Author: Carla, aka cali-chan
Rating: I'm going to play it safe, so... M-ish? Wow, I haven't written anything M-rated in years...
Genre: For those of you who read my iCarly fics- I lied. I think this is my wangst dump of 2011. Only there's a ton of fluff mixed in there as well, because I'm me and I can't not write fluff.
Canon/timeline: Post-Mockingjay, pre-epilogue. How many fics are there about this period? We should thank SC for simply glossing over it! I just knew I had to write my own version of it.
Disclaimer: Yeah, just let me go get my transfer laser and switch bodies with Suzanne Collins.
Warnings: One mature scene (that means sex, kiddies), though it's not really explicit or anything. Oh, and long-ass paragraphs. Sorree.
Note: You'll see fairly quickly that I mention dr. Aurelius far more often than the average THG fanfiction writer. I'd like to think Peeta & Katniss would have progressed to at least fewer sessions per month after two years, but I just happen to like doc A for no discernible reason. So you'll see (hear) a lot of him in this fic. Also, I don't think I quite get Katniss (I should've stuck to Peeta's PoV), so please forgive me if she seems out of character in this. I tried to remain close to the fragile state of mind she was in by the end of Mockingjay, while still allowing a slow healing process. I don't know if I actually achieved this, but eh.
Summary: Dr. Aurelius had encouraged her to develop routines. Routines were good. Routines could make her feel better.
The first time Peeta got sick, Katniss felt she could die.
It wasn't one of his episodes, thankfully. He still had those from time to time, and they were always awful, both for him and for whoever was around him at the time, usually Katniss. But they happened often enough that they already knew how to work through them and stay more-or-less in control of the situation. Past the first few times they happened, she'd never been in any real danger.
So it wasn't that. This time, Peeta had contracted a common virus, just a bug that was running around Twelve, generally more annoying than anything. But it had hit him hard. After all he went through during the war, all the different chemicals and treatments that had been administered to him- both medical and poisonous- his immune system had been left in a weak state, and would probably never be what it once was. Unfortunately, a smallish flu outbreak had run through the town and Peeta must've caught it from some of the local children while he made his rounds delivering bread, and that's all it took to restrict him to bed long enough that it threatened Katniss' hard-earned control on her emotions.
It started out easily enough. Over the course of the last year and a half or so, they'd lived in a placid routine; not just her and Peeta, but Haymitch as well. Doctor Aurelius insisted they needed to do something productive instead of just keeping to themselves and their thoughts, so (initially just to get him to stop insisting) Katniss started hunting when the weather allowed; most of the game she caught she gave away, to Greasy Sae for it to feed the men who were working on the reconstruction of the town.
Most of the refugees from Twelve had left Thirteen after... well, after everything. But not all of them had come back to Twelve, for various reasons; many people had chosen instead to migrate to other districts and begin life anew in a different place. Very few had actually made it back home, so the reconstruction efforts were going at a slow pace, but it was a start.
Eventually Katniss stopped thinking of hunting as something she was forced to do, some sort of treatment that was forced on her. She had been reluctant at first, thinking that going out to the forest would bring back memories she was trying to keep away from. But she was good at hunting, so much that it was something she found herself able to do automatically, without needing to think. This made everything easier.
Peeta baked; he'd begun using his kitchen as an impromptu small bakery while the reconstruction was in progress, because nobody else in town had the know-how to make bread in large quantities. Most of the bread he delivered among the poorest families, in trades that were more favorable to them than they were to him; the people respected him because of it, as he didn't make it seem like charity. He also liked baking pastries for the kids, who didn't mind them being free of charge. When he was done with that he'd spend a while helping with the reconstruction efforts. Together they would make sure Haymitch remained in reasonably human living conditions and that he didn't manage to convince himself liquor was the only nutrition he needed to survive.
Sometimes, on the better days, they would have dinner together. Peeta was out of a kitchen and Haymitch had no food nor enough sobriety to ever go get any, so Sae usually made enough for the two of them as well as Katniss, when she was in. Said it was the best she could do to make sure they didn't just forget to eat. When Sae eventually stopped coming around, the two of them took over dinner duties without much thought, and the routine continued. They would work on their book of memories, though it wasn't as solemn as it sounded some of the time. Sometimes Haymitch would tell them to add undoubtedly sarcastic comments in there; Katniss would, at most, snort, and Peeta would nod- only to add something completely different (and a lot more complimentary) than whatever the older man had suggested. It was simple, comfortable. Some days, it almost seemed like living.
Once Haymitch went home to tend to his geese (or to get piss drunk, more like), the two would remain there, pointedly ignoring whatever crude comment about their relationship- or lack thereof- their mentor had made on the way out the door. Peeta would usually remain on the floor, adding detail to the sketches he'd made that day for their book. Katniss would remain somewhat distant, just sitting there and staring at nothing. She did a lot of that these days, sitting and staring. Sometimes she stupidly wondered if she had left an imprint on the couch cushion. It didn't matter, anyway. Nothing really did.
There wasn't much conversation between them in those moments. There hadn't been much conversation between them at all, really, since Peeta had come back to District Twelve. Katniss wasn't really up to talking much to anyone, and Peeta seemed, for once, unsure of how to approach her. It weighed heavily in their minds that nothing was as it once had been between them; that they were completely different people now.
The only moments in which they really talked, was when Peeta needed help with his memories. A lot of questions came up from their working on the book, and the doctor had told them discussing those questions could help. He wasn't considered a threat anymore (he only got aggressive during his episodes, which were, thankfully, happening less and less often as time went by), but he still had a lot of information yet to piece together. What was real and what wasn't. Katniss wasn't too keen on reliving the worst days of her life, but the silence that stretched between them when he asked something and she didn't answer made her uncomfortable, and she eventually started answering him, with some sort of unnatural detachment, just to fill up the eerie silence left by his question.
When it got to be too much for one of them, or simply when it got late, Peeta would go back to his own house while Katniss would go up to her bedroom, and they would both lie awake for hours with flashes of painful memories holding them back from sleep.
One such night, he was the one who brought it up.
She knew it couldn't have been easy for him... they could deal with straight facts, what happened and what didn't happen, but the topic of their previous relationship (or pretend relationship, or... whatever it was they had once had) was usually avoided. She was thankful for it, because she never knew how to answer him; she barely even knew how she felt herself. And she also knew that it was uncomfortable for him, talking about feelings he no longer remembered, no longer felt. But she could see the deep, dark circles under his eyes and knew he was simply searching for something that might help. "I remember... holding you. While we slept," he started, not looking in her direction.
She didn't answer right away; the pause hung for a few seconds as she took a long look at his profile. He'd already touched upon that before, but back then it had been a throwback at her, a way to hurt her, make her feel guilty. This time it wasn't like that, so she nodded. "Yeah. During the Victory Tour," she said, her voice a little hoarse from lack of use. They'd been silent for a long while that night.
He nodded as well. Again another pause, and she wondered if he would ask if they were in love back then. If they were together. He didn't. "Did it... help? With the nightmares?" For the first time that evening he looked up at her, and she could see the exhaustion in his blue eyes.
She thought even if it had not helped, she would've told him it had either way. Just to make him feel better, somehow. She didn't like seeing him that way; she felt that way herself. "It did," she answered, with a heavy exhalation adorning the sentence. "At least for me. It didn't stop them, not really, but they were easier to handle if someone was there right after." Her throat felt dry. "If you were there right after." She shifted her position a little, hugging her knees closer, avoiding his gaze. "I'd like to think it helped for you, too."
He looked at her for a couple more heartbeats, then he got up from the floor. He carefully picked up all the sketches he had made, the pages they had finished for their memory book, his drawing pencils, and put them all carefully, neatly, on the small, empty coffee table that was in the middle of the room, as he did every night. She watched his movements.
She saw him start for the door without another word, again much like every other night. But just a couple of steps in, he stopped and, hesitant, turned to her again. "Do you think, maybe-" He cut himself off abruptly, his expression showing an obvious feeling of being uncomfortable, and then his eyes darted away from her. "Maybe we could try it?" he asked, awkward. "I just... I'm just so tired."
"The doctor refuses to send me sleeping pills," he elaborated. This she had figured, as it was the same with her. Fear of them abusing the pills, probably. She couldn't blame him. Every time she walked by Prim's bedroom, which had remained unopened for as long as Katniss had been back in Twelve, she felt the urge to just fade into unconsciousness and never wake up. Perhaps the doctor thought temptation would be too great if they had habit-forming drugs readily available.
