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The Only Thing Stronger Than Fear

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Slowly, the summer passes. On what would have been Reaping Day, President Paylor requests that the country observe a day of mourning. There's an all-day marathon of "We Remember" spots on the television. Plutarch's team must have raided the Capitol's archives because they've produced hundreds of new ones going all the way back to the first Hunger Games. I don't recognize the narrator.

Viewing is no longer mandatory. Nevertheless, Peeta spends most of the day watching the parade of dead children. I try to keep him company but can't stand it after an hour or so. I escape to the woods, where I weave chains of flowers and trade melodies with the mockingjays. It's the first time I've sung since I was imprisoned.

Weeks go by and Peeta and I take tentative steps into a future we never expected to see. It's not a smooth process. There are still days when I can't face the world and retreat to the lonely bed in my room. Several times I have to bandage Peeta's knuckles after he's punched something in frustration. His moments of rage are as alarming for me as my periods of withdrawal are for him. But we persevere. By the turning of the year, our good days far outnumber the bad ones. I start thinking about allowing myself to hope.

One afternoon, I'm later than usual bringing my cleaned kills to the supply depot. I'm friendly with the attendants on duty, a brother and sister from the Capitol. They originally came to District 12 with one of the survey teams and chose to stay to help with the rebuilding efforts. A lot of our new population is like that. Adventurous people who relish a challenge. They're a great resource even if I do find them tiring a lot of the time. I've had enough adventure to last several lifetimes.

"How's Peeta doing?" Nenia asks me as she catalogues my contributions. "We missed him today."

"Nen's just disappointed she didn't get any more of those little cream puffs. First pick of the pastries is the only reason she's willing to take supply duty," Tiberius teases.

Nenia gives her brother a good-natured shove. I'm still stuck on what she said. "Peeta hasn't been here this afternoon?"

"Nope. Not since we came on at lunch time," she responds. "I hope everything's okay."

He seemed fine when I left him several hours ago. I carefully keep any trace of anxiety out of my voice and expression. "I'm sure it's nothing. He must have gotten sidetracked. Maybe the dough's misbehaving."

Nenia and Tiberius laugh and wish me a good evening. I hurry back to the Victor's Village.

I can smell burnt bread when I'm still several houses away and I break into a sprint. The house looks normal from the outside. I barrel through the back door and come to a halt in the middle of the kitchen. The smell is strong but there isn't anything in the oven. There's a tray of blackened rolls in the sink and Peeta's ingredients are spread out over the work surfaces but he's not here.

I walk towards the front of the house, worrying that some kind of emergency pulled him away from his baking. I'm about to call out to him when I hear footsteps above my head. Relief sweeps through me and I dart up the stairs.

"Hey, Peeta, what – " I come to an abrupt stop in the doorway of his bedroom. It's an absolute wreck. The bed has been stripped and it looks like the drawers and closet have been emptied onto the floor. Every surface is coated with white powder that I assume is flour. Peeta stands by the window with his eyes closed and his hands on the back of a chair.

"Peeta?" I say, taking a tentative step into the room. He doesn't respond. That's when I focus on his hands.

He's clutching the wooden chair so hard that all the tendons in his hands are standing out in sharp relief. Fresh abrasions are bright red against his taut, pale skin. As I stand there, mesmerized, his grip tightens so much that the wood groans in protest.

Without warning, I'm back in District 13. Running down the hallway of the hospital. Ecstatic to see Peeta safe and sound. Shocked and terrified as those gentle, artistic hands lock around my throat. I can't breathe.

I stumble backwards out the door and barely stop myself from tumbling down the stairs. When I surface from the adrenaline-soaked panic, I'm huddled in the corner of the cellar of my old house. For several minutes I just sit there, panting and shaking. My throat feels like it's on fire. I don't know if it's because of the flashback or my flight from the house.

Slowly, slowly, I regain control. Once I'm almost calm, the strongest emotion I feel is shame. Some friend I am. I take so much from Peeta. And when he clearly needs support and comfort the most, what do I do? I run away.

