What was intended to be a short drabble on Tumblr accidentally evolved into a nearly 12k-word one-shot. Oops.

Summary: In a Panem without the Games, Katniss does whatever she can to ensure her sister's survival, even if it means selling herself to the Capitol. Slight Age-Gap!Everlark with a little bit of smut sprinkled in.


1. The Auction

Standing on the platform, my hands clasped behind my back and my eyes pinned to the floor, I've never felt so much like a caged animal.

There's men in the balcony, shadows cast over their seats so I can't see them. But they can see me, which I suppose is all that matters. They're the clientele. This is their decision.

I swallow down the bile that bubbles in my throat, reminding myself that this is for Prim, that this is the only way to keep her safe. Had I not chosen to come here, to the Capitol, she'd be withering away on our lumpy joint mattress back home instead of in school. Prim deserves the world on a silver platter, but the world isn't cheap, and someone's got to pay the bills.

The host – although he's really just an auctioneer – is a short man with blindingly white teeth, and he announces me to the patrons, listing off my assets like I'm nothing more than an antique chair. Katniss Everdeen. Eighteen years old. One hundred and five pounds. Brown hair. Grey eyes. And then – I choke back the acid in my mouth – a virgin.

Here in the Capitol, you see, the people are civilized, and so while flat-out prostitution is frowned upon, auctioning off brides is perfectly genteel. The clients offer a monthly fee for the poor victim, which can be either directly pocketed or wired back home. The latter is a much more popular option, considering most of the people who are offering themselves up for contracted spouse-hood are only doing so out of necessity, so that their families can have food on the table, so that brothers and sisters and parents won't starve.

I only disclosed that last piece of information because I knew it'd heighten the going rate. Prim needs as much help as she can get, and if it means flaunting my virginity in front of a crowd of vulgar men, then so be it.

Still, the vulnerability is crippling; my skin feels like one continuous sheet of ice with fire blazing beneath the surface, and my stomach lurches painfully as the faceless men begin to punch in their offers. Who will he be? An old fuck who comes to the auction whenever he grows bored with the last wife? He could be abusive, manipulative, controlling, and revolting in every manner.

And my consent means nothing. Which the director of this gig – a middle-aged man with broad shoulders and a deceivingly unthreatening face – made clear to me and the others. Once our sloppy signatures were penned on the line, we officially became property of him, and therefore property of whoever offered the highest sum. Fifty percent goes to him, fifty percent goes to us.

Leading up to being herded on the viewing platform, I was in the dark regarding what to expect. Blindingly white lights drilling over my body? Yes. But skin-prickling silence?

Not so much.

And before I even realize it's begun, I'm being hassled off the stage, claiming that bidding has terminated.

I didn't even get to hear the man's voice. Now, I'm clueless as to what I'm getting into.

Sweat pebbles at the skin on my forehead as a woman with a nauseatingly orange afro ushers me down the hall. She lectures me on how I'm supposed to behave, on what the repercussions are if I am to step out of line. But there's nothing about the man, or, more importantly, nothing about the money.

She dumps me in a small room, the walls painted blue. This is where I'm to meet him, the woman says, before slamming the door behind her and leaving me to the suffocating void. A chair and a sofa dominate the center, facing each other, and I seat myself in the armchair, gripping the fabric in hopes that it'll stop my head from spinning so violently.

I'm about to pass out form the vertigo when there's a soft knock on the door, one that spikes my anticipation while, oddly, settling my nerves a little. A knock. That's got to be significant, right? The man didn't just barge in here to collect me like recently-purchased furniture.

I keep my lips sealed, and after a few moments, the sound of the door splitting from the frame echoes through the room, and I'm suddenly staring at my shoes, afraid to look.

"K-Katniss Everdeen?"

His voice wavers, gentle and questioning, and my lungs contract. I give the stranger a slight nod, still not allowing myself to peek.

I hear him amble over toward the sofa – and how could I not? His slightly uneven footsteps are fucking earth-shattering – and he pauses behind the back. Through my peripheries, I can see his hands grasp the edge of the couch. Hands. Big hands. Big, pale, slightly calloused hands. But not wrinkly. Young, wide hands.

"Katniss, I—" I can hear him swallow as he rounds the sofa, standing in the space between the furniture. I focus on his shoes, which are ugly black things with a slight stain on the side. Is that… dough?

I finally muster the courage to snap my gaze up, and the moment I do so, an invisible freight train punches every last ounce of air from my lungs.

Before me stands the exact antithesis of the man I'd expected when I was first contracted to do this. Instead of narrow, cunning features and putty-like, old skin, before me stands a young, broad-shouldered man with kind eyes and a jawline that looks like it's been carved from fucking marble. With a soft-looking mess of golden curls, and eyes more blue than the ocean and the sky and these walls combined, topped with a nearly guilty smile, there's absolutely nothing intimidating about him.

But, my instinctual suspiciousness overwhelm my urge to relax, because whoever this man is, he bought me. He may not look sleazy from the get-go, but how am I to trust a man who'd rather own a wife than find one through traditional means?

There has to be something wrong with him. He's got to be in his mid- or late-twenties, which is hardly old at all. And he's handsome, despite my reluctance to admit this. So why is he here?

I find myself scowling at the stranger despite my inner pleas to keep my face blank.

"Who are you?" I ask in a flash of audacity.

He startles a little at my expression, and then clasps his hands together nervously, twisting his fingers together.

"I—I'm, uh, my name's Peeta Mellark."


2. The Bakery

We've hardly spoken since we left the amphitheater, the car ride through the grid-like Capitol streets painfully quiet. Although, I suppose it could be much worse. I still don't want to trust him, because there must be something horribly off that I've yet to discover, but for now, I'm glad I'm safe.

We park in the street in front of a small, cream-colored building wedged in between two high-rise lofts, the slightly faded red of the awning over the building's window mysteriously comforting. Over the fabric, Mellark's Bakery is scrawled in an ornate cursive lettering.

"We'll live upstairs," he says quietly, offering me a shy smile.

I don't know what I'd expected – some sickeningly upscale mansion that'd give me reason to hate him for his extravagance, maybe – but this calms me a little more, my heartrate slowing from its fatal pace.

I nod, and we exit the car. He lets me lead him into the bakery, and I stiffen at the touch of his hand as he ghosts it over the small of my back, in the same way a man would while walking with his lover. The gesture is oddly intimate, but it feels so off with its good intentions.

He notices my rigidity, and pockets his hands, electing to not say anything.

