A/N: I don't own Hunger Games, but The Hunger Games have owned me for the past two weeks. My apologies to Suzanne Collins. I couldn't leave well enough alone. Turns out that I must fuck with everything that I love.
Peeta and I had written about Foxface that evening. I'd had no tears; Foxface was a smart and resourceful girl and I'd been jealous of her cunning. For Peeta, though, she was his one and only kill. Indirectly, through his ignorance, he'd ended her life and he'd changed the outcome of our first game. Hell, maybe he'd changed the whole world.
Those berries… had Peeta never found them our world might have been a very different place. That was a useless thought, though. I knew by now that it was best not to let my mind roam to those imaginary existences where I could get lost for days on end.
So, I closed the book with a sigh, but Peeta didn't make a move to leave like he usually did. He lingered by the mantle, clutching onto it like it was a life raft holding him afloat. Even though I could see a hint of desperation in the set of his jaw, had he gone for the door I wouldn't have said anything to make him stay. And I know that if I'd had asked him to, he would have left without a word, without looking back.
I stood awkwardly and placed the book on the shelf. I took a few halting steps in Peeta's direction and he huffed and turned to meet me, with clouded eyes, rubbing his wrists. I immediately felt the waves of encroaching terror rolling off him, and without any more thought, I gave Peeta what I could to keep the horror at bay. At first I just gave him my hand, and then I led him up to my room.
I knew that my touch could never feel the same for Peeta as it once did. The feel of my palm against his wouldn't erase those long, interminable months that we'd spent fighting for our lives and fighting each other. The old Katniss and Peeta were gone, forever. Now we were two patchwork people, like stuffed and stitched phoenixes that had been propped over a mantle since neither could rise victoriously from the flames.
Yet, no matter the condition of our bodies and our spirits, we were there and we were warm, and no one else on the planet knew our pain. So Peeta let me silently lead him down the hall. His knuckles were white as he clutched onto the doorknob, and he took deep breaths as he examined the unmade bed.
There was nothing that needed saying, though; words only brought memories that needed putting to bed and the pain that went right along with them. No, we didn't need to speak; we needed sleep and warmth and strong arms and even breathing and the rough ridges of one another's scars.
We folded our bodies around one another naturally. Peeta wrapped his arms around my waist and tucked his head into my chest and I held onto him, trying to close the gap that had grown since the last time we'd laid together in the dark.
That night I didn't flail and the nightmares were held at bay, mostly. Peeta slept straight through the dark hours, even as I woke in fits and starts. I laid listening to him desperately mumbling my name, on the edge of a nightmare that never fully formed.
Of course, it brought back memories of the train and the victory tour, but Peeta and I were worlds apart from that now. Now we'd seen the depths, now we knew how far we could fall, and now, in one another's arms, maybe we had the very beginnings of hope that we could come back. Just a little, like the pale green grass at the edge of the meadow.
Greasy Sae didn't lift an eyebrow that first morning when Peeta and I descended the stairs holding hands. She didn't mention anything when Peeta left to water the primroses and I found my bow and left for the woods. Sae smiled, though, when I came back with a rabbit for dinner and Peeta returned with sweet bread for dessert.
And life, as unlikely as it was, moved on: in the arc of the sun as it traveled through the sky and shone its delicate light on the bushes in the yard, in the rotation of the stars that beamed through the window each night, casting strange shadows against the skin seams on Peeta's arms.
Warmth grew with the spring, which brought with it the buttery, translucent petals that bordered my home. I'd sit by the kitchen window with Buttercup on my lap and watch as Peeta tended to the primrose bushes. His gentle touch could coax more life out of those plants than my heavy-handed tending ever would.
In the brief respite that came with spring and blossoms and strong arms in my bed, I let myself forgot the most essential part of life: that all things must die. I grew stronger and fatter, and the bushes grew fuller, and Peeta would nearly smile when he'd look over his shoulder to see me watching him absently.
Spring turned to summer, the primrose blossoms turned from yellow to golden-brown. Brittle scraps of petals began to fly away in the breeze. I held on: tightly to the windowsill, tighter to Peeta at night, clinging to my sanity as one by one the flowers wilted and disappeared.
The nightmares came again: a small burning torch, flames and blood roses. The depths opened up and stinking blackness rose from the void.