Even so, it takes a long time for me to be able to move. The sun has set when I stretch my sore limbs and make my way back to the house I share with Peeta.

Nothing has changed downstairs. I start cleaning up the mess in the kitchen. I'm almost done when I hear Peeta coming down the stairs.

"I didn't hear you come home," he says from the doorway.

I glance at him briefly but have to turn away before I can answer. "You…you looked like you needed some time."

"I'm sorry I scared you," he says.

"It's okay. I understand, it's just a bad day." I paste a smile on my face and turn back to him. He's reaching for me and I can't help it, I flinch.

The look on his face is heartbreaking. He steps back and I'm about to go to him when I see that his hands have tightened into fists. The edges of my vision blur and my throat closes. I mumble something that's meant to be an excuse but doesn't even make sense to me as I scramble past him and up the stairs to my room.

I hide under the covers of the bed I no longer sleep in and try not to hyperventilate. Perversely, a huge part of me just wants Peeta. But how can he protect me from my nightmares when he's probably going to be starring in them?

The next week is the worst we've had in months. I spend as much of the days as I can out of the house. When we have to interact, we're strained and polite. We never touch, even in passing. We barely look at each other.

I don't want to go on like this but I don't know how to break the stalemate. I'm angry at myself, at the situation, and, after days of tension and nightmares, at Peeta. He's supposed to be the sensible one! The one who can talk his way around anything. And he's not even trying.

Of course, being mad at Peeta makes me feel guilty. Which just makes me madder. I finally reach the point where I have to do something or explode.

We're sitting in the living room after another silent dinner. I'm curled up in an armchair, pretending to write in the memory book but really watching Peeta under my lashes. He has a sketchbook next to him on the sofa but he's just staring into the fire.

As the minutes pass, I get grumpier and grumpier. On top of everything else, I can't get comfortable in the damned chair. Which gives me an idea.

"Hey, Peeta," I ask, setting the book aside, "would you rub my back?"

He turns to me, his blue eyes wary but hopeful. "Are you sure?"

"I asked, didn't I?" I say with a scowl as I stand up. Take a step toward the sofa. And stop, staring at his hands.

"I don't want your pity, Katniss," he sighs. His voice is tired, resigned, and incredibly sad. "Please don't force yourself to do things you don't want for my sake."

That's it. I can't take it anymore. "I do want it!" I snap. "Damn it, Peeta, I miss you. And my back hurts!" I'm so annoyed that I stamp my foot like a child having a tantrum.

For a long moment he just stares at me. My anger's draining, leaving me embarrassed. Which threatens to make me angry all over again. Then a smile slowly curves his mouth. "Come here, brat," he says affectionately.

I stalk over and sit down on the floor in front of him. There's a bad moment when he first puts his hands on my shoulders and I tense up even more. But then he starts to massage and it feels so intensely good that it drives everything else out of my mind. I rest my forehead on my bent knees and float on the sensation of being touched.

His big, warm hands work over my shoulders, down my back, and up to my neck. When I'm so relaxed I'm practically a puddle, he loosens my hair and runs his fingers through it, gently massaging my scalp. I moan softly in appreciation.

"Better?" he whispers. I don't answer, figuring the question is either ridiculous or rhetorical.

His hands close on my upper arms and he helps me up. I turn and curl up on his lap, still too desperate for physical contact to be self-conscious. "I'm sorry I avoided you. And then yelled at you," I murmur.

"No, don't apologize. I'm sorry I scared you."

Frowning, I lift my head. "You don't need to apologize either. It's not like you did it on purpose."

He rests his forehead against mine. "Are we going to fight about this now?" he teases. I can feel his breath on my lips and the intimacy unnerves me.

"No," I mutter, tucking my face into the crook of his neck. "So shut up."

* * * * * * * * * *

The hallway stretches endlessly in front of me. I'm running, trying to get to Peeta, knowing I should be happy but filled with a nameless dread.