The lights in the lobby of the bakery are shut off, as he must've closed the business for the day, but he lets them flicker on when we enter. The warmth of the place immediately coaxes me deeper into the room, the smell of cinnamon and yeast tingling in my starving bones. I wonder if he'll let me eat here. When was the last actual meal I had?

"If you don't mind, it'd be nice if you could help me out around here when we're open." His voice crackles in the silence, and it makes me jolt in surprise. I turn to face him; he's scratching the back of his neck, as if he's intimidated by me. Shouldn't it be the other way around? "I mean, if you're not comfortable with the baking, you can always just work the register. It's just… I could use a hand."

My returning scowl seems to startle him. "You bought me, Mr. Mellark. You don't have to ask."

He's obviously shocked by my harshness, and with a frown, he lets his gaze plummet to the floor.

"I, uh—you can call me Peeta, you know," he says lamely.

Every nerve ending in my body quivers with the command to ease up, but I can't bring myself to do so. I don't understand Peeta's motives, and until I do, I can't let him in. Growing up in a district where nearly everyone lived in poverty, and hope got us nowhere, I learned that trust is a useless thing.


3. The Bedroom(s)

"You can sleep in here," he says as we stand in the doorway of the main bedroom.

My fingers start to toy with my braid absentmindedly, which is a nervous habit, but I can't help it as I turn to face him. "What do you mean, me?"

Color flowers in his cheeks, and he points to the end of the hall where a set of crooked steps leads up to a small loft. "I'll be up there."

Some strange, foreign sensation claws at my chest, something resembling a confused anger.

"I'm—I'm not sleeping with you?"

His eyes widen, and he actually has the audacity to look startled, like I've made some ridiculous assumption that the man who bought me as his bride would actually arrange for us to sleep in the same bed.

"I—I don't want to make you do anything you're not comfortable with," he fumbles, looking so flustered I'd be amused if I weren't already so bewildered.

"You paid money for me, Mr. Mellark."

"Peeta," he insists.

I feel my jaw tensing. "Please excuse me for being so confused, but what the hell is going on?"

"Look, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing here," he admits, his voice cracking. "I—I don't want you to hate me, okay? I want things to be good between us."

I'm your property. Things don't need to be "good."

My thoughts must be at least somewhat evident in my expression, because he runs his fingers through his hair, like he doesn't know how to transcribe his thoughts into coherent sentences.

And then, without so much as an explanation, he turns on his heels and plods downstairs to the bakery.


4. The Meal

We eat silently at the table in the extension of the bakery's kitchen, the only sound in the room echoing from our cutlery clinking against our plates. Even though this is my first whole meal in ages, I can barely force more than half of my casserole down, despite how wonderful it tastes.

Well, at least I'll be well-fed, even if the surprisingly-talented cook and I remain at a perpetual impasse for the rest of our indefinite union.

What a way to start.


5. The Night

He didn't have any clothes prepared for me – how had he not? Didn't he realize he'd be bringing home a wife when he set out to buy one? – so he gives me one of his oversized shirts before retiring to the small loft, leaving me alone on the second floor. The fabric feels nearly plush on my skin, slightly warm and smelling just like the baker in an oddly pleasing way.

After I've gotten ready for bed, I prop myself against the pillows and card through the millions of thoughts in my head. What am I supposed to do now? He paid for me, and yet he leaves me here, in what I assume was his own bedroom before I came along, as if I'm… what. His equal?

He must want something of me. Of course he does – I'm the virgin, after all, which was something that most of the other girls hauled across the platform couldn't boast. The nameless man said the going rate for people "of my condition" was immensely higher, so Peeta Mellark couldn't have paid a small sum for me, even if I do look rather plain, with bony hips and sharp elbows, and skin much darker than his.

He must want that from me. I don't know exactly how it's supposed to be done, but he must be expecting it from me.

I crawl off the bed, quietly padding down the hall, my bare feet soundless as I carefully climb up the staircase to his loft.

I'm startled to find nothing more than a small bed there, framed by a few crowded bookshelves and an easel parked next to the window. Is he an artist, too?

Well, I don't suppose that's very relevant now, because at this moment he's asleep. At least, I assume so, by the steady rise and fall of his broad chest, his nose just brushing up against the arm he has bowed behind his neck.

With the iridescent sliver of moonlight splitting through the open window, I briefly consider how handsome the baker is, even in his impossible perplexity.

But that doesn't matter, I remind myself as I slip up to his bed. With a deep breath to help calm the knot of hyperactive nerves in my belly, I peel back the covers, and slide against his warm body between the sheets.

In his sleep, he snuggles up closer against me for a second, and the heat from his body would be nearly soothing, were I not in this exact situation. I remind myself that although this won't be easy, compared to all of the people it could be with, Peeta is one of the best prospects. At least, if maintains the gentleness here that he radiates in nearly every other moment I've been with him.

Struggling to ignore the quiver in my hand, I slide my fingers between us, down his belly. I cup him over his boxers, suddenly panicking because he's only half-hard in his unconsciousness, and what am I supposed to do with this?

I hitch my legs around his thighs and roll on top of him, pressing sloppy and inexperienced kisses to his jaw. Jesus, I haven't even had my first kiss yet – how the hell am I going to do this with him? I'm going to be awful. And then he's going to find some way to send me back.

I feel him stir underneath me as I continue to pepper kisses along his cheek, my hand awkwardly stroking his borderline erection. Something of a soft sigh steams from his lips, which momentarily boosts my confidence.

And then he suddenly stills. "What the—" he chokes, his hands moving to my hips and shunting me from his body. Only the force propels him backward, too, and with a dull thud he falls from the tiny bed to the floor, a tangle of sheets wrapped around his torso and legs.

I crawl to the edge of the bed in time to see him work free of the fabric, and then he's looking at me as if I've just sprouted a second head.

"W-what the hell are you doing?"

Heat blossoms under my skin, defensiveness prickling at the tip of my tongue. "I—I thought this was what you would've wanted!"

"We're in separate beds!" He's rubbing his eyes, struggling to stand. "Jesus, I didn't—I don't want that—"

His words puncture my gut in a way they shouldn't. I should be grateful he doesn't want me in that way, that he hasn't been intending to rip from me something so personal, but my confusion seems to spread to every corner of my consciousness and elicit some deep-seeded anger that's been lurking there since I left District 12. It isn't a sensible reaction, but irrationality is my forte.

"You bought me. You paid for me. Every part of me, Mr. Mellark."

"Stop calling me that!" he cries out, pushing at his temples like I've given him a migraine. "Please, for the love of God, I don't want you to hate me!"

I fold my arms over my chest, puffing air through my nose like an indignant child. "I don't hate you," I admit quietly. "I—I'm just scared, okay?"

