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The Only Thing Stronger Than Fear

Chapter Text

We've established something of a routine, Peeta and I. Come to think of it, we've gone through several different versions since we first found our way back to District 12. Back to each other. But this one might actually stick.

At first we cling to our separate living spaces. I don't know if it's pride or stubbornness or some combination of the two. Every morning he shows up at my house with fresh bread or pastries and has breakfast with me while Greasy Sae watches over us, nagging us about still being too thin.

We go on long walks in the woods or through the district, which is slowly returning from the grave. There are now several crews working on clearing the rubble and laying the foundations for new buildings. At least once a month a team from the Capitol or the inner districts comes through, mapping out new roads and rail lines. The districts are finally going to be united as a country.

We walk with our fingers intertwined, occasionally bumping shoulders. I know that someday I'll need personal space again, some physical distance. But for now, the emotional scars of months of isolation are too close to the surface. Hell, I've even hugged Haymitch a couple of times when he wasn't too sloppy. I'm not sure which one of us was more surprised when that happened.

Peeta and I separate in the afternoons, hunting and baking to feed the returning refugees and workers. We don't have enough town yet to deal with things like money. Everyone works to rebuild the public areas and establish their homes. Food and supplies come on trains from the Capitol and are shared out of a supply depot near the station. It's kind of like District 13, without the uniforms and schedules and military training and backbiting politicians. Okay, so it's not that much like District 13. It's not a plush life, but it's far more secure than it ever was out here before the war.

Peeta's occupations take a lot more supplies than mine, so it makes sense for us to spend our evenings at his house. We work on the memory book or I mend things while he paints. We don't talk a whole lot. We share news if we have it, from letters or talking to people in town. But mostly we work in companionable silence, always close enough to touch.

As the sun sets, we gravitate to the sofa in the living room. It's not romantic. I can't really imagine either of us wanting that. But it's comforting. The numbness retreats a little bit when Peeta's arms are around me.

Every night he walks me home. All the way from his front door to mine, three houses down. Then I stand on my porch and watch until he gets back to his place. He waves and we both go inside to face the night and our nightmares alone.

That initial pattern sticks for months. It's ridiculous, but neither of us is willing to say so. We might have limped along like that forever if not for the night Peeta dozes off on the sofa.

We talk even less once we're holding each other, so it takes me a while to realize he's actually asleep. I'm swamped by the desire to just relax into sleep myself and wake up in his arms, which of course causes me to panic. I try to ease away without waking him. He shifts a little, holds me tighter, and murmurs, "No, stay."

I freeze. His eyes pop open and he looks as appalled as I feel. Just when the moment stretches out long enough that I'm sure one of us is going to die from the embarrassment, he blurts out, "I have a bedroom."

Clearly, he's the one who's going to die of embarrassment. I swear I can feel his body temperature spike as every visible part of him turns bright red. "I mean…I mean I have an extra bedroom," he stammers. "Several of them. These houses were built for families. No! I mean, there's plenty of room for…." He stops, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. I swallow a totally inappropriate laugh.

"Katniss," he sighs, opening his eyes, "I don't want to end up like Haymitch. I don't want to be alone."

"Neither do I," I whisper.

"This house is big enough that we won't be in each other's way all the time. Will you…will you live here? With me?"

I can't. Even thinking about it makes me feel like I can't breathe. I can't let anyone in again. I really, really can't let him in again.

I can't.

So it's a big surprise when the word that comes out of my mouth is "okay."

We agree to move my stuff the next day and Peeta walks me home for the last time. It's harder than ever to ignore how much we look like a typical District 12 courting couple from before the war. I can't help wondering if that's what we'd be in a different place, a different life. If the prickly coal miner's daughter would have found happiness with the gentle baker's son. But my willingness to consider marriage and children was destroyed by the world we live in long before the Games and revolution took away the rest of my ability to love.

The ghosts are restless tonight.

In the morning, I catch Greasy Sae before Peeta arrives and tell her about the new arrangements. It's not quite as mortifying as I'd feared. She just pats my hand and mutters something that sounds like, "About time." I focus on my breakfast and pretend not to hear.