Suddenly, I arrive at a door and burst through it. Peeta's there, sitting on the edge of an examining table. He catches sight of me and the dread becomes terror. I try to retreat but I'm frozen in place. I can't defend myself. All I can do is close my eyes as he wraps his hands around my neck.

He tips my chin up with his thumbs and kisses me, sweetly, deeply. The paralysis breaks and I sag against him, clutching his shoulders and trying to get as close to him as I can.

His big, warm hands slide down my back and over my hips. The sensation on my bare skin makes me shiver. I want to feel those hands everywhere but I'm too caught up in the slow, thorough kisses to form a coherent thought.

His mouth moves to the side of my neck. I gasp for breath and manage to form a single word.

"Please…"

I'm startled awake by my own moan. I clamp my lips together and fervently hope I haven't woken Peeta.

A quick glance downward reassures me that I am not, in fact, naked. We're on our sides, my back against his front, one of his arms pillowing my head and the other draped over my waist with his hand splayed on my midriff.

There's a warm ache in parts of my body I don't generally spend a lot of time thinking about. Experimentally, I squeeze my thighs together. Pleasure, piercingly sweet, radiates down my legs and up into my belly. I can't stop the restless shift of my hips or the whimper that escapes.

Behind me, Peeta stirs. I try to lie still and feign sleep, but he pulls me a little bit closer. I can feel the heat of his hand straight through my pajama top and my lower body throbs again. And again, I can't contain the needy sound in my throat.

"Katniss? You okay?" Peeta asks. I don't answer, hoping he'll decide he imagined it and go back to sleep. No such luck. I feel the arm under my head withdraw as he raises up on his elbow. With his other hand, he eases me onto my back.

He leans over me, all tousled blond hair and sleepy blue eyes and soft mouth and broad shoulders and that hand still on my stomach and I have to get out of here before I do something stupid. I slide away from him so fast I almost fall out of bed. "I'm fine. I just…meant to get an early start. I have to go."

"Is something going on today?" he asks, adorably confused.

"No. Yes! I want to check on the lake in the woods. I haven't been there all winter and the birds should be coming back. I'll be back for dinner." It's not really a lie. I have been meaning to go out there. Just not specifically today, until I needed an excuse to disappear for a while.

It only takes a few minutes to throw on clean clothes, grab my hunting gear, and gather some food. The long hike in the cool spring air helps clear my head but fails to cheer me up.

This isn't fair. I didn't ask for this. For the first time in more than a year, I feel truly comfortable in my own skin. Or I did until this morning. Until my subconscious decided to start thinking about sex.

I drop everything on the bank and dive into the lake. It's really too early in the year for swimming but the cold water feels good on my overheated body. And it pulls me out of my overheated thoughts.

Exercise keeps me warm for a long time. It's the growling in my stomach that finally drives me out of the water. I prepare my lunch and stretch out on a soft patch of grass so the sun can dry me.

I'm relaxed for the first time all day when I take the first bite of my roll spread with goat cheese and topped with apple slices. Immediately I hear Peeta's voice in my head.

We make a goat cheese and apple tart at the bakery.

The cave where we took shelter during our first Hunger Games. That's where Peeta made me this exact meal. Where we shared our first hundred or so kisses, including the first one that really affected me and made me want more. Where I started to understand that the star-crossed lovers act might not actually be an act on his part. And where I first realized just how much I didn't want to lose him.

And with that, I'm thinking about sex again. Damn it.

Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Maybe it's actually a good sign. After all, it's a natural human urge, isn't it? I'm almost nineteen years old. Maybe I should be relieved. The girls I went to school with started getting silly about boys years ago.

When I was little, I associated sex with getting married and having babies. Since I knew I didn't want that, I dismissed the whole subject. My mother made sure I understood the basics but frankly, it all sounded awkward and messy and kind of uncomfortable.

Most kids go through that stage, I suppose. But by the time I was old enough to get curious, I was preoccupied with keeping my family fed. And then came the Hunger Games. And the Quarter Quell. And the war. Lust was a luxury I couldn't afford.