Peeta worked hard to fight the summer sun for me: with water and shade and nutrients in the soil. He worked until there was no denying it, until there was just one little blossom left shivering against the hard brown bark. He stood over it one morning after breakfast, as if he were protecting the primrose's existence, like Peeta protected all living things. Like he'd protected me.
I watched, and felt his love for me, for Prim, for life. I felt all over again the way Peeta could bring goodness in times of the misery. Tears pricked my eyes and I rose from my seat by the window, settling a purring Buttercup on the sill. I wrapped my hands around myself and I didn't try to hide the sound of my steps as I walked into the yard.
He didn't turn around. His fingers barely brushed that last bloom.
Peeta jumped a bit. "No," he breathed.
"For the book. To remember it, always."
And when I said 'it', I meant Prim as much as Peeta, as much as the blossom, as much as this spring.
He did it: with a sharp snap Peeta picked the flower and placed it in my palm. He brought her back for me, the only way he could.
Things change. Some things die, some things disappear, some things leave and come back again, the same and different all at once.
Peeta's eyes were the same; they matched the blue of the sky as they darted to meet my glance before looking quickly away. Yet they held a new regret that fluttered like the petals in my palm.
"Peeta," I murmured, and touched my fingers to his face. "Thank you."
I pressed my lips against his, and there, brilliant and bright, under my chest and across my battered heart, a sliver of pain was rent, stinging and worrying like a paper cut. I broke away with a wince and Peeta gasped. It hurt, but it was a pain I could manage, a pain that confirmed there was a heart left in my chest after all.
We placed the petals between the pages of the new book.
We ate the squirrel stew Greasy Sae made for dinner.
Days went on and more kisses came: sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes with comforting regularity, like when we woke with the sun in one another's' arms, or when we were jarred awake sweating and screaming at night. And with each kiss there was a new cut, until my heart just… felt, all the time. It felt ragged and sore, and it stung with each beat. I felt it with every step I took, with every word I spoke.
With every kiss.
Some days I chose the mute, Avox Katniss and escaped to the woods, or submerged myself in the lake, hoping to hide the hurt. But instead of dissolving, the pain grew until just a change in the wind made it burn and bleed, until light and heat and something delicate and dandelion yellow began to warm me from the inside out. More than anything else, Peeta's face and his broad shoulders, his hands and his scars… everything about him made my heart groan and sing and try to burst free from the torn scar tissue that encased it.
The pain... I was real. The pain… My heart was alive. The pain… It engulfed me…In the shower as I learned the new landscape of my skin, in bed as my hands searched for Peeta's, in the morning as my fingertips tickled the stubble on his jaw before inching back to his ears, to find the singed and scarred place at the back of his head where I pressed so he'd bring his lips to mine.
Paper cuts grew instead of healed. I could practically see the slivers of sunlight shining through my chest, and every time I saw him the pain was so great, the heat was so all encompassing, that I knew.
"Mint leaves, wild onion, dill, and…" I looked over each of the small bundles on the countertop. My eyes settled on the cubes of rabbit in the pot. My mind swam and my hands went slack.
Greasy Sae pushed some small scraggly branches in front of me.
"I don't know," I whispered shrinking back from the little green and brown mound.
She chuckled under her breath and shook her head. "It's thyme Katniss. It won't hurt you."
Sae was wrong; time hurt. Everything hurt. My heart. Peeta. My head.
"I will. I'll hurt him with this meal."
Sae chuckled and found her cloak and her scarf and headed for the door.
"A word of advice, Katniss?" she offered as she hung by the door.
I turned, suddenly hoping that she'd stay to cook. I'd asked her to teach me, and I wanted to make this meal, but now my mind wasn't working right and I was inexplicably frightened of the herbs and vegetables in front of me. My mind danced and tried to hide.
"Just go put on a dress, Katniss."
"A dress?" I asked.
"A dress," she said, and motioned with her finger for me to turn around and head for the stairs.
A dress. A dress.
"And cut your nails, and let the steam from the pot put some pink in your cheeks."
With that, Sae was gone.
When Peeta came later with a warm loaf of bread I was wearing a dress, and my nails were clean, and my hair was swept back from my face. I can't say one way or the other about the condition of my cheeks.
I was pulling the stew from the oven and I had to pause when I heard his footsteps on the floorboards. I held my breath as he rested his hand on my shoulder and I found myself leaning into his touch.