I don't own much so the actual process of moving doesn't take long at all. A few changes of clothing, my hunting gear, whatever food is left in the kitchen, and my small stash of keepsakes are all I take with me. The memory book is already stored at Peeta's house and I have no problem leaving behind all the household items that were here when the house was assigned to me. I've never felt at home here and the only items with any sentimental value are the locket, spile, and pearl that are wrapped in a silver parachute and stuffed deep into the pocket of my father's hunting jacket. I don't want Peeta to see them. I don't want to make him uncomfortable, make him think that I'm still clinging to the memory of when he loved me. Even if I am. I tell myself that it's better this way. Less complicated.

I decide not to bother with the storage closet of beautiful clothes Cinna left for me. I can't imagine needing to wear any of them. Going through them, even looking at them, would cause too much pain for me to be willing to face it without a damned good reason.

For the rest of the day, we cling to our routines and pretend nothing's changed. It works, more or less, until we're on the sofa, watching the stars and putting off the moment when we have to go upstairs. Together.

Exhaustion finally wins. I'm fighting nausea as we slowly climb the stairs, because if we were a caricature of a courting couple before, now it feels like we're newlyweds and the dread I feel is totally out of proportion to the situation. It would probably be out of proportion even if I were a bride on my wedding night, but I've never given that much thought and I'm sure as hell not going to start now.

Outside my new bedroom, Peeta squeezes my hand, says goodnight, and gives me that sweet, shy smile that never fails to make me warm and flustered. That is not a pleasant addition to the turmoil I'm already experiencing. I scrape up as much of a smile as I can in return and flee to the relative safety of my room.

I don't sleep much that first night. The sounds of an unfamiliar house and the feel of an unfamiliar bed combine with everything else to ensure that I don't manage more than a light doze.

I've taken to hunting first thing in the morning to get something fresh for the day for myself. That way, my afternoon hunts can be just for meat to donate to the town. Just before dawn, I dress and creep downstairs, trying not to wake Peeta on my way out. I'm lacing up my boots when I hear his tread on the stairs. He stops short in the doorway to the kitchen when he sees me.

"Oh. You're up. I was trying not to bother you," he says.

I can't stop from smirking. "Really? That was you being stealthy?"

He looks abashed for a moment, then laughs. "Hey, at least I get points for trying, right?"

I shake my head but I'm laughing too. "You're just lucky I'm always up this early. And I was trying not to bother you."

"I've been getting up at dawn to work in the bakery since I was little," he says with a shrug. "It's not likely to change now. Besides, where did you think your cheese buns came from every morning?"

I'm still smiling to myself as I promise not to be gone long and head off towards the Meadow. Somehow, the teasing transformed what might have been an excruciating scene into something almost comfortable. And it's not only that. Just one night not being alone in an empty house and I'm already feeling less like a mutt. There's still panic fluttering at the edge of my thoughts, but I make an effort to push it away.

I return after an hour with fish and blackberries. Peeta adds the berries to muffin batter that's about to go in the oven. I fry the fish and we eat it with piping hot muffins dripping with butter. We agree that it's the best breakfast we've had in a while. Even if he didn't make me cheese buns.

That first morning sets the pattern of our new routine. Every day gets easier. We get more comfortable with each other, though we still skirt around certain subjects. Like most of the past year. But I start to feel like I belong in my own skin again. It's bittersweet, realizing I'm not truly a ghost yet and I have to start letting go of the past.

The nights are a different story. The walk up the stairs doesn't get less awkward. If anything, it gets worse. And I'm still not sleeping. I try leaving my door open a crack, telling myself it's so I can hear if Peeta has a nightmare but really just because I hope I can hear him breathing in the night. I can't.

For better or worse, we last this way for less than a week. On the fifth night, I finally slip into a deep sleep. And into a dream of burning flesh and screaming children.

Within moments, Peeta is there with me. I sob hysterically into his chest as he wraps his arms around me, strokes my hair, and murmurs comforting nonsense against my ear. The last thing I feel before crying myself out and surrendering to sleep again is the gentle press of his lips.

I wake up at my normal time, but I'm bleary and out-of-sorts and I don't want to move. I don't want Peeta to move, either, but he points out that one of us has to worry about breakfast.

Going back to sleep is impossible. I can't get comfortable and he really is making an incredible racket in the kitchen. I give up and stumble downstairs in my pajamas, where I sit at the kitchen table and sulk. You'd think that finally getting some decent sleep would be a good thing. But those few stolen hours have just reminded my body how worn out it is.