That's what this is. Lust. In the cave. On the train going back to the Capitol for the Quell. On the beach the night before Beetee and I destroyed the arena and the world turned inside-out. When the heat and hunger shut out everything else.

Plus, there's the inescapable fact that all those precious, stolen moments happened with Peeta. I don't have a name for our relationship now and I refuse to examine it too closely, or question it, or do anything that might screw it up. I just have to ignore these new feelings until they go away.

Besides, even if I were interested, there's no guarantee Peeta would be too. Sure, we've had a lot of kisses. Those were all for an audience. He never had trouble stopping even when I did. And yes, it's impossible to share a bed without noticing certain…things happening. He's a guy, their bodies just do that. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with me.

Satisfied that I've dealt with any inconvenient urges, I finish eating, put my clothes back on, and turn my mind to more useful things.

The ducks aren't as plump as they'll be later in the year. But they're plentiful and unwary. I set aside two for our dinner and take the rest to the supply depot. Tiberius greets me. Nenia's mouth is full, so she just waves.

"Are you dipping into the pastries again?" I ask.

She swallows and grins at me. "No, didn't have to. Peeta brought cream puffs just for me."

"Oh," I reply, somewhat disconcerted, "that's…nice of him."

"I know!" she gushes. "He's so sweet!"

Tiberius groans. "Don't encourage her. I've had to listen to this all afternoon."

Yeah, that's about the last thing I meant to do. I dredge up a halfway polite, noncommittal response and leave as soon as I can.

Peeta's working in the kitchen when I get home. His face lights up when he sees me. "Hey! How was the lake?"

"Fine," I respond. I cross my arms over my chest and lean on the doorframe. When I don't offer anything else, he gives me a puzzled look and goes back to the dough he's kneading. His sleeves are rolled up. The golden hairs on his forearms glint in the sunlight. I can see the muscles beneath flex and release as he works the dough with a firm, steady stroke.

"Do you make special treats for a lot of girls?" I ask, hearing the edge in my voice but unable to banish it.

"Other than you? Not generally," he says.

"Well, Nenia says thank you. You know, the pretty Capitol girl at the supply depot," I snap.

"Yeah, I know who you mean," he says mildly.

I manage to tear my eyes away from his hands. "You made her cream puffs." I swear, I don't mean to sound like I'm accusing him of something sordid. I didn't mean to bring up this subject in the first place.

"Yes, I did." He looks at me steadily. "I know what it's like to have a brother who loves to tease you about something you want but can't have."

I open my mouth to say something then close it again. I've got nothing. Throughout our conversation, the hypnotic rhythm of his hands never falters.

"So did you bring dinner?" he asks, and the odd moment passes. I hand over the game bag and retreat to my room to clean up.

The roasted duck is wonderful, especially with the orange sauce Peeta made to go with it. There's even a leftover orange that he insists I don't have to share. Nenia set aside the fruit for us because Peeta once mentioned how much I like it.

I'm really going to have to figure out a way to apologize to that girl.

We clean up after dinner in silence. I have no objection when Peeta suggests we go to bed early.

Once again, that damned hospital corridor haunts my nightmares. I can't find Peeta, but I don't know if I'm searching for him or running from him. If I'll find the killer or the lover. Panic closes in as I open doors that go nowhere and turn corners that aren't there. A jabberjay screams in Peeta's voice, sometimes in pain, sometimes in mindless rage.

I can't stop crying out for Peeta even after he shakes me awake. Huddled in his arms, I can't quite convince myself that he's there, that he's real, that he's not going to hurt me. That he's not going to disappear.

"I couldn't find you!" I gasp.

He kisses the top of my head, then my forehead. "I'm here, I'm not going anywhere," he soothes. It's not enough. I shake my head and clutch him tighter. He brushes light kisses over my cheekbones. In desperation, I raise my head and find his lips with mine.

There's a terrible moment when he hesitates, just long enough for me to think I've made a huge, embarrassing mistake. Then he slides his hand into my hair and kisses me back.

