, and her shoulders slump as I go to sit beside her.

“Not so well.” She whispers eventually. “…I keep waiting for it to sink in, to wake up and not expect to find him beside me… I don’t know what to do.”

I ignore my uncertain disposition then and lean over, wrapping my arms around her shoulders, trying to let her know that in my heart, I am here for her. That it’s okay to be ashamed. She goes limp, and clutches my arm as the silent sobs start to shake through her, her fingernails digging into my sweater. “It’s so hard,” she confesses under her breath, voice breaking. “It is so hard. And now, with the baby and everything…I just- I just can’t do it.”

I hold her, words escaping me. There are some things, I suppose, that can’t be said. So I feel them for her instead, because I know what it can mean to be understood, to know that you are not alone. And we cry together, for the friend and the lover we have lost, the man that could charm the world with his lopsided smirk, and shatter their hearts with his untold secrets. That could wield anything and everything with a trident, and could swim so deep beneath the surface of the ocean that for a moment one might think that he was drowning. And he was, and he did, and never, not for one moment it seems, did he stop himself from loving.

And I’ve seen enough of bravery to know that that is the most valuable kind.

Eventually she pulls back a little, wiping the saltwater from her eyes. “I don’t know if I’ll make it.” She says after a while, her gaze trained on a spot outside the window.

“Of course you will,” I tell her, trying to summon some encouragement into my voice. “It’ll…fade, and things will get better- easier for you.”

She shakes her head, eyes unfocused, and rolls up her long, white sleeves.

Like the lines of a book, there is row after row of burnt red typography, sliced into the pale marble of her skin.

“Oh, Annie,” I whisper, horror transfiguring my tongue.

“I’m sorry.” She murmurs through a haze of fresh tears. “I don’t mean to drop this on you.”

I have nothing to say to that, so I hold her tight and try not to think of the scar on my wrist, and of anything at all.

 


 

At dinner we all gather around the modest wooden table in the kitchen, and enjoy one of the best meals of my life.

After Annie showed me her scars, we sat in a loaded silence until we heard Peeta come noisily out of the shower, and were jerked back into the demands of reality. Annie went downstairs to prepare dinner, a feast that had clearly been the focus of many hours of preparation.

We stuff ourselves with lemon clams and salted muscles and green tea rice until none of us can even stand, and then we wash it all down with a rose-tinted wine as we watch the sunset stain the sky a colour to match.

“It’ll be a clear night tonight.” Annie says quietly. “You’ll be able to see the stars.”

I look at her and offer a gentle smile, but her gaze remains foggy. I’m reminded how lonely it must get in this big, empty house.

“Tomorrow I was wondering if you two would like to go for a walk.” Annie begins softly. “You don’t have to, but I know quite a pretty little place if you’d like to explore.”

I meet Peeta’s eyes and we share a smile. “Sounds good.” He says.

Peeta insists on helping Annie with the dishes and tidying up while I go and have a shower, so I bid them both goodnight and make my way up to the bathroom. The air here is thick, humid and as encompassing as being underwater, so my clothes are already drenched in sweat, despite the cooling evening. I peel off my undergarments and stand beneath the pulsing showerhead, suppressing a shriek when I accidentally set it too cold. But the hot water relaxes me, undoing the tight knots in my back and reminding me to breathe. I scrub my face dry as I step out of the glass case and study myself in the mirror in front of me.

It’s big enough that I can see my entire body, and I find myself letting the towel slip to the ground, leaving me bare.

My patch-work skin is particularly prominent under the yellow-ish lighting, parts of me still pink and raw, other parts tanned a golden brown, one of the few things I have left from my father. My nose is long and straight, my cheekbones angular and my eyes shiny and catlike in shape. My lips are full but cracked, with no cupid bow to add elegance to my otherwise sharp face. I’m no beauty, but if I look at myself in the right way, I can see something vaguely appealing about the combination.

I let my gaze wander.

I’m short. My legs are not blessed with length and grace, but with agility and speed. My frame is small, almost breakable, but my shoulders are wide and rectangular, thieving me of any femininity I might have otherwise possessed. My curves are minimal, my hips thin, my breasts small and insignificant.

I mutely turn away from the girl in the mirror. She bares no empathy for me.

I wrap the large towel around my form twice, and pad across the hallway to my bedroom, the wood rough beneath my soles.

The sun has almost disappeared from the darkening sky, black against the white material of my curtains. I set my towel across the back of the rocking chair, and in a suddenly childlike manner, run and fling myself onto the mattress. I’m still completely naked, and while part of me feels exposed and terrified at the possibility of anyone coming in, the other part of me revels in the feeling of fabric against bare skin. There is a certain freedom in being unclothed, a primitive glee.

I think of Peeta, who is probably next door, and am surprised when I don’t blush. It’s a different feeling than any other I’ve experienced before- a sort of heart fluttering, rich, burning sensation. I feel as though I’ve engaged in some sort of secret love affair when in reality I’ve done nothing at all.

Still, I wonder how he’d feel if he knew I was naked right now.

I sit up immediately and lean over for my pajamas, cheeks burning. How could you think such a thing?! I scold myself, embarrassment squirming through me. That was entirely inappropriate.

I dress myself in the modest long-sleeved top and trousers, and go to turn out the lights. It takes me about ten seconds of lying in the dark to realize my brain is refusing to turn off.

I watch the shadows pass over across the duvet and walls, coating the room into a landscape of greys. Sighing, I reach over and tug the covers off of me, dropping my feet to the floor. As silent as the darkness around me, I tiptoe over to the window.

A full moon. It shines bright, glowing like a lamp in a lighthouse across an ocean of space. I gaze up at it, letting the beams spill across my face. Annie was right- the stars are out tonight. I trace them with my fingertips, pretending each one is a moth.

But, I suppose, there are worse things to be burnt by than the moon.

Tonight, I am lonely. Tonight, I have no one but the stars to talk to, and no one but the pearl that lies between them to be seduced by. Tonight, I am not myself.

But it’s been a long time since I have been.

So I pull back the cotton curtains and wrap them around my head and stare up out at the night, and I count all the different things it could mean to me.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7- Stolen Heartbeats

I wake up to the crash of water against rock. A glance outside tells me I’m up much too early, and I fist my hands in my pillow as I stifle a yawn. I blink groggily, not sure how to feel about it.

There is something delightful about lonely, crisp mornings, when the air is cold and sour and the sun hides from the moon. But I do not want to be lonely right now. I’ve had quite enough of it from last night, and I know from experience that too much time with myself is a ticking time-bomb.

So I pick myself up from the holds of my mattress and rub the sleep from my eyes, savouring the freshly awakened sense of touch as my toes graze the floor. Who should I see? But I’m humouring myself with that question because I know that the answer is Peeta.

He could still be sleeping, but then again, he is a baker’s boy, and plenty used to waking up at the crack of dawn. I make my way outside and hesitate briefly outside his door, pondering if this qualifies as crossing the lines between us. But the thought of going back to my empty room is unbearable, so I knock very lightly, and despite hearing no reply, go in.

He’s still asleep. Slowly, I put the door to and tread softly to his bedside, my gaze flitting over his eyelids, as if by sheer will I can get him to wake. I’m starting to lose hope and feel more than a little silly when he suddenly smiles mischievously and his eyes leisurely open, revealing a turquoise to rival the ocean’s.

“Hey,” he murmurs, grinning. He blinks a couple times, clearly still half-asleep, before focusing on me. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” I breathe, feeling a tentative smile creep up onto my face. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“It’s fine,” he says. “There are much worse ways to wake.” I can’t tell if he’s serious or if he’s teasing me, so I give a tight smile and let my eyes trail over the inviting bed sheets. He must understand, because he shifts over slightly and pats the space next to him welcomingly, but still leaving me the option.

Without hesitation, I climb in.

I love the warmth of Peeta in the morning. His arms curl round me like a cradle, his chest against my back, his heartbeat thudding against my spine. He wraps the sheets around me, though his body is plenty warm, and I rest my hand lightly over his, where it lies on my stomach. The natural, boyish scent of him envelopes me, and I find myself inhaling a little deeper than normal.

“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks quietly.

“Sort of,” I murmur, feeling more comfortable than I have in forever. It’s cliché, but the feel of him really does make me feel like I was in pain, and now I’m better. Like…the world was dark and fogged up, and then somebody switched on a light.

If I could stay in Peeta’s arms forever, I would.

When I next open my eyes, the room is flooded with sunlight and an ocean breeze tickles my bare arm.

He still sleeps with the windows open.

A sort of wonder blossoms through me, as though I am a flower that has just begun to feel rain. I turn my head slightly to face him, his sleeping face just inches from mine, and smile as a strand of golden hair blows across my cheek.

Something warm flutters inside my chest as I watch him. Something warm and as deep as the sea.

Gently, I edge myself away from him and roll off the bed.

In my room, I dress, and then languidly make my way downstairs. I hear a kettle go off in the kitchen, and when I enter, Annie is standing at the counter, stirring a teabag into the steaming water.

“Good morning.” She says, turning when she hears me come in.

“Morning.” I reply with a surprisingly effortless smile, and I run my hand through the mess of my hair.

I don’t braid it anymore.

“How long will the trek be?” I ask tentatively, hoping she doesn’t misinterpret my question as a lack of enthusiasm. She takes a deep breath and considers it for a moment.

“It shouldn’t be too long.” She replies chirpily. “It’s quite gentle.” I smile in response and eye my clothing. I’m wearing a thin tank top, and shorts with a faded pattern on them that I never have any need for in 12. It’s odd, but not unpleasant.

Around my wrist though, I remember to wear a subtle leather bracelet I found before we left 12, one that must’ve been my Father’s.

Annie offers me a cup of chamomile tea, and we are sipping from our cups quietly when Peeta appears at the foot of the stairs.

“Morning,” he says with a smile, and accepts the cup Annie gives him. They engage in small talk for a while, and I spread my scarred legs across the couch, letting the slight breeze caress them in soothing strokes.

I’m not willing to let anything ruin my mood today.

“Well, if Katniss agrees, we can leave as early as possible?” I hear Annie say, and I give a nod in the affirmative.


 

The hike is hot. Sweat sticks to me in every possible area, and my clothes cling to my form like a second skin. I lift my hand to swipe back the drops on my forehead and squint into the sunshine ahead of me.

The trek is level, worn down by so many feet that it resembles a path. Thankfully, the trees provide a little cover - they are not so much like the ones in the Quarter Quell that I feel uncomfortable, and for that I am grateful, because I do not want Peeta getting any flashbacks. We walk for the morning, and despite it being flat, we go slowly, the air stifling us like a gag.

It’s warm enough that Peeta actually ends up getting a bottle and pouring water all over himself.

“Peeta!” I gasp, but a round of astonished giggles prevents me from sincerely chastising him. He turns around with a large smirk, and closes his eyes dramatically.

“It feels sooo good.” He promises me as he drops his head back in melodramatic pleasure, and I stifle a laugh.

“Whatever you say.”

He opens one eye and regards me with a roguish grin.

“I’ll prove it to you.” He says slyly, reaching for another of his numerous water bottles. I catch on a little too late, and I feel my eyes widen as he approaches me.

“Don’t you dare.”

I turn to sprint just as he splashes the contents of it towards me, and despite my last-ditch attempt at ducking, end up getting soaked.

“Peeta!” I shriek. He descends into a round of giggles so hard that he has to bend over, clutching onto his knees for support. I struggle to keep a straight face, despite my annoyance, and every time he risks a glance at my expression he only ends up laughing harder. When I look up at Annie, I see her chuckling behind her hand too, and I mock-scowl.

“It does feel nice though, doesn’t it?” He teases me after he’s calmed down. I pretend to shrug indifferently, though of course it does.

When we reach the clearing, I hear myself suck in a loud breath and my eyes go round.

It’s stunning. Not in the way the Capitol was the first time I saw it, all glitter and glamour in every inch of the city. No, mankind can sculpt and build and manipulate all he wants, but nothing we attempt can ever really compare to that of nature.

In the center of the mess of trees and undergrowth is a huge, round rock pool. It glistens in the sunbeams like a million diamonds, and the water is so clear that I can easily see the bountiful array of shells and seaweeds lurking beneath it’s depths. Flowers of all designs and colours line up along the edges of the pool; sky corn blues, soft pollen yellows, shocks of magnolia pink, all competing for my eye’s attention. But my gaze is already lost between the slight parting in the trees, through which I can see a long stretch of golden sand, as smooth as dust, reaching down to greet the sea.

The sky behind is bright, luminous and glowing, and the clouds fat and pearlescent as they lie in slumber across the heavens. My eyes are stuck to the feast of beauty that is lain out before them, and it takes me quite a few minutes before I can tear them away again.

“Come on,” Annie says, gesturing for us to follow her with a smile, and she goes and sits by the rock pools edge, removing her sandals. Peeta and I don’t hesitate to copy, more than happy to oblige.

We all sit there is companionable silence, occasionally sharing a joke as we eat our lunch and dip our toes into the lukewarm water. This is easier, I think to myself. Here, out in the sun and with my cheeks aching from smiling, it is easier to pretend that I am okay. Normal, even. Here I can get lost in distractions.

Yet even so, part of me is disappointed, depressed that this is not the escape I thought it would be, a break from the endless staring out the window, crying in the bathroom, the dull repetition that was my life in 12.

And it’s then that I realise that it’s not really a break from my everyday life that I need, but rather a break from feeling sad.

But, as far as my days go, these ones aren’t bad.

We spend the next part of a week in a similar fashion. Laidback and pleasant, we go swimming in the ocean, where the fish dance teasingly round our ankles, and paddle through rock pools in search of crabs. We make fires and roast marshmallows, and we wake early enough to see the sunrise, sipping our peppermint tea as night changes into day.

I stay close to Annie, and though neither of us says it, we both harbor a compassion for the other, a sort of quiet promise to keep each other company in our grief.

And though I don’t admit it, not even to myself, I watch as Peeta, with whom I start to experience more of those little stirrings, gets freckles below the burning gaze of the sun.

On the last night we go to a nearby little pub, whose front opens directly out onto the beach, and apparently brews the best beer in all of 4, according to Annie. By the time we arrive the sun has begun to set, and this evening it’s rays are soft and romantic, filmy layers of roses and red wine and burnt gold. The locals are dancing on the beach, their movements lazy and carefree, and over in the corner a band playing unfamiliar instruments pluck at their strings in a syncopated fashion. An old man with wrinkled skin the colour of coffee and a beard as white as the sea foam sings for us, a throaty, drawn out tune with an accent so rich I can barely make out a single word.

The total effect is intoxicating.

I feel my face pull up into a foreign smile, and I let Annie lead us over to the bar, where she orders breadsticks and beers (which she promises are really weak) and a dish of this weird red-ish looking dip. Then we go and claim a table outside, and watch the show.

I take a breadstick and dip it into the strange sauce, choking a little as I swallow. It’s spicy - really spicy, and I laugh at Peeta’s expression when he takes his first bite. The beer is smooth and tastes mildly of the ocean, its fruitiness washing down the fire in my mouth.

Peeta catches my eye across the table.

“Want to dance?” he asks, and the fire is back.

I roll my eyes as I take his hand and let him lead me out onto the dance floor.

The air is thick between us. He puts both his hands on my waist, and I clasp mine behind his neck. It’s a simple, relaxed dance, not unlike the ones we learnt in the Capitol, but with less formality. We take small steps back and forth, and occasionally Peeta lifts his arm to spin me round in time with the locals. Out of the corner of my eye I see Annie dancing with an old man with whiskers, one of the sailors she must be familiar with.

It’s enchanting to me, the whole thing. In 12, everyone stays locked away in their homes, nurturing their grief in privacy, silently trying to piece back together the mess of our district. But here, here the people play music and sing and dance to slow tempos, healing together as a community, each baby step laced with sunsets and quiet conversation. No pain is easy, but here they manage it in a way that seems to make it more bearable.

“You okay?” Peeta murmurs, his lips close to my ear. I nod and look up at him, locking gaze with those eyes that seem to have darkened with the amber light of evening, now a blue so deep one could drown within them.

“Are you?” I breathe, and he smiles crookedly, nodding down at me. We are so close now that if I tilted my head a couple centimeters forward, I would be able to rest my head on his chest and hear his heartbeat. My gaze keeps drifting to meet his, almost involuntarily, and each time it’s like a shock has sparked through my stomach. I’m new to this. I’m new with all of this, and I’m not sure if it excites me or terrifies me. Either way, the way Peeta’s eyes linger on me, dragging lazily across my sunburnt skin, and the way his body moves so close to mine, is making me feel alive.

I suck in a shaky breath, and will my cheeks to stop tingling, my eyes to stay where they should.

Eventually Peeta releases his hold on me as the sun sinks beneath the furthest waves and the musicians run out of music. I look up and deftly train my eyes on only Annie, forcing a smile onto my face as she gestures that it’s time to leave.

We walk over to her as she picks up her bag. She tells us that we can get home by walking along the beach for a while, so we pick our way through the damp sand in our bare feet, the waves chasing our sun-kissed toes. Annie and Peeta make light conversation, and soon we are immersed in the darkness of twilight. By the time we arrive at the Victor’s Village, my legs are done in and my body exhausted. We hastily bid goodnight, and afterwards, I lay in bed silently, staring up at the ceiling as I wait for Peeta.

The room, as always, is stained in shades of black and violet and grey, and I try to calm down, to blend in with the darkness out of habit. The time before sleep is the time to feel sad, to succumb to the inevitability of the emotion.

But tonight, even though I throw up warning signs in my head, even though I try to hide it beneath the familiar covers, my ear-splitting grin ends up lighting the whole place up.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8- Choking on flames

When I wake, Peeta is gone. The sheets beside me are crumpled and cold as I run my fingers through them, searching for him even though my foggy mind has already grasped that he is not beside me. I rub my eyes groggily and sit up.

It is still dark. Shadows as black as coal have settled into every inch of the bedroom, dirtying the euphoria left over from last night with their presence. I take a loud breath and swing my legs over the edge of the bed.

I’m still half-asleep as I meander down the hallway, searching for Peeta. He could’ve just gone to use the bathroom, a more sensible part of me points out, but then I hear quiet sobs coming from down the hallway, and alertness flushes through my body. A sharp twist tugs in the pit of my stomach at the thought that he has had another episode.

But when I reach the source of the noises, it is Annie’s door I am standing outside of, not his. Like a wild fox, I silently edge my head around the wall, so that I can see through the semi-open door.

There are shapes. One figure is hunched over, curled up in on itself in a posture I am all too familiar with, and the other half-sits beside it, a hand on their back. They are not embracing, but the larger figure murmurs in low, dulcet tones to the other one, whom I quickly identify as Annie.

She shakes a little, a sob occasionally escaping her, her hair hanging over her face like a privacy curtain. Peeta sits next to her, and then he leans over and wraps an arm around her shoulder, holding her tight.

I step back quickly, moving into the shadows as though I have just witnessed something I should not have. I can’t explain the irrepressible anger that abruptly rises through me, making me clench my fists at the same time as wanting to run back to my room and cry. You’re being a fool, I whisper to myself. She must’ve just had a nightmare.

Part of me tells me that I should go in, go and comfort her as well, but something roots me to the ground, my stomach grinding and clenching uncomfortably. I can feel the blood rushing to my face.

I silently make my way back to my room, and then I close the door tightly behind me.

I don’t know what I’m feeling. I shouldn’t be mad at Peeta- he was just doing the right thing, as always- but I am. The most selfish part of me starts hissing indignantly; he is supposed to be holding me!

I swallow away my self-disgust and shake my head to clear it. I walk over to the bed and climb in, telling myself I just need a good sleep, that my expectations were just ridiculously high because of last night. But as I turn and shift in an attempt to fall asleep, something deep, deep inside me keeps me up with the thought that- though I’ll never admit it- I know that he is really better off with someone like Annie.

Shut up! I command the voices, but they don’t. I’m drowning in their words; in their honesty. Because I know it’s true. I am not an easy person to be around, let alone love. And Peeta deserves someone who tries, someone who is kind and sweet and gentle and intelligent. I am none of these things.

I am burnt, and I am raw and selfish and ugly and hostile. And I am a failure; not just in being worthy of his love, but in life. In the scar I wear so repentantly across my wrist, though I know he could never forgive me for it; the scar that has stained my purity forever, the scar that is constant proof of my weakness.

I close my eyes and squeeze them tight, refusing to let a single bitter tear fall.


 

In the morning, I ignore the empty space beside me, the disappointment in my stomach, and the audience in my head. I get up and go to the bathroom to change, pulling my hair back from my face with a band whilst pretending the mirror isn’t there. Then I take a deep breath and head downstairs.

Peeta and Annie are chatting quietly when I come into the kitchen.

“Hey,” Annie says when she sees me, giving me a warm smile that makes it impossible for me to be upset with her. “Good morning Katniss.”

Peeta turns around and smiles at me. “Hey,” he says softly. But then his eyes latch onto mine, always reading me much too well, and I quickly break the contact as I step past him to help Annie with the toast.

“Hi.” I murmur, plastering a smile across my face. I take a slice of toast and start buttering it.

“Are you ok?” Peeta asks.

“Yes.” I say without looking at him. Then I swiftly turn and ask Annie if she would like jam on her slice.

I must be imagining the feel of his gaze on me for the whole time, but I don’t look at him to confirm it. I’ve made a big enough fool of myself as it is- we are only friends…admittedly friends that used to be desperately in love with each other, but still, just friends.

I keep my head down and try to train my expression into something more casual.

This is our last morning at Annie’s, so I attempt to make the most of it. We laugh and joke around over breakfast, and I find that it shocks me how good Annie is at keeping up the façade. From the way she laughs to the way she chats to us sunnily, you would never have guessed that she was the same woman that was crying her heart out under the secretive cloak of last night. It’s just like being in the games, I think. Always keeping up whatever pretense the audience demands.

Annie sees us off at the door, giving each of us a tight hug in farewell. We embrace and I smile at her.

“Thank you.” I say softly, trying to scramble for more words to express myself. She just gives me an understanding smile.

“Anytime.” She says warmly. “Write to me, okay?”

I nod and smile at her. “Of course.” I want to promise another visit, another trip, but with the way I am, it is hard for me to promise anything.

She nods and then gently moves to hug Peeta.

She leans against the door frame as we board the mini bus, a hand resting on her belly and, despite the prominent bags underneath her eyes, a warmth in her gaze. We wave until she vanishes from view.

I stare out of the window as the coast rolls past us, all streaks of grey and clouds today. If Peeta notices I’m strung tight, he doesn’t say anything.

We sit in silence as the bus jerks from side to side as it passes over the bumps in the road. I close my eyes, trying to block out all other thoughts, simply focusing on the different sounds I can hear. The crash of the ocean. The rocks crumbling underneath the rough tires of the bus. Several birds singing plaintively in the trees. Peeta’s heavy breathing. I catch myself subconsciously trying to match my breaths with his, and fail to smooth out the scowl that results on my forehead.

We jolt to a sudden stop, and my eyes shoot open. There is barely anyone on the bus save for Peeta and myself, but even so I can hear a few disgruntled murmurs.

“What was that?” I ask as Peeta looks down the aisle.

“The engine has broken down or something.” He tells me, a muscle in his jaw clenching. “I’m not sure if they’re trying to fix it or…”

I glance down the aisle too, ignoring how close I am to him in the movement, and then abruptly climb over and make my way down the short distance.

“Excuse me,” I say, and the driver looks up from where he is fumbling around underneath his chair for something. His eyes widen in recognition as he takes me in.

It’s strange, but I think of the Mockingjay as some sort of long lost legend, something that belonged to a different world, a different time. But then again, maybe it is not so strange; there is a significant line that is sliced between your life once you realise just how terrified you are of it.

