a/n: it's been done ten trillion times, but I couldn't help myself. it's also my first Hunger Games fic, so I'm playing on a new playground - be gentle with me! title and lyrics from Neko Case's I Wish I Was The Moon. :)
Chimney falls and lovers blaze,
Thought that I was young.
Now I've freezing hands and bloodless veins,
As numb as I've become.
I'm so tired,
I wish I was the moon tonight.
Last night I dreamt I had forgotten my name,
'Cause I had sold my soul but awoke just the same.
I'm so lonely,
I wish I was the moon tonight.
If another person tells him who he is really supposed to be, he might tear his own ears off.
His mind already isn't his own; it controls him, dictates his thoughts, forces him to see and to hear and to remember what it wants. It lets screams fill his ears, and he can't silence them. He can't stop the fury that it awakes in him, even when it chokes him, even when it terrifies him. He hates it.
It's the Capitol, they tell him. He believes that. But the Capitol isn't really to blame. It's Katniss.
They planted false memories of her, the nurses tell him. They made him hate her. He doesn't really hate her, they say. "You trust her completely," Delly insists. "You love her so much, Peeta." He only glares at her, because she doesn't know his mind; he doesn't even know it, so shut up, Delly.
But he doesn't want to bully Delly. He likes her. He can remember that. And he isn't a cruel person. He knows how circumstances shape people, and that makes it impossible to hate a person fully. He knows that even his violent mother had her reasons. But his stolen mind manipulates him.
It makes him mean, makes him angry, makes him hate. It's her fault. Katniss. He hates her.
"They put poison in your mind, Peeta," sweet little Prim tells him, "but you can fight it. You're so much stronger than that, than them." She looks at him with such bright, earnest, innocent eyes.
"And what if I'm not?" he snarls. He doesn't want to snarl. She doesn't deserve it.
"You are," Prim says, and she reaches for his hand. A lot of people don't want to touch him, don't even want to stand too close to him, but she isn't afraid. "I know you are," she says, her voice soft and sure, as if sharing a secret, "because Katniss wouldn't love you if you weren't."
He tears his hand from hers, because Katniss doesn't love him; Katniss is a mutt who wants him dead, who manipulated his feelings, who made him love her, but he won't be fooled anymore.
The Capitol might have planted false memories in his head, and the people here might want to try to help him discover his own memories, but all he wants is quiet in his own head, and it's all her fault.
He tries to recall a happy memory, and he chooses his first kiss. A first kiss must be happy.
Junie Blackwell, with thick curly brown hair and bright, shining brown eyes, her painted nails sharp against his arms as he leans towards her, and he can tell how nervous she is, can feel it strum through her, and it strums through him, too, this first kiss, and he wants to hold on to the moment.
All he can really feel is too much, is a breathless heat, because it's real the way her lips move against his, so real, finally real, and she holds him possessively. It isn't a desperate attempt not to lose him; it isn't a performance where she clutches him so close to hide the lies. It's real.
Her wet, warm mouth opens under his, her breasts a warm weight against his chest. The muggy air presses down on his back, and he can feel her gasp for breath into his mouth, as if to steal his own breath. He'll give it to her; he'll gladly give her every piece of himself. The world is on fire.
Her fingers dig into his neck. She knees him in the stomach, rolls over, and traps him, and he can't breath, can't even choke as she tightens her grip, and her flashing eyes look down at him smugly, and all he can do is claw at her face until he sees Delly Cartwright, her forehead creased.
"Are you okay, Peeta?"
He is in his room in the hospital ward. He is safe. It's only a memory, a terrible recollection.
He can't have happy memories. She tinted them all. Or the Capitol tinted them all. It doesn't matter who is to blame, because if he hadn't met her, the Capitol wouldn't have touched him. Katniss.
His hands itch to choke her, and he forces himself to flex his fingers, to return to reality.
He doesn't want to scare Delly.
He makes himself trust them. They mean well, Delly, Prim, the handful of nurses who aren't afraid of him. They're the kind of people that he likes best; full of so much heart they can't help but try to save the whole world with all their love. And right at this moment, they want to save him.
"If you don't want to have anything to do with Katniss," Delly says, "that's fine. But you should still know what memories are real, Peeta. You should still be able to control your own thoughts."
He nods. He wants the same. And he learns to recognise the gloss of a planted memory, to feel the tint of wrongness that wraps around his heart as the false glass shines brightly to hide the truth. It isn't always easy to shake those memories, and he feels adrift with his real memories lost to him.
He still hates Katniss, but he realises that he loves her, too, so what's real? He doesn't know.
Katniss Everdeen doesn't want to kill him, and he doesn't really want to kill her. That is real.
(But no matter how often he repeats the mantra to himself, he doesn't know if he can really control himself. And the way she looks at him complicates it all even further, because it makes him feel something totally out of his control. But it isn't the Capitol, and it isn't what someone else wants him to think or to feel. It's his own stupid heart, banging against his chest, because it's his Katniss.)
He thinks it would be better to die than to endanger them all with his insanity.
She kisses him to make him shut up, and his mind is blessedly quiet for an instant, so quiet that he can feel how much he loves this fierce, fiery girl. He lets her win the argument this time.
He can see what she plans to do. He recognises the lunacy in her eyes from the mirror. He thinks of berries, of the way she held his gaze, too strong to let any fear stop her, and maybe she isn't a lunatic, but he still knows what she plans to do. He can't let her do that. He can't. Not Katniss.
It isn't until after, when they've locked her up somewhere, when he is alone in his room, away from the chaotic aftermath of the assassination, that he realises it: those brief moments when she stood on the stage, when she drew her bow, when she turned her arrow on the wrong president, not out of insanity but in a last ditch attempt to make the war worth it, he didn't hate her.
All those fake memories, all those fake feelings, all those fake urges, they didn't surface.
He doesn't know what will happen next, but a new kind of confidence overtakes him.
The sessions leave him unendingly weak, his head heavy, his throat raw, his heart exhausted.
But as time passes, he learns to break the shiny images that spring to life in his mind of their own accord. He breaks the lies with something real, just like Dr. Aureluis recommends. He uses what real, solid memories he can recall as a way to reclaim his own mind, and it works.
It hurts to break the illusions; the shattered shards are too sharp, and they threaten to bleed him dry.
He won't ever believe it isn't worth it. It's blood that needs to run, poisoned blood.
And if ever he needs more courage, he remembers the relief that fled her gaze as shock took its place, remembers the feel of her neck straining under his furious hands, a memory coloured with reality, no glossy shine to excuse his actions. She makes him more courageous, his broken girl.
"Your progress is remarkable, absolutely remarkable," the doctor says, his voice kind, and he seems as proud of himself as he is of Peeta. And before he can suggest any alternative, Peeta asks if that means the Capitol deems him well enough to end his sessions soon, to travel, to head home. "I don't see why not, if you feel comfortable with it. We'll stay in touch just to be safe, of course."
Peeta calls Katniss that night to let her know.
