A/N: This takes place after Mockingjay and before the epilogue. I tweaked a few details, but otherwise, it sticks close to the story as written.
The amazing justaskalice beta'd this for me.
Suzanne Collins owns any characters that may appear in this story. No copyright infringement is intended.
At first, I can't tell when one day ends and another begins, and I don't care. Occasionally, I surface long enough to realize that I can't get a hand through my hair because it's so matted, which makes me wonder how many days have passed since it was brushed. Or I can't remember if I've gotten up out of my chair that day, or if it was yesterday. I am in the middle of eating another of Greasy Sae's meals, and I realize that she's using summer squash, which means it's growing now. When I came back to District 12, it was winter. I hadn't even noticed the snow melting and the air warming.
Each time I have a moment of clarity, I feel a little bad about not trying harder to be present. But not bad enough to actually be present. The absence is easier, so I am absent.
Things get better when I return to the woods; when I find my bow and arrows, left for me in a closet of the house along with my father's hunting jacket. At first, missing Gale nearly cripples me, but once I grow accustomed to that, the hunting brings me back to some elemental part of myself I'd nearly forgotten. In the woods, I don't need to plan and plot. I don't need to understand or work around the motivations of other people. In the woods, there are no political intrigues and questionable allegiances. There is only me, and the woods, and the prey. Old instincts kick in, and I move like another forest animal. And I am alive again.
It's much longer before I can really remember anything. At first, I have no distance, no perspective. It is all too recent and too real. If I think about it, the anger, the pain, the grief, will swallow me whole. So I push it all away.
I fall into something of a routine. I rise early, I go into the woods, I hunt, I bring home the game. I pass it off to Greasy Sae, who appears every day, with no explanation, to cook for me. She cooks, she leaves, I eat. The nights are the hardest. I gather wood, I make a fire. But once the fire is made, and the darkness is complete, I run out of business to keep me moving. And there is just me and the fire and my memories. It all comes back to me then. The Hunger Games, Snow, Coin, Peeta and Gale, Finnick, Cinna, and Prim. Prim…Prim.
Then I can't sleep and when I do, I twist and thrash all night long, waking to scream several times. I spend most nights hunched in the dark, praying for dawn, when I can step into the woods and find myself again.
It starts slowly. Peeta comes back to District 12 shortly after me. He moves back into his house in the Victor's Village just like me, just like Haymitch. He came to my house once, early on, to plant the primroses. I think this is just his way of honoring her; it's not about me. Peeta… it's too complicated and thinking about him is a thorny place that I get lost in and can't get back out of. So I don't.
Like me, he finds his own routine to make it through the days. He wakes early, like a baker, like his father. I see the smoke from his ovens when I am leaving for the woods every morning. He begins to show up at my door just as I arrive back, holding a loaf of fresh bread and sweet rolls for Greasy Sae's granddaughter, the simple one. He says almost nothing, and neither do I. I just take the bread and nod. He nods, too, then turns and leaves.
When he looks at me now, that crazed fear is gone from his eyes. The last of it was burned away in the Capitol, I think, and in the days after. He no longer wants to kill me on sight. Sometimes I wish he still did. I wish he would. It would be a relief to just stop. But then he'd be burdened with that, and I've burdened Peeta with enough for several lifetimes.
Peeta is there and not there. He's present, but only in the periphery of my life, like Haymitch. Like how I am to them, too, I suppose. The only person I really speak to, day-to-day, is Greasy Sae. She was an early returnee. District 13 was never a good fit for her. She'd rather go it alone in District 12. But soon, others filter back. Word is out that some of us are here and in the end, people want to come home and start over in a place that's familiar, rather than build a whole new life in the sterile machine that is District 13. So we have company. Every morning when I head to the woods, I pass familiar faces hard at work cleaning up rubble and clearing streets. When I return with more game than I can eat, it seems instinctive to stop and give it away to the families with small children. And before long, I am part of a community again, whether I want it or not.
I spend the whole long summer lost in the woods, learning to exist again. I keep it simple. I talk to Greasy Sae, and every few days, I go find Haymitch, throw some water on him, and make him get up, change clothes and eat something. I take Peeta's bread at the back door. I call my mother. I talk to Dr. Aurelius about nothing in particular. I get through every long night as best I can.