I can't hold onto my annoyance with the boy who makes my favorite breakfast and doesn't seem to mind when I shut down all his attempts at conversation. "I'm sorry," I mumble around a mouthful of bread.

He slants me a look I can't interpret. "For having a nightmare or for being a brat the next morning?"

"Both," I answer with a scowl.

He studies me for a moment and I try not to squirm. "I sleep better with you there, too, you know." I can't make myself meet his eyes but I nod. When he gets up, I think he's not going to say anything else. But he touches my shoulder as he crosses behind me to the sink. "Katniss, I know what the dreams take out of you. And I like you just as you are. Even when you're a brat."

All I can manage is a muffled "hrmph" because I don't trust my voice. I've never been good at dealing with his calm statements of affection like that. It's even more confusing now, when he's not motivated by love. He can't be, after everything he's been through because of me. Right?

I'm so tired. Far too tired to deal with any of this. "I'm going back to bed," I grumble.

"So I get to cook and do the dishes?" he asks lightly, then laughs when I groan and drop my head onto my arms on the table. "I'm just kidding, Katniss. Go to bed."

I slink upstairs but stop in the doorway to my room. The empty bed doesn't look any more inviting than it was before. Without letting myself think about it too hard, I turn around and go into Peeta's room across the hall.

For a moment, I'm taken aback by his neatly-made bed. Did he not go to bed at all before he joined me last night? No, I would have heard him moving around. He must have made the bed before going downstairs this morning. The thought is both sweet and aggravating. A lot like the boy himself.

I burrow under covers that smell faintly of cinnamon.

That night, as usual, we hesitate at the top of the stairs. "Do you want me to…?" he says, nodding at my door. I shake my head and his face falls. "Right. Sorry. I didn't mean…"

I put my hand on his chest, which stops him cold. "I like yours better." He nods but clearly has no idea what I'm talking about. "Let me get ready for bed and I'll join you. If that's okay."

He clears his throat and I can't tell in the dim light but I think he might be blushing. "Yeah. That's okay."

And that's all the discussion we have about it. I still have my own room and bathroom where I keep my clothes and stuff. I just don't sleep there.

I forget to tell Dr. Aurelius about the move and he gets very annoyed when I don't answer the phone at my old house. He finds me easily enough when he calls Peeta for information and he seems pleased with the change. My next package from the Capitol contains a new bottle of pills, which I stick in my bathroom cabinet without looking at. I've learned the hard way not to argue with the doctor about all the medication he wants me to take. For the most part I just ignore it. It's too bad we don't have a black market anymore. I've got quite a stash.

It also doesn't occur to me to say anything to Haymitch. He figures it out when he finally accepts an invitation to dinner. He spends most of the meal watching us suspiciously. Afterwards, when he's getting ready to leave, he casually – too casually – offers to walk me home.

Even though I've been expecting this, I find myself tongue-tied. I glance over at Peeta.

"We figured it was wasteful to keep up two households when one is big enough for both of us," he says just as casually as Haymitch. "So Katniss moved over here a couple of weeks ago."

"Peeta's house has fewer ghosts," I add softly.

Something flickers across Haymitch's face. Understanding. Still, he sighs and shakes his head. "I just hope you're using protection."

Peeta makes what sounds like a half-strangled laugh and excuses himself to go clean the kitchen. I just look steadily back at Haymitch. I'll be damned if I admit I have no idea what he's talking about. Especially since Peeta seems to.

"Come see me tomorrow," Haymitch says, too softly for Peeta to hear. I frown but nod my assent. If Haymitch really wants to speak to me privately, I've got no good reason to refuse.

The next morning, I don't mention that I'm going to Haymitch's. I can't imagine what he needs to say to me and I figure I can still gather some fresh greens and berries before Peeta expects me back for breakfast.

I'm very familiar with Haymitch's habits. I know he won't mind me coming over this early. He hasn't been to bed yet. He'd be a lot more surly if I woke him up in the middle of the afternoon.

I clear a space for myself at the disgusting kitchen table. Haymitch regards me silently for a while, his eyes bloodshot but surprisingly sober. "Katniss, what are you doing?"

This puts me immediately on the defensive. "I don't know what you mean."

"Why are you playing house with that boy?"