"Why?" Even through the gloom, the blue in his eyes pierces me like a sharp blade through the ribs, and I feel myself crumble on the bed. My head falls in my hands, the embarrassment for telling him the truth gripping my throat and crushing my bones.

But then the mattress is dipping next to me, and his fingers curl gently around my wrists, pulling my hands from my face in an intimate gesture that should repel me, but makes me feel strangely at home in a city that couldn't seem more unfriendly.

"Katniss, please. I don't want every day you're here to be uncomfortable. If you're afraid of something, please, just… just tell me."

How do I tell him that it's him I'm afraid of? Well, not him, per se, but the idea that his motives are completely unknown to me, that he seems so safe, which must mean he's more dangerous than any other prospect. The times in which I'm least secure are the moments where I let my guard down, which is exactly what his behavior begs.

I surprise myself by not tearing away from him when he hesitantly curls an arm around my shoulder, tucking me closer to him.

"Talk to me," he pleads one final time.

Despite my stubborn determination to hold myself together, I feel something break.

"I don't understand what I'm doing here," I say, my throat growing thicker each second. "I thought I'd be ordered around, and… and that you'd want to…"

I'm thankful he understands what I mean, because I don't think I can bring myself to say it.

"There's a lot of things I need to explain, I suppose," he says softly, his breath warm against my hair. "It's too late for me to get into everything right here, but for now, just know that I don't want anything from you that you're not willing to give, okay? I don't own you. You aren't my property. I… I want to be friends, Katniss. Above anything else."

It hardly explains anything, but the pure honesty shining through his words quells the uneasiness in my core. Even though I still have a million questions I need answered, I can save those for the morning.

Before I crawl out of his bed and retreat to mine, I think he presses a kiss to the top of my head, but I'm not sure if it's real, or if I've simply imagined it.


6. The First Year

The truth doesn't unfold all at once, nor does it happen immediately. In fact, most of it stays locked away.

I learn Peeta has many secrets, but instead of giving them the power suffocate me, I learn to work around them. For example, he never tells me why he was at the auction, although he implies that he hadn't planned on taking home a wife at all, which is why was so unprepared for me.

But I do know he's thankful I'm around – mostly because he's not shy about reminding me – and has been lonely for a while. Since he cut himself off from his parents and opened up the bakery at twenty-two, which was six years ago, he's been entirely on his own. He admits to having a girl around here and there, but it never felt right with any of them, or so he says.

Though, I tell him he's allowed to date, since our union is entirely nominal and something only a paper reflects, not us. When I say this for the first time, which happens one morning during a lull at the bakery, he nearly chokes on his orange juice.

But he goes back to kneading a ball of dough with those strong, steady hands of his – hands that become increasingly intriguing each day, leading me to wonder what they'd feel like, since I hardly feel them on me except to brush my hand, my back, my shoulders – and simply says, "I'm fine with how things are." And then he chuckles. "Besides, what we have going would be one hell of a situation to try to explain to someone else."

He tries to teach me the recipes for his pastries, but we both learn relatively quickly that baking isn't exactly my strong suit. Instead, I man the front of the shop while he does the real work. It's a nice system, though. And when it's slow, sometimes I'll dither in the back with him. Even if there isn't anything functionally romantic between us, he's a wonderful companion to have, which I learn after the first few months. Granted, if there was no longer a need for me to support Prim with his money, I'd go back to Twelve in a heartbeat. But for now, I'm oddly… comfortable.

Although, I find I can't bring myself to trust him fully, knowing that so much of his mind is still roped off from me. Such as with his family; he never speaks of them, which is more significant than if he'd just say they're out of the picture. I know there's so much history there, and I'd be suspicious of him, if only he wasn't so wholeheartedly kind and genuine in every other aspect of his life.

Overall, our cohabitation is relatively smooth. But that's all it is. Cohabitation. Although we tell the customers we're married, behind closed doors we act as little more than platonic roommates.

At first, the arrangement was comforting.

But after a year, it leaves me inexplicably restless, the constant anticipation for some unknown shift thrumming in my veins. I keep waiting, expecting him to suddenly ask for more. I am his wife, after all. He bought a wife. If he'd wanted a coworker, or a roommate, he could've easily found one at a much lower cost without all the baggage.

I climb up to his loft one evening to find him perched on a stool by the open window, a paintbrush crooked in his hand as he swipes it across a half-filled canvas in measured, elegant strokes. I'm not sure what the painting will become, and I don't have time to ask, because once I clear my throat to announce myself he flips the canvas over, turning on his stool.

"Katniss, can we talk?"

I swallow the sudden nervousness – what could he mean? – with a smile. "Why else do you think I came up here?"

He chuckles softly, dipping his brush in a cup of water that rests on the shadow-swathed windowsill. "Sit down, please."

His voice lacks command, though, which insinuates that I shouldn't be worried. Still, I am. What does he want?

I watch dutifully as he folds his hands in his lap, crossing his ankles and looking to the floor. Always so shy. One of the many things about him that I've grown fond of.

"All I've been able to think about today is how, even though you've been here for a year, I know almost nothing about you."

I smile tightly. "Well, one of the few things you know about me is that I don't really like to talk."

He nods in acquiescence. "Still, I don't…" He bites his lip. "You've never told me why you're here. You're from Twelve, but… Katniss, that's all I know."

Well, I guess we've both been good about keeping secrets.

"My favorite color's green," I say lamely, unsure of what else I should tell. I know what his is; half of his paintings feature a soft, pastel sunset-orange.

He lets out a breathy laugh. "Well, it's good we've finally gotten into the deep stuff."

"What do you want to hear?" It comes out a little more defensive than intended.

Scratching the back of his neck, he sighs. "I want to know what made you choose this."

I stare blankly at him, my mind whirling in effort to fabricate something believable. In the year I've spent with him, Prim's name hasn't ever come up.

Although, once I think about it, I don't know why I've kept her a secret for so long. Peeta isn't going to hurt me, which is something I came to accept relatively quickly in our arrangement.

"My sister and I were starving," I say suddenly, my admission abrupt enough to make him startle at my voice. But my words soften him, and I see his face contort in surprised sympathy. "She's fourteen—well, fifteen, now. Four years younger than me. Our dad died when I was eleven, and our mom's been functionally a ghost since then, so it's been my responsibility to care for her. But we were so hungry, and I wasn't enough for her. I—I needed to do this. She wouldn't have made it if I didn't."

His face is pale as I tell him this, but once I'm done, he slips off the stool and comes to sit beside me on the bed, pulling me into his lap. My face tucks perfectly into his neck, the warmth of his skin sending feathers of heat down my spine; I hadn't realized how well I fit here, against his body.