If she doesn't want him to come, he won't. He owes her that much.
She doesn't pick up the phone. At their final session, he mentions this to Dr. Aureluis. "I want to see her," he says, "and I know I can control myself now, I know it, but if she doesn't want to see me, I don't want to. . . ." He tries not to seem pathetic in front of this man who has already seen him at his worst, who already knows the intimate details of his nightmares, of his greatest failings.
"She never picks up the phone for anyone," Dr. Aureluis replies, "not even me." He pauses, shifting in his seat, and he lowers his voice to that special doctor voice. "If you can help her, Peeta, certainly do your best, but I need you to promise you won't let her impede your own progress."
He promises, nodding to make clear that he understands. And Dr. Aureluis asks him to tell Katniss to call, slaps Peeta on the back, and sends him on his way, a clean bill of health to his name.
He doesn't have the guts to knock on her front door, despite the way he coached himself to do it for days. He stares at her house, wonders what she does with her time, if she hunts, if she can sleep at night. His own nightmares always star her, always feature the look in her eyes when her teeth tore into his hand, when she tried to end her own life after she survived so, so much.
And he realises hers probably feature her sister, the person for whom everything started.
He finds the bushes out in the woods.
He doesn't mean to frighten her, but he can see that he does, can see the terror bright in her gaze.
She looks like some kind of feral animal, dry, dirty skin stretched too tightly over her bones, her hair tangled in brittle clumps around her head, her eyes sunken. It makes his stomach tighten, but he tries to focus on her gaze, because he can't pinpoint the emotions that replace the terror, but they're emotions, they're proof that something still exists inside her, still alive despite the world.
He knows she doesn't want to be alive, or she didn't want to be a few months ago. But she still is.
And now that his own life belongs to him again, he'll make sure she stays alive, because that's what he does even better than bake or paint or breathe; he keeps Katniss Everdeen alive, no matter what.
(It's what keeps him alive, after all.)
She scampers back into her house as quickly as she came out. He finishes planting the primroses.
It feels strange to bake, but it's automatic, and the smell of the bread, the warmth of the oven, the taste of fresh bread, it all calms him. He bakes away the night, and Greasy Sae smiles when he asks if she knows anyone who could use something to eat. She invites him to breakfast.
He doesn't know the invitation is for breakfast with Katniss, but his heart soars when he sees her.
Her hair is in a braid down her back, her skin is scarred and stretched but clean, and she lets that hideous cat circle her feet as they eat. She doesn't talk, and he doesn't mind; Katniss only talks when she has something to say, that's always been the case. She answers questions from Greasy Sae, who suggests that she try to answer some mail, maybe even call the doctor that helped Peeta.
Katniss agrees, and her eyes flicker to him.
He smiles, and she nods. He thinks that might be the best she can do right now. He'll take it.
He stops by for breakfast the next day, too. She asks him what he plans to do that day. He shrugs.
"I'm supposed to form a routine," she says, "go through the motions." She stares at the wall, and her words aren't for him. He nods, and he lets her think over the idea. His own routine emerges in the next week. He wakes at dawn, showers, dresses, keeps himself presentable. He bakes until Greasy Sae arrives, and they eat breakfast with Katniss. He bakes a little more. He starts to paint.
The day passes like that, and he ends those days back at her house for dinner.
She starts to hunt, and dinner always involves meat. "I've missed a little squirrel in my diet," he says. He pauses. "You used to shoot them through the eye," he murmurs, "a perfect shot. Real or not real?" He tries not to ask her what's real too often. He doesn't want to burden her with his own problems, but he needs her help to patch together the last of his memories, to add the details that somehow still escape him, even after all this time. She tells him it's real, her voice quiet.
He smiles, and his mind flickers to his father. It makes his heart shudder a little as a glossy memory rises up abruptly, takes over, and a hateful voice whispers that Katniss is all to blame.
He forces himself to remember the way Katniss looked at him in disbelief, her eyes unknowingly affectionate, as he told her the story of their parents, of that day when he was just a kid and he fell for the pretty little girl that sang so well, and the false memory splinters. He rolls his shoulders to loosen his tight muscles and lets out a slow, steady breath. It's fine. It's okay. He's fine.
And he realises that her hand is nearly on his. Her fingers just barely brush his as she reaches across the table, her expression guarded, her eyes worried. It's always in her eyes, what she feels.
He manages a smile, and she gently turns her hand over, the tips of her fingers ghosting against his. A question. He looks at her hand, at the nails cut in jagged lines, at the way her knuckles are thick knots under the burned skin of her bony fingers. He covers her hand with his, squeezes to prove that he isn't afraid of her, that the fake memories are nothing more than fake memories.
Her hand slips out of his an instant later, reassured.
The whole district is still in ruins, but a train brings ten dozen people back home at long last.
They're eager for his bread, and they smile at him with sad eyes, but they don't ask questions, and they aren't concerned for his sanity or nosy about his life. He can see how much that helps Katniss, too. She isn't the girl on fire to them, isn't the Mockingjay, isn't anyone but Katniss Everdeen.
She hunts, and she trades her meat for much less than it's worth, and they treat her like the girl they remember, quiet and tough but kind enough to those who are kind to her. They start to rebuild the district with a nice new name and a nice new purpose, and they easily make both Peeta and Katniss a part of the reconstruction, because they're just two more broken people that returned home.
He starts to rebuild the bakery. The very first day he tries to clear rubble, however, he only lasts a few hours. He can't really breathe, let alone stand in the rubble of his life. He is chilled and soaked in sweat when he arrives back at his house, and his mind pounds with the effort to suppress hatred and horror and heartbreak, and he throws up until his throat is raw. He falls asleep in the bathroom.
He wakes up with a sore back and a weight on his chest.
It's Katniss, curled up against his side, sleeping soundly. He must have missed dinner. She must have come to find him. A wave of tenderness washes over him, and he sits up as gently as he can, cradling her against his chest. She doesn't wake, and he wonders when she last really slept.
He still hasn't talked to her about much of anything; he still doesn't know how much of a will to live she really has. He still doesn't know what she thinks and feels beyond what her eyes reveal in brief moments that she actually manages to look straight at him. He misses her.
She has the best smile. It's wry, a strange sweet kind of smirk, and it's so her it hurts. He misses that smile. He misses her laughter, too, because he loves her laughter, a sharp bark that softens her eyes. He used to wish he could draw her laugh; now he wishes he could hear her laugh.
It was so hard for so many months to deal with all this love he felt for a person he hated, and he had to learn that it was the hatred that he needed to deal with, the hatred that was planted to try to replace his love. But the Capitol never quite won; they never quite replaced all that love.
It was Prim who first said it. "It just proves how much you love her," she told him, her eyes bright, "that they could make you hate her, but they couldn't make you not love her." And he had glared at the silly kid, because he didn't love Katniss, didn't, didn't, didn't. But she was right, as it turned out.
He wants to tell Katniss about that, what Prim said. He thinks he will someday; he hopes he will.
