A/N: Ohai there. This is M (Masen). I wrote this outtake for LolaShoes' birthday. She's had it to herself for a few days and encouraged me to post it though I wasn't sure it would ever see the light of day outside her inbox. I love you Lo, thanks for everything (you know what) and Happy Birthday. This one's for you.

Thanks to my best friend and other half, V, for beta-ing this for me.

Suzanne Collins owns The Hunger Games series and all these characters. Lines from the Series are used herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

NOTE: Please do NOT read if you've not finished Mockingjay and want to avoid spoilers.

~X~

2 Weeks After the Return to District 12

Katniss POV

"After"

She'll choose whoever she can't survive without.

His words roll through my mind as I wait for Peeta to come to bed. But as much as I balked when Gale had said it, it turns out it's true.

I need Peeta to survive.

Not the war. Not the Hunger Games. But only Peeta can make me believe today will be better than yesterday. That tomorrow will be better than today.

Every night, I climb into my bed first, while Peeta finishes painting. Giving life to the atrocities he suffered at the Capitol's hands has been cathartic for us both. It gives me a window into the blankness of his time in custody. It helps him sift through the reality and the illusions.

Though I'm in bed, I don't sleep until Peeta comes. I listen carefully to the sound of the water rushing as he predictably cleans his brushes and stores them with a clink in the jar on the kitchen windowsill. Next he stokes the kitchen fire. It's not until his footfalls hit the stairs that my limbs start to relax. He undresses mechanically as I lay facing the wall, pretending to doze. When the sheet pulls taut behind me, my mind screams in victory. I know I'll sleep.

As I drift off, I feel it - the hard shape of him pressing against me just as it did all those nights on the train. He'd called me pure back then. But just as I'd known what it meant then, I know what it means now. I fight off the twinge of guilt, focusing instead on the heat of the arms encircling me as I fall into sleep.

We continue in this pattern for weeks. I hunt. Peeta bakes. We both work on the book, help the newcomers orient to what remains of District 12.

We kiss.

His mouth first finds me in our bed. It's a nightmare I've had many times before. The mutts chasing us through the underground tunnels beneath the Capitol. The sound of Finnick's garbled scream mingled with the crunch of his bones. And then it's not Finnick screaming, but Prim singing:

Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Where I told you to run so we'd both be free...

When I wake up, he is hovering over me, one hand on my heart.

"Come back, Katniss. It's over."

"I know," I murmur defensively, but it's not convincing either of us. He brushes my sweat-soaked hair from my face, and I look at the clock on his bedside table. 2:30 A.M. "I'm sorry I woke you," I say. I know it isn't easy for Peeta to get to sleep either. These middle-of-the-night conversations are common between us now.

"It's no bother." But the tone of his voice is sad as he moves his hand from my chest and runs it through his hair. "I wasn't asleep anyway."

His expression is one I recognize. He's considering his next words.

"Is something on your mind?" I ask.

He pauses, looks at the ceiling and then back at me. "What happened on the beach in the Quell?"

"You showed me your token - a locket. And we kissed." This explanation is laughably inadequate. I'd kissed Peeta hundreds of times during the Games and during the tour of the Panem Districts. But only that kiss had managed to escape my mind's carefully constructed walls of self-preservation. Only that kiss had seeped out into my veins, threading its way through every part of me until I was terrified of what the feeling could do to me. And to Peeta.

"Was it real?"

"Real," I say. So many of Peeta's memories had been corrupt, figments planted by the Capitol. It would be a long time before we had sorted through them all.

Peeta shakes his head. "I'm not playing our game, Katniss. I know it happened. I want to know if I was the only one who felt it. It was different, wasn't it? It wasn't like the others, the ones for the audience." His blue eyes look so tired. "Was it real . . . for you?"

"It was," I say.

Peeta kisses me then. We haven't kissed since the Quarter Quell, and I flinch in surprise. I never see these things coming, even when I should.

He pulls away. I start to apologize but he starts talking first. "You clutch at me in your sleep when you have your nightmares. Do you know that?" He rakes his hand through his hair. "Sometimes you say my name."

I'm not embarrassed but given our situation it seems selfish, even if I am unconscious. Peeta isn't irritated, though. He's trying to help. And that's what we do for each other.

I don't know if kissing him is something I want. But I know I can't sleep without Peeta's body next to mine. I know I rearrange myself against him without thinking.