My tone comes out sharp, and I can’t really say I don’t intend for it to. “What’s going on?” I say, gesturing tightly to the dashboard. The driver blinks, and then sets his lips into a purse.

“I’ll be getting it fixed as soon as possible, ma am.”

I raise one eyebrow, and look up just when I feel Peeta’s presence appear beside me. “How long will you be, Sir?” he asks.

The driver scrunches up his face. “Maybe 20 minutes.”

“Call us when you’re done…please.” I turn and leave the bus, climbing hastily down the steps. We have stopped by a beach- just a small one, and it is completely deserted. There aren’t any other cars on this road just yet.

The sky above is grey and dank, silvery clouds rolling over us. But I don’t find them ugly- if anything, it is a relief to have the world in tune with my mood. At the edge of my view the sun peeks through a fabric of heavy mist, masking its light white and blinding, splayed out across the horizon. Today, the ocean is oddly calm, the waves uncharacteristically indolent in their dance.

I feel, rather than hear Peeta behind me. But I don’t turn. I stand, facing the ocean, facing the clouds, and pretend I am part of them. That I am indifferent to the boy behind me. That my insides don’t still feel heavy, as if all I have eaten for the past 5 days is rock. It bears me down, and I can’t stand how vulnerable that makes me feel.

Peeta comes closer. “Katniss.” He says, voice rough and low. When I don’t react, he almost seems to silently sigh. I swallow hard.

Get over yourself, my brain commands me, and I am just about to give in and go and sit back on the bloody bus when he speaks.

“Can I hold you?”  

 

…Can I hold you?

It’s a whisper, a gust of wind fluttering across the surface of the sea, and raising goose bumps down my skin, like the ghost of a touch.

I nod, and his arms carefully encircle me, my back to his chest, his hands over my stomach. He embraces me for a while, watching the unchanging scenery, until we hear the Driver’s shout to return. His arms slowly retract from around me, and he starts to move back.

“Katniss?” he says, and I let my eyes slip closed briefly, before turning and following him back onto the bus.


 

I slowly peel my eyelids open and blink, dazed, glancing at the room around me. I’m so comfortable and warm, that I almost let myself drift back to sleep when I suddenly tense and my eyes shoot open.

I was on the bus. Just now I was watching the sea disappear behind me, sitting on the stained seat beside Peeta. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and turn around.

Peeta is sitting on the bed beside me, on top of the covers, a sketching pad in his hand. He looks up and sees me awake.

“Hey,” he says, smiling. “You okay?”

I frown and pull the covers up around me. “Where are we?” I ask.

“The train…You fell asleep in the bus.”

I look around and only now do I identify the room as being almost identical to the one I had when we traveled up. I sigh and let my head fall back onto the pillow.

“I’m sorry.” I say, fighting the queer sensation that rises up through me as I realise he must’ve carried me here.

“Don’t worry about it.” He smiles easily at me and I listen as the sound of pencil scraping paper resumes.

“What are you drawing?” I ask after a minute of silence. He pauses for a moment, then leans over and hands me the sketchbook.

It’s the sea. And not just the way you normally see it- closer. As if you’ve been swimming in it, out too far, and only now just straightened up and stopped to observe.

The layers of greys that flow through each wave are mesmerising. Despite there being no colour, it’s almost as if I’m seeing more, as if the black and white of it allows me to dive deeper into the picture. The sun is setting- or rising- too, but for the most part the sky is left relatively empty, just a touch of shading here and there. Yet that’s not what catches my eye most in the drawing.

Near the background of the landscape, there is a girl. She is facing away from the observer, upright in the water, her entire top half above the surface. Her back is bare, naked, the tresses of her hair dark and tangled across her shoulders and neck.

I study the drawing for a while longer, until I look up and see Peeta studying me.

“What do you think?” he says after a moment. My gaze runs across his eyes, the sort of blue that drowns ships out at sea and seems to want to pour out onto the page that is clasped tight between my fingers.

“Mermaids?” I ask after a beat, and he smiles.

“Not, um, really, no.” He murmurs, and I glance up at him. The question behind my lips struggles to be freed, but after a few heartbeats of fighting, I force it back down.

I focus my gaze back on the picture, but my mind seems to want to wander, and instead considers the warmth of his body where it is aligned along mine. I shake my head and pass him back the sketchbook. “How long was I out for?”

Peeta grins and gestures towards the plastic clock on the ceiling. “You’re just in time for dinner.”

It’s ridiculous, but ever since last night, I have been finding myself hyper-aware of him. Not in the way a huntress is aware of her prey, but in the way the prey is aware of her hunter. Every breath, movement, affects me. As we sit down I note the distance between our chairs. As he passes me the water jug my eyes linger on his exposed wrist. As we make our way back to our rooms, I can hear my heart pounding in my chest, and when his fingers accidentally brush mine, I feel as though my skin has erupted into flames.

He pauses by the doorway once we reach my bedroom, and his mouth opens and closes. Then he shakes his head and looks up at me again.

“Do you want me to join you?” he asks, gesturing towards the bedroom. For unknown reasons my cheeks are hot, palms sweaty. If he stays with me tonight, I will make a fool of myself.

“Um,” I begin. “No, it’s-uh-okay. Thanks.”

Something intense and unfathomable passes over his eyes as he looks at me. “Okay,” he says, moving around me. “…Sleep well, Katniss.”

I look back and nod, my mouth going dry. Then I quickly step into my room and shut the door behind me.

I hug myself as I lean back against the painted wood, finally finding the air to breathe. My entire body feels like jelly, like china, as if one tiny movement will send me into shatters. I hold myself tighter, and press my palms to my tingling cheeks.

How am I supposed to survive this?

I close my eyes for a moment, and then precariously make my way to the bathroom.


 

The first thing I notice when we get back are the geese. And it’s not really the geese themselves that are so fascinating, but rather where they are situated.

Because there are a herd of squawking, flapping geese in Haymitch’s front yard.

“What in the…”

The words have barely left my mouth before I start gingerly making my way through the squabble of honks and fluttering wings towards Haymitch’s porch, Peeta close on my heel. I push open the door with my shoulder, and am immediately assaulted by a stench so vile this morning’s breakfast threatens to make a reappearance.

“Urgh…” I pinch my nose and gag, almost giggling at Peeta’s similar reaction.

When we get into the lounge, Haymitch is sitting on an armchair facing the stain-glass window, a bottle in his hand and the wreckage of what looks like a hurricane spilled out across the carpet and furniture.

“Haymitch, why does it smell like Satan pissed in your house?” I ask and he turns and looks up at me, a crude grin spreading across his half-drunk features.

“Oh, so there’s my favourite girl again,” He says, drawling out the words. “I’ve missed you. Last time I see you, you flip out and smash half my dishes, and this time you greet me with the songs of affection I’ve so dearly craved.”

I scowl at him, which only provokes another smirk. Peeta didn’t need to know about last time.

“I see you’ve got yourself some company.” Peeta begins, smiling easily as he clears some of the couch space before motioning for me to sit beside him. “No thanks,” I mouth at him, trying not to think too hard about what could have possibly made stains of those colours.

Haymitch just nods, taking another long gulp from his bottle.

“Why the geese?” I say after a heartbeat.

Haymitch doesn’t say anything for a few moments, his expression oddly solemn. Then he blinks and swings his bottle through the air carelessly.

“I guess we all need to feel needed, eh sweetheart?” He downs the last of his liquor, and throws the bottle onto the growing pile on the other armchair. Then he looks up at me and frowns. “Don’t you dare think ‘bout shooting one of them down for your supper, though.”

We laugh and he grins, but behind the words it’s strangely endearing to think of wasted, roughened Haymitch getting sentimental over a couple of geese. My heart clenches a little at the thought. We are not the only ones changed by the War.

“Do you want to join us for dinner tonight?” I blurt out, then immediately start fiddling with the frayed edges of my sweater. I know Peeta is looking at me.

“Oh, I’m touched.” Haymitch says, his voice dripping with false sincerity. “But no, it’s fine, you two kids have fun.” Then he frowns. “When are the next trains coming in?” He asks, looking at Peeta.

Peeta’s eyes seem to darken with an understanding, but then he smiles warily and says “Long enough that you’ll be sufficiently sober to smell what is killing every insect within a five-mile radius of your house.”

Haymitch scowls as I bite my lip to stop the laughter escaping. “Ok, off with you two lovebirds.” He declares, all but waving us from the room, and the smile instantly falls off my lips. I glare at him from across the room.

His chuckles follow me down the hallway as I storm out.

I’m more wound up than I should be by Haymitch’s little comment, but I work to keep it off my face at dinnertime.

Greasy Sae comes round to check on us, a basket full of ingredients and utensils prepared to make dinner, but Peeta waves her off, saying he can take care of it.

“Is that okay?” he asks, when he sees my expression.

“Yes,” I say, my head snapping up, a little flustered. “Yes, no that’s fine.”

A smile crawls across Greasy Sae’s lips as she watches us. It doesn’t falter even as she turns to leave a few minutes later, the basket hitched high on her hip as she disappears down the hallway.

Peeta stands at the stove, sautéing something in a saucepan. I get up to help him prepare the peppers at the side, and he shoots me a grateful smile.

“What are you thinking?” he says after a moment, eyes never leaving the saucepan. I look over at him, my eyes wide. I’ve become so accustomed to not talking about my feelings that it almost feels unnatural to do so.

But this is Peeta, and if I had to be honest with anyone, it would have to be him.

Slowly, I pick up the small knife and begin slicing the peppers into strips, trying to ignore the simile that keeps pressing at the forefront of my mind.

“Well,” I begin, licking my lips. “I was just…I was thinking how it seems so…distant. The time before we left. It doesn’t- it seems wrong to still have the same routine when I feel as though I’ve changed. I guess the thought of Greasy Sae cooking us dinner made me notice it.”

He looks up at me, eyes soft and thoughtful and penetrating.

“Yes.” He says after a moment. “Yes. It feels like more time has passed that it has.”

I nod, something in me snapping its head up at his words. I look over at him, ready to decipher what it is, but then I’m too lost, lost in his eyes, lost in the expression and gravity and depth that consumes my entire vision and steals any coherent thought from my lips. I never knew that a colour so blue could feel so much like fire.

This is a much better way to burn, a voice inside of me murmurs faintly.

He blinks, and clears his throat, face flushed although something tells me it isnt’t because he is embarrassed. But I am, and I quickly turn back to the peppers and begin cutting them with more aggression that is necessary. I hate that he has this effect on me. I hate that it makes me feel weak.

The silence is awful, but I refuse to break it. He’s the one that’s supposed to be good at this sort of thing, at the whole romance side of our relationship and in making sure things don’t get too awkward. All I was ever supposed to do was comply.

But for once, Peeta can’t find the words either.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9- Lighting a match

The bow feels heavy and foreign in my hands. I hold it between frail fingers, hands that have been so stained by the colour of blood that they seem to still think they are red beneath the late afternoon sun.

I close my eyes for a brief second, and allow myself one moment of respite.

My heart gallops forward in my chest, my stomach swooping unreassuringly and my palms growing moist. This should not be hard. I am a huntress. I have pulled back the string on this bow a million times.

Too many times. I’ve seen my arrows plunge into the hearts of children, of victors, of presidents. Sometimes at night they come back to murder me, but sometimes, it is still the other way around.

The war may be over, but for me, this is no peace.

I open my eyes and focus on the makeshift target at the bottom of the garden. 3 round circles. It looks nothing like a person.

Pretend it’s a prey, I tell myself. Pull yourself together Katniss.

I take a deep breath and press my lips together so hard that they will be bruised tomorrow morning, and then I position the arrow, pull the string taut, and aim.

In, out. Focus on your breathing.

I let go.

Bull’s eye. I don’t breathe for a moment, finding it impossible that I could get that on my first shot, when my fingers were shaky and my head swimming. But I did, and my eyebrows fly up in shock. I let the bow fall to my side, and my mouth parts. I did it. I can do it.

The corners of my mouth twitch up, and then I go to retrieve the arrow.

 


                                                

 

I take to practicing my archery more often, while Peeta bakes and Haymitch drinks himself into oblivion. I seldom do as well as I did on that first day, that first shot, but it becomes easier and easier. It keeps myself busy, something to distract me from just sitting there and bathing in my pain.

And though I don’t like to admit it, it also distracts me from thinking of Peeta.

It’s strange how one can swing from adoration to loathing in the fraction of a moment. I’m an unstable pendulum, unable to make up my mind. But generally, I bank on hate. It’s safer.

The frustration of the whole scenario can sometimes lead to broken glasses in my bedroom, where he won’t find them, and punching pillow’s late at night. He doesn’t sleep with me anymore, and I don’t invite him too. There are times I want to kick myself for brushing him off that night, the night on the train, but then I remind myself that if he really wanted me, he would have offered again.

I don’t know what to do with these feelings.

We are amiable, yes, but I spend so much time worrying myself to bits that I begin to lose track of what is real, and of what is just in my head. Sometimes I imagine it would be easier to just ask him.

You still love me. Real or not real?

But then I’m reminded that deep down, I already know the answer. So I keep my mouth shut and my indifferent facade up.


 

And then one day I fail. It happens after I’ve just finished practicing, and I’m at the sink, pouring myself a glass of water when I see him. Them. The window is open wide, a result of the lazy humidity that rarely encompasses 12. Bronzed sunshine as thick as honey pours languidly over the taupe stone bricks of the Victors’ Village, and it trickles through the bright green leaves, lighting them up like lanterns. I’m about to take a sip when I pause.

Peeta is outside on the doorsteps of his house, leaning against the railing as he talks animatedly to a girl. I can only see the back of her, but she is blonde, fluid golden curls trailing down her back and a sweet, rounded figure. There is a basket of something in her hand.

He looks so at ease, a tranquil smile adorning his lips, cheeks dusted pink and eyes bright. He looks happy.

And I’m a shaken bottle, ready to explode.

Before I can think about what I’m doing, my arrow is drawn, and shooting through the open window and between the perfect couple to bury itself into the wooden panel of Peeta’s door. They both jump back in shock, the girl dropping her hamper onto the ground, it’s contents splayed across the stairs. A dainty hand flies to her chest, a squeal escaping her. From this angle, I can now see her pretty rounded face, heart-shaped lips and generous bosom.

Fuck them.

I storm out the house, my feet carrying me across the short distance to Peeta’s house, and then I train my expression into something a little more composed.

“Excuse me,” I say coolly, stepping over the girl’s groceries and reaching for my arrow. The girl bends down, scrambling for her belongings, and when she straightens up, her eyes widen.

“Oh!” She squeaks. “Um, Kat- Miss Everdeen, I –“ My glare cuts her off mid-sentence and her eyes dart to Peeta behind me before she turns and half-runs down the road and out of the village. I watch her perfect ringlets bounce as she disappears out of sight.

I can feel Peeta’s gaze burning a hole through the back of my neck.

“Katniss.” I turn to leave, and his hand reaches out to grasp mine.

“Let me go,” I hiss, yanking myself free and walking for my house. My cheeks are on fire now, and with the moment of fury gone, I can feel humiliation rising through me like a tide wave.

“Katniss.” He says through gritted teeth, but I don’t turn to face him until I’m at the threshold of my house, and his arm snakes around me and latches onto my arm.

What!” I spin around to face him, and those diamond eyes are so intense that I falter for a moment. He sets his jaw.

“What the hell was that?” he says, and I lose it.

“What the hell was THAT?!” I scream. “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK IT WAS?!”

“Dammit, Katniss.” He growls. “I’m not a bleeding mind-reader. If you could stop shutting me out f-“

“I DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN MYSELF TO YOU!” My heart races so hard in my chest I feel as if I’ve become a pounding, bleeding heart myself. I can’t see straight. “I DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN MYSELF TO ANYONE!”

“AND THEN WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO?” He yells.

“DON’T DO ANYTHING!” I shout, turning for the stairs. JUST LEAVE ME ALONE AND GO AND DO YOUR BLOODY BAKING AND LEAVE ME FOR ONE GODDAMNED SECOND OF YOUR LIFE ALONE!”

His face is flushed scarlet, as if he has just been slapped, and for a few haunting moments, we are both silent.

“Right.” He says quietly, and then he turns and slams the door shut, not looking at me.

My heart is beating too fast, and slowly the world stops spinning, until it is still, eerily still. I take a step back and my hand finds the edge of the dining table, gripping onto it as if to steady me. I blink, once, slowly, and then to my horror, burst into tears.

Ugly, wretched sobs escape me, and even though I bite down on my fist so hard that I taste blood, I cannot quiet myself. It’s a wreck. I’ve ruined everything.

I stumble down the hallway to the bathroom, and then lock the door and sink to the ground beside the toilet. I hate bathrooms, I think. I both hate and love these cold, white rooms, where the doors lock and promise me a few hours of self-hate in peace. These rooms are my sanctuary, these rooms are my church. These are the rooms that will await me in hell, with doors that only open one way and have nothing but my name scrawled all over their front.

Maybe these are the rooms in which I will die.

I kind of used to think that when I died, it would be a heroic, or a momentous occasion. My Father died in an explosion, debris sprinkled all over the place and bits of shrapnel piercing his loved ones heart. But I, I am not my Father. The lucky ones get to go with a bang, the cowardly with not even a squeak.

We die in silence, in empty rooms and with empty hearts. We die quietly, no words for our pain, nobody we love enough to fill our last few thoughts. We die, and when we do, it is as insignificant as the cricket that stops chirping, as the wind that stops blowing, as the song that trails off to an end. We die, and we die alone.

But there is someone I care for. And it is the thought of him that stills my searching hand (that one that always craves a knife, like a drug addict craves morphling). And it’s not the boy I can no longer look at across the road outside, so close but so far away. It is the boy that I used to love, that stayed with me every night, that could kiss me like a starved man on the brink of war, that gave up everything again and again just for me. It is the boy with the bread.

A phone begins to ring somewhere outside, jerking me from my daze. A reminder that life is still going on behind the bathroom door.

I blink back the fresh tears. He would have never let this happen. He would have taken one look at my cut and have started crying, furious, heart-broken tears and then have held me to him. He would have kissed me if I let him, until I remembered that life was worth living again.

“I’m sorry,” I gasp, choking on the thickness in my throat. “I’m so, so, so, so sorry.” My words run together as I hunch over and wheeze, clutching at the hole in my middle. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.”

Time passes as it must, until I can cry no more and the bathroom becomes just a bathroom again.

The phone rings again, and I somehow manage to find the strength to stand. I manage to unlock the door, and I manage to wipe my face and clear my throat. And then I pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey brainless.”

My heart stutters, and stills.

“Jo- Johanna?”

“You bet. Still not dead yet- remember me?”

I blink in surprise, my brain struggling to catch up.                                        

“…Hey!” I exclaim. “You- I’m sorry, I’ve just been…”

“…Stuck in it?”

“Yeah,” I say quietly. Then I clear my throat. “How are you?”

“Shitty. Life sucks. Anyway, I actually need to ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“I’ve been…doing this tour thing. Traveling around the districts. My therapist thought it would be good for me.” She snorts. “But basically, I was wondering if you’d mind if I dropped by. Just for a day or two…I…it’s not been- well.” She says, a note of vulnerability only creeping in at the end, and I can’t help but be reminded of that terrified, wide-eyed girl that I tried to comfort in 13.

“Sure. When would you get here?”

“This evening.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Wow, thanks for the early warning.”

She laughs.

“Be grateful you got one.”

I hesitate, before saying what I have to next. “Do you think you could call and tell Peeta as well? I mean, you can stay in my house but just so there are no surprises.”

“Okay, but I intend to wheedle the explanation out of you later.” Then her voice turns serious. “How is Peeta?”

It’s ridiculous how my stomach swoops. “He-He…He’s,” I take a deep breath to steady myself. “He’s fine. Better.”

“Better?” she asks, and I nod without thinking. She waits for a further elaboration that never comes.

There’s a moment of silence, and then she says, “And you two?”

“…And…us?”

“How are you two lovebirds doing, status-wise?”

“Johanna, don’t.” I say, my voice coming out weaker and more broken than I like.

There’s a pause, and then she gives an annoyed sigh. “Katniss, I don’t want to be the one sitting between you two not knowing what’s going on. Just, are you friends or what?”

I try to focus on my breathing. There’s a rising panic building up in my chest, rendering my limbs jittery and frail. Anxiety courses through my blood like venom.

“Can we,” I try to keep my voice even, though I clutch the phone next to me like it might explode. “Please, talk about it later?”

“Okay.” She says, and I exhale. “So…I guess I’ll see you this evening.” I can hear a slight smile in her voice.

“Yeah,” I breathe. “See you soon.”

I hang up, and then immediately feel guilty for doing so. The jittery feeling- the kind you get when you’ve had too much sugar and now you think you’re going to hurl- hasn’t left yet, and I’m suddenly grateful that I have something to do. This house barely suffices as livable.

I rummage through the closets until I locate a pan and brush, duster and some soap, and then I set about tidying the place.

Out of the corner of my eye, the windows of Peeta’s house taunt me, mocking my every step. But whenever I look up, I don’t see him inside.

Maybe he’s avoiding me. I wouldn’t blame him.

I get down on my knees, the hard wood scraping against my shins, and set about polishing the house clean of its imperfections, as if in doing so I might also amend mine. I move piles, fill rubbish bins and sweep away decades’ worth of dust. I mop floors and change sheets and make beds, until my back is sore, my knees bruised, and my hands cracked. I work and work until my body can take no more, and then I keep going.

I like it. Feels good after so long of doing nothing. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.

Only now do I understand why Annie’s house is so clean. It’s a compromise for the mess inside of her.

I smooth down the corners of the guest bed one more time, and then look up. I’ve been stalling. The windows on his house blink over at me in the sunlight. I give a frustrated sigh and then collapse on the sofa chair.

I hate that I miss him, even now. I hate that it’s a constant, insatiable desire, need, a part of me crying out always for his company, for his arms. Always, he said. Always. But where is he now?

I throw the cushion across the room with a grunt, and glare at it. “Goddammit.”

Then I sigh and go and pick the thing up, before heading back downstairs.

 


 

 

I can’t cook.

That much is obvious, but I thought I would have been able to handle a basic casserole. Yet the thing’s overcooked, or gone wrong somehow, and now all I have to show for my efforts is a thick, brown-ish orange sludge, and a handful of frayed nerves.

I grasp the edge of the kitchen counter, and slowly count to ten.

I straighten up and chew my lip raw, as I face a graying sky. It’s okay, I try to tell myself. I don’t know the plans for dinner – whether Peeta is dining with us or not (and the coward in me desperately hopes for the latter) – but I decide to just go with it. I’ll take it as it comes, because that’s the only way I can.

I glance at the clock for a moment, deem dinner a failure, and go to grab my coat.

It’s not such a long walk from the Village to the Station, but like the rest of this day, it takes too long to pass. Johanna called me again an hour before, letting me know when she was arriving, and in all honesty, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t know if I can survive holding myself together and acting normal for another whole day or two.

I arrive at the station with five minutes to spare, according to the old cranky thing that hangs above the barren platform, and may or may not be on time. I can just start to see the train arriving in the distance when I hear him approaching from behind me.

Terror floods me. It cannot be anyone but him-no one else can walk that loud-and my body goes rigid, my heartbeat thudding in my ears.

God, I’m pathetic.

I don’t turn around, but I see him go and stop a fair distance from me, further up the platform. Johanna must’ve called him.

I stare at a potted plant in front of me, blood rushing in my face. I think I might pass out.

Thankfully the train pulls up in front of us, slowing torturously, and another 30 seconds pass before the doors open.