Instantly, all my fear transforms into heat and desire. Our kisses are deep and wild, tongues tangling, hands grasping, bodies pressing together. The hunger obliterates any I've felt before.

I am a girl on fire, ignited by the gently passionate kisses of the boy with the bread.

He pulls back a tiny bit, fighting for breath. There's just enough light for me to see the question in his eyes. For a moment I'm at a loss. I don't know how to ask for what I want. I barely know what I want.

"Stay with me," I say simply. "Please."

"Always," he whispers back, capturing my lips again.

Everything happens very fast after that. We somehow manage to get our clothes off while still kissing. Then he's on top of me, his weight pressing me into the bed, his heat surrounding me.

Knowing the mechanics of sex turns out to be a lot different than actually doing it. We fumble around for a bit, trying to get the parts to fit together. I can't help laughing because it's ridiculous and wonderful and I can't really believe we're doing this. He pauses just long enough to lightly close his teeth on my nipple – which shuts me right up – and then he slides into me.

There's no pain, or even discomfort. Just a profound feeling of foreignness. Of being invaded. I can't decide if I like this part. I shift my hips, which causes him to groan and drop his head to my shoulder. I freeze.

"No, it's okay, it's just…" He trails off, mutters a curse, and starts to move.

The first moment is awkward. Then we find a rhythm and it gets better fast. Soon I'm panting and clinging to him. The delicious friction of our bodies moving together is unlike anything I've ever imagined. Pleasure rushes through me in stronger and stronger waves.

His pace picks up and his thrusts get harder. Just as I'm sure I'm going to scream or cry or pass out, he shudders and collapses against me. I swallow a whimper of frustration. I didn't want it to end.

The aftermath is nice too, in a completely different way. I hold him, stroke his hair, and drop kisses wherever I can reach. He rises up on his elbows and gives me a sleepy, contented smile. I smile back. Words don't seem important now.

He rolls to the side and takes me with him so I'm curled up against him with my head on his chest. The position is both intimately familiar and utterly new. It's amazing how much being naked and sweaty changes things.

I close my eyes and savor feeling safe and peaceful and loved. Under my ear, Peeta's heartbeat slows back to normal. His breathing steadies and I'm so sure he's asleep that I don't catch what he says the first time.

His eyes are shiny with tears and emotion. I don't realize I'm crying too until he brushes away wetness from my cheek. "You love me," he says. "Real or not real?"

"Real," I respond, leaning up to kiss him.

After that, I doze off for a little while. The next thing I feel is Peeta shifting me away from him onto my back. I grumble faintly in protest and reach out for him without opening my eyes. My hand encounters his arm and slides up to cup his cheek.

"I want to touch you," he says. The sound I make is more feline than human but I can feel him smile against my hand and I know he's understood. Then he moves my arm back down so it's next to me on the bed. "But I want you to lie still. Will you do that for me?"

"Um…sure," I answer. I'm not at all sure where he's going with this but it's a simple enough request. I take a deep breath, tell myself to relax, and wait.

And wait.

Confused, I open my eyes. Peeta is stretched out next to me on the bed, on his side, propped up on one elbow. He's studying me with that intense look he usually reserves for his art. Being the focus of that level of concentration is disconcerting but thrilling. Heat shivers over my skin. I start to realize just how difficult staying still might be.

Finally, his free hand reaches out. He skims his fingertips very, very lightly over my body. He moves slowly, thoroughly, determined to memorize every inch of me. The tension builds until I have to do something to break it or go mad.

"What are you doing?" I ask in a voice that's little more than a breathy sigh.

He looks up and grins at me. "Exploring."

"Exploring?"

"Exploring you. I've been thinking about this for a very long time."

I spend a minute or two pondering that before getting distracted by his hand trailing down my stomach. Gathering my wits takes a lot of effort. "You used to think about this? About me, like this? Before?"