At this moment, he simply picks her up, so light in his arms that she can't weigh much more than a hundred pounds. He sets her down on his bed, takes off her boots, and pulls the sheets up over her. She smacks her lips a little in sleep, but she doesn't wake. He pulls off his trousers and slips under the sheets beside her. He hesitates for a moment, though; he doesn't know if he has the right.
But Katniss, his battered, broken Katniss, turns towards him, nuzzles her nose into his chest and cuddles against him. She still doesn't wake. He touches her hair, soft under his fingers.
He wraps an arm around her, and he lets himself drift off to sleep, too.
She isn't in bed when he wakes up, and he isn't surprised.
He showers, bakes, and heads to her house for breakfast. Greasy Sae makes small talk about plans for a possible medicine factory. He bakes cheesy buns to bring to dinner that night. Katniss eats four, and he can't believe he didn't make them earlier. She loves them, and she needs to eat more.
(He forgot. He forgot how much she loves them, and he hates that he forgot. He hates it.)
They wash the dishes together; Greasy Sae doesn't do that anymore now that Katniss will. As they finish, he dries his hands, and Katniss disappears upstairs as he leaves. He isn't ready for bed, and he thinks maybe he'll try to paint some more of the district, of the rubble that'll be cleared soon.
And then Katniss lets herself into his house and knocks on his bedroom doorframe.
"I can't sleep by myself," she says, and it's a question.
His answer is a smile, his heart in his throat. She crawls on his bed. He'll paint another time. He washes his face, brushes his teeth, and she watches him as he pulls back the sheets to join her.
She has nightmares almost every night. He can feel her start to tremble and tense in his arms as her skin grows clammy with sweat. He wakes her up as gently as he can and tries to pull her from the terror. He runs his hand over her hair, whispers reassurances. It always seems to calm her.
After all this time, he can still offer that old comfort to her.
They don't talk about the nightmares, beyond a few shaken words. "Mutts," she'll tell him, or "I couldn't reach her, Peeta," with an agonised voice, or, in an angry hiss, "I hate him. Hate him." It's more than enough, and he holds her closer, lets her tremble against him until she falls back asleep.
"It'll be like the plant book," she says. "A way never to forget." She pauses. "What do you think?"
It's the first enthusiasm for anything that she's shown in all these weeks. He nods. "And, I mean, maybe we could put my family in, too?" he asks. He knows this is her project, and he'll help her in any way he can, but it would be nice to do something for his lost family, too.
She stares at him for a moment, before, "of course." And she smiles, a small, careful smile.
His nightmares are so much worse than hers, because he can't always control himself after his. The first time it happens, he wakes up disoriented and hateful, and he pins her back against the bed, his hands gripping her wrists tightly enough to snap them. She stares at him, breathes his name.
"It's okay, Peeta." The words are soft and loved. "Peeta, do you remember yesterday, when Haymitch tripped over that goose with the crooked wing? He fell, remember? Peeta. Peeta."
It draws him back into reality.
He can't look her in the eye when he sees the bruises on her wrists the next morning.
(How can he hurt her like that when all he wants to do is protect her?)
And he tries all day to ignore her. He takes the couch that night when she tries to sleep in his bed like the night before didn't happen. She finds him, though, and crawls on top of him. He waits for her to fall asleep and finds other places to sleep, the guest bedroom, the plush chair in the study. She follows him, joins him, isn't afraid. He finally shouts at her to stop. She can't possibly want to sleep in a bed with a man who attacked her the night before, who left bruises on her skin.
"I can't sleep by myself," she tells him. And she reaches for him. He backs away. She pauses, watching him. "I can't sleep without you," she clarifies. He knows she understands how different the words are. He shakes his head; she holds her hand out. She waits, and waits, and waits.
He falls asleep with her foot wedged between his legs, her head on his shoulder, pressed to his side. And it happens again, every once in a while. The nightmares are too terrible, and he holds her arms a little too tightly, or roughly shoves her away, or snarls at her. She never backs away. She lets him pin her to the bed, and she asks him if he remembers that pearl he found for her, or if he remembers the first time he tried to teach her how to bake, and she whispers his name like a song.
It takes less and less to remind him what's real.
She's still so broken, so battered and bruised and burned, yet she knows how to tape his own broken pieces back together, how to calm his battered heart and his bruised mind and his burned skin, and it overwhelms him, how very strong she is. And she doesn't even realise it.
They start to eat breakfast at his house, and dinner, too, and they keep the book in the living room.
It becomes their house, or that's what he thinks to himself. He doesn't say that to her. He decides he wants to repaint the whole place, use lighter colours, make it all cleaner and cooler. Katniss helps, using a roller to put a fresh pale colour over all the walls while he does intricate designs around the edges. He paints the sea in the bathroom, just for fun, and he paints a field in the kitchen.
"Add some dandelions," Katniss says from the living room.
He looks over to see a smudge of white paint of her cheek. He loves the sight of her in a pair of shorts and a shirt, clean and healthy, her scarred, scrawny legs spattered with paint, and he lets himself really look at her for the first time in a while. He drinks in how her face is fuller, how the scars on her skin are faded into her skin, how there's colour in her cheeks and fresh life in her eyes.
She puts her hand on her hip as she blinks at him. Impatient. Irritated. Katniss.
"I can," he says, "if you say please." He hasn't teased her in so long, too long to remember.
She rolls her eyes. "Add some dandelions, please."
He smiles widely at her, and she turns away from him pointedly to finish with the pale blue she picked out for that room. He spends the rest of the afternoon on the dandelions. As she finishes in the living room, she sneaks up on him, comes to stand beside him as he looks over his work.
She touches a hand to his shoulder, her arm around his back as she rests her chin on his other shoulder. "Thank you." Her voice is quiet, and her touch is relaxed, and he wants to stay in this moment forever. He remembers a rooftop, the contented pink in her cheeks, "I'll allow it."
He repeats the memory aloud to her. "Real or not real?" He knows it's real; it's too good to be fake.
"Real," she says, the word precious in her voice. The memory must be, too. It makes him smile.
They paint the upstairs the next day, using a pale peach in the halls, like a spring sunrise, and he includes a few peach trees between the doors. He hears Katniss turn the radio on in the study as she paints. He finishes his tree and checks her progress. She's almost finished.
"And I haven't splattered paint all over myself yet," she says.
He watches her shift onto her tiptoes to reach the top of the wall. He smiles as he picks up the edging brush, lets a little white paint drip back in the can, and he reaches out as if to help paint the wall. He paints a nice, solid streak across her arm instead. She jumps, whacking him hard in the stomach with her roller, and he doubles over. "Oops," he wheezes.
"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaims, and she brandishes the roller at him. It's almost a challenge, and he grins as he straightens. He shakes his head at her as he holds up his own brush and starts towards her. "Peeta Mellark, how old are you?" she asks sharply.
"About three," he replies. She paints the side of his face with the roller and up into his hair. He adds a nice splash of paint to her neck, grinning as she bats his hands away, but all the sudden she slaps him across the face, stinging his skin, and he blinks in surprise as she scurries away. Okay.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
He looks at her, and she stares back at him.