And then she’s there. Her face is washed clean, skin pale and shadows bloom her eyes. But there is just a little more of a spark in her eyes, a little colour in her cheeks, and her hair is shorter, pulled up into a lazy ponytail. She comes out of the door closest to me, and when her eyes focus on mine, her lips pull up into a curved smirk. “Hey Everdeen,” she says, an eyebrow quirked. “You look crap.”

“Thanks.” I mutter, and she smiles wider, before enveloping me in a completely unexpected hug. I don’t quite react fast enough through the shock to return the sentiment, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Then she abruptly lets go of me and goes to embrace Peeta, and I quiet the snarl of displeasure that curls in my stomach.

“Right,” she says, letting him go. “Where’s the food?” I smile briefly before turning on my heel and heading back the way.

I keep a bit of distance between Peeta and Johanna, where they chat as we make our way back to the Victor’s village. When we part Johanna gives him a quick, “See ya,” and just as I look up, his eyes catch me. Bright electric blue against the forlorn clouds. My gaze snaps away, and I roughly shove open the front door of my house.

Once we’re inside, Johanna dumps her bag on the dining table, surveying the room. “So,” She says casually. “What’s got between you two?”

I scowl as I lift up the plate on top of the “casserole”. “Nothing.” I say.

“Nothing?” she laughs loudly. “My ass. The sexual tension between you guys was killing me.”

My face flushes, and as I turn around to face her I jut my chin out defiantly.

“I shot an arrow between him and some girl.”

I keep my expression hard, and she stares at me for a moment, before bursting out laughing.

“Oh my God,” she says through maniac-like giggles. “I have to hear this.”

“No,” I reply through gritted teeth. “But if you want to hear something equally amusing, guess what? We aren’t getting any dinner tonight.”

“No worries.” She says, and I look back at her. “I came prepared.” She pulls out two large bottles of some clear liquid, and I glare at her.

“We aren’t getting drunk.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“Being the fucked up hell-hole I am, I am very conscientious of when a girl needs a drink, and I’m afraid that you most certainly do.” She unceremoniously pulls out the cork with her teeth, spits it into the waste bin, and holds out the bottle to me.

“C’mon, virgin. It’ll make you feel better.” I eye her warily for a moment, and then take the bottle and place it to my lips, before swinging it back and taking one huge gulp.

“Damn, that’s strong,” I gasp, slamming the bottle down onto the counter as a hand flies to my throat. She snickers as the liquid washes down my throat with a sharp burning sensation, and slowly settles into a fuzzy warmth in my chest. I thrust the bottle back to her, and she takes a long sip with ease.

“Ok,” she says, hopping up on the counter. “Spill.”

I blink back tears as I scramble for the words.

“I guess…well it started when he first came back from the Capitol. It took a while for us to become friends, or whatever, again.” I look at her and she nods.

“And then…” I find that I don’t really want to tell her about that night, the one when I found him during the flashback, so I skim over it. “We sort of got closer, and then we went to Annie’s in 4 because- you know, she asked us to and yeah- and it was just kind of then that I realized…I mean, he doesn’t like me anymore.”

Johanna stares at me appraisingly. “You mean love you?”

I take a deep breath, and nod.

“Ok, give me that back.” I grab the bottle out of her hand and take one long swig.

“So,” she begins. “You’re basically trying to tell me that you still love him but are convinced that he no longer love you?”

“Know. I know he doesn’t.”

“And this has what to do with shooting an arrow at him and some girl?”

“It wasn’t at him,” I grumble as I take another sip. “It was just between him and her.”

She snorts.

“And I don’t know, I just saw them flirting and lost my temper.” I flinch as I remember the argument. “And then I kind of screamed at him. And he kind of walked out. And I think I’m kind of going to throw up.”

Johanna pops open the second bottle, and I open and close my mouth. “Don’t protest.” She says, grabbing two glasses. “You need to let it out.”

“That’s it.”

“Well,” she says, pouring herself a glass. “I don’t think he doesn’t love you.”

I glower at her.

“The hell he does. And I’m fine. You’re right; life sucks, and I can deal with that.”

She shoots me a sidewards glance as she hands me a glass. “He’s had practice. You, girl on fire, don’t know shit about dealing with unrequited feelings.”

I roll my eyes as I struggle to keep my temper. “Yeah, and I suppose having the boy you’d die for wrap his hands around your throat doesn’t count.”

“If he didn’t care,” she says, sloshing the alcohol in her glass. “He wouldn’t be looking at you like that.”

I choke a little on my drink and she smirks. “He’s not looking at me, period.”

“Yes he is. It’s that sort of cross between anger and that kicked-puppy look. And what did you say to him exactly before he walked out?”

I flush and look down at my drink. “I told him to leave me alone.”

Suddenly, Johanna starts laughing so hard she needs to grip onto the edge of the sink to stay upright.

“Oh God, Katniss. You’re an idiot.”

I scowl at her, but I can already feel the effects of the alcohol beginning to set in, rendering my mind fuzzy and my body warm and tingly. I like it.

“I feel bad for the boy,” Johanna says between snickers. “And considering I am heartless, that’s saying something.”

“I don’t,” I grumble.

“Katniss, you told him to leave you alone, and now you’re upset because he is leaving you alone.”

“It was not that simple!”

“Why don’t you just ask him how he feels?”

“BECAUSE I KNOW,” I half-scream.

She eyes me for a long second, appraising me with judgmental eyes, which is a bit rich really, considering her form is starting to sway gently to the side.

“Smash this,” she says abruptly, holding out a simple mug. I stare at her dubiously, before taking it and hurling it towards the other wall. It crashes against the plaster with a satisfying clatter.

Johanna proceeds to hand me another mug, snickering, and I take that and do the same, feeling childish, but not quite caring enough to stop. Before I know it, she’s joined in, and half the dishes are lying in shards at end of the room. She’s yelling things like “You show ‘em, girl on fire!” and “How’s that feel, huh?!” and I start giggling, something I can’t ever recall doing before.

I take the bottle and tilt my head back, choking a little when it all runs down the front of my shirt, the scent of alcohol etched permanently into my nostrils. But I don’t care. I don’t care at all about anything, or any of the consequences. Because this is exhilarating, because I feel good, so good, and because I can barely remember my own name, let alone any of my worries.

So when Johanna gets up onto the table, singing and waving her glass around unsteadily, I get up with her, scrambling on the edge of the uneven wood, and shout until my throat is sore, my bottle empty, and my vision unfocused and blurry. And then when the world beneath me starts to spin, my soul caught up in a blur of colours and voices and sounds, I laugh a little louder, and let it all go.

 


 

 

Ow.

The first thing I register when I come to is the acute pounding in my head, so real that for a moment I have myself convinced someone is actually punching me in the skull. But then I feel the cold gust of wind brushing against my frozen legs, the tingling in the arm that is crushed under my chest, and I internally curse.

Oh God, why.

A smell wafts into my nose, and I gag, the odor of alcohol and dust and please-don’t-let-that-be-puke encompassing my senses. I groan and open my eyes.

Johanna. She is slung across one of the sofas, her dark hair matted and her mouth lying open against a cushion as she sleeps. A stream of sunlight falls across her back, leaking in through the open window.

Why the hell is the window open?

I feel my brows furrow, and I sit up to inspect the rest of the room when a rug slips off my legs and I see that I’m only half-dressed.

Why the hell am I in my underwear?

I groan loudly and give up, one quick glance confirming the place is, indeed, trashed, and that I am screwed. I fall back onto the sofa in exasperation.

The door briefly creaks open, and I sit straight back up. I almost do a double-take when Peeta walks into the room.

His eyes meet mine and my mouth falls open, my hand going up to attempt to smooth back my birds-nest hair. I spot a hamper in his arms.

He doesn’t smile, but he doesn’t seem angry either. His eyes scan the room skeptically, and then he raises his brows.

“Hey.” He says, looking at me.

“Hi.”

My voice is hoarse and rough, and I clear it several times self-consciously. He leaves the hamper down on the kitchen counter, and then walks over to the table and puts down two bottles of water and a small white box. “You might want those.” He says, pointing to the box, and turns to leave.

He pauses at the doorway though, looking back and boring his gaze intently into me, but I turn away and cover my legs, trying to retain a little dignity. His eyes dart down to where I am busying myself with the rug, and although his expression does not change, a somewhat satisfying flush rises to his cheeks.

He studies me in a way that makes me feel naked once more, before turning and walking out the door.

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding, exhaling loudly. Curiosity over-powers me, and before I know it, I am slowly crawling over the sofa to the table, picking up the white box and examining it. I frown as I read the label, and then my mouth falls open.

He’s given me painkillers.

I stare at the box in shock for a few moments, and then quickly pull open one of the layers, popping a long white pill out of its tin burrow and fumbling with the water bottle. I’m just swallowing as Johanna yawns from my right.

I look over at her, and she smiles mischievously.

“What?”

“Morning to you too,” she says with a smirk, and then promptly groans, a hand reaching up to pinch the bridge of her nose as she frowns.

“Here,” I say, tossing her a water bottle and the little white box, and she takes one hastily.

“So,” I begin after her forehead smoothes out. “What on earth did we do last night that warranted this?” I gesture out towards the mess of the room.

She shoots me an incredulous look. “You seriously don’t remember?”

I shake my head.

She snorts. “Well, first we smashed some dishes, and then got a little wild before heading out to Haymitch’s-“

“Haymitch’s?!”

She quirks an eyebrow at me. “-and raiding some of his liquor. Oh, and I remember some geese too. We chased them and then I got naked and you tried to kiss Peeta.”

I choke on my water, the liquid getting lodged in my throat and spraying all down my front as I gasp for air.

“What?!” I half-scream.

“You tried to kiss loverboy. I think he came out half-way through the goose-chasing, and then you tried to run but slipped up and fell on your ass, and when he went to help you, murmuring something about getting you inside, you tried to kiss him.”

I stare at her, paralyzed on the couch, my brain running a mile a minute.

“I don’t blame you, to be fair. That whole serious, noble- good guy act was kinda sexy.”

I blink several times, trying to find my tongue. “And- and what did he do?” I gasp, feeling sick to my stomach.

“What, when you went for it? Oh, the same old chivalrous thing. I think he said something like “Katniss, no,”” She drops her voice in a poor imitation, “and then he picked you up and carried you back to the house, all the while you kept clinging onto his neck. But I’m not sure if that was affection or if you were just half-dead.”

I’m going to die. I am going to die from mortification.

Johanna laughs when she sees my face, which is not entirely the level of reassurance I need. “Oh, don’t worry. You only took off your pants once he left. I have done way worse.”

“How do you remember all this?” I moan, clutching the rug like a safety rope. She looks at me for a second too long, and then says, “Practice.”

I sink my head into my hands as Johanna moves off the sofa and crosses the room, and upon uncovering the hamper, groans loudly.

“Oh my God,” she says, voice thick through a mouthful. “Your baker boy is fabulous. Now I understand why you love him.”

I jump up and cross the room in seconds, eyes growing wide at what’s in front of me.

Cheesebuns. He baked us. Bloody. Cheesebuns.

I’m wordless as I watch Johanna stuff her face with the fluffy, melted goodness. Why? Why is he being so kind? When all I did was snap at him, be moody, and get jealous over something that doesn’t even belong to me?

“He must’ve really enjoyed that almost-kiss.”

I pin her with a glare as I move past her and to the bathroom. I will not eat those goddamn buns. I will not touch what I do not deserve.

I splash my face with cold water and stare at my reflection in the mirror. Clammy face, chapped lips and blood-shot eyes scowl back at me. It is all too reminiscent of that morning all those weeks-months, ago in the bedroom ensuite. Still crazy. Still a madwoman.

Except now I’m used to it.

I shake my head as I head back from the bathroom and resolutely avoid drooling over those buns. Their scent lures me in, rich, cheesy warmth caressing my stoic form. They are exactly what I need right now. The greasy calories are the perfect answer for a shamefully hung-over morning.

Do not give in do not give in, I chant to myself.

“Hey brainless,” Johanna says, already on her third one. “What’s with the pouting? You aren’t seriously refusing to eat one of these out of spite are you?”

“It’s not spite.” I force out through a clenched jaw.

“Then what? Pride?”

“As if I have any after last night.” I say, snorting.

Johanna eyeballs me for a prolonged second, and then turns back to the task at hand, brows slightly furrowed.

“Ok, so I was wondering if you could take me to the woods.” Johanna begins after a short-lived silence, voice blunt.

I cast a skeptical look at her. “We barely made it to the kitchen, let alone the woods.”

“Lightweight. I’m only here for a day or two anyway- I’ve always wanted to explore Everdeen’s infamous woods.”

“Fine.” I sigh, and lean over to grab a bottle and dump it in the bin. “But you’re helping me with this mess first.”

 


 

“He is not coming!” I hiss as Johanna bounds over to the basin.

“Too late.” She wets down her hair and pulls it back into one high ponytail, avoiding her reflection in an action I know all too well.

“I can’t believe you! Why would you do this to me?”

She stares at me condescendingly as she stalks out the room. “Just ‘cause you can’t get your shit together doesn’t mean you get to ruin the rest of our day. Besides, he baked you cheesebuns. If anything, you owe him.”

“I didn’t touch them!”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“I’m unbelievable?! The minute my back is turned you go prancing off over to him when you knew I didn’t want to see him anymore today!”

“Be grateful.” She states, stripping off her top in one fluid movement, revealing her somewhat lack of undergarments. She pulls on another baggy, blue-grey shirt. “Now you can plan the opening to your makeup-sex.”

“Urgh!” I turn on my foot and stomp out the room, slamming the door loudly behind me.

I glare at the window opposite me, trying to slow my breathing. Millions of tiny black butterflies flutter through my bones- the sort of fear I am least equipped against.

I am not ready to see Peeta again.

I stalk into my room and run my fingers over my face. Then I pull out my braid and do it up once more. And one more time after that.

“You coming, brainless?” comes Johanna’s voice from downstairs. I sigh and wipe my hands on my trousers, before heading back downstairs.

I don’t look at her as we grab out jackets and head out the door, and I don’t look at her when we stop briefly outside Peeta’s house, waiting for him to join us. Though I try to distract myself, I can’t help but note the way his hair is mussed from fitful sleep, or the way his smile to Johanna, though slight, is still genuine. Today, he wears a powder -blue checkered shirt.

I kick a rock near my toe, glaring at it when it doesn’t budge.

We travel in silence, feet treading on gravel, clothes snagging on the fence as we duck under it, laboured breathing in compromise for unsafe words. I stay at the front, neck aching from my resolution to not look back. Unlike yesterday, nobody says anything, not even Johanna, and the eerie silence does little to numb my mind.

I take us east, carefully avoiding the rock on which I used to meet my hunting partner, and we make our way through cold air and mud-coloured tree trunks. The leaves wilt this morning, drooping tones of olive and bottle-green, and a slight mist dampens the air. My head pounds like a drum.

When we are about halfway through, we reach a semi-clearing, dew dampening the grass and our boots, and Johanna claims she needs a bathroom break.

“And you two need to talk.” She adds, gesturing lazily towards the space between us, and we both glare at her. “I’m tired of this moping around. You guys were like the last good thing in this damn world.”

I watch her form disappear around the corner and then we are alone.

Silence. I can feel my fingers twitch, and I fist the material of my jumper in my hand, refusing to look at him. My heartbeat is uneven.

He sighs loudly, and before I know it, the words are bursting from my mouth.

“I’m sorry! Okay?” I say, digging my fingernails into the jumper and not quite meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

I feel his gaze heavy on my skin, my body, and I flush, burning up in the tension. I stare at a patch of grass by my feet. Drops of water cling to it like crystals, twinkling in the raw sun.

“Katniss.”

I bite my lip.

Katniss.”

I look up and meet his eyes. Blue-grey. The colour of a storm, and rain, summer heat hissing off the pavement.

“I don’t know what to say to you.” He tells me slowly, and words sting like acid. “I...” he stares off into the distance, his fingers fidgeting at his sides. “I…I want to help you Katniss. I want to so much. But every time I try…I feel like you’re shutting me out. And I don’t think we should go on like this.”

He looks at me expectantly, but no words form in my mouth. My tongue dries, my stomach aching as though I’ve been kicked.

“You don’t think we should go on?” I gasp, blinking rapidly to hide the burning building behind my eye sockets. “You…you don’t want me in your life anymore?”

I sound pathetic, even to myself, and I bite my lip so hard it hurts as I feel the first unforgivable tear roll down my cheek.

“Katniss.” He says my name, and all I can hear is mingled shock and disgust, but then his hands are on me, grasping my sides so gently I could be made of porcelain, and I might as well be, because it’s as if a dam has opened, and my sobs have grown mortifyingly untamable.

“No, Katniss, no,” he whispers desperately, and when I look up at him through a blurry vision, he half-laughs, though there is no humour in his voice. “Katniss, goddammit, of course I want you in my life. I love you. I’m in love with you. How could I ever not?”

And then the world freezes around me altogether, stops spinning abruptly, and there is nothing but him, nothing but me and him and those five words. I’m in love with you.

In love. With you.

“What?” I gasp, my eyes wide, my stupid heart bubbling up like a champagne bottle inside my throat, my every limb screaming out for release. “You…you what?”

He is so close to me I can count every freckle dotted across his nose and cheeks. Those eyes search into me so deep, almost empathetically, as if I’d been drowning in two feet of water and had only just been shown how to stand. “I love you, Katniss,” he breathes, wiping away a tear away with his thumb, which stays resting on my cheek. “I…I love you so damn much. Every day. All the time.” And then he laughs, a true, joyful rich sound as he stares into my eyes, for my tears have slowed, and I stare back at him as if I am seeing all the stars mapped out across his face in splendor.

We are silent for a few moments, memorizing each other’s expressions as though we might be tested on it, and then I whisper, “You love me.”

Slowly, almost experimentally, I rest my head onto his shoulder and breathe in the smell of clean linen and melted sugar, tasting the words.

“You love me.”

The words are so quiet they become less of a statement than a thought, and as they are uttered I trace my lips feather-lightly across the skin there, smiling slightly as he shudders. His hands come round to hold me to him, caressing the space between my shoulder blades, and I see his eyes flutter close out of the corner of my eye.

“Yes,” he replies every time.

“Always.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10- Storm

“When did it start again?” I whisper as his thumb slides over mine, sending tingles down my arm.

“Honestly…” he looks up at me, eyes serious. “I don’t really think it ever stopped. I mean, after what Snow did to me…it was like there was another part of me. There was the hijacked part, which gradually got quieter, but there was always the old me in there. And the quieter the hijacked part got, the louder my feelings for you.”

I nod softly, studying him in the window’s light. Unruly hair, pink cheeks- it’s like we were always were, except a note different. Never before have we both been on the same page like this.

“Urgh, you guys are so sappy I think the cheesebuns are coming back up.” Johanna stalks back into the room, and I leap back, recoiling from Peeta as though we were doing more than just holding hands. His eyes rake me up and down in my peripheral vision, and my face burns.

Afterwards, in the woods, Peeta had taken my hand and we had endured more than one of Johanna’s brazen comments when she had conveniently reappeared from around the corner. We didn’t talk much, though I fought my grin the entire way back, and now we sit here, trying to get our bearings.

I am surprised at how afraid I am. We are both broken, both fractured remains of people, and fixing what we have is not going to be easy.

And I’ve never given myself to him before. Not deliberately, not as a conscious decision. I don’t want this to go wrong, to lose him. Everything feels fragile these days.

So I take a deep breath and edge a little closer to him again, and Johanna screws up her nose. “Urgh, I’m going back upstairs.” She turns on her heel and leaves.

“Well, I hope she makes it to the bathroom.” Peeta says after a moment of stunted silence, and I bite my lip to control my smile.

 


 

It is not an easy thing at first, being with Peeta. I’m so unsure of myself, my body much too breakable to contain such a feverous feeling, and for the first few days, we are as awkward as two hormonal high school kids. After all that I’ve seen, and all that I’ve done, it amazes me that such an innocent thing can reduce me to the blushing and clumsy creature that existed all those years ago.

We wave Johanna off at the station a few days later, and despite all the eye-rolling and sarcastic remarks, I can tell that she is happy for us, see it in the smile she tries to hide as the train starts to roll away, its body blurring into an indistinct mix of metal.

Afterwards, Peeta starts to head back, and I go with him. “What are you doing?” I ask as we pass the remnants of the town edges, with are starting to resemble themselves more and more. There are flowers, sprouting from china pots and more often, wooden barrels, buckets, even teacups. I blink as a drop of rain plops straight on my eyelash.

“I was thinking of going to check out Haymitch, see how he’s doing. You?”

I shrug. “I’ll come with you.”

“What’s with all the flowers?” I ask after a moment, eyeing the cream-coloured sweet pea in a liquor bottle on our left.

“Not quite sure.” Says Peeta. “Think it’s some sort of remembrance thing. Each for a different loved one.”

I swallow, thinking of the Primroses he planted back home. My vision starts to get a little glassy, and I press my lips together. I reach for his hand, and he looks up in my direction.

“I want to do something.” I murmur . “For…for her. Something proper. In the woods.”

I meet his gaze and he nods. “We can go tomorrow?”

And we do. I take him out into the most beautiful place I can think of, the only place that can ever be good enough, pure enough, sacred enough, for her. And so though she had never been there, I lead Peeta to The Lake.

The water is still, silent this morning, barely glittering as it comes into view. Wildflowers and grasses blossom and flourish from the sides, all around us, and the blue-toned grass gradients into soft mud, which disappears beneath the mirror- like surface of the water ahead.

We could never afford gravestones here in 12. They were a luxury, only for those who could afford to spend good money on such symbols and materialistic respect. The rich even died in extravagance.

But we, as the poor, made do. And so I suppose the value of physical items began to fade, especially once we found they were not needed to express ourselves. But people still used rocks, bits of concrete, a handful of wildflowers, a sprinkle of spice if they could afford it. The food was symbolic- a prayer that the loved one would never be hungry again, no matter where they were going.

I have my gravestone.

It is a stone, pale pink in the sunlight, the surface rough and gravelly. I run my fingers over it, and close my eyes. There- I spent hours engraving it in, using Haymitch’s knife and a larger rock- and I smooth my fingers over the shallow indention.

P.E.

Primrose Everdeen.My sister.

And this is where she shall rest.

I make my way over to a spot under a large oak tree, its leaves draping over us like a veil. It’s right next to the lake and daisies, round-leaved mints, wild cyclamens and sowbreads blossom here. And, of course, dandelions.

The shade casts a lacey pattern across the grass, meandering through golden sunshine with practiced grace. Peeta looks at me and I nod, so he digs the shovel I asked him to bring into the ground at the base of the tree, emptying out a shallow dip. I sit the rock into it, the initials facing up. Peeta did a good job. It looks just like it was meant to be there.

I kneel on the ground before it, tracing my fingers over its edges and bumps. “Don’t cry,” she might say if she was here. “It’s really very pretty here, this place. I’ve always wanted to learn to swim.”

I bite my lip to force back a choking sound in the back of my throat as hot tears brim over and begin to roll down my cheeks. “Now,” I try to whisper. “Now, you can meet Rue, and all the others. She would have loved you. She- she…”

I break off as a wail wrenches up through me, the sound keening and distant and strange, and I feel myself shaking uncontrollably. Peeta is beside me, an arm around me, gentle, warm, but it doesn’t matter, not right now, because I need to feel this.

This. This sensation of my lungs shredding like paper, the twisting and yanking and tearing of my stomach. The way I feel it, under my tongue, buried behind my voice box, hovering inside the hollow of my eye sockets. Dust has settled into my bones, sour tears blistering their way through my flesh. I feel it. I feel all of it.