As he answers, every time he pauses he presses his mouth against my skin. Hot, wet kisses where I'm most sensitive. Below my ear. The inside of my elbow. The curve of my hip. My breasts. My thighs.

"The year we were fourteen, I'm not sure I thought about anything else. You were so beautiful. And untouchable. Like one of those goddesses who turns guys into trees or statuary if they get too close. I couldn't even work up the nerve to talk to you. But I watched you every moment I could. And yes, I thought about you. Like this.

"Then the Games happened and it was the worst and the best thing that I could have imagined. Because I got to be with you. To hold you and kiss you. It didn't matter that you thought it was just an act. Every word, every minute was real for me.

"And in all the craziness since, that's never changed. I've always loved you. Always wanted you." He's quiet and still for several heartbeats and I start to get concerned. Then he gives me a bleak look and continues in a hushed voice, as if he's confessing something awful. "When I was hijacked, they could screw with my memories but couldn't touch my fantasies. That was one of the hardest things to deal with and they didn't even know they did it. There was so much anger and fear, but deep down I never lost those dreams of the fiery, passionate girl who I'd wanted so much, even before I knew what wanting meant."

I've never been able to deal with people's pain, least of all Peeta's. He's gone through so much and come through alive and intact and still mine. I may never be worthy of his devotion but I'll spend the rest of my life trying. Right now, I know what he needs to hear from me.

"This morning," I say haltingly, "I wasn't having a nightmare. I was dreaming about you. About this. You were kissing me and touching me and I never wanted it to end. I freaked out because even when I woke up, those feelings didn't go away. I still wanted you. I want you."

His eyes clear and he's fully back in the present, back with me. "That's good to know," he murmurs as he begins kissing his way down my body. "I'll have to do my best to keep it that way."

That sounds kind of ominous, to be honest. Especially since he's reached my stomach and shows no signs of stopping. I shift a bit and feel his shoulders against my inner thighs. Wariness instantly becomes full-fledged panic. "Wait!" I squeak, craning my neck to see him. "What –"

He stops immediately and looks up at my face. "I'm going to kiss you."

I'm pretty sure all I'll be able to manage is another squeak and I'm embarrassed enough as it is. So I stay quiet and try to take deep breaths.

He doesn't move, doesn't say anything, doesn't break eye contact. I slowly realize that he's waiting for a response. That he won't do anything until I tell him it's okay. And if I say no, he'll back off. That's when it really, truly hits me. Peeta will never push for something I am uncomfortable with. He will never intentionally hurt me.

I trust him. Completely.

And with that, the last tiny piece of me that's always held other people at a distance surrenders. The suspicious, critical, fearful part of me lets go. And falls in love.

I let my head drop back onto the pillows and say with as much dignity as I can muster, "Yes, please."

He dips his head and I can feel his chuckle. First his breath, then his mouth. He teases me with gentle, nuzzling, sucking kisses. There's no slow build-up this time. Just an immediate launch into heat and want that surpasses everything I've felt so far. All I can do is dig my fingers into the bed and hold on.

He slides his hands under me and holds my hips still. The change in angle pushes my thighs even farther apart. I can't think, only feel. And the tension keeps increasing. Then he starts licking me, like I'm a sweet he wants to savor for as long as possible.

My entire world narrows to the slow, firm drag of his tongue between my legs. Distantly, I can hear myself gasping and cursing. But he neither speeds up nor pauses, just keeps that steady pace. The pleasure twists tighter and tighter until it verges on pain. Suddenly, it crests and resolves into a voluptuous throbbing.

Before I can even begin to recover, Peeta moves over me. The sweet, thick slide of him entering me, the feel of my muscles stretching to encompass him, pushes me back into the climax that never really stopped. I wrap my legs over his hips as my body clenches and throbs around him. He thrusts deep and cries out as he comes.

We lie side by side, panting for breath and watching the dawn light creep across the ceiling. "You moved," he accuses lazily.

"Couldn't help it. Your fault. Felt too good." I'm too sated for complete sentences.

"Well, that's okay then."