One of his hand smoothes down my hair in a reassuring gesture. "You miss her." It isn't a question.

"Like hell," I reply with a dark chuckle.

He pulls my face away from him, cupping my jaw and inspecting me as if it's his duty to make sure I haven't shattered into a million pieces. "And you haven't talked to her since?"

"No," I say. And what choice did I have? It's not like she and Mom have a phone in their shitty excuse of a shack. And to write a letter, I'd need to buy postage, which means asking Peeta for money. It was never a matter of him giving it to me – he's always willing to grant me what I need to run to the supermarket or the bookstore – but more a matter of telling him about Prim, which until tonight, seemed absolutely ludicrous.

His thumb strokes my cheek, just as if he were comforting a lover, and the notion makes my stomach churn. But the feeling isn't unpleasant. Realizing how close he is to me, with his arms around me and cradling me in his lap, I suddenly feel something tingling in my belly, some foreign ache settling deep in my core.

"We'll write to her in the morning," he promises, and before I realize what's happening he's pressing a kiss to my forehead, and I can feel it all the way down to the tips of my toes. He does this occasionally, but each time it feels like fire. Mostly because I'm never expecting it.

I expect him to pull away from me, or to gently push me from his lap, but he doesn't. Instead, he clings tight, and I find that I don't want him to stop, that I don't want to break from him. So I don't.

Eventually, still intertwined, we lay down on his tiny bed. He pulls back the covers for us, and we slip between the sheets, wrapped up in each other's bodies and heat, a snug tangle of limbs. We eventually fall asleep like this, and I awake in the morning to him drawing gentle patterns over each dimple in my spine with his index finger.

Although we don't talk about it, the next evening we curl up in my bed and do the same. And then, the night after that. And the night after that. There are no wandering hands, no sloppy kisses or inexperienced movements. On the surface, our arrangement is as innocent as it'd been when I would sleep with Prim, fighting off the cold together in our bed back in Twelve.

So I don't know why I feel a hollow ache tingling deep in my belly every time he cradles me against him, or why his touch leaves me craving something beyond my reach.


7. The Letters

We write Prim the following morning. It has to be a joint mission, because my handwriting and spelling are atrocious, considering I rarely made it to school growing up in Twelve. Food had always been more important than education, so unfortunately for me, my grammar never developed spectacularly.

Accordingly, I dictate what needs to be said, and Peeta scrawls it across the parchment in his incredible cursive. His script shouldn't surprise me – he's an artist, after all, which is a talent that bleeds into everything he does; into his general movements, into his touches, into the beautiful piping on the cakes he decorates.

The first letter is fairly abridged. I tell her I'm okay, that I'm married to a baker, that he treats me well, that I've gained a healthy ten pounds and don't look like a popsicle stick anymore. That he's nine years older than me, but because he's so good to me, I've stopped noticing the age difference.

After we've sealed the letter, I can't help but notice how Peeta's practically glowing.

We're delivered a response within the month. It's the first time I cry in front of Peeta. Prim's more than fine – in fact, she's thriving – as she goes to school every day and helps Mom at the apothecary, and they've also been eating well, and Gale sometimes brings them game on Sundays, when he's off from the mines. He asks about me a lot, but they haven't been able to tell him anything.

Peeta asks me who Gale is. When I tell him that he's been my closest friend since Dad died, Peeta's face grows slightly stony, but he tries to mask it with a half-assed grin.

We write Prim back, and that night, when we're in bed, Peeta asks me what I miss about Twelve.

"Prim, and the woods," are all I can say, because that's really it. If Mom hadn't been so mentally absent, she'd be on that impossibly short list, too.

Peeta's quiet for a few moments.

"What about your friend?"

"Gale?"

"Gale."

I think it over. "I guess I miss him, too."

Peeta's arms, which have been cuddling me to his chest, loosen their grip just a fraction, but it's noticeable enough to cause me to look up to meet flat eyes.

"Something wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Peeta." I know him better than that. We've been married for well over a year now, and even if our relationship hasn't evolved much beyond a platonic friendship, he's far from a stranger to me.

He uncoils one arm from my body, lifting it to rub his face.

"I'm an idiot." When I nudge him to continue, he lets out a sigh of acquiescence. "Jesus, I've never been a jealous person. What's wrong with me?"

"Jealous?"

He snags my gaze in his, eyebrows knit into a disbelieving frown. "Of Gale," he says, as if it's obvious.

"Why would you be jealous of Gale?" I cough, my face contorting in the way it would if I'd just sucked on a lemon.

"Was there anything between you?" he asks, his voice soft; even in his jealousy, Peeta can't bring himself to be angry. Which is quite a drastic contrast between him and I, something I always prized in him.

Still, his prying makes my blood bubble with heat. "N—god, no. I never thought—no. No. We were friends, Peeta! Hunting partners. Our dads were both in the same mining accident. How—Jesus, Peeta! Why does it matter to you?"

I expect some gentle excuse that imitates the ones he always calms me with whenever I get out of hand, but he catches me ridiculously off-guard with his actual response. I'm not sure either of us were expecting it, because I can feel both his and my shock shooting down to my toes the moment he leans in.

His lips are on mine in a heartbeat, his mouth insistent but still so soft. I feel his hands moving to cradle my jaw, securing my face to his, and fronds of electricity curl out from my core to lighten up the rest of my body.

It's my first real kiss, and initially, I'm afraid he'll be made painfully aware of my inexperience, but if he is, he doesn't let on. I feel his tongue tracing the seam of my lips; if anyone else had done this I think I'd be disgusted, but something about the gentleness of it and the fact that it's Peeta makes my entire body tingle. Suddenly I'm fisting handfuls of his shirt, yanking him close to me, his frame flattening so perfectly against mine.

What I'd been craving for the past few months, which had been so unknown, suddenly has an answer, and it's this. It's him. It's Peeta Mellark's mouth, painting me to life with tender, measured strokes.

Too suddenly, he's pulling away, our lips parting with a mechanical pop.

"Shit—Katniss, I—I'm sorry," he pants, and even wrapped in shadows, the blush in his cheeks is beautifully evident.

His apology hollows out a hole in my chest, and I sink back further on the bed. "Was it that bad?"

"B—bad?" He lets out a winded chuckle. "Jesus—Katniss, it definitely wasn't bad—"

Something in my eyes must betray my thoughts, because suddenly his mouth pops open. "Wait. Was that… that was your first kiss, wasn't it?"

My face must be cherry red with shame. I can't say anything.