"We just didn't want to be alone," I admit. "We're not doing anything. You don't have to worry, he's not going to hurt me."

"You're not the one I'm worried about getting hurt!" He's so vehement that it shocks me. "Have you given any thought at all to what you're doing to Peeta?"

"I'm not doing anything to Peeta!" I yell back. "Why would I want to hurt him?"

"It's never been a question of wanting to hurt him. That hasn't stopped you before."

"Damn it, Haymitch, don't talk in riddles! I get enough of that from my head doctor. Just spit it out." It's like talking to a wall. A scowling, hung-over wall. He clearly expects me to miraculously figure it out on my own and I refuse to give him the satisfaction. But I'm barely out of my seat when it hits me. "It's not like he's still pining over me, you know. That's over."

"Come on, sweetheart, don't be more of an idiot than absolutely necessary," Haymitch snarls.

"He's not in love with me! He can't be! The Capitol took that part of him away!" My anger breaks along with my voice. "They took him away from me."

Haymitch grabs my wrist and steers me back into my chair. "What the Capitol did to that boy…I've never seen anything like it. That whole District 13 brain trust couldn't do anything more than convince him that maybe, just maybe, the memories he was left with weren't real. That's it. The rest was all him.

"I watched him fight his way back to you, day after day, little by little. With absolutely no encouragement from you, I might add. He had to put the pieces of himself back together as best he could. And then he had to deal with the fact that, in the process, he'd almost killed you."

"Twice," I whisper.

Haymitch gives me a sour look. "Yes, twice. And he's still here. Still trying to protect you, even from yourself. So go ahead, tell yourself whatever you want. Whatever gets you through the night. But don't ever try to convince me that boy is anything but devoted to you."

I stay in my chair long after Haymitch grabs a fresh bottle and leaves the room. Finally, my numb legs carry me not to the woods, but home.

Peeta is pouring batter into tins when I enter the kitchen. "Hey, you're back early," he says. "Did you forget something?" Then he gets a good look at me. He drops everything, crosses to me, and cups my face in his hands. "What happened, Katniss? What's wrong?"

I stare fixedly at a button on his shirt. "Haymitch thinks I'm going to hurt you."

He lets go of me and steps back. "That's…just bizarre. Why would he think that? The only time you've ever touched me in anger was when you pushed me into a flower pot. And you were provoked. I'm the one who –" He breaks off.

I don't want to think about what he almost did to me while under the Capitol's brainwashing. And I really didn't mean to make him think about it. If nothing else, Haymitch is right that Peeta's suffered more than enough because of me. I force myself to meet his eyes and state baldly, "He thinks I'm going to break your heart."

Peeta's face clears and he chuckles. "I don't think that's even possible at this point," he says ruefully.

I knew it. I knew he couldn't have feelings for me anymore. But instead of the relief I expect, hearing him say it out loud causes a spike of pain in my chest.

"After all," he continues, "if my heart's held up for the past twelve years, it's not likely to be in danger now."

Okay, hold on. Everyone's speaking in riddles today and I don't like it. "What are you saying?" I ask, almost fearing the answer.

"Katniss, all I've ever asked is that you stay alive. The fact that you're here, with me, is more than I ever let myself hope for. I don't need anything else to be happy."

Despite his words, he doesn't look happy. But I can't stop myself from pushing a little bit more. "You love me? Still?"

"Does it matter?" he responds softly.

I go to him, wrapping my arms around him and burying my face against his chest. "Yes. No. I don't know!" I wail, hating myself for being so selfish that I'm expecting him to comfort me when I'm upset because I'm causing him pain. But I don't know what else to do.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Months pass. Before I know it, it's the second Day of Remembrance. Peeta and I spend this one together and it's a little easier.

We still have bad days, though not very often. Dr. Aurelius eventually takes both of us off all the medications. The waste bothers me so I pack up all the bottles of pills I haven't been taking and send them back. That gets me a very exasperated call from the doctor.

My nightmares don't get any less intense but at least they're not a nightly occurrence anymore. And not being able to sleep isn't such a problem when we end up making love until we're exhausted. Things are going so well, in fact, that I almost don't recognize the next issue when it comes.

Peeta starts getting a lot of calls from people in the Capitol. They're getting serious about setting up the new government that every citizen will vote for. The difficulty is that they're only working from history books and no one really knows how to get things going.

