She's so preoccupied with Peeta's whereabouts that they might as well still be in the arena. It's a similar kind of tension, her unwillingness to accept him as an ally and the gnawing knowledge that he's trying to help her. She's in no position to refuse help, but when he's the one offering she can't let herself accept it. She allows him to plant the bushes out front and bring bread to the house, but she doesn't speak to him or go to him when the nightmares drag her back to hell. Sometimes she sits up all night, avoiding sleep, watching the lights in his house across the courtyard. When they see each other, she's polite, vacant, quick to leave. He always looks tired, but he's regained some weight. She supposes she has, too, though she can't say for sure. One of her first acts upon returning was throwing away all the mirrors in the house.
Greasy Sae's visits dwindle to just once or twice a week, and appearances by Haymitch are very irregular. Others begin returning to town, and Katniss avoids all of them. She makes a grave for Prim by the lake and visits it daily. Sitting beside it for hours at a time, she picks at the grass and wonders if Peeta has done the same for his family. When the weather improves she undresses and floats in the lake, on her back on a good day, face down on a bad one. She hates the sensation of choking and knows she could never actually drown herself. One day, after Greasy Sae leaves with her granddaughter, Katniss climbs the stairs with a knife from the kitchen and cuts her wrist, just lightly, testing. She can't feel any pain, so she cuts again, more deeply, and watches the blood run down over her palm, dripping into the sink. Unmoved, she cleans the knife and then her wrist, puts antibiotic ointment on the cut and bandages it. She goes to bed feeling both accomplished and disappointed: so that's ruled out, too.
Peeta comes daily to bring fresh bread, soft pretzels, cakes, or whatever else he's been filling his hours with making. He enters through the kitchen door without knocking and often without acknowledging her, and she doesn't protest. Sometimes they eat breakfast together in silence. The day after the experiment with the knife, he stares down at her wrist, his jaw tight.
"What's that?" he asks, nodding to the bandage. She actually laughs, feeling herself slipping into a mode of existence not unlike Annie's.
"I ran into a door," she says, giving him a cold stare. The standard line for wives in District 12 who were abused by their husbands. Peeta probably fed it to his teachers once or twice, after his mother had beaten him.
He looks mad enough to kill her himself. She laughs at the idea. When the speech about the value of her life doesn't come, she just watches him eat the sticky buns he brought for breakfast as if he's suddenly ravenous, or wants to get this visit over with as soon as possible. He continues to look furious, but doesn't say anything, which only makes her angrier, and that much more resolved not to say anything herself.
After breakfast, he cleans up, and she stays seated at the table, her bandaged wrist brazenly exposed. She's wearing a formless shift dress, no socks or shoes. Peeta has tucked in his shirt, is even wearing a belt. Ridiculous.
"What are you doing?" she asks when he walks into the front room and sits down on the couch, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Staying," he says. "There's no point, the two of us alone in these big houses."
"So you're going to sit there like a lump and watch me?" Katniss says. She can't remember being angrier, but that keeps happening, the anger just building and building, never enough relief to level off before more floods in.
"I don't know," he says. "Do you need watching?"
She doesn't dignify this with an answer. This house has never felt as if it belongs to her, so she doesn't attempt to throw him out. It's still a comfort to know his precise location, and she can hear him moving around down on the first floor. Every cabinet drawer that opens in the kitchen and footstep across the wooden floorboards irritates and comforts her. He's so big. It frustrates her, not just for the amount of noise he makes while walking around, but because his size has made her crave his closeness. That was the best part of sleeping with him, the way she could disappear entirely against his chest, the protective shell of him closing around her. There was also his heartbeat, his hand warm on her cheek, the kisses pressed to her forehead, but all he should really get credit for is being uncommonly large. She lies in bed thinking this, buried under blankets, scowling.
Around sundown, he goes quiet. She sits up and listens, wondering if he left. She's sure she would have heard the door if he had; he would have slammed it. The sun sinks lower outside, the temperature dropping. She puts on socks and moves silently to her closed bedroom door, presses her ear against it and listens. Nothing. A nervous excitement builds in her chest, her heart rate quickening. Where is Peeta? Except when he's pressed up against her under blankets, the question hasn't left her mind since she sprinted away from the Cornucopia during their first Games. Sometimes she gets just his name stuck in her head like a splinter, an almost sing-song taunt: Peeta, Peeta, Peeta, a nagging thing not quite forgotten, difficult to remember.
She opens the door as quietly as possible. Stalking him, weaponless. She's stopped believing that he could hurt her except by disappearing, so she assumes as she creeps down the stairs that whatever she finds will be a relief. She's wrong: he's on the sofa again, head in his hands, breathing hard, pulling at his hair. Suffering one of his episodes, the darkness that the hijacking left behind clawing at him, trying to pull him under. Katniss thinks of the pit that opened in the Capitol just before she reached Snow's mansion, the dark figures that swallowed up the people who fell into it. Peeta is making horrible noises, pulling at his hair so hard that she's afraid he'll yank two handfuls out. She flattens her back against the wall, her heart slamming now. She doesn't want to get pulled in to that darkness, is already too close to her own. She wants to shut him into a room where she can watch this from behind protective glass, flanked by guards.
He crumples to the floor, falling off the couch and landing on his elbows and knees. He might be sobbing; he sounds like he's trying to swallow a knife. Katniss thinks of getting Haymitch, but he's probably drunk. She runs through the list of others she can turn to. No one, really.
"Peeta," she says, but the name doesn't make any sound when it leaves her lips. He doesn't seem aware that she's here, even when she walks slowly into the front room, shaking. She's always been afraid of him when he's like this, though, if she's honest, she never really believed that he could kill her. She's afraid to face the parts of this that are real. His anger, his disappointment. The boy who fell out of love with her.
He flinches away when she touches his shoulder, his back slamming against the couch. His face is red and splotchy when he looks up at her, but he's not crying. He doesn't seem angry, just terrified, his eyes wide and unseeing.
"I can't," he says, trying to back away and finding that he has no where to go. "I can't -- it's -- I can't --"
"Hey." She takes his face in her hands, terrified, and when he tries to get away, she straddles his lap, pressing her forehead against his. "Stop. Peeta. Look at me."
He's panting hard, slumped down so that his chest is heaving between her legs. She won't let herself blink until his pupils shrink back to a normal size, his breath still ragged but slower. He clamps his mouth shut, breathes through his nose, and when his eyes harden she knows that he's back.
"How often does this happen?" Katniss asks. She thinks of him alone in bed, soaking the sheets with sweat, clawing at his skin. Peeta just shakes his head, not as if he refuses to answer but just to tell her that he can't speak yet, that he needs to concentrate on breathing. She nods and strokes his cheeks with her thumbs. He's clammy, heavy bags under his eyes. The sun is almost gone outside, the room just barely glowing with what's left of Peeta's favorite color. She wonders if she should get off of him, realizing only then that his hands are resting on her hips.
She kisses him, because it's the right thing to do. Tells herself it's just a reflex but can't seem to stop. She kisses his nose, his cheeks, his eyebrows. His lips, but only briefly, before pressing a line of kisses along his jaw. His breath is speeding up again, hands closing around her waist.
"Don't," he says.
“Why not?” she asks. She finds his lips again, touching hers to them just barely, her eyes open. His eyelashes are golden even in this light. He blinks out a pair of fat tears and she sucks them off his cheeks, something about this making her remember hunger very vividly, the price of salt. When she pulls back she lets her hands slide from his cheeks down to his neck. He sniffles.
“I made brownies,” he says, and then he starts sobbing. She moans and leans forward to hug him, letting him hide his face against her chest. They stay like that for a long time, Peeta's hands twitching on her back, Katniss sniffing the air, her mouth watering at the thought of a pan of brownies cooling on the oven.
They eat the brownies for dinner like naughty children; Katniss supposes they are still children, by some perverse and irrelevant classification. She puts her bare feet over Peeta's shoes, under the table.
“Why are you so well-dressed?” she teases, pouring him more milk. He still seems fragile, and looks at her like he's confused by the question. “Waiting for a camera crew to show up?” she says.
It's not really funny. Camera crews are a sensitive subject, but what isn't? Water is a sensitive subject. Food always will be. Trees have their ghosts now, too. The fires Peeta makes to bake his bread: ha. Katniss just stares at him, waiting for an answer.
“Would it make you feel better if I dressed like Haymitch?” Peeta asks, eyebrows knitting, angry again. “Walking around with vomit stains on my shirt?”
“It might,” Katniss says. She presses her foot more firmly against his. He grumbles to himself unintelligibly, a habit that started after the hijacking and which never fails to unnerve her. She watches him drain his glass of milk.
She doesn't want him to go. He doesn't. They climb the stairs and enter her bedroom without a word. Katniss shuts the door behind her, though there's no one in the house to see them. She undresses without looking at Peeta, making no attempt at modesty. In bed, she rolls toward the wall and listens to him take off his belt, his pants, hears him arranging his shoes neatly by the wall. He always did that in the train compartment, as if out of respect for her living space, and maybe for the shoes themselves. When he was a prisoner of Snow's all it would take to start her weeping into her hands was the thought of Peeta's shoes waiting for him by the wall, and the way he would kneel down to straighten them before he came to her.
Things are awkward for roughly ten seconds, as always: Katniss' elbows, Peeta's leg, their noses, their breath. Then the blankets come up to their shoulders, they sink beneath them, and everything is just warmth, and clutching, his familiar scars sliding against hers.
They don't kiss that night, but he does get hard against her thigh, which makes her smile, though it shouldn't, because he must have been so lonely for so long, to be excited by just this. She thinks of the first time she felt it, in the sleeping bag during their first Games, the apology in his eyes when she looked at him with confusion, half-asleep. He was blushing, heartsick, maybe afraid she would make some comment that would be caught on camera.
She pushes her hand up underneath his t-shirt after he's asleep and drooling on her shoulder. It's still a stupid kind of thrill, that this boy has been inside her. Just once: the night before the interview for their second Games. Haymitch gave Peeta all the credit for coming up with the lie about Katniss' pregnancy, but it was her who put it into Peeta's head the night before, when she whispered that he had to use something. That was the last night she was happy, if happiness laced with dread counts: the picnic on the roof, Peeta sketching her, the sunset, her hand in his when they crept back to her room together. He laughed when she suggested that it might be their last chance to try sex, and she laughed when his mouth fell open as he realized she was serious. It was awkward, fast, more nervous laughter and trembling than pleasure, but she's never felt closer to anyone than she did when they were finished, lying there with their faces pressed together, Peeta trying not to blubber in gratitude, Katniss trying so hard not to love him. Failing, as she has in everything that ever meant anything.
Peeta whimpers in his sleep, the most pathetic thing she's ever heard. She squeezes him against her, wraps her leg around his waist, wishes she was big enough to make him feel safe.
He starts fidgeting at dawn. She rolls away from him, hiding her face in the pillow, not ready to think about starting her day with him here and no schedule to keep. He turns to tuck himself around her, yawning in her ear. She stiffens, hoping he'll get the message, but he just flops his arm over her side and sighs, making himself comfortable.
She has strange, half-lucid dreams as morning sneaks in through the window. Anything but nightmares is rare, and these are full of anxieties but no real danger. Twice she dreams that she gets out of bed and makes her way downstairs, angry because Peeta left while she was sleeping. When she actually wakes up, rolling onto her back under the weight of him, she's relieved to find him there, and irritated by her relief.
Sometimes he feels like a mystery item that tumbled out of a backpack she snatched from the Cornucopia: What am I supposed to do with this? Even outside of the arena, she doesn't have enough expendable energy to carry around unnecessary things. She rolls a strand of his hair between her fingers, watching him sleep. He's so heavy, pressing down on her ribs, making it difficult to breathe.
"What are you doing?" he asks, mumbling the words against her collarbone, startling her. She continues touching his hair as if she's not embarrassed to have been caught doing it.
"Checking you for lice," she says. He laughs.
"Not yet, but I'm only just getting started."
He lifts his face to smile at her, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. She knows his breath will be bad, and that his lips will be very warm. The rage trembles between her ribs, telling her that she's been tricked into feeling this way. Peeta sits up on his elbow and straightens her hair, which is matted and tangled, uncooperative. She needs a shower.
“Any lice?” Katniss asks as he pulls her hair through his fingers.
“Multiple colonies,” he says, grinning. “Where have you been sleeping?”
Without you, she thinks. He seems to see it in her eyes even when she won't let herself say it, her lips tightening around the words. It's not fair that she's come to think of her life this way, divided into two states: with or without Peeta. He kisses the tip of her nose and sits up, stretching. Katniss braces herself for him to slide out of bed, pad down the stairs and start baking some goddamn thing, but he just sits there, his shoulders slumped, then reaches for her wrist. She watches him gently lift one side of the bandage and peer at the cut. He winces when he sees it.
“Katniss,” he says, softly. It takes her off guard: when was the last time someone said her name out loud? Not long ago, actually, but it's the first time in awhile that it's actually felt like her name, something that belongs to her and no one else.
“It's not a big deal,” she says, yanking her wrist away from him. “I just wanted to know what it would feel like. God – just. You wouldn't understand.”
“Yeah.” He scoffs and throws the blankets off of his legs, their cease fire over. “How could I possibly understand what you've been through?”