His arms are around me then, his palm pressing into my back and arching me against his body. "I'm so sorry. You didn't want that, and I—"

"Who said I didn't want that?"

He's still for a few moments, and then he's tilting my chin up, our gazes locking.

"Was that okay?"

It was perfect, I want to tell him, although my own emotions are a little muddled right now – is this really what I want from him? From a Capitol man? Who paid for me to be his bride? Can I want this?

Breaking through the chaos, I settle on a weak nod.

His responding grin fills my stomach with a relentless swarm of butterflies, and before I have time to answer with a smile of my own, his lips have descended onto mine once more.


8. The Money

It's too much, Prim writes in one of her letters, which I read while hidden under one of my blankets, because Peeta can't see this. We don't need all this money. Mom's revenues have been up, and now we don't know what to do with all of it.

In the year and a half that Peeta and I have been together, the exact figure hasn't come up in conversation between us. Not that I haven't been curious, of course; it's just that the whole topic of Peeta's "ownership" is too taboo. Whenever the subject comes up, he gets visibly upset and ashamed. I know it's because he wants whatever we have to be real, and on some nights, when I fall asleep with my skin still humming in the wake of his perpetually-chaste kisses, it does feel real. But it can't be real, can it? If it weren't for me selling myself, and him contractually possessing me, this could never have happened, which is something we both know but refuse to say.

But with Prim's recent letter, I don't think I can sit by and avoid it any longer. Whatever sum Peeta's wiring to my family back in Twelve has become too much for them.

I confront him as we close the bakery that afternoon. He's scrubbing down a rolling pin, soap bubbles swathed all over the skin of his thick arms.

"Peeta," I begin, gripping the lip of the stainless steel countertop for support, "I need to talk to you."

He points a quick, encouraging smile my direction, completely oblivious to the giant storm cloud I've dragged into the room to hang over our heads.

I take a deep breath.

"How much money are you sending my family?"

His movements arrest, hands frozen mid-swipe. I expect him to drag his eyes away from the rolling pin – Peeta's always been a fan of eye contact – but after a short pause, he diligently returns to his work, keeping his focus cast downward.

"Why do you want to know?"

His expression is unreadable, and I can't tell whether he's angry or afraid or something else entirely. So I don't know how to proceed.

Meaning I have to tell him the truth.

With a grandiose swallow: "Prim sent me another letter. She's saying it's too much."

He shrugs indifferently. "It's really not."

"Peeta." My voice is firm enough to finally earn his focus; soon I'm drowning in startling blue, making this so much harder to tell him. "She doesn't need this much."

"This isn't her choice." He lowers the rolling pin into the sink, wiping down his hands and arms with a smudged towel. "It isn't mine, either. I have to send that amount."

I take a step toward him. "Can't you renegotiate?"

"Renegotiate?" His jaw's gone slack in surprise, as if I've just spurted horns out of my forehead. "Katniss, the contract's set in stone. Either we continue as we are, or—"

He stops himself, too afraid to say what we've both realized. These contracts have no timetables, and are terminable whenever the client wants to opt out. But it's Peeta's choice, not mine; he would never give me that option. Right?

We seem to think this through simultaneously, and when I look back to him, his eyes have gone wide as saucers.

And then he asks what I never thought he would.

"Do—do you want out?" His voice is such a soft, broken whisper that I almost wonder if I've imagined hearing those words, but the question is evident enough on his face to keep me from writing it off as fiction.

I say the first thing that comes to mind.

"Peeta, this whole arrangement we have has nothing to do with what I want."

But the moment the words fizzle from my tongue, I realize just how wrong I was to say this. His face contorts in something more arcane than simple pain, and he visibly flinches at my insinuation. He throws the towel into the sink and breezes past me, stalking right out of the kitchen.

"Wait—" I try to follow him, but he's surprisingly fast as he leaps up the steps. "Peeta, I didn't mean—"

He whirls around at the top of the stairs, his eyes already stinging a rosy-pink shade, hands trembling at his sides. "You're right, Katniss, okay?"

"No, I'm not, I—"

"We don't have to lie about this anymore." He's rubbing his face, a slight quiver hijacking his entire frame, and all I want is to reach out and touch him, or hold him, and apologize a million times over. "You never wanted to be here, and I've just been fooling myself into pretending that what I've put you through is okay, but it's not, and I need to stop lying to the both of us."

"You're not lying!" I reach out for his fingers, but he just yanks his hand out of reach. "Peeta—"

"Stop," he orders, and the command in his voice makes my entire body grow still. Even though he's always held the power, he's never exercised it before, allowing me to function as his equal.

Until now.

He takes a deep breath, refusing to look me in the eye. "I'm not going to keep you here any longer, alright? You don't need me anymore. I'll end the contract tomorrow."

It's clear he doesn't want to be followed, and so I let him pen himself away in his loft.

I was the one who was forced into a marriage I had no control over – how is it that I feel like I've been the one using him?


9. The Truth

I blink myself into consciousness, a thick sheen of grogginess still swimming in my head. The clock on the bedside table tells me there's still a few hours left in the night, even though everything around me seems to be still.

I must've fallen asleep after our fight. Peeta had retreated to the loft, and I'd refused to allow myself to follow him, so I'd snuggled up with the cold, stiff sheets and tried to think it all over. But being in bed without him felt so strange – when was the last time we slept apart? – and I kept tossing on my side in a vain search for his warmth, only finding cool fabric where his body should've been.

Although there are still a thousand things I don't know about Peeta, his feelings for me are certainly not a mystery. Why he cares for me is something I'll never understand, but I know that he does. He likes my company, since he's been so lonely in the past few years; despite my prickly exterior and white-bread personality, he seems to want me around.

Which is why my brash comment upset him so much. Peeta's never done anything to hurt me, and I don't think he ever would. He took me from an auction that could've dispensed me to a variety of awful men, and provided me a home in which I felt valued. And, not only did he feed me and take care of me, but he also gave my sister everything she needed and more.

And I repay him by insinuating that what I want doesn't matter to him.

But… what do I want? Of course, I want to go back to Twelve. Prim's my saving grace, my sunshine, and I miss her more as each day passes; I'd give anything at all to go back to her. So I can't lie and tell Peeta I'd rather stay here. As well as we get along, my sister will always take precedence.

Just because I don't want to stay, though, doesn't mean I don't want him at all. What I feel for him is a muddled cluster of confusion and intricacy, but I can't deny there's something there. After all, we've been together for over a year and a half, and have been sleeping together for nearly one-third of that time, and have been kissing for almost as long. Peeta was the first person I ever wanted that type of intimacy from. The only person who I ever wanted more from, whatever more may be.

