Disclaimer: I do not own Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay

A/N: Recently I reread the Hunger Games trilogy, and I completely understood why I was compelled to write this piece after the first time I read Mockingjay. As a reader, there was so much more I wanted to know – how did Peeta recover from the hijacking? How did he and Katniss eventually end up together? Don't get me wrong – I absolutely loved the books. Having that not all spelled out for us means we get to make up our own accounts of what happened. So, this is the story that I imagined – the story of Peeta's recovery and return to District 12 and Katniss. I hope you enjoy it!

I'm staring again.

It's like I'm still that boy. The boy in school who couldn't keep his eyes off the girl. Not talking, just staring. I actually think it's pretty pathetic that after everything we've been through, that this is how things are.

She looks different. But then, so do I. Our bodies both ravaged by fire. I'm thankful her face is the same; still the face I know so well. My eyes scan the parts of her that aren't covered by her Mockingjay outfit – her neck, her hands. I see the familiar crazy pattern of grafts. The areas that needed all new skin, the areas they didn't touch. I sit there staring, following the map of lines on her left hand with my eyes, imagining tracing the lines with my fingers. Wondering if she'd let me.

My mind travels back to the moment she walked in. The brief glance at me. I wonder, in that time did she notice that there are no manacles, no guards hovering over me? Does she know that my mind is better, that I understand more? That I remember how much I loved her and still do?

This is the first time we've seen each other since she hugged me goodbye in Tigris's shop. Not the first time I've seen her though. I saw her then, the moment her world went up in flames. The moment she lost Prim.

I don't think she even knows that I was right there, and she might hate me if she found out. That I was following her, that I only wanted to help her, to protect her. It was insane. Peacekeepers, rebels, refugees, pods. Trying to keep my eyes on her, seeing her almost lost in that abyss. Panic started to overwhelm me. Not the bad panic, like I wanted to kill her. No, it was more like it used to be, like it should be. That I had to protect her at any cost. I was desperate to find her. Then I saw her at the flagpole. Gale wasn't with her anymore, her cloak was different. She looked so vulnerable there, so alone. I raced through crowds of refugees to get to her, pushing them aside, yelling at them to get out of my damn way.

For a moment, I was distracted by the hovercraft, the Capitol's emblem gleaming like a symbol of the most sickening hate. My emotions all started to tangle together. Rage at the hovercraft, followed by fleeting pleasant memories when I saw the silver parachutes drift down. Followed by absolute horror and shock when a couple dozen of them exploded. Blood splattered, pieces of people and flesh flew out towards the crowd. My eyes began to lose focus, I felt unsteady. But, I had a job to do. I had to help Katniss. When my eyes focused again, I spotted her. Not far in front of me, she was trying to get through the crowd, calling out something. I freaked out. That was not okay! She was going to blow her cover, and I frantically tried to get to her. Closing the gap. Ten feet away. Eight feet away. Five feet away. I noticed a few people pointing at her. She was about to get caught. I had to save her. I had to. Just a couple of feet. I couldn't risk calling her name, putting her in greater danger. I knew I'd just have to grab and pull her out of there and find a safe spot together. Two feet away, almost within reach.

Then, a million explosions going off at once. The sky lit up with fire and flame and noise. Bodies, still upright, but absolutely engulfed in flames. I didn't even know it then, that Prim was one of them. Then a fireball hit Katniss, like it was aiming right for her and she literally became the girl on fire. At that point, I was shouting, my arms reaching for her, clawing for her, but then I was on fire too. Screaming in agony. Fearing I really was losing her this time. Blanking out in the panic and pain and confusion.

If only I could have gotten there faster. I've played it out in my head way too many times: I close the gap and grab her. She turns, sees me, and confusion crosses her face. I try to reassure her, I'm okay, I want to protect her. She has doubts, but it doesn't matter, because at least she's looking at me when it happens. At least she doesn't see her sister become a torch.