Fall comes, and nights come earlier and last longer. One day, Peeta shows up later than usual at my door. Greasy Sae is almost finished with dinner. She drags him inside and insists he eat, too. It's all fine until she leaves, like she always does, leaving me and Peeta staring at each other in uneasy silence. I gesture him towards a chair while I go to get a knife for the bread. As we eat, I look up at him every few minutes. Each time, I catch his blue eyes looking back at me before he quickly glances away. Just like in school, years before. And just like then, I can't read him at all. I never could tell what he was thinking.
After that, he shows up at the same time every day. And every day, Greasy Sae pulls him in to eat, too. After a while, she doesn't have to drag him in, he just comes. And I don't say anything, I just set another place. Slowly, we start to talk. At first, he just asks about the woods and my hunting. I tell him what I saw that day, and what I brought back. He tells me news from the village. Those that have returned have started coming to him for bread, so he hears all their stories. We are able to piece together what there is to know about the residents of District 12. Who lived, who died, who chose to stay in District 13, who moved on to another District, who has come back to 12.
One day, as we try to remember a detail about one of the miners, Peeta suggests we write it all down, like we used to with my mother's book. He says we're the closest thing to a history District 12 will ever have. It makes sense, and let's face it; it's another thing to fill my days, to keep me busy, to keep my mind from lingering on things it shouldn't.
So every day, after our meal, we spread out on my kitchen table. I write and Peeta draws. We put it all down, everything we can remember about District 12; the people, the events, starting with our earliest memories and working forward. It absorbs us, and I realize that this helps Peeta as much as it helps me. Getting lost in our memories of District 12 helps him to tell the real from the not real better than any therapy or treatment they devised back in 13. While we work, he hardly ever asks me if something is real or not real. This much he knows is true. These are the memories the Capitol couldn't touch.
He finds me again in those memories. The me of the burnt bread and the dandelions. I can almost see it happen in his eyes. I watch his shoulders relax day by day. I see his smile come quicker and last longer. He starts to look more and more like the Peeta I knew in our first Games and less like the haunted shell returned to me in 13.
Once, after we'd both been lost in the book for hours, I look up to see darkness out the window. Night has come sooner than I realized, and the house is cold. I make a fire and Peeta stands stiffly, preparing to leave.
"You could…" I start. He looks at me in question. "Do you want to stay a while? I made the fire already. I have tea."
Peeta thinks about it for just a minute before moving to sit on the couch, facing the fire. I think for a minute before I join him there. It's warm, and I'm comfortable, and Peeta's presence keeps away the anxiety and loneliness that usually comes with the night. We keep talking, our heads laying back on the couch, leaning in to face each other.
This becomes a new part of our days. We eat, we work on the book, we sit on my couch in front of the fire late into the evenings. The nights must be as bad for Peeta as they are for me, because he's always reluctant to go.
I remember the tour of the districts, how the only way either of us had a peaceful night was if we spent it together. So one night, when it's late, and I'm tired, and his eyes are drooping, I scoot closer to him, until my head is nearly touching his. He says nothing, he just reaches out for me, pulls me in against him, until my head is resting on his shoulder. It's just like I remember, and exactly what I want. For the first time in months, I let my eyes close without fear and nothing plagues my sleep.
When the weak morning sun filters through the window, we are still there, stretched out on the couch, curled together. We shift awkwardly and get up, keeping our eyes carefully averted.
"I should go," Peeta mumbles. "The ovens…bread…people will come by soon."
"Right," is all I say.
I trail after him to the back door, the way he always enters and leaves my house. He's half-way through it when he reaches back and grabs my hand— just my fingers, really— and gives them a brief squeeze. And something lying dormant in my chest, something I thought dead forever, shifts in its endless sleep.
Later that day, just like it's any day, he's back to eat and work on the book. I build a fire and we sit, close together this time, on the couch to watch it. Tonight, when my eyes get too heavy to keep open, I stand and reach for his hand. Peeta looks up at me, his face filled with uncertainty. I tug him to his feet and lead him after me to the stairs. I don't really think about what I'm doing, or what it means. I just know that we are better this way than we are separately. And after all we've lived through, if we can find some comfort in each others' company, then we should. It would be foolish not to.