For so long the choice between Peeta and Gale was something I avoided thinking about at all costs. Partly because the thought of hurting either of them was its own form of torture. And partly because it was a distraction that would certainly become irrelevant. Odds were none of us would survive the war.

But here we are.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I didn't know I did that."

Peeta shakes his head again, rolling his eyes a little. "Don't be sorry, Katniss. I'm not. I just thought-" He shrugs, letting the sentiment hang.

If what he says is true, some part of me still craves him this way. A part that perhaps I've buried. I feel something akin to relief because even in the occasional moments when he fights with every fiber of his being not to hurt me, I know that Peeta loves me.

That I need him, I am sure. The need is, I suppose, a form of love, but it is not the same. But I think it could be. Maybe.

I want to try.

I raise a tentative arm to reach around his neck and his lips are on mine again, moving slowly as he leans me back against the pillow. He kisses me for a long time, moves his tongue slowly into my mouth, testing my boundaries. It feels good and I want more, so I slide my fingers in his hair. He grows bolder, trailing a hand to my waist.

I want to let go, to submit to the good feeling, but I'm thinking too much, trying to recreate the crashing heat that overtook me on the beach. Still, there's no denying it feels nice. His hands squeeze me gently and my limbs start to tingle, the way they do when the morphling first finds my bloodstream. Then he's cradling my face and making subtle humming noises that cause something deep inside me to flicker.

But then I'm thinking too much again. Wondering if this is how Gale kissed the girls on the slag heap.

Peeta pulls away. He's breathing heavily but he musters his signature gentle smile. "Have to start somewhere."

I fend off an urge to issue another apology he will dismiss as unnecessary. We are past apologies.

I turn to my side as Peeta leaves the bed and clicks the bathroom door closed. Several minutes later the sheets pull taut beneath me and I sleep.

~X~

Two weeks later we are growing more comfortable in our routine. Peeta no longer asks if I want him to join me when I hunt. Each afternoon we enjoy the company of Haymitch and Greasy Sae for a late lunch of whatever Greasy Sae can concoct with the game I've killed. There's always a silence between us when Haymitch and Greasy Sae leave the house but each day it grows shorter and less uncomfortable.

At night, once the lights are off and his body has shifted to accommodate mine, we kiss. Sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours. I've stopped waiting to feel what I felt on the beach. Maybe I've changed too much. Maybe we both have. But still I look forward to this time every night. His lips are warm and soft. His hands hold me firmly as his mouth travels lightly along my throat, my lips. I feel in these moments like there is more to me than the Hunger Games, the Mockingjay, the war. With Peeta's mouth at my shoulder, his hands buried in my hair, I think he sees it, too.

Today after Greasy Sae and Haymitch leave, we work together, scrubbing the dishes side-by-side in the large sink. Peeta stops and turns, bracing his hands behind him on the lip of the basin.

"I want to go today."

He doesn't need to say anything else. "Okay," I say, nodding.

Since our return to District 12, Peeta has confined most of his activities to the small radius of the Victor's Village and the occasional trip to the makeshift mercantile and grocery that sprouted up on the outskirts of the old Square. But there is one place in the District Peeta has carefully avoided since our return.

When all the dishes are dry and stacked, Peeta gives me a slight nod. He holds his hand toward me, palm up, and I take it. Together we walk toward the center of District 12.

When we reach the market, Peeta's grip on my hand tightens. He has not seen the devastation of the District beyond this boundary. When I'd been back just weeks after the Quell, I had needed to process it alone. But this is how we are different.

Small signs of life are returning to the Square. Framing has already begun on a new municipal building. I know from Greasy Sae that a memorial commemorating the firebombing is planned for a plaza in the middle of the District. This, more than anything, gives me hope. Only by remembering can we hope not to repeat.

I am still holding his hand as we walk, but I avoid looking at his face, attempting to give him privacy as he takes it all in. When we reach the spot, I stop. Peeta jerks back, disoriented.

"It's here," I say. "This is it."

Peeta looks confused for a moment. Then his eyes land on the molten hunk of metal that sits like a grotesque tombstone, marking the Mellark bakery. And, now, the family grave.

He drops his head to his chest and his shoulders begin to heave, then vibrate. Recognizing the telltale signs, I quickly guide him to a remnant of pipe that juts out of the ground, closing his shaking fists around it before retreating to a crumbling doorway ten yards away.

When the episode passes and Peeta stills, I am there to take his hand again.