Peeta continued, letting out an almost frustrated sigh. "And... I just haven't slept well since..." he faltered, but his meaning was implicit. Neither of them had had any decent rest since they were first reaped for the Hunger Games. They both knew it.
She didn't misinterpret his intention with this request, and felt no inclination to refuse him. She knew he simply wanted to find something that could help with the nightmares. With the pain. She knew. And so she got up from her seat, and made her way to the stairs, gesturing for him to follow. He did.
It did help. It didn't keep away the nightmares- nothing would, she knew- but it was easier to convince herself that it was just a bad dream and she was awake now, when he had his arms around her. The first couple weeks were awkward, stiff. More than once he had woken up and looked at her like he had no idea who she was, or sprinted from the bed in a panic, like she was dangerous. But after a couple of months those instances were few and far between. There were nights when he would only wake up because shehad. It wasn't ideal, but it was better.
It was remarkably easy to fall back into that pattern. She quickly grew used to snuggling against his pillow every morning when he got up, searching for the warmth he left behind. Coming down the stairs every morning to find him in the kitchen, working the dough even before the sun rose, and seeing him greet her with a smile. Him organizing all the pills they had to take every day, while she stole eggs from Haymitch's geese (Haymitch never even noticed). Light conversation or comfortable silence during breakfast, and going off to hunt in a good mood, for a change. Closing her eyes, just waiting for the fear and terror to seep back into her mind during the night, but knowing she's not alone. Just him being there. It was nice. Nothing had really been nice in a long time.
Outside their new nightly/morning routine, nothing was really different. Their interaction was a little warmer, perhaps; Peeta smiled more every day, she scowled less. But they didn't touch unnecessarily, there weren't any moments that an outsider would take as more than just casually friendly. Most of the time they spent apart, really; she would be hunting or helping out in the town, and Peeta would be either at the bakery (the new one, in town, which was smaller than his parents' had been but much more welcoming) or at his own house, painting.
She knew he had saved her, back in the Capitol, because he needed her help to regain his memories. And now, they were only in this arrangement so they could keep each other's nightmares at bay. He was doing this for himself more than anything, and relied on her because they understood each other. There were nights when she would open her eyes in the darkness and feel his breath tickling her neck, and she would wonder. But on the whole, she tried not to think about her own feelings on this.
She wasn't worried when neither Peeta nor Haymitch showed up for dinner that one night. It was expected for them to show, but it's not like it was a rule or anything. Some days they got caught up in other things and couldn't make it: sleeping off a hangover, watching news reports from the other districts, tending to the primroses Katniss still couldn't bring herself to look at. Some days they just wanted to keep away from everything and everyone. So she didn't think twice about it as she ate without them and went up to bed on her own, figuring Peeta would just let himself in when he was ready to go to bed. It's not like any of them bothered locking their doors anyway.
It wasn't until she woke up in the middle of the night, thrashing and wailing, that she realized he had never made it to her side. It was quiet and dark outside, the night only interrupted by her screaming and the bright yellow of Buttercup's eyes as he looked up at her from the foot of the bed, resentful at having been woken up so abruptly. But no Peeta. Nothing. Just nothingness.
It must have been around four thirty in the morning, she figured; Peeta would be awake at that hour, starting to bake. But if she were honest with herself, she hadn't even thought about it before her feet started taking her out of her house and in the direction of Peeta's. Like she had been split in two and was watching herself from the outside, the part of her that was a spectator to her own actions couldn't understand her sudden anxiety to see him. That one part of her felt it was ridiculous; surely she couldn't have grown dependant on him in such a short time. It had only been... weeks? Since they started spending their nights together. Months? How many months? Was that enough? Would any amount of time ever be enough?
But no. What she was doing wasn't wrong. It was the routine. Dr. Aurelius had encouraged her to develop routines. Routines were good. Routines could make her feel better. And this... this wasn't making her feel better. She had to make sure Peeta was okay, because if he wasn't, it would upset her routine. And that would be bad.
She didn't even notice the chill of the night until she was coming up to his door. The house was just as dark and quiet as hers had been. She didn't turn on any lights, just navigated around as best as she could; the layout of the rooms was similar to hers. The kitchen was empty, no sign of it having been used. Had he decided to start up early at the bakery? She checked a few other rooms on her way upstairs, just making sure everything was alright. She even dared to peek into the room where he stored his paintings; they were all thankfully covered, so she didn't have to look at them. As far as she knew, nothing seemed to be out of order, but she couldn't be sure. She hadn't actually been to his house that often.
He was in his bedroom, she saw. Asleep in his own bed, just as she had tried to be but couldn't. She should've just left right then. She moved into the room, though, almost against her will, and it was as she came to stand closer to him that she noticed something was wrong. His breath came out choppy and heavy as he inhaled and exhaled through his mouth. His face was pale and his blond hair stuck to his forehead wetly, merging with the frown lines that gave away restless sleep. She lifted a hand to his forehead, very lightly so she wouldn't wake him up, and noticed how clammy his skin felt. He was burning up. He was sick. Peeta had stayed away that night because he was sick.
She immediately switched onto automatic. She was no healer, but she knew enough to try and bring down his fever. So for the rest of the day she busied herself with moist compresses, menthol and a hand fan as she tried to make him feel better. She even went as far as to call her mother that night, asking what sort of treatment he needed according to his symptoms. She told Katniss to keep up what she'd been doing, and recommended for her to try and wake him; sick or not, he needed to eat something, or his immune system wouldn't be able to do the job.
It was only as she put the receiver down, after a whole day of him showing no sign of recovery, not even opening his eyes, and she was faced with a second night on her own, that she broke. She had meant to walk up to him and wake him, she had, but once she walked into the room and took another look at his troubled profile, his fragile breathing, she found her focus slipping and she couldn't move. She was shaking. Suddenly she was invaded with images of how sick he was during their first Hunger Games, how he had died during the second, and then she was remembering every single person she'd ever seen die in front of her eyes. Glimmer. Rue. Marvel. Clove. Cato. Mags. Cashmere. Wiress. Gloss. Boggs. Mitchell. Leeg 2. Leeg 1. Jackson. Homes. Finnick. Pr- No. Peeta. Peeta was going to die and whatever she was trying to do to save him wasn't working. It wouldn't work. All it would do was make things worse because that's what always happened, and it was her fault Peeta was going to die and she just couldn't stand it. She needed to get away.
That night was the first time in almost six months that she hid in her closet.
She didn't know how many days had passed. All she had to go on were Buttercup's scratching against the wood of the closet door to know when it was daytime, and the rumbling of her own stomach to know when it was supposed to be time for a meal. She ignored both, though, spending hours and hours on end trapped inside more than just a four by two hole in the wall, but inside her own fears and regrets. The only movement was when she leaned her head against the back wall as she flitted in and out of consciousness, and the tears she never even knew she was shedding dropping down her cheeks, unseen in the darkness that currently housed her.
Next thing she knew, her world had gone very, very bright; so much that she had to cover her eyes because it hurt like hell. When her eyes finally adjusted to the daylight that had been forced on her, she saw Haymitch looking down at her, expression unreadable. "Well. Fancy meeting you here, sweetheart," he quipped in his usual cynical tone.
She turned her face away from him, retreating as much as she could into the back corner of the closet, as if trying to make herself as small as possible could somehow make her invisible. "Go away."
She heard him huff. "That's enough. You've been in there for two days. Quit it."
She felt him try and grab her forearm, and she flinched away, dodging his grip. "No!" she exclaimed, more angry than anything else. She didn't expect him to understand but surely he knew by now when it was better to just leave her alone. "Peeta's going to die," she whispered, her stomach clenching painfully, as it always did when she thought about it.
Had she been looking at him, she would've seen Haymitch roll his eyes. "Peeta's not gonna die," he affirmed, and she couldn't hear an ounce of doubt in his tone.
But he was. She knew it. How could she not? Everything she touched, everyone she loved, died. And Peeta... "I can't watch him die," she repeated, more to herself than to him. She pulled her knees against her chest tighter, and hid her face against them. She didn't want to listen to whatever lie Haymitch was going to tell her. It wouldn't help.
She would have to, however, because for once, Haymitch wasn't letting it go. "He caught the flu, you idiot girl. He'll be fine," he said, harshly, and interestingly enough it was enough to shake her out of her own insecurities. The flu? She remembered him breathing hard, trying to break his fever... a conversation with her mother... "He'll get well even faster if you help him, you know," Haymitch added, not-so-subtly. Two days, he had said. It had taken her two days and a visit from her mentor to understand what was really happening.