And then, then, her lips start to twitch. She laughs, half a snicker, half a bark, that old familiar sound that means she doesn't want to laugh but she just can't help herself. "Your hair," she says, biting her lip, shoulders shaking. "It looks like some kind of bird."
The whole world is a little brighter.
"It's the latest Capitol fashion," he replies, "would you like me to style yours, too?" He lifts his brush. She holds up the roller, eyes blazing, wry smirk on her face. He lunges towards her and she runs from the room, laughing. He follows after her, catches her on the stairs, and mashes the paint into her hair. She slip out of his grasp a moment later as she paints the other side of his face, and they manage to paint the banister and the front door and send all the geese into an angry frenzy.
They collapse on the barren front yard eventually, and they laugh, breathless, happy, as Haymitch curses drunkenly at them from his front porch and the sun dries the paint into their skin.
He says something that night in bed.
"You don't want to die anymore," he murmurs. "Real or not real?"
She shifts to face him properly, her face bright pink from the shower she took to scrub all the paint off, and she doesn't answer for a moment. The window is open, the moonlight bright, but it isn't enough for him to read her expression, to see any emotions her eyes might betray.
"You did," he adds after a beat, "for a while. But you don't anymore, right?"
"Right," she finally murmurs. "Real." She reaches out to touch his face, her fingers dancing across his cheek to trace the shell of his ear. It makes it a little harder to breathe. "It would be a waste," she says. She pauses, a crinkle in her forehead. "A dishonour," she amends, "to them."
He doesn't ask who them is. And she's right.
He rests his hand on her hip. He looks at her, and he wants to kiss her.
He lets himself think it: he wants to kiss her. He hasn't allowed the admission in all these months, not when she was sick, not when she was so skinny it made it hard for him to eat, not when she was so closed off she couldn't even look him in the eye let alone smile or laugh or be herself.
It's not like he's been oblivious to her warm body against his every night, but the tenderness for her, his broken girl, always outweighed the way her breasts brushed against his arm, the hotness of her breath on his neck, the feel of her thighs against his hip. And now he just can't ignore all that.
Her fingers trace over his eyebrows and skim along his cheekbone.
He reaches out to touch her face with his fingers, to run his thumb along her jaw, to graze her lip.
She kisses his finger.
He kisses her mouth. Her lips are a little chapped, and they move uncertainly under his, like she doesn't remember how they used to do this so often. It doesn't last long, and he knows she isn't ready for real kisses, if she ever will be. The painful tug on his heart at the thought is a familiar friend. He pulls back to kiss her forehead, and she curls against him, falls asleep in minutes.
She doesn't always leave bed when the sun rises. Her eyes are hollow on those days, and he tries all sorts of ways to help her. He stays in bed and talks to her, but her answers are clipped and cold.
He attempts to be playful, pulling back the sheets, teasing her, tugging on her hair affectionately.
She is oblivious to his efforts, or to his invitations to breakfast, or to his pleas that she just come downstairs, just leave bed and stretch her legs a little, because it isn't healthy to stay in bed like this. She only steadfastly ignores him, turns away from him, doesn't even acknowledge his existence.
He talks to Haymitch about it one afternoon.
His old mentor still lives in that old, dirty house, although Greasy Sae brings him meals and a woman with a sweet smiles and dimples in her thin cheeks does little chores around the house for him. And he has his geese to entertain him now, too, pets as mean, loud, and obnoxious as he is.
"I don't like that look," Haymitch says.
"What look?" Peeta asks, carefully moving a pile of paper from the couch to clear a seat.
"The look that says you're worried about your girl." He burps loudly, shifting in his chair. "I'm done with you two. I kept you alive. If you have problems, tell 'em to a shrink. Or, here." He throws a bottle of alcohol at Peeta. The bottle is empty, but the implication is enough.
Peeta isn't about to drink anything that would meddle with his mind, and he definitely isn't about to let Katniss drink, not when he can so easily imagine how she could become like Haymitch. No.
"You might have helped keep us alive," Peeta tells him, "but you didn't do much else, and you owe us both." He knows Haymitch is, well, Haymitch, and he can't hate the old man, but at that moment he is so frustrated with him that he thinks he might well be on the brink of real hatred. "You were supposed to take care of Katniss when you came back here, but you haven't done anything."
"She can take care of herself," Haymitch replies.
"But she shouldn't have to!" Peeta exclaims. It isn't that hard to grasp, dammit.
Haymitch stares at him. "Isn't that what you're for?"
Peeta can't come up with an answer before Haymitch mutters under his breath and snags a bottle that isn't entirely empty off the floor. Peeta runs a hand through his hair, too frustrated to think.
"Look, you're like her," he tells Haymitch. "You two get each other. And I need you to help me, because I don't know what to do on days like this when she just — when she can't even leave bed."
"You don't do anything," Haymitch replies. "You can't."
Peeta stares at him and tries to will him to offer up something more. It's a wasted effort. He pushes himself to his feet, and he stalks out of the room. "Thanks for nothing, Haymitch."
"Anytime!" Haymitch shouts.
Peeta returns to Katniss, still in bed, eyes staring unseeingly at the window. He sits down on the edge of the bed and watches her for a moment. He reaches out to touch her back. She doesn't respond. He grazes his fingers over the scars the peek out from the top of her shirt.
As much as he doesn't want to, he understands what Haymitch means. A scar can fade, but it'll always remain in some form. He can only do so much about that, but he doesn't like to feel helpless. Katniss helps him with his scars. The very fact that she sleeps in the same bed with him every night, proof that she isn't afraid, helps him more than she probably even realises.
He kicks off his shoes and lies on the bed, curling himself around her, his arm around her waist.
He dozes off, and he wakes up when it's darker out, the sun setting. Katniss hasn't moved.
But she has, just enough to intertwine her fingers with his. He kisses the top of her head and tells her that he needs to make dinner. "If you don't want to come down when Greasy Sae comes, I'll bring you some stew up afterward." He squeezes her hand softly, and he draws away.
She doesn't come down for dinner, but she eats the meal when he brings it to her.
And the next morning, he wakes to find her gone, and she returns two hours later with two squirrels, a rabbit, and a huge turkey. She runs her hand over his arm as she passes him in the kitchen, a smile on her face, and he smiles back.
She takes him out to hunt with her, and she tells him he is still an absolutely awful hunter.
"You have all the stealth that Effie Trinket would have," she says, and she looks over her shoulder at him as she adds, lips quirked, "while drunk." She looks so amused with her little comparison.
"You're just a bully," he replies, wincing a little at the knowing look on her face when a branch snaps under his foot a moment later. She assigns him to collect some roots, berries, and mushrooms if he can find them, and she disappears to hunt away from him. He shouts a request for a squirrel.