"It smells good. What did Sae make?"
"I made rabbit stew."
I heard the laughter bubbling in his throat.
"It's not funny." Nothing was funny. My heart was tearing in two right there in front of him, and he was laughing?
"No," Peeta agreed and he placed a kiss to the top of my head that I immediately wished he'd saved for my lips.
"Sit," I ordered, but Peeta took his time and found a knife to cut the bread, and then pulled out a small pat of butter before he finally listened.
"You cooked?" he asked and I felt his blue eyes examining my body as much as they did the steaming pot in my hands. I thought about that kiss he threw away on the top of my head. I watched his large hands as he held the bread and gripped the knife.
I ladled stew into our bowls and sat with my hands in my lap. Peeta hesitantly picked up his spoon. I picked up a cloth napkin that Sae had adorned our place settings with and, well, smiled at her stray kindness.
Glancing up, I saw Peeta blowing on the steaming food in front of him. Those lips… That kiss…. To the top of my head. I found myself growing unconscionably angry. Didn't he know what I'd grown to hope for as soon as I opened my eyes, as soon as he walked through the door at the end of the day? Didn't he know why I was wearing a dress and making that stew that he was spooning between those lips of his?
And then his mouth twisted in horror and the color drained from his face.
"Oh my god, Katniss," he choked, and his eyes went wide with fear.
I jumped to my feet and spun around, with my spoon in one hand and the lid of the soup tureen in the other, ready to use them as weapons against whatever horrors were approaching from the sitting room. There was nothing, though… just embers popping in the fire.
When I turned back towards the table Peeta had this funny grin on his face. "You've gotten worse, Katniss. So much worse."
He wiped his mouth with one of Sae's cloth napkins.
"Since that first time you made me soup. That didn't taste like anything, but this, Katniss… It's so, so bad."
Without thinking, I took the spoon I was holding as a weapon, dipped it into my bowl and flicked it across the table, splattering brown goop across Peeta's face. We both froze. In thirteen you'd get carted away for a stunt like that, in twelve any food that didn't pass through my lips would have gone to…
I sunk down into my chair, trying to figure out where kisses fit in with bad stew and missing… people. Little torches. It didn't work. The world swam and I clutched the table like Peeta did from time to time. I felt the jittery vibrations of my teeth grinding hard; I choked on flames on smoke on… rabbit stew across my face.
My eyes flew open. Peeta was grinning.
"Go ahead and taste it. I dare you."
His spoon was held in his hand like a knife. I licked my lips and spat and sputtered.
It was terrible. Not in the worst days in thirteen had we been given anything that tasted like that. Sure, their stuff was tasteless, gritty and unsatisfying, but never flat out noxious.
"How'd you make it taste like that?" Peeta asked, staring at his bowl, dredging his spoon through the slop. "To think, all this time you had another secret weapon."
His head snapped in my direction.
My stomach grumbled. I was hungry.
"Don't joke," I scolded.
I tried not to cry, so I blinked instead.
"Katniss?" He glanced around nervously, like he was just noticing Greasy Sae's absence for the first time. "Katniss, what's wrong?"
"You kissed my head."
"Should I not…"
But he couldn't finish, because in one swift motion I reserved for my prey in the woods, I was on my feet and across the table and in his lap.
His lips tasted like my stew. I didn't care. His hand smeared rabbit sludge in my hair. I didn't care. His chest was against mine, and I could feel him breathing hard. Breathing. He was breathing, we were breathing, and my heart screamed as I parted my lips and his hands slid down my back. There were sighs and whispers, and words I could almost hear above the roar in my ears, until his damp forehead was pressed against mine, and he held me, panting.
I hungrily searched for his lips. My hands fisted his close-cropped hair, tugged at his shirt, searching, tearing, trying to devour.
I needed this, him, with a need I'd never understood before. Now that my heart had broken through, the pain, the light, the life, was pouring out, consuming, like all burning things did. Burning things. Burning things. I pressed my eyes closed and concentrated on Peeta. I was in Peeta's arms. He'd saved the last primrose for me.
His voice fed the flames and I closed my eyes tighter.
Peeta pulled me off his lap and held me at arms length. His blue eyes were burning, reflecting my heart.
"Katniss," he whispered, now that he had my attention. "Katniss?" My name was a question.