“I’m sorry,” I get out, forcing my voice towards my blurry vision of the rock, her initials disappearing in a fresh wave of tears. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cry, I didn’t mean to.” And then I crumble, in Peeta’s arms, and he holds me as wave after wave hits me, crashing through my middle, drowning me in that feeling, the pure, shattered sensation that is loss, and I lose her again, all over again, in these moments.

“I miss her.” I whisper afterwards, once the storm has finally relented so that I may breathe again, and I close my eyes.

“I know.” He says.

“Every day.” And then it all comes out.

“I miss her when I wake up in the morning, and the right side of the bed is empty. I miss her when I go downstairs for breakfast, and she doesn’t walk in, carrying Buttercup and a jar of goat’s cheese and giggling at me. I miss her when I sit down by the windowsill, and she isn’t there, and she doesn’t come over and join me on the opposite side, asking me what’s on my mind. I miss her when I get dressed, and I can’t tuck in the back of her shirt, because she isn’t there, because there is no shirt to tuck in. And…and I go and eat lunch and dinner and talk to you and check on Haymitch and practice my archery and call Dr. Aurelius and get ready for bed, and then I stand there, I stand there staring at my bed because it doesn’t make sense, Peeta. It doesn’t make sense. Because she is supposed to be there. And I can’t see how I am still here, when she’s not.”

His hands roam up and down my spine softly, smoothly, and then he says,

“I know.”

I sit up so that I can see his face, and I look him in the eye, smoothing my thumb across his cheekbone as I hold him, and what I see, what I see makes it better. I exhale, my breath shuddery and weak, and his hands snake up to hold my back, just beneath my shoulder blades, and I lean forward, resting my forehead against his as I close my eyes.

“I know.” He whispers, and I hold him close.

 


 

That night when I close my eyes, finally relenting to my body’s basic need at an unreasonable hour, I know that I will see her. And I do.

The world is cream and silk, golden sunshine blinking in my eyes, and when I look out we are on a tall hill, green and fresh, glorious mountains rising out beneath us, the wild wind dancing through our hair. Her’s is gold, beautiful in the sunlight, and it is winded back into a thick plait, swinging down her bare back. The white sheets billow around her and I realise it is her dress, floating out and caressing her pale skin. She looks around, eyes two blue crystals inlaid beneath her lashes, and smiles gently as she sees me.

“Prim?” I gasp roughly, reaching out for her.

She turns to face me, a few strands of hair escaping her plait.

“Katniss.”

“Oh, Prim! I love you, I’m so sorry I-“

“No, Katniss.” She says softly. “Don’t be sad.” She reaches up, her hand caressing my cheek, and for the first time ever in a dream, I can actually feel her touch, warm and silky and so real.

“I wanted to say goodbye.”

An iron hand clenches around my heart.

“No, Prim, please don’t leave, please don’t leave me, I need you, I miss you so much.”

“Katniss, I love you. I don’t want to see you sad.” Her voice is soft and melodic, notes tiptoeing across the strands of wind towards me.

“Then come back, please, come back.” I choke, the wetness in my eyes brimming over.

She shakes her head sadly, then gives me a reassuring smile.

“I’m alright.” She says. “Don’t you worry no more, love. I’m at peace now, Katniss…”

“…But you’re not.”

I clutch her hand, holding it delicately in mine.

“Katniss, let go now.”

I shake my head resolutely, tears pouring down my face as I tighten my hold.

“Katniss.” She rests a hand over mine, and smiles at me. “I love you. Trust me.”

She looks deep into my eyes, and I stare at her, until I slowly, slowly, loosen up a little, hesitating.

She nods, and I release my hold a little more. “That’s right.” She says, skirts flying in the wind. “It’s okay.”

I feel her hand pulling away from mine, the gentle slide of her skin as she steps back. “That’s right.” She says, and I’m frozen, paralysed as I watch her move away. My hand goes limp, and she tugs hers out.

“Let me go,” she whispers, and I wake.


 

“Are you okay?”

There’s a clunk as Peeta sits his mug on the wooden table, closely followed by the scraping of chair legs on stone. I nod vaguely, staring out of the large window to my left.

“Katniss?”

I look up to see Peeta staring at me with concern etched into his expression. He purses his lips as he studies me. “Did you have another nightmare?”

I sigh and look down at my lap. “Prim.” I tell him feebly.

I feel a warm hand cover mine, and I look up again.

“…Would you like to go for a walk?” he asks after a moment, and I nod.

The garden’s grown wild. I can see that, apart from the primroses, weeds and long grasses have overtaken the lawn, bursts of colour sprouting up spontaneously in various corners. Peeta takes my hand as we walk past the row of houses, and an odd sense of déjà vu washes over me. Before I can grasp hold of the sensation however, Peeta’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I shake my head, and squeeze his hand tighter between us, as if I am a body being thrown out at sea, and he is my safety- line. I feel him swing our clasped limbs back and forth, frowning absentmindedly as he walks, and then I turn abruptly, stopping so that I am face to face with him. He stills, almost walking straight into me. “Katniss?” he asks.

“Just hold me.” I whisper and feel his arms enclose around me as I do, pulling me flush against his body. I can feel his chest rise and fall as he breathes, breathe the smell of his clean cotton top. I wrap my arms around him too, securing him to me to the best of my strength, and then, I close my eyes.

 


 

She’s everywhere.

Down the corridor. Behind the curtains. At my back, in the mirror. I see her. Feel her. In my bones, deep, etched into every pore on my skin. She’s there.

She’s always there.


 

“You need to say goodbye, kid.”

Haymitch swings his bottle through the air and it lands with a thunk on a neighboring table. He presses his feet onto the ground and rocks back slightly in his arm-chair, eyeing me with a surprisingly gentle expression.

“They don’t come back. You know that - not now, not ever. But…”

He gestures to the spot over his heart, stained by drink and filth.

“They don’t ever leave you either. Not really. Not where it matters.”

A grubby hand reaches out for the bottle beside his chair as he speaks, and that’s when it occurs to me that Haymitch is not the hypocrite I so often judged him for, but just the broken remains of a good man. An images that got distorted through shattered glass.

“You know how to survive without the important things, sweetheart. But you never quite figured out how to live.”

 

Peeta spies me as I‘m leaving Haymitch’s.

“How are you?” he asks on greeting, immediately wrapping his hand around mine. I smile constrainedly up at him, watching the way his golden curls fall into his face.

“Good, I think. Better.”

“That’s good.” He breathes, a slight tone of relief hidden in his voice, and as we make it over the threshold as my house to prepare dinner, he runs his thumb over my hair.


 

 

He smells of freshly-washed linen, and of icing sugar and man. That rich, natural scent intoxicates me, leaves me drunk and aching with want. I reach out, calling his name, and he is by my side.

“Touch me,” I whisper, and he does.

He peels off my clothes for me, smoothing his hands over and over my burning skin, and at my request, sheds his clothes just as quickly, until we are both bare. He leads me to the bed, walking me backwards until my knees hit the edge, and then he lays me down, hovering above me. I run my fingertips over his apple-skin lips, the fan of his lashes, down his chin and jawline, across his collarbone, and then further still. I trace the contours of his chest, the scattering of freckles across his pale, milky skin, the golden dusting of hair beneath his belly-button. He gives a quick intake of breath at that, and fire rushes through me and pools right there, at my center, as I listen.

I part my legs and wind them around his waist, my breathing ragged, my heartbeat erratic and ungodly fast. He lowers down to me, his lips finding my neck for purchase, his warm breath and wet kisses worshipping my skin, and then I feel his teeth graze my collarbone as he pulls and sucks at the flesh there. I’m sure I’ll be bruised, and I smile to myself, because my body is so marked already by war and pain that it would be an honor to have a memoir from him.

Desire is coursing through my body so strong it almost hurts, yet this is the sweetest form of torture imaginable, as his lips make their path down my chest, between my breasts, across my stomach and down, down, down, so unbelievably low, and then his mouth meets its destination, and sweet god, this is-

I gasp, sitting up so suddenly my head spins. The room is dim, walls coated in a shade of dull honey-an indicator that the day is far from beginning- and the sheets are twisted haphazardly around me. My heart stutters as the realization hits me.

I close my eyes, trying to unclutter the whirlpool of emotion in me, but it’s impossible, completely out of my grasp as the memory circles so clearly in my mind. Me and Peeta, Peeta and I, naked and…I blush even harder as I recall the thought.

My body is drenched in a layer of sweat, my night-clothes sticking to my body, and I run my hands over my face, feeling how hot the skin is. I swallow thickly.

Disappointment? Yes, there is definitely that, the loss of such euphoria that was so real only moments before devastating…I find there’s a distinctly different ache in the region of my chest.

Shame? Oh, it is there, certain and steady, a sinking sliding sensation down my stomach. Coupled with the mortification, I am forced to bury my face in my hands for a few minutes.

And then there is desire. So real, so rich, spreading through all my limbs like a drug, warmth flowing out from an epi-center that feels surprisingly close to my heart. I pry my hands free from my face and let them fall to my sides.

I want to do something for Peeta. I want to do something right now.

I scrub sleep out of my eyes, tumbling out of bed in my haste, and walk straight over to my closet. I have very few clothes, and a rather ugly voice from inside of me whispers that there isn’t anything that I can do to make myself pretty anyway, but I don’t care, because today I am feeling determined. I rummage through the closet until I come across a plain white dress, breezy and not at all the old-me, and smile, pulling it from its hanger.

I walk over to the mirror and hold it out in front of me. It is pearl-white, the material rumpled around the open neckline and falls to just above my knees. I glance up, thinking it too bright against my skin tone, and that’s when I see it. Bright eyes, shining like glass in the dim lighting, red, swollen lips and flushed cheeks. I look…alive.

I stare, entranced by own reflection. The girl in the mirror, the girl in the mirror…I still don’t know her, but now, she is someone I would like to meet. Yes, the bags under the eyes are still there, yes, her skin is still a poorly designed patchwork mess, yes, her mouth is still turned down, lips still chapped. But…but now, instead of looking like some ghost caught up in between life and death, she looks radiant. Brave. Flames yet to be extinguished.

If this is what Peeta can do to me, I’m going to stick by his side for as long as possible.

I pull off my nightgown and make my way into the shower, hot water chasing away foamy bubbles chasing away the memories of apple skin lips as I smooth my hands over my skin. I step out, and towel off my entangled hair, now smelling of sweet shampoo and dampness. Tucking the large white towel firmly under my armpits, I head back into the bedroom.

The dress is soft against my skin, as if it were spun from the clouds themselves. It gives me curves, a luxury I’ve never before enjoyed, and I smile to myself. I sit down at the dressing table and run a brush through my hair. Facing the mirror, I curl a few strands around my index finger, and let it fall to my shoulders, a curtain of black against the white. Then I pick up a small bottle from the Capitol, unhook the lid, and run the rose-tinted grease across my lips.

There.

I sit for a few moments, silently staring back at my reflection, and then my face breaks into a sort of crazed grin, and I rush off to prepare everything else.

I have a plan in mind.

Once in the kitchen I pull out loaves of bread, a block of cheese, some lettuce and a couple tomatoes. I rinse the lettuce and tomatoes under cold water, humming beneath my breath as I do, and then take a long bread knife and slice the loaves into what my Father used to call “doorstoppers”. I place the thick slices on the chopping board and begin to assemble the ingredients on top of half of them, before firmly squashing it all down with the other halves. Then I stand back to assess the damage.

Well, I’m no baker, but they’ll do.

I wrap them all up in napkins, tying string around the middle, and place them into a backpack. Then I rummage through the fridge, extract a large bottle of apple juice and throw in a box of cookies too.

And then I find I have nothing left to do. After running my fingers through my hair for the fifth time in the reflection of the microwave, there is no possibility of delaying any longer. So I summon up the tattered remainders of my courage, pick up my bag, and go out the door.

It’s still early. There’s a faint, crisp mist leftover from the night, rising up out of the grasses, and dew clings to the walls like teardrops. They expose the hidden spider webs spun across corners of buildings, transforming them into glittering dream catchers and jewelries, while the sun has barely risen from its bedding in the east.

My heart gives an uneven lurch.

I stand outside Peeta’s door, body trembling as if it were frozen in the wind, and struggle to grasp back my breath. There isn’t enough oxygen in my lungs, enough oxygen in the air, enough oxygen in the whole damn world for my rapidly deflating chest, and I clutch myself even tighter. Just do it already, I think, and without giving myself a second chance to escape, I rap loudly on the door.

One second… two seconds… three secon-

“Katniss?”

The door is wrenched open to reveal a haphazardly Peeta, hair ruffled and un-groomed, adorned in blue and white pajamas, with the indentation of bed sheets across his left cheek. I realise suddenly what a sight I must be, with no forewarning here on his doorstep in a dress and all dolled up, a backpack of food in my hands, at 7 o’clock in the morning. I rub my hair between my fingers self-consciously.

“Um.” I say.

He looks at me with a bemused, if slightly alarmed expression, and rubs his groggy eyes. “Um. Is everything alright?”

“Oh, yes, yes.” I reply too quickly, butterflies flurrying up my body as my memory decides now is a good time to replay my dream. I peel my eyes away from his torso as I answer him.

“It’s just-ah, I was thinking…”

“…Yes?” he inquires, an amused smile definitely in place now.

“…if you would like to go out? Into the woods? For a…for a picnic?” I gesture to the backpack wildly, a slightly insane beam fixed on my face.

“Katniss Everdeen,” he says, leaning against the side of doorway. “Are you asking me on a date at 7 in the morning?”

I glare at him. “You have 10 minutes.”

He barks out a laugh and turns away, jogging up the stairs in a comical fashion, his head whipping round to see if I’m watching. I grin as I turn and sit down on his front steps.

My heart is wild. Elation is soaking its way through my every limb- like a drug, and I feel as though I am floating. My grin grows even wider, and I have to smother my sudden round of giggles with my palm.

“Are we ready?”

I swirl around to find Peeta standing there, hair combed and wearing denim shorts, a white top and a smile. He chuckles at my expression.

I pretend to appraise him, raising my eyebrows and shrugging. “You’ll do.” I say, with a wave of my hand, and he laughs and takes my backpack from me. “Lead the way.” He orders me as I try to protest, and I roll my eyes, before walking on.

We get a sunrise. Streams of amber and blush leak across the skies, patches of fairy blue peeking out from beneath. The two of us trudge on, chatting easily as we walk, the ground soft and yielding beneath our soles. I tell him about dreams and he tells me about sub-conscious and I tell him about hunting and he tells me about expression and I tell him about passion and he tells me about baking and I laugh and tell him about stories and it goes on, until we find ourselves buried deep in the woods, encased in a haven of silence and steadiness.

“I love this.” I say quietly, staring fondly at the greenery and light all around us. I place my hand on the trunk of a tree and look back at him.

He regards me curiously.

“Tell me why.”

“What?”

“Why you love it here so much.”

“Well,” I start, slightly indignant. “What’s not to love? The whole world is ugly, rubble and poverty- except from the Capitol, which is just so fake- and here…here it’s beautiful.”

He nods, considering my words. “But what else? Is it just the beauty that draws you to it?”

I stare at him.

“No,” I begin, this time more slowly. “No, it’s…it’s the silence. And how steady it all feels. Strong. Wealthy, without the help of man, or anything else. It just grew out of the earth itself, and…overpowered it. With…life.” I pause, frowning. “And it’s so modest, I just feel…home.”

He looks at me, his lapis eyes twinkling in the sun. A fraction of a second too long. Too long to pretend to still be innocent. I feel my heart pound in my throat.

“I get it.” he murmurs, voice barely above a whisper, and I can’t help thinking, get what, exactly? Because your eyes are still burning into mine, and your breath is still raising goose bumps all over my skin, and I can just feel it, I can just feel the touch of your eyes like a hot iron poker, invisible and yet, somehow, so sweet, so pleasant, I would not hesitate to drown in their flames for a moment.

A small part of brain is aware of the fact that, objectively, we are only two metres apart, and that, objectively, we are only looking at each other, but for a moment, just a moment, every single atom in my body is convinced that he is going to kiss me.

 

“C’mon.” He says suddenly, breaking the spell. “We’ll never get there at this rate.” He grins and turns, heading onwards, and I’m left there, utterly perplexed and unable to fight the sinking sensation in my stomach. I turn, and move after him, avoiding his eyes for the rest of the journey.

The silence stops being awkward and starts being comfortable after a while, and I start to notice the way the sunshine illuminates the leaves again, the way the earth moves and bends in a familiar way, and I realise we are nearing the lake.

“Almost there.” I say, ignoring his gaze and speeding on.

The path predictably opens up, a clearing rimmed with grasses and flowers and bright sunlight spilling out across the grass and bouncing off the water, which has turned a vivid azure blue under the sky. Meadowsweets and water mints and valerian flowers brush past my heels as I stroll forward, swinging my arms childishly. I tiptoe to the edge of the water and dip my fingers in.

I sense, rather than just hear, Peeta behind me, following my footsteps tentatively, but I don’t turn. Instead, I smile deviously to myself, cup my hands, and rapidly spin around, spraying him with a handful of cool droplets.

“Hey!” he yells, stumbling back, an arm outstretched over his grin. “What was that for?”

“You should learn to be more attentive.” I tell him in mock-seriousness.

“I should learn that you are an incredibly dangerous woman.” He mutters, and I smart a little, but relax when I see his cheeky grin directed my way. He places the basket on the ground beside him, and sits, patting the space next to him expectantly. “Come on,” he says. “You can’t drag me all the way out here and not feed me afterwards.” I grin and sit beside him.

“I’m afraid I can’t provide the quality of lunch you must be expecting.” I say rummaging around the basket for sandwiches.

He shudders. “God, Katniss, you didn’t try to bake did you?”

I scowl at him, and reach out to smack him lightly on the chest, but he just laughs and leans into me.

“Anything you make me is more than good enough.” He murmurs in a low voice, his breath tickling my ear, but when I look up, hands frozen in their movements, he is smirking playfully, eyes bright and blue.

“It’ll have to be.” I reply quietly, staring him down as his smile fades away into something else, but he doesn’t move, and I still end up breaking the contact first.

After a few moments he retreats from my personal space, and I visibly relax, regaining the use of my lungs.

“So, cheese or cheese?” I ask, holding up two bundles, and he chuckles, accepting the left.

For the most part, we eat in silence, occasionally sharing a joke or commenting on the scenery, but all that I can really focus on is the short distance between our bodies, the air buzzing with energy, and scent of him, so close. When he turns to throw an apple core, my eyes are glued to his form, draped in a light white shirt, the smoothness of his pale jawline, the fluttering of his eyelashes as he squints into the sun. My head is fuzzy, unable to concentrate, my intellect gone and floating high up somewhere amongst the clouds.

“…I suppose we should head back.” He says after a while, those aquamarine eyes roaming over my face.

“We should head back.” I murmur in agreement, and he watches me intently. I stare at him, at those penetrating eyes, secrets hidden too deep inside them slowly unraveling, and then my gaze drops once again to his lips, red and soft in the morning light. Those lips were everywhere in my dream, tracing a painting onto my skin, smearing a trail of fire across the length of my limbs. They’re everywhere now, all over my mind, beguiling it into an aromatic frenzy, and when I meet those gemstones again, they are deeper than the lake we sit beside. Closer now, too, closer, and he is leaning into me, my tense yet humming body, singing with want, and I am frozen, waiting, waiting as his gaze flickers up to mine once more as if he is asking a final question.

Kiss me.

My lips part on a shaky exhale, and are captured by his on the next, soft, soft lips moving between mine. His hand reaches up to cradle my cheek, the other holding up his weight by my hip, and his mouth moves against me, giving, taking, claiming in a fervently beautiful dance stuck somewhere between desire and desperation. His breath is warm, sweet and hot as I inhale him, and I take his bottom lip and worry it between my own, grazing it lightly with my teeth. I feel, rather than hear his gasp, and finally his apple skin lips are open for me, devouring me in a lapse of control, until slowly, slowly, we part. Our faces are still near, noses brushing, when I open my eyes to meet his wide open ones.

Birds flutter in the trees beside us, whistling in all their naïve delight, and a soft wind rushes over the surface of the lake, rippling it up like a crumpled bed sheet. It dances around us, over my collarbones and across his hair, its touch almost softer than the one Peeta dusts atop my skin.

“At last,” I whisper, brushing my fingertips over his cheek, and he gives half a surprised laugh, his rough thumb moving to trace over my just kissed lips.

“At last.” He replies, confirming the reality of it in my eyes, and I smile, watching my apple tree finally blossom.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11- Swollen Lips

If all the tears I had ever cried had been bottled up, and hidden up in the heavens to be recycled, there still would not have been enough of them to have compared to the downfall that was unleashed upon us that day. There is a point when rain stops being a burden, and transforms into a novelty; a threshold between boring, inconvenient rain, and wild, drenched to the bone sort of rain. Of course, having been through what we both had, we knew that this sort of rain was only enjoyable if one had a warm home and a pantry full of food to return to, but that afternoon, I doubt the sweltering glow beneath our dripping skin was derived from such a cause.

“Oh, screw sorting it out, just pick it up and go!” I yell from the edges of the clearing, clutching at my soaked skirts and laughing at Peeta’s expression.

He laughs and dashes over to meet me, flinging a wet arm around my shoulders as we run over the sodden grass. Our feet slither and slide over muddied paths, and we giggle uncontrollably every time someone almost falls over or loses their balance. Both of our clothes are stuck to our skins, our hair whipping wildly into our faces and sending drips of water flying into our eyes. By the time we’ve made it out of the woods and slipped under the fence, we are both shivering and achy from laughing so hard.

Despite it having taken us at least an hour to make our way back, the rain has not relented. Peeta leads me into his house, pulling me by the hand and claiming it’s closer (yeah, by like, 50 meters) and we tumble into the porch, a dripping mess on his marble floor.

“Come on in,” he says, gesturing for me to follow as he makes his way down the hall. “In fact, hold on a second, I’ll be right back.” He sets the soaked hamper onto a table and bounds up the stairs ahead of me, taking the steps two at a time.

I stand there, hugging myself and trembling slightly now the heat from exertion has worn off.

I haven’t been round to Peeta’s house a whole lot; in fact, when I think about it, almost never. We always seem to dine at mine, sleep at mine, simply be at mine. I’m not sure when my home became our official meeting place. Perhaps it was just that mine had been lived in before. Perhaps his was filled with purely bad memories -and my mind flips to the episode, all the months ago- whereas mine were merely bittersweet.

Or perhaps it was just that I refused to move and it was he that decided to do something about it.

He appears at the foot of the stairs again, distracting me from my train of thoughts and approaches me with a large fluffy towel.

“Oh my God, thank you,” I moan, smiling up at him and reaching for it, but instead he comes over and wraps it firmly around my shoulders, before pulling the ends taunt so that I am tugged into him. He leans in and rests his forehead on mine, closing his eyes briefly before the corners of his lips lift slightly and he murmurs “You’re welcome.”

I blink, mouth gaping a little as I’m drawn tight as a bow string against his body, and my mind goes blank.

He leans back after a moment and grins cheerfully, before faltering slightly.

“Um,” he says. “You can take a shower here if you want. I mean, the rain doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon.”

I nod, and begin to pull away. As I turn to leave however, I realise he brought no towel for himself.

“Peeta!”

“What?” Oh-” His thoughts are interrupted as I reach over and drape the now damp material over his form. When I pull back his eyes are slightly unfocused, gazing down at my body.

“What?”