"Did we do this?" He gasps, falling to his knees. I know what he means. Our defiance in the Games set something in motion, provoked the Capitol to take out its vengeance on District 12.

"No," I say, surprising myself with my conviction. "We didn't do this, Peeta. We killed the people who did this."

He nods, his expression melting into a grateful, sad smile. It's a small thing but in this moment it means everything to me. Something inside flickers again but eludes me even as I try to name it.

Rising to his feet, he trails his hand along the dusty remnants of the iron oven. He gazes to the east. "The pigsty was there." He nods in the direction of the path I'd taken home the day I nearly starved to death.

"Yeah," I say.

"You were so skinny. Your eyes were huge and white. Your cheeks were hollow."

I swallow, fighting against the knot that has formed in my throat. "You saved my life."

He smiles, squeezing my hand and shrugging. "That's what we do."

~X~

That evening as Peeta returns to his canvas, I sit up with him and watch him paint. He looks amused as I study the skilled way he mixes the oils to the precise shade of human blood. The way his deft brushstrokes perfectly capture the chaos of crumbling asphalt. The piece he is working on is gruesome- a sickening rendering of the day the Capitol fell. The day I lost Prim.

"You aren't going to bed?" He asks. I rarely watch him paint. It feels too much like reliving the memories in real time. I'm not sure what has changed. But I want to be here with him now.

"I want to stay."

His mouth cracks into a wide smile as if this is something he's been expecting. "Here," he says, pulling a sheet of drawing paper and a set of charcoals from a case at his feet. "Try it."

I roll my eyes but take the charcoal anyway. "I don't know how to do this. I don't even know what to draw."

"Just put the charcoal on the paper and see what happens."

Thirty minutes later, Peeta stands and sets about cleaning his brushes. I suck in a breath as I take in the latest pieces of carnage which have taken shape on his canvas. He's captured it in perfect, horrific detail - the Capitol street yawning and cracking, swallowing up terrified and garishly painted civilians. And there, huddled on the doorstep of a house bordering the crater's edge: Gale.

"It's amazing," I whisper.

He smiles a little and walks to the table after dropping his brushes into their jar.

"A dandelion." He nods in approval at my childish rendering, handing me a damp towel for my blackened fingers. Then he picks up the charcoal piece and begins shading, darkening the shadows and softening the powdery edges. I stare at his face as he adds his magic to my scrawl, his tongue peeking absently out of the corner of his mouth, his brow furrowed in concentration.

Five minutes later my dandelion has been transformed into a thing of undeniable beauty.

"There," he says, taking the towel from the table. "We'll hang it in our room."

Although we have been spending nearly all of our time together in my house, Peeta's house still stands pristine next door. Peeta never says anything by accident. It's the first time he's called it "our room."

~X~

Tonight we climb into bed together. Peeta stretches his arm out, and I settle into the warm space beside him.

"Well?" I say after a long moment.

"Well, what?" I can hear the smirk in his voice.

I scowl. "You know what."

"I'm not sure I do." His brows are scrunched together over his still-closed eyes but he can't hide the smile under the surface of his straight mouth. He's obviously playing with me.

I don't want to give him the satisfaction of begging him to kiss me. I start to turn over, with a huff. Even so, I expect him to coil his arms around me and settle his knees between my own. I expect him to relent - to start kissing the nape of my neck.

But he doesn't move. Behind me I feel him yawn, and something inside of me flares up at this. I can't sort it out. Is it anger? Embarrassment? Something else? I can't be sure, but it stings.

I squeeze my eyes shut and try to will myself to sleep. But all I can think about is the nagging ache in my stomach at Peeta's seeming indifference about our nightly ritual. My blood is speeding through my veins. There is no hope of falling asleep in this condition.

I turn to face him, prop up on my elbow and glare at his dozing face. I'm irrationally furious now. Didn't we have a good day? Didn't we have a nice evening with the painting and everything? Why is he denying me?

After what feels like minutes of staring at him, fuming, I bend to his face, pressing my mouth firmly against his, gripping his hair roughly. I'm looking at him and his eyes open wide. He opens his mouth to accept my tongue.

I don't know what has come over me. We kiss every night, but this is new. There is a desperate urgency to this kiss that doesn't come from fear or obligation. And then it occurs to me that this is what he wants. He's testing me. I don't know if this means I pass or fail.

Then I feel it and I no longer care what it means. The same wave that crashed over me on the beach at the Quell, only bigger and more powerful. I let go and let it overtake me, my mouth giving and taking with its current.