He thinks this forest should frighten him, with the way the sunlight trickles in patterns through the trees, with the memories it should evoke of their first games, of monsters, of murder. He isn't. He thinks maybe this forest is so hers that even his abused mind can't separate it from her.
This is the forest that raised Katniss, her forest, and he is safe here.
She crawls into bed, her wet hair braided neatly, and she lies against him, her head on his thigh, as he finishes the sketch of the train that he saw that afternoon, bringing another dozen people home.
She likes to watch him draw, she claims, and he understands. He likes to watch her hunt, even if she never lets him. But, of course, he understands that, too, understands distractions. It's hard to focus on the shading of the train when she is pressed that close to him, her hand on his knee.
He forces himself to finish the drawing, and he doesn't let himself think about her like that.
But when he flips the lights off and shifts to wrap an arm around her, she kisses him.
It's a simple kiss, and she draws back, waiting, the kiss an invitation. He kisses her, pulling her closer and letting his fingers sneak into her braid to thread through her wet hair. Her own hands skim over his back, slipping under his shirt. It makes it impossible to think of anything but her.
Her kisses always make him feel like that, as if she is all that exists in the world.
She whimpers a little, her warm fingers curling against his back, and he breaks away, panting. She doesn't know what she does to him, and he can't overwhelm her. She smiles at him, and her eyes drop suddenly before they bounce back. He follows her gaze, and he should have known that with her pressed so close, she would be able to feel his affection for her against her thigh.
He pulls back, mortified.
She keeps a hold of his shoulders. "I don't mind. It's not the first time."
Her lips pull up in a smile, and he remembers the sleepy shock on her face that she quickly hid from the cameras during the first Games, and the way she kindly ignored his reaction to her morning after morning on the Victory Tour when they woke up on the train together.
He thinks of a lot to say: he doesn't want to make her uncomfortable, doesn't want her to feel pressured, and he feels embarrassed, feels like a stupid kid. He doesn't say anything, though, because he imagines she must already know all of that. He only smiles sheepishly at her.
She kisses his cheek, and she moves to rest her head against his chest.
It takes weeks, but he manages to clear all the rubble of the bakery, salvaging a few meager possessions: the tea pot his mother loved best, the pocket knife his brother liked to use to carve fruit in front of girls in an attempt to impress them, a pair of garden sheers that his father owned. They aren't the most sentimental possession, but they're proof that his family existed.
Greasy Sae washes them all for him, and he shows them to Katniss. She smiles a little, and she offers to put them in her bottom dresser drawer, where she keeps her own few keepsakes.
"You should tell me about them," she says, as they lie in bed. "Your family. I don't really know anything about them." She speaks so casually, and he knows what that tone of voice means. She doesn't want to reveal too many emotions, but the way she picks at her fingers points to guilty.
She shouldn't feel guilty.
"I honestly wasn't as close to them as I should have been," he admits. "I really loved my father, but the older I became, the more I resented him for the way my mother treated us. And, well, my mother was so cold. I didn't understand it. I tried so hard to please her, but I never could." He pauses, considering. "It was how I knew that you weren't like people said."
She frowns a little, finally looking him in the eye. "What does that mean?"
"You were always so, you know, tough, and it intimidated a lot of people in town." He hesitates. He doesn't want to offend her. "They thought you were hard. Cold. Almost too fierce. Untouchable. But they just didn't know you. I knew, though. I knew you were so much more than that. You weren't like my mother. You were tough, but you were so much more, too."
He speaks as earnestly as he can, and he hopes she understands.
She reaches forward to brush her fingers over his arm. "And it never occurred to you that maybe you overestimated me?" she asks carefully. She drops her gaze from his.
"It did," he admits. "After the first Games. It definitely did. But I had to admit that you didn't mean to hurt me. You didn't want that at all. You just wanted to survive." He smiles a little.
She nods, and she intertwines their fingers on the bed before she kisses him.
And he doubts she'll ever apologise for what happened, for the way she faked her feelings, bounced back and forth between he and Gale, refused to admit any kind of affection for him for so long. She doesn't need to apologise, and she won't, because Katniss doesn't really use words.
His father used to call him a man of words. If he is, that makes Katniss a woman of ways.
It's in what she does, not what she says. He wouldn't have her any other way.
"Tell me about your brothers," she whispers, her lips still so close to his. He does, talking softly as he recalls their little quirks and qualities. She falls asleep curled against him, her nose grazing his.
It overwhelms him, the sudden urge to find her, to strangle her, to kill her for all she's done.
He can feel an invisible hand wrap around his mind, taking control, and hatred shines so brightly that he can't remember anything but what that invisible hand wants him to remember. He can see Katniss at the table, sorting through her mail, a weekly chore he forces her to do, and he stares at her, breathes out slowly through his nose, and curls his hand tightly around the faucet of the sink.
She looks up, her eyes land on him.
She wants to kill him. She manipulated his feelings, forced him to fall in love with her, all in a plot to kill him, to kill his family, to destroy everyone he knows and loves, because she is a filthy mutt. She stares at him, and she says his name. "Peeta." She sleeps in his bed every night. She only ever really smiles for him. She isn't scared of the geese. She likes to kick them to piss off Haymitch.
He breathes in, and he breathes out. The hand loosens. The shiny memories dissolve.
He unclenches his hand, and he unlocks his tense jaw. She smiles.
The call comes from Effie. "I saw the pictures, and I cried, Peeta, I cried!"
He frowns. "What pictures?" he asks, and Katniss snaps her attention to him, her hands frozen over the sink where she had started to skin the turkey she brought home only minutes before.
"Those pictures on the television last night!" Effie exclaims. "I can't believe you didn't tell me how happy you two are! I mean, after all we've been through, you and Katniss and I, and I have to hear from Haymitch on the television that my two favourite kids are falling in love all over! It's outrageous! Oh, but I forgive you! I expect to be the first to hear news of a wedding ceremony. Oh, Peeta, you have to let me plan it! You know it'll be absolutely superb if you put me in charge!"
He swallows thickly and finally breaks into her rambles to come up with an excuse to hang up.
"I think we need to talk to Haymitch," he tells Katniss.
She narrows her eyes, her mouth pursed, and they find Haymitch a little past tipsy as Katniss storms into the house, Peeta right behind her. Haymitch takes a single look at them and sighs. He picks up his bottle. "Save the speech for another hour, sweetheart," he says. "I'm not drunk yet."
"What have you done?" she demands.
"This morning? I think I took a piss about nine. That's about all."
"Effie Trinket called," Peeta says. "You showed a television crew pictures of us?"
Haymitch sighs, and Katniss looks like she might lunge at him. Peeta spots the remote on the floor, and he flips the television on before anyone can say anything else. He flips through a few channels, because if he and Katniss were on television last night, they'll surely repeat the broadcast all day.
And he finds it after only a minute.
It features an inane Capitol woman, her hair a bright, shiny purple to match her bright, shiny purple lipstick. "— assures me that he hasn't ever seen them more in love," she says. "He even had a few exclusive photos to share!" And the screen flashes to a picture of Peeta and Katniss.