More incoherent muttering as he dresses. He doesn't tuck in his shirt or put on his belt. Her fists are clenched when he stomps out of the room, and she refuses to acknowledge his departure, staring at the ceiling instead. Her body is still buzzing with the aftereffects of being pressed against his, and she's prepared to feel angry about this, too, but then decides to make use of it. Her body needs things: fine. She's always been a slave to this. One hunger has been replaced with another, that's all. She can't love him, because that's finished, a failed experiment, but she can sneak through the fence when the electricity isn't humming, can find a way to get what she needs.
They skirt around each other that day, keeping close but not making eye contact. Peeta mixes paints on the back patio, using overripe berries to make one of his reds look more bloody. She doesn't want to know what he'll paint with it, but watches him out of the corner of her eye as she makes arrows at the kitchen table, getting wood shavings everywhere.
“Summer's coming,” he announces when he bangs back into the house at midday, his arms loaded with jars of paint.
No shit, she wants to say, but she just shrugs, keeping her eyes on her work. He leaves the door to the patio open as he makes lunch for both of them, birds singing outside. Katniss is in her shift dress and boots, wondering if he would allow her to traipse off to Prim's grave alone. She's not sure she wants to go alone today, and she blames him for her uncertainty. He complicates things, as ever.
“I'm going to collect some bricks after lunch,” he says while she eats the sandwich he made for her. “So I can make an outdoor oven here.”
“Can't you just use the one at your house?” she asks. It was custom installed for him after he moved into Victor's Village.
“I don't want to go back over there so often,” he says, muttering. She opens her mouth to ask why, then thinks of how she sometimes sees Prim on the stairs when the sun hits the second floor window just so.
“Fine,” she says, sliding her boots over to touch the tips of his shoes. “I'll help.”
They work without speaking, neither of them commenting on the fact that searching the rubble for bricks feels like grave robbing. Somebody is going to have to bury the charred bones that remain if they ever hope to have any kind of life here. Katniss doesn't volunteer, and neither does he. He's shaking when they wheel the bricks back to the house, but he won't let her take the wheelbarrow.
“I can do it,” he says, nearly dumping them as he jerks the handles away from her outstretched hands. She scoffs and keeps twenty feet between them after that. When they reach the house he starts unloading the bricks on the patio, and she gets her bow from the kitchen, heading for the woods.
“Where are you going?” he shouts. She doesn't answer, waiting to see if he'll chase after her and tackle her to the ground. She wants him to. He doesn't.
She's sweating by the time she reaches Prim's grave with fresh wildflowers to set around the simple stone. Sometimes she sings to this rock, but today she just glowers at the grass, her bare legs splayed out in front of her. She came here to be with Prim, but Prim is gone and all she can think about is Peeta, even when she drills her fists into her eyes and demands her mind to go elsewhere. When it doesn't work she growls in frustration and wastes two arrows, firing them pointlessly into a tree. She thinks of climbing it to retrieve them, but feels weak enough to fall over when she stands. It's not that she hasn't had enough to eat or used too much energy gathering bricks; Peeta would barely let her touch the blackened things. Something else has worn her thin.
Back the house, still a few hours away from sunset, she expects to find him huffing and puffing on the patio, putting his oven together. The bricks are there, stacked neatly, the ash cleaned from them, but Peeta isn't there. The feeling that cut a permanent gash in her heart when she lost track of him during the Games returns. It was just before Foxface died, the silence of the trees like a taunt, Peeta not answering her calls. She'd flown at him when she found him, furious for what she already knew but wouldn't accept for a long time afterward: surviving wouldn't mean anything if she lost him.
“Peeta?” She crashes into the house, ready to shout at him, though she was the one who disappeared into the woods this time. He's not in the kitchen, and the oven is cold. Her breath is coming fast as she puts her bow and the arrows on the table, and she hurries into the front room, expecting to find him with his face in his hands, panting through another episode. He's not there.
She runs up the stairs, calling for him again, getting no answer. Something's happened – someone came for him, someone who wants to hurt her and hasn't forgotten how best to do it. They'll never be safe, the Games will never be over, he should have let her swallow the nightlock pill, she can't do this, she won't let them hunt her until she can only rock in a corner with her arms hugged around herself –
“What are you doing?” she shouts when she finds him sitting in the tub in the large bathroom that's attached to her bedroom. She's out of breath, her voice shaking, hands clawed around the door frame. “Didn't you hear me calling? Peeta!”
He doesn't look at her, doesn't seem to hear her. He doesn't look tense or terrified, just blank, not as if he's ignoring her but as if he's been erased. She feels a defeated sob welling in her chest and shakes her head.
“No,” she says, making her voice as hard and defiant as she can. She bites her lip as she tears her boots off, rips her dress over her head and walks to the tub in only her underwear. She's going to leave them on, but there's ash in the water, and she knows by now that any sort of wall between them is what the Capitol wanted when they hijacked him. Together, they're unstoppable, dangerous. Separated, they're just frightened children. She steps out of her underwear and winces as she puts a toe into the water. It's ice cold.
Bracing herself, she sinks into the water, trying not to cry out at the temperature. Peeta is shuddering, and she should get him out, but she has to get him to remember himself first. She wraps herself around his back, her legs clamped against his sides and her arms circling his chest. He doesn't respond, but she won't be convinced to give up on him again.
“Peeta,” she whispers, putting her chin on his shoulder. “I'm here. I'm back. I only went to visit my sister. You make me – so angry, because –” She shakes her head; that's a conversation for another time.
“Where is Peeta?” she asks, squeezing herself more tightly around him, beginning to shiver as the temperature of the water seeps into her bones. “Where is he? Hmm? Have I scared him away? Is he still mine?” Somehow this becomes a song, her own insanity trembling behind the eerie lullaby as she rocks him in her arms. He sighs powerfully, his breath pushing against her legs, which she's wrapped around his waist. One of his hands rests lightly on her ankle.
“What happened?” he asks, his voice soft, still distant. “Where –” He lifts his other hand, examining the waterlogged ash.
“You took a bath,” she says, petting him, trying not to cry. “To clean up after working on your oven. You just got distracted, that's all. But I'm back now. Do you want me to help you clean up? The water in the shower is still working, I think – did you fill the tub with the tap?” She worries about the day when whoever is in charge of the water supply to the Victor's Village realizes that it's still functioning and shuts it down, but they have the lake and the streams, and bigger problems in the meantime.
“Yeah,” he says, turning to look over his shoulder, frowning. She's still rocking him, smoothing his hair with a trembling hand. “You're naked,” he says, his back heating against her chest. She laughs.
“You've seen me naked before,” she says, though she's not sure this is really true. She was naked when they had sex, but they were under the blankets and the room was dark. She thinks of that day during the first Games when she cleaned him, trying not to show her nervousness when he told her – how had he put it? Oh, I don't care if you see me. She was afraid to, then.
He's still a little out of it as she brings him to the shower, and she could cry with relief when she finds that it's not only still running but still capable of getting hot enough to steam. She guides Peeta into the glass stall first, then follows him inside, shutting the door behind her. He's stares at her as the hot water washes the ashes from his skin, his cheeks just faintly pink.
“How do I look?” she asks, striking a pose. “Like I've been chewed up and –”
She loses her voice when he pulls her to him and hugs her hard, one arm snug around her waist and the other across her back. His heart is pounding under her right breast, his breath ragged in her ear.
“I heard you singing,” he says.
“Where were you?” she asks, her tears disappearing into the hot water.
“Back in my cell,” he says. “They cut part of me out and kept it there.”
“No.” She shakes her head and surges up onto her tiptoes to hug his shoulders, making him stumble until his back finds the wall of the shower. “No, no, that's not true. Not real.”
She washes him first, then herself. He comes back to himself little by little, sighing, touching her wet hair, his eyebrows creased with concentration. When he's clean, she buries her face against his neck and breathes in the smell of him: dill, nutmeg, flour.
“Peeta,” she says, smoothing her hand down the back of his neck.
“Nothing.” She pulls back to look at him. “I just – it seems like I never say your name out loud until I'm screaming it through the woods or the house. When I can't find you.”
He smiles. “I like it when you say my name.” His hand slides down to the small of her back. She ties her wet hair into a knot, figures it's now or never.
His eyes go so wide when her hand closes around his cock, and she almost laughs, but stops herself in time. Sex has always been a little funny to her, especially because Peeta seems so gravely serious when faced with it.
“What –” he starts to say. She shakes her head and puts her fingers over his lips, standing up as tall as she can, still falling a few inches short of his height. He's already half-hard, quickly growing thicker in her hand.
“Let me make you feel better,” she says. They're definitely the wrong words, she can see it in the way the startled wonder in his eyes turns to disappointment. She curses herself inwardly, vowing to leave words out of this next time. She's never been good with them.
“You don't have to,” he says, taking her wrist and pulling her hand from him. It makes her mad, not just because he's rejecting her offer to make him feel good – good, that's what she should have said, not better – but because she was beginning to enjoy it herself. She's never felt the weight of him change in her hand before, his body responding not just to her closeness but to her touch.
“Maybe I want to,” she says, blushing now, scowling. He scoffs and shuts the water off.
“Yeah, right,” he says. “You pity me. I get it. Thanks.”
She's so angry that she doesn't try to refute this, turning her back on him as he steps out of the shower. Her nakedness suddenly seems ridiculous, humiliating, so she shuts the shower door, hiding herself behind the steam-fogged glass until he's left the bathroom. She turns the water back on, afraid to walk out into the bedroom and find him there dressing. She feels abandoned, her body trembling with unfinished business, and she shifts until the water is touching her the way he might have, if he wasn't such an idiot, and if she hadn't ruined this for him by faking it when she had to. The spray of the shower is a poor substitute for the heat of his hands, which slid between her legs only briefly the night they had sex. She had redirected things after one gasp and jerk of her hips, embarrassed by how much she liked it. She needed to maintain control then, to make what they did about the fact that it was her own decision, not something suggested by her team of image makers. Not about what she wanted, just about what she had chosen. She's never been okay with wanting Peeta, and as she dresses she finally understands why. It's unbearable, actually hurts.
She puts on a sweater, pants, socks, and braids her wet hair tightly. Actually goes to look in the mirror over her dresser before she remembers that she got rid of it. As if it matters, what she looks like for him. Flushed, frustrated, she pads down the stairs and hopes he'll stay out of her way. He's painting in the study, the door cracked, the smell of his paints wafting out into the hall. She goes to the kitchen and starts to make dinner, the sun sinking now, an orange glow spilling in through all the windows. The birds are singing down the last of the day, the way they always do at the start of summer, as if in thanks for the extra hours of daylight.
They're both tense at dinner, and Peeta won't look at her. He has a smudge of white paint on his cheek, and she wants to ask him what he was working on, but doesn't give him the pleasure of knowing that she's curious. He still doesn't trust her, and she's not sure if it's because of the hijacking or because she's lost his trust on her own. She eats a lot of bread with her stew, dunking it until she's absorbed most of the moisture, tasting him in the crust. She's offended when he goes back to painting after dinner, leaving her the dishes.
There should be someone she could confide in about what's happening to her. Gale, far away in District 2 – it's laughable to think of writing letters about Peeta to him. If Madge were alive, maybe – Katniss puts her hand over her face, sitting on the sofa and listening to the distant sounds from the study, Peeta's brushes clicking against the jar of water he keeps them in. If Prim were alive. If her mother wasn't as good as dead, nothing left but a robotic devotion to healing. If only, if only.
She thinks of Haymitch and laughs out loud. Across the courtyard, there isn't a single light on in his house. He's probably been passed out drunk for hours. Anyway, he would just tell her she should be grateful to have Peeta. He would miss the point. She is grateful, glad, and it's terrifying. She's never been able to keep anything that mattered. Even the woods were taken away from her once, and now that they've been returned to her they feel hollow and watchful, as if there are cameras hidden in the trees.
She goes to bed alone, wondering if Peeta will stay. Maybe it would be too awkward, after what happened in the shower. By the time she hears his footsteps coming up the stairs she has the corner of her pillow squeezed into her fist, her whole body tense with anticipation. He opens the door, and she waits to see if he's only whispering goodnight before leaving. He sighs, shuts the door behind him, and she flushes when she hears him pull down his zipper, his pants dropping to the floor.
“You asleep?” he says. She doesn't answer, keeping her eyes closed, her back to him. He gets into bed and undoes her braid, her hair still damp as he threads his fingers through it. She's shaking, afraid that he can tell she's awake. He arranges her hair on the pillowcase, fanning it out, and his fingers slide down her neck, making her shiver. She's wearing her undershirt, but even through the fabric she can feel the heat of his fingers as he rubs them across her back.
“You don't really want me,” he says, low enough that she can't tell if he means for her to hear this or not. “I'm just what you got stuck with. I should have known I'd end up that way, like my mother. I know you didn't like her, but she knew she was my father's second choice, and it made her bitter. I can understand that now, how it would warp you, but I won't get mean like that. I won't take it out on you or – ”
Was he going to say our children? Ha. That will never happen. She hasn't even had a period in almost a year, is pretty sure that her body, in its wisdom, has responded to the stress of the war by making itself barren.
Peeta settles down behind her, his fingers still moving across her back, just lightly. It feels good, waking up her body even as her mind begins to drift closer to sleep. Her first dream is about Peeta hovering over her, radiating warmth that she tries to pull down against her, wanting his skin pressed to hers. She can't do it, her hands passing right through him, and he just smiles down at her when she whines with frustration.