Peeta rolls me onto my back and reaches a hand between my legs. His mouth moves to suck on the top of my shoulder as he strokes the crotch of my underwear. I let out a noise I've never made before, and I'm surprised by the sound. I feel Peeta's mouth curve into a smile as he kisses my collarbone. I'm almost embarrassed but I need too badly to feel it again so I ignore his smirk.

He does it again.

My arms clutch his biceps and I wonder in this moment - for the first time, really - if Peeta Mellark has ever touched anyone else this way.

"You've done this before," I say, because he seems to know exactly where to touch me.

Peeta stops, sits back on his heels. He swipes a hair out of my face and smiles softly down at me. "Yeah," he says. "I've done this before."

His answer makes me heat with jealousy; I'm not used to the feeling.

"Does it matter?" He tips my chin to meet my eyes. It occurs to me that though I'm not acquainted with jealousy, Peeta most certainly is. I nearly flinch when I realize that any girl from Peeta's past would have been from the District. And odds are-

"No," I say, interrupting the thought. Because he's right. It doesn't matter.

"Katniss?"

"Yeah."

"If Prim had lived . . ." he trails off, shifting his gaze to the window. He doesn't finish, but I know what he's asking.

"Yes," I say, and he turns, looking me squarely in the eye. "I would still be here with you. Even if she'd lived."

His eyes flash with something that looks at first like pain but then morphs into a different, hot kind of intensity. He covers my mouth with his, pushing me back against the mattress.

His lips are soft, his tongue lazily tasting, teasing. I can feel the irregular surface of the skin on his back as I lightly trace his scars. Peeta's flesh is marred in methodical, patterned precision, his marks made by a careful and slow hand.

His fingers return between my legs, shifting beneath my underwear and inside me. I gasp at the feeling, and my nails clutch at his shoulders. He breaks the kiss. "Does that feel good to you?"

"Yes," I manage. He pushes further.

"Still good?" He asks. But my breath's been shoved from my chest as I make the same unfamiliar noise. I nod instead. Peeta smiles and returns to my mouth, moving his fingers in a gentle staccato. I'm lost in his taste and the feeling of his hand. I don't even realize it when I begin to move against his wrist.

He turns his wrist slightly and I groan loudly. "God, Katniss. Do you have any idea how sexy that is?"

"Sexy?" I'm skeptical. "I sound like a dying animal."

Peeta rolls his eyes, then shuts me up by kissing my neck, sucking in time with the movement of his fingers. I'm groaning and writhing and now I don't care how it sounds or how I look. I just want more.

When he pulls away this time he's panting and his whole face looks ruddy the way he does when he's winded. His cotton pajama bottoms are tented by his obvious erection.

"Will you touch me?" He asks. He swallows in relief as I reach for the drawstring. Together we push the garment down off his hips.

I've seen naked men before. Wounded and starving in the games. Sick with fever on my mother's kitchen table. But never like this. Never hard. Never hungry like this.

I reach for him tentatively at first, making a light fist around him with one hand. I don't really know what I'm doing but it seems logical.

His labored breath halts as I make contact. I look up at him and he nods, reassuring. "Right. That's right."

I stroke him lightly, and he reaches forward to tug open the buttons of my nightshirt, slipping it off my shoulders. His nostrils flare slightly as he takes me in. It's dark but I know he sees the marks of violence, the waxy patterned burns, the straight lines of cuts. I also know he doesn't care.

I grow bolder, tightening my grip and smiling a little smugly when his sounds tell me he likes what I'm doing. I'm starting to see what he means about the noises. Making Peeta feel good is addicting.

He's kneeling next to me as I stroke him, and our position is awkward but I don't care. He reaches a hand forward to cup my breast, rubbing his thumb across my nipple. Then he abruptly stills my wrist.

"Stop," he says.

"Am I doing it wrong?"

"No, Katniss," he says gently. "You're doing it too well. I don't want to come like this."

I scrunch my eyebrows. He smiles but then softens, tracing his index finger along my jaw. "I mean I want to be inside you when I orgasm."

"Oh," I say.

I think he's about to ask me if I know what that means. I'm almost irritated but his next words catch me off guard.

"Is that what you want?" His blue eyes are gentle.

It's been a long time since I've really considered what I want, untangled from the strangling ropes of obligation, fear, sympathy, strategy. And now I see what he's doing. He's making sure that if this happens, it is real.