She felt so stupid now. Of course it was just the flu. She'd overreacted, and how. Further proof that no matter how much time passed, there was no way she would ever fully recover; she was screwed up for life. She looked up at Haymitch and felt an irrational need to explain herself. "He's all I have," she said, hoping that made some kind of sense.
Sense or nonsense, it made Haymitch snort. "And here I was going to tell you not to get this emotional when I die," he deadpanned, smirking.
She was too weak to attempt a smirk back, but he'd drawn her out of her funk already. She couldn't not bite. "Don't worry, I still have about two years to mentally prepare before the cirrhosis gets to you," she stated, not sounding teasing because she just couldn't muster the energy, but the words by themselves worked well enough.
Haymitch let out a bark of laughter. "See? Can't be that messed up if you can still pull off the snark." He made for her arm again and this time she let him; she couldn't really get up on her own. "Alright, time to go back to the real world, Scowly," he told her as he took her out, sat her on her bed, and gave her a glass of water. Well, that was it for yet another breakdown. He reminded her to call her mother and her doctor (apparently, they'd been trying to locate her for the past two days), and left her to her own devices again.
Over the next few days she no longer restricted herself to the closet, though she still couldn't bring herself to leave the house. Her doctor told her it would probably be good for her to go and check on Peeta, but she couldn't. It was ridiculous because she knew now he wasn't dying, but she was still shellshocked from her own reaction to his illness and couldn't bring herself to see him, in fear that it could break her again. She just... she just couldn't see him like that. Not again. Not after... So she stayed inside, haunting her own house. She wouldn't even go hunt, as she couldn't bring herself to kill anything just yet.
One morning, about a week later, she opened her eyes after a night of fitful almost-sleep, and immediately felt something was different, somehow. It took her a minute to realize it was the aroma pouring into her room. Peeta liked sleeping with the windows open so she didn't ever close them anymore, and it was noteworthy that morning because it had been quite a few days since she'd woken up with the smell of freshly-baked bread tickling her nose.
She didn't even bother changing out of her pajamas before making her way down the stairs, out of her house and into his. She opened the door with some trepidation; the last time she had done that, she'd ended up thoroughly convinced Peeta was on the verge of death. She needn't have worried this time, though, because as soon as she walked in and followed the aroma and the sounds coming from the kitchen, there he was. He was pulling a couple of loaves of bread from the oven, his apron covered in flour from the rest of the dough he'd probably just finished kneading. This was his early batch, she knew. He'd always bake a few loaves for breakfast, and then took the rest of the dough, which would still be in what he called the "rising" period, with him to the bakery, where he had bigger ovens to get them all done as quickly as possible. That was his routine.
He didn't hear her come in, but he caught sight of her as he turned to put the loaves down on the counter. "Oh, hey! There you are. Haven't seen you in a while," he greeted, and the smile he gave her was so bright, so Peeta, that it was almost painful.
She moved fully into the kitchen, almost marveling at the sight of him just standing there, safe and sound. She had to give herself a mental shake as a reminder that it was only her own instability which had led her to think he wouldn't be. "So, you feel all better now?" she asked, trying to keep the conversation casual. No use for her to start blubbering simply because he'd gotten over some silly bug. She took small steps toward him, almost hesitant, and it was eerily reminiscent of a doe curiously approaching the bait which would then lead her to a trap. The irony that she was acting like the prey instead of the hunter was not lost on her. She needed to get herself together before she did something stupid, like cry.
"Yeah, I guess we just needed to let nature run its course," he answered her question as he let go of the hot pans. He took the towel he was using as an impromptu mitten and ran it down his forearms, taking care of the excess flour sticking to his arms. "Haymitch told me you helped me out the first few days," he continued, conversationally. "The first few days" was quite the embellishment, she thought, as she hadn't even made it the first twenty-four hours. "Thanks for that. I guess the beginning of it is always the worse part."
She had nothing to respond to that, so she didn't. Instead, when she was within arms distance of him, she raised a hand to his chest, her eyes following as it moved up. She was doing this to check on his health, or so she told herself, and Peeta seemed to interpret her actions that way as well, because he let her.
She moved her touch up his torso, ghosting over his ribs. His overused cotton shirt was covered in flour, but she didn't mind. He was sweating, from the heat of the oven, surely, but he didn't feel clammy, like he had the last time she saw him. Her hand stilled over his sternum for a moment. She could feel his heartbeat. It was strong; maybe a little more agitated than it normally would be, but constant and uniform. It was comforting, reassuring. He was alive.
She took the back of her hand to his jaw, his cheek, his forehead. He didn't seem to have a temperature. She pushed back the blond hair that fell over his brow, looking for signs of tension. Then her hand moved to cup his cheek, her thumb sliding over the bags under his eyes, which seemed ever-present just as hers were, but were no longer hollow with sickness. Her movements came to rest when her hand found his neck, her fingers delving into the hair at his nape, which was a little too long since he hadn't cut it in a while.
And that's when she really looked at him. She hadn't realized how close they were standing, but they were nearly chest to chest. He was no longer smiling, but his sky blue eyes were boring deeply into hers, slightly widened, as if he were expecting some sudden movement from her. And she couldn't help herself; she leaned in and kissed him.
She couldn't see it, but he closed his eyes tightly, like something hurt. And then he pushed forward, applying pressure against her lips with his own, nipping and carressing just as much as she was. He wasn't touching her; his hands were at his sides, one extended a little like he didn't know what to do with it, and the other one was on the counter, gripping the edge tightly. She wrapped her arms fully around his neck, using his steady position as leverage to get even closer to him.
But then he was making use of his grip on the counter to push away from her with a strangled "No!" and it was as they stared at each other in stunned silence, with labored breathing, in complete disbelief, that she remembered she couldn't just up and kiss him because he didn't love her, not anymore and she had no business wishing he would. She never had before. What was she thinking? "I'm so sorry," she almost croaked, urgently trying to stop the accusation growing in his expression. "I shouldn't-" She didn't know what to say. "Peeta, I-"
He flinched. "What, you're going to tell me you love me now?" He sounded hollow, like he was trying to keep his tone steady. Like he didn't want to give anything away. Once again he closed his eyes tightly, and shook his head, letting out a heavy breath. "There are no cameras around," he added, now sounding tired. Tired of the going back and forth. Tired of everything.
"I know that," she affirmed, all too aware. This was the first time she had kissed him without any motivation behind it. She wasn't putting on a show to get gifts from sponsors. She wasn't trying to be convincing so her friends and family wouldn't get hurt. She wasn't trying to stop him from talking. She wasn't trying to pull him out of one of his episodes. She kissed him because he was Peeta, and he was there, in front of her, and she wanted to. She didn't know what it meant. And now she was deathly afraid she had ruined everything. All she had.
"Then why?" he asked, straight to the point. He was stressed. He was frustrated. He was confused. And, to her ears, he sounded demanding. "Why did you kiss me, Katniss?"
She was looking for an escape route before she even realized what she was doing. It was instinctual; she didn't want to be here anymore. Not with his eyes pinning her down, accusingly, challenging. She couldn't let him, anyone, corner her like this. But at the same time, she knew she couldn't run. She felt an anxiety rising in her to say something, to do something. She was being pulled in two directions, yet going nowhere, like she was frozen in place, without any idea of how she had gotten there. In the end, she could only fight the knot in her throat strongly enough to say the only thing she knew with any certainty. "Because I need you."
His shoulders slumped. His gaze fell down toward the counter. The silence stretched for what felt like hours. And then his jaw tensed. He started shaking his head, and he looked up at her with such disappointment, his eyes hard as steel, Katniss felt like she'd been stabbed in the stomach. "Wrong answer," he sentenced, and then he turned his back on her, intent on walking away.
Her feet sprung forward on their own accord, and she almost made a grab at him, to try and keep him from leaving, but held herself in check. To think she'd been the one contemplating fight or flight, and now he was the one trying to get away, but she couldn't let him. "Wait!" She hated the anxiety in her tone. And at the same time she felt defensiveness rising up in her like bile. "What's that supposed to mean?" she questioned, hard. What did he want her to say? He said he didn't want her to tell him she loved him- and she couldn't say that anyway- so what was he expecting? What did he want from her?
A terrified corner of her mind insisted he would ignore her and leave either way, but he surprised her by stopping a couple feet beyond the counter. He turned back to her, kept his hard stare on her for a heartbeat, then took a deep breath. "It means," he started, in a controlled tone, but she could hear pain under his words and it tore at her, "that you thought I was going to die, and you've realized you're scared to death of being alone, so now you're clinging."