I twist myself tighter into the sheets until I can hardly breathe, and then suddenly I'm plucking myself from the fabric, my bare feet flattening against the floorboards. Although I don't know how to fix this, I need Peeta to know how I feel. That my wanting to go back home does not mean I don't like it here with him.

With inaudible footsteps, I sidle up to his loft, my heart knotting in my stomach when I find the place empty. The entire apartment is dark, I realize; has he left?

In a whirl of panic, I hurry back to the second floor, and then down the other flight of stairs, landing me in the corner of the kitchen.

In the gloom, a dark silhouette hunches over the side of one of the tables, and I feel my palms begin to sweat.

"Peeta, what are you doing down here?"

The figure startles at the sound of my voice, but doesn't lift his head. I swat the wall in search of the light switch, and when I find it, I watch as the white lighting flickers to life, revealing my Peeta sitting at the edge of the counter, his hands shielding his face underneath the mess of tangled, blonde curls.

I wade over to him, leaving a foot of static air between us. Surprisingly, he doesn't flinch away when I cup his shoulder with my palm, his skin too warm under the fabric of his shirt.

"I never intended to hurt you," he says, his voice shaking and muffled by his hands.

Everything in me aches. "You never did hurt me." I know it's not enough, but at least it's the truth.

With an exhausted sigh, his hands fall to the steel countertop, baring red-rimmed eyes in puffy sockets. "I forced you into a marriage you didn't want."

"You were the best thing that could've happened," I say, once again spoon-feeding him nothing but the truth. "Anyone else could've treated me awfully. You treated me like a human being. Like I'm worth something."

"Because you are, Katniss."

My chest twinges, and I brush my thumb over his shirt in a motion I can only hope he finds remotely soothing. "I want to know why you did it. I never understood why someone like you would need to… to buy someone."

On the surface before him, his fingers fold together, his focus fixated on the way they twist together. "I didn't need to."

I can feel myself frown. "Then… why did you?"

Peeta begins rubbing his face again in a show of both exhaustion and pain, as if he's been swimming through an ocean of thumbtacks for the entire evening.

"I can't tell you."

"I have to know."

"You'd hate me."

My gaze is unwavering as I wait for him to finally lock eyes with me.

"I could never hate you, Peeta."

He wrings his hands together again, eyes squeezing shut as he evidently battles over this decision. After an indefinite amount of time, he finally lets out a sigh of compliance.

"I was there to speak to my father," he says, his gaze boring into mine as if that single sentence is supposed to clear up every last square inch of fog.

But it only confuses me more. "Your… father?"

"I hate what he does," he growls. "I always have, since he started doing that, which is why I cut myself off from him when I finally had enough money to get by on my own. That's why I opened this bakery. It's my business, completely separate from him, something he can't control."

There must be some meaning behind his words that tell it all, but I'm hopelessly clueless about what they could be.

He must see this in my expression, because he continues on with his explanation. "But I… I still love him, you know? Even though he's a con who completely takes advantage of people, he's my father, and I wanted to see if there was still something salvageable in him. If there was something I could say to make him realize how awful what he does is, maybe to make him stop… I don't know, Katniss, I—"

And in that moment, his words melt away and leave a fuzzy-sounding hum in their wake, my focus fading out as I suddenly begin to understand.

The man who ran the entire enterprise….

That was Peeta's father.

It explains so much – the reason why Peeta was at the auction house, why he's always so reluctant to speak of his family, why he's chosen to be alone for these past several years – and yet, it leaves so much left unsolved.

"But why me?" I ask, interrupting him.

Something flashes across his eyes, an air akin to pain rooting itself in his expression, and he curls his hand into a firm fist.

With closed eyes and a strained jaw, Peeta finally tells me the truth.

"I had finally found him when you came up on the platform. I wasn't paying attention when they were announcing who you were, but then they said—" He swallows hard, as if to hold back vomit—"that you were a—a virgin, and my dad looked to me and said that if the top amount wasn't very high, he'd take you for himself."

My blood splinters into ice inside my veins, my entire body feeling as if it's been encased in iron. I can't remember the last time I felt so nauseous, but I clamp my hand over my mouth, hoping I can hold myself together.

Peeta's still trembling when he finally looks up to me, his eyes brimming with guilt, as if he's got something to apologize for.

"I—I couldn't just let him do that to you. An eighteen-year-old girl, who was obviously starving and scared, and who had never—never—" Without prelude, he slams his fist against the counter, and I jump a little, the passion in his gesture so concrete and sharp that it anchors me back to reality.

"Peeta," I whisper, and my voice sounds so far away, fading around the edges, but I've gained his attention anyway. "You—you brought me here to… protect me?"

His responding grin, which is equal parts sheepish and guilty, makes my stomach bloom with heat. "I know I didn't have any right, and that I didn't even know you, but… I had to put down enough money to make sure that he – or some other sick fuck – wouldn't be able to violate an innocent girl." He blows out a long puff of air, combing his fingers through his hair. "It's why I wasn't ready for you. And why I didn't—didn't want anything from you. Please know that I never intended to put you in this position."

But can't he see that this is the safest possible situation I could be in? I'm in a safe home, with a man who's as respectful as he is protective, and whose payments have allowed my sister and mother to survive back in Twelve.

I've spent too many nights trying to imagine the ways in which this could've gone better, but each time, I come up with nothing.

My hand glides downward, from the curve of his shoulder over the corded muscles of his arm, down past the crook of his elbow to his palm, where I lace my fingers in with his. He goes rigid for only a split second before the tension in his body snaps, and his hand pulses on mine.

I open my mouth to say something, but sensing my impending statement, he begins to babble on about our arrangement. "I don't want to keep you from your sister any longer, and I don't want to keep funneling money over to a family that's more than fine on their own. So as soon as the offices open in the morning, I'll call in and ask for our contract to be terminated." His eyes fall to our interlocked fingers. "But I can send you money in the future, if you need it. I have more than enough here."

My mouth pops open before I can remember to filter my reaction. "Peeta, I can't just take your charity like that."

"It's not charity." My stomach wrings itself at the sight of his golden eyelashes fluttering in the white lamplight, a sad smile stretching at his lips. "Consider it an overdue payment for all the work you've done here."

I'm shaking my head, though. I can't ask that of him.

"Why are you doing this?" I whisper.

Our focuses both train on our joined hands, clinging together as if they're the only things keeping us from floating into space. And that's enough of an answer.

And yet, he provides me with even more, because this man will never stop giving, and giving, and giving.

"This is what's best for you," he concedes with a self-deprecating smile. "You belong with your sister."