It's now that it really sinks in that I can choose. There is no one watching. No one's life depending on this choice.

"Yes," I say, suddenly more sure than I've ever been about anything. "I want you."

I'm on my back then, Peeta's knee nudging my legs apart, his hand tugging my underwear off. He sucks on my breasts and kneads my waist. The wave is back, building and surging over me as he kisses me, sucks at me and rubs his thigh against the wet skin between my legs. It grows stronger with each of his movements, rising up higher, through my stomach, my ribcage, my throat until it's ringing through every part of me.

He groans and I want him to make the noise again. I wriggle against his leg and the want gets worse, a hollow aching that seems only to grow bigger and more cavernous.

He rises on his hands and knees, gripping my thigh as he positions himself where I know I want him. I put my hands on his hips and tug him forward.

For brief moment all I feel is the sweet pleasure of relief. The wild need is replaced by a satisfaction that brings to mind the first swallows of the burned bread that saved my life.

And then, pain.

I suck in a hiss against the sharp pressure. Sensing my discomfort, I think Peeta will stop, pull back. But instead he pushes forward. Hard.

I cry out and his hands are cradling my skull. "That's the worst of it, Katniss. I promise."

I swallow and nod, focusing on breathing deeply in and out. I've endured far worse. Peeta pulls back a fraction and holds still, stroking my forehead, assessing my face. The pain starts to ebb, the hollow feeling starts to build again.

I shift my hips a little and the ache lessens. His mouth lifts into a half smile and he moves back slightly before pushing forward again. There is still pain but it's mixed with a pleasure that feels so unbelievably right I can't even try to stop the loud groan. Peeta moans in pleasure but his face is twisted in an expression that looks identical to agony.

He starts moving in and out, slow at first and then faster.

Ache, relief. Ache, relief.

My whole body arches up toward the sounds he's making. I'm lost in the feeling of his body anchored in mine, giving and taking over and over.

"Oh God, Katniss," he grinds out, his neck stretching up as his face tightens. "Are you close?" I think he means an orgasm, but the truth is I don't know.

"It feels so good, Peeta," I breathe, instead. "So good."

Peeta's movements become halting, his breath escaping in rough gasps. I lift my hips to deepen the blinding satisfaction of feeling him inside me. He crushes into me then, his body rattling and shuddering as my name echoes through the room.

"I'm sorry," he says, panting lightly into my neck. "I wanted you to come, too. I couldn't stop it."

I drag my fingers lightly up his neck. "Did I not?" I say.

Peeta smiles, sucking at the corner of my jaw. "No, you didn't orgasm. I promise you would know."

"Oh," I say. "Well, it felt really good."

Peeta nods, slipping out of me and bending to push his mouth to my waist. He slides a finger along my wet skin and then lightly presses it to the small place where my pulse seems to throb.

"Is this too sensitive?" He asks.

"Oh," I gasp at the touch but as he sustains the pressure, circling so gently, I realize how little I really do know about what we're doing. I understand the mechanics of sex, of course, but I didn't know there was this.

"No," I shake my head. "It's good."

Peeta sucks at my hip, then drags his open mouth lower, skimming his nose along my inner thigh and kissing me there. Then he moves his finger from the tender spot and opens his mouth around me.

"Ahh," I gasp and shift against him. He presses my hips down against the mattress and surrounds me with his mouth. I look down to see his eyes are closed and he's humming slightly against me. He slides a single finger inside me, sucks a little harder.

The wave that overtook me on the beach has been rebuilding since that day. I realize now the wave is Peeta, hurling burned bread, prying the white liquor bottle from my hands, curling around me at night on the train, facing certain torture to save District 13. It's his confident voice, smooth and reassuring, his strong body, scarred and crippled by the Capitol, holding me in his arms against the nightmares night after night. The wave is him. For months it's been resurging, swelling and fighting to crest. And I know now that for months I've been suppressing it, scared of what would happen if it were to crash over me again. But now it's back and I'm powerless to fight it. And I don't want to.

Then I feel his tongue.

And it crashes, engulfing me, pulling me under the surface of sanity, sucking the air from my lungs until all I can breathe is him. His name is on my lips in strained rasps. Over and over and over.

~X~

He crawls up my body and rests his head heavy on my chest.

"It's really all over, isn't it?" I say.

"Real," he says, pressing his lips to the curve of my breast.

Then he whispers into my skin: "You love me. Real or not real?"

I tell him, "Real."

~X~