She was taken aback by this. Had Haymitch told him? About her breakdown? About the closet? How horrible she had felt, seeing him so weak, and thinking she might lose him? "That's not-"
"But you know, you don't have to do that," he went on, for once not letting her get a word in edgewise. "I don't plan on dying," he said emphatically, taking a hand to his chest as if pointing to himself, "and I'm not going to leave you." He lowered his hand and stared at her, and he seemed so defeated. He swallowed, like his throat had gone dry. "I can't."
She knew. "Because you need me to restore your memories," she said, barely a whisper. She knew that was the reason but somehow it hurt too much to say it out loud.
"No," he rejected her words, somewhere between resigned, disgruntled and bitter. "Because I love you."
To say she was stunned was an understatement. He's lying, was her first and most pervasive thought, only between the two of them she was the one who always lied about her feelings and the last time she had made the mistake of doubting his, she'd hurt him horribly. But how could he love her? Still? He couldn't, not now that he knew who she really was, that he'd witnessed the wasted shell of a human being she'd become; how could anyone love that? But more than his words it was every single feeling she could see in his eyes, in his posture, in his voice. Every single emotion she had missed or chosen not to see in him over the course of the past two years or so was now staring at her right in the face.
She suddenly felt dizzy, and almost had to grab onto the counter herself as her legs were shaking something bad. She wanted to run; cross the town, get lost in the forest, never have to look back at the mess she'd left behind. She wanted to scream at him- Why would you do this? You're ruining everything!- forgetting that she'd been the one to kiss him first, but she was nowhere near rational by then. This was past the point of no return. The routine was broken now; they were back in the Game.
He saw the surprise and fear in her expression, she knew; but he was too upset, too agitated, that he could only let the emotions keep pouring out of him before she even had the chance to articulate any of the feelings inside her into words. "And I know I shouldn't!" he started again, right from where he'd left off in his impromptu confession. "I don't even remember why I love you, but every time I'm near you, it's there!" He looked away from her, closing his eyes tightly as he shook his head again, like he was trying to shake the love right out of his head. Katniss didn't know if she wanted to shake him even stronger, or plead that he stop.
"I won't leave," he reiterated, once his gaze was back on her. He let out a small, mirthless chuckle. "I'll always be pathetic little Peeta, who's so in love that he can't stay away even though he knows he's not wanted." His tone was self-deprecating, and his eyes were cold. He was angry. So angry. He sounded like he did those first few weeks after his hijacking. Like he would when he was having an episode- only he wasn't. She dimly wondered if maybe this had been a part of him all along. Peeta was a gentle man, but he wasn't a saint.
His cynical tone gave way to a sort of steely resignation. "So, you don't even need to worry about that," he concluded, leaving no room for argument. Not that she would argue; she didn't even understand the thoughts that were running through her mind at that point. He stared straight at her, unflinching. "But don't try to make this about something that isn't real." He clenched his teeth so hard, his last words came out as a mutter. "That just makes it hurt more." And with that, he turned again, his footsteps heavy as he made his way out of the kitchen and toward the stairs.
She didn't know how long she stood there, completely stupefied. Eventually she made it back to her own house, but the vestiges of that conversation remained in her mind for hours. Needless to say, the workers in town had no game for lunch that day, just as they hadn't for the past week and a half. There was no bakery bread on the tables of District 12 that day either.
She leaned against the headboard of her bed as she watched the last shadows caused by daylight move across her room, the last rays of sunlight coming in through the still open window. Was Peeta right? Did she only kiss him because he'd been sick, and she thought he was about to die? The more she thought about it, the more she realized that's exactly what had happened. She did that. Gale had as much as told her so once, that she only allowed herself to care for people when she saw they were in pain: Peeta in their first Games. Gale after the lashing. Peeta, when his heart stopped. Peeta, when he'd been ready to die for her to survive the Quell. Peeta, captured, tortured and forever changed by the Capitol. Peeta, lying in that bed, pale and weak. It was all the same.
Maybe Gale had been right. Maybe Peeta was right. Maybe seeing people in pain was the only way to unlock feelings in her. Not because she loved them and didn't want them to suffer, but because she wouldn't know what to do with herself if she lost them, if she was left alone.
What a selfish, horrible person she was.
The next morning, she donned her leather jacket, put on her boots, grabbed her bow and arrow and headed to the woods, to hunt. She brought back a squirrel, two rabbits and a wild turkey. After carefully skinning the animals and cleaning the meat, she gave Sae the squirrel and one rabbit, for the workers. The rest of it she traded in town, with the few merchants who had come back and were setting their businesses up again. That took her a large part of the afternoon. Then she went and had dinner at Sae's little corner kiosk, where the older woman would insist she not pay for her stew, since she was the one who had made it possible anyway.
She then asked if she could grab a bowl of food to go, and brought it to Haymitch, who was passed out on a chair in his living room. She left the bowl on the dining table along with a spoon she managed to disinfect with some white liquor. She hoped the stew wouldn't be there, rotting, when she came in the next day. Then she grabbed a piece of leftover bread, which was starting to go stale, and fed it to the geese, which were quacking unhappily at Haymitch's lack of attention to them that day.
She started doing this every day. It was her new routine. Routines were good. They kept her mind off things.
Every morning, as she went out the door to hunt, she would find a loaf of fresh bread on her doorstep, carefully wrapped in paper, still warm. She would usually have a few slices for breakfast. Apart from that, though, Peeta was avoiding her- which was just fine with her, as she was avoiding him as well. She had a point to prove; well, two points, actually: first, that he was better off without her. And second, that she didn't need to depend on anyone in order to go on. She'd been on her own for most of her life. She was a survivor. Even if Peeta wasn't around, even if nobody else was around for her to hang on to, she could keep on without falling to pieces.
Things went on like this for a month, almost two. Katniss slowly started feeling less anxious about things, less defensive about anything that might upset her relative calm. She still had moments when she felt depressed and lonely, especially after dinner, when she didn't have much to do but read the book of memories, which reminded her of everybody she'd lost. Some days she heard a crash, like things getting knocked down or glass breaking, coming from a nearby house. Depending on which time of the month it was, that meant either Haymitch had run out of liquor, or Peeta was having one of his episodes. She'd draw her knees close to her chest and just sit there, thinking of how the Capitol had rendered their lives forever damaged. But come the morning, she would be off hunting, Haymitch's geese would be waddling around in the greens near her house, and in town people would be walking in and out of the bakery to buy bread. Damaged or not, they were alive.
She still had trouble sleeping. She would toss and turn in bed, a very superficial sleep which led to her waking up several times a night. She doubted that would ever go away, so she resolved to either make herself dead tired before going to bed, or give herself something else to think about apart from her own memories, in hopes of maybe keeping stray thoughts or nightmares away. She took to staying up until late, down in the living room, watching the news on her television set. Some nights she would fall asleep on the couch without meaning to, and she was surprised to find that it helped; she didn't wake up in the middle of the night as much, and she'd only had three or four nightmares that month, at least those she could remember upon waking up. Eventually she decided to simply sleep there, instead of bothering with her room. It wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep in but if it helped her get some rest, she'd take it.
Things weren't exactly the same every day. Once a week she talked to dr. Aurelius; although she couldn't be as open as he'd want her to be, at least she was no longer treating these sessions as a necessary annoyance. The train came in once every two weeks, bringing in goods and mail from the other districts. The loads were bigger those days, as the other districts resumed their regular operations after the revolution. In theory, Katniss didn't really need to hunt anymore, as meat started coming in from District Seven. The meat was no longer exclusive, though it was still relatively expensive, and the poorest families in town were appreciative of whatever game they could buy or trade from her, so she continued doing it. It made her feel useful.
Her doctor often reminded her that, while routines were good, she should not be put off by change. It wasn't easy, but she was trying. And there was one change in particular she was not afraid of: the Seam was no more. Of course, it had been destroyed in the bombing, but even now as people were coming back to the district, the separation itself was gone. Most of the survivors were Seam people, but a large percentage of those who had come back were the few town-dwellers who had made it to Thirteen in the first place. The mines were closed and everybody was simply trying to restore their lives whichever way they could, so there was no reason for a divide anymore.
What had once been nothing more than a chore- trading game and berries in the town- Katniss now enjoyed. She liked to walk by as groups of kids played and laughed together in the streets of the newly built town, regardless of whether they were olive-skinned brunettes or blue-eyed blondes. It made her feel a little lighter every day. But it also hurt. Prim would've been playing with them. I wish Mother were here to see this, she would've loved it. Gale would never have imagined this could happen.