The dreams get worse. She runs up the stairs, heart pounding, knowing this time that she'll find Peeta in the tub, but when she throws open the bathroom door the whole thing is burned to cinders except for the bright white tub, which is full of black water, choked with ashes. She screams Peeta's name and plunges her hands into the water, searching for him, unwilling to give up even when she pulls her hands out and finds only thick clumps of mud and pieces of what might have been organs, limbs. She sobs and keeps searching, finally locating a shoulder, then the back of his head, his chest, everything still in one piece. She pulls him out and he gasps for air, blue eyes bright through the muck, but she experiences no relief. Instead, she loses control of her hands and pushes him back down, holding him under the water when he struggles, trying to drown him, her throat raw with a horrified scream that doesn't end. She can't make herself stop, she has no control, they've hijacked her, she'll kill him –
She wakes up thrashing, as if she's the one being held under water. Peeta is trying to calm her, but she's so panicked that she can't even make sense of his words. Her first instinct is to get away from him so that she can't hurt him with her hijacked hands, but the need to grab hold of him after a nightmare is more powerful, overriding everything. He pulls her wholly into his lap, and she wraps herself so tightly around him that she knows it must hurt. His heart is pounding, his pulse thumping against her cheek when she hides her face against his neck. She can't believe how hard she's crying, her whole body jerking like she's been electrocuted.
“It's okay, it's okay,” he says, chanting it, sounding terrified himself. He cups his hand around the back of her head, kisses her temple, strokes her back. “It's over,” he says. “You're okay.”
“Peeta,” she cries, the name breaking in two as she touches his shoulders, his neck, trying to convince herself that it wasn't real. “Peeta – ah – you were –”
She's never attempted to tell him about the nightmares before. He doesn't need to envision what she sees when she closes her eyes; he was there.
“Shh,” he says. “I'm okay. I'm here.”
“You're here,” she repeats. This only makes her cry harder, cling tighter. She feels him swallow heavily, trying to keep his composure.
“Always,” he says.
“No,” she says, hiccuping the word out. “They'll take you from me. They take everyone – I'll be like Johanna, nothing left to lose.”
“Nobody's going to take me.”
“You don't know that! They took you before – oh, God, Peeta, they took you, I –”
“I know, shh, just –”
“You think I don't want you,” she says, sitting back, showing him the wreck of her pinched-up face. “They made you believe that. Or I did.”
He stares at her, lips parted, his hands cupped around her waist. She hides again, hugging herself to him, her face pressed to his shoulder. She'll regret that when she wakes fully. She's embarrassed him, telling him that she heard him before. His hands go to her back, his touch almost cautious now. He swallows again, and takes a deep breath, her body rising along with his chest, sinking back down when he exhales.
“Just – you're okay,” he says, petting her. She sniffles, knows she won't sleep again tonight. For awhile they just lie there, Peeta's back propped against the headboard, Katniss spilled out on top of him, her arms looped around his neck. He rubs his fingers across her back the way he did when she fell asleep, and what she meant as a sigh comes out as a tired moan. He shifts, clears his throat, and pulls the blankets up over her back.
“Don't stop,” she says, the words muffled against his shoulder.
“The – what you were doing –”
He gets the message after a few seconds, his fingers sliding across her back again. She knows his promises don't mean anything, that a hovercraft could appear overhead at any moment, dragging him away, fire bombing the house – those who are in charge will always be able to do whatever they want, and no one will forget that she's here. They might not have a lot of time, every day together potentially their last. It will always be that night before their interviews, the one when she told him it could be their only chance. She sits up and pulls her undershirt over her head. He looks worried, and keeps his eyes fixed on hers for a few seconds, wets his lips. When he finally looks down at her naked chest it's just a quick, embarrassed glance.
“They wanted to surgically modify me,” she says flatly, remembering that this can only ever be about her body, so that her heart is only a victim when the dreams don't give her a choice.
“Surgically—?” he says, looking lost, his cheeks going red.
“These,” she says, taking her breasts in her hands. They're not as small as they were during her first Games, the improvements in her diet lending them some fat, but they barely fill her hands. “I always think of that when I see them, how Cinna saved them for me. I would have hated it if they had stuffed me full of plastic. What do you think? Aren't they better like this?” She circles her nipples with her index fingers and his mouth falls open, his hands moving up to her waist. He's staring for a moment, mesmerized, then his eyes sneak up to hers.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Talking too much,” she says, remembering her vow. She takes his hands and brings them up to her chest. They're warm, shaking, and they cover her breasts easily. When he starts to stammer and pull away she falls forward to kiss him hard, holding his hands against her.
“Stop,” he says, panting when he pulls back, his mouth wet.
“Why?” she asks, the fury that pours in making her hands close more tightly around his, which are trembling on her chest. “Don't you want to? Didn't you like it, before?” She's humiliated by the question, wants to take it back.
“Just a second ago you were screaming your head off,” he says, his eyes filling. “Yesterday you were cutting your wrists –”
“Oh, forget it!” She throws his hands away and climbs off of him, feeling like her ribs have been replaced with knives. She scoots away from him as much as possible, facing the wall, her knees pulled to her chest. Peeta is sniffling, and she wishes she was cruel enough to tell him that she doesn't want him, to get out. When he settles down onto the pillows again his back is curved against hers. He's taken his t-shirt off, for some reason.
“You don't have to pretend anymore,” he says. “I don't need it.”
“Good,” she says harshly. She picks up the pillow and puts it over her face. Forget it. Bad idea. Failed experiment. They're both too damaged by the charade they had to live for the cameras. Among other things. She doesn't need him. She's lived with hunger before, and she won't crawl around in the rain, pathetic and needy, until he tosses her some bread.
As summer makes the days grow warmer, things get cooler between the two of them. Peeta works on his outdoor oven and Katniss wanders the woods, sometimes hunting, sometimes just walking. She climbs trees to check them for cameras and finds only birds' nests.
Always, at night, the cease fire. She usually goes to bed first, but sometimes he gets there before her, taking up too much space, making it impossible for her not to touch him. He's there to hold her when she wakes from nightmares, but she doesn't take her shirt off again. Sometimes she wakes up to his erections pressed against the small of her back, Peeta asleep and oblivious. Once, while she's extracting herself, he moans very softly and twitches in his sleep. She escapes into the shower, puts her hands between her legs and tries to think of anything but him. On another morning she wakes early to hunt and realizes halfway through her breakfast that she left her boots upstairs. She's quiet when she creeps back into the room, not wanting to wake him, and she spins on her heel as soon as she's through the door, accidentally slamming it after she sees him on back in bed, eyes closed, mouth open, his hand moving under the blankets. She stays away for most of the day, wearing her slippers as she wanders through the woods, feeling dazed. He avoids her eyes at dinner.
Peeta still has his episodes, and she knows how to pull him out of them now. First step: get him into a seated position. Second step: straddle his lap, lock eyes with him, cradle his tightly locked jaw with both hands. Finally, she sings. Different songs, but the one she invented for him in the bath works best. Where is Peeta? Will he come back to me? Is he still mine? The theme song for what's left of her life. His eyes will soften slowly, and he'll begin to take deep breaths, his jaw softening under her hands. She always wants to kiss him as he comes back to himself, and sometimes she does, just softly. He usually doesn't kiss back, just stares at her like he's still kind of dying inside, his hands tight around her waist, keeping her in place until he recovers.
Summer thickens and the heat begins to linger after sundown, making the blankets on the bed unbearable. Peeta sleeps in only his shorts, and Katniss wakes in the middle of the night to watch him as he seems to glow in the moonlight that reflects off of his damp skin. The heat makes her whole body throb, and she has to talk herself out of touching him. He doesn't think she's sane enough, or sincere enough, or real enough, to want him. She knows how to hold a grudge, and she'll take this one to her grave, even if it means that the heat between her legs never welcomes anything but her own fingers.
Delly finds out that they're staying in District 12 and comes to visit. They try to invite Haymitch for the dinner they make for her, but he tells them he's not in the mood for an optimist and slams the door in their faces. Katniss is beginning to worry about him, and she distracts herself with cooking too much food for Delly, hoping that she'll show up with her brother or a boyfriend so that they'll have another mouth to feed. Peeta makes a cake and some cheese rolls, hovering over Katniss' roast turkey and potatoes, dipping a roll in the juices from the bird when it's finished cooking.
“Looks good,” he says, and he kisses her cheek, which freezes her in place, making her forget what she was about to do. Mash the potatoes? Mop up the flour that he's left all over the counter? She turns and peeks at him, hoping he's not looking. He doesn't notice, too busy setting the table. He's made a centerpiece out of pine cones and greenery that she's tempted to laugh at, though it's actually kind of lovely.
Delly arrives in a fluster of tearful exclamations about how well they both look, hugging them both hard and pushing presents into their hands. She has no boyfriend and her brother hasn't come, the idea of seeing District 12 again still too painful for him, but her presence makes the whole house feel full, between her constant chatter and easy warmth. She tells them all about the new hospital in District 4, which is doing well under the direction of Katniss' mother. It isn't easy for Katniss to hear about, her mother's devotion to taking care of anyone but her. She opens the bottle of brandywine that Delly brought as a gift and pours herself a glass.
“I can't believe it's already been four months since everything happened,” Delly says as they come to the table for dinner. Katniss turns from the oven in surprise, the mashed potato casserole in her hands. She had no idea it had already been that long. Peeta seems to catch this on her face and gives her a sympathetic look that annoys her. Delly looks pretty and composed, her hair soft around her shoulders, her dress a cheerful shade of purple. Katniss looks like she's been cooking all day, and she ran out of time to wash her hair, which is escaping from her braid in greasy strands. The bandage is gone from her wrist, but there's still a thin, pink scar. No one who saw it would think anything of it – she's covered in scars, as anyone would expect. Delly told her she looked radiant, but she thinks everyone does.
She drinks more brandywine as she listens to Delly and Peeta tell stories about their childhood, laughing. It's not so different from when they were in District 13: Delly offering Peeta comfort, a ray of joy piercing his otherwise horrible days, and Katniss watching from behind glass. Eventually they pick up on her silence and an awkwardness descends as Delly attempts to include her in the conversation.
“The house looks lovely,” she says to Katniss. “It's so wonderful that this didn't get destroyed.”
“I guess,” Katniss says. “They probably only left it here so they'd know where to find me if I came crawling back.”
Delly gives Peeta a nervous look, but he's staring at Katniss.
“This wine's pretty strong,” Peeta says, lifting his empty glass. Katniss scoffs at his attempt to subtly tell her to stop drinking it. She grabs the bottle and pours herself another, wishing Haymitch were here.
“How's Annie?” she asks Delly, eager to see how she'll try to spin her answer into something positive. Delly sighs and tugs at the sleeve of her dress.
“Not good,” she says. “Your mother tries to look after her –”
“She gets confused,” Delly says, her eyes becoming wet. “She doesn't – she forgets. That he's gone. She'll ask me sometimes, 'did I get married, or was that a dream?'” Delly puts her hand over her face, and Peeta scoots closer, sliding his arm around her shoulders.
“I'm sure my mother is a great help,” Katniss says. Easier to get angry about this than to think about Annie without Finnick. Or the last time she saw Finnick. The look in his eyes.
“There is one good thing – well, we hope it will be good,” Delly says, taking a napkin from Peeta and using it to wipe her eyes. “Annie is pregnant with Finnick's baby.” She pushes out something that's half laugh, half sob. Peeta is actually rubbing her shoulder now, leaning in close. Katniss thinks of her mother comforting Annie, helping her separate her feverish visions from reality, being patient with her, braiding her hair. She gets up from the table.
“Katniss,” Peeta says, sharply. Scolding her. She laughs and goes to the sideboard.
“Relax,” she says. “I'm just getting your cake.”
“Oh,” Delly says, sniffling. “I always loved your cakes.”
“Me and Prim liked looking at them,” Katniss says, aware that she's being petty now. “Never could afford them.”
“I didn't get to eat many of them myself,” Peeta says, giving her a cold-eyed stare as she sets the cake down. He seems worried, as if he suspects she might throw it in his face. She gives him a phony grin and goes for her wine.
They stay up for another hour, Peeta and Delly talking, Katniss drinking wine and thinking about Haymitch. Surely he's passed out, dreamless, drooling. She always wants to be in his company when people's attempts to be kind to each other begin to seem ridiculous and childish.
Delly sleeps in Katniss' mother's old room, and Katniss makes sure she has everything she needs: clean towels and soap, a pillow that suits her. Katniss even brings her a hot glass of milk, feeling guilty for the way she acted as the buzz from the wine dies down.
“It must be strange for you,” Katniss says, sitting on the end of the bed as Delly settles in. For a moment, Katniss misses Madge so badly that her chest aches, then Finnick, Prim, even Johanna, who is alive but far away. Delly is sweet, but they've never really been friends.
“What must be strange?” Delly asks, cocking her head a bit. Katniss laughs.
“Sorry – being back in District 12. I don't know why I assumed you would know that's what I was talking about – I'm out of practice when it comes to talking to people, and frankly I was never that good at it to begin with.”
“Out of practice?” Delly says, smiling. “But you have Peeta.”
“Yeah, well.” Katniss picks at the wood on the bed's ornate foot board. “We don't talk much.” She looks up, maybe a little defiantly, to catch Delly's surprised expression. She doesn't look surprised, or even sad. She's smiling, reaching across the bedspread to touch Katniss' hand.
“He loves you so much,” Delly says, whispering, as if it's a secret.