“Hmm? Oh, nothing.” Peeta recovers quickly, although a somewhat flustered blush lingers on his cheeks, and he sends a soft smile my way as he walks into the kitchen. “I’ll, um, I’ll just start on dinner while you-” He gestures vaguely towards the staircase.

I make my way up the stairs and as I turn the corner, the sound of him whistling drifts up from below. Grinning, I shake my head to myself and head towards the bathroom door.

As I pull out a random towel and lay it on the toilet seat nearby, I catch sight of myself in the mirror. The floaty dress I’m wearing is drenched, practically glued to my entire form, and really quite see-through. I flush when I realise my plain cotton undergarment does little to protect my modesty, and flush even harder when I realise that that was what Peeta must’ve noticed too.

I shed all of them hastily, and step quickly inside the glass tower to turn on the showerhead, that same jittery and sugary tension in my nerves I get whenever around Peeta rushing me. The smell of his shower gel on my body seems to flare up a signal somewhere in my nervous system, because almost immediately I experience an electric jolting sensation jumping in my heart and rather low in my belly.

I try very hard not to think of the dream.

When I emerge, the mirror has fogged up, steam billowing through the air like a lost cloud. I turn on the fan and unlock the bathroom, padding my way down the corridor. I can’t very well put my wet clothes back on, and I smile like a devious school kid when an idea occurs to me.

Peeta’s expression when I walk into the kitchen is very much worth it. His mouth falls open slightly, eyes wide as the contents of the pan in his hand starts to smoke a little. I walk over and sit atop the counter next to him, innocently pulling at the too-big shirt as he hastily attempts to fix dinner.

He avoids my gaze for a few moments, focusing an impressive amount of attention on the noodles. I watch as his ears slowly turn the colour of Effie’s most magnificent lipsticks. Biting my lip, I lean in closer with the pretense of being interested in his cooking, and can see the muscles in his back go taunt as he endeavors to appear nonchalant. When I can hold it in no longer, I let out a loud snort, which quickly dissolves into giggles as his head jerks up and comprehension dawns on his face. He tries to glare at me, but the expression doesn’t suit his face, and eventually a rueful grin manages to fight its way back onto his lips. I smirk as I lean back on the counter.

“So, I guess you like seeing me in your clothes, huh?”

“Oh, shut up.” He says through a repressed smile, stirring a wooden spoon through the mixture.

“Well…I guess I could just sit here and pose for you.”

He sighs theatrically, setting the wooden spoon down, and then steps over to me, until he is standing right between my parted legs. He rests two hands on my thighs, thumbs rubbing back and forth over the hem of his shorts, and this time it is my turn to listen to my breathing hitch.

“Maybe,” he says, leaning in close so his lips brush teasingly against my ear. “Maybe, I really like seeing you in my clothes. Maybe, I really, really like it.”

I feel my heart pick up a faster rate, hiccupping unevenly, and feel the strong urge to suddenly clench my thighs together. Did my body always burn up like this when he touched me before? Were there always so many nerve endings in the skin under his fingers, the pads of his thumbs leaving my blood boiling just beneath the surface?

I inhale a shuddering breath, and he smiles, a strange combination of smug and shy, from behind my ear. Both of us are frozen, unwilling to break the contact yet unsure how to proceed, when the pasta finally boils over. Peeta springs up, hurrying to clean up the mess, and I clear my throat as I sit back up, quivering slightly. None of us can quite meet the other’s eye while we proceed to serve and sit down.

“I think the rain might continue all night.” Peeta says eventually, breaking through the charged silence. “You might just have to stay here.”

“Okay.”

Pause.

“…I, um, have a guest room if you want…”

“Oh, no. No it’s fine, I mean…no, let’s just-“

“Okay.”

“…Okay.”

This is the first time the concept of sharing a bed with Peeta has seemed less than innocent to me. For reasons with connotations I’m too cowardly to uncover, the idea of his body pressed against mine in the darkness, in his bed, causes a nervous shiver to rocket down my spine, pooling in my stomach. I curse myself for being so weak.

When we’re finished, I look over at him, and rest my head on top of my folded hands.

“You should take a shower.” I tell him. “You’re going to catch a cold like that. I’ll do the dishes.”

“No, it’s ok, I can help-” he starts, but I gesture to the staircase and give him a look.

“Alright then.” he says then, giving me an adorable smile, and I melt a little as he heads for the stairs.

“Freaking smile,” I mutter under my breath as I turn on the tap and start to pile in the plates. I wash the dishes in the same hurried manner I washed myself. Once I’ve rinsed the soapy lukewarm water off my hands, I tuck my hair behind my ears and bound up the stairs, tripping a little on the top step. I didn’t know it was possible to miss people after spending only ten minutes without them -and if I admit it to myself, it really kicked in after about ten seconds- but I didn’t know a lot of things that I’ve encountered recently. I hover outside the closed bathroom door for a few uncertain seconds, before realising I’m being a creep, and make my way instead to his room. There, I sit down briefly on his bed, then stand up, look around, run my fingers over my hair and fidget with his shirt. It smells of him. I repeat this process three times more before Peeta comes in, damp and warm and in clean cotton pajamas. I sit back down.

“What are you doing?” he says, smiling at me as he dries his hair and hangs the towel on the back of a chair.

“Nothing.” I say, beaming and in a high-pitched, girly voice that I just know I will hate myself for later.

“Do you want to…” he gestures to the bed, and I turn and hike my way up it awkwardly, positioning myself under the covers in an unnatural and uncomfortable fashion. He wipes his hands on his trousers, and then goes to turn out the light, before walking over to join me. Even in the dark, I can just feel his smile vibrating through the air and glowing at me. We lie there silently for a few seconds, the tension as thick as gel between us. And then-

“What are you thinking?”

His voice is too loud in the darkness, and we both know it. My mouth opens and closes a few times, and then I whisper, “I don’t know.”

The quiet begins to envelope us again, so I quickly ask, “What are you thinking?”

There’s a brief hesitation, and then Peeta replies.

“About kissing you.”

“Well…” I say, voice shaking a little. “Then, you know, you probably should. Because this whole talking thing isn’t going so-”

And then his body is twisted so that he is laying half on top of me, and his lips are on mine, except he can’t kiss me properly because he’s smiling so wide.

“Stop smiling!” I scold him after a moment, though I’m grinning too, but that just makes him smile harder, and then we’re not really kissing so much as bumping into each other’s faces. I push him back a little and he giggles.

“Now you’ve done it,” I say. “Kissing failed.”

He stops giggling and leans into me again, cupping my head with his hands. “Then let me make amends,” he purrs, and then we are really kissing. Kissing as in we lose tracks of whose lips are whose, and all I taste is toothpaste and warmth, and then his tongue is grazing along mine, and it feels so good I’m not sure why I survived this long without it, and his body is pressing into me, all over me, on top of me, his hips aligned with mine, and I lift my legs and wrap them around him, because for once in my life I’m not thinking, just feeling, and I feel that I need more of him, closer, and he makes this growling sound in the back of his throat, and I don’t think to blush about it, just lift my hips to meet his, and-

Peeta tears away from me, gasping loudly, and we both freeze there panting, for long enough that my thoughts do catch up with me, and boy then do I blush.

“We should probably go to sleep,” Peeta says in a rough voice after a moment.

“Probably.”

He disentangles himself from me and flops down by my side, still breathing heavily. “God, don’t make this harder on me.” he says, half-teasing.

“What makes you think it’s just you?” I retort, regretting the words as soon as they leave my mouth, but Peeta doesn’t seem to mind. He pauses, and then rolls over to face me, leaning down to gently kiss my cheek. And although he doesn’t say it, I can almost hear the word, ringing in my ears like a muffled alarm.

 


 

Dawn is just cracking over the edge of the window when I open my eyes. I’m snug and warm, and the whole room is glowing shades of blush and honeycomb gold. A warm body is molded to my back like we were sculpted together, his arm draped around my front. He breathes heavily in my ear, and smells like boy and sleep. I smile softly.

I shift a little as my eyelids flutter closed again, and as I do, I suddenly become aware of something pressing insistently into my thigh. And with a rush, everything I tried so hard to not learn in high school comes flooding into my head- I feel my body tense; my heart stutter before racing into a frantic pulse; my cheeks burn as if I’d spent a few hours too long in the sun.

So, says a stupid little voice in the back of head. I guess this is what he meant by being un-pure.

Aware I am quite possibly overreacting, I try to force my body to relax, but every muscle in me seems to have decided to take control of itself, and just when I think my breathing has returned to normal, a rush of desire flashes through me and pools between my legs, and this time I am horrified at my own body.

I close my eyes, trying to resist the urge to push back experimentally, and as I do, Peeta’s arm around me pulls me even tighter, and he gives an unconscious moan into the back of my hair.

Before I can have a full-scale meltdown, I feel his eyes blink open beside me, lashes fluttering against my cheek like butterfly wings, and he yawns contentedly. Then he stiffens, and jerks away, sitting up to face me where I am now positioned on my elbows. His mouth opens to say something, but I can see in his eyes that he already knows I was awake, and we both stare at each other for a few seconds, while his face turns a red so deep I start to think over the pure thing.

“Good morning.” I exclaim wildly after a few moments, attempting a polite smile whilst failing to meet his gaze. He snorts, and somehow the tension is broken, though I can still hear my heartbeat in my ears.

“Good morning.” He breathes, falling on his back and throwing an arm over his eyes. Then he pulls away and looks at me, grinning crookedly. “Are you going to run away?”

I blush profusely at this acknowledgement, of both the situation and my attempt to not appear flustered. His smile grows bigger as I struggle for words, and he looks as though he is trying to hold back laughter.

“Don’t push your luck,” I growl finally, giving up and flopping back on my back. He snorts, falling silent as I stifle a loud yawn, and when I look over at him, he is staring at me with an expression so intense it ought to have a rating stamped across it.

“Your eyes go all liquid-y in the sunlight.”

I clasp a hand over my mouth, eyes widening as his eyebrows lift, surprised that those words managed to find a way out of me. And yet, they are true- his irises are like the ocean captured inside a crystal orb. If I stare long enough, my limbs begin to feel light and my oxygen supply seems to diminish rapidly, as if I am really underwater.

A happy blush makes its way onto his cheeks, and he opens his mouth as if to utter a witty comeback, but nothing comes and so he blinks, letting his gaze flitter onto the mattress. I watch the smile spread across his cheeks.

I gnaw on my bottom lip, left feeling awkward and rather naked. “Oh come here,” I snap eventually, and he looks up, stupid grin still intact. I sit up straight and lean over, brushing my lips over his right- no, left- cheek, and a warm hand reaches up to cup mine, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, the other reaching to pull me closer.

Our lips are barely getting acquainted when we are interrupted by a large rumble. Peeta pulls back to glance down at my stomach with an amused gaze. “I guess somebody wants breakfast.” He says with a grin, but I climb onto his lap and tug his face back towards mine.

“No,” I practically- growl, and the amused expression on his face quickly falters. “I want you.”

We kiss, years of practicing having made us incredibly good at this kind of thing, but when I unthinkingly rock into him, his hands at my hips tighten reflexively and he gives a short moan. This is uncharted territory, I tell myself, though I feel him there and I have still not run away. Not too fast, Katniss.

“Katniss,” Peeta pants into my ear, and then his hands on my hips are firm, slowing my movements. “I really think…God-um, I really think breakfast…would be a good idea.”

I respond by sucking on his neck.

“Katniss.” He pulls away, putting two hands onto my face and blinking at me, eyes slightly unfocused, but determined.

“Okay, okay.” I sigh and clamber off his lap, cheek’s a brilliant scarlet. If Peeta is thinking of cooking eggs, he might as well fry them off my face.

“You’re something else in the morning.” He mutters as he stands up and adjusts his trousers, and I feel myself go even redder.

“Variety,” I murmur as he stalks off into the bathroom, and his laughter bounces off the marble walls.

 


 

“Really?”

“Really.”

The eggs sizzle in the pan, golden yolks about ready to burst as Peeta’s spatula slips underneath them. I snort, leaning back lazily on the counter as I watch him.

“I didn’t know you were capable of making something other than bread.” I say, teasing him, and he looks up to cast me a skeptical glance.

“What? You are a baker.”

“Katniss,” he says, imitating my tone. “It’s eggs.”

I giggle, and the corners of his lips curl up in suppressed amusement.

“Besides,” he says, flipping off the gas and moving to get two plates. “I’ll have you know I am a perfectly good cook. One day, I’ll bring you to your knees with all my culinary skill.”

“I’m holding you to that.” I grab the plates and lead them to the table, tossing two forks on top.

We sit down and eat in companionable silence, and as the window-shaped sunbeams spill across the wooden floor, I realise that I forgot. For one night, just the one night, I forgot to be sad. The realization makes my heart do a little skip.

“Have I ever told you that I love you?”

When I look up, Peeta is gazing at me with a dreamy expression on his face, and I gape at him, torn between wanting to smile and scowl. I go for scowl, but even that ends up turning out all wrong, and I grin nervously at him, eyes incredulous. The soft edges of his lips pull up farther, and his eyes melt a little in the twinkling sunshine.

“Come here.” He says, patting his lap.

“Why?” I ask, laughing, but he just pats his lap again. Hesitantly, I stand and pad my way over to him, standing in front of him awkwardly. He gestures to his knees for a third time, so I sit down, perching on the edge and he pulls me in, drawing me close to his body. His head drops into the hollow of my shoulder and his arms curl around me protectively.

“Hey.” I murmur, playing with his fingers. “Thought you wanted me to give you a break.”

He breathes in deeply, and a shiver tingles down my spine.

“Doesn’t count.” His voice is muffled against my jumper.

“Why not?” I lean into him, starting a little when his lips find my earlobe.

“Tis’nt sexual.” He mutters, and I sit up straighter, swiveling to try and meet his eyes.

“Peeta!”

“What?”

“You just- urgh.I can’t believe you just said that word.”

“What word?” he asks innocently, and I can definitely feel a smile on his lips now. “Sex?”

“Oh my God.” I cover my burning face with my hands, and he giggles.

“It’s just a word Katniss.”

“I know.” The words are forced out through gritted teeth and palms.

“It’s not even a bad word.”

“Peeta.”

“I mean, really, it’s perfectly healthy.”

“Peeta!”

He snorts, and then tucks his face into the slope of my neck again, trying to pry my hands from my face. “For someone who was so…bold this morning, you’re really terribly afraid of the word. It’s kind of adorable really.”

“I don’t know,” I reply, trying my hand at turning the tables. “You seemed to be enjoying it earlier.”

He goes quiet and buries his face deeper into my hair, and I snicker.

Seconds tick by, languidly, and yet too fast, and I feel almost desperate to capture the moment, to bottle up this feeling inside me. The sun and Peeta’s fingers are splayed across my stomach, and it feels as though they’re warmth must be seeping through my skin and into me, deeper, like liquid gold. We rock gently back and forth, like a cradle.

“Why do you even like me?” I whisper suddenly, making Peeta stop mid-rock. I sense his confusion and hasten to explain. “It’s not that I’m fishing for compliments or anything, I don’t want you to tell me how wonderful I am, or even about singing when I was 5. I just- I just don’t get it. I feel like…you’re about to slip through my fingers, and I need something to tether you with.”

“Katniss,” Peeta says in a low voice. “I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I’m staying right here. With you.”

“I know, you say that but- but…why? I’m not nice. I’m not…I’m broken, Peeta. Damaged goods. I’m not…good enough for you.”

“Katniss,” he drags out the “ss” of my name, making heat curl in my lower stomach, and he adjusts us so that I am sitting sideways on his lap and he can see me.

“You don’t see yourself clearly. And no, you’re not perfect- of course not, nobody is- and I love you. I love you even if you are sad, or depressed, and it’s perfectly okay to be those things. You’re still you. You’re always you. And we’ve both changed, but somehow, I feel like we still fit, and you’re just…you’re just it for me. You’re not “damaged goods”. I mean, do you even know anyone who is perfectly happy? Your worth does not depend on how happy you are.”

“I know but-” I swivel sideways, getting frustrated and meeting his eye. “I am more than unhappy. I’m crazy Peeta. I’m…unstable. I don’t even recognize myself anymore! I don’t know who I am! So how can you? See,” I gesture to myself, my frantic form. “I’m not who you fell in love with anymore.”

“Katniss.” He brushes back my hair, his hand slipping down to cup my cheek. “I fell in love with you twice. More times actually, now I think about it. I keep falling in love with you, over and over again. I imagine that even if we lived in a thousand different places, in a thousand different lifetimes, I’d still fall for you. I don’t know what it is, but you must have it, some essential ingredient that has me stuck on you. I love you. I love you so much I think it is just as much a part of me as the colour of my hair, or the way I talk.” He tugs me in closer, so that he can kiss my skin, and my cheek is pressed against his shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere, Katniss.” He whispers. “As long as you want me, you have me. Okay?”

I nod against his shoulder, my vision blurry as the light streams through the spare crystals now glistening in my eyes. “Yes,” I whisper, and one overflows and trickles down my skin. “Yes, yes. Okay.”


 

“So, I guess you survived the night then?” Haymitch drawls, his voice buzzing through the telephone line.

“No, Haymitch. I’m talking to you from beyond the grave.”

One thing that never failed to surprise me before was the way so many victors I knew could joke so casually about death. Didn’t it hurt? I wondered, late at night, with memories tearing chunks of my heart away, and visions flashing across the shadowed ceilings. Didn’t it bite, sharp and sour in the chest, every time it rolled off one’s tongue?

And now I know. It’s a relief to break your own rules.

“What’s got you so cheerful, huh?”

I snort, and Peeta looks up at me from where he is drying the last few dishes.

“I’m not being sarcastic, sweetheart. Seriously, you sound…good. What’s going on? Did you and the boy finally make up?”

“Haymitch, we made up ages ago. Anyway, how can you even tell that much from one sentence?”

“I wasn’t talking about that kind of making up, sweetheart.”

I frown, and he must hear my confused and slightly irritated silence, because he then says, “Did you finally do the dirty deed?”

Haymitch!”

“I guess not.”

“Haymitch, what the hell? That’s none of your business!”

“Well, can you blame me for assuming? That ship’s gotta be sailing soon.”

“Okay,” I say, pinching my forehead and thoroughly hoping Peeta can’t hear what is being said. “Promise me you’ll never speak to me about anything concerning that again.”

“I don’t need to. I’m sure I’ll be able to tell when the time comes. The boy’ll be wearing a shit-eating grin too bright for my post-drinking state.”

“I’m going now.”

“No, wait, hold up. I’m starving.”

What with the storm and everything, we both forgot and were unable to bring Haymitch dinner. I suddenly wonder whether he would even survive on his own if it weren’t for us.

“Oh, okay. Damn. We’ll come round in a few minutes.”

“…Thanks.”


 

Haymitch looks terrible. His eyes are bloodshot, red and watery round the edges, and his skin is grey and seems to be collapsing in on him. The hollow of his cheeks are too visible; his form sags in his armchair.

He takes a swig from a bottle as we are walking into the living room. Peeta hands him a plastic container filled with still hot eggs and cheesebuns, and I sit down on the sofa, opposite of where the high-tech TV is blaring.

“What’ve you got that on for?” I ask, gesturing towards it, and he shrugs. Images of various Districts and building sites flash brightly across the screen, replaying across the reflection of Haymitch’s eyes.

“How’re you doing?” asks Peeta, and he proceeds to apologise about not coming round during the storm, but it all fades into the background as I watch some news story about the rebuilding being done in District 7. A young woman with melted chocolate brown hair talks to the camera.

“We’ll be hearing more about that story later on in the week. In other news today, an up-close interview was documented earlier this morning with one of the youngest and most recognisable members of our new parliament, covering government spending, memorial services, and what the parliament has planned for what comes next. Ryan, if you will.”

The screen flashes to outside a large, formidable looking building, and a dark man in a grey suit talks into the microphone. Haymitch and Peeta stop talking in the background, but I hardly notice, am hardly aware of anything but the TV screen to which I am now leaning closer too, straining to hear what is being said. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I realise I’ve stopped breathing.

 

Gale.

Chapter Text

Peeta’s form is rigid at the kitchen counter. He fusses with the potatoes, silent even though I know he can feel my eyes on him.

We hadn’t said a word after the interview. Not to each other. Haymitch had raised his eyebrows pointedly, scoffing a little as he raised the bottle rim to his lips, and if I hadn’t been so stunned, I would have sent him my infamous death glare.

I sigh, and lean back onto the door frame. Anxiety ravels and unravels tightly in my stomach like a serpent. Peeta still doesn’t turn around.

It pisses me off that he is doing this. This. We were having such a good day- the closest thing I’d had to perfection. And now…

“Peeta,” I say, more timidly than I like, and his head twitches in a spasm to the side, though he still doesn’t speak.

I take a deep breath and walk myself over to him, leaning back on the counter in his direct field of vision, so that he cannot possibly ignore me.

“What’s going on?”

He looks up, finally meeting my eyes, and they warm up a little before dropping back down.

“Katniss,” he says to the potatoes, ignoring my question. “Are you okay?”

I frown slightly.

“Shouldn’t I be?”

His brows furrow, and he looks up at me from under them.

“He was…your closest friend Katniss. And I know how things ended with him.”

I stare ahead.

“And so…are you okay?”

“I don’t know.” I whisper.

A few tense seconds pass between us.

“I mean,” I continue on in the same, low voice. “Am I supposed to forgive him? Move on? Forget about it? Miss him?”

“You’re not supposed to anything.”

“I don’t know.” I look up at him forcefully, willing him to read the openness scrawled between my eyes. “I don’t know how I feel about it.” I glance down at my shoes bitterly. “I guess that’s always been my problem.”

A warm hand rests briefly on my arm, before flitting away.

“None of this is your fault, Katniss.” Peeta says, voice gentler than before.

“I know.” I grit my teeth, getting frustrated. “But it’s still my problem, isn’t it?”

His eyes search mine bravely, and I feel the tension begin to leak out of me. But I’m not done yet.

“What about you?”

He shrugs. “I’m fine.”

“Peeta, talk to me, please.”

He sighs, setting aside the peeler.

“Just a bit of immature, left-over jealousy, I guess.” He tries to laugh it off and smile reassuringly, but I don’t join in.

What I do do is let my eyes rake over his unruly hair, falling down in sandy waves over his forehead, the dusting of rose in his cheeks. The way his form tapers down from his broad shoulders to his waist, and the way his blue eyes glitter like the late afternoon sun off the heavy waves.

“Don’t be,” I whisper, and he looks back up.


 

“So this is the first time you’ve seen him since you said goodbye?”

“Yes.” I try to sound patient, but Dr. Aurelius has always had a way of tapping into my irritated side. Which isn’t all that hard, when I think about it.

“Hmmm.”

“Were you appointed to hum into my ear, or was that just a liberty you decided to take into your own hands?”

“It was neither Katniss, but fortunately for you, patience is a virtue that did aid me in gaining this appointment.”

I huff.

“Have you thought of him since you said goodbye?”

“I’ve thought of most people, but not specifically.”

“And how does it make you feel now?”

I hesitate, running my fingers over the ringlet phone wire.

“…Empty, I guess. Out of place. Disconcerted.”

“Not sad, though?”

I think about it for a minute.

“Not…exactly. Nostalgic maybe.”

Silence falls through the speaker.

“I don’t think I can ever forget what he did.” I whisper after a minute, and a plop of rain falls onto the windowpane, swiftly followed by another.

“Nor should you try.”

 

Peeta is sprawled across the sofa when I appear at the foot of the stairs. I walk over to him and sit on his lap. His arms fold around me automatically, wrapping me up.

“Hey,” he says, finger-brushing my hair. “You ok?”