Peeta doesn't say a word. He never did during all those nights on the tour of the districts. Now, just like then, I climb into my bed and fold the blanket back for him. He follows me in and my body finds his, the place against him that makes me feel safe. The only place left on earth, I think, that will. The night is empty of everything except the quiet sounds of our breathing. Empty of ghosts from the past and threats from the future. There is only me and Peeta and the dark and comfort.
In this way, we pass through fall and the winter. It's cold and the snows are heavy, but it feels entirely different than last winter, when I'd first been sent back to District 12. I still hunt. The families that have returned to 12 are still getting established and there's hardly any store of food laid by. I bring in as much game for them as I can, and Peeta bakes and bakes.
Greasy Sae sets herself back up in business, so I see less of her at my house. I can function on my own now, so I don't really need her, although once she's gone, I find I miss her. Peeta fills the gaps, coming to eat and staying the night, every night.
It's now, in the depths of winter, when the nights are long and quiet, and we have each other to hang onto when it gets bad, that we finally let ourselves talk about the Games. In our endless talks about 12, we got up to the Reaping and then stopped, by unspoken mutual agreement. Now, we go on. He tells me how hard it was to see me volunteer in Prim's place, but that he admired my courage, wondering if he'd ever be brave enough to risk his life for someone else's. I tell him that I wasn't brave, just desperate, and I list for him all the times when he's thrown his own life away with both hands to save mine.
By the time the air warms up and flowers begin to bloom in the meadow again, we've been over it all. We record what we can in our book but some things we leave out. Some of it needs to stay just between us.
Gale comes to visit.
A hovercraft with the new District 2 insignia sets down on the grass of the Victor's Village and Gale emerges. He's Gale and yet, not Gale. His clothes are fancy and expensive, his hair is trimmed short and official. I'd been told about his important new government job, but it doesn't seem real until I see this new, formal version of him walking towards me.
Even now, when I am getting better, my smiles are still scarce, but he brings one out of me. I cross the grass towards him and I have my arms around him before either of us has stopped moving. There is so much history between us, both bad and good, but for now, I only choose to remember the good, the huge part Gale played in my childhood. I actually laugh when he lifts me up off the ground with his embrace.
"Catnip!" he smiles, setting me down to take a look at me. I know I can't look like much, with my scars and burns, and I haven't taken care of myself at all, but he looks delighted to see me.
"What brings you all the way back to Twelve?" I ask him.
He shrugs. "Some business. Setting up supply lines, that kind of thing. None of it goes through the Capitol anymore, you know. There's a lot to be done, connecting all the Districts to each other."
I smile and nod. It's all very important to Gale, but honestly, I try very hard to keep myself away from current events. I can only make life work if I make it simple.
"Show me around," Gale says. "Everything looks so different."
So I do. I walk him through all the areas that are being re-built, the land that's being plowed under for crops. Everybody recognizes Gale, so we have to stop and talk to everyone. But we also catch up with each other. I find some polite questions to ask about his life in District 2. My mother would be so proud of my manners. He does most of the talking, and I'm happy to let him.
He asks after Haymitch and I tell him that Haymitch is as he always was, perpetually drunk. I've learned to just leave him be. He's found the way of coping that works best for him, and who am I to judge?
"And what about you?" Gale asks. "Have you found your way of coping?"
"I just live," I tell him simply. "One day after another. I don't look too far ahead."
"What about Peeta? Do you see him?"
I look down at my feet while I puzzle out how bet to explain our curious circumstances, to Gale, of all people. He senses my discomfort.
"You can tell me, Katniss. All that stuff…it was a long time ago. I'm over it."
He nods. "I've met someone."
"You have, huh?" I explore this idea from all sides, to see how it makes me feel. And I feel nothing. No, not quite nothing. I feel glad for Gale. He seems happy, and I'm glad that he is. There is nothing else, no lingering personal pain that accompanies this news, and I'm grateful for that. It seems like it really is history.
"She's great. But that's a story for another day. Tell me about Peeta. How is he?"