“Interesting interpretation for someone who listened to him rant about how I was a mutt for weeks.”
“Oh, Katniss.” Delly sits back and rolls her eyes, reminding Katniss very much of Prim for a moment, the way she would wave her hand at Katniss' moods. “That was all fake.”
“Some of it wasn't,” Katniss says, defensive. “He accused me of lying – I did lie. I acted like I loved him.”
Delly sits back and sighs. Katniss stands, doesn't need her pity, or condescension, or whatever this is. She doesn't need Delly sitting there thinking, You do love him, silly, anyone can see it. It's stupid, oversimplified, and whoever Peeta loves, anyone could see that Delly would make him happier than the burned out shell of a girl who was set on fire.
Peeta is pulling off his undershirt as she walks into their bedroom. She feels his eyes on her but won't look back. She's so tired of being angry, especially of being angry with him, but she can't seem to stop.
“Have you sobered up, Haymitch?” he asks. She feels like throwing her boot at him as she slides it off.
“I was never drunk,” she says.
“What?” she says, whirling on him. “So you can give me a sobriety test?”
“Come here,” he says, more firmly. His eyes are hard but not angry, and realizing this sends a lazy peel of heat down her spine. She totters a bit, trying to decide what to do, and he smiles.
“What are you doing here?” she says, determined to spend the evening feeling sorry for herself. “You don't owe me anything. All your debts are paid off, in full, and then some.”
“Fine,” he says. “You won't come to me, I'll come to you.” He crosses the room, and she braces herself, not sure what to expect. By the time he's reached her she can see it in his eyes, and she gasps even before he lifts her off the ground, presses her back against the dresser full of empty drawers and kisses her, his tongue still sugar-coated from the frosting on the cake.
She wasn't drunk before, but she is now, opening wide for him, her legs wrapped around his back, the hard edge of the dresser digging into her back. His lips trail down to her neck and she lets her head fall back, giving him full access, wanting his mouth everywhere.
“You were jealous,” he says when he lifts his head to look at her, grinning. She rears backward, narrowing her eyes. She's not drunk, but maybe he is.
“Excuse me?” she says. He just laughs and carries her to the bed. She's not sure if she wants to cling or pummel him, and when he sets her on top of the sheets she braces her hands against his chest before he can drop down onto her.
“Admit it,” he says. “I didn't get it at first, I thought you were just drunk, but. You were all. Possessive.” He's victorious, and she wants to throw him off, but not as badly as she wants to pull him down onto her. There can only be one victor, until you find out there can be two, only to be told that, come to think of it, there can only be one after all. Ha-ha-ha.
“Okay,” she says, remembering her decision to make this about what she needs, her hands turning to claws around his shoulders. “Then, yeah. Do it.”
“Do it?” he says, laughing.
“Just – possess me,” she says, no good at being seductive, resigned to communicating what she needs with the force of her fury, her eyes hard and unblinking, teeth gritted. The amusement drains from his face, and his breath quickens.
“Katniss,” he says. “I never know –”
“So listen to me for once,” she says, pulling his face down to hers. “Either write me off or – don't. Decide. Make up your mind.”
He doesn't hesitate; she would have pushed him away if she had. She arches and moans when he tears open the front of her shirt, wanting Delly to hear, to know that he's still hers. Never mind that Delly would only smile into her pillow, that she would be happy for them. Katniss needs to win, and if she can't compete with him she must construct another rival. He locks his arm around her back, pressing their bare chests together. She gasps into his mouth, her legs winding around him, one hand fisted in his hair and the other scrabbling at his thigh, trying to pull him closer.
She nods like a maniac when he hikes up her skirt and rubs her through her underwear. It's better, really, because it would be embarrassing if he reached inside and realized how wet she is for the first press of his hand, how desperately she needs this, though it's probably obvious from the way her back bows and her eyes glaze. She keens and presses herself into his touch, squeezing his arms as he kisses her neck, his teeth scraping her skin. It's not gentle, not nervous – there's no trembling, no laughter. She bites her lip hard enough to taste blood, and shouts when her body contracts and flutters under his circling thumb, until she's spilling out beneath him like a yoke that's been pierced.
He kisses her, warm and wet and perfect as she tries to regain her bearings, letting him breathe the life back into her. She manages to get her heavy eyelids open and finds herself looking straight into him, his eyes unguarded, so bright. Nobody else has ever seen all the way into her the way he can, nobody.
“Take them off,” she says, fumbling at his pants, barely remembering how zippers work. He grins.
“That didn't happen last time,” he says as he pushes his pants off. “That – what you just – that was new.”
“Don't brag,” she says, still breathless, wanting to tell him that scooting across a tree branch made that happen once, though it was nowhere near as intense. He laughs into her mouth, kissing her so wetly that she laughs, too. He's actually drooling for it, which is funny until her hand wraps around him and she hears him groan, feels him shudder. It would be hilarious, the way he goes to pieces, except that she knows exactly what it felt like to wait too long for this.
“Katniss,” he says, panting her name against her shoulder. “Oh – that's –”
“Shh.” She licks his ear, wonders if she should speed up or go slower, not sure that it matters at this point. She knows she should shut up, but there are words welling up in her chest, and the way he bucks into her grip tears them out of her.
“I think about it,” she says, her lips moving in his hair, which smells good, a kind of poison that's drawing this confession out of her. “That night. A lot.”
“Oh – shit,” he says, and the way it comes out in a whisper, the way he swells in her hand, tells her everything. “I – never stop – thinking about it.”
He cries out and drops down onto her, and she's so feral for this that she licks his come from her fingers. It tastes bad, mostly, but not that bad. She wraps her legs around his back and kisses his face while he tries to catch his breath.
They've seen each other die plenty of times, in nightmares and in what might have been real life. It's blurry already, their history so quickly hard to believe, and this felt like a good death, one that they survived together. She doesn't want to believe that there's anything real but this: the two of them flopped across the bed, perpendicular to the pillows as Peeta struggles up onto his elbows and kisses her cheeks.
“Are you okay?” he asks, and she laughs.
“Yes,” she says. “Are you?”
“I don't know.” He grins and presses his face to hers, his eyes pinched shut. “Yes.”
She sleeps deeply, her nightmares like storms in the distance, too far away to catch up before she wakes and rolls over to hide her face in Peeta's chest. He makes little noises of protest when she shifts in his arms, his fingers tangling in her hair as he cradles the back of her head, and she presses her smile to the soft skin under his chin. He smells so good, like something freshly baked, not just dough anymore.
In the morning her head aches, not as badly as it did when she drank white liquor with Haymitch but badly enough to make her feel confused and irritable. Peeta is lying on his stomach, snoring, the blankets pushed down far enough to show her that he's naked. She flushes and pulls them up to cover the small of his back.
She gets out of bed, nervous about facing him and annoyed with herself for thinking she was sober when she obviously wasn't – what did she say, exactly, anything too revealing? What, even, did she say to Delly? Dawn is just breaking as she dresses, and when she thinks of breakfast her stomach lurches. She pulls on her boots in the kitchen; she never forgets to bring them down when she leaves the bedroom, now.
In the study, she walks past Peeta's paintings without looking at them, not wanting to know what he's working on. He accused her of being jealous. Of Delly! Well, she is. She's jealous of everyone, everything, that's the problem. Of Peeta and these paintings more than anything, his outlet. The only thing she's ever been good at is being wanted, and here she is at the end of the world with the person who always wanted her most of all. Maybe. She grabs a pen, paper, postage, and flees to the woods.
The letter to Gale is simple. He won't expect her to have anything profound to say, which was always part of his appeal. She just asks him to come, seals the envelope and walks to the old train station to throw it into the box that has appeared for Interim Mail. The Interim being between regularly functioning government services, presumably; nobody tells her what's going on with the current leadership, at her insistence.
Haymitch's house is dark, and she doesn't bother to knock. She clears a space on his kitchen table and skins a rabbit that she pulled from one of her traps after finishing the letter to Gale. By the time Haymitch appears the rabbit is already boiling with some potatoes and carrots.
“Do you even eat?” she asks as he slumps into the kitchen to glower at her in the blinding morning light.
“Presumably,” he says, patting his stomach, which is as bloated as ever. “What are you doing here? Your dinner party didn't go as planned?” He laughs to himself as if he expected as much.
“I'm looking after you, you overgrown infant.” She gets bowls for the stew, her stomach growling now. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“Are you?” Haymitch says, eying the scar on her wrist. He scoffs. “The boy came running over here – what was that, last week?”
“Try last month. And don't call him 'the boy.'”
“Out of his head with worry. What should he do, he asks? She's cutting her wrist, he says. I say, only the one, huh? I told him, look. I can mentor you in a lot of things, but not her. I have officially resigned when it comes to telling you what to do about her.”
“Congratulations on your retirement,” she says. She shoves a bowl of stew into his hands.
“Am I supposed to drink it?” Haymitch says.
“Am I your maid? Get your own spoon, if there's anything clean. Get me one, too.”
They eat on the back patio, which is cleaner than the house. The stew is good, simple, an effective hangover cure. Haymitch has three bowls of it, Katniss two.
“I may have done something stupid this morning,” she says, thinking of the letter box.
“I'll alert the media,” Haymitch says, his mouth full of stew. She smirks, though, really, how could that be funny.
“Do you think – if I wrote to Gale and asked him to come – he actually would?”
Haymitch rolls his eyes, dropping his bowl of stew into his lap. She bristles at the disbelieving look he gives her, and wonders what her father would have thought of him if he'd actually been able to know him the way she does.
“Don't even think about inviting me to that dinner,” Haymitch says.
“I wasn't going to,” Katniss says, scowling at him. “And he won't come, anyway.”
“What passes for your thought process really wears on me,” Haymitch says. “Annd, here comes the boy. Right on schedule.”
Peeta looks furious as he walks into Haymitch's backyard, and it's a relief – back to square one! – but only briefly. His shirt is untucked and buttoned wrong, his collar poking up against his chin.
“What are you doing?” he asks, looking back and forth between them.
“That depends on which of us you're talking to,” Haymitch says. “I'm stuffing myself. Her – it's anybody's guess.”
“I woke up early and I brought him a rabbit,” Katniss says. The anger that coats her ribs isn't as comforting as it usually is, infused with guilt and memories of last night. “Do I need your permission to leave the house?”
“You've missed Delly leaving,” Peeta says, ignoring the low blow: permission, no, but she might have been kind enough not to make him worry. “She was on the early train.”
“Oh – I'm sorry,” Katniss says, and this is true, though she would rather be sulking with Haymitch than fawned over by Delly on the train platform. “I'll write to her, to apologize – they are, ah. Collecting the mail from that box at the station, aren't they?”
“Yes,” Peeta says. “How do you think I arranged for her visit?”
Haymitch actually snorts a laugh, maybe still a little drunk. It's always a safe bet. Peeta gives him a suspicious look.
“Remember what I said about that dinner invitation,” Haymitch says as Katniss stands, leaving her bowl on the ground beside him.
“Noted,” Katniss says. She walks past Peeta, embarrassed by how fresh from bed he looks as he follows her back to their house.
“What was he talking about?” Peeta asks. “What dinner invitation?”
“I'm trying to get him to eat with us one night, that's all,” she says, avoiding Peeta's eyes. “He refuses, of course.”
Back in the house, Peeta goes to the kitchen and begins cleaning up after last night's dinner. She thinks of disappearing upstairs, or back into the woods, trying to muster up actual outrage over the fact that he was worried and hurt when he woke up alone. When she can't manage anything but regret, she walks to the sink and turns him by the shoulders until he's facing her. He doesn't bother to feign annoyance when she carefully unbuttons his shirt.
“What are you doing?” he asks. He sounds so weary, and she knows it's her fault, but there's almost nothing in the world that isn't, these days.
“You had it buttoned wrong,” she says, straightening it before redoing the buttons. When she gets to the one that's just two from the top she dares a look at him. He sucks in his breath, pushes his forehead against hers and parts his lips for her tongue when she leans up to kiss him.
“I thought you ran away,” he says.
“I did,” she says. “Sorry.”
“That's okay,” he says, pushing the words into her mouth, kissing her more deeply. “You came back.” She tries to lose herself to it as he picks her up and sets her on the counter, settling between her legs, but her mind goes back to that mailbox. Well, it won't matter. Gale won't come.
She's tense over the next few weeks, except when Peeta's hands are on her, and then she's as soft as dough, pulling him down onto her and nodding when his fingers push into her. There are days when her back hits their bed five times, one when he actually lays her across the kitchen table, and it starts to feel like he's teasing her, though she knows he's just waiting for her to ask for it out loud. She does have some pride left, wants him to break first, and is aware that he won't. She tries to beg without words, doesn't trust herself to form anything intelligible while she's so wet and ready that it feels like he's holding her wholly in his palm, but he won't push her thighs apart and fall between them, won't give her anything more than two thick fingers that aren't thick enough.
Her epiphany comes one morning in bed when he's still waking. He's mouthing at her neck while she toys with his hair, wondering if she should cut it. It's so suddenly obvious that she sits up like a shot has been fired, and he blinks up at her with alarm.
“I never told you,” she says, slapping her forehead with the heel of her hand, laughing. “Peeta,” she says, leaning down to him again, pressing her nose against his. “I haven't – I don't have a, you know. Cycle – anymore. Stress, or something. So. I wouldn't get pregnant.”