Only now do I understand the depth of my greed. Because I want two things, when I can only choose one.

But at this moment, in which we've entered this state of operative limbo, maybe I can have both, if only for one night. I can still cling to the prospect of returning to my sister, while comforting myself in the arms of a man who I, by some impractical twist of fate, have become unpredictably fond of.

His hand still secured in mine, I crawl on his lap, hitching my legs on either side of his abdomen as he struggles to keep his balance on the stool. His eyes are frantic, evidently shocked by my aberrant boldness, but he doesn't push me away. Instead, his free hand finds purchase on my waist, his thumb affectionately circling my hip bone.

"Katniss," he begins, my name sounding like a warning on his tongue. But his voice is husky, his pupils dilating noticeably in a way that betrays the thoughts he isn't saying out loud. "You don't have to do this. You—you don't need me anymore."

My palm curves around his shoulder, gliding up his neck and into his hair, braiding itself in those soft curls.

"I do, Peeta," I tell him, before slanting my mouth over his.

Immediately, I'm aware that there's something different about this kiss to set it apart from the hundreds we've shared before. There have been the quick, chaste ones in the kitchen that we've offered each other in passing; there've been the measured, deep ones before falling asleep together in the evenings; there've been the gently lazy ones that've drawn me from my sleep at sunrise. But, regardless of how passionate or how sustained each of those kisses had been, that's all they were. Kisses.

This, here, where our lips move together and beg our hands to do the same, feels like so much more.

Heat razes my belly, the warmth spreading from my core all the way to my fingertips and toes. I gasp as his tongue dips into my mouth and curls around my teeth, which is something he's never done before but feels so damn good, his taste making my mind go wild.

His palms smooth over my back, curving my body against his as he drags me over his hips, unexpected tendrils of pleasure singing through my systems at the contact. He grips the backs of my thighs as he sucks my lip into his mouth, coaxing a sound from me that I didn't know I was capable of making. But whatever it is, it seems to spur him on, because suddenly he's assaulting my neck with hot, open-mouthed kisses, and I feel myself soaring into a realm I hadn't even realized was within reach.

In a flurry of desperate mouths and eager touches, Peeta pulls us from the stool and spirals us out of the kitchen, up the stairs and into the bedroom. A small voice in the corner of my mind pipes up as we twist out of our shirts, asking me if this is really what I want.

As if Peeta's got some odd telekinetic ability, he stills at the edge of the bed, the bare skin of our stomachs searing as they meld together in the gloom.

"Are you sure about this?" he whispers, brushing my cheek with his thumb before tucking my hair behind the shell of my ear.

I take the recess he's afforded me to actually considering this. Would this make a goodbye more difficult? Probably. Will I lose him for good once I return to Twelve? Maybe.

But is this what I want? Had I been pawned off to another man, I would've already been forced through this by now, only with someone who wouldn't treat me well, and someone who I didn't trust. With Peeta, this is my choice.

And the fact that he's given me the power to decide whether we take this step or not speaks volumes.

Peeta loves me. He hasn't said it, but his feelings are evident in every touch, every lingering gaze, every soft smile, in every word he speaks and doesn't speak. Growing up, I was more concerned with verifying that Prim and I would have dinner for the evening than I was with fantasizing about my first time, but I guess I always had hoped it'd be with a man who loved me, who'd keep me safe and wouldn't break my heart come morning. I have that in Peeta, the man who should've never been in my life, and yet, has turned everything upside-down for me in the most magnificent way imaginable.

I suppose I always wanted to love the person, too. To not only have them love me, but to be able to reciprocate that.

As I gaze up at Peeta through the gloom, the glowing blue of his irises drowning out every remaining fear I cling to, I realize that's something I have, too. That reciprocation.

I answer his question by sealing my lips to his, robbing him of his breath in the same way he's taken my doubts from me and replaced them with trust.

He's impossibly gentle with me when we finally come together in a way I could've never predicted myself needing. It begins with his lips touching mine before blazing a trail of white-hot flesh along my jaw, my throat, over my breast, across my belly, and down to the space between my thighs that's been aching all night. I hadn't believed this was something that couples actually did – bringing their lovers to life with their mouths – and it shocks me at first, but the initial panic liquesces into raw gratification as his tongue paints love songs into my flesh. It only takes a few minutes before I sing for him, his palms flattening on my hips to hold me as I arch off the bed, my mind spiking to some otherworldly cosmos, the stars and the moon and the sun all bursting like globes of color behind my lids.

He hovers over me as I gather my scattered bearings, his hips cradled between my splayed thighs. Panic surges through me once I see how large he is, convinced he's not going to fit, but then his lips are on my cheek, by my ear.

"I'll be gentle." He kisses my nose and strokes the outside of my thigh while wrapping my leg around his hip; shivers jet through every neuron in my body. And then his eyes lock on mine. "I'll take care of you, Katniss."

My anxiety melts into ash when he says that, because how could I not trust him? For the past year and a half, he's done nothing but just that.

It's a little uncomfortable at first, but not as painful as I'd expected. His mouth sealing over mine certainly helps, as do his fingertips tracing soothing circles against the skin of my hip. With each movement, though, the discomfort begins to quell, and that liquid heat in my belly that'd drowned me just moments before begins to rise again, crashing over me in its tidal dominance.

And Peeta's so wonderful, impossibly gentle even though I can tell he's struggling to hold back, his jaw screwed tight as we connect over, and over, and over again. I fall in love with the glossy look in the blue that locks with my silver, and I fall in love with the sloppy kisses that break every time he moves forward, and I fall in love with the sounds that burst in the back of his throat that make me feel so powerful even though he's controlling the pace, because I'm doing this to him, because I'm the only one who can make him feel like this.

Maybe he's been with other girls – he must've been before, because he clearly knows what he's doing – but I'm surprised when I find I don't care. Because here, now, he clings to me as if I'm the only girl in his entire universe, rocking into me with such devoted avowal, as if there will never be anyone else. Selfishly, I don't want there to be. As irrational as the desire is, a part of me wishes that we could be it for each other, even though I'm aware that by the end of the week, I'll be thousands of miles away.

But that doesn't matter, because in this moment, I'm as close to Peeta as I'll ever be with anyone, the connection so electric that it steals my breath. The growing ache in my belly becomes tighter, hotter, as I near that summit I'd toppled from before. By the way Peeta's motions are losing their tempo, I deduce he's nearly there, too.

So, as that imaginary coil snaps and sends me into sweet, ethereal rapture, I seal my open mouth against the warm skin of his neck. It muffles my cry, but the feel of my lips on his throat must send him over, because he loses his pace, his hips stilling over mine as he drops his face to my breast, emptying his own moan there and making my skin hum.