It was during one of these rounds through town that she was reminded there was a shortage of clothing. She had heard Sae mention it in passing, but hadn't thought much of it at the time. District Eight, where the rebellion started, had been the most affected after Twelve, and while the factories were up and running by then, they had nowhere near the manpower necessary to keep up production levels for export to the other districts. As such, everybody was running low on fabrics and clothes. Katniss had more than enough, because Victors' Village had been spared in the bombing, but the people in town weren't as lucky, and winter was coming up fast. The bulk of the townsfolk had moved back during the summer, when the housing projects were completed. They wouldn't be prepared.
As she gripped the handle of Prim's bedroom door with such strength that her knuckles were going white, she came up with a thousand and one reasons why this was the right thing to do. There were some perfectly good things in there that she wasn't using, but someone else could. The children needed this, she could help them. Prim would've wanted her to do this. She couldn't be afraid of this room forever. She needed closure, anyway. None of these reasons really made it any easier when she finally turned the handle.
She tried not to look around too intensely as she gathered the clothes- that didn't really work. She had to stop four or five times because she couldn't take it, and she would slide to the floor, curl up into a ball and cry. At points, she found herself leaning against the wall, because she feared her legs would give out. But little by little she got everything packed. As she picked the box up in her arms and put it outside in the hallway, she noticed she had dropped a small piece of fabric; it was Prim's favorite ribbon. She picked it up, her movements delicate, and stared at it, breath caught in her throat. Then she was running for the bathroom, her stomach proceeding to heave out what little she'd had for lunch.
When she opened her eyes the next morning, she saw that she'd fallen asleep holding onto the ribbon. For some reason, she felt like a ton of weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She took the box to the town, where the clothes were distributed among those who needed them the most. She couldn't bring herself to smile at the excited children who thanked her profusely, but she was glad a small part of Prim would be running around the district again, as it should be. Before going home, she stopped by Haymitch's, picking up a couple of nails and a hammer (he still had them from when they built his geese pen). She hammered a nail onto the outside of Prim's door, carefully made the blue ribbon into a bow, and hung it. She shed one more tear for the dear sister she'd lost, and then went downstairs, to continue with her day.
She was getting better. It took two years and immense amounts of pain, but she was finally getting better.
Yet it all still felt so... empty.
She decided not to mention this to dr. Aurelius, who had been ecstatic to finally reach the point where he could take her off periodic suicide watch. It wasn't that she wasn't grateful; for the first time in years she didn't feel like she was stumbling from one day to the other, and that was more than she ever thought she would achieve after the war tore down her life. She had stayed alive. She was still staying alive. She was Katniss Everdeen, and surviving was the only thing she knew how to do. But now, the idea of living just because felt a bit like limbo. Going through the motions, but never really getting anywhere. Like there was something missing.
It wasn't until that one afternoon, with the primroses, that she finally figured it out. It was funny in a way- she'd always had some kind of tunnel vision when it came to those bushes. She would walk in and out of her house without ever seeing them. Maybe a little, out of the corner of her eye, because they were in the periphery; but she never actually let herself stare at them directly. She was thankful that Peeta had planted them in her sister's honor, but she didn't want to be reminded of Prim and the fact that she was gone every time she went out. So she learned to blur them at the edges of her field of vision whenever she walked by.
She couldn't say why she'd felt the need to look at them that day. She'd been coming in from her rounds through the town, carrying a bag with leftover meat she hadn't been able to sell. As she stepped onto the porch and bent down to get the mud out of her boots, she caught sight of them, and for the first time since they'd been planted she decided she didn't want to ignore them anymore.
She dropped her satchel on the porch and moved closer to the bushes, a little hesitant. The plants had grown unevenly, and there wasn't much to see now that the winter was coming in, but there were still a few yellow flowers there. She smiled. That day in Prim's room hadn't been the last time she wept for her lost sister, but the primroses did not remind her of her loss, as she'd expected they would. They reminded her of Prim's innocence, her sweetness, and all of the good, pure qualities she had that made everyone love her so much. Prim was always saying they should bring as much life into their new house as they could; it had been empty for such a long time, it deserved to become a home. She would've loved these flowers.
She twirled one of the few yellow blossoms in her hand, thinking she could maybe press it to the pages of their book of memories, as a memento. The bushes could use a trim, she thought as well, so they would remain strong through the winter. Only she didn't have a clue about gardening, and the person who would usually tend to them wasn't going to do it anymore, because... because she'd hurt him.
And just like that, it was not her sister she was seeing, nor the flower in her hand, nor the primrose bushes, but the man who planted them.
She sat down on the porch and allowed herself think about him for the first time in months. And so many things started making sense. She understood why she always breathed a sigh when she found a loaf of bread on her doorstep every morning: it let her know that Peeta was staying true to his word, he wasn't going to leave her. She realized she could sleep so much better on the couch not because she was more tired when she went to sleep, but because she couldn't roll over and find nothing but empty space where Peeta used to lay. And all those little details, they meant something. She could see that now. For the first time ever, she let herself come to terms with feelings she'd been unaware of- feelings she'd been pushing aside- for years. And when she recognized that, it was impossible for it to not overwhelm her every thought. There was no unfeeling it now.
It was around midnight when she finally plucked up the will to go to his house. She let herself in; they hadn't yet gotten into the habit of locking their front doors. All the lights were off, which was no surprise- he'd go to bed early, considering he had to be up at four.
As she came up to his closed bedroom door, though, she knew she had to do this. She knocked lightly. "Peeta?" No answer. "Are you awake?" She tried again, and again there was nothing. She put her ear against the door, trying to discern the sound of movement inside. She couldn't hear a thing.
She should just go back home. She knew how precious a good night's sleep was for both of them, so she was reluctant to interrupt his. But before she left, she leaned her forehead against the door, pushing back a lock of her hair which fell over her face when she did. "Did you know that was the first time you've told me you love me?" she whispered. He wouldn't hear it, she knew. Still, she spoke. "I mean, you've always made your feelings very clear, but... that was the first time you've actually said those words." She chuckled a bit at the irony. "Not even when you proposed."
She paused for a moment, as if letting that sink in, and then pushed away, intending to go back to her own place. That's when the doorknob shook.
Startled, she looked at the door, expecting it to open. It didn't. The handle stopped moving, but she did hear a slight thump on the door itself, like someone had put their weight against it. Which, considering he had no pets, could only mean one thing: Peeta was awake.
She took a step closer to the white, wooden barrier that separated them. She lifted a hand and laid her palm against the door. She understood. It was like the force field all over again, only this time she would have to be the one muttering reassurances so he knew she was there for him. Her throat was dry now. For all that she had been adamant about coming over to talk to him, explain everything she'd just figured out, now she had no idea where to start.
"I'm sorry," she stated, voice wavering a little, and it seemed as good a place as any. She had so many things to apologize for; not only this latest argument, but every time she'd hurt him, every time she'd taken him and his love for granted, every time she'd failed him. She'd never told him, and he deserved to know.
She turned on her heels and rested her back against the wood, slowly letting herself drop down to the floor. She tried to make sense of her jumbled thoughts so she could put them properly into words. "I don't blame you for thinking I was only scared because I'd have no one else to fall back on," she began again. This was all coming out in hushed tones, but she had to believe he was listening. "I would've thought that, too. I did think that," she admitted, with some chagrin. If she had made that same mistake, how could she fault him for it? All it meant was that he knew her, he knew her so much better than she'd ever thought he could.
"But I want you to know..." She cut herself off. That wasn't right. "I need you to know," she amended, "that you're not just a last resort to me, Peeta. It's... it's so much more than that." She stopped for a second to take a breath. She heard something shuffling inside the room, the door jostled lightly, and there was a light vibration on the floor; she imagined him sliding down as well, assuming a similar position to her own. She leaned her head back against the division and wished it was gone; that way she could be resting against him, instead.
"I just..." Once again, she couldn't order her thoughts correctly, so she started again. "You know how dr. Aurelius always tells us routines are good?" It was a rhetorical question. She was well aware he knew; the topic had come up between them before. "Well, I've been thinking and I realized that... it's really nothing new for me." She bit her lip slightly as she thought. "All my life... since my father died at least... I've been living day by day like that." She frowned. "I had one goal, and that was to keep Prim safe, fed, and healthy, so that she could grow up and be happy. Have a better life than the one we'd had until then. That was all I ever wanted. And I had to keep going so I could achieve that. It was all that drove me."