I think about my answer for a minute. Finally, I say, "He's like me. And you see how I am."
"You see him, then?"
"I see him."
I don't elaborate and he doesn't push any farther. Greasy Sae is at my house when we get back, cooking a celebration dinner for Gale.
"Peeta?" I say to her, because it's clear he's not there and hasn't been there.
She shrugs her shoulders and doesn't look up from the pot. "Keeping his own company, I suppose."
I glare at her falsely casual tone, but she doesn't see me do it, so the gesture is lost. I make an excuse to Gale and stomp down the worn path between our houses. When I get there, I'm not sure what to do; if I should knock or just go in. He just walks into my house, but I don't come here, so I don't know. Finally, I just go in. We're past manners, and he knows that.
Peeta's hunched over a sketch book at his kitchen table, drawing something. His head snaps up when I barge in and his whole body goes on alert. It takes a second for him to register that it's me and another second for him to work through the cascade of emotions and reactions my sudden appearance undoubtedly triggers in him. There will always be this. I give him a minute to work it out and relax his body.
"Gale came to visit," I say, like he could have missed the hovercraft landing in his front yard.
"I saw," Peeta says evenly, standing up and crossing his arms over his chest.
"Dinner's almost ready."
"You have company," he says, with just a hint of peevishness in his voice. I roll my eyes. After everything, are we really back to this? Gale and Peeta glaring at each other?
"Just come to dinner," I press. "Gale asked about you."
Peeta just looks at me, but there's uncertainty there now. And vulnerability, too. Yes, it seems we're really back to that. I cross over to stand in front of him. Then, slowly, I reach out for him, some part of him. I never reach for Peeta. He's always done the reaching. But I reach for him, and my fingers find his shirt, and I tug. He lets me pull him closer, and his hands come up to my hips. This is new. Well, it's new now. We've done this before, but in another lifetime, back when we were touring the districts. In this new, post-revolution reality, our physical relationship exists solely in the dark of my bedroom and is restricted to cuddling while we sleep. Physical affection in broad daylight, affection that's not for an audience, is all new for us.
"Please come," I say softly. "Gale wants to see you."
"Do you want me there?" he finally asks.
"I want you there. I always want you there."
He shifts his arms and he's embracing me. We're embracing each other. "I'll come," he murmurs against my hair.
I lead him out of his house and back down the path to mine. Greasy Sae and Gale are seated at the table already, laughing together. Peeta and I stop just inside the door, our hands still entwined. Gale looks up at Peeta and Peeta looks back. And this is how we are now. Me and Peeta. And Gale. We all silently acknowledge it before we sit down to eat with them.
Gale only stays the night, in my mother's old room. Peeta tries to leave again after dinner, but I don't let him. Gale doesn't comment on his presence and seems to take it entirely in stride. Once, I could read Gale like a book; I knew every emotion that flitted across his face. Those days are gone now, but I think I can still read him a little. And I think he's pleased.
Peeta is with me in the morning to see Gale off on the rest of his trip. He stands just behind me as I embrace Gale and tell him to come back and hunt with me soon. Gale says he will, but we both know he'll never find time. Gale has left the woods behind forever. As his hovercraft ascends, Peeta steps back up behind me and I feel his hand settle on the base of my neck. I lean against him as I shade my eyes from the sun.
He leaves right after that to go start the fires in his ovens for the day, but I know he'll be back soon. We both know where he belongs now.
When he comes for dinner, he brings the bread he always brings, but he also brings a handful of delicate little cookies, tied up in a handkerchief. They are frosted and decorated in Peeta's unmistakable hand, with tiny purple flowers.
"What are the flowers?" I ask.
"Wild sumac," he says.
"What's that for? What does it mean?"
Peeta shrugs. "Nothing. It doesn't mean anything. Just a pretty flower. I thought we could use something simple."
I look at the little flowers he's painted and it's nice. No roses, no flames, no mockingjays, no symbolism of any kind. A purple flower that's only a purple flower. "You're right," I say, taking the cookies from him.
We eat his cookies with my mint tea later that night in front of the fire. Then I lead him up to my room, like I have every night for months and months.