It's at the bakery, where they've spent some part of almost every afternoon on reconstruction. He leans over the blueprint on a table in front of him in the picture, and Katniss stands beside him, her arm wrapped around his shoulder as she looks with him, an almost smile on her face. It isn't anything special, the picture. But the next photo shows them on the back porch of the house, dinner on their laps and laughter on her face as she looks at him while he explains something animatedly.
He can't even remember that, but he remembers the third picture.
They're side by side on the front lawn, covered in paint, faces flushed, looking at each other with bright, undeniable smiles. Peeta can't even breathe. Haymitch took pictures of that. He spied on them, and he took pictures of them, and he sold them to a Capitol television station.
The anchor reappears. "It seems like our Mockingjay and her husband have started to recover from the war. We can only hope that, now that they've been returned to better health, we might hear big news soon, perhaps a new life to kick off a new era in Panem." Her smile is too big.
A moment later, the broadcast ends, but Peeta can't take his eyes off the screen.
"It started with reports from Dr. Aureluis on your mental health," Haymitch says. "He thinks you're both in top notch condition, by the way." He scratches his belly. "Congratulations."
"I can't believe you!" Katniss hisses. "How long have you spied on us to take pictures of us? And for what? I can't imagine you need more money!" She looks ready to tear his head off.
But Peeta watches Haymitch for a moment, and he might have an idea what happened.
"I'm fine financially, actually. I appreciate your concern — never knew you cared."
"You put a camera on our private memories," Katniss says, shaking her head at him so terribly slowly and nearly trembling. "I've always know you're a bastard, Haymitch, but this is low, even for you. How dare you? I am not entertainment for a camera anymore. I refuse to be."
Haymitch sighs. "It isn't up to you."
Katniss lunges. Peeta catches her arms, and she tenses so much it makes his heart hurt.
"They wanted to come here," he says, "didn't they? They wanted to film us. Interview us. Make our lives into a whole special. Right?" He needs to be right about this. And he is, because Haymitch nods, and Peeta loosens his hold on Katniss. She doesn't move, but she stays tense.
"You'll always be the Mockingjay," Haymitch says. "Always. A war doesn't change that. A lot of people felt bad for you, the girl who lost so much she accidentally shot the wrong president. But a lot of people just thought you knew something they didn't, and you had a reason to kill Coin. They trust you. They love you. And they'll always feel entitled to your life, sweetheart."
He stares at Katniss, and Katniss stares back at him.
"But they contacted you first for the scoop, so you deflected them," Peeta says. "You offered them pictures and a story so that they wouldn't actually bother us." He pauses. "Right?"
"It wouldn't have mattered if they came," Katniss says. "I wouldn't have spoken to them."
"They wouldn't have left until you did," Haymitch replies. "They'd have camped out on your front lawn. But Plutarch knows you, and I told him what he didn't want to admit — that you would duck the cameras for weeks. That you would never give him the story he wanted. But I could."
"I didn't know you were so thoughtful," Katniss snaps, and she turns on her heel, brushing past Peeta wordlessly. He doesn't try to follow her. She'll head to the woods, he knows, or to bed, but she won't want to talk to him. He looks back at Haymitch, who simply raises his eyebrows at him.
"You should have told us," he says. "We shouldn't have been blindsided."
Haymitch only shrugs, and Peeta shakes his head and walks out. Katniss isn't at the house, and she doesn't return until after dark. She leans against the kitchen counter, and he hands her a fresh cheesy bun. He watches her bite into it, and she still seems so tense. He doesn't know what to do.
She finally looks at him. "He isn't wrong, is he? They'll always bother us, no matter how much time passes. We'll always be entertainment, or symbols, or, just, public property. Always." Her tone is bitter, more so than it has been in weeks. She eats the last of her cheesy bun.
"I hate them," she says, "people." And she disappears upstairs.
He doesn't say anything for a long time, but he knows she isn't asleep, and finally he starts to whisper a list of people who have done something kind. He starts with the easy names. Finnick. He loved a woman everyone else marked off as crazy. He managed to find a way to love her even after everything the Capitol did to him. And he fought the Capitol, died to defeat them.
Boggs, he lists. And Prim. He doesn't add an explanation. He mentions other victors, Wiress. Mags. And Katniss says, "Rue." She doesn't add an explanation for her, either. "And Thresh," she says. "He was honourable, despite everything. He didn't forget who he was or what mattered."
They list other people, random people, random acts of kindness. And Katniss lists him, too.
"The boy with the bread," she murmurs. "He saved my life, offered me food and hope, and he did it even though he knew he would pay for it. The boy with the bread." Her eyes are soft, and he knows that single gesture means so much to her. "And you'll always be that boy, won't you?"
He isn't sure what that means.
She smiles a little. "You'll always take care of me," she murmurs. "Keep me alive. Give me hope. My boy with the bread." He smiles at her, kisses her forehead, and holds her a little closer.
A few minutes later, she starts to list more people, more kindness in the world. He falls asleep to the feel of her fingers running through her hair as she lists more names, people he knows, people he doesn't, people who don't have names so she finds her own names for them.
They open the bakery on a Tuesday, and almost everyone in town comes by at one point or another. Peeta wants to offer all the bread for free, but Katniss shakes her head before he can even finish the suggestion. "No one wants charity, Peeta," she says, and he'll take her word for it.
He sells cheap and makes trades that don't do much for him, but no one calls him out on that, and he offers a free cookie to every purchase made by people with children at their heels, just because he can.
They call him Peeta, the adults who stream in, and he imagines he'll only ever be a kid to them.
It isn't until the three men from the Seam that Katniss hired to help him rebuild the bakery stop in and call him Peeta that he realises. They always used to call him Mr. Mellark, even as they called Katniss by her first name, a mix of affection and respect in their voice. He recognises the sound now, as they shake his hand, buy a few loaves, and call him by his first name.
The district is still more rubble than anything else, and the people are few and far between.
But Peeta thinks the few hundred people might all make the list of good left in the world.
Annie sends them a picture of her newborn son, named after his father, Finn for short.
Katniss carefully puts the picture in the book. "I can't believe she actually had a baby," she says, gazing down at the picture of the child, so red and tiny, mouth open so wide Peeta can almost imagine how loudly he bawled as the photo was snapped. "I don't know how she can handle it."
"It's a piece of him," Peeta says. "Finnick died, but this baby is him, is how much he loves Annie."
Katniss nods, but he doesn't think she really agrees. He knows it's a sore spot for her, children, and Annie and her child in particular, because every time her mom writes or calls, she mentions Annie. They've become close, Mrs. Everdeen and Annie. It hurts Katniss more than she wants to admit.
He doesn't really understand why Mrs. Everdeen didn't come back to help Katniss. He understands in some ways, the ways that Katniss claims to understand, but he doesn't really understand. She can't come back here because it's too haunted with memories of those she's lost. But what about those she still has? What about Katniss? Isn't she more important than anything, especially now?
"Finnick used to love sugar cubes," he says. "Real or not real?"