My eyes were the answer.
And he pushed his chair back from the table and stood to his feet, folding me into his arms.
I blinked and we were upstairs. His fingers were gentle as they handled the buttons down my back, and I shook, and I didn't shrink away.
"Katniss?" he asked more than once, and then I'd answer with my eyes.
His hands brushed my bare shoulders, pushing away fabric, and paper cuts tore at the surface of my skin, like little slices taking away my defenses and bringing me to life, seam by seam, patch by patch, until I was naked in his hands. I worked too, with hands so adept at stringing bows, at dressing carcasses, at digging for tubers, hands that had only recently dreamt of chest hairs and buckles and the feel of his skin.
I didn't look away like I once did. I devoured him with my eyes in the light of the orange evening sun that fell through the window.
"You're beautiful," he murmured, his fingers running over ridges and scars and my breasts and my hips.
"No," I whispered.
I wasn't. The girl that had been on fire was left hardly human.
"Katniss, don't you know?"
I didn't look away. I was drawn and needy, and with open eyes, maybe I understood. Maybe I was the only one that could. Peeta was beautiful, and I told him with my eyes as I climbed backward onto the bed. As I dared him to follow and touch me where I burned. My heart, now that it had broken through, had lit me from the inside, and I was afraid that without him in my arms, skin against skin, seam against seam, the fire might consume… like a little torch. A little torch.
I pressed my eyes closed.
"Katniss, stay with me," he murmured with his hand on my cheek, kneeling in front of me, and I was back. And his lips were soft but insistent, and his fingers trailed fire down my throat and brought my nipples to life and moved like lapping flames.
He was my anchor: his lips, his hands, his weight, and I held on and tried not to devour him.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
I answered with my arms and my legs, pulling him closer, letting the heat from my heart bleed under his skin, letting my newly shorn nails pin his body to mine. Pin him. Pin me. Trying to pin down plucked phoenixes that were suddenly so close to flight.
His hands left no doubt how much he'd wanted this, and his eyes… two sky-blue orbs for my fiery heart to light. And his lips and his tongue, on my burning skin as I pressed my body against his.
I answered with… tears.
His thumb wiped them away. His eyes were so soft, burning like my body, worried.
"Don't," I managed and I moved my hips and pulled his body flush with mine, and there was no going back.
He kissed me and he found me and I didn't know, I couldn't have known, how he could make me feel, how he could make me cry, how minutes stretched to forever with him inside. Like stinging and singing, it hurt like a paper cut you worried, except deep within. With every movement, with every thrust, he found that hurt and filled it. And there was no leaving my body; I knew I was there; I wanted to be there. My mind didn't leave, so I was there in his arms - the only place I wanted to be, finding a home within a home, finding something deep within myself I thought was destroyed, and finding something I never knew I'd had.
I watched as his eyes closed tightly, as the sunlight cast shadows under his eyes, and I burned and I hurt and I loved, I loved. I loved him when, in that one final movement he unraveled. I wrapped myself around him, holding him with arms and legs, afraid that my phoenix would fly. But he stayed with me and settled in my arms, and I felt him there. I felt. I felt. I let myself feel.
"Katniss," my name was like a prayer, like a swear, like a kiss from his lips.
I covered them with mine and held him tighter, until I'm sure I must have hurt him as much as my heart had hurt me, until his breathing slowed, until his fingers became gentle again and he played with my hair. He held my bare waist, then my hip, and he ran his fingers over my thigh, down to my knee. I tangled myself with him on purpose, because now that it was over, I couldn't let him go. I had to let him know the pain, and the warmth, and the way he anchored me to myself, the way that his scars fit with mine. I needed him to know that while he kept my mind from breaking free, he'd let my heart fly. Finally, I was a phoenix on fire, rising and glowing. Only for him. Only for him.
"Katniss," he whispered, and his blue eyes were open wide, shining. On his lips, the impossible, another hopeful smile.
"Hi," I whispered, and gave a kiss just as soft as my voice.
He studied my eyes and I didn't look away, grateful, hopeful, enraptured, at home.
"Katniss," he repeated, running his fingers through my messy hair. I shivered and brushed my nose against the stubble on his jaw.
"Katniss, you love me. Real or not real?"
My lips were aligned with his ear. I whispered without hesitation.
Dedicated to Fic Freak95... with love. M