"Yeah it is," I say emphatically and he laughs.

We subside back into silence and peace. I'm weighing going back to sleep versus getting up and taking a shower when Peeta sits straight upright and says distinctly, "Shit!"

"Language!" I admonish in my best Effie Trinket voice.

"We didn't use anything!" Whatever he's on about, it's really bothering him.

"I thought we did pretty well without assistance," I offer, "especially for beginners."

"No, we didn't use anything to keep you from getting pregnant. Haymitch gave me some…" He gestures vaguely. "…protection."

Aha. That explains Haymitch's cryptic comment when he figured out Peeta and I were living together. And the mystery pills Dr. Aurelius sent around the same time. And then it hits me. Combined with Peeta's current freak-out, there's only one conclusion I can draw.

All the men in my life think I'm an idiot.

I get to my feet, put my hands on my hips, and glare at the one in front of me. "My mother is a healer."

"I know."

"Her parents were apothecaries."

"Right."

"She was the closest thing to a doctor we had in the entire district."

"Yeah."

"So why on earth would you assume she didn't teach me how not to get pregnant?" I yell.

He hunches his shoulders and looks abashed. "Oh. I didn't think of that."

"Well, you could have asked," I grumble as I turn away.

"Hey, where are you going?" he calls after me.

"To take a shower," I answer from the doorway to the bathroom. I glance over my shoulder at him. "Are you coming or not?"

He's out of bed in an instant.

* * * * * * * * * *

We don't manage to leave the house for three days.

The change in Peeta's demeanor is astounding. He's always been physically affectionate with me in a way that nobody else ever was. But apparently he was really holding back. Because now he touches me all the time. Stroking my hair, playing with my fingers while we talk or eat, brushing my shoulder or hip as he passes by. And every so often, he pins me against a wall and kisses me senseless.

Pretty much the only time he's not touching me is when he's sketching or painting. I'm still fascinated by the change that comes over him when he works – the concentration, the sureness of his hands. Of course, now I know what those hands feel like on my body and that he brings the same concentration to making love. Once my mind starts down that path, it isn't long before I end up pouncing on him. He doesn't seem to mind.

When I'd thought about it at all, I'd thought sex was something people only did in bed at night. That idea is blown completely away the first morning, when we start kissing while making breakfast and quickly realize we aren't going to make it back upstairs.

After that, we make love whenever and wherever the urge strikes us. And it strikes a lot. Even though I'm still kind of self-conscious about being naked in the daylight, I love having the chance to explore Peeta's body. I make it my mission to kiss every fading mark and scar. Then I kiss everywhere else for good measure.

Being with Peeta, loving him, makes me feel young and strong. Or rather, it makes me remember that I am young and strong. We know we can't shut out the world, or our own demons, forever. But we enjoy the idyll while it lasts.

The outside world intrudes in the form of our irritable, erstwhile mentor.

Peeta and I are in the living room. Art materials and clothes are scattered all over. We were trying to have a regular evening, but then Peeta started teasing me about letting him draw me naked and things just got away from us. We're on the sofa with me astride his lap. I'm trying to go slow, to make him beg like he does to me, but my body is too greedy for that kind of restraint.

Without warning, the front door bangs open and Haymitch stomps into the foyer. "Katniss! Peeta! Nobody better be dead in here!"

We freeze as Haymitch passes the doorway. I can't meet Peeta's eyes because I know I'll laugh if I do. Unfortunately, I'm too close to climax and I can't stop my inner muscles from tightening. Peeta hisses a desperate breath between his teeth.

Haymitch stops, takes a step backward, and peers into the living room. And looks straight into my eyes. He can't see anything over the back of the sofa but there's really no question about what we're doing.

"Oh for the love of –" he snarls, turning on his heel and heading for the front door. "Don't disappear like that, people worry! And lock your damned door!"

"Hey, Haymitch," Peeta calls over his shoulder, "don't worry, we're using protection!"

The only answer is a string of curses and the door slamming. We're laughing too hard to pay attention.