Katniss draws her eyes from the page. "Real," she says. She pulls the book into her lap, and she reads through the entry on Finnick, as if to remind Peeta. He doesn't need the reminder, but he likes the sound of her voice, and she leans against him, smiling a little as she talks.
Her eyes are red, so bright, and she snarls at him with pointed teeth. She leaps at his throat, tears it out, but he can still breathe, and he sees his father in flames, and Katniss laughs and laughs and laughs as his blood drips down her chin, and he hears screams, little kids, and Katniss laughs, and she sinks her teeth into his chest, tears out his heart, and it continues to pulse in her jaws, and —
He wakes with a sudden jolt. His heart pounds in his chest as he blinks furiously. The moonlight from the open window isn't much, but he can see Katniss curled beside him, sound asleep. He sits up a little, and he stares at her, and he doesn't want to kill her. He doesn't hate her, not even close.
It was only a nightmare, that's all.
He sinks back down, wraps his arm around her, and kisses the warm, freckled skin of her shoulder. She shifts a little in her sleep, closer to him, just like always, and he reminds himself of how her laughter really sounds before he falls back asleep, the nightmare over.
They see Gale on the television. They've started to watch it now, if for no other reason than to make sure they're never completely ignorant of their status to the Capitol. Katniss has her feet in his lap, and he can feel her stiffen when Gale appears on the screen of a news talk show.
He looks good, strong and confident, and Peeta forces himself not to glance at Katniss.
This isn't the first time he might have imagined that he is a second choice. She can't be with Gale because their whole relationship is tinted by what happened with Prim, so she ended up with Peeta.
He doesn't like to think about that.
Gale smiles at the camera as he talks, offering his opinion on the latest call for an election of delegates from the various districts. They watch the whole broadcast in silence, and Peeta doesn't turn the television off until the show is finished. He finally looks at Katniss.
"He looks different," she says, eyes on the blank screen. "He is different."
And Peeta can't help himself. "Do you miss him?"
Slowly, she nods. "I miss him a lot." Her voice is soft. "I miss back when I knew my place in the world. He was my best friend, and my only concern was Prim, and. . . ." She doesn't finish, but she does look at Peeta, and he doesn't know what to say to take the pain from her gaze.
She shifts suddenly, pulling her legs from his lap so that she can curl them under her body as she faces him. "And maybe if that world hadn't been torn away, I would have fallen in love with Gale. But I don't believe that I was meant to be with him, just like I don't think I was meant to be with you. All that true love business, I haven't changed my mind, Peeta. It isn't real."
He nods. She stares at him, a struggle on her face as she searches for the words she wants.
He lets her search.
"It doesn't matter what might have happened," she finally says, "because what happened did happen. We fought a war, and it changed us all. I will always love Gale so much, love the friend he was to me, but — but he isn't what I need. I need goodness, and hope, and love, and —" She stops, and she looks at him so earnestly now. "And you," she finishes. "I have for so long."
He takes her hand. He can't find the right words now, but she whispers the word. He doesn't really need to ask anymore, what's real and what's not, but it makes his heart pound to hear her say it, to feel her kiss the word against his lips. "Real." She presses closer to him, deepens the kiss.
It's the first time they've kissed outside of their bed, outside of the darkness, outside of comfort.
She curls her fingers around the hair at the nape of his neck, and he cradles her to him, tasting the stew on her tongue. Her mouth moves away from his, however, and she kisses her way down his jaw, over his throat, and his palms are sweaty as he clutches her, as he tries to remember to breathe.
She kisses his collarbone, where scars just begin to curl up from under his shirt, and her lips linger against the faded burns. A kind of apology blooms in each kiss. They offered to polish the scars away for him in the weeks after the war ended, or even to tattoo over them, but he didn't want any more lies, especially not written across his skin. She kisses his mouth, her eyes soft.
And she reaches out to brush a little of his hair from his face. It's quiet for a long time. He doesn't mind the quiet, not with her. "You need a hair cut," she finally says. She smiles a little, and she brushes another kiss against his lips. "I can cut it for you tomorrow after breakfast."
He nods, and they fall asleep that night on the couch.
The weather starts to warm, and Katniss takes him to a lake. She tries to teach him how to swim, but he can't really focus when she laughs loudly, her cheeks pink from the sun, her eyes bright. She only swims around him, doing handstands, tugging on his foot to startle him, clearly pleased with herself. He learns how to float, though, and they simply float together as the morning fades.
Afterward, on shore, she kisses him, her skin baked warm under the sin, her fingers cold from the water as they clutch his bare shoulders. He tangles his hand in her wet hair, falling down her back, and she sighs into his mouth, pushing closer to him, and the whole world is Katniss. Katniss.
She breaks away, and she rests her forehead against his for an instant.
"The first time it was different was in the cave," she tells him, her voice barely more than a whisper. "It felt so different, that kiss. And on the beach in the second games, that kiss was different, too. It was real. Those were real." She almost sounds breathless. "I didn't want them to be, because you were who the Capitol wanted me to be with, and I couldn't let them win."
"They haven't won," he whispers. "We won. You won." Her eyes are closed, but her eyelashes tremble against his cheek. And she finds his mouth, kisses him, softer this time, slower and sweeter and shyer. "And the Capitol didn't choose me for you. They didn't want us to be together, not really, not so together that we'd rather eat poisonous berries than try to kill each other."
He brushes a clump of hair from her forehead, and she kisses him once more.
They dress quietly, and she teases him as they walk back through the forest, claiming she could've caught something for dinner if he hadn't decided to make more noise than the entire Capitol city as they walked. He makes a face at her, and he tries to walk more quietly. She only laughs at him.
He glares at her and stomps as loudly as he can, if that's what she wants.
Her laughter turns softer, and she cuts in front of him. "Aw, don't feel bad!" She smiles, playful, trying and failing to sound serious. "I'm sorry, sweetheart! I've never heard anyone walk as quietly as you. Really. I swear." She still can't keep her amusement off the face, and her lips twitch even as she kisses him. He continues to glare at her, and she kisses him a second time, a third time.
A few more kisses, and he might forgive her.
She reaches for him, running her hand up his arm, her mouth cold from toothpaste, and this is different somehow, this kiss. He snakes a hand into her hair, and the other holds her hip, keeps her close as her lips parts against his. He moves slightly, presses her against the mattress, kisses her until he feels dizzy, and he finally pulls back. But she arches against him, won't let him pull away.
"Peeta, I feel so —" She doesn't finish.
Her hand moves to his back, slips under his shirt, skims along his skin, and she trails her lips against his jaw. He swallows thickly. She tugs on the edge of his shirt, and he doesn't know what she wants, but it's hers, anything she wants, it's hers. He helps her pull the shirt off.
She pushes him into his back as she presses kiss to his chest, to his scars, until her mouth finds his, and her kisses are hot and wet and fiery, are Katniss. He can't help what he wants as he tugs a little on the edge of her own shirt, just in case, and she moves back to straddle his hips before she pulls off her shirt. Her skin is marked, pink and white, too smooth in some places, ridged in others.