“Yes.” I snuggle closer to him, breathing in his scent, and he reclines further so I can get comfortable.

“Katniss,” he says after a moment, and I look up. “I’ve been thinking…I want to go and see the bakery again.”

I sit up straight, looking at him, and his gaze meets mine.

“I mean, I know you hate town, and there’s not really anything left to see, but-”

“Okay.” I’m nodding, and I see the surprise in Peeta’s eyes.

“I’ll come with you. If you want, I mean.”

He smiles, gratitude and relief diffusing out of him.

“Thank you- I- thank you.”

We settle back down, his hand resting at the back of my head. I study the slight blond scruff trailing along his jawline, barely visible unless this close.

“Peeta,” I breathe, and he tiles his head to look at me.

“…Do you think that I should talk to Gale again?”

A few moments stumble by, and then…

“Yes.”


 

Gale,

I want to say that I’m sorry for it al-

 

Gale,

How are you? I heard you got a job in 2.

Look, I think we should talk sometime-

 

Gale,

I know we said goodbye. But I feel like there’s more to say. Maybe sometime-

 

Gale,

I wish it wasn’t so damn hard to tell you things you used to be able to understand-

 

“Urgh!” I throw the pen to the table, and push back, the legs of my chair screeching along the polished teak floor. Sighing, I lean forward and tangle my hands in my hair.

Writing has never done me good. Blunt lines on expensive paper can never do my feelings justice. And especially not to Gale.

He would think this whole letter-writing thing to be just as stupid as me. Frivolous and buried too deep in formality to decipher. A mask of perfection.

Or would he? I fist my hands and drip my forehead to rest on my knees. I don’t know Gale anymore. I haven’t known him for a long time now.

What was it he was looking for? In all that death and pain and blood and war, what was he expecting to find? Peace? Amidst a broken city and a pile of smashed in skulls? He’d lost that the minute he strapped on that machine gun-worthy bow.

Gale and I didn’t used to have to talk. We would stand beside each other, facing the stretch of drying grasses and velvet green tree tops, bows twitching occasionally in our empty hands, and just know.

 

Now that I think about it, we should have practiced while we still could.


 

It’s a plain day when we go to the bakery. Silver-grey ahead, with just a hint of blue streaking across the sky. I run my fingers through my Seam black hear. Raven black, Peeta had said the other night. Star night black.

His eyes are cast ahead now, as we walk through the remains of our district. Hurting, but still steady. Brave.

I’ve not been in town for so long, I’d forgotten that there was rebuilding being done. But now I’m here the difference is striking. Pale buildings, eggshell white, are dotted around. A large structure is in progress above where the mines used to be. Steam billows from beneath a red and white striped canvas, which is snuggled between what looks to be a market.

I squeeze Peeta’s hand.

“They’re turning that-” He gestures to the large structure to our left- “into a medicine factory. Did you know?”

I nod. Prim would have loved to work there.

I don’t realise we’re approaching the Bakery until we’re almost on top of it. But Peeta stops, slowing gently, and tugs on my hand.

I look down.

Charcoal. Soot. Ash. It’s black, a dark, melted, twisted patch of gunk on the ground. I close my eyes briefly, and behind my eyelids, I see the bright, glowing form of the bakery, the polished windows, the colourful cupcakes and candies just out of reach. I watch my little sister’s breath fog up the glass, fingertips spreading out like a star atop the surface, and when I peer in close enough, I can almost see the top of a blond head whipping away, the nervous flash of a pair of young blue eyes.

My eyes flip open again, and the illusion is gone.

Peeta’s hand clutches mine tightly, as if he is about to topple off the edge of a cliff, or get dragged under by a sea current. I touch his arm with my other hand, and he leans into me, a half-embrace.

You can still see the framework of the building, where the walls, the doors were, which rooms were which. You can take a guess at which corner held the oven, where the counter stood.

“Bannock was always the responsible one.” Peeta says suddenly, his blue eyes wide and glazed over, moisture brimming at the edges of his wetted eyelashes. “He was the oldest, my mother’s favourite. I think…she didn’t like any of us, but she seemed to have a higher tolerance level for him. He always did as he was told, the diplomatic one. Didn’t smile much. Only when he was around his girlfriend, and sometimes when he was with me and Rye. Sometimes.”

“Rye was the handsomest. And the troublemaker. Joker…Got hit more than Bannock…Not as much as me.”

I grip his arm tighter, as if I can wrap him up, protect the memory of his younger self from everything he should never have endured.

“He was the only one that would ever joke about it. At night. We shared a room, and he would laugh it all off. Or pretend too. I never asked.”

I hold him, and he finally slumps into me, his body curving over mine. I wrap my arms around his torso and his hands bunch in my hair, his breathing punctuated by strangled sobs that are muffled in my shoulder. His body shakes like a leaf.

I press fluttery kisses all down his neck and into his hair, my heart tapping out a distressed rhythm.

“Is it wrong that I miss them?” His voice is a strained whisper against my ear. “When they did nothing for me? Not when I needed them. Even though when I came down in the morning with a lump and bruises on my face, they said nothing, except maybe hand me a cold compress?

And I loved them anyway. So much that it still feels like my lungs have been torn out my chest every time I think about it. I miss their jokes and their laughter and their tense silence. I miss the feel of their hands when I walked to school, I miss the stories, I miss the smell of rising dough and my Dad’s rough apron against my face when I was five. I even miss her, Katniss. Isn’t that fucked up?” He laughs, a choked sob against my skin, and I run my hands through his hair, up and down the back of his jumper, every inch I can reach.

“No,” I breathe, pressing my face into his curls, the smell of his pear shampoo all over. My eyes sting, and my heart feels swollen, throbbing erratically with every shuddery breath he draws.

“No, it’s fine. It’s okay. You’re not fucked up, Peeta. You’re…”

I grasp desperately at the material beneath my fingers.

“You’re beautiful.”


 

“Have you written to Gale yet?” Peeta asks, glancing up at me from across the sofa. I pause, my fingers coming to rest between the pages of the plant book. I’d been flicking through it a lot recently, not quite sure what I was searching for.

“No,” I admit, biting my lip and looking down. “I don’t think I can write a letter to him. It doesn’t…come out right.”

Peeta frowns, forehead crinkling up in concentration.

“Perhaps you could call him?”

“I don’t know his number.”

“How’d you know his address?”

“I don’t. I figured I would pass it along and it would find its way to him eventually.”

“Maybe Dr. Aurelius will know. We can ask him.”

“I doubt it.”

“He could find out.”

“I suppose.”

I stare at Peeta. He stares back.

I nod at the sketchpad. “Are you done with that?”

“I suppose.” He says, the curve of a smile tipping up the corner of his lips. “If you’re done with that.”

I set the plant book down carefully on the ground, and then crawl across the settee, pulling the sketchpad out of his hands and setting it on the neighboring table. I climb onto his lap and straddle him, clasping my hands around his neck.

“Hey.” I say.

“Hey,” he breathes, face flushed, eyes wide and dark. His hands rest at my hips.

I lean in closer, and his eyes drop to my mouth, the lamplight glittering off them delicately. I purse my lips.

“Are you okay?” He murmurs as he reaches out to trace the sensitive skin with his thumb. Suddenly, I find there’s not enough oxygen in the room.

“I think so.” I swallow, and then lean in, tilting my head so that my mouth barely hovers above his. I exhale a shaky breath, my cheeks flooding with blood.

“Are you sure?” His lips move against mine when he speaks.

“I don’t know what I am, Peeta.”

And it’s true. Here tangled up in him, his smell, the cradle of his arms, the hot breath escaping from his mouth and intertwining with mine like a smoker’s dance, I lose myself. Forgotten. I’ve become an indefinite being, otherworldly, alien.

So damn alive.

Our mouths clash, thunderous, lightening sparks flying up and down my body. Stars flitter though my bones, and I cup his jaw with both hands, tightening my grip on him. He pulls my hair, just lightly, and I moan, a sharp sound of surprise in the back of my throat. I rock into him, finding more, always more.

“Katniss,” he whispers, breaking apart to breathe, and I discover his pulse point, liking it very much. He pants, and a part of me is terrified, screaming and locking myself in my room.

The other part can’t stop.

It’s like teetering, about to fall off the edge of a knife. I grasp at his clothes, taste his skin, getting drunk off the flavour and rocking, rocking into him.

“Katniss,” he groans, throwing his head back so I have access to the long column of his neck, his adam’s apple bobbing. I try to catch it between my lips, teeth grazing the ridges, and his hands squeeze my hips. Peeta starts making sounds like he can’t breathe.

The door swings open, and Haymitch walks in.

“Haymitch!”

I practically fall off Peeta’s lap, clambering backwards onto the sofa. Peeta jumps up, mouth falling open as if searching for something to say. His normally messy curls are even more bedraggled than usual, his eyes bright and shining, his lips swollen and red. A trail of scarlet blossoms from his collarbone to the tip of his chin, glistening under the artificial lighting, and he tugs his jumper down over the front of his trousers nervously.

“What the hell are you doing here?!” I exclaim, straightening up and folding my hands over my clothes repeatedly. My face burns with Haymitch’s answering snort. I can tell from the expression on his face that he is drunk.

“Geez, I didn’t realise there were land laws for me to obey too.” He staggers over to the kitchen, and I follow cautiously.

“It’s just,” I begin, more calmly. “You never leave your house.”

“I ran out of liquor.” He rummages through our cupboards, banging their doors closed loudly. I glance at Peeta, and his brow is furrowed.

“Haymitch,” I try again. “We don’t have any liquor.”

“Well, that’s fucking useless, isn’t it?”

The room hits silence like a brick wall but he doesn’t seem to notice.

“Would you like something to eat?” Peeta asks carefully after a moment, and Haymitch visibly resigns, exhaling loudly and leaning back on the counter.

“It’s fine- I can see you two are occupied.” He gives me a sort of strange grin that doesn’t reach his glassy eyes, and stumbles back out the open door, leaving us both standing, stunned, in the suddenly cold kitchen.


 

“I’m afraid.” I whisper that night, curling my fingers into the bed sheets and watching Peeta’s profile. The moon has all but silhouetted his shape, and shades of shadow merge slowly over the crumpled sheets and into each other. The clock by my bedside glares, exhibiting it is far too late for talking. Even as I speak, the silence seems to quiver and whirl towards the ceiling, aggravated.

Peeta’s head turns to look at me, gloved in darkness, making it impossible to read his expression.

It doesn’t matter. I can feel it.

“What of?”

I pause, licking my lips.

“Everything.”

Haymitch. Gale. Mourning. Thinking. Falling back into the dark pit I was in for so long, when I’m not even sure I’m out of it yet.

Losing Peeta. Peeta getting hurt. Peeta finding out about the cut. Peeta not loving me. Judging me. Leaving.

His hand finds mine underneath the maze of bed sheets, and worms its way into my grasp. He pulls it up and brings it to his lips.

“Don’t be.” His breathe gathers in my skin, surely seeping into my pores, and he brushes my knuckles across his lips.

I pull it back, frowning.

“How can I not be? I can’t control it, this, this crazy in me. I can’t just stop.”

My voice is a harsh whisper, and Peeta straightens up, leaning back on his elbows to face me.

“Katniss-”

“I didn’t choose this.”

“I know you didn’t choose this. I know you can’t control it. But…maybe you can fight it.”

“Fight it? I’m done fighting Peeta. I’m sick of always having to fight.”

He reaches out and touches my arm, but I don’t look at him.

“I was just trying to say there isn’t anything for you to be afraid of.”

I roll over, pulling away from him. The swish of the bed sheets is impossibly loud.

“You don’t get it.” I say. “At all.”

He falls silent, and I lie there, fuming. How can he expect me to stop being afraid? To stop seeing dead bodies in the dark or to stop hearing screams ringing in my ears? How can he not understand?

I sigh angrily, infuriated with myself for being stuck, and for the stinging that has collected behind my eyes. One drop overflows, quickly followed by another, hot and salty, and I sit up, and stalk into the bathroom. I lock the door behind me.

One glance at the mirror breaks me, and I move to sit down in the shower, where it can’t taunt me. I bite my hand to try and keep myself quiet.

I’ve fought. But I’ve never won.

“Katniss?” There’s a soft knock at the door, and I bury my head in my knees. “I’m sorry.” His voice drops to a whisper. “Please don’t shut me out.”

He falls silent, and the tears fall harder.

Minutes drag by, and my shoulders shake with the ache of crying soundlessly, my back cold against the hard tiles. A sob escapes me, despite my efforts, and humiliation pools in my chest and clogs up my throat.

“Katniss, please.”

I stand up and unlock the door, to find a distressed Peeta facing me. I fall into his open arms, overcome with it all, and he squeezes me to him, clenching his arms around me. He buries his head on top of mine.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He whispers over and over into my hair, and I press my face into his neck. My lips part, and I suck in air like I’ve been drowning.

“I’m sorry. Peeta, I’m sorry. But I try, I swear I do.” My voice breaks on the last word, and he holds me tighter.

“No, you’re right.” He murmurs. “No more fighting.”

I exhale and close my eyes, holding on.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13- Bleeding Saltwater

Sunlight filters in through grimy windows- I guess they need to be cleaned soon. I can see the dust particles as dotted shadows on the floor, on the sheets. On Peeta, his body strewn next to me, an arm around my waist and his chest slowly rising and falling. His skin is tender, fresh and fragrant from rest, and his hair is mussed.

I want him so.

I want him, though my eyes are still swollen from last night. All that crying, all that tension…I wonder if it is gone, or if it will still linger between us, a bank of clear mud, upon wake.

If so, I’m glad I woke up before him.

He’s beautiful. It’s not a word I used to think would be associated with a boy, but upon seeing him, it’s impossible to use any other. Beautiful. Everything about Peeta seems to be a work of art. He’s not human, or rather, not normal, like the rest of us, because the rest of us are all made of atoms and cells and dust. But he, he seems to have been built from crystals and silk. Where our skin is flesh, his is oil paint, gliding over his limbs. Where we have dead matter for hair, his curls are spun from a thousand golden sunsets, streaming across the threads of clouds, and where my lips are skin and blood, his seem to be swollen rose petals.

He’s made a poet out of my heart, and a poem out of himself.

My fingers twitch at my sides, and yet I lie there, immobile. It’s like, I need to be near him, all over him, so close I share his skin. Yet the more I crave this boy, his touch, the less able I seem to be to take it.

I breathe heavily, and it feels like more of a luxury than a necessity.

Peeta’s eyelids flutter, and he blows out a huff as he rolls onto his side, almost closing the distance between us. Just an inch left.

Goddammit.

He opens his eyes groggily, and then sees me and smiles through his sleep. I watch his face as he grows more alert, and his expression more serious.

“Hey,” he says, eyes soft, despite the reserved lines of his cheeks and mouth.

“Hey,” I whisper. He searches my face.

Slowly, he brings an arm up to it, fingers hesitantly brushing my cheek, and I feel myself tremble. He leans in and sweeps his thumb back and forth across my dark circles. Half an inch.

He smiles gently at me, adoration laid plain in his eyes, which travel across my face and then down my shoulder, following the shape of my arm and torso. And then-

His expression changes abruptly, dropping and darkening and tumbling as his brows knit together in sheer confusion, and then his hand follows the path of his eyes and traces down from my shoulder to my elbow to-

And I realise and I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t because no, no, no, and he lifts up my naked wrist, turning it over, and the truth is a fucking dam, because I see it spill from my wrist and onto his face, spreading and drenching and no-

I can’t cry.

My body has locked me down, a blessing or a curse I cannot tell, and I lie paralysed and limp in his hand as his face contorts and he smoothes his thumb over and over it again, and I want to tell him that no, he can’t erase it no matter how long he tries, just to hurry up the process. Because it dawns torturously slow, and yet all too fast. I’m stuck in a nightmare, but it’s too terrifying to not be real.

“Katniss,” he whispers, voice breaking, and his wide and tearful eyes switch from my wrist to meet mine. It seems to jolt me back to life, and then, I start to cry. Pathetic sobs tumble out of me and my face twists mortifyingly, the hic-hic-hiccup of my gasps a cruel rhythm.

I try to snatch my hand away from him, but his grasp is too tight, almost painfully so, and his face is so horrified it kills me.

“Please, please,” I beg, trying to get away, as far away as I can from the look on his face, and then my pleads turn to screams and I yank my hand out of his clutches and kick him away, struggling to get upright and go.

It snaps him out his daze; he unfreezes and struggles against me, barely deflecting my flailing limbs as he wraps his hands around my waist and pulls himself towards me. I get a hold of his shoulders and push, but his head is pressed against my stomach, shaking, and it’s only then that I realise he’s crying.

“Peeta?” I gasp, staring down at him in shock, all the fight suddenly evaporating from me at the sight of his anguish. Stunned, I sit there, palms open on the mattress as he holds me like I’m disintegrating, too tight and too wild.

He catches his breath after a couple moments, reigning it in, and pulls apart from me, lifting his head up though his hands remain planted firmly on my waist. It’s like it drains all his energy to do so; he falls straight back onto my shoulder, and I feel his damp lips across my bare skin, parting and kneading, tasting me. My brows twist, and my hands reach up to bury themselves in his hair. Am I comforting him?

Eventually he lifts his head again, his eyes meeting mine. I thought they’d be hollow, lost and defeated, but I am met with fiery sorrow and desolate determination. He’s wild.

“Katniss,” he breathes, voice thick with torment. He opens his mouth, then screws his eyes shut briefly and tries again.

“When?”

I blink at him, his fiery and damp eyes, and tiny spasms rush through me.

“Um.” I choke out. “It- no, oh! It wasn’t recent, it was ages ago, I- I didn’t…”

“When exactly?” he asks.

I take a moment.

“The night,” I whisper. “That night, when you first brought me the bread. When you came back and I threw all the ornaments at you. And you left.”

He closes his eyes and sways towards me. “No. No.

Pain and regret slashes its way through his face and he opens his eyes again.

“I’m sorry.” He says. “I’m so sorry.”

I frown deeply, not understanding. “Why?”

“I shouldn’t have left you. I should have been there.” He swallows, eyes hard and full of self-loathing.

“Peeta,” I whisper. “I wanted you to leave.”

“I know, but-”

“But there is no but.” My voice gets louder, and I sit up straight. “I wanted you to leave Peeta. I wanted you to go. You don’t get it- you had to leave. It’s nothing to do with you. I just couldn’t-” I break off, searching for words. “I just couldn’t bare it. This is not your fault. This is not anything about you. You see, it was my choice Peeta. I chose to do this.” I turn shrill, expression contorting. “I did this to myself. And I think, I think even if I did go through it again, Peeta, I think- I think I’d choose the same thing.

I gasp, pressing my palms to my face. He stares at me for a couple of moments, his eyes as decipherable to me as a pair of crystal balls, the tortured mist in them swirling and condensing into something new. Something…tender?

He gently reaches up to where my hands are smothering my broken moans, moving minutely, as if not to startle me, and then folds his own hand over one of them. And pulls it away.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, his change in demeanor stunning me once again into silence. Peeta Mellark takes a deep breath, and holds my damp hand in both of his. His gaze weds my red-rimmed one.

“The War has never stopped for you, has it?” he says.

I study him, the shallow touch of the sun hitting the pupils of his azure eyes, and softly shake my head.

“Then…” He whispers, his gaze dropping once more to where our hands meet and then flitting back up to me. “Just keep on surviving. For me. And I’ll do the rest.”

 

 

Peeta Mellark is not a selfish man. We have all of us been known to ask for more- more money, more food, more love, more time. We are selfish, to the cores of our bones, our final drops of blood, and we must all learn to accept that fact.

But not Peeta.

Never has he asked me for anything- never requested my patience, my loyalty, or my heart. Wanted, I’m sure, craved to the point of tears and splintered paintbrushes, but never asked.

He asks me this now.

And yet, somehow, even his selfishness kindles the most beautiful, kind sensation rippling through me, a river of freshwater where there should have been vinegar. And I feel it– finally –just push me off the edge of something more.


 

 

“Water?”

“Yes, please.”

The cold, wet surface of the glass meets my hand and I wrap my fingers around it. If I look through it at the right angle, I almost can’t see the red swollenness around Peeta’s eyes.

He sits down opposite me and I bring my glass to my lips to fill the silence. The water tastes odd in my mouth, too sour, too sweet.

Peeta places his on the wooden tabletop and looks up at me from beneath his lashes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” He asks after a moment.

“…Because I was afraid.”

“I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

“I don’t want to be afraid, period.”

He regards me, eyes too haunted for laughing today. I take another sip of water.

“Do you think it’ll happen again?”

I pause, watching him over the rim of my glass. The light dances off his scarred form.

“I don’t think so, Peeta.”

His eyes latch onto mine at the sound of his name, which I decide I like the taste of, and seem to quiver.

“I love you, you know.”

I don’t say anything. Because I know. And that’s why I don’t understand, can’t process, comprehend-

“Why don’t you hate me?” I blurt out, no longer able to hold it in, and look back up at him, resolutely desperate.

He frowns slightly, taking me in.

“What would I hate you for?”

“Because,” I say, growing more and more frantic with each word. “I’m all you have left. And I almost took that away from you. Without a thought.”

I stare back at a bird hopping from branch to branch on an apple tree outside, trying to regain my breathing. The sun is shining, and the world seems so peaceful, as if it knows something I don’t. Some way to stop spinning.

Or rather, tolerate it.

Peeta regards me with a strange look on his face, as if he is trying to figure me out. He opens his mouth, pausing to think things through.

“I don’t…” He starts, and then shakes his head and leans closer towards me, resting his elbows on the table. “I just don’t. I mean, maybe some people would say I should. But those people don’t know what you’ve been through. And I don’t really know what you’ve been through either. But I’ve been through pain, and I know what it’s like. So, no, I can’t hate you for it.”

“But it was still selfish of me, inevitably, wasn’t it?”

His eyes search each of mine, that intense, concentrated expression focused all onto me, as if I am one of his miraculous paintings. I wonder if there could be entire galaxies hidden away within this boy, whole supernovas expanding and collapsing in a burst of smeared glitter and light.

“You’re right.” He says abruptly, leaning back from the table, and I feel my heart plummet into my stomach, shattering and puncturing the acidic tissue. I stare at him with shocked eyes.

“You are selfish.” He tells me, staring right back. “You are self-absorbed, and utterly consumed by your own pain. And…I don’t care. I don’t give a damn.”

He smiles in disbelief at the wooden surface and looks back up at me. “Yes,” he says. “You are flawed. But I love you for it. I love you because you have vulnerability, imperfections, mistakes. Because when I look at the sunset I don’t look for perfectly smooth clouds and balanced gradients. When I look at the night sky I don’t look for symmetric white polka dots and unity. When I look at the ocean I don’t look for precisely sculpted waves.

When I look at you, I can’t see this “selfishness”, this flaw you have labelled yourself with. I just see beauty. I just see…you.”

My eyelids flutter helplessly as I listen, and my lips part- searching. He takes advantage of the cracks that are showing, and pours himself right into me.

“So don’t call yourself selfish Katniss. Because if you truly devoted the entire purpose of your life to pleasing others, thinking of others, it wouldn’t mean half as much as it does now that you are still here. You are still here. And so, inevitably, you are brave.”

I study this boy sitting opposite me from under my lashes, the heat from the burning stars that are his pupils making me glow. A heady silence warms the sweet slopes of our shoulders, and then- in between this moment and the next, I know what it feels like to be loved.

I reach out to take his hand, because I cannot stand not touching him for any longer.

“You realise how fragile we all are, don’t you?” I whisper under my breath, staring at where my thumb kisses his knuckle. “We could turn to dust any second now.”