By now, it's routine. He snuffs out the candle and I roll into him. Our limbs tangle as we find a comfortable position against each other. Tonight, though, as soon as I'm settled against his chest, I feel Peeta's hand slide up over my hip, around to the small of my back, up my spine, until his fingers tangle into the ends of my hair. I feel something unfamiliar flutter in my stomach. It's not unpleasant.
I know where Peeta belongs. He belongs here, next to me. That much is clear and decided. But crossing this line, going to this place with him, makes me anxious and uncertain. For all I have been through and seen, the vast depth of my experiences, in this one way, I am still completely innocent. It's an odd sensation when I am so used to feeling bitter and jaded about everything. But Peeta is as innocent as me. We are both lost in these woods.
It's that thought that gives me the courage to tilt my face up to where I sense his is in the dark. The sheets rustle under us as he tilts his face down to me. I feel his lips brush my forehead, my temple, my cheekbone. My eyes close. His lips brush mine, so gentle it's just like a whisper. They come back and press and press again, soft, warm and wet. My hands are moving, sliding up his arms to his shoulders.
Now we are holding each other, pulling tighter, pressing closer, his lips on mine, and there it is again. That fire that takes me over— the one that only Peeta has ever made me feel. I want more of him, more of this. His arm is wrapped around me, holding me tight, chest to chest. His other hand holds my head, his fingers wrapped in my hair. We shift against each other, drawing ever closer, until he is half-laying on me. My body thrills at the feeling of his weight.
His mouth is against my neck and Peeta moans against my skin, "Katniss."
His fingers tug the opening of my nightshirt away from my neck, exposing my shoulder and part of my chest. I think fleetingly of the scars, of the skin on my shoulder damaged by fire. It's much better now, but still there. I have been through a war. Several wars. And it shows in the map of scars and carnage on my body. But Peeta has been through those wars, too, right by my side. And it shows on his skin, too. So I am not embarrassed for him to see it. It's right that he should. Every inch of damage on us ties us closer together. These are the things that made us who we are and made us one.
As if he knows what I am thinking, his lips press against the damaged skin on my shoulder, and it makes the sleeping thing in my chest stir and wake at last.
"Peeta," I whisper, reaching up to touch his hair, to pull him closer to me.
"Katniss," he says again, pulling at my clothes, pulling at his own. His mouth finds mine again in the dark, this time urgent and full of desire, and I let him consume me.
Our clothes are shed and now here we are, down to just us. I want him and this, but I'm also nervous. I think Peeta is nervous, too. His hands explore me, touch me everywhere, but his breaths against my neck are shallow and rapid. I try to calm him and myself with my own hands, stroking his neck, his shoulders, his back. He shifts over me and he's there, we're there, on the edge of this moment. I'm trembling, which I find slightly ridiculous, but I can't seem to stop myself. I'm not afraid. I trust Peeta with my life. But my body seems insistent on these girlish nerves.
"Sshhh," he murmurs, to soothe me and himself. "I love you," he whispers, and this is just for me.
I hold on tight to him and he holds on to me as the pain flashes through me. I arch in surprise, but it's nothing, really, and gone as quickly as it came.
The moment of discomfort and unfamiliarity begins to dissipate, replaced with other feelings. The fire, the one that Peeta lights inside of me, flickers and flares. He sucks in a deep breath and kisses me and I kiss him back as the fire licks up our joined bodies and consumes us.
The still, quiet night is filled with our whispers and gasps, and I am filled with this heat and this joy. Peeta gives me this and Peeta takes it from me.
As it shatters around us, I feel like I can see the future. Yes, we are damaged. We have been used, wronged, broken in a million ways. Yes, we will always be that way. But we have also been given this gift. Days stretch out ahead of us and we have found our way back to each other. There will be pain and fear that we can't escape, but there will also be this, the balm to soothe the wounds. For the first time in months, I can bear to look beyond today. I can do more than plant one foot in front of the other. We have days unfolding in front of us, and I have Peeta to live them with me.
So afterwards, when we are sated and tired, when he lies spent in my arms and he asks me, once and for all, if this is real, if we are real, I tell him it is. I tell him "It's real."
I tell him "I love you." I promise him "Always."