"I never really thought about my own future." She closed her eyes, remembering those days. It seemed like an eternity ago. "I guess I figured I'd deal with things as they came. Keep on poaching as long as I could. Go work in the mines if I was forced to. Maybe marry Gale if that's what it came down to." The door rattled like he'd made some sharp movement against it, and the urge rose in her to tell him it wasn't about Gale, it had never been about Gale- but she had to keep going. It was time for honesty. No more pretending. "I'm not gonna lie, it could've worked. We could've run away from Twelve, lived in the woods. It would've been comfortable." She swallowed. "But even so, I couldn't let myself think about that. I couldn't lose sight of my responsibility. Prim was first. Plain and simple."
"Even during the Games, it was like that." She pulled her knees up to her chest. She wanted to drop her face there, just for comfort... or maybe because it was really hard for her, just putting all of this out there. It was almost painful, finding the courage to say all these things. But she had to. And if she hid her face against her knees, he wouldn't be able to hear her. "I knew all the odds were against me, but I had to live. I had to protect my family, and that meant I had to survive. And everything that entailed- the hunger, the pain, having to kill other people- was justified in that fact. I couldn't get attached to anything or anyone, because everybody in that arena had to die in order for me to come back."
"With Rue it was easy," she choked on a sob, remembering the little girl she had failed to protect, failed to save, "because she reminded me so much of Prim. So I never questioned where the affection, the need to protect her, was coming from. It was... natural. What I was used to feeling every day of my life." She bowed her head at the memories, sniffling. "But when it came to you... it wasn't the same. I don't know if it was something you did, or if it was just that we were both going through the same pressure, but... I started to care. And it felt... horrible." She laughed in an incredulous fashion, knowing how bad that sounded. "I couldn't afford to think of anything but my survival."
"So I would think of a thousand reasons why you were suddenly important to me. And those reasons made sense to me, so I didn't feel like I was betraying my family by trying to protect someone else." She ran the heel of her hands over her eyes, which were starting to pool with tears. "There were moments where it was all so confusing, but in the end it was easier to think of the whole thing as a strategy. Even after the Games," another sniff, for the pain her rejection had caused him, "I sort of continued bringing up these reasons, because- well, on the one hand, the danger to my family was so much worse then, much more direct, that I couldn't let myself be distracted, or be caught with my guard down. Once again, they were my priority, there was nothing else."
"I knew I cared about you on some level; I would be heartless if I didn't, after all we'd gone through together." She remembered how insistent she had been that Peeta and Haymitch be a part of their escape plans. "But I didn't want to care for anyone new. My family I took care of by choice. Gale, I let in by necessity. And that took years," she was quick to qualify. "But you- you happened overnight, and so intensely." Her eyebrows rose on her forehead as she remembered the shock of him admitting his feelings for her during his interview. How he would say things that hit her in places inside her she didn't even know anyone could reach. "It was unsettling. And I couldn't be unsettled. Especially not when we were all in so much danger."
"Protectiveness, I had no problem with. Friendship, I could handle. But it couldn't be anything more than that. I had to keep everything else low-key, so I could detach myself from things if I had to." She shook her head. "Always running away, aren't I? I don't know why everybody thinks I'm so brave." She hadn't meant to say that out loud, but it slipped out. "But... that's what really scares me to death, you know? When you let yourself care about someone that much, that just makes it more painful when you lose them." She wiped a tear that was sliding down her jaw. "I'd already been through that with my father, and I didn't want to go through that again. My mother," she took in a shaky breath, "I saw her fade in front of my eyes. I couldn't let that happen to me; not when I had Prim to take care of. So I just..." she sighed. "I couldn't fall in love. Ever."
"The thing is," the corner of her lips crinkled through her tears, "I don't know when or how it happened, but... you crept up on me." She smiled now, fondly remembering Finnick. He had been so right. About everything. "I still kept trying to rationalize it, because things were so complicated, I couldn't do anything else. It was the only way I could keep myself going." She pressed her eyes closed tightly, thinking of those days after the Quell, when everything started happening so quickly, she thought she might implode. "But everybody saw it. Haymitch saw it. Finnick saw it." She snorted. "Even Gale saw it."
"I don't think I can pinpoint an exact moment," she tried to think of all the interactions they'd had, everything that had happened between them. So many moments in so little time. "Maybe it was when you died in the Quell. Or when the Capitol took you. Or when we got you back but you hated me." She could actually feel the pain in her chest now, just as she had back then. "That was so hard. I always knew it was better if you didn't love me, because I didn't deserve you- I will never deserve you." She still felt that way, even after years. She doubted that would ever change. He was so much better than her, in every way. "But a part of me had grown so used to you loving me, that it just... it hurt so much."
"Looking back on it, it seems so clear now." She rested her head back, staring at the wall on the other side of the hallway, but not really seeing it. "I think back to the excuses I used to convince myself and now they all sound so... absurd." She took a hand to her mouth, pressing her lips against the minor knuckles- she wanted to laugh at how single-minded she had been back then, but felt more than a little crazy for laughing through her tears. "But I had to believe them. I am... so sorry that it hurt you, but that was what I knew, that was my routine. My feelings were the only thing that were mine, that wasn't forced on me or taken from me. And I just wasn't ready for things to change."
She paused for a moment, trying to gather her ideas, her emotions. How long had she been speaking? Was he still listening? Had he gone back to sleep? She couldn't know.
She had to keep going. "If there's one thing I've learned in the past couple of months," she started again, after taking in a faltering breath, "is that I don't need anyone to help me survive. Even when I had people around me, I've spent most of my life on my own." She bit her lip lightly. "At first I thought you were right, but that wasn't it. I didn't kiss you because I don't want to be alone. I didn't kiss you because Haymitch would be a horrible companion, or because my mother left me, or because Gale isn't here. I don't need them. The war took everything from me. I lost-" Her voice cracked, her breath caught in a sob, tears pouring now more intensely than ever. "-I lost the most important thing in my life..."
"And I'm still here," she sentenced, as certain as she'd ever been of anything. "I don't know why. When Prim died I wanted to die with her, but I'm here. I can't just give up, it's not in me. So I have my routine. It's not perfect, and I have to take everything day by day again, force myself to keep going, but that's what I'm going to do. I needed to get to that point again, to stand on my own again. I'm going to keep surviving," she concluded, determined.
"Only now I'm wondering if there's something... more," she admitted, and it sounded almost like an afterthought. But it wasn't. It was the most important thing she had come here to say. "These last two years... well, it hasn't been easy. You know that. But we've pulled through. And there were times when I was almost... looking forward to it. To something." She had to stop for a second. The realization still marveled her when she thought about it. "I found myself thinking of a future."
She wrapped her arms around her knees again. "I don't know what that means, or what I want from it. But for once, I want to have that chance. I don't even know if it's possible for me to ever be happy. Maybe it's just not in the cards for me. Maybe I just don't deserve it. All I know is, for the first time in my life, I want to be happy. I never thought I would ever want that, especially not now, because without Prim I'm like half a person-" The last word came out in the form of a sob. "-But there it is." She turned on her side, head, shoulders and knees pressing against the door, as if that could somehow bring her closer to him. "You did that. No one else can make me feel that way. It's you. Just you."
"When I saw you were sick, I... I did think you were going to die," she confirmed. That much was true. "It completely threw me off kilter. I spent a couple nights in the closet. You should've been there, Haymitch thought it was hilarious." She chuckled, but without much humor. "It was my worst fear coming true," she continued, sobering up quickly. "Someone I care about dying- you dying. It was like a big chunk of me was dying, too." Her lips pressed together tightly, trying to contain the sobs, as she remembered. "I'd be forced to go on without you, but I didn't want that. I can't be happy if you're gone."
The words were strikingly similar to ones he'd spoken to her ages ago, on a beach, close to the first strike of midnight. The meaning was clear, not only to him, if he was listening, but to her as well. If she was at all unsure of her feelings before, then surely she was now. "That's why I kissed you that morning." She sniffled quickly. "Because I- I couldn't not. You didn't die. I was so relieved. It just... overwhelmed me. And I just had to... I had to feel you," she added, in an even smaller voice. If this were any other circumstance, she might have blushed, but she was way past that point by then.