Peeta leans in, using his other hand to scoop back my hair and caress my jawline. Fireworks begin to sparkle under my skin, green, blue and pink.

“Yes,” he murmurs in a husky voice, ingenuously oblivious to the sensations he is setting off within me. “So why bother being afraid?”

And I think to myself, because, watching as his lips reach for mine. Because, because- oh.


 

Healing isn’t always pretending you’re okay. It isn’t always as simple as rubbing balm on a cut every night or watching bruises fade.

Sometimes healing means slicing yourself open further, deeper, to make sure your scars heal more fully this time. Sometimes healing means breaking your bones a second time so they set better.

Healing is not inevitable. It is not something that is freely given, something that can just wash over you like the passage of time.

Healing is a choice. A battle. And it’s a battle you choose every day, all day. In the morning, when you wake and you remember how temporary your skin and bones are, how lost your mind. It’s the afternoon, when the sky frays into strands of grey and oyster white, and you realise you’ve sat in the same chair all day, and it’s evening, when you tell yourself how much you love the night once more as you ball up the bed sheets in your fists and chant a silent pray.

It’s the middle of the night, when you wake up and all your mistakes come rushing back over you as a tidal wave, drowning, and it’s first thing when you wake up again, your face pressed against warm sheets and you can’t remember where you are for a second. It’s twilight, on your own, in the forest and behind the trees, and it’s when you’re alone, you’re alone and sad and heartbroken.

It’s all the time, but most of all, it’s before dawn.


 

I locate Gale’s number. It sits patiently on my desk, a shred of paper scrawled with the numbers I had Dr. Aurelius read out to me three days ago. My fingers tremble as I reach for it.

“Two…one….nine…eight,” I murmur to myself as I punch it into the telephone. This part isn’t hard.

But his telephone number isn’t all that long, and so I find I am done all too soon. On to the hard part.

You’ve survived a million battles, I think to myself. You can survive this.

I press call.

Brring-Brring. Brring-Brring. It’s not quite loud enough to cover my pounding heartbeat, so I focus on my breathing, crumpling his number in my sweaty hand. Come on come on. Pick up.

And then there’s that dreaded click and-

“Hello?”

His voice is so similar, the same husky and deep tones vibrating through the phone line. And yet, so unfamiliar.

“It’s Katniss.”

There’s silence, and the seconds tick by slower than is polite. I hold my breath.

“Katniss,” he says finally, and the sound isn’t as surprised as I thought it might have been. It’s almost resigned, weary yet cautious.

I strain my ears to hear for any warmth.

“How are you?” he asks.

“Fine,” I say quietly, and then all of a sudden I’m irritated because he has no business asking me that.

“I’m fine.”

“Why are you calling me?”

I pause. Why am I calling him?

“I need closure.” I say eventually, and he exhales roughly on the other side.

“Okay.” He says. “What do you want me to do about it?”


 

“You told him to come to 12?!” Johanna screeches in my ear, and I hold the phone back as my face screws up.

“Johanna-” I begin to say.

“Are you crazy? I thought you hated the guy! Please, tell me how this is going to do any good for either of you!”

“Johanna-”

“Does Peeta know yet? Because I’m telling you, he is gonna flip. I mean, obviously, he’ll act all nice, but on the inside-”

“Johanna!” I scream, and she finally shuts up.

“God,” I say, catching my breath. “You think I don’t know all this? What else was I supposed to do? Try and figure it out on the phone? And of course I’ve thought about Peeta- this isn’t, I mean, it isn’t even like that anymore-”

“He’s going to have a flashback.” She deadpans.

“I think I can take care of my own boyfriend.” I say coldly, and then freeze. She bursts out laughing.

“I need that on replay.”

“Oh, bugger off.”

“Ahem.” I spin around, and find Peeta leaning against the door frame behind me, a smug look on his face.

“Fuck.” I murmur, and Johanna cackles. I tell her goodbye and hang up.

“Boyfriend,” Peeta echoes as I put the shiny black earpiece down and look over at him. “Is that what I am?”

I scowl, and he breaks into a grin, offering me a mug of peppermint tea. I hide behind its breathy warmth as I take a sip.

“Well, what do you consider yourself?”

“Your incredibly attractive chef?”

I smile and he glows. “In that case,” I say. “What’s for lunch?”

Once we’ve finished, I push back from the table and lean back to look at him. Today he is wearing a dark blue jumper that hugs his form and enhances the roses in his cheeks. I bite my lip.

“Peeta,” I ask, and his eyes meet mine. I watch them soften and glitter as they do.

“Hmm?” he says, leaning forward on his knuckles.

Are you okay with this? With…Gale? Coming back?”

He pauses, eyes flickering round the room thoughtfully.

“Yes.” He says after a long moment, and I reach across to take his hand. It feels like heaven touch and buttercream against mine.

I take each of his fingers and press the pads to my lips, the almost-taste of his skin affecting me like a particularly potent wine. I purse my mouth and release each one in turn.

“Thank you,” I whisper into his palm, and his fingertips quiver against my cheek.


 

Johanna does not leave us alone. I make the mistake of telling her when he is planning to visit, and next thing I know she’s packing.

“You act like I’m such a burden sometimes,” she grumbles over the phone one morning, after I’ve expressed my complaints for the fourth time. “You know damn well I’m doing you a favour.”

She claims to be a shock-absorber for the awkwardness that will inexorably occur, but I secretly suspect she wants some new meat to sink her teeth into.

Peeta decides to remain neutral on the whole affair.

In fact, he doesn’t show much anticipation at all. He acts like nothing is happening, whistling as he does the washing, kissing the back of my neck as I do the dishes, and only offering advice or comfort when I ask for it.

I wonder if he’s still jealous. I (not so subtly) interrogate him about it one day.

“I’d be jealous, that’s all.” I add quickly, leaning back on the wooden post of his bed and hitching a leg over the duvet. To my surprise, Peeta chuckles.

“I don’t doubt that.” He says. “Remember that girl you shot the arrow at?”

“It was between you…I’m not that unstable.” I grumble in a dark voice to the oak floor, cheeks sizzling up.

“Yeah well, you know she was Sae’s niece?”

My head snaps up and I look up at him, my jaw going slack as his eyes gleam with mirth. He sets the empty laundry basket down and drops the folded clothes on the bed.

“W-what?” I gasp, horror tap-dancing down my spine. He giggles and comes over.

“You see, you’re the only one in my eyes, my love.” He says, smiling and tugging both of my hands up so that I am pressed against his form. Shock turns to annoyance, and I scowl up at him to the best of my ability considering the compromising position.

“Damn right,” I growl, and tiptoe up to claim him with a kiss that rapidly escalates into wildfire, leaving broken breathlessness and clean laundry all over the floor.

 


 

He arrives on the morning two weeks later. I sit up in our bed, my back to sleeping Peeta, and twist the material of my nightgown between two fingers. The sun begins to rise, just little shards of light from behind the trees, and I stand and walk bare-footed over to the bathroom.

I look at myself in the mirror.

It is dark, and the reflective surface seems too bright in the shadowed room, like the surface of a Capitol lake. The door remains open behind me, so some sun tiptoes in, permeating the air a dark brown, instead of black.

I study myself.

My skin is olive, greasy and fluid within the frame that is my unkempt raven hair, and my eyes are lined with charcoal shadows, their silver as piercing as an arrowhead. My lips are a pale fuchsia, and my shoulder is bare until the sleeve of my nightgown washes up onto its tanned expanse like a frilly wave.

Though I do not necessarily agree with him, I start to see what Peeta means what he calls me beautiful.

I run my fingers through my hair, and start to get ready.

The train is supposed to come in at 7:45, so I wake Peeta just before I leave to tell him that I’m going, and then throw on my Dad’s jacket. I pause, wondering if Gale will take that as some sort of sign, but then decide to just wear it anyway.

I’ve had enough of games.

The walk is cold, and I shove my icy fingertips deeper into the soft material of my pockets. I can feel my cheeks being stained a berry red, and I blow a haphazard strand of hair out of my face. I make sure to move briskly, keeping my mind as clear as possible. No point in delaying this.

The train platform is almost empty, a mother fussing over her daughter in the left most corners. I watch as she does up each button tightly on the toddler’s purple jacket, and when she gets to the top she leans in and presses a kiss to her forehead. I feel something warm spill into my chest.

She catches me watching and straightens up, shooting a weary glance my way and reaching for her daughter’s hand. She’s here for provisions surely- nobody else comes to 12 anymore unless they’re here to stay.

The train rolls in, and I fist my hands in my pockets. The air is sharp in my nostrils as I inhale deeply.

The silvery surface stutters to a still in front of me, and the doors open. A man in a dark grey coat with a black backpack lifts his head as he steps out, and then he spies me. Eyes like darts pierce me, and the corners of his mouth stay down.

“Katniss,” he says, and the name sounds foreign on his tongue.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14- The Last Inch of Fuse

He looks out of place in our large kitchen. Pieces of coal black hair fall into his forehead, and his face is full of shadows. He looks around the room unfathomably.

“Do you want something to drink?” I ask, and he frowns a little, taking me in.

“No, thanks.” He says. The silence resumes.

I cross my arms and lean back against the counter, watching him. Trying to refamiliarise myself with the shapes of his expression, the harsh lines of his form. But I can’t, and I can feel myself growing colder with it. I had been so sure we could do this.

“You know why I asked you to come back,” I say, breaking the silence, and I’m surprised how unafraid I am. How bold. Almost as if the old Katniss has popped round for a visit too.

He appraises me, and then his eyes seem to soften a little bit. I go on.

“We need to talk.” I gesture to the door, and his eyes flicker to the stairs.

“Where’s Peeta?” he asks.

Probably painting in the spare room, I think, but I don’t say that. I just tell him he’s upstairs and make sure to write him a note telling him we’re going for a walk. And not to worry.

Gale stands up and follows me out the door. He never took off his jacket.

We hadn’t said much on the way back from the train station. I showed him his room in Peeta’s original house, having eventually decided it was better than sleeping two doors away from where Peeta and I would be lying together. The idea alone was too intimate.

Everything about Gale is unfamiliar. His posture, the way he walks, the timbre of his voice. I feel like I’ve been reborn in these past few months, and his presence is throwing me off.

Without even meaning too, I find that I’ve lead us to the fence. I look at him, but I can’t read him, so bend down and slip under the hole without hesitation. We’re going to the rock.

Once we’re seated he looks at me. Searching. I wonder if he finds me equally unrecognisable, a girl changed. And I realise it’s true. That he doesn’t know me anymore. Somehow, that makes it easier to say the next words.

“I made a gravestone for her.”

Grey eyes snap up to meet mine, and the expression in them is that of a tortured man who has turned pretense into an art form. I can tell how hard it is for him to open up even this much of himself to me.

“Where?” he asks.

“At the lake.”

He nods, and then he is frowning, and when he looks my way again I can see tears in his eyes. I feel my poker mask fall to the ground in shock.

“I hate myself for it, you know. I think about it every day.” His voice is filled with miserable fury. I stare at him, feeling a strange and fervent empathy suddenly twist in my gut. Silence crawls past our legs. He sniffs and purses his chapped lips, glaring at the forest around us.

“He loved her.” He says finally.

“Who did?” I ask, perplexed.

“Rory.”

The pain that fills my chest is wholly unexpected, and is as sharp as a blade. It overcomes any sweet, and my hand finds the mossy surface of the rock, grasping at it as I keel over. I gasp quietly, shaking with sorrow.

Too young, I think. Much, much too young. The image of that forgotten boy’s face fills my mind, brown hair illuminated gold in the sun, eyes small and narrow, so much like his brother’s. His crinkled smile haunts me, the laugh of his not quite broken voice ringing in my ears.

Just a boy, I think, and then the image of another blond headed boy enters my mind, blue eyes open and steady as he took my hand for the first time. Just a boy.

“I didn’t know.” I whisper eventually.

“Me neither,” Gale replies, gaze weary and drained as it focuses on me.

“I’m not going to hold it to you.” I begin after another moment, voice cracking slightly. I take a deep breath and momentarily close my eyes. “I know it’s not what she’d want.”

He nods, eyes linking with mine, and then he breathes, as if it’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time. I reach out for him, and he holds me.

It isn’t awkward, and though the contact is brief, I know it’s what I need. Because the truth is, forgiveness heals both ways, and I’m tired of keeping score.

We let go, and the air is considerably lighter around us. “Want to head back?” I ask, and he nods, the first hint of smile warming the edges of his lips.

I ask him how his new job is in 2, and he answers, but doesn’t go into too much depth, because we both know I don’t really care.

“How’s Peeta?” he asks as our house comes in to view. I slow, glancing up at him.

“He’s good,” I say, hesitating. “He’s much better.”

I catch Gale watching me and it’s only then that I realise I’m smiling. Something seems to solidify in his eyes.

“And you two?” I blink, raising an eyebrow at the familiar phrasing.

“Good.” I say, and then Gale does smile. Not full on, not in the way that he used too, but a small, real smile all the same.

I nearly fall off the step I’m standing on.

“Good.” He says, and opens the door.


 

Having the two men in the same room is something I’ll never quite get used to. The thought strikes me again for the first time as I come quietly down the stairs, pausing upon seeing them interacting together. I freeze, feeling the wet strands of my just-washed hair swing against my bare neck.

They both stand with their backs to me, Peeta wearing that same navy blue jumper, Gale in a plain grey shirt. Their shoulder blades slide underneath the materials as they work on preparing dinner.

Gale is taller than Peeta, and generally bigger. The edges of his shoulders seem to be sharper, and where Peeta’s body softens and curves, he seems to have angles and points.

“Can you pass the pepper?” Peeta asks.

“Sure.” Gale reaches for the jar and hands it to him. His voice is lower, and has a much smoother and worn quality. Peeta’s voice is husky, and his breath feels like sunshine.

I swallow, and walk into the room, making my presence known.

Peeta turns around to lay the table, spying me first.

“Hey,” He says, his eyes flickering up and down me. “Dinner’s just ready.”

“Need any help?”

“I think we’re good, thanks.”

Gale turns round and starts passing plates to Peeta, who is nearest. I sit down and fuss with my napkin until everything is served and both men have sat down.

“Did you ask Haymitch if he wanted to join us?” I ask Peeta.

“Yes.” he says.

The dinner is inevitably awkward, but not as unbearable as I imagined. We eat in relative silence for the most part, though Peeta does ask Gale the same questions I’d asked him earlier about his job in 2. He does a better job of appearing genuinely interested.

Once we’ve finished I offer to do the washing and Gale excuses himself, leaving to occupy his room in Peeta’s house. I breathe a sigh of relief as the tension disappears with him.

Peeta walks over and starts drying the dishes beside me, but I shoo him away until he agrees to go and take a shower upstairs. I can tell the presence of Gale has tipped him a little off balance, see it in the too-reserved set of his mouth, the glaze of insecurity over his eyes.

“I’ll be right up in a second.” I say, embracing him with my eyes, and he disappears around the staircase corner.

I can hear the shower turn on upstairs a few minutes later, and my mind gets carried away with the image of water rivulets spraying down onto and over his unclothed body, glossy beads trickling across moonlight skin. I imagine his hair wet and splayed across his forehead, golden curls darkening and flattening against his scalp. I imagine the line of his jaw as he stares off at some point on the floor, and the streams of hot water rushing down the valley across his bottom lip. The shadows of his bare shoulder, naked arm, waist, hip. The soft trail of hair from his bellybutton and down, the droplets dribbling over the curve of his lower abdomen, weaving lower and –

I inhale shakily and scrub the plate in front of me with renewed vigor. He’s only showering. I am perfectly capable of keeping my composure. But-

The blue of his eyes as they peer into mine, no, pierce, sharp, as he pushes me back, shoulders curving over me, wet skin, so much skin, stretched across the expanse of his torso, which presses into me, my back against the hard cold tiles. The taste of his hungry mouth so vivid in my head, on my lips, my neck, the feeling of his drenched hair so real across my palms as I dig the pads of my fingers into his curls-

I gasp, dropping the plate in the sink and drying off my hands before letting my head fall into them. I clench my thighs together and swallow.

“Give me a freaking break,” I whisper to the counter edge.


 

Johanna’s arrival is at the very least distracting, if not a little entertaining. I manage to escape another morning with the two of them on each of my metaphorical sides, and spend my time instead walking abnormally slowly towards the train station. Johanna looks a little surprised to see just me when she gets off, a sharp brow rising in confusion as she walks towards me.

“Should you really be leaving those two alone?” She asks as I come into hearing distance. I scowl at her, not bothering to reach for her bag, knowing I’d risk losing a limb in the process anyway.

“Better than being us three alone.”

She laughs at that, hiking her bag up over her shoulder and running a hand through her hair.

“Is he that bad?”

“Actually, it’s not as bad as it could have been. And it’s not so much him, but rather, his presence. I feel like our worlds are colliding.”

“Thank god I’m here then.”

I roll my eyes.

“Thank god.”

Gale opens the door when we get back, and his eyes scale up Johanna, face trained into a poker mask. I had told him she would be coming, but his body language is still understandably cautious.

“Gale Hawthorne.” He says, reaching out a hand, but Johanna just appraises him, only the smallest of smirks playing on the edges of her curved lips.

“I know who you are.” She says, ignoring his offering. He crosses his arms over his chest and leans back slightly on the edge of the door.

“I guess you’re not one for mannerisms.” He says, eyes dark.

She walks in, brushing past him, and I follow, slightly at a loss of what to do but watch the scene unfold. She drops her bag at the end of the hallway and turns, raising an eyebrow at him.

“Johanna Mason.” She says, and then leans in and gives him a quick and forceful kiss right on the lips. Not even giving him time to push her away, she leans back and then prances off towards the kitchen, where I can hear her giving Peeta a warm greeting.

Gale’s shocked expression turns to meet mine, and if I wasn’t so alarmed, I might laugh. His jaw is unhinged and I can tell he hasn’t figured out whether he should be angry, irritated or God knows what else. I’m sure my eyebrows are about to fly off the top of my head.

“Well…” he says after a minute, scowling and rubbing his jaw as he leans back.

“She likes her entrances.” I tell him, and then hurry towards the kitchen, leaving him to brood in his traumatised state.


 

When I come down the following morning Gale is hunched over the bees-wax brown kitchen table. He pauses in slathering a slice of toast with raspberry jam upon my entrance.

“Good morning,” I say as I cross the room to the kettle, trying to look and feel busy.

“Morning,” he replies in a gruff voice, raw with sleep.

“Did you sleep well?”

He clears his throat. “Yes, thank you.”

Stiff. Formal. It reminds me of Peeta and Is’ mechanical interactions after our first games.

“And you?”

“Fine.”

“Have you, um,” He falters as I pull out a chair from under the table. “Have you known Johanna long?”

I eye him over my steaming cup of tea.

“Since the Quarter Quell.” I say.

I’m downing the last dregs when he starts again.

“Katniss,” he says, causing me to look up at him. He takes a breath.

“How have you really been?”

I slowly exhale, running my thumb down the length of the ceramic mug handle.

“Tired.” I say finally. “Very, very tired.”

There’s a silence as he takes this in.

“But Peeta- he helps?”

I look at him. “Yes. Yes, he does.”

He nods, almost as if to himself.

“That’s good.”

“And you?” I ask. “How’ve you been?”

His dark eyes snap up to mine.

“Numb.”

Just then Johanna comes prancing in, her bristle ponytail swinging between her shoulder blades. We avoid looking at each other as she makes herself an ash black cup of coffee. She turns around, and raises her brows as if noticing us for the first time.

“Morning,” she says, and smirks slightly into her mug. “Don’t let me get to you.” She brushes past Gale’s shoulders as she exits.

I look back at him after a considerable silence.

“Well,” I say, delving into his rabbit-fur eyes. “Count yourself the lucky one.”

And I set my cup down.


 

Johanna drags me out for a walk.

“Weren’t you the one that said leaving them together was a bad idea?”

“Well, they’re not really together, are they?”

She’s right. When we left Peeta was upstairs painting again and Gale was trying out my bow and arrow. I decided to succumb to her proposal, partly because I can talk to her about the one thing I can’t really talk to Peeta about (him) and partly because having a girlfriend, if she can be called that, makes me feel a little more normal.

“So,” she says, looping her arm through mine. “Are you and baker boy still just “friends”?”

I give her a look and roll my eyes, running my free hand through the mess of my hair. “You know what we are.”

“Sometimes I get the impression that you don’t like labels.”

“Or rules.”

She nods, and we walk in silence for a moment.

“So have you had sex?” she asks.

I pull my arm from hers and glare at her.

Johanna.” I grit through my teeth, cheeks burning up.

“You have?!”

“No! God, why is everybody always asking that?”

“Everybody? I thought you twelves were more reserved.”

I cast her a dark look.

“Alright, alright. Call me when you do.”

“What makes you so certain we will?”

I regret asking that the second it leaves my lips, and Johanna spins round to give me a devilish grin.

“Please don’t spell it ou-”

“The amount of eye-fucking! The unnecessary touching! The way baker boy is always blushing around you! And I totally saw you checking out his ass the other day.”

“You did not!”

“I did.”

I scowl and cross my arms.

“Well, what can you say? What sort of thing,” I gesture wildly towards the direction of the house. “was that?”

“What? Tall, dark and miserable? Oh, you know me. I wanted to fuck with his head.”

“It worked,” I grumble and she grins widely.

“It doesn’t bother you, does it?” she quips as we start to move again, and I glance over at her.

“Not in the way that you think.”

“Good.”


 

They leave together, the day after, and although I care more than the old me would have thought I should about them both, it is a relief.

Gale begrudgingly slings his bag around his shoulder and follows Johanna’s footsteps as she prances ahead. As we reach the train station he stops, and turns to me, a rare uncertainty dancing across his features.

“See you.” I say, the corner of my mouth lifting just slightly, and his eyes warm a little, acceptance palpable in the air. My hands stay in the pockets of my coat.

“See you, Katniss.”

He blinks down at the ground, and then looks up at Peeta, who is over my shoulder. He gives him a nod and accepts the offering of Peeta’s hand.

And then Johanna is upon us, smirking with soft eyes in the way that only she can, and her arms are around me and then Peeta.

“Stay cool.” She says, patting him on the back, and looks at us both and mouths “call me.”

I glare at her.

With one last snort she turns and hops onto the first carriage. She leans out the open doors, looking down to where Gale is getting onto the second carriage, and winks at him.

“Stay sexy.” She yells, and then in a flash of brown hair and smugness she’s gone, no doubt to mull over the fruits of her relatively productive morning.

I can see Gale scowling beatifically from where I stand, his cheeks aglow with irritation. He grinds his teeth and steps onto the train, hiking his bag up his shoulder and locating a room. I smile slightly to myself.

“I think he might just fall in love with her.” Peeta says as the doors begin to roll closed and the body of the machine begins to move. My head whips round to him, mouth hanging open.

“How can you tell?!” I exclaim, shocked and rather awed, and he gives me a secretive glance.

“She throws him off. He just doesn’t quite know what to do with himself when she’s around. Trust me,” he says, wrapping an arm around my waist and side-eyeing me a smoldering look as we start to walk. “I’m quite the expert in this area.”

I feel my cheeks get tinged with red, and roll my eyes for effect as I sweep the hair out of my face. “What about her?” I ask. “Do you think she’ll fall for him?”

His blue eyes warm like summery sea water on balmy sand, and he reaches for my hand.

“Not intentionally.” He says with the tip of a knowing smile on his lips, and presses a kiss into my palm.


 

 

It first occurs to me as I am watching him wash the dishes on a Sunday afternoon, and sparkles of glittery light fall and tumble down the long curve of his back like snowflakes. His hair is brushed forward in messy blond curls over his forehead, ringlets twisting madly behind his ears and the nape of his neck, and his soft jumper catches on the points of his elbows as he works.