He looks so confused that she moans with sympathy, kissing his cheeks. In the Capitol, there were birth control options in every toiletry set, but she wouldn't know where to get them now, and certainly Peeta wouldn't, either. She can feel his understanding surfacing in the heat that floods his face, and she kisses him everywhere, already trembling with relief.
“Oh,” he says, softly. “You – you want –”
“Don't you?” she says, not letting him finish that thought. Before he can interpret this as some sort of pity she flattens his shoulders to the mattress and leans up over him, kissing his jaw, his neck. Her mouth is wet, her thighs still slick from last night, the afternoon already warming as the sun rises outside. She wants Peeta to take over now, to grab her the way he did in the kitchen, putting her across the table after she leaned up to lick some flour from his cheek. That was the first time he used his teeth on her breasts, just gently, just on the points of her nipples, and she wants that again now, wants to shout loud enough to startle a flock of birds from the backyard. It had made her laugh wildly, hearing their wings beating away in a frantic blast: Peeta, always scaring away the game.
But Peeta isn't wild now, and he seems almost stunned as she makes him hard, his hands resting just lightly on her sides. She's not sure what she needs to do to spur him into action, and bends down to try using her teeth on his nipples, but this just makes him cry out as if he's in pain. Finally, wound up and tired of waiting, she settles the tip of his cock between her legs and begins to lower herself down onto him. He gasps and arches, his chin tipping back, his neck on offer for her kisses. She's impatient at first, choking the breath from herself when she drops her hips too fast. She remembers this, the burn that scared her at first and set her alight just seconds later, and she hides her face against his neck as she sinks down onto him, panting. Feeling him in her hand is one thing, and this is another: he's so big, maybe bigger than he was the last time they did this, and she can't feel anything but how full she is. His hands move across her back tentatively, as if this is the first time he's touched her.
“Oh,” he says, right in her ear, very soft. She moans, nuzzles his jaw. They stay that way for awhile, Katniss feeling stupid, like she should have planned a next move beforehand, unable to think of what to do now. Peeta still seems half-asleep at first, though his breath is coming very hard, his pulse pounding against her cheek. He takes her face in his hands and makes her look at him, rubbing his thumbs over her blush.
“Your turn, okay?” she says, her voice shaking. She wants to move but is afraid to try, feels too small on top of him, her legs spread too widely around his hips. He kisses her, just once on the lips, and nods.
“Okay,” he says. He sits up, his hands sliding down to her ass as he lifts her up, into his lap. She gasps at the shift inside her, clinging hard to his shoulders. She hopes he won't expect her to do this sitting up, and lets out her breath with relief as he lowers her to the mattress very carefully, until she's on her back. He's leaning up over her, still deep inside her, on his knees and elbows, his eyes dark, pupils very fat.
“Peeta,” she says. Because he likes it when she says his name. His breath feels like it's coming from inside her, and every little twitch of his hips makes her gasp.
“Last time we did this,” he says, his voice tight, eyelashes brushing her cheeks. “I thought I would die. I thought I was going to die for you.”
She's not sure if he's being figurative, talking about the sex, or referring to the Games. It doesn't matter much now: she moves her hips and he moans into her mouth, answering with a thrust that makes her cry out and nod wildly.
“Don't be so gentle,” she whispers when he moves too slowly, trembling as if he's trying to hold himself back. He whines, his hips twitching faster but still just shallowly.
“I have to,” he says, whispering. “Or – I'll – go off, I'll finish –”
“It's okay,” she says, stroking his cheek with the backs of her fingers. “We can do it again.” She smiles at the wonder that pools into his eyes, strangely innocent. “We won't have to wait so long between – ah.” She leans up a little, puts her lips against his ear. “Peeta,” she says, purring his name as he begins to thrust more deeply, melting her spine. “I want it so – so many times – today, every day – every time you get hard for me.”
He whimpers and starts thrusting faster, his hands lifting her hips, her legs unwinding from his back and opening until his stomach is rubbing her just so, the friction inside and outside making her soaking wet. She's not quite there when he comes with a cry, shoving in deep and spilling down onto her, but she ignores her own arousal for the moment, petting him and hugging him against her. His eyes are wet when he lifts his face, but he's grinning, sighing, nosing at her cheeks like a puppy.
“Wait,” she says when he starts to pull out. She holds him by the elbows, keeping him on top of her, inside her. “I want to – while you're still –” They should have taught a class in school: how to articulate what you want during sex without dying of embarrassment. Peeta raises his eyebrows when he catches on, and reaches down between their bodies.
“You're so wet,” he whispers, and that goes a long way toward finishing her off, his fingers doing the rest.
They stay in bed, half-sleeping, lazy as the heat of the afternoon peaks outside. Peeta folds up a piece of paper from his sketchbook and fans her with it, which makes her laugh. She expected to have sex again, at least three times before dinner, but he doesn't seem to be in a hurry, perhaps in reverence to the moment, which felt more like their first time than their actual first time did. At midday she pads downstairs in her robe to get some of the tiny blue grapes that she picked the day before, wishing she had ice so she could juice them and make a cool drink. She's arranging things on a plate for Peeta – the grapes, some shortbread cookies that are just a little stale, some mild white cheese that Greasy Sae brought by the day before – humming to herself, feeling like a girl playing house, when she hears the knock on the door.
Her bow is in her hands and strung with an arrow before she can even consider that it might just be Haymitch. Still, she gets the feeling that it's not as she moves quietly toward the front door, ready to fire. Haymitch wouldn't be here in the middle of the day unless it was an emergency, and if that were the case he would have burst inside without knocking.
“Who's there?” she shouts, not daring to give the intruder the upper hand by showing her face in one of the windows that frames the door.
“Me,” Gale says, and for a moment his voice seems so normal, such a part of her world here, that it's as if he was never gone. “I got your letter. Are you alright?” He tries the door and finds it locked.
Katniss lowers her bow. She can feel Peeta on the stairs behind her before she turns, though she was too focused on the door to hear his footsteps. He must have heard the knocking. She's afraid to turn, sure that he heard what Gale said about the letter. When she does, he's standing there in only his shorts, breathless, the look on his face actually drawing a mostly inaudible squeak of pain from her breast.
“Peeta,” she says, but he's already hurrying back up the stairs. She expects him to slam the bedroom door, but he closes it very softly, as if that's all he has energy for.
Gale is pounding on the door, becoming agitated. Katniss hears another voice, someone asking a question, and she frowns, only half-recognizing it. She hides the bow around the corner in the sitting room and pulls the door open, already mad at Gale, though he hasn't done anything but what she asked him to.
“Are you alright?” he asks, immediately grabbing her shoulders, stepping into the house, ready for a fight. She stares up at him, at a loss – he looks so much older than he did when she saw him last, and she imagines that she does, too. She wonders if he can smell the sex on her skin, and when her eyes dart to Johanna, who is standing behind him, she scoffs. Johanna is grinning as if Katniss' robe and disheveled hair have told her all she needs to know.
“What did I tell you?” Johanna says, punching Gale's arm as she walks past him, into the house. “She's fine. Already being taken care of, by the looks of it.”
Katniss looks back to Gale, whose eyes have changed. She reads betrayal there, which is hilarious, then fondness, apology, and finally just general awkwardness. He takes his hands from her shoulders and looks at the stairs. Peeta has reemerged, dressed now. His shirt is tucked in, and he's fastening his belt as he walks toward them. Subtle, Katniss thinks, though she's actually kind of proud of him for the gesture, as adolescent as it is.
“Gale,” he says, stepping around her to shake Gale's hand, acting as if he's not at all surprised to find Gale on his doorstep. Johanna is already in the kitchen, eating the cheese and shortbread cookies.
“I was worried,” Gale says. He's still breathing a little hard. “Her letter was so vague.” He glances at Katniss as if he actually expects her to give him some kind of secret hint that will inform him that she's being held hostage here by hijacked Peeta. She rolls her eyes.
“I need to get dressed,” she says. “Help yourself, Johanna,” she calls, glad that Gale didn't come alone for roughly two seconds before the jealousy sets in. Johanna grins and waves, her mouth full.
“Long train ride,” she says. “Hiya, Peeta.” She salutes him. “Keeping busy, I see?”
Katniss glares at her and bolts up the stairs, her face on fire. Inside her room, she slides down against the closed door and brings her knees to her chest, listening to the voices down on the first floor. Johanna's boasting laugh, Gale's grunted questions, Peeta's strained hospitality. The bedsheets are still wrecked, and the room smells like their come, their sweat. She puts her hands over her face and wills herself to wake from this nightmare, especially the part where she's very glad to see Gale and horrified to find that he's brought Johanna along.
She's learned to fake composure, and though doing so again might crack her in half for good, she descends the stairs as calmly as she can, dressed in a long skirt and a loose t-shirt, her hair braided as neatly as possible with shaking fingers. Johanna is seated at the kitchen table, gulping water, and Peeta and Gale are both standing, Peeta leaning against the oven and Gale against the cabinets, neither of them willing to be the first to sit down. So that's a great start. They watch her enter the room with almost identical looks of annoyance and expectation.
“I'm glad you guys came,” Katniss says, trying to be the cheerful hostess that everyone here knows she's not. “It's good to see you. How's District 2?”
“Fine,” Gale says. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing in 12?” he asks. “There's nothing –” He stops himself. Peeta is smiling darkly, staring into space. Katniss looks at Johanna, desperate for help. Johanna looks as if she's struggling to conceal how entertained she is right now.
“Um,” she says. “I think it's cool.”
“Cool?” Gale says. The way he narrows his eyes at her makes it Katniss certain: they've had sex. Recently, too. Or maybe she's just projecting. She wishes they'd brought some brandywine; they don't even seem to have bags.
“Yeah, it's cool,” Johanna says, turning to glower at Gale. “This is their home. They're sticking it out. There aren't a lot of other places worth being right now, and it's kinda nice here.”
“Kinda nice.” Gale scoffs and starts pacing, exasperated. “Nobody's even cleaned up – the mess.”
“You offering to help us do it?” Katniss says sharply. He meets her eyes and it's like traveling back in time, making her feel twelve years old again.
“Maybe,” he says. “If you're determined to stay.” He glances at Peeta. “There's a lot going on, in 2 and in the Capitol. We could use –”
“We're both a little tired of being used,” Peeta says, the edge in his voice making Katniss' fists clench with dread. She doesn't want them throwing punches. They got along so well when bombs were falling.
“You're speaking for her now?” Gale asks. He mutters this, not putting much force behind the accusation, and doesn't look to Peeta for an answer, instead going to the back door and looking out at the yard.
“Katniss can do what she wants,” Peeta says, and he leans up to open a cabinet over the now-useless refrigerator. Katniss scoffs when she sees what he's keeping up there: bottles of the white liquor Haymitch favors.
“What are you doing?” Katniss asks when he sets one in the middle of the table before turning to get glasses.
“Having a drink,” he says. “Anyone who wants to join me can feel free.” He plunks down four glasses and Johanna grabs for one, grinning.
“Sounds like a most noble course of action,” she says.
“Are you sure that's a good idea?” Gale says, looking at Katniss. “Drinking in the middle of the day?”
“I'm pretty sure it's a great idea,” Peeta says as he pours some for himself and Johanna. Gale scoffs and opens the back door, walking out into the yard.
“I'll get us something for dinner,” Katniss says, going to fetch her bow. It's a thinly veiled excuse to be alone with Gale, but there's no sense in pretending now that Peeta knows she wrote to him. She tries to catch Peeta's eye on the way back through the kitchen, and when he ducks her gaze she walks to him, grabs his chin, and kisses him hard between the eyes.
“Any requests?” she asks, already able to smell the liquor on his breath.
“For dinner,” she says.
“Deer meat, please,” Johanna says. Peeta just stares at Katniss, his lips twitching. She kisses them, then walks out into the yard, following Gale toward the fence.
They don't speak until they've reached their old meeting place. Katniss has never worn a skirt while hunting, but she's not sure that's really what they're doing, anyway. She sits at the base of a tree and watches Gale survey the woods, his hands on his hips.
“So I guess you're with Johanna now,” she says.
“She wanted to come,” he says, not really answering the question. “She talks too much, but. I trust her.” He turns back to her. “Which is more than I can say for him.”
“You don't know him,” Katniss says. “He hasn't had an episode in a week.”
“It's just – lingering effects of the hijacking –”
“Great.” Gale kicks a pine cone. “That's exactly what I was afraid of. What are you doing here? Pretending everything's okay? Nobody's watching anymore, Katniss. You don't have to go through the motions with him. You don't owe him anything.”
“Yes, I do,” she says, wanting to retract that, because he'll take it the wrong way. “I owe him my life. But that's not why I'm here.”
“Then why?” Gale throws his arms out. “Your mother's not here –”
“My mother?” Katniss scrambles up from the ground, almost spitting with rage. “What good is she to me? I remind her too much of my sister. She doesn't even call. I might as well be dead, too, for all she cares.”
Gale walks to her and she flinches away, flattening herself against the back of a tree. She knows that she wants him to try to kiss her, but she doesn't know what she wants after that. He only touches her shoulder, squeezing her there.
“You look a little better than you did at the Capitol,” he says. “If he's helped you – great. But who's going to protect you if he goes rogue again? Who's to know how long he can fight these – episodes.”
“I know,” Katniss says, throwing his hand off. “He can always fight them as long as I'm here.”
“Why?” Gale asks. “Because he loves you? It wasn't enough before.”
“I wasn't trying to help him before,” she says. “I was a coward. Now I know –” She stops herself before she can tell Gale that she knows how to calm Peeta now, with her song. No, Gale can't know that. It doesn't belong to him.
“It's sad,” Gale says, shaking his head. “Taking care of him – it's like you're still serving their agenda. Picking up the pieces.”
“He's more to me than that,” she says. She lifts her bow and Gale smirks. She thinks of the moment in the Capitol when he asked her to kill him, so overcome by the memory that she feels herself teetering, still in danger of falling into that pit that opened in the middle of the street. When she drops the bow and throws her arms around his shoulders, he hugs her hard, letting out his breath against her shoulder.
“I missed you,” she says, squeezing him. He gives her braid a light tug.
“Me, too,” he says. “I hate thinking of you here. With all the other ghosts.”
“He's not a ghost.”
Gale sighs and steps back, holding her out by her shoulders. She'd forgotten how big he is, or maybe just how small she is. He chews his lip, obviously working up the courage to say something. She steels herself, afraid to hear it.
“Is he fucking you?” Gale asks.
Katniss scowls and shoves his hands from her shoulders. She's planning to deny it before she even realizes that doing so would mean lying to him, and why should she? She's not ashamed, except that she is, for some reason. She's not ashamed of the act itself, just by how much she likes it.
“Are you fucking her?” she asks instead. She doesn't like the taste of the word, doesn't think it fits what she had just a few hours ago in the bed that has come to belong to Peeta just as much as it belongs to her.
“You know – when he said you were pregnant.” Gale scoffs. “On television. I thought it was true.”
“It might have been,” Katniss says, furious. “We'd already fucked, when he said that. It was all my idea. The fucking, not the fake pregnancy.”
“Stop saying it,” Gale says, pushing her back against the tree again. “It doesn't – it's not right. You saying that.”
“You shouldn't have brought it up if you didn't want to talk about it,” she says, her breath coming fast as he looks at her like she's a lost little girl, someone who still needs saving. “And why shouldn't I say that – we're both adults now, aren't we? I'm not embarrassed. What do you think we were doing before you trampled down the door like a Peacekeeper? Why do you really think I'm here, Gale? For the woods? The great memories? I'm here because he's here, because he fucks me so well, makes me come so hard–”
“Stop it!” Gale shouts, loud enough to awaken her old fear about getting caught with him in the woods. He's got her pinned to the tree now, looming over her, his jaw set, eyes dark. Heat snakes down through her as she listens to his harsh breathing, waking up the past like the fear that they could be arrested for poaching here, but those days are done. She shoves him away with a scoff.
“Well,” she says, walking away. “You asked.”
He follows her through the woods, and gradually their angry footsteps quiet. She doesn't want to be mad at him, even for that question. She was wondering the same thing about Johanna. Weaponless, he carries her arrows, and passes them to her when she spots a grouse and then a pheasant. They find a felled log to sit on while they clean them together, and for awhile it's like the hell between the distant past and the aimless present has been erased.
“Sorry,” Gale mutters after awhile, and Katniss grins down at her almost naked pheasant, because it seems like something he probably learned from being in Johanna's company: apologizing.
“She's a good match for you,” Katniss says, not looking up. “She won't let any of your bullshit slide.”
“You were a good match for me,” Gale says. “Until you weren't. That's a compliment, by the way.”
“The fact that you – grew out of me.” He laughs at himself, embarrassed. She bumps her shoulder against his.
“Anyway,” she says. “We're cousins. So it's probably for the best.”
“Probably,” he says. He's smiling, sadly, but it's real.
Back at the house, Johanna and Peeta are drunk. They're laughing hysterically, Peeta's sketch paper spread out on the table, playing a game where one has to guess what the other is drawing. Peeta's sketches are a little sloppier than usual but still obvious: a dog smoking a pipe, the moon, a mouse wearing suspenders. Johanna's drawings are abstract at best, and she's calling Peeta an idiot for not recognizing that one of her scribblings is a plate of spaghetti.
“Maybe that's what our servants brought us for dinner,” Johanna says, leaning on Peeta to squint at Gale and Katniss as they come through the door. “Spaghetti? Oh, hell. Dead birds.”
“So, hey,” Peeta says, slurring, rubbing at one eye with the back of his hand while he watches Katniss with the other. “Did'ya guys have fun? Catching up?”
“That's a pretty good Haymitch impression,” Katniss says, snatching the half-empty bottle from the table. “Have you thrown up yet?”
“Not yet!” Peeta says cheerfully, and Johanna cracks up. Gale shakes his head and tugs on her hair when he crosses behind her. It's almost to her shoulders now: she must have used some kind of product to help it grow faster. She looks pretty, even sloppy drunk like this. If Gale still wants kids – did he really want them, or did she only imagine he would? – Johanna could give him handsome sons, beautiful girls. Katniss doubts that's in her plans. Johanna is like her, burned too many times by loss to want to make new people to love.
Johanna passes out on the couch while Gale makes a fire to cook dinner, and Katniss helps Peeta upstairs when he starts muttering, making her nervous. She's not sure, but it's possible that drinking alcohol could unlock memories that might bring on an episode. He's irritable with her when she tries to help him to bed, pushing her hands away.
“So, that worked,” Peeta says, laughing as she bends down to take off his shoes. “You got what you wanted, right? Both of us – or is it just him you want?”
“Don't be an idiot,” Katniss says. “You're drunk, and you don't know what you're talking about. Sleep it off.”
“I'm not tired,” Peeta says, though his eyelids are drooping and he sinks onto the pillows easily when she presses his shoulders down. “Guess what," he says as she strokes his damp bangs from his forehead. "Bad news. Johanna told me she's with him. With him, like you and me. Or not, since I guess you're just faking it again, still paying me back for a couple burned loaves of bread.” He laughs, mirthless and mean. She should hate him right now, should want to escape to the kitchen, have a few shots of that stuff herself and help Gale cook, but she's never felt more protective of him.
“If I told you I loved you right now,” she says, “Would you remember?” Half the reason she's considering confessing now is the chance that he wouldn't, but she's not sure why she's afraid to let him know. It's not as if Peeta is the one who will use this information against her – it's the rest of the world that's always done that.
“Would I believe it,” Peeta says. “That'd be a better question.” He's holding her arms as she leans over him, taking deep breaths and looking like he might cry. She kisses the corners of his eyes.
“You're the one who's faking,” she says, leaving her face pressed to his cheek, which is burning, his temperature almost feverish. “You pretend you don't know how I feel about you. You wouldn't be here if you didn't know.”
“Katniss,” he says, sobbing her name out, petting her hair clumsily. “Oh – I thought – why is he here?”
“Because he's my friend, and I love him, too.” She sits up, combing her fingers through his sweaty hair. “I just don't want him in my bed.”
“Why not?” Peeta says, sniffling. “He's handsome, isn't he?”
“He's okay. But he doesn't have your hands. Or your eyes. He's not you, Peeta. That's why I don't want him in my bed. Can you not understand that? Oh, God – why am I even trying to talk to you? You're so drunk.” She sighs and gets into bed with him, cuddling up to his side while he moans, his arm sliding around her shoulders.
“The room's spinning,” he says, making her think of the island with the Cornucopia in their second Games. So many bad memories everywhere she turns. She clings to him and thinks instead of the beach, that kiss that made her want to pull him on top of her, even with the whole world watching. She closes her eyes and listens to the sounds from the house, somebody fiddling with the old radio, somebody else opening the pantry door. It's nice, having other people here, but it will be nice when they're gone again, when Peeta can put her across the table if he wants to. His heartbeat still holds the title for best sound in the world, steady under her ear.
She showers and dresses for dinner while Peeta sleeps. He only moans when she tries to rouse him, so she kisses his cheek and goes down alone. Johanna is spry again, chopping carrots, laughing. The radio is playing. Gale is wearing one of her mother's old aprons.
“Is he down for the count?” Johanna asks, tipping her chin toward the second floor.
“He just needs to sleep for a little longer,” Katniss says. Gale gives her a look, like even drinking too much after being ambushed by her ex-whatever is a sign that Peeta isn't fit to coexist with her. She helps herself to some liquor, which Johanna has placed on the table again. It doesn't taste as bad as she remembered.
Dinner is fun, though she's worried about Peeta and checks on him twice. He's still in bed, his brow knitted as she mops at it with a cold cloth. He shakes his head when she offers to bring him food, so she opens the windows and helps him out of his shirt and pants; he's soaked with sweat, but it's a hot night, and she remembers her body temperature rising when she drank the stuff herself. Downstairs, Johanna is searching for music on the radio. It's hard to come by, but when she finds some she makes them both dance. Katniss enjoys herself until she thinks about Finnick and Annie's wedding. She flops onto the sofa and watches Johanna try to seduce Gale into dancing more enthusiastically than he is, but he can't be swayed.
“What's the matter?” he asks, twirling Johanna, looking at Katniss.
“Annie is pregnant,” Katniss says. “Delly told us.”
Johanna crashes against Gale, the glee draining from her face, but Gale smiles.
“Good,” he says.
“I'm not sure about that,” Katniss says.
“I'm with her,” Johanna says, dropping onto the couch beside Katniss, out of breath. “The world's not exactly all sunshine and rainbows again. As if it ever was, or could be. I wouldn't want to raise a baby here.”
“Here?” Gale scoffs. “In District 12?”
“In Panem,” Johanna says sharply. “In reality.”
“Me either,” Katniss says, though she doesn't feel as certain about this as she used to. She likes having other people in the house, cheerful noise that feels like a family. But a family, ha, no – that's over. She won't give the world the chance to take another one away, and she's already got Peeta to worry about. She stands, heading for the stairs to check on him and stopping when she sees him descending, wearing a t-shirt and rumpled pants, yawning.
“Hey, back among the living?” Johanna says when she sees him.
“I feel terrible,” he says, mumbling. “Katniss – have you got anything for an upset stomach?”
“Of course,” she says, going for her herbs. She's conscious of Gale's gaze, which is locked on Peeta as he leans against the doorway, looking like the walking dead.
“Been feeling alright?” Gale says. “In general?”
“Yeah,” Peeta says. Katniss is pretty sure that he's too out of it to know what Gale is talking about. She hurries in with some peppermint tea.
“This will settle your stomach,” she says, pushing the mug into his hands. He bends down to give her a wet kiss on the forehead, and it's pretty obviously for Gale's benefit. She hears Johanna suppress a laugh. Gale has his arms crossed over his chest, his expression unreadable.
“I watched you try to kill her,” Gale says, and only then does Katniss remember that he had quite a bit of the liquor himself, before and after dinner. “As someone who cares about her, I'm sure you can appreciate my concern.”
“It's not like that anymore,” Peeta says. He seems unsteady on his feet, and Katniss wishes he would sit, but she knows he won't unless Gale does.
“How about dessert?” she says, looking to Johanna for support, but her eyes are locked on Gale.
“Are you certain?” Gale asks Peeta. “You're sure enough to bet her life on it?”
“You want me to kill myself just in case?” Peeta says.
“No, just –”
“It's okay, I get it.” Peeta gulps the last of the tea and pushes the mug into Katniss' hands. “I understand. Sometimes I think one of you should have done it while you had the chance. Sometimes I still think I should probably just do it myself.”
“Peeta!” Katniss says, horrified. He glances at her just briefly before looking back to Gale.
“If you feel that strongly about it then you shouldn't be here,” Gale says. “With her.”
“It's not your responsibility to protect me,” Katniss says to Gale before Peeta can drop another bombshell. She's still shaken, praying that he was exaggerating. “I want to be here with him.”
“Badly enough to die for it?” Gale says.
“I'd die without him!” Katniss says, so intent on shutting Gale up that she doesn't hear what she's said until the words are out, trembling in the room's humid air. She thinks of their first Games, when she screamed out Peeta's name and clapped her hands over her mouth. Peeta's eyes got wet when he saw it in the recap. She feels his hand on her back and turns to press herself against him.
“You can't think that,” she says, looking up at him, touching his face. “You can't think you'd be better off dead. I won't let you.”
“I –” Peeta says, and then his mouth just hangs open.
“Well,” Johanna says, clearing her throat. “I don't know about you guys, but I'm beat. Gale? Bed?”
“You – you two can stay in my mother's old room,” Katniss says, feeling dizzy, the flames that jump on the candles they've used to light the room making her seasick. “It's down here on the first floor.”
She doesn't bother to make sure they have towels. Upstairs in the dark bedroom, she listens for the sounds of Peeta down in the kitchen, getting something to eat or cleaning up, she has no idea. She could barely look at him as the scene in the sitting room broke up, the tension in the air setting off her flight reflex. When she hears him coming up the stairs she flings off her clothes and gets into the bed, turning toward the wall.
“Katniss?” he says, his voice soft. When will she be above pretending to be asleep when he comes in? Not yet, it's too much, what she said about dying without him, what he said about wanting to die. Why did she think that he wouldn't? She does, doesn't she? Or she did, before she learned how to cling to his body for dear life. She hears him toe off his shoes by the bed, and he kneels beside her without straightening them. She can't pretend anymore when his fingers sneak under her braid to caress the back of her neck. A sob trembles out of her, audible and visible, and he moans as he wraps himself around her.
“I didn't mean it,” he says, whispering the words in her ear.
“I did,” she says. “I did, I did.”
He rolls her onto her back, and the kiss that she opens for, the breath he pushes past her lips, feels like a continuation of what was interrupted on the beach that day, the unstoppable thing that heats her from the inside and burns all the way down to her heels. They're locked so tightly together, her body arching with his, that it takes some time to work her underwear off, his t-shirt, pants, shorts. By the time they're undressed she so ready for him that she pushes his hand away, pulling at his thighs and opening hers for him.
“Please,” she whispers.
It's the first time they've started with him on top, his hips doing all the work, and he's trembling hard. She pets him as he sinks in deeper, tiny noises catching in the back of his throat, his eyes pinched shut against her cheek.
“I,” he says, his lips moving on her ear, shaking just as badly as his limbs. “I'd die without you, too.”
“I know,” she says, and he laughs.
There's no stop and start, no hesitation, no more trembling once she's biting her hand to keep from moaning loud enough to shake the walls, clawing at his back. He's huffing with every thrust, tilting her hips up with one hand spread open over her tail bone. When his mouth goes to her breasts, teeth and tongue on her nipples, she holds his head there with one hand, reaching down to touch herself with the other, coming with a shout that she has no third hand to muffle. Well, let them hear it: she's already told Gale as much, and Johanna saw it on her as soon as she opened the door, one recently satisfied woman to another.
Peeta's mouth moves to her neck, his breath so hot and his body damp, sweat dripping from the ends of his bangs. She opens her mouth to try to catch it, wanting to taste every part of him, to know him like she knows every plant that grows in the woods, which parts to press to her tongue when she needs to be healed.
He buries his scream in the pillow when he comes: like a gentleman, she thinks, as she soothes him through it. He's panting, his eyes closed when he presses his face to hers, his back still shuddering, legs shaking. She holds him so that he stays inside her, can't imagine a time when she'll want to let him slide free.
“Mmph,” he says when his breath finally begins to slow, his head on her shoulder. “It's about a thousand degrees in here.”
“Want to get some water?” she asks.
“No,” he says, clinging.
They fall asleep like that, but just for a few sweat-soaked minutes, rolling apart once they're delirious enough to seek another kind of comfort. Katniss gets out of the bed, stretching her arms up over her head as she walks to the bathroom. She comes back with a cool cloth and a glass of water, which they take turns gulping from. She mops the cloth across her own sweaty skin and then offers it to Peeta, who drapes it over his forehead and drops down to the pillows.
“Damn,” he says as they watch the moon through the window, the insects singing in the trees.
“Yeah,” she says, in agreement. “Productive day.”
He wakes up first, and when she finally blinks awake he's undoing her braid. She laughs, because he seems to like her hair down, and she wonders if it's the effect of seeing her beautified in all of Cinna's costumes.
“What's funny?” he asks, arranging her hair on the pillow.
“You,” she says. “Casting your vote for how I should wear my hair for our wedding.”
“Is that what you think I'm doing?” he says, grinning. “I'm just untangling it for you. But if you want my vote, well. Call it grim, but I loved the way you had it on the day of the reaping. The first reaping, I mean. In those fancy braids.”
She expects Gale to already be awake when they dress and go downstairs, but there's no sign of him or Johanna. Peeta shows her how to make crescent rolls, and humors her suggestion to tuck some cheese into their centers. When Gale finally emerges he's wearing flannel sleep pants and a t-shirt, his feet bare. Katniss hides her laugh in her hand, not sure why this is such a hilarious sight. Johanna is following close behind, yawning languorously and tying the belt of her short silk robe.
“Is that breakfast I smell?” Johanna asks, dropping into a seat at the table. Gale sits beside her, though Peeta is still standing, pulling rolls from the oven. It's a good sign, maybe.
“Moon-shaped cheese rolls,” Peeta says, presenting them for Johanna's examination. “Katniss' invention.”
“Only the cheese part,” she says. She glances at Gale, not sure how to treat him on the morning after that confrontation. He smiles, looks very tired.
“Well,” he says. “Am I the only one who's still hungover?”
“I'm not exactly ready to run a marathon,” Peeta says, plating up some rolls for him while Johanna grabs them straight from the pan.
“You two are lightweights,” Johanna says. “Me and Katniss are fine. Right?”
“Right,” she says, sitting down across from her. And it's true.
Gale and Johanna leave that afternoon, despite Peeta and Katniss insisting that they can stay longer if they like. They have business in District 2; Katniss doesn't ask for the details. She hugs Gale hard at the train station, and Johanna, too, though she warns Katniss on the approach that she's not the hugging type. Despite saying so, she squeezes Katniss hard, like she's a long lost sister.
“There's no mad science on Panem that could make that boy hurt you again,” she whispers before pulling back. She winks and tugs on Katniss' ear, probably aware that she's telling Katniss something she already knows. Still, it feels good to hear that Johanna believes it. Maybe she can work on convincing Gale.
“Take care of my woods,” Gale says as he's backing toward the train.
“You can count on your cousin,” she says, saluting.
She can feel the summer beginning to wane as they walk back to the house, and wouldn't be surprised if the day before was the hottest one they'll have, the season heading down the other side of the mountain now, afternoons more golden than bright. Peeta takes her hand and she squeezes his, rolling her neck on her shoulders.
“Need a back rub?” he asks.
“I wouldn't turn one down.”
She thinks about what the rest of their day will be like: Peeta's hands kneading her tight muscles until she's drooling onto her pillow, which will lead to hot kisses pressed all the way down her spine, which will probably give way to sex, culminating in a nap. They'll wake up to the sunset and mutter plans for dinner on the way to the tub. He'll sit between her legs while she washes his chest and sings his song for him, because he's got to associate it with happy moments, too, if she wants it to keep bringing him out of his episodes. And because she likes singing it, and he likes hearing it: the Peeta song, his name, her voice.
Will this be the rest of her life? She's not sure why the idea should make her feel vaguely panicked, but it's probably something to do with not trusting anything that seems like it will be easy, like tucking in for a few minutes of peace during the Games only to wake up to a wall of fire. Her hand tightens around Peeta's, and she laughs when she sees Haymitch wandering around in his yard, herding geese.
“You missed the reunion tour,” Peeta calls to him, and Haymitch looks up with a scowl, the geese scattering around his legs, going wherever they please.
“I heard all manner of shouting,” Haymitch says. “So I figured it was going off with a bang.”
“What are you doing with those birds?” Katniss asks, shaking her head at their disarray.
“Dancing the waltz,” Haymitch snaps. “What does it look like I'm doing?”
So they spend the rest of the day not lounging and bathing but helping Haymitch build a proper pen in his yard. He grumbles through the whole thing, complaining about the heat, twice bringing a hammer down on his thumb. Katniss bandages it for him while Peeta puts the finishing touches on the pen, his sweat-soaked shirt stuck to his back. So the bathing portion of the day will go as she predicted, at least.
“What's going on with this?” Haymitch asks, gesturing to her face.
“You're grinning like you're on camera,” he says. “Pre-Mockingjay. Like the girl in the sun dress who just got engaged.”
“I am?” she says, and he laughs at her alarm as she touches her lips.
“Don't worry,” he says. “I wouldn't dare to presume that he's responsible.”
“Why won't you come for dinner?” she asks, her blush well-hidden under her sunburned cheeks.
“Maybe I don't like your cooking.”
“Alright, for God's sake. If it's that important to you.”
He doesn't come that night, because he gets drunk and forgets, or the night after that, for the same reason, but the next night he shows up with a bottle of wine, which he polishes off almost entirely on his own before dinner.
“Well, well,” Haymitch says when Peeta sets a slice of the meat pie he made in front of him. Peeta said that Haymitch would be the sort who liked meat pies, and if the ten thousand times Haymitch expressed his excitement over the meal while it was cooking are any indication, he was right.
“I kind of wondered what was going on over here,” Haymitch says, looking around the kitchen as if he's searching the corners for cobwebs – they're up there, complete with spiders, and they help keep the bug population down. “But it's like a real house.”
“What did you expect?” Peeta asks as he takes his seat. “An optical illusion?”
“That would be a stretch?” Haymitch says with a snort. Katniss gives him a look. He shrugs. “Though I more or less knew this would happen,” he says, visibly suppressing a burp until he's finished the sentence. “If you survived. Which I tended to not count on, to put it mildly, but I thought, you know. If you were to, theoretically, there would be a house like this.” He tears open a roll and dips it into the gravy that's dripping from his slice of pie. “A real house,” he says, to clarify, hiccuping.
Peeta walks Haymitch home while Katniss cleans the kitchen. She picks up a knife and rubs it clean with a soapy rag, wondering how much longer they'll have running water and realizing only as she's placing the knife on the drying rack that it's the one she cut her wrist with. Was it six months ago? Sometimes it feels like only six days. She sets it on the rack and looks down at her scar, startling when she hears Peeta's footsteps on the front porch.
“Want me to do the rest?” he asks, coming to the sink and resting his hands on her hips, bending down to kiss her neck.
“I've got it,” she says. “How was he?”
“Snoring before I was out of the bedroom,” Peeta says.
“I shudder to think of his bedroom.”
“It's pretty bad.”
“Damn him,” Katniss says, shutting off the water. “How can he live like that?” She knows, actually, too well, how easy it would be to turn into Haymitch. Without Peeta, she would be worse. Not alive, not really.
“I actually thought he seemed kind of happy,” Peeta says. “Well – for Haymitch. Or for us, maybe. He was happy for us.”
“He told me I looked happy,” Katniss says. She sniffs a laugh. “He said I looked like I did on TV when I'd just – when you'd just –”
“What?” Peeta says when she trails off there. “You want me to guess? We did a lot of things to each other on TV.”
“Ha. Well, he said I looked the way I did when you asked me to marry you.” She rolls her eyes, probably the wrong thing to do, but she only meant to dismiss Haymitch for equating her real happiness with that dreadful performance. She's afraid to meet Peeta's eyes, afraid he'll get down on one knee and try to ask again, for real this time. She busies herself with drying the dishes.
The summer starts to die off, and it makes her feel cornered, though she's always liked fall and won't mind winter now that she's got Peeta for warmth. There's still something about the shortening days seems like a warning that she's running out of time. She figures out why one day when she brings flowers to Prim's grave – primroses, from the yard. The obvious choice, but they bloomed so beautifully this summer.
“God, Prim,” she says, standing and looking at the lake, the light already golden across its surface. “You're not really gone, are you?” It still seems impossible. She gets no answer, just birds twittering in the distance, the lake lapping gently against the shore. The crushing weight of what can't be undone comes to take her breath away like two giant hands that clap around her, and she presses her fingers over her mouth, wishing for the first time since these visits began that Peeta was here with her.
In a week, it will be too cold to swim. Already, the water is chilly when she dips her toes in. She wipes her eyes dry as her plan formulates. She won't cling to the safety of any walls between her and Peeta the way that she did in District 13, and this is the last one standing.
“What do you think about a picnic tomorrow?” she asks him when they're in bed together that night, somewhere between the initial cuddling stage and actual sex, his hand spread open on her stomach as he kisses her ear.
“Okay,” he says, distracted, and she laughs, which gets his attention.
“What?” he asks, sitting up on his elbow.
“Nothing,” she says, because she wants him to keep doing that thing to her ear, his teeth dragging over the lobe. She decides then not to tell him the significance of the lake, the fact that it was her secret place where she went with her father, that the smooth white stone on the eastern shore is her sister's grave. She doesn't want the mood to be somber, and doesn't want to try to recreate those days with her father. The place can't be what it once was, not with her father and sister gone, and she's tired of thinking of it as a tomb to the past. It needs to become something new, something that can belong to her and Peeta, a place to lie in the sun and soak up the last of the summer. The last wall she can take down for him.
The next morning, she feels weirdly nervous. She packs a basket with food: deer jerky from a doe she shot just a week after Johanna and Gale left, cheese she got from the fledging black market that's set up not far from the burned out hull of the Hob, strawberries she picked that morning from a patch she'd been waiting to harvest on a special occasion, leftover rolls from last night's dinner, apple butter, and walnuts that Peeta candied with sugar and cinnamon. It's too much food, really, but she wants to spend the whole day there. Peeta is tired, yawning; he did yard work all day yesterday while Katniss spent time at her sister's grave. It's quite a trek to the lake, and she makes sure he eats a hearty breakfast so that he won't be exhausted and irritable by the time they get there. While he eats, she dresses upstairs, choosing a sun dress from the closet full of old Cinna-designed clothes that she almost never touches. For as well as she remembers the victory tour, it might be the one she wore when Peeta proposed. She rather hopes not as she braids her hair into two plaits and pins them up so they'll be out of the way when they swim. She doesn't want him to think she's making fun of him. But if she can't remember the dress from that day, why should he?
“You look pretty,” he says when she bustles back down to the kitchen, double-checking the picnic basket for napkins and a knife to spread the apple butter.
“Oh – thanks.” She touches her hair, actually wishing for a mirror. It's been a long time since she could bear the idea of looking herself in the eye, but she does feel pretty today, her bones light with hope and a not-unpleasant anxiety.
She wears her hunting boots with the sun dress, thinking about the long walk, and Peeta laughs as he watches her lace them up, bending to kiss the top of her head.
“What would your prep team say?” he asks. He wilts a little, smiling sheepishly, as if he's not sure he should have made the joke. She grins and waves her hand through the air.
“I'm a trend setter in my own right at this point,” she says. “They'd just pluck my eyebrows and send me on my way.” At some point the savagery of their treatments must have taken its toll, because she doesn't grow hair on her legs or under her arms anymore, save for some colorless wisps up toward her thighs. Peeta never has been able to grow even the most minuscule amount of stubble on his face, and she doesn't ask what they treated him with during those first Games. Only once has she lain awake at night worrying that it might be so closely bound up with levels of testosterone that it could mean he can't have children. Why should that matter? It shouldn't. It doesn't.
He carries the basket and she carries her bow, slung around her back, her quiver at her waist. She sings so that he won't think too much about the long walk, just softly, still cautious about making too much noise out here in the woods. She feels foolish enough wearing this dress as she treks through her regular hunting grounds, but Peeta is smiling at her like she's never found her more beautiful. Gale would laugh, but she never would have done this for Gale. It's why she resented Peeta for so long: loving him has not only made her do the damnedest, most foolhardy things, it's made her want to do them.
Her heart is beating fast when they reach the lake, as if she's introducing him to a family member and is afraid that both parties might not like each other. He puts the picnic basket down and marvels at it, says he can't believe he never knew it was here.
“It was sort of a secret,” Katniss says. “My secret, I guess. So. I wanted to show you.” She smiles when he turns from the lake to look at her, feeling shy, which makes no sense. Oh, the things he's seen her do. She laughs when he walks over to lift her up and spin her around.
“No spinning!” she says. “No spinning, ever. Can we agree to that?”
“Oh, you're right, sorry,” he says, actually blushing when he sets her down. “I just – was happy.”
“God, sweetheart,” she says, the word just falling out of her, so easily that she finds she's not even surprised. She pulls his face down to hers and gives him a loud kiss on the lips. “Don't be sorry.”
They eat first, ravenous after the long hike. Katniss packed a blanket, and they stretch out on it when they've stuffed themselves, Peeta licking sugar from the corners of her lips as she grins up at the sky.
“Have you digested?” she asks, a large slice of her heart aching with the question. Her father used to ask her this on their days at the lake, before he'd let her swim. Peeta nods.
“I think so,” he says. “Why?” He touches her knee, which is usual precursor to seduction, mostly a suggestion that he wouldn't mind being seduced, that he's waiting to see what she'll do.
“'Cause we're going to swim.” She sits up and pulls her dress over her head, showing him the surprise that, for him, will probably rival the lake. She's got nothing on under the dress, just her boots. She stands before he can grab her, kiss her and derail her plans, laughing as she walks backward toward the lake, unable to stop looking at him as he gapes at her.
“Your turn,” she says, squatting down to start unlacing her boots.
Peeta gets out of his clothes so fast that he almost trips over his pants as he kicks them away. She's out of her boots now and wading to the water, keeping a straight face as he rushes into it and bursting into laughter when she sees its temperature register in his eyes.
“It's not that bad after you start swimming,” she says, shivering herself but trying to put on a brave face as she sinks down until her waist is covered. She swims out a little further, holding in a shout as the chill of the water envelopes her skin. She closes her eyes and tries not to think of Finnick, then lets herself remember him as he was when he was radiant, the way he sighed when the salt water eased the toxins from that gas in the second Games out of his skin. He was so, so beautiful. Nothing that happened to him during or after the Games could take it from him, and she clings to her memories of his grin, doesn't fight them away.
“Shit!” Peeta is crashing into the water beside her, flailing like someone who never really learned how to swim. “Katniss – holy – s-so cold, God.” He grabs hold of her, able to stand where the water would be up to her forehead, and clutches her against him, shivering. She laughs and loops her arms around his neck, her legs tight around his waist.
“If we actually swam around, we'd warm up,” she says, but he just hugs her closer, his teeth chattering in her ear. She's never felt more naked, out here in the woods, in her lake, Peeta's hands all over her as he struggles to get warm. It feels good, like dropping something heavy and hurrying on, free of it.
“Do you still think I'm a prude?” she asks, pressing her smile to his neck, knowing the answer.
“If I say no can I get out of this water?” he asks, and she laughs.
They dry off in the sun, which is still hot enough to make the sunburn on her cheeks ache. She feels warm until the wind blows across them from the lake, her nipples almost sore with stiffness. Peeta is trying to be a good sport, stretched out on the blanket beside her, and she covers her mouth with her hand when she sees that he's actually managed an erection.
“Well,” he says when he notices her grinning at him, looking from his lap to his face. “It's just – I'm sorry, okay, but. Look at you.”
As much as she wants to remake the lake into a joyful place, she can't bring herself to actually have sex here, so she puts on her dress and boots, packs up the basket and pats Peeta's ass as he zips his pants up over his hardon. The walk back to the house seems to take much longer, both of them tired and impatient. He isn't alone in being affected by the sight of her naked body as it dries in the sun; she can't stop thinking of him, the way the tiny golden hairs on his stomach held droplets of water and caught the light. She wants her mouth there, on his stomach and lower, wants to make him feel so warm.
They barely get through the door before they start tearing each other's clothes off; Peeta actually kicks the door shut, dropping the picnic basket on the ground and tackling her to the stairs. Her dress is hiked up, no time to pull it over her head, and she pulls his shirt up so that his bare chest can touch hers, both of them scrabbling at the front of his pants as they breathe against each other's mouths.
“Hey,” she says, just before he can push inside her. She holds his face, cursing herself, because she meant to say this while they were still at the lake.
“Hmm?” He's so hard, wet at the tip, she can feel it.
“You – you're my husband, okay?” She's come to hate ceremony, but was awake in bed all last night, practicing this line. “That's how I think of you. My husband. Okay?”
He blinks, and makes a sound in the back of his throat like a dying animal might, making her afraid that she's said the wrong thing again. Then he surges forward, kissing her, sinking into her.
“Then – you –” he says, like he's pronouncing words from a foreign dialect, unsure. “You're my –”
“I'm your wife,” she says, whispering it in his ear. It's their secret, not something to be broadcast or voted on, small but magnificent, like the pearl she keeps in a sachet in her underwear drawer, the one she pressed to her lips when he was away from her.
He doesn't say anything, just pushes into her, fucks her, and suddenly it feels good to think of it that way, feels good from her toes to her fingertips, because she trusts him to do anything, everything, and they can make any word that someone else assigned to them their secret and unrepeatable vow, a pearl hidden in an oyster. His mouth is on her collarbone, his tongue in the hollow of her throat, his breath on her neck.
“Katniss,” he says, the name shuddering from him like it's his own secret place, freezing water and hot sunlight. She nods and clings, then falls open, letting him have everything.
They're both achy and delirious afterward, his knees propped awkwardly on two different stairs, another stair pressed against her back, just under her shoulder blades. He picks her up, leaving his pants on the stairs, and carries her to the bedroom. She's close to sleep as soon as he places her on the mattress, helping her remove her bunched-up dress and moving down to untie her boots.
“Peeta,” she says, feeling drugged, on a strain of morphling that could never be recreated in a lab.
“Hmm?” he says. He throws her right boot over the side of the bed and bends down to kiss her knee before starting on her left boot.
“Nothing,” she says, reaching down to pull her fingers through his bangs. “You need a hair cut. I love you.”
He doesn't gape at her in disbelief, doesn't look wrecked, just smiles as he pulls her left boot off. She reaches for him, and there's a fish hook snagged in her heart, the memory of the day in District 13 when she thought he was reaching for her, the day his hands closed around her throat when she thought he was trying to cup her face. Not real, not real. Nothing is real but this: his skin warming hers as he presses against her from shoulder to ankle.
“Love you, too,” he says, easily, watching her eyelids droop, too heavy to keep open. “Wife, my wife. Love you so much.”
She dreams of Prim. She's on fire at first, but calm, and she reaches out around herself to cup the fire in her hands, untouched by it, grinning at Katniss as she holds it between her palms, just a small flame now.
“It's this dumb trick,” Prim says, rolling her eyes. “C'mon.”
They're walking through a city that could be the Capitol, but it's not as garish, not as cold. It's like a picture from one of their history books at school, the ones Gale scoffed at, saying there was never any place like that, not really.
“I think I married Peeta,” Katniss says as they walk, past vegetable stands and perfume shops, street musicians who sing almost as well as their father.
“Good,” Prim says. “He loves you more than anyone.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah, but you spent a lot of time trying convince yourself that you didn't.”
They come to a zoo, and Prim shows her animals that couldn't have possibly existed, ever, but she insists that they did, once, tugging on Katniss' elbow and laughing at her disbelief. They're nothing like mutts but so strange: little flightless birds that waddle over rocks, giant horses with necks as tall as her house, a bird with blue and green feathers that Cinna would want to interpret as a dress.
She wakes up feeling fuzzy, stuck between the dreamworld and reality. She can't remember the last time she actually wanted to linger in a dream, and rubs her hand across her face, rolling onto her back to watch the dawn begin to glow from behind the closed curtains. Peeta is fast asleep and holding onto her tightly, not even snoring, his face buried against her neck. She smiles up at the curtained window, runs her fingers through his too-long hair, and feels as if Prim is still here, egging her on.
Extracting herself from Peeta's arms without waking him takes some doing, but she has a hunter's grace, and he's still sleeping soundly as she creeps out of bed. She goes to the closet, opening it with practiced stealth, and selects an elegant white blouse, a long navy skirt. She puts on fancy underwear and closes her eyes as the fine fabric slips over her skin: Cinna made these for her, and she wants to believe that he anticipated this day when he did. She goes to the bathroom and brushes her hair out, pinning it up the way her mother did that day, the day when she stood beside Peeta after they were chosen for the reaping. In lieu of a mirror, she uses the window over the bathtub, seeing all of them in her reflection: her mother's cheekbones, her father's eyes, Prim's softness. She puts her hand against the glass, touching all of them, not afraid to see them anymore.
Down in the kitchen, she feels none of the nervousness that she experienced yesterday when she brought Peeta to the lake. The sun continues to rise, but the morning still feels quiet, even when she leaves the kitchen door open to let in the birdsong from the woods. Preparing the food is easy: a loaf of bread sliced into careful pieces, arranged on their nicest dish, an antique passed down from her father's family. Making the fire is harder, only because she hasn't even touched a match since she was set on fire herself, not by Cinna's genius but by the bombs that killed Prim. Her hand shakes, but she steels herself, shoving the past into a manageable corner as she throws the match into the kindling.
The fire grows, making her heart clench and then relax, because this is what she needs. She gets the bread from the kitchen and sets the plate on the hearth, tending the fire, waiting to hear footsteps on the second floor. When she does, she closes her eyes and waits, squeezing her hands together in her lap. It's as if everything depends on this moment, but she's not afraid. She knows what will happen, there are no deviating variables, but it still matters so much.
When she hears him coming down the stairs she turns, still sitting on the hearth, beside the plate of bread. He's wearing nothing but his shorts, squinting into the dull light from the window, scratching his stomach. Their eyes meet, and he gives her a questioning look. His gaze shifts to the fire, the bread, and his eyebrows shoot up.
“Oh –” he says, grabbing both sides of the door frame. “I – oh – ”
“Wait!” He holds up a hand, looking petrified, nearly hyperventilating. “Wait – I didn't – let me – hang on!”
He tears back up the stairs. She hides her laughter in her hands, her eyes watering already.
When he comes down again he's still breathless, wearing his finest white shirt, tucked into black pants, no belt, his shoes still untied as he works on his tie, as if he thought he had a time limit.
“Okay,” he says, panting. “Oh—okay, I'm, I'm almost ready.”
“Sweetheart,” she says, laughing around the word, tears streaming down her face as she holds his arms out to him.
It can't be too different from any toasting ceremony: the nervous laughter, the slightly burned bread that they feed to each other, hands clasped hard, as if they're still afraid they could fail to meet some secret requirement and be thrown out of marriage. They're both crying, trying to play it down, wiping their noses on their sleeves.
“I've always loved the flavor of burned bread,” she says, though it might be unfair. She doesn't ever want him to think that she loves him because he saved her that day. She loves him because he's saving her now, every day, with a kind of sustenance that she couldn't have anticipated needing when she was a starving girl in the rain. In hindsight, she feels as if she knew this would happen: Peeta opening his door, giving her everything he could spare, taking his punishment for daring to love her. So easy to believe that it was inevitable now that they've done all the work.
She calls her mother that afternoon, Peeta's head in her lap. Stroking his hair makes her braver, and she cries into the phone as she tells her mother about the dream with Prim at the zoo. She wishes that Peeta had someone to call, and realizes that he does when he drags her over to Haymitch's house to announce the good news. Somehow, he has champagne.
“Well,” Haymitch says, toasting them on his back patio as the sun goes down, Katniss almost dozing against Peeta's chest, Haymitch lifting his glass toward the sky. “I knew it.”
“You did not,” Peeta says, laughing, probably a little drunk.
“Oh, let him say so,” Katniss says. She cracks her eyes open and looks at Haymitch, can only really see his silhouette. “Rewriting history is underrated.”
She's so tired that she lets Peeta carry her all the way home, and she tries to think of what this reminds her of: something from the Games? The victory tour? Before that, from the District 12 that they lived in together but separately? By the time he places her in their bed and kisses her nose she's sure:
There was nothing like this in her past, no memory to cling to or run from. This is brand new, one of a kind. Cinna would call it couture. Katniss blinks awake just long enough to smile at Peeta, her husband, reaching up to stroke his cheek. She's going to have to learn to know joy without trying to thread it back into sorrow. Warm in their bed, the taste of the bread from their ceremony still on her tongue, she knows that Peeta will teach her.