"You make me want to be happy," she repeated. She'd keep repeating it over and over, if she had to. "I'm well aware that it's selfish, but I don't want to lose that. I don't want to lose you." She shook her head emphatically, more as an affirmation to herself. "And I know that it's hard for you to believe this, because in the past it was all an act, but I'm not pretending anymore. I do." Her voice broke with emotion. "I really, truly do, Peeta. I lo-"
She never got to finish that phrase because next thing she knew, she was falling sideways- the door had opened abruptly- but she didn't even get a second to be startled, because Peeta was there to steady her. Then his hands touched her neck, and up to cup her face, and he was kissing her all over. His eyes were closed and he whispered "I love you, I love you, I love you" like a breathless mantra as he kissed her forehead, her brow, her lids, her nose, her cheeks, her jaw, and finally her lips, warm and deep and demanding. And this time it meant something. It meant everything.
Their position was awkward so she got up on her knees, and his arms fell to her waist, drawing her lower half closer to his. He must've been on one knee, because she could feel his thigh against her hip, but she didn't give it much thought as she threw her arms around his neck, opening her mouth to his, for the first time taking everything he wanted to give her without any hesitation.
She didn't know how they made it to the bed. Surely it couldn't have been easy with his prosthetic leg, but she wasn't even aware of moving as her world had reduced to nothing but the feel of his lips on hers and his body against hers. She fell on top of his sheets with a gasp, and before she could make a grab for his shoulders his weight was settling on top of her, not heavy enough to be uncomfortable but solid enough to be reassuring. His mouth was backagainst hers before she had time to feel the absence.
Her braid had come undone at some point; his fingers tangled on the ends of her hair as he caressed her from the sides of her breasts down to her thighs. Her hands found home on his back, under his thin cotton t-shirt. It occurred to her that she was wearing a lot more than he was- she hadn't even changed out of her hunting clothes before coming over, while he'd been tucked in bed, his body encased in cotton and flannel. For some reason he'd always been less sensitive to the cold than she was. The chilly air coming in from the open window barely had any effect on him, unlike her hands, which drew shivers out of him as they traced down his spine. She wasn't bothered by it either; enveloped as she was by him, she felt warm all over.
She wasn't new to this type of hunger. She'd felt it in the past with him, only then she couldn't explain it. It had reached new heights now, though, and she couldn't call it hunger as much as desire, need. A need to be with him, to merge with him, just as their lives had been inextricably entwined since the moment they both found themselves standing on a stage in the town square, so many years ago. He kissed a trail of electricity down her throat, muttering heated words against her skin- I want to feel you, I want to feel all of you. She couldn't hear him over the beating sound of her own pulse, but it didn't matter because the words turned into moans as she ground her hips against his.
Suddenly it was very important that she get his shirt off. She pushed it up urgently, making her feelings known, and he had to let go of her in order to take it off, but it was worth it when she could finally touch his chest without anything getting in the way. She was kissing him again before he'd even managed to untangle his arm from the fabric. "Katniss," he said against her lips, his voice rough and husky. He sounded like he wanted to tell her something, but then he seemed to think better of it and instead dove at her again with a groan, his tongue tangling with hers roughly.
Eventually he gathered his bearings and was able to pull away from her. "Katniss," he tried again, sounding a little more insistent than before. Just enough space separated them so that he could look at her face, his blond hair disheveled and his blue eyes clouded, dark with want. She felt a thrill that she'd been the one to make him look this way; not the Capitol with their torture, not lost memories and their confusion, but her. He was panting and his chest pushed against hers every time he inhaled- it made her want to arch against him.
"Look at me," he said, directing her gaze by cupping one side of her face in his hand. His thumb brushed across her cheek leaving a trail of wetness in its wake; she faintly remembered she'd been crying before, but it seemed like ages ago. She stared deep into his eyes, and as always every single emotion in him was right there, pouring out of him for her to see.
She knew he was allowing her a moment to stop if she wanted to, to step back if this was too much for her. She could no sooner have turned away from him than she could've stopped her own heart from beating. She'd have time to be afraid of what this meant later on. She'd already laid her feelings bare for him through words; now she could only show him. Her questing lips on his neck and earlobe were more than enough of an answer for him. For the most part they didn't really know what they were doing, but they had more than enough passion to make up for their inexperience.
The rest of their clothing was discarded quickly. Time had started to even out skin grafts and fade away scars, but roaming digits traced patterns where pain and suffering had touched their skin, leaving more than superficial marks. Not one inch of her body went untouched. The entirety of her was tingling as he kissed her and caressed her in places she hadn't even known could feel so good, the pleasure reverberating until it reached the very core of her being. She enjoyed getting to know his body as well; which fleeting touch could make his muscles tense, where he was ticklish, and how to stroke his arousal at different rhythms to make him groan out loud, gasp under his breath, or whisper against her ear how much he loved her.
Then he was inside her, and once they were past the initial discomfort, it was no longer frantic. His forehead rested against hers, her legs around his waist, their breathing mingling as he moved slowly, steadily, her hips rising to meet his. A delicious thrumming was taking over her but more than that, a feeling of completeness she had never experienced before, that only he could give her, and which she never wanted to let go of. This was it. This was what had always been missing.
The friction built up and it was all-encompassing. She felt like every single nerve ending in her body was on fire, like he was branding her, burning her from the inside. Only this was the good kind of fire; not one that destroyed and devastated, but one that allowed them both to be reborn from their ashes. Spring come again, after an excruciatingly long winter. The never-failing warmth of the sun. And she willingly gave herself up to it. He took her to the edge and before she knew it she was falling, her whole body shaking with her release, and she had never felt more alive, truly alive, than she did right then and there, in his arms.
She was barely coming down from the high when he gave a few last thrusts and then he was there as well. He buried his face in her neck, his hand gripping her hip like a lifeline, and she wrapped herself tightly around him, holding him as he climaxed. Then he dropped half on top of her and half beside her, completely spent.
After, once his breathing slowed down, he lifted himself up just slightly on his forearm and, softly stroking her cheek, leaned in to kiss her again. When he pulled back he looked at her, staring almost in abject wonder, the blue of his irises shining bright against the darkness of the room. It was then that he was finally ready to hear it, ready to believe it. "You love me," he whispered. "Real or not real?"
There was no waver in her voice as she responded. "Real." And then she was the one moving in to catch his lips.
Epilogue: Departures from...
It was about two days later when he first brought up the idea of having all their things in just one house. She said yes because it made sense, really; there was no point to them coming and going when they spent most of their free time together anyway.
When the first box with his things made its way to her living room, she had a brief moment of panic, like things were moving too fast for her to handle. As he came in with a second box, he looked at her and saw it in her face. He apologized for jumping the gun on moving; he'd always felt her house was much more of a home than his, and figured they didn't really need to discuss which of the two places they were going to live in. He reminded her so much of Prim that she found herself walking outside to help him carry the rest of the boxes.
He didn't really have much in the way of personal belongings. His clothes, some kitchenware, his paintings and painting utensils. His furniture was exactly the same as hers so they didn't need to move any of it. He did insist on them keeping his mattress instead of hers, and she saw the logic in it- he didn't thrash around as much as she did and he'd slept less in it, so the springs were still in good condition. He just threw her a cheeky grin and said he wanted to keep the mattress because of the memories it carried, and she felt the telltale sign of a blush creeping up her neck.
She grumbled to herself as he insisted that he only teased her because she was so cute when she was flustered. It had been happening all day, too! As they were moving boxes some minutes previous, Haymitch had walked out of his house. He didn't ask what they were doing and they didn't volunteer, but it was fairly obvious. He didn't say anything, but his eyebrows rose up suggestively and that was all it took to have her stomping all the way to her house- that is, their house.
Then Peeta accidentally dropped one of the boxes on Buttercup's tail, and from that moment on, the tomcat hissed and scratched at him every time he was around. Katniss could not conceal her amusement as she told him that meant he was as much a part of this home as she was.
Doctor Aurelius had a small stroke when he found out their relationship had gotten physical, or so he told Katniss in their next session. She wasn't sure how he'd found out; she certainly hadn't told him and Peeta swore up and down he hadn't either. She suspected it might've been a subconscious thing, though. For someone who had successfully lied to the whole of Panem without so much as batting an eyelash, when it came to his own feelings, Peeta wore his heart on his sleeve, and he'd been practically beaming every second of every day since that night they first were together. She didn't know how well that beaming translated through the phone, but it was possible the doctor had simply guessed the reason for Peeta's happiness. It didn't make her feel any less embarrassed.
In both their sessions after that, there was a lot of talk about how rushing into a sexual relationship is not by any means the recommended approach for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (she always tuned him out after he used the word rushing- it was just too funny) and thank Heaven he was a proponent of using birth control pills as a treatment for depression because neither of them was even remotely ready to have a child at that point (something they both agreed with, although Peeta was always quick to reassert that it was just at that point and Katniss groaned because she had already made it clear she wasn't ready to have a child ever and he should know that).