“…but last time I tried that I ended up with it all over the table as well as the paper, and I had to start again completely. I suppose I could try…”

His back is to me, and his words rise and fall in my mind like a voice on the other side of a waterfall, echoing off the walls of my skull.

“…and it’s not like it’s that cheap either, though I guess I shouldn’t worry about that. But I still feel like it’s a waste, you know?”

“I’m in love with you,” I whisper, my lips brushing the sleeves of my maroon sweater, and the words taste like a prayer in my mouth.

“Sorry, didn’t catch that.” Peeta half-turns, looking back at me with soft features, his hands paused in the motion of drying themselves off on a towel. He stares at me expectantly.

I stare back at him, the walls around me seemingly inhaling, collapsing into us, into dust. The sun glows in through the window to my left, and it’s like we’re suddenly caught in a snowstorm of light.

“I love you.” I say.

Time seems to slow as Peeta stares at me in those moments, those seconds. I watch the expression freeze on his face, his arms still raised in mid-air, roses beginning to bloom in his cheeks. And then I watch something deeper, something wilder, something beautiful begin to swirl inside his eyes. He blinks, and the world is still in this moment.

I don’t know what the spouse of terror is, but I feel like I must be experiencing it now.

It’s not safe. It’s alive.

Then Peeta drops the dishrag on the counter and crosses the room in two long steps, leaning over the counter in front of me and clasping my face in his hands. He looks like he wants to say something, but what can you possibly say in a situation like this, and then he leans forward and kisses me. Kisses me wildly, crazily, madly and passionately and so so sweetly. His mouth is warm and soft and wet on mine, lips pillow-y and teeth hard and sharp, and then he pulls back and his eyes are alight, and he is positively glowing, shining, beaming so bright I can’t tear my eyes away. He laughs then, his face washed anew with a grin so large it might tear his face in half, but who cares, really, who cares, and then he pulls my face to him once more and starts giggling into my neck, and I’m laughing too, and he pulls back again and I swear he’s on fire.

“I love you too.” He whispers, faces inches from mine, eyes bottomless and hypnotising and I swear I can read every little thing he’s trying to tell me. And I’m telling him yes, yes, yes and me too.

And then he’s crossed round and is in front of me, on me, is pushing me back and kissing me with more fervor than I knew he had inside of him, and he is all over me, and my back is hard against the wall and I love it, and I smile and kiss him back, and his hands reach underneath and hike me up and I wrap my legs around his waist, and it all feels so good, and I can feel the soft of his jumper and warmth of him underneath it, the flesh and muscle and beautiful fragility, and he presses into me and I swear I never knew happiness until this moment.

And there are times when you can’t explain how or why you feel what you do, and all you know is that this is right, this is right right right, and bubbles are gurgling up your windpipe and stars are rushing through your brain, over the film of your eyes, and blood is in your lips and cheeks, and is pounding hard, and the air tastes like perfume and water and magic, and you are home.

And I am home.

So I tug the flesh of Peeta’s bottom lip towards me with my teeth, and he moans, licking the rows of my teeth and the top of my mouth like the wetness of it is wine, and I meet him in the middle and try to discover every single hollow and shape of his glorious mouth like an explorer in a dark cave, and then I push him back for air and he worships my collarbone, and I really push him back, two hands on his broad shoulders, and he’s almost confused, though the look on his face is dazed, certainly matching mine, and I take his hand and pull him to the stairs, and he gets it and pick me up in one fellow swoop and meets my lips again, feverishly, pausing half-way up to push me against the wall and press his hips flush into mine, and I’m sure we both almost lose it then, but we’re only halfway up, and so we both tear apart, so that for a brief few moments the only contact we have is our palms on palms, and then we’re at the top and he’s lifting up my shirt and I’m letting him and reaching for his, and we’re giggling and mad and in love.

And the touch of his hands on my darkened, scarred skin makes me, for this moment, something stunning, something bright and explosive and unbelievably desirable, and my every cell stretches towards him, rolling in pleasure and wonder at their good luck, and then he is half-naked, and there is so much skin, all pale and mis-matched and delightful, and there is more golden hair that I’d expected, some of it so dark and coarse it would be a stretch to call it golden, or even honey-coloured, though maybe bronze, and as I am thinking this he is kissing a line along all my scars, all the red, ugly ragged corners that seem to glow with flattery under his lips, burning up all over again, and then his warm hand shimmies up my arm and wraps around my small wrist and he presses his lips there too, tongue flicking out as if to coat it in a healing balm. And he looks right into my eyes as he does, and I didn’t even realise I still believed I had a soul, but I do, I must, because he is touching something so deep within me now that I could cry, could die in his arms right now.

“Katniss Everdeen,” he breathes, the timbre of his voice tickling my scar and sending ripples of liquid warmth through my veins and arteries, seeping into every capillary and organ I am blessed enough to possess like hot bath water through water pipes.

“You’re everything.” He says, and then we lose ourselves.

And you might think that it would be containable, bearable, or even a predictable sort of bliss. And you might think that it would be too perfect, or too awkward, or too physical for us both to be paying attention, to be drinking in the taste of the air around us. And you might think we have both been through too much, suffered too many pains, to have stars and suns and moons exploding in our hearts again. And you might think it would be too insane, too impossible, to fall in love all over again and again and again.

And you would be wrong. You would be so, so wrong.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15- Warm Water and Pale Lips

What do you know of love?

The way it curves, sweeps, tumbles through our lives with no forewarning whatsoever; halting the world in its place, washing away the people we were before to coat us in perfumes and light and the most delicious fear. And the world glows.

If you know anything of it at all, you will know that a fresh- morning lover is the best.

My lover’s hair is straw coloured and roughly mussed in the slants of sun that spill onto us, falling across his neck and face in fluffy waves. His skin is raw from sleep and touches, and his cheeks are pink.

I breathe, and the air tastes like it’s drugged.

I lean over and skim my sour lips over the line of his arm, up from his elbow to his shoulder, barely touching. I’ve had plenty of time to imagine all the ways in which I want to touch him, and intend to savour each.

Mine. What did I do to receive a gift so precious?

My lips meet the nape of his neck, just starting to navigate their way through golden strands, when he turns around with a sleepy, but mischievous glint in his eyes. He’s been awake the whole time.

“Hello,” he breathes, smiling so brightly and sweetly up at me I can’t help answering with a shy smile of my own.

“Hi.”

We stare at each other for a while, until I start to notice the remains of his insecurities crawl back into his gaze.

“How do you feel?” he whispers quietly, softly.

I feel the world. I can hear the ladybirds padding their way up the slope of a leaf; I can taste the honey rising through the black stem of a bumblebee’s tongue. I can feel the air particles dancing on my flushed cheeks, the dust motes settling in between my legs. I can feel the taste of the stars sliding down my moist tongue, grazing my taste buds like a match on a matchbox, and I can feel the sun exploding and imploding and rolling like a delighted child in my chest.

I can feel your breath on my skin, and the uncertainty that still- still- twists its way up through your mind and out into the space between us, and I want to banish it.

I want to make you feel me.

I roll over so that I am laying half on top of him, and the feel of our skin on our skin causes a quiet thrumming to run through both of us. I capture his eyes, and hold them, with all their curiosity and fear and love as I press a kiss to the hollow of his throat. And then the point of his shoulder. Right on his sternum.

I sit up and scurry down, so that I can reach his stomach. The skin above his diaphragm. Round his bellybutton. A rib.

His breath starts coming quicker when I start to mark my territory on his lower abdomen, along the path of bronze hair. A blush stains his pale torso like spilt wine on a tablecloth, but still he doesn’t say a word.

Let me show you how I feel.

I know little of the mechanics of how to please a man, but more than he probably suspects.

And I intend to put it to good use.

He whispers my name, finally, as my mouth takes claim of his inner thigh- a question, shy and burnt raw- and then I claim the rest of him and his back arches and his voice breaks into a gasp, and the blush reaches its destination and serves a far more useful purpose than just making him look pretty, and I have every intention to remove the connotations of innocence from my name in his mind.

“Oh, god,” he moans, and his hands fist themselves in my hair, trembling as I experiment. I watch his stomach rise and fall rapidly as he pants, and I can practically feel the blood pounding in his capillaries.

I know I mess up the rhythm at one point, a stutter of inexperienced lips, and I can’t quite figure out how to use my tongue exactly, but he really doesn’t seem to care, and then my name begins to fall from his gasping mouth like a prayer slotted between desperate breaths, and I look up to watch him and his startlingly blue eyes flicker down to meet mine, and then it’s as if something in him snaps and his face twists as if pained, and his mouth falls open and his eyes screw shut, and his back is arching and moans fall loud and strangled from him- and “Ohhhhhh,”-and I taste the evidence of his pleasure in my mouth.

And I clamber back up and wipe my mouth on the back of my hand and trail my fingertips down the side of his ruddy cheeks, cradling his jaw in my palm and staring into those dark, glistening eyes, which stare back at me as his pants subside.

“That’s how I feel.” I say, smiling, and I watch the sun rise in his eyes.


 

We make love the whole day. And those two words are so beautiful, ringing over and over again in my mind, because they encapsulate it so perfectly. Make love. We come together and hold and touch and caress, bare, naked, and make love. We create magic between us, fairy dust and honeyed water and zips of electricity. Fire crackling between our skin cells. Love. My heart feels like its entire damp surface has been coated in icing sugar.

And Peeta’s must too, because I’ve never seen him so happy. Never seen his love unrestrained. And I want to tell him to never chain it down, lock it away, or wrap it in a heavy filter ever again. Because something so bright should not be hidden. Especially with so many shadows around.

So that night, after neither of us can pick our exhausted, bruised and loved up bodies off the mattress, and his fingertips circle round in my palm like a coffee stirrer, when he tilts his head and looks at me with starlight eyes, and whispers into my hair:

“You love me. Real…or not real?”

I tell him,

 

 

 

“Real.”

 

 


 

“…Katniss?”

“Hmm? Sorry?”

“Why are you calling me?”

…”

“Oh my god.”

“Johnanna, don-”

“You did it! You totally did it! I can’t believe this.”

“Urgh.”

“My little virgins. Growing up oh-so-quickly.”


 

When I look into the mirror the next morning, I find myself face to face with a stranger.

The Katniss Everdeen I know has sharp edges, haunted, distrustful eyes the colour of a blunt blade and sunken in cheeks. She has ghosts quivering at the edges of her shoulders, her hands, and lips raw from anxiety. She has red streaks for waterlines and shadows contouring her eyes, grey pillows of insomnia. The Katniss Everdeen I know is in every sense of the word, starved.

This is not the woman standing opposite me now.

Her eyes are bright, dancing even in the dim light with happy memories and emotion so vibrant it’s like looking at a naked flame. Her cheeks are high and embellished with spots of red, tap dancing across the bone and the bridge of her nose. Her lips are round and plump and in full bloom, and her every movement seems to glow in the small room, traces of her form lingering like the burnt image of a sparkler. Her hair is rough, and her nightgown has slipped off one shoulder to reveal a short stretch of tight, shiny olive skin and the beginning of her collarbone. Her dusky nipples press up against the white fabric and the corners of her lips keep twitching like they might explode into a 100-watt, toothy grin any second now.

“Nice to meet you,” I whisper, and give her a small welcoming smile.

 

His lips are at my ear, just brushing against the shell as I hold the phone to the other. His large hands find my waist and his chest bumps briefly into my spine. He nuzzles his face against my hair.

“Oh, Annie, that’s amazing,” I gush into the phone, attempting a scowl even though my free hand is already reaching up and twisting into his curls to draw him closer. His teeth find my earlobe; presses down softly.

“Of course we’ll come. Yeah, yeah- oh, it’s no bother at all, not at all.”

He draws the teardrop-shaped flesh between his lips and suckles on it with his tongue.

“Ok, ok. Yeah, see you soon. Ok, take care.”

I put the phone down and twist round to face him, clasping his previously occupied hands in my own and scowling up at him.

“You,” I say, pinning him with a pointed stare. “Are in the mood for trouble.”

“I’m always in the mood for trouble,” he says with a grin and presses me up against the desk as his mouth latches onto my neck, a palm reaching up to cup my jaw. His hips push into mine eagerly.

“We said we’d bring lunch to Haymitch,” I say warningly, even as my heart speeds up.

“Hmm,” he moans against my jugular.

“And I thought you wanted to work on that painting.”

“So did I.”

“And…and…we literally had sex like an hour and a half ago.”

And then his sweet lips are on mine, and the concept that I could ever resist him is just an illusion I still paint for myself, so I sigh into him and pull him closer, pressing on his shoulder blades with my palms.

“Oh, c’mon then,” I gasp into his collarbone when our lips finally disconnect, and his answering smile could set a thousand girls on fire.

 


 

I can’t stop smiling. It’s like it’s been sown into my flushed cheeks, constantly present, constantly glowing. I know I am, because when I visit Haymitch he gives me a strange look, like the presence of a happy soul is so unfamiliar to him that he can barely recognize it through his glassy eyes, and when I occasionally make the trip into town people catch my gaze and give me mixed looks of wistful gratitude. I’m in love.

I’m in love. And it’s amazing. It’s everything anybody could have dreamed of and more. It makes me feel like an exploding star, expanding and curling my glowing strands up into the black space. It makes me feel like my insides are colliding off each other and the inside of my skin, and it makes me feel like diamonds are embedded into my blood vessels. Like tiny flowers and grasses are blossoming out of my pores. Like that sour feeling one gets behind their eyeballs before they’re about to cry, except it’s all over my body, all over my heart, and it feels so good. It’s like my heart is being wrung, and satin is lining my lungs. I can’t quite breathe, and yet all of a sudden I can taste everything in the air. It’s like the dust motes have flavour, and the sunshine is soft.

It’s like…it’s like being reborn.

The emotion is so big sometimes I want to cry. When I tell Peeta this, he tells me he wants to bottle up all those tears like a wine-maker, and store them away. Wash them over the ground so the grass sparkles and smells like pine and kill. Get drunk off them like Haymitch. Drown in them.

I tell him he’s crazy. And then I pull off his clothes and drown in him.

It tugs deep in my stomach even now, as I think about it. I’m walking back from the woods, two squirrels and a rabbit slung round my shoulder, the afternoon sun rusting and peeking out at me from behind the clusters of trees. My skin is sweaty and rubicund, and my fingers smell of blood but I still feel warm as I remember the feel of his skin on mine. The taste of his collarbone and shell of his ear, the look in his eyes as kissed my breastbone and my shoulder, the way he whispered my name, voice strained and breathy just before he went over the edge. It feels like the sun is in my stomach now, warm and yellowy and melting, and the smile on my cheeks aches wonderfully.

I skip the last few steps to our house, and ease open the door.

There’s no one in the kitchen. I walk down the corridor, checking the lounge as well. Normally at this time Peeta is cooking. We’ve developed a bit of a routine.

But the surfaces are gleaming and blank as a poker face. I set my hunting bag down and put away my bow and arrows. Then I quickly climb the stairs two at a time in my sock-cladden feet.

“Peeta?” I call out, rounding the curve. My fingers leave the wooden banister as I draw nearer to our bedroom.

Nothing is obviously wrong when I enter, besides the silence. And then I see him, curled up in a little corner beside the bed and the wall.

“Peeta,” I whisper, the smile finally taking flight off my lips, and I fall to my knees in front of him, palms spread out.

I see now that he is shaking, tiny and terrifyingly unnatural tremors rocketing through his body. His golden head is buried between his knees, and he rocks back and forth, too quiet, as if trying to rid himself of whatever is clutching him. My stomach lurches.

“Peeta?” I whisper again, the fear audible even to myself. “Peeta, what’s wrong?”

It’s been months since he’s had any triggering. Months. I thought he was getting better.

My fingertips are just barely brushing the fibers of his sleeve when he speaks.

“Stay away from me.”

He pronounces each word deliberately, venom soaked vowels. I swallow thickly, blinking back the sudden dampness in my eyes.

His voice sounds wet and strangled, like he’s been crying.

“Peeta-” I breathe, but he cuts through me.

“Leave me alone. Just-”

He grinds his teeth and exhales forcefully.

“…get out.”

The tears are running freely down my cheeks now, and the saliva tastes bitter in my mouth as my fingers quiver uncertainly. I need to touch him, to hold him in my arms, to prise apart the bone gate of his ribcage and tear away whatever’s hurting him. I need him to need me.

And he needs me to leave.

I grasp my scalp with my hands, nails digging deep into the skin and holding my hair so tight it hurts, and then I wet my lips and try to breathe.

I know better than to leave people in pain alone.

“Peeta,” I say again, reaching and running the pads of my fingers along the length of his bicep, and then he’s suddenly on his feet and pushing me into the iron frame of the bed. His hands are rough and too strong, contrasting jarringly with the soft memories of his gentle skin just moments ago, and they connect with me in my stomach, making me double over and gag. My hip hits the metal edge and I cry out in shock, the explosion of pain rattling down my side.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!” he screams, voice cracking in a way that oddly reminds me of a child having a temper tantrum, and clambers past me, tearing the door open. I gasp for air as I hear it slam against the adjacent wall.

Tears stream down my face, too hot and clogging up my vision, and I start to hyperventilate into my palm, my heart beating too hard, the world colliding in a confusion of white heat and pain and anger. I bring my shaking hand up to my face and I bite down gently on the familiar flesh, trying to ground myself.

“Oh my god,” I whisper into my palm, eyes swiveling.

Tentatively, I roll to the side, trying to sit up. My heart stops beating in my eye sockets, sinking to my throat, and the ringing in my ears starts to slowly fade. I gasp and stifle a moan as a new wave of pain temporarily drowns me. A door slams somewhere downstairs.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Everything hurts. The breath becomes clogged up in my throat, and I start gagging, clawing at the carpet to try and get some leverage. My heart feels like the blood is being squeezed out of it.

Minutes, hours pass. I lie there for too long, crying silently into my arm and the floor, trying to keep my hold on sane. It feels like someone has taken their fist and punched the fragile glass wall of happiness I’d so carefully manufactured. Everything’s wrong.

Carefully, I pick myself up off the floor. A sense of desperation is rising in my throat like bile. I need to get out of this room.

I need to find him.

Swallowing my fears, I stand and cross the room, my footsteps quieter than the dead. My fingers ghost over the brass surface of the doorknob.

And then I ease it to the side and tug the door open.

Across the landing. Downstairs. My heart beats frantically beneath my collarbone, blocking the path from my esophagus to my lungs. Killing me quietly. I pad my way into the lounge.

I know the episode has passed when my eyes find him this time. He is curled up in on himself again, but this time on his side, half underneath the sofa, broken glass surrounding him. His form, his limbs are looser though, and he sniffs quietly as I approach.

I fall to my knees, expressionless, reading him. One of his hands is curled tightly around a shard of glass, holding onto it as if for dear life, trembling only slightly, and his eyes are red and glassy. He blinks, swallowing hard, and a tear rolls down the side of his face as he stares adamantly at a spot on the ceiling, never removing his gaze.

I reach for his hand. Pull it towards me, and he doesn’t fight it. Doesn’t refuse, even as I roll it over in my hand and slowly prise his fingers, one by one, off of the glass. Opening it like a flower.

I take the glass and put it to the side. Then I rub my thumb, once, over the skin on the back of his hand.

“C’mon.” I say. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

He doesn’t look at me as I help him up, hands around his ribcage, under his shoulders, trying to carry his weight for him. Not as I move him, gently but firmly towards the staircase, upwards, one of his arms slung round my shoulders and both of mine wrapped tightly around his middle, as though I know he is about to break into a million different pieces. Stay with me, I think. Peeta Mellark, you fight for me.

I sit him on the edge of the toilet seat in his favourite of the upstairs bathrooms, the one with pearlescent pink seashells glowing from the tiles and a smooth, creamy-white bathtub that curves down from the wall like the sea foam of a wave into a hollow deep enough to kneel in. The floor is blue and glassy, cool to touch.

I walk over to the bathtub and start to run the water, making sure to test the temperature until it’s just right. The whole time Peeta sits silently behind me, a stony case cementing in the internal turmoil of emotion from seeping out. My heart aches for him, but I ignore it, not so differently from the way I used to ignore the aches of my stomach.

A funny thing about pain- you get used to it. Familiarity can make even hell feel like home.

I push the thought from my mind and focus instead on the thick, heady smell of bubble bath and whipped cream soaps.

Tonight is about eviction.

When the tub is full I pull him to his feet, a hand on his chest at all times to stop him from falling forward. Collapsing like a house of cards at my feet. I reach for his shirt, grabbing a handful of soft, stretchable material in my fist, and slowly peel it upwards. Revealing a spillage of white-pink skin. Floral.

His shoulders are bare. He breathes in deeply, quickly, like he’s afraid of something. Of being naked. But it’s just me, and I am the warm water that wants to lap over his collarbone, his navel. That wants to bathe him clean in my love, work my gentle way into every nook.

But I can’t do that with his clothes on.

His buckle. I fumble with it, the metal and leather click-clicking until it comes undone. I pull it towards me from one end, and his hips are tugged forward towards my face. I lean in and press a ghostly kiss beneath his belly-button. His breathing hitches.

Then down. His jeans and pants fall to the floor, and I guide his hand to my shoulder so he can keep his balance while I ease his feet out of the trouser legs. I push the material away and then make quick work of his socks.

And then he’s bare, the only part of him left hidden being his gaze. His head still hangs forward.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree…

I shake my head violently to clear it and then take his hand.

He steps into the bath, mouth parting and teeth grinding as he adjusts to the temperature. I roll up my sleeves and reach for the shampoo, kneeling on the cold hard floor and leaning over the white edges to massage the pink goo into his curls. It’s easier to be brave when I can’t see his expression.

I roll him back, slowly encouraging him to lie down, to trust me, so that I can wash it out. He does, with a shakey sigh, and I rub my fingers into his scalp, savouring the feel of his wet hair. So beautiful.

And then his eyes are on me- finally- crown jewel blue, and they stare right into me, searching. I feel like he’s throwing a grapple hook up into my soul, searching for something to dig into and hang from. I feel like I’m knocking spare crenels into my castle walls.

“Why are you doing this?” he whispers after a moment, voice broken and worn thin.

“Because I love you.” I say simply.

I can see this pains him, this answer, and his eyebrows knit together as he sucks in a sharp breath.

“You shouldn’t.” He says after a minute.

“You can’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t love.”

“You don’t owe me anything.” He exhales, voice strained and desperate and knotted in his throat. I meet his gaze.

“Peeta,” I say, pronouncing each syllable to make it impossible for him to misunderstand me. “I’m not doing this because I think I owe you, even though I do. I’m doing this because I’m selfish. And what I want right now, right down to the core of my bones, is to love you. And to make you feel my love. To the very best of my ability.”

He reaches up then, fingertips hesitant and fluttery, even as they brush against the edges of my skin. I lower my cheek into the embrace of his hand.

“I love you, too.” He whispers, voice breaking and eyes glassy, reddening at the corners, and then I lean down and kiss his upside down mouth, breathing in his soft bottom lip. And he kisses me back, slowly, until I have to draw back because the position is making my back ache.

I taste salt on my lips, and when I look down the tears are running loose and his face is struggling to not contort. His lips tremble slightly.

“You shouldn’t stay with me,” he says, even as his fingers dip into my inky hair and taste the feel of the nape of my neck hungrily. I cup his jawline, pitter-pattering the pads of my fingers up his cheekbone like rain.

“I have a monster trapped inside of me.”

“Don’t we all,” I murmur, and lean in for another kiss.