First, the callers offer Peeta the position of representative for District 12. That would mean spending a lot of time in the Capitol so he flatly refuses. Then they try to get him to be the new mayor of the district. He's not thrilled with that idea either, but makes the mistake of being willing to consider it. The recruitment team takes that as a sign of weakness and doubles down.

I come home one autumn afternoon to find Peeta on the phone again. His side of the conversation is stilted and very polite. When he hangs up, he sinks down into a chair and buries his face in his hands. I move behind him and rub his shoulders.

"That was President Paylor," he groans. "She wants to step down but can't until there's an election. And that can't happen until there's official district leadership."

"That makes sense," I say neutrally.

"Of course it does. I don't blame Paylor for not wanting the job anymore. Hell, I don't want to get involved in the first place!"

"Which is part of why you're perfect for the position."

He frowns, then pulls me around and into his lap. "Care to explain that?"

"I don't trust people who actually want to be in charge. Think of Coin, or Snow. Or even Plutarch. People who want power for the sake of power are dangerous."

"So you really think I should say yes?" he asks, clearly pained by the thought.

I kiss him thoroughly before responding. "I think you're the only one who gets a say in that. But look at it this way. People already come to you for input all the time. And I don't believe for a minute that you don't want to help make the district a better place. It's what you do with your time anyway."

He sighs. "But…being in charge…officially…"

"Officially, you could do so much more. They're the ones courting you. That means you can dictate the terms. Make them agree to what you're comfortable with," I point out.

"That's a really good idea," he says, "but why are you crying?"

"I am not!" I sputter. Then I choke on a sob and press my face against his shoulder. I let him soothe me for a few minutes. When I'm pretty sure I've gotten myself under control, I explain. "It was Prim's idea. When Coin wanted me to be the Mockingjay. I didn't want to. Then Prim suggested I make some demands. Like keeping you safe." And with that, I'm crying again.

"I know, sweetheart. I miss her too," he whispers into my hair. I stay in his arms until the grief subsides.

For several days, we avoid the topic. I'm certainly not going to push if Peeta doesn't want to discuss it. I meant what I said about the decision being his to make.

Now that things in Panem are changing every day, we've gotten into the habit of turning on the television while we're preparing dinner. I doubt I'll ever completely trust news that comes out of the Capitol, but it's the easiest way to keep an eye on things. Plus there's the occasional, bittersweet pleasure of seeing old friends.

This evening's newscast is particularly interesting because the focus is the push for elections. The host promises an interview with someone very close to the project. I'm both surprised and not to see that the interviewee is Gale.

I haven't seen or heard from Gale since the fall of the Capitol almost two years ago. The grapevine has provided me with infrequent updates – his government job in District 2 immediately after the war, his continuing work with Beetee in the Capitol, his neverending social life. I'm happy for him and relieved that he's moved on so well and completely. Sure, there's a twinge of pain every once in a while when I think about the friendship we lost. But I know a clean break is better for both of us. It might even have been crucial.

Behind me, in the kitchen, Peeta is still concentrating on dinner. He's banging around with more force than is really necessary. A totally wild thought starts to take shape in my mind.

"Gale seems to be doing great," I say casually. Peeta makes a noncommittal sound. "You never mentioned he's on the recruitment team."

That gets his attention. "I haven't talked to him directly," he says. I wait for him to respond to what I actually said. Finally he mutters, "I didn't think it was relevant."

I raise my eyebrows. "Does this have anything to do with why you're so reluctant to sign on?"

"No! Of course not. That would be silly," he says defensively. Too defensively. Again I wait him out. "Okay, fine! You're right. On top of all the other reasons, I really don't want to work closely with the former love of your life. Happy now?"

"Actually, yes," I say as a grin spreads across my face, "I am. You're jealous." It's unfair and downright petty of me to be so amused by this. But I can't help it. He's so intrinsically good that it gets annoying sometimes. Like he's too perfect to be real. But knowing that my sweet, steady Peeta is capable of something as irrational as jealousy is comforting. And truthfully, I'm kind of flattered that he's jealous of Gale.

Hey, I admitted it was petty.

He throws up his hands in frustration. "And now you're laughing at me. I've been jealous of Gale practically my whole life, because he had you. If it weren't for those horrible bombs, you'd probably be with him now!"