But her hair isn't braided, falls freely around her shoulders, and he hasn't ever seen her breasts before, not even all the nights they've slept together, not ever after all the Games and the war, and he reaches out to touch them, only to hesitate, and he looks up at her flushed face. She nods at him.
They're soft and warm in his palms, and her breath catches as he squeezes them gently. She swoops down to kiss him. His hands circle around to her back as her chest presses to his, and he lies her on her back once more so he can trail kisses down her collarbone, can kiss her breasts, nipping and licking and sucking, and he doesn't have the words for what happens next.
It's an awkward tangle of limbs as they pull off their clothing, as they try to kiss and to touch and to show what they want when they don't know how to ask, and he comes in her hand the first time, her eyes wide, still the same Katniss who all the other victors had teased. He loves that somehow, loves that despite everything that happened, all the innocence Katniss lost, she still has this.
They finger her together, because his own fingers are hopelessly lost, and she hasn't ever done this before, but the two of them manage to make her come at last, and he doesn't think he'll ever forget the look on her face, the way her breasts bounce as she gasps, her whole body flushed and pink.
And they still don't really speak, but he kisses her and kisses her and kisses her, until she arches against him again, fingers grasping his shoulders tightly. He doesn't really know how to do this part either, but neither does she, and he finds his way between her legs. She helps him, holds her hands over his to help him push in. He does it abruptly, and she chokes on her breath, but she kisses his temple as he buries his face in her neck. She breathes his name. "Peeta."
It's all over so quickly, a rush of warm and heat and Katniss, and he isn't sure if it's her heart or his that races as he lies on top of her, unable to breath properly yet, even more in love with her.
He moves away from her, onto his back, but she catches his hand, and he finally asks.
She doesn't hesitate when she answers, the word soft and sure. "Real."
He wakes up and she isn't beside him, but her boots are gone, too, and she must be in the woods.
He smiles as he starts up the ovens to make a few loafs for her before he heads to the bakery. He feels fresh for the first time, new and young and untainted, and it's strange. He wonders if she feels that way, too. He ends up with a cake, rather than bread, and he starts to make icing when she returns, two squirrels and a rabbit in hand. She pauses when she sees the cake.
She starts to laugh, and she kisses him, brushing her sweaty nose against his. "You should have made bread," she tells him, sitting at the table. "We can't toast with slices of cake."
It takes him a moment to understand what she means, and icing splatters everywhere.
He doesn't know what to wear, but he tries to dress nicely, puts on an old suit that Cinna designed for him, and she puts on a dress and pins up her hair. He starts to sweat through his clothes as she walks around the room, closing the curtains, locking the doors. She won't let any camera see this.
It hurt more than he could have imagined to watch her fake what he wanted so badly.
She doesn't have to fake this.
The curtains glow gold as they hide from the outside world, and the fire blazes too brightly, too hotly, so that Peeta feels his face flush as he kneels down in front of it. He burns his fingers, but Katniss kisses them better. He stumbles over his words as he tries to make her understand.
"I — I fell in love with the way you sang and the way you smiled and the way you were so fierce, so unyielding, so unwilling to let your sister suffer," he tells her. "But during the Games, and after, on the tour, all of it, when we became friends, and — and I fell in love with you, really in love —"
She kisses him to cut him off. "I know," she says, amused. "You don't have to say it. I know."
She seems so calm, and he hasn't ever been so nervous, but they do it, they toast each other, and she doesn't seem to want to blink lest she set free tears she doesn't want to cry. It makes him cry, and she kisses him as if to help him stop. He chuckles against her lips.
"This means you're Mrs. Mellark now, right?" he asks, just to tease her.
She draws back, looks at him. "I think I have been since they said we could both win, and my heart jumped into my throat," she replies quietly. "And I knew I had to find you. I knew I needed you." She tastes like burnt bread as she kisses him, and he thinks he might have to burn all the bread he bakes from here on out just so he can never, ever forget this exact moment.
She runs her fingers along the hair that trails down his stomach, and he asks her if they should sell her house, and the others in the Victors Village, because they shouldn't simply sit empty. This house is already more than enough for two people. His mind flickers to kids, to her gray eyes in a chubby little face, to dark black hair tied back with a ribbon as a little girl sings.
He knows Katniss doesn't want kids, is afraid. But she doesn't have to be afraid.
And he knows the kind of mother she would be: protective, fierce, sweet, good.
"But to people here, from District 12," she says. "If we sell it to anyone, we should do it for cheap, and only to people we trust. I don't want some nosy Capitol man next door to spy on us for the rest of our lives." She kisses his belly button, and the words echo in his head. The rest of their lives.
He tugs her up to kiss her on the mouth.
He isn't positive how word spreads, but he does tell the boy he hired to help out at the bakery, and Katniss mentions it to Haymitch and to Greasy Sae, and over the next few weeks, gifts appear.
They're simply left on the front porch, a bottle of wine, fresh cloth that smells like coal, two scarves knit out of soft, red yard that is just a little frayed, a china plate with pretty pink designs and only a few chips. Peeta doesn't expect Katniss to want them, but she displays them around the house, a surprising kind of pride in the action. Effie calls, and Peeta hears all about the latest photos that Haymitch sent to the television station.
A picture of the toasting wasn't among them, but it was one of the announcements.
Katniss only shakes her head a little when Peeta tells her, and she opens the bottle of red wine. If this is what Haymitch wants to do for them, if this is his gift, they'll let him do it.
The first time he hears it, he can't really describe the way it makes his heart swell.
It's two little kids, a girl with big brown eyes, her hand fisted around the skirt of the woman beside her, and a little boy, his messy dark hair in his eyes, and Peeta doesn't know them, but they're in the bakery, and the little girl looks up at him with such amazement as he offers her a free cookie after her mother buys two loaves from him. "I know who you are," she whispers.
"Oh, yeah?" he asks, and he squats down. "Who am I?"
"You're the man with the cookies," she says. He chuckles.
"That's Ms. Katniss's husband," her brother pointedly corrects. "The lady with the squirrels, Ms. Katniss, that's her husband. Right, Mama?" The woman smiles at Peeta, and she says, yes, that's Mr. Mellark. She thanks Peeta for the bread, and she herds her children out of the bakery.
After all this time, after the Games and the war, the scars have faded into their skin, and Peeta doesn't really notice them anymore. The nightmares still haunt them both, but the nightmares end, and they always wake up, and they're home, safe, together. He knows who he is, finally, after it all.
Katniss is Katniss, and he is her husband, and they're finally home.
God blessed me, I'm a free man,
With no place free to go.
I'm paralyzed and collared-tight,
No pills for what I fear.
This is crazy,
I wish I was the moon tonight.
How will you know if you found me at last?
'Cause I'll be the one, be the one, be the one,
With my heart in my lap.
I'm so tired, I'm so tired.
And I wish I was the moon tonight.