AN: All disclaimers apply - no copyright infringement intended, this is just for fun and I don't own the characters, just my own musings on them. I plan to have a second chapter dealing with the epilogue at some point.
It's a slow process, healing. Events that occurred over only a short span of time, wounds that were incurred in moments, they can take years to heal, if ever. I hope that they will all heal, that I will be a whole person again, that the nightmares will someday stop.
We work on the book together, images and stories of our loved ones guiding us through the healing process. Talking about each one allows me to remember and try to forgive myself for the part I played in their death, while it allows Peeta to sift through his memories, reinforcing the realities and trying to contain the lies.
One night, he falls asleep on my couch as I'm writing in the last words on the page. When he's sleeping, he regains some of that innocence that was stolen from him by the Capitol. I cover him with a throw blanket, heading up to sleep myself.
When my eyes close, I am assaulted by fire: the smell of burning flesh, the sounds of the screams, one in particular that I seem to be able to hear over the din of the others, the feeling as my own skin roasts away, the taste of death. I scream myself, not just out of physical pain, but of having to hear Prim scream her death throes, over and over again.
Suddenly, I am awake, and I look up to see Peeta standing over me, concern lining his face. He brushes a damp lock of hair from my eyes, a slight hint of a sympathetic smile on his face. He knows what the nightmares are like.
"Thank you," I say, breathing deeply to calm myself.
"You'll be ok now?" he questions me, clearly intending to leave and retreat to his own house.
I hesitate. It's a loaded question in many ways. I look up and meet his eyes, begging with them what I can't bring my mouth to say yet.
He knows me; he can read me better than most people can. He knows what I'm afraid to say, to ask him. "Are you sure?"
I nod meekly and pull down the duvet as the invitation for him to join me. "I know I have no right to ask you this." My voice falters, tears shining in my eyes, knowing that I don't deserve him, but desperately craving the comfort that only he has ever been able to provide.
Peeta carefully lays himself down next to me, not touching me yet, but then his arm snakes around my waist, connecting us physically. His voice is soft, "It used to work to keep the nightmares away. For both of us."
Of course Peeta has nightmares too, I remember. I may not hear him screaming, but I remember him telling me on the train that his nightmares were typically silent, frozen in inaction. I nod, glad we're in a spooning position so I don't have to look at his face yet. "Thank you."
After that night, it never was a question again. Peeta moves his things into my house, without asking, without needing to be asked. Greasy Sae I'm sure thought that more was occurring in the bedroom than was. In truth, it is chaste between us. He holds me while we sleep, and we keep each others' nightmares at bay. There is very little talking even. That needs to be done downstairs with the lights on, not touching. We aren't ready to have serious discussions while touching.
Instead we ignore the reversion to when we used to be a unit, when we were pretending to be in love with each other. I pretended at least. Peeta never did, which is why it is so selfish for me to cling to him. I had moments, flashes, of when it seemed like it was more than just an act, more than just comfort, but Peeta…he loved me. And selfish me, I needed his love, even though I couldn't promise anything in return.
Of course, the nightmares still come sometimes, but now we are there to wake each other up and comfort the other as we readjust to our reality. One night though, Peeta wakes me up from my nightmare with a kiss. I return it without thinking, but then come to my senses and pull back.
Peeta speaks aloud to explain, "You were crying and begging, saying 'come back, please don't leave me here alone.' But you aren't here alone." He holds me tighter, whispering softly, "Neither of us are alone here now."
"But…Peeta, I don't want to hurt you…" I begin. I vaguely remember the dream, the feeling of my soul ripped from my body as all my family left me. Cruel honesty was called for right now. It would prevent greater hurt in the long run. "I just wanted someone."
He stiffens just slightly in my arms, "I know, Katniss. But, you need someone, and I need you." I open my mouth to protest but he kisses me again to silence me. "You using me would hurt me less than you going to find someone else to use to feel that connection that you need. Please, let me provide for you."
"You've already done too much for me, Peeta." My fingers trace his scars, all because of me. "It's not fair of me to ask more from you."
"But you aren't asking it. I'm giving it." I feel a drop of liquid fall onto my shoulder from his eyes. "I have given up on trying to not love you, Katniss. The only time I can remember not being in love with you is when I was literally drugged up and insane." He caresses my face so gently. "I can't help it, and I'm done fighting. You don't have to love me. Just…if you don't love anyone else, let me try and fill that place in your heart." His hand moves to my chest, resting on top of my heart as he tilts and rests his forehead on mine, his voice barely audible, "Please."
I shake from the weight of the words he said. I answer his question with a kiss, then soft words, "I can't promise you anything."
"I do need one promise, though." He continues before I can interject, "I need you to promise me that you won't tell me you love me again unless you really mean it. If it means I never hear the words again, that's fine. But I need to know what's real and what's not."
My voice feels thick, "I can promise that." I kiss him and settle back into his arms, comfortable and warm.
After that night, our time together is filled with more touching, which seems to please Greasy Sae inordinately. Somehow, just seeing us kiss still fills people with a sense of hope and joy. It makes me feel dirty to inspire those emotions, when I still feel none of them myself. But of course I don't stop, I can't stop at this point. I depend on Peeta and the feel of his fingers to reassure me and provide the connection to this world so I wouldn't drift off again.
Eventually, the kisses grew deeper, the touches became more insistent and the desire overwhelms my good sense to not escalate things. I think we both cry the first time we had sex again with each other. Peeta, because I can't give him what he needs, I cry for the same reason I think. It isn't romantic, but it isn't going through the motions either. We both need it, the connection, the release; but neither of us can give ourselves to the other fully.
Dr. Aurelius had once told me to "fake it until I make it", to go through the motions until the meaning behind them came back to me. And that's perhaps what I am doing with Peeta. Aurelius didn't get his title from a cereal box, because I find one night as I am resting on the couch with Peeta, Haymitch across from us in a wingback chair, that I do care for him. That I have grown to depend on him emotionally, and that sometimes when we are together, I feel happiness again, and that it is alright.
When I have that realization, I panic. While Peeta works on bread, I sit in the closet for a full day on the phone with Dr. Aurelius, trying to deal with my abandonment issues and my fear of losing that which I love. He doesn't assure me that everything will be ok, but listens to my outpouring of fear of having Peeta leave or taken away once I admit that I care for him.
So one night as we move against each other, I let it slip. "I love you, Peeta." Barely more than a breath, but unable to stay unsaid any longer.
He doesn't reply until later, when I am curled in his arms. He brings my face to meet his, asking me seriously, "You love me. Real or not real?" He knows I promised I wouldn't say it without meaning it, and I haven't said it since that night, not to anyone except the pictures in the book.
"Real," I confess. He holds me tighter and starts to cry. I kiss the tears away. "Please, don't."
"Katniss, my only Katniss," he murmurs as holds me close and continues to weep. "I love you too."