I am no longer amused. I take a deep breath and remind myself that Peeta's lashing out because he's hurting. He doesn't mean to insult me and probably doesn't even realize he's doing it. As calmly as I can, I say, "No, I wouldn't."

"You don't know that!"

"Yes I do! Damn it, Peeta." I take another deep breath. "Every time I lost you or tried to give you up, Gale was there. I chose him over and over. I tried to want him. I wanted to want him. But I never, not once, wanted to be with him the way I wanted to be with you. Even all the way back to our first Games."

He still won't look at me. I hate this. I hate trying to talk about my feelings. Peeta knows me so well he can practically read my mind. Trying to articulate this kind of thing to him is doubly frustrating because I don't usually have to. "You're right. After the bombs, I could never be with Gale. But I knew that anyway. Even when we were trying our hardest, we couldn't go ten minutes without fighting about something. And when I kissed him –"

"I don't want to hear the details," he grumbles.

I walk over to him and take his face in my hands so he has to look at me. "And when I kissed him," I repeat, "it was pleasant, Peeta. Pleasant."

It takes a moment for that to sink in. "Pleasant," he echoes with a reluctant smile, shaking his head. He wraps his arms around me and adds, "Poor Gale."

"Hey!" It's supposed to be indignant but comes out a lot less forcefully than I intend because his mouth is on my neck.

"Poor Katniss," he amends. "Pleasant."

"You're never going to let that go, are you?" I ask.

"Nope," he cheerfully agrees, then goes back to kissing me. I surrender with a sigh.

* * * * * * * * * *

It's really amazing, when I look back at the past four years. I'm so different from that girl in the woods, hunting with her best friend, trying to keep food on the table and far more free than she knew. And I'm not the Girl on Fire anymore either. Figuratively or literally, thank goodness. Not the star-crossed lover surrounded by danger or the fire mutt mired in pain and grief.

The full extent of the change doesn't occur to me until the day I catch myself singing.

I've taken to whittling toys for the little kids in the district. There are a whole bunch of them now, including some who were born here after the war. I'm pretty good at coaxing wood into basic shapes, so I make a lot of blocks and teething rings and things like that. Between those and the cookies Peeta always has on hand, our house is very popular.

I'm sitting by the hearth in the kitchen, both for the warmth and so I can feed the shavings directly into the fire. I start out humming to myself and end up singing without really thinking about it.

As I finish the song I notice Peeta leaning on the doorframe. He looks entranced, and it's only then that it dawns on me that I was singing the Valley Song. I didn't even know I still remembered the words.

I'm safe. I'm happy. Most importantly, I'm home.

There's only one thing that can make this even better. Peeta's twentieth birthday is less than a month away. If I can get everyone on board, I can surprise him. The thought makes me almost giddy.

I talk Peeta into having a party for his birthday, which we haven't bothered with in the past. We invite what feels like half the district. Even since taking the mayor job (on a part-time, only-until-the-real-election basis), Peeta's gotten to know just about everyone. We make enough food for an army and Peeta doesn't complain too much about having to make his own cake. I offer to do it; he thanks me for the thought but declines based on my previous efforts in that area. Turns out the patience and attention to detail required for hunting are not at all transferrable to baking.

I raid the storage closet of fancy clothes for something to wear. There's a dress that suits my needs so well I'm tempted to believe Cinna designed it especially for the occasion. It's cream satin shot through with gold threads, with simple lines and a soft, sunset orange sash and accents. The heavy fabric and long sleeves make it appropriate for a party on a cold February night.

By the time I'm done fussing with my appearance, I'm swearing and feeling like a fool. I don't have any makeup so I couldn't use it even if I wanted to and knew how. Leaving my hair loose seems obvious because of how much Peeta likes running his fingers through it. Of course, that's usually after he's taken it down. I start second guessing myself about maybe putting it up in the first place. I want this night to be perfect. Driving myself nuts before it even begins is really not going to help, but I can't seem to stop.

It turns out to be worth it, though, when I go downstairs. Peeta does a double-take when he sees me, then halts in his tracks and just stares. I approach him, turn around, and sweep my hair over my shoulder so he can see the unfastened back of my dress. "Zip me up?" I purr.