When I woke in the burn unit, I didn't care about anything except knowing if she was alive or not. Once I got the answer to that, I knew I couldn't give up. The doctors pieced my body back together while I worked on repairing my addled mind. I had some help from Dr. Aurelius, but mostly it was just me. Walking torturously through each memory, trying to sort them all out. Which ones were shiny, which weren't. Which fit my concept of Katniss, which didn't. To be honest, when you're lying immobilitzed in a bed, unable to move due to pain, and under the power of sedatives, there's a lot of time to just think.

I decided that I wouldn't see her again until I was better. Until I knew I wouldn't have an overpowering desire to kill her. Because, honestly, ever since I got back, I've hated seeing the fear in her eyes. I've seen a million emotions in Katniss' expressions towards me over the last couple of years – apprehension, worry, joy, confusion, annoyance, anger, even desire, maybe love. But never fear. That's what hurt the most. So, I stayed away and avoided her until I knew she wouldn't have to look at me that way. As much as it just about killed me, I didn't tempt myself by going to look at her either, even though she was only a couple of rooms away. Because I knew if I did, I couldn't have stayed away.

I liked to imagine her coming to see me. Suddenly looking up and seeing her standing in my doorway. I'd sit up in my bed (my restraints clearly no longer needed), start to stand, but she'd be by my side already. And she'd want to reach out and touch me. Like she did when we said goodbye. That was a moment I didn't think would ever happen, Katniss wrapping her arms around me. Before that, she had done everything in her power to avoid touching me, even recoiling when she'd find herself near me. But then she embraced me right before we left Tigris's shop. I couldn't believe she was in my arms again, her body pressed close against mine, just like it used to be. Making me feel a way I thought I'd never feel again. That's what I imagined in the burn unit, but it never happened.

So, I didn't see her, until just about 5 minutes ago, just after Haymitch showed up to fetch me for this meeting. It was a surprise to see Haymitch. He checked up on me a couple of times in the burn unit, but mostly he kept his distance. Maybe it's like how he could only choose one of us to help in the Games, and again he picked Katniss.

He walked into my room without much greeting and threw a gray District 13 uniform on my bed. Told me to change into it quickly, that I was wanted in a meeting, that Snow was getting what he deserved today. I muttered some kind of agreement and he was about to go. But he stopped, reached into his pocket, and pulled something out. He held it out for me, but I couldn't tell what it was. He placed it in my hand. It was a pearl. I couldn't figure out what the meaning of it was, although there was some kind of fuzzy memory attached to it.

"It was in her pocket. When they cut her clothes away, after the fire. This was found in her pocket," was all he said.

We both just stood there, me holding the pearl and trying desperately to remember, Haymitch just watching me. And it was like a space started opening in my brain, a pocket of air that started small but then was expanding and in it was suddenly a vivid memory. The clock arena. A beach. Opening an oyster. Showing something to Katniss, saying something funny. Katniss and I laughing. Holding the pearl out to her. Katniss holding it in her palm, wrapping her slender fingers around it. Looking deep into my eyes.

She kept it? That little pearl? Through the Arena to District 13, everything that happened there, and then back here to assassinate Snow. She had it with her? This pearl? My mind started racing. My heart too.

Haymitch turned to go, and stopped. Without looking he just said, "There's still hope, you know." He paused, then added, "For you, I mean," and walked out.

I just stared at the pearl, sitting in my palm. Haymitch's words played around in my brain. "There's still hope, you know. For you, I mean." Who did he mean by "you"? Just me? Or Katniss and me? What kind of hope? I wanted to ask him. My eyes caught the gray uniform, so I threw it on and raced out to find him. Only I was too late. He was just walking into the meeting when I caught up with him.

I rolled the pearl in my fingers as I entered the room. This one little pearl, like a drop of hope in an ocean of hurt, anger, and loneliness. I shoved it in my pocket.

So, here I am, staring at Katniss, holding this little piece of hope in my pocket, and she finally meets my eyes. And here I am again, the little boy in school, because I look away. Afraid that the hope I'm clinging to in my pocket is not real.