Eventually the man conceded that, since he wasn't exactly around to stop them from having sex whenever they damn well wanted, he'd have to trust them to make decisions they felt were the most beneficial for them. He encouraged dialogue between them; said letting their feelings lead the way was the easy part, but making sense of those feelings and the consequences that came along with them was something they would always have to work at. Katniss had a feeling that last part he had added just for her.
Regardless, Peeta had taken the advice to heart. He decided from then on, Katniss would sit in on his sessions with the doctor, or better said, listenin. They were trying to isolate the triggers for his episodes and he felt she would be able to provide some insight that he might have missed. A lot of the time it just seemed like a joint session, really, as the doctor picked her brain as much as he did Peeta's. She still held onto her solo sessions, though, and was glad Peeta didn't begrudge her for it. Some topics she wasn't ready to bring up in his presence yet.
He simply seemed glad for every minute he got to spend with her, and it still made her feel a bit awkward, but she was getting used to it. They still had their own, separate day-to-day activities, but he lived for the quiet moments they'd have in the comfort of their own home. He seemed to always be touching her in some fashion- not in a lewd manner, of course, but more like he was always making sure she was really there. There was always some sort of contact between them when they were in the same room. He'd hold her hand as they ate, press his hand against the small of her back when they were talking to someone, lay his hand on her knee as they watched television. Sometimes it bugged her, because it felt like he was hovering and it was hard to get used to someone being always there, but she never complained. She had thousands of pretend kisses and hugs to make up for.
The reconstruction of the town was done by the beginning of winter. There were still plans to build some more in the future, but for the most part it looked like a town again, complete with Justice Building and even a War Memorial where the town square had once been. A couple of weeks before the New Year they held elections and a new Mayor was chosen: a man previously from the Seam, who had been leading the reconstruction efforts. Katniss knew of him from before but had never really interacted with him outside a polite greeting whenever they crossed paths. Peeta, who had been more active in helping at the town, was better acquainted with him. He assured her he was a good man, and that was enough for her to be satisfied with the choice.
President Paylor herself visited Twelve for the new Mayor's swear-in ceremony; it was a quick, get-in-get-out kind of trip, but the people appreciated the fact that the new government was taking an interest in the district. Katniss and Peeta chose to stay in that day, avoiding the cameras. Nobody mentioned them in any speeches nor inquired as to their presence (although a few knocks on their door and the ringing of the phone made her think Plutarch Heavensbee had certainly tried). That was just fine with them; they'd had enough of the limelight for an entire lifetime.
She heard during her rounds in town that Gale had been there for the ceremony, as well. He never came to their door, though, and perhaps that was a good thing because she didn't know how she would've reacted if he had. Peeta thought it was probably hard for him to come see her, because he was probably blaming himself for Prim's death, still. Peeta had always been able to read people better than her, so he was probably right. She was surprised to find she no longer blamed Gale for what happened, though. Letting go of her own feelings of guilt meant letting go of the grudge, and she hoped next time he was in town, she'd get a chance to talk to him. She missed her best friend.
One of their new Mayor's first acts after taking office was to raffle the empty mansions in Victor's Village among the rest of the population. There would be no more Hunger Games, so there would be no more Victors; it was a waste to leave perfectly good houses empty when the poorest sectors of the population were struggling through the winter. Katniss was a little uncomfortable at the prospect of suddenly having neighbors after such a long time of being alone (Haymitch barely counted), but deep down, couldn't bring herself to complain. She'd always thought these houses an unnecessary luxury compared to how people in the Seam lived, but necessity outweighed pride no matter what.
As spring rolled in, her daily routine in town became busier; nicer temperatures meant a bigger catch, and the more she caught, the more she could trade. One day she was dealing with the grocer when his wife waved hello. Katniss knew from somewhere that the woman worked at the newly inaugurated Hall of Records, so she asked how that was going, just to make conversation. She never would've imagined the topic of marriage would come up. Or more to the point, her marriage. Apparently, now that District Twelve actually had a place to store records again, people were wondering if her and Peeta would finally make their marriage "official."
When she was done with trading, she made her way back to their house, dodging geese, laughing children and women carrying enormous loads of laundry. Peeta was already there, on the couch, legs stretched out on the coffee table as he used a piece of charcoal to draw on one of his many sketchbooks. She dropped her satchel off in the kitchen and plopped down beside him, noticing he was drawing yet another portrait of the meadow. He had dozens of those. "Hi. How was your day?" he asked, giving her a smile before going back to add shadows to his piece.
"Hn. The usual," she told him, with a shrug. There wasn't really much to recount from trading game with people. She wasn't the gossipy type. She wasn't the chatty type either, so she went straight to the point. "So apparently the whole district still believes we're married."
His hand stilled on the paper and she saw right through his calculated non-expression. He might be able to mask his true feelings convincingly to other people, but she knew better than that. She also knew firsthand what a deer in the headlights looked like, and he was doing a great impression of it right then. He was scrambling for an excuse; that much was obvious. He didn't get to voice one as she narrowed her eyes at him. "You knew," she stated, more than asked.
He cringed. "I may have heard something about that... and didn't... bother to correct them?" he confessed hesitantly. He put down his drawing utensils and turned to meet her hard stare. "I just thought it would be confusing and didn't want to go over the whole thing a thousand times. Look," his breath came out in a sigh, or really more like a huff. "I know that neither of us were happy with the whole forced marriage deal. And I still don't like it, but- we know what we have. That's all that matters to me, honestly. But," he added, "if it really makes you uncomfortable, we can tell people, so they don't have the wrong idea. I don't mind..."
"Are we having bread for dinner?" she interrupted, sounding honestly curious about it, like the thought had just popped into her head.
His brow furrowed, as he was utterly confused at her abrupt change of topic. "We always have bread for dinner," he reminded her. He stared at her, cautious, probably figuring that she didn't like the direction their conversation had taken and was using their dinner menu as a way to get out of it. "Why, did you want to try something else?"
"Not really, I was just thinking that maybe we could, I don't know..." She shrugged, then lifted her gaze to his. "...Maybe take a couple slices and toast them."
He stared at her, jaw dropping little by little as her words dawned on him. She could swear she knew the exact moment when her meaning finally registered with him. "Katniss...?" he asked in a low tone, and it could've meant any number of things, from "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" to "Do you know what you're doing?" to "Are you sure about this?". And for all of those thousand possible questions, she had only the one answer.
She took his hand in hers. "No one's forcing me this time," she said, looking down at the contrast of the charcoal residue on his pale fingers. She lifted that hand to her lips and kissed it softly. "So, if you still want this..." Her eyes met his and he was looking at her like he was seeing her for the very first time and she was the most amazing sight he'd laid eyes on. Like she had brought down the moon with her bow and presented it to him in a neatly wrapped package. She figured that was good, but she couldn't be sure. She wished he would say something.
He didn't. He just drew her to him by her waist, and kissed every last shred of uncertainty out of her.
Dinner was completely forgotten about as they made love well into the night. It wasn't until later, as they held each other under a blanket in front of the fire, that they remembered they hadn't actually had their toasting. This was promptly corrected. And that night, they didn't dream of horrors, of loss; they dreamt of their lives, and how they would keep going as usual the next day, and the day after that, and every day for the rest of their lives. And while routines may get repetitive, dull... there was always the one truth that gave theirs meaning: they had each other. Always.
Note- Hey, guys! It's been recently brought to my attention that there may be similarities between this story and others that have been posted on this site. I just wanted to clarify that this was not done on purpose. I would never just use elements from another story without giving proper credit. I tried my best to come up with an original way to expand on that one paragraph, and I hope I managed that.
I just started getting into the HG fandom so I've been reading a lot of fanfiction, so any similarities seeping into this fic may have been subconscious. But more than that, like I said above, so many stories have been written about this period, and our canon for it is so limited, I think it's virtually impossible to write it without ANY elements coinciding. Either way I am proud of my work on this. I'm sorry if anything in this fic upset anyone; I truly did not mean for that to happen at all.
That said, please make sure you read some of the previous fics written about this period, if you haven't yet! There are some jewels of writing out there; I'm always amazed at the quality of the fan writing in this fandom. In particular Miss Scarlett 05's "Grow Together," which is one of my favorites and of which I am eagerly awaiting the next chapter, BTW. ;) In fact, you should read all of her fanfics, because they're all fantastic. =)