The party gets underway soon after that. We invited too many people to have a fancy sit-down dinner, not that Peeta wanted anything so formal anyway. Our guests come and go, mingling and chatting and nibbling from the trays of food on every available surface.

Briefly, I wish my mother were here. But I push the thought and accompanying spasm of pain away. She's made her decision and her future is elsewhere. I can respect that.

The beautiful cake is presented, admired, cut, and demolished. Peeta decorated it with iced primroses and katniss leaves. I'm on the verge of tears when Haymitch pulls focus by pretending to vomit.

Finally, Peeta and I are left alone. We meet in the middle of the living room. "Happy birthday," I say, twining my arms around his neck and kissing him.

"Thank you for the lovely party," he responds politely. The he lowers his lips to my ear and whispers, "Let's leave the mess and go to bed."

I laugh and take a step back. He looks crestfallen until I say, "But I haven't even given you your present yet."

"Definitely better in bed," he says as he reaches for the zipper on my dress.

Playfully, I smack his hands away. "Be serious!"

"Okay, okay." He tries for a somber expression, but the corners of his mouth are twitching and his blue eyes are dancing with amusement and desire. I take a deep breath and try to focus.

"Peeta –" All this planning and I can't find the words. Damn it! This is so obvious, so right, it should be easy.

"Katniss?" he asks, getting concerned.

To hell with finesse and pretty speeches. "Peeta, will you marry me?"

Wow. For the first time ever, I've rendered Peeta Mellark speechless. He stands there, opening and closing his mouth with no sound coming out. He looks so funny that some of my tension drains away. "You once said you wanted to spend every possible minute of the rest of your life with me. Well, I want that too. I love you. So, will you? Will you marry me?"

He smiles the biggest, sunniest, goofiest grin I've ever seen. With a laugh, he picks me up and twirls me around. "Is that a yes?" I gasp as the world spins.

"Yes," he says against my lips. Then again and again, each time punctuated by another sweet kiss.

When I break away, we're both short of breath and dizzy. But now is not the time to get sidetracked. I take his hand and pull him to the front door. He is clearly befuddled by this, but he nods when I say, "Trust me."

We step out onto the porch. Half a dozen people wait there, people who were at Peeta's party. People who form the core of our new-forged family.

"It's about time," Haymitch growls. I don't know if he's talking about the past several minutes or the past several years. He's right either way. Then, in a surprisingly rich baritone, he starts to sing.

Everyone else joins in, even those who didn't grow up here in District 12. I'm unexpectedly moved by that. They must have gone out of their way to learn our customs after I invited them to the ceremony.

Peeta turns to me as the gentle cadence of the traditional threshold song washes over us. I can see in his eyes that he's made the same connection I did when I went looking for something to wear tonight. Cinna designed a lot of gowns for a sham ceremony to appease the Capitol. This one, he designed for me and my real wedding to Peeta.

There's a moment of silence when the song ends, then everyone surges forward to congratulate us, laughing and talking all at once. Greasy Sae and her granddaughter, Nenia and Tiberius, a few others we've become close to over the past years. We accept their kisses, give them our thanks, and they drift away into the night.

In the end, only three of us are left – Peeta and me and Haymitch. As it's been for so long now. Haymitch's eyes are very shiny but he covers with a smirk as he kisses my forehead, then Peeta's. He cups his hands around the backs of our necks. "Knew you two would figure it all out eventually." His voice is rougher than usual.

"We love you, Haymitch," Peeta says.

"Yeah, yeah, no need to get all mushy," Haymitch replies, turning away. "Get on with you. Better things to do than stand out in the cold." We pretend we don't see him mopping his face as he crosses the green.

"He's right, you know," Peeta says as he guides me inside, "we have much better things to do."

I grab a leftover roll while he goes into the kitchen and returns with a long toasting fork. We go to the hearth in the living room and kneel facing each other.

I tear the roll in half, put one piece on the toasting fork, and hold it over the fire. When it's golden, I offer it to Peeta. As he takes it, I recite the ancient words. "I take thee, Peeta Mellark, to be my husband. From this day forward, as long as we both shall live."

He toasts his half and holds it out to me. "I take thee, Katniss Everdeen, to be my wife. From this day forward, as long as we both shall live."

For a long moment, we study each other in the firelight. The feeling is stronger than happiness, deeper than love. As we meet in a kiss to seal our pledge, I know what it is.

It's hope.