We lay there like that for a while, slick with sweat and still joined. Eventually, he tries to pull away, but I cling to his shoulders and bury my face in his neck, willing myself to keep it together.

Peeta must sense the change in mood, because he flips us over so he's on his back, my body splayed across his warm, broad chest. His fingertips comb through my tangled hair, and then trace patterns across every dimple in my spine as he whispers gentle things against my ear. I keep expecting this moment to end, fearing that Peeta will lug me off him to go clean up. But he must understand my need for him to stay physically close in the last few hours we have left like this, because when I blink myself awake in the morning, neither of us have moved.


10. The Train Station

His arms loop around my shoulders, and mine are coiled around his waist. We hold each other like that for what could be centuries on the platform, pretending we can ignore the hulking metal train not even twenty feet away.

When they call for boarding, we untangle ourselves. I'm thankful I'm not the only one with wet eyes; we try to smile at each other, but the encouraging gesture doesn't work on either of us.

"You'll write me, right?" he says, cupping my jaw. "Send me lots of pictures of you and Prim."

I swallow hard and nod.

His gaze flickers between my eyes, a million different emotions battling for dominance in his expression, before he finally leans in for a final kiss.

It's too short, our lips popping apart and our foreheads tilting together before I can even take the opportunity to savor it.

"Katniss?"

I blink up at him.

His Adam's apple bobs, his jaw flexing as if he's afraid to say something, but I coax it out of him by grazing my palms over his neck.

He squeezes his eyes shut.

"You know that I—I love you."

The endearment startles me, because I hadn't expected to ever hear these words from him, even though I'd assumed them to be true. Still, the sound of the admission curling on his tongue sends warmth bounding in my bloodstream, and I crush my body to his, my cheek flattening against his chest as I breathe him in.

"I know," I say, which is the best I can do, even though he should know that I feel the same. I just can't bring myself to say it, because in a few seconds I'll have to drag myself away, and telling him the truth would make that goodbye impossible.

It's still brutal, pain prickling every inch of my skin as I force myself to pull back, cheeks wet and body trembling. But I have to do this. This is allowing me to be with Prim again. Shouldn't I be rejoicing? That after only a year and a half, I'm allowed to come back to Twelve unscarred?

Well, I suppose I never planned on falling in love. That sure as hell complicates things.

Before I can do something rash like plead for Peeta to take me in again, I turn on my heels, padding toward the train. But each step feels like a punch in the gut after another, the ache in my core only spiking with the more space I put between us. This is what I have to do, but as I reach the steps leading up to the train, I realize that it's something that I simply can't.

So I freeze. I pivot. Peeta's still standing there, overseeing my goodbye, his expression so painfully crushed that it seals the deal.

"Come with me, Peeta."


11. The Ending

"I'd help with the dishes, but I've got about twenty million hours of homework to get done," Prim says as she dumps her empty plate in the sink. And then she kisses me on the cheek, flouncing off into the living room.

I shake my head and chuckle under my breath, scooting out from the table to make my way to the sink. I hear the squeal of another chair against the tile, and heavy, lopsided footsteps behind me, and then a warm hand on my waist as I hover over the pile of dishes.

"I guess it's just you and me," Peeta announces, pressing a kiss to my cheek.

"That's probably a good thing. We're pretty productive when it's just the two of us."

He turns on the tap, using a fork to scrape the gravy remnants from one of the plates. "What can I say? We make a good team."

I nudge his hip with mine, and he mimics my action.

It's only been four months since I brought Peeta back to Twelve with me, but his company feels so customary already that I wonder if he's belonged here all along. Prim has no difficulty treating him like an older brother, and Mom seems to forget he isn't her actual son.

We all upgraded to a slightly larger house when Peeta and I arrived, one with a room allocated just for us, although we're not home often. Within three weeks of moving, Peeta had already bought an old, timeworn shop in the merchant quarter and renovated it into a bakery. Although he still does all of the baking, there are consistently things for me to do, allowing me to spend my work days with him.

His company is a luxury I could've never predicted needing in the way I do. Some nights, while I fall asleep with his arms securing me to him, I find myself wondering how I got here. Luck had never been on my side until Peeta, but it consistently seems to favor us now.

As we do the dishes, he leans over to dot my nose with another kiss. "Have I ever told you how thankful I am you dragged me to Twelve with you?"

"Daily," I say with a snort. "But if I remember correctly, you came pretty willingly."

The only thing keeping him back was his Capitol bakery, but even that was a loose end that was practically too easy to tie.

"Can you blame me?" He flicks some suds at my arm, and I splash him back, dampening his grey t-shirt. He steps away from the dishes, a dangerous glint in his eyes as he pulls me to him with soapy hands, tickling my waist.

I let out a sharp giggle and try to twist away, but Peeta's stronger, and he pins me against the counter, fingertips dancing relentlessly along my sides until I'm desperately gasping for air.

"You win!" I concede with deep, labored breaths, and he chuckles, pecking my cheek.

When we're finished with the dishes and clad in our pajamas, we curl up on the sofa, watching the fire crackle at our toes. The warmth of the embers seems to ribbon us together, the woodsy scent from the flames transporting me back to the night we'd come to Twelve, kneeling by the fire as we each dipped a small heel of bread into the flames. Before, our marriage had seemed like only a technicality.

Now, it was real. Everything was real.

He takes my feet into his lap, working his knuckles across the aching soles.

"Are they feeling any better today?" he asks, nodding at my swollen ankles.

I shrug, mostly because he'll continue to rub my feet if I don't answer. His hands soothe the mild ache there, and I recline, leaning my head against the arm of the sofa.

We're quiet for a short while, our eyes both lost in the flickering color of the fire, before he inhales.

"I hope she's a girl."

I look to the bulky curve of my belly, the one that seems to grow every damn day, and then to him.

"Why?"

Still focusing on the fire, Peeta quirks the corner of his mouth a little, forming the soft grin I love so much. I hope the baby has his smile.

Finally, his gaze flickers to me. "I want her to be exactly like her mom."

I snort. "Stubborn? Awkward?"

"Strong," he corrects. "Brave. Beautiful."

I try to hide my smile, and as he leans over to place a gentle kiss to the curve of my belly, the only thing I can think of is how could I have come to be so lucky, and how this, all of this, can possibly be so wonderfully and beautifully real.


All mistakes were mine. Come talk to me on Tumblr at the-peeta-pocket, where you can ask me for drabbles that hopefully